New York |

Good in a Room

by Duncan Birmingham

edited by Emily Schultz

My jokes fall flat.

I’m flailing in the room and have been for weeks, maybe months.

My one-liners are stepped on. My blows don’t land and my tags are talked over. My asides fall from the side of mouth, stillborn. My pitches sputter out as I’m met with angled heads and scrunched brows. And those are the rare spurts when I’m vocalizing. The bulk of the long days my mouth moves only to chew stale Costco gum. I stare at the story notes scrawled on the greaseboard like they were rocket science. I play mind games with the clock.

I used to be, what is known in the industry, as “good in the room.” Some guys are great at breaking stories, others have a knack for delegating, there are the anti-social ones who churn out killer scripts, ones who can’t write but excel at punch-up. Fitzy always said a room was doomed to fail without a token fat guy who laughed a lot for good luck.

I’m the all around utility man. “Meet Don,” I imagine my agents pitching me to employers. “He’s been around the block. He’s good in a room.”

At least, I was.

Then Ethan arrived. He replaced our previous assistant, Tonya who left mid-season after getting an offer from a streaming service to develop a series based on her social media feed. Or something like that. At least Tonya kept the fridge stocked with La Croix and tread lightly.

The very first day I’m telling a story over lunch to the room about the time one of the writers on Funnier By the Dozen put a big pink dildo in the water cooler. Don’t ask me how Fitzy got it in there. What a lunatic. He used to drive to the office with a sex doll in shotgun so he could use the HOV lane. Anyway, I’m in the middle of the story when Ethan walks by passing out scripts.

“That’s so funny,” he interrupts to say. I’m in the middle of the story!

I lose my place and totally flub the punchline (which has to do with the star of the show obliviously drinking from the cooler while we all watched horrified) and the story, which usually slays, finishes limply with the writers smiling politely and checking their phones. Ethan hums along obviously.

The thing about working in a room is you have to know your place. Rooms run on energy and vibe and any little thing can throw the balance off. Idiosyncrasies and quirks (and who’s quirkier than a roomful of writers) that are endearing on day one snowball into piercing annoyances after months on end of being sealed in a hermetic little blister of stale air-conditioning and coffee breath. Vocal frys, facial ticks, sneezing fits, hyena laughs, throat clearing, dandruff-dusting, too much cologne or not enough; it can all amplify into its own form of waterboarding. I remember years ago on Pickles and Mr. D a fistfight broke out because of the way a junior writer methodically peeled her string cheese.

But this Ethan. The nagging issue is there is no one specific thing that burns my buns. Nothing I can jerk him aside and ask him to cut out or tone down or even for me to bring up to the showrunner without seeming nit-picky. It’s a confluence of hundreds of little things—a thousand tiny paper cuts I find myself nursing as I drag myself out of the room and towards the car park every night, wondering what I’m gonna do for dinner.

On the surface, Ethan’s no different from any assistant in any room I’ve worked in. The eager beaver morning greetings, ironic T-shirts, deferential demeanor, the obscure pop culture references in lieu of jokes. If anything I should have a soft spot for him. I’m pretty generous with my time mentoring ‘baby’ writers. For example I took our junior staff writer, Kelly, to my favorite little hole in the wall Thai place for lunch the very first week and offered to give notes on her Big Bang spec script.

But Kelly knows her place. She would never make a point of saying she’d never heard of Pickles and Mr. D or make a comment about my phone’s large font size or refer to my jeans as “retro.” She would never say “that’s funny!” as opposed to actually laughing at my jokes.

Then there’s the donuts. The very first week he brings donuts for the room. Expensive donuts. Fancy donuts.

There’s a reason the break-room is stocked with dry granola bars and gaudy cans of flavored water. We’re too busy with long hours, hellish commutes and family whatever to make it to the gym or even reach our step-count; so fancy donuts isn’t helping the situation. I’m pretty sure Malika is diabetic. And I’ll be the first to admit I’ve put more than a few pounds on since I’ve had to start fending for myself at home.

Of course the room cooed and thanked him but we all resented the gesture. I downed a coconut and half a sprinkle thing and spent the rest of day distracted and wanting to reach into the pink box for the other half. Ethan ate a jumbo jelly—standing there licking his fingers cartoonishly and modeling his narrow little waist for us. At that age you can eat anything. His designer T-shirts and khakis are tight enough to look tailored—he dresses like a little millennial action figure. Another thing is his face is covered in this downy peach fuzz. In the room it catches the fluorescents like mist or a halo or something. It’s so distracting. I want to pin him to the floor and shear him down like a sheep.

Every Wednesday morning like clockwork he trots in another big pink rectangle of hipster donuts. Humpday donuts he calls them and even sings a little rap song about them. We cram around the box, thanking him in one breath and scolding him for tempting us with carbs in the next. The lithe elf doesn’t understand we’re not being sarcastic. The thing about a room is, you have to be able to read it. But he’s too busy humming to himself and looking thin and recommending this new band or that new web show. Our showrunner compliments him for being on the “bleeding edge” and I just wish he could just make a decent pot of goddam coffee.

Listen, I have zero issue with younger writers. I’m arguably middle-aged, not even the oldest writer in the room—Phil is way older as evidenced by his hair dyed so black it gives off a purple hue when the midday sun hits it. I listen to Kanye, after all.

I mean Kelly doesn’t get on my nerves. Yesterday we hoofed the extra few blocks at lunch to go to a favorite pho spot of mine. We had plenty to talk about.

She says, Funnier By The Dozen was, like, her favorite show. We talked so long we’re 10 minutes late and the writers had already started up again. We creeped back into the room with sheepish shrugs and hurried to take our seats.

“Well nice of you two to grace us with your presence,” Phil said in a school marm’s falsetto, his back to us as he scrawled plot points on the grease-board. “You two go to Vietnam for that pho or what?”

Kelly and I exchanged a conspiratorial glance across the table. It was just a nice moment.

Then I could swear Ethan looked up from his keyboard to raise an eyebrow at me in mock reproach or like he’s onto me or something. I spent the rest of the afternoon silently trying to figure out what the hell that was supposed to mean.

A common mistake for a writers’ assistant is to chime in too much in the room. Their job is to type what we, the professional writers, say for us all to see on the big-screen monitor. Of course, it’s not a dictatorship. The room initially laughed, me included, the first few times Ethan chimed in. You want to be inclusive and help other’s learn the craft. But you give this kid an inch. Emboldened by our generosity, Ethan’s been firing off little wisecracks and bon mots all over the place. I wouldn’t call them jokes, really. They’re pop-culture references and snarky asides really. I’m not saying they’re all awful but they’re not the tone of the show and so it’s just a waste of all our time. Lately, he’s so busy pitching his own “jokes” that a few of our’s have gotten lost in the room’s hubbub. Mine in particular.

Today we’re punching-up a scene and I pitch out a fun line of dialogue.

Or better yet, let’s forget this ever happened! ” I say.

I watch on the monitor as Ethan rapidly types out Kelly’s pitch, Malika’s pitch, Joel’s pitch, etc. In fairness, sometimes with so many writers yakking at once the assistant doesn’t always catch everything.

Or better yet, let’s forget this ever happened! ” I pitch again, this time punctuating the line with a little chuckle.

Still Ethan doesn’t type it out on the monitor and by now he’s moved the cursor down the page to a clunky couplet between our star and his sleazy dentist.

Or better yet, let’s forget this ever happened. ” I say it again. Then again, louder just so there can be no mistake. I practically scream it. By now everyone’s looking down the table at me, including Ethan.

“Forget what happened?” Ethan asks innocently.

“What? That’s the joke I’m pitching to you—"

“Oh! Right. My bad.” Ethan apologizes. He always apologizes.

My face is hot as Ethan scrolls up to the previous scene and slowly types my pitch out, inserting it into the existing dialogue. Of course with all the preceding drama, the joke has a lot riding on it…

And yet the line still manages to underwhelm my lowest expectations.

The line just lies there on the screen, funny as a ransom note. It’s worse than a hack joke (we call them “clams”) and may as well be a Mad Lib for all the sense it makes in the scene. It’s gibberish.

The room sits there, reading it silently over and over like a mantra. No one says shit for an eternity.

“Maybe…” Phil says with as much diplomacy as he can muster, then pauses to chew the end of a pen with his capped teeth. “Maybe that line’s not really working, Don.”

“No worries, no worries,” I’m quick to mumble.

“I’ll save that joke for my memoir,” I add offering a go-to writers' room line for saving face that’s neither original nor face-saving.

“Okay-dokey,” Ethan says scrolling the cursor back down the page but then adds quietly. “I’ll guess we’ll all just forget that ever happened.”

It’s lowest of low hanging fruit. Reiterating a variation on my own botched joke and using it against me is the lowest form of sitcom hack humor but since it comes from the unlikeliest of sources, the writers’ assistant, it gets big laughs from the room. Like when the shortest guy on the basketball team scores.

It wasn’t long ago that I wouldn’t have missed a beat before firing a quiver full of my own retaliatory one-liners in his direction. I would’ve absolutely destroyed him and left the rest of the room giggling in the process. Fitzy and I used to entertain the room for hours going at each other.

Now, my mouth is dry and all I can think to do is offer a paternalistic tip of my imaginary hat in Ethan’s direction to show what a good sport I am. The lameness of my gesture is like gas on a fire, ratcheting up the hysterical laughing.

It’s the kind of can’t-catch-your breath laughing that I remember once being able to cause, instead of being the butt of. The laughing snowballs to that point where the laughter itself becomes its own self-propelling joke. My colleagues wipe their eyes and cast apologetic looks in my direction as they straighten up in an effort to get “back to business” only for their shoulders to shake and lips to quiver as they start wheezing with laughter again. Every time it sounds like it’s finally dying out, another wave of giggles swells up and crashes around me.

I sit limply, sweat tearing down from my armpits and surfing the waves of my belly, pooling around my waistband. I don’t dare move in my chair for fear of being audibly squishy. My face must be shiny and pink as a baboon’s ass right now. No wonder they can’t catch their breath —the pathetic sight of me impotently grinning and unable to sputter even a grade school comeback—is worth a thousand tickling fingers. I catch Kelly steal a sideway glance of pity at me like I’m roadkill.

Even she’s giggling and panting too, her blonde bangs darkened with sweat. She shrugs helplessly in my direction. I forgive her though. Not him, but her. Fitzy used to say being good in a room means being a team player.


“Didn’t you write on Cheaper Than Therapy?” Malika asks me through a mouthful of salad greens. Eager to spin war stories, I glance over from my patty melt only to find her holding up that day’s Hollywood Reporter folded back to display for me an old photo of Fitzy buried deep in the paper. Guys of Fitzy’s age don’t make the trade papers with spec sales or show deals so I know right away. His cleaning lady had found him on a lounger on the back patio overlooking his condo’s common space. The piece didn’t list the cause of death but I blamed it on the last room he worked in—a cheesy basic cable workplace comedy. Over happy hour whiskeys one night the previous spring, Fitzy said the twenty-something bosses told him he wasn’t “jibing with the room” and essentially forced him into retirement.

“My first show,” I say to Malika and anyone else listening after reading the item and jotting down the funeral info. “Fitzy was hilarious. Kind of a mentor, really. One of the best scribes in the biz. Rest in peace.”

Instead of launching into one of a dozen classic stories about him, I excuse myself to the bathroom, douse my face with water and wonder where I could bring my suit to get pressed before the funeral. When I return to the room, I don’t mention the matter again. Same as when the dog died or my wife Laura decamped for Tempe last year.

Being in a comedy room means leaving the drama at the door.

I’m sure Ethan’s never hear of Cheaper Than Therapy either.

It’s not exactly storming the beaches at Normandy, but I am the last generation of Americans raised by television. I'm the vestige of sitting lotus-style and brain-numbingly close to the glowing screen so as to easier crank the channel. By hand! The last generation to fiddle with the antenna for reception. I remember holding the goddam rabbit ears to keep the static at bay for hours so my older brothers could watch the Celtics. I'm the last generation, and this is the kicker, to twist that knob to find a measly four channels at my service. Maybe 4 or 5 more if I spun the UHF knob. And most went off the air after midnight with the National Anthem and a blast of static. I'm the last generation to watch something for no other reason than because it was, well... on. We all watched the same damn thing. Sewer systems exploded from coast to coast right after the series finale of M*A*S*H because 100 million people had waited for the credits to take a piss. It unified us as a country.

This was all before the culture fragmented, splintering like rotted wood into a million shards each with its own YouTube stars and subscription packages and is it any wonder why the country feels so chewed up and spat out. Now we all just churn out a steady ooze of “content” in hopes that something raises eyebrows. I could tell things were bottoming out with Laura when we couldn’t decide on a show to watch together.

I bet Ethan has no idea who Alan fucking Alda is, or whether it was a chicken or a baby.

Fitzy’s funeral is a low-key affair at a Catholic church that smells like mildew out in Tarzana. I jotted some things down on an index card in case anyone wants me to say a few words but it’s hard to tell who’s in charge. I spot his stepson, who's been in and out of rehab, sneaking a smoke outside and he tells me the service is just for friends and family to give remembrances. I nod dumbly only realizing when I sit down that’s exactly who I am! I should’ve pressed harder. If my ex was here she'd know what to do. I wonder if Laura knows about Fitzy.

Fitzy hated all religions and the church funeral is one last poke in the eye from his estranged wife. No one says much besides the slurring priest and what they do say is boilerplate niceties. His brother-in-law tells a goddamn golf story. What’s sadder than a writer’s funeral peppered with clichés and banalities? Cheryl who played the horny neighbor on Cheaper by the Dozen is a few pews in front of me. She looks terrible but it’s a nice gesture for her to come. I reintroduce myself to her at the reception at the daughter’s condo and she mutters my name four or five times before a smile of remembrance lights up her face. She slips me a business card with a little headshot and resume on the back. I keep waiting for there to be a little moment for us to make toasts or trade stories. Finally the daughter gets up and thanks everyone for coming and points out that non-permitted parking on the street expires in a few minutes. Everyone starts hurrying out, mumbling they’ll be right back but nobody returns. I linger for a minute, finishing my beer and watching Cheryl wrap a couple of donuts in napkins and tuck them in her purse.

When I return home I don’t leave the apartment for the rest of the weekend. I squeeze a handful of limes to make a pitcher of fresh margaritas and watch a Sam Peckinpah marathon on Turner Classic Movies. I console myself thinking I could never do this when Laura was around for a variety of reasons the least of which being she hated westerns. I should’ve said something at the goddamn funeral.

I can’t sleep and get up extra early on Monday and do some push-ups and sit-ups for the first time in years. I drive around for a while until I find the kind of expensive donut shop I hate.

I bring donuts—fancy ones—to the room. Everyone makes a big deal asking what’s gotten into me and making jokes about me stealing Ethan’s thunder. I laugh it off, telling them I’m mixing it up a little bit and ain’t that the truth. I chomp into a coconut and encourage Ethan to take his usual jelly.

I feel pretty good as we all eat the donuts around the conference table. Kelly gets a little powdered sugar on her cheek and I covertly motion for her to dust it off. She does so with an appreciative smile.

I keep glancing over at Ethan eating his jelly donut. At one point, he catches me looking at him.

“Good donut?”

“Mmm,” he says with his mouthful. He’s nearly done.

“Should be,” I say, then pause for effect. “I just violated it in the car.”

The room cracks up. I mean really cracks up. Like they can’t believe me of all people would go there. It’s a really big laugh.

The only person not laughing is Ethan. His mouth is full of donut and his bright eyes look at me with confusion and terror. He wants permission to laugh too but he’s not gonna get it from me.

“What?” I ask him innocently. “You think I’m kidding? In most states, that jelly donut and I are practically married now.”

It’s the coup de grâce. The room explodes. It’s the biggest laugh we’ve ever had for sure. Everyone’s too busy cracking up to pay Ethan much mind as he stumbles to his feet coughing and clawing at his throat and darts out of the room towards the bathroom. Phil is gasping for breath he’s laughing so hard.

Kelly is squealing, rocking back and forth in her chair, face red and wet and for the first time in 20 years I want a cigarette. The laughter lifts me up and I feel like I could float off my chair.