Announcing a contract extension with David Letterman in the 1980s, then-NBC Entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff read a statement from the press-shy host saying, “I’m not sure how, but I’m convinced I’ve been screwed.”
Arguably, the screwing of Letterman came later, when he lost “The Tonight Show” throne to Jay Leno. Yet his tongue-in-cheek line perfectly captures the psychology of Hollywood, where ostentatious success often does little to lighten the sizable chips people hoist around on their shoulders.
Without putting the town on the couch, this seldom-discussed, Rodney Dangerfield-like worldview must be particularly hard to fathom for outsiders. In a way, though, its prevalence helps explain much of the pettiness that transpires, since early career slights and rejection tend to be so fiercely ingrained in the psyche that subsequent accomplishments never entirely soften the sting.
This personality quirk joins the roster of impediments complicating the industry’s labor negotiations: the studios’ greed, agents’ reputation for truth-bending and execs’ fears of what the future holds — apprehensions they don’t dare fully express publicly in their determination to present a Botox-like happy face to Wall Street.
Letterman, of course, landed on his feet at CBS. He is perhaps the ultimate symbol of the miserable star who never appears to enjoy the adulation and wealth he’s achieved. Still, in terms of an “accentuate the negative” attitude, he’s hardly alone.
For fans of “Two and a Half Men” and new sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” one of the regular treats is perusing creator/exec producer Chuck Lorre’s vanity card. It’s a weekly manifesto detailing what’s on his mind for those predisposed to freeze the frame during the end credits and read the small print.
Although these fleeting mini-treatises have been replaced lately by the simple line “United We Stand” in solidarity with fellow writers, the cards offer a revealing and frequently hilarious glimpse into what gets under Lorre’s skin. Mostly, he fixates on perceived acts of disrespect from such diverse sources as Emmy and Golden Globe voters, Entertainment Weekly, his doctor and network censors.
Best of all, Lorre seems keenly aware when he’s picking unnecessary fights and can’t resist anyway, writing about using the cards to “foolishly burn bridges with TV critics” or jabbing at his studio (in a card titled “The Emmy Speech I Didn’t Give”) by noting that “Men” will generate enough profit from syndication for the “knuckleheads” at Warner Bros. to “pay off the remake of ‘The Poseidon Adventure.'”
A similar tone could be found in this fall’s “Brown is the New Green: George Lopez and the American Dream.” Without much irony, the PBS documentary explored the media’s fumbling approach toward Latino images and ABC’s cancellation of the comedian’s marginal sitcom before closing with a postscript about the millions Lopez has earned from that show and his wildly popular standup act — an enviable level of success rarely attained by performers of any color.
Finally, there is the talkradio/cable news arena, where fabulously compensated hosts revel in depicting themselves as victims — none more so than Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, who has grown so thin-skinned as to be unable to differentiate between legitimate criticism and the orchestrated “smears” he now sees behind every corner.
Admittedly, this grudge-holding mentality doubtless provides a powerful motivational factor that can contribute to continuing success. Fuming against enemies real and imagined — while smarting over past indignities — helps one retain the eye of the tiger after prosperity is no longer a concern.
In the context of finding common ground in the present dispute, however, this “No respect” mindset exacerbates the challenge. Because if some of the industry’s most pampered, courted and firmly established players remain convinced they’re getting shafted in the best of times, imagine how the writer that emailed to lambaste an earlier column must feel when his last produced screenplay credit came during the Reagan administration.
This doesn’t remotely suggest that talent lacks valid grievances, only that whatever compromise the parties ultimately reach is unlikely to yield abundant waves of happiness, beyond the understandable relief associated with getting everyone back to work.
Like Letterman, many will suspect that somehow, they’ve been screwed. Or to quote one of Lorre’s vanity cards, “What doesn’t kill us, makes us bitter.”