Fred Stoller has played the annoying schnook in just about every sitcom you’ve seen on TV—Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Scrubs, Hannah Montana, My Name Is Earl—and was even a staff writer for Seinfeld, but he’s never found a solid gig. When it comes to Hollywood, it’s a case of always the bridesmaid and never the bride, except in his case he’s always the snarky waiter, the mopey cousin, or Man #2.
This hilarious and bittersweet rags-to-rags story of the hardest-working guy in showbiz follows Fred, who started his career as a stand-up comic, from set to set as he tries to find a permanent home for his oddball character. With candor, Fred shares stories of his great adventures pounding the Hollywood pavement, including a humiliating encounter with Billy Crystal, a disastrous one-night stand with Kathy Griffin, and plenty of awkward run-ins at craft service tables. And he always shares his ups and downs with his skeptical yet loving mother waiting by the phone in Brooklyn.
Everyone can relate to searching for a dream job or their next big break, and will root for Fred as he weaves his way through the cutthroat world of Tinseltown.
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About the Author
Fred Stoller was raised in Brooklyn and started out as a stand-up comedian, known for his dating woes and his thrill-seeker persona (I drank milk that expired yesterday!). He appeared on many late night shows and has guest-starred in more than seventy TV shows and films such as Dumb and Dumber. Fred & Vinnie, the indie feature he wrote and starred in, won the Audience award at the Austin Film Festival. He chronicled his experience writing for Seinfeld in the bestselling Amazon Kindle Single My Seinfeld Year.
Read an Excerpt
"YOU'VE BEEN ON EVERYTHING!"
I am on the set of Friends, nervously reciting my six lines in my head, waiting for David Schwimmer, who is directing the episode, to say "action." For the second time in four seasons I am playing a dopey waiter who works in the kitchen alongside Monica, played by Courteney Cox.
When I get my cue, I walk toward the counter where she is preparing her food, trying hard not to look down for the little piece of tape that marks the exact spot I am supposed to stop at. I also have to make sure two extras who are playing waiters pass me before I deliver my first line. Little things, but as a guest star actor on a show as big as Friends, I don't want to make any mistakes.
"So, tonight's the night of the big bachelor party?" I ask her.
"Yeah! Hey! Thanks for getting me that girl's number."
"No problem. So who's the party for?" "My husband."
"You hired your husband a hooker?" I hear my first few laughs and begin to loosen up.
"She's a stripper," Monica says, a bit concerned.
"No, she's a hooker," I bluntly reply, getting a few more laughs.
"Is that what they call strippers sometimes?" More laughs, our scene is clicking.
"When they're hookers," I answer.
"Oh my God Stu! I can't believe you did this! Now are you absolutely sure she's a hooker?"
"Either that or she's just the best, most expensive date I ever had."
Bingo! The live audience roars as Monica runs out to fix the mess I have gotten her into.
We nail the scene in only two takes, and just like that my job is done. Schwimmer tells me I did well, and to unwind from my momentary high I head off to munch on the snacks at the craft service table. As I down some free dumplings and sushi, Matt LeBlanc (Joey) starts rummaging through pizza boxes, trying to find a slice with his favorite toppings.
"The craft service woman here is really nice," I tell Matt. "I worked on Dharma & Greg a few weeks ago and the woman on that show was very nasty."
LeBlanc looks at me with utter amazement. "Man, you've been on every show. What show have you not been on? It's unbelievable!"
"Well, they're just these little guest star spots," I say.
He shakes his head in wonderment. "Man, I've seen you everywhere."
On the one hand, he was right. Since my first small role on the short-lived Singer & Sons in 1990, I have done more than sixty sitcom guest star appearances. When people stop me on the street and insist I list my credits so I can tell them where they know me from, most notably it's as the dim guy on Seinfeld who Elaine was attracted to only because he couldn't remember her, or Ray's annoying cousin on Everybody Loves Raymond, or the officious security guard on Murphy Brown, or the moronic pharmacist on The Nanny, or perhaps as the role I was playing on Friends, the jerky waiter. Once in a while it might even be from some smaller hit I've been on, like the man attending the masochist's convention on Wings, the guy who was scared of losing his gallbladder on Scrubs, or the demented bellhop on The Wizards of WaverlyPlace. And there are some shows I've guested on no one knows about (Living in Captivity, Can't Hurry Love, Alright Already). I've played dozens of characters who are "offbeat," "annoying," "pathetic," and "depressed," all after years of establishing myself as a stand-up comedian whose persona is, well, kind of offbeat and depressed.
But as LeBlanc heads off, I am tempted to tell him that all the guest star appearances I'd made, and even writing for a season on Seinfeld, don't add up to half of one week's worth of his salary.
At the end of the Friends taping, it is curtain call time and there's always a very festive atmosphere on every set. They're either blasting the theme music of the show or some other high-energy crowd pleaser. Every show, from Friends on down to a lowly pilot that may never air, ends in this upbeat party atmosphere.
I get herded to the exact spot I have to be, based on the age-old pecking order of least significant to most significant role. Going before me is an actor that had one line as a waiter and the actress that portrayed the hooker.
I come out, get a polite round of applause and step aside for the other guests and the actual stars of the show, who come out to a thunderous ovation.
I used to think if I got a big enough round of applause, the producers would note this and make an extra urgent attempt to bring me back. But after so many curtain calls, I have come to realize that even if I got the four-minute ovation Michael Jordan got his last game before his third and final retirement, it still wouldn't matter.
Since I am one of the first, I get pushed all the way to the side, but I have to keep clapping for everyone who comes out after me. The Friends curtain call is a little different than other shows. No one cast member is more promoted than any other, so when the regulars start coming out, there is no ascension of applause, like on Everybody Loves Raymond.
We stand there, still clapping away, while the audience cheers and applauds. I am sort of happy. I am smiling, and I am feeling good, and I am a part of show business. But my claps start to feel hollow, my smile frozen. I know this cheerful party is going to end real soon. I am almost clapping to drown out the scary thoughts in my head about what lies ahead.
Curtain calls are very bittersweet for me. They mean it's the end of my treasured workweek, and I'm minutes away from going back to unemployment and uncertainty. The next day I'd be back on the meat market, going on cattle call auditions for parts I know I am wrong for. It could be months before the next gig.
Now the energy is fading: The music suddenly stops. The six stars head off, and the crowd gets up to leave. It's over. But I linger just a bit, pining for just a little bit more validation to keep me going. The executive producers of the show, Kevin Bright, David Crane, and Marta Kauffman, are going through the cast to say thanks, but get stopped and don't seem to be making their way all the way down the line to me. So I decide to go over and genuinely thank them for a fun week of work. I patiently wait for a pause in the conversation they're having with a network executive, fantasizing about those five words I hope to hear after every guest star spot I do: "MAYBE WE'LL HAVE YOU BACK."
It's the goal of every actor in my shoes who's had his six lines (sometimes more, often less) and tried to walk the fine line between not stealing the scene from the actual stars of a show but making enough of an impact that the audience, writers, critics, and viewers at home will remember me and want more.
Waiting for the showrunners I couldn't help but fantasize. Maybe this could be the time they tell me I am so funny, they had already devised stories to have me back and become an integral part of the show. Maybe I could be promoted to Monica's annoying boss and then it turns out we live in the same building and she can't get away from me. Or maybe, just maybe, they're thinking of giving Monica her own spin-off series about a restaurant, and I'll be the co-star.
But when I finally reach writer-producer David Crane, all I get is a big warm smile and a "Great job, Fred."
I'm not crushed or surprised. But the only way to go home happy is to keep hope alive in the back of my mind: surely having to do twenty-two plot lines a year, at some point they will need to bring back the memorably jerky, annoying waiter.
It's not the kind of career most people think of when they decide they want to be actors. And it's not the kind of career I expected when I started. But hey, it's a living. In what other profession could I profit from being nervous and nebbishy?
What's scary is how naturally these off-kilter parts come to me. On several auditions, directors have said to me, "Don't be so pathetic," when I had no idea I was being that. On more than one occasion, a show's wardrobe person has said, "Okay, you're playing the annoying, nervous guy," looked at their racks of possible choices and then back at me and asked, "Could we use your own clothes? The way you are is perfect for the character."
My knack for knowing how to dress like myself has an economic benefit: it entitles me to collect the union's mandatory wardrobe fee. The first time this happened, I worried that I was costing the producers more money, but then I found out this fee was $11. I don't know how they came up with the number eleven, but I'm sure negotiating that issue is what kept the entertainment industry shut down during the last brutal Screen Actors Guild strike. Now, whenever someone makes some snide comment to me that I don't dress cool, I reply, "Thirty-three bucks it's earned me, baby! Thirty-three bucks and counting!" Getting cast on these shows is always a thrill, but I'm never around long enough to truly revel in it. Partly it's because I'm not the kind of guy who gets cast as a genuine love interest for a main character. If I am connected romantically, it's usually as a joke.
For me, being asked back isn't a pipe dream. It has happened several times, including The Nanny (four times over four seasons), Murphy Brown (five times over six seasons), Everybody Loves Raymond (six times in six seasons), and Suddenly Susan (five times in two seasons).
But my longest consecutive stint was back in 1992 when I worked five weeks in a row on the little known show Vinnie & Bobby. That show starred a pre-Friends Matt LeBlanc in the role of Vinnie.
I'm well aware that not every actor can be Matt LeBlanc. To be out of work is to be in quite a massive company. In the Screen Actors Guild, 90 percent of the active members are out of work at any given time and 10 percent work for less than eight weeks a year. I consider myself lucky for the work that I've had. In baseball analogies, I've had lots of singles, but never hit that big home run.
To outsiders, not to mention most fellow comedians and actors, it looks like I've got it made. My credits are several pages long and every so often I get diminishing checks in the mail when my episodes are rerun. I'm thrilled to be working in a union where only 2 percent of the members work.
I have had some years where I have only worked once or twice. I am lucky (mostly in the last fifteen years) to have stayed afloat, but am still looking for that one situation that sticks, that one good working environment that will shelter me from the humiliation and rejection of auditioning or from the despair of not having any auditions at all. I'm trapped in a weird kind of showbiz sitcom purgatory — I get enough work not to quit, but never enough to feel I can take a deep breath and stop struggling.
But, more than in almost any other profession, steady employment is hard to come by. After being around awhile I realized it's completely out of my control. No matter how hilarious my guest spot is, I'm just servicing the show, and there's a whole family of regular cast members, who have expensive contracts and story lines mapped out for them. So, now after I do a show, I try to forget about it and not worry whether the producers will bring me back. I try to relax, but I never do.
Being a perennial guest star is like being a foster kid being passed around some really great foster homes. I would love for one of them to keep me, but it's a hell of a lot better than being abandoned.
It only began to dawn on me that I had a story to tell when I was trying to live through a horrible date, at which my patchy career and life were put under uncomfortable scrutiny. We weren't really having any fun, and I couldn't figure out why she had even agreed to go out with me, until she started her litany of questions.
"According to IMDb you've been on many different TV shows."
I was weirded out. Sure, everyone researches prospective dates on the Internet — I've done it myself — but why was she broadcasting the fact?
"I saw you worked on The Nanny," she continued. "Was Fran Drescher difficult to work with? I have heard that about her."
I told her that Fran Drescher was very nice and tried to shift the conversation onto other things. Instead, she went right back to her research, as if I were an interview assignment. I don't usually mind questions, but she was asking them in a clinical way. To her, I was just a private Learning Annex seminar on the sitcom guest star life. Her course was free and included the meal she was eating, a little too slowly for my comfort.
The topics I was asked to cover included: How do you become a guest star actor? How much money can someone make if he's never been a regular on a show but has been on a lot of them? And most importantly, what's it like to be near more interesting and famous people than myself? And of course, she wanted to know as much as possible about Seinfeld. Whether my answers were true or jokes, she just kept plowing ahead.
"On IMDb, I saw that in 1994 you wrote on Seinfeld. Why didn't you continue there?" "I wasn't very good."
"You have so many credits. I saw about sixty. But are you famous?"
"I'm actually seven credits short of being famous."
But the Chinese restaurant interview still wasn't over. She proceeded to assault me with such a barrage of questions I no longer even had time to answer.
"So, is this where you want to be in your career?"
"Why didn't you pursue the writing? Can't you make more money from that?"
"What TV show was your favorite to be on?"
"How'd you get into this?"
"Why weren't you on Raymond more than you were?"
"Were you always funny? You don't seem that funny now."
"Do you have a time limit before you give up on show business?"
Though I do have something of a masochistic streak when it comes to dating, even I have a time limit. So I got up, found the waitress and paid the check.
But a few days later, when surfing the net, memories of the date-interview spurred me to look up my page on IMDb (Internet Movie Database). There in chronological order were the seventy-plus appearances and my character names. I smiled as I recalled some of my favorite stops and cringed at some of the worst. There were a lot of stories to tell — and other stories that hadn't made it to the official résumé: the great parts I didn't get, the shows that never saw the light of day, all of the excruciating downtime, the tyrannical acting teachers, or all of the bizarre auditions. In a way, I started to understand why that woman had asked me all of those questions. I began wondering "How did I end up being this wandering TV actor?" And I realized when I stepped back from the daily anxiety that it's been an amazing and hilarious journey through many of the best and worst shows of the past twenty years.
THE MAKING OF A GUEST STAR
It isn't hard to figure out how I ended up with a career as TV's go-to schnook; it's a role I was born to play. Looks-wise, I was always a stick figure. Even when I stopped growing at 6'1" I still weighed only 130 pounds. Picture a skinnier Jughead, only with no confidence. Anytime anyone passed me, I always flinched like I was going to get hit. Throughout my life people have had loads of fun raising their hand in the air to see me flinch — including my demented math tutor and a TV repairman. I was so shy I could barely make eye contact with a cat, or a photograph.
I loved TV and movies, but the world of show business was galaxies away from mine. I thought to be on TV you had to start real young, like the kids from The Brady Bunch. I envied these actors. I'd see the cast of Welcome Back, Kotter or The Partridge Family having fun and kidding around with each other on talk shows and Battle of the Network Stars. They seemed like they were a part of something important together and I wanted to have that too.
Truth is, I wasn't brought up to dream big. I was raised in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York, in a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood that consisted of rows and rows of identical two-family houses. On more than one occasion we'd hear drunken neighbors trying to insert keys into our door, thinking it was their home. The neighborhood was reminiscent of the one in Saturday Night Fever. I remember when the film came out that instead of everyone seeing how racist and small-minded it made them all seem, they strived to emulate the strutting, goombah-type it depicted, seeing it not as an indictment but as something to aspire to.
Growing up, there weren't a lot of expectations for me to excel in life, especially from my mother who was constantly panicked, like a hooked fish flapping around on the dock. All I heard from her my whole life was: "It's almost over," which would often be followed up with: "What do I have left, fifteen, twenty years? It's almost over!"
I'm pretty sure I'm the only nine-year-old who set up a lemonade stand and his mother reacted by panicking: "What if it goes under? Don't do it, Freddie."
Excerpted from "Maybe We'll Have You Back"
Copyright © 2015 Fred Stoller.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Ray Romano vii
"You've Been on Everything!" 1
The Making of a Guest Star 9
"You're Too Depressed to Be a Comedian" 17
Welcome to L.A. 31
The Craft 35
Worst First 45
Other People's Homes 55
Amen to Great Food! 57
Murphy Brown 63
Vinnie & Bobby 71
Can I Get Myself Hired as a Regular? "I Don't Think So" 75
An Empty Nest Is Better Than No Nest 81
Don't Make Trouble 93
My Seinfeld Daze 97
Where I Left Off, but 20 Pounds Heavier 127
Can't Hurry Clones 131
Maximum Guest Star Exposure 133
Seinfeld Aftermath 139
The Breakout Film that Almost Broke Me 147
Kramer Reality 153
My Nanny Emmy 161
Suddenly Gay 165
Why Doesn't Raymond Love Me? 173
Some Friends 179
Norm Stole My Jacket 185
My Real Good Demo Reel 189
Looking for My TV Dharma 195
I Ain't No Scrub 203
The King Rules 211
The Quentin Tarantino Delusion 215
Tween Star 219
A Handy Gig 223
Building My Own Home 229
Life Imitating Art 235
My Awesome Showbiz Perks 239
Am I Somebody Yet? 245
A Roomful Of Weirdos 247
Being A Leading Man 249
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was delightful. You may not know his name, but Fred Stoller is "that guy in that thing". You've probably seen him in a million different things, always the "funny bellhop" or the "annoying cousin". Reading his book was like having pie and coffee with a friend, while they spill all the most juicy and mundane details of the working grind in Hollywood, about craft services tables and which sets had decent dressing rooms for guest cast, and which principal cast were nice guys. Three cheers, Fred. You HAVE won the Hollywood lottery, just by hanging in there. Also, you are a saint with that mother of yours. Love hearing you in the podcast world. You were great on Alison Rosen's show!