October 3, 2005
In case you’ve ever wondered, writing doesn’t come any easier when lay your head down on the keyboard and repeat Everything I write smells like ass. I know, because I tested this out on Friday, when I reported to my office at the (now-considered-early) hour of 8 a.m. to finish the sections of episode 8 (“Ahoy, Mateys!”) that I’m responsible for. As mentioned last week, four writers per script screws things up in a too-many-cooks-spoil-the-broth way. By the time we’d delivered the conjoined beast to Rob, the name of a main character had more spellings than Quadafi, we’d repeated or neglected key points of the plot, and the entire conglomeration resembled the end of a game of Telephone.
Writing a script looked a lot easier than it’s turned out to be. The pages are mostly white space, after all. The word count for a 50-page screenplay is about 10,000 words—less than a fourth as many words as are contained in regular prose on the same number of pages. It’s amazing this makes my brain hurt as much as it does. A screenplay is just people talking, and I’ve certainly never had a problem with that. The trick is that so much more has to happen in so many fewer words. It’s like trying to decorate a Beverly Hills mansion with a school teacher’s salary. Everything would be so much easier if Veronica could just hop in her Mystery Machine and stumble around a haunted inn for a rainy night before ripping the mask off Mr. Jeevish! The hotel’s proprietor! Who would’ve got away with it if it hadn’t been for Veronica! Instead, she actually has to think her way through every problem, and be witty, clever, smart, and sexy in the meantime.
Fortunately, I had a week full of diversion to keep me from crumpling up into a ball under my desk. On Tuesday, I made my TV debut on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which was a fun, if slightly surreal, experience. The day before the show, Michael, the guy in charge of the guest line-up, called to “pre-interview” me so that I’d have an idea what I’d be asked on stage. Prior to this, I’d also been sent an 8-page dossier about myself that had been collated by the show’s research underling. All of the information he’d gathered was from the internet, the newspaper, and my blog. How bizarre to read about myself in the third person: “Belben’s home life remains unsettled. She reports a fair amount of turbulence with her new upstairs neighbors” and to see that the notes in the dossier had been footnoted—in one case, to define “ants-on-a-log” for Ferguson. Perhaps they don’t have this delectable treat in Scotland. Too busy eating sheep innards, maybe.
The Late, Late Show appears at 12:30 a.m. on CBS, but it’s taped at 5:30. They sent a car to get me—partly courtesy, partly just to make sure I didn’t get lost or fail to show up—and then they stationed me in a dressing room as big as my bedroom, complete with a TV, a mini-bar, a huge gift box full of Bacardi, a copy of Pat the Bunny (long story) and a card from Craig Ferguson, welcoming me to his “wee dark show.” Trent-the-make-up-guy powdered me up, the stylist Michelle fluffed my hair, and the wardrobe guy double-stick-taped the hem of my jeans so I wouldn’t fall and break any more teeth.
Besides me, there were two other guests on the show: actress Maria Bello, who’s currently appearing in A History of Violence, and Jason Segel, who’s on the TV show How I Met Your Mother. Maria Bello never set foot in the Green Room (yes, it really is green), but me, Jason Segel and our entourages (mine included two reps from Warner Brothers and my agents and I’m only calling it My Entourage to be obnoxious), watched the show on a large screen TV and snacked on the Craft Services spread. (Also, not to be a tattle-tale, but Jason had two beers, too. I only had a half a glass of wine to calm myself down a little bit).
Just before it was my turn to go onstage, the sound guy hooked me up to a microphone. The hairstylist had warned me that I would become “quite intimate” with him, as the mike cord goes down the front of one’s shirt, but he was a perfect gentleman. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded if he hadn’t been. As you, and the rest of the late night TV viewers United States, now know, I haven’t had anything resembling a date since I’ve been in Los Angeles. They perched me on two footprints just offstage, and once Ferguson introduced me (“Cathy Billbun from Billingum, Washington”), I made my entrance, gave that lame little TV-wave that y’all saw, hugged Mr. Ferguson (yummy!) and sat down in front of the audience of sounds-like-a-thousand-but-is-really-about fifty people. (And no, I don’t know who the especially vociferous whoo-ee person was. I think they plant a couple of people to act excited like that, otherwise everyone else would just be thinking, as I took the stage, WHO?)
Remarkably, I wasn’t that nervous. It was much more nerve-wracking to watch myself on tape later. Besides, it’s not really like I had to say that much. Obviously, the guests on these shows are pretty much just foils for the hosts. Don’t get me wrong, Ferguson is funny and completely gracious, but you may have noticed that his listening skills could use a little polish. Fortunately, I have some life experience with people who interrupt constantly, so it wasn’t that hard to just sit back, laugh, and not worry about finishing my answers.
Now that I’ve had my five minutes of fame, I’m back to work, trying to think up brilliant A-story ideas to pitch as soon as we’re finished with the whirling morass we’ve written ourselves into with episodes 7, 8, 9, and 10 all being under construction at once—and out of order, thanks to the mix-up in actor availability that required switching 8 and 9, and the fact that episode 10 is being written by close friend of Rob’s who lives in Texas.