Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Dealing with horrible bosses

Great article in GQ about horrible bosses in Hollywood. It centers on writers/showrunners (although to be fair, the worst writer boss is Mother Teresa compared to the way some agents treat their assistants. Picture: 12 YEARS A SLAVE but more degrading.). Still, the point made by author Jim Nelson is that there are a lot of insecure, insensitive, unfunny assholes who find themselves in enviable positions and treat their staff like shit. And to that I would say he is correct.

I would also say I find this behavior unconscionable. Writers assistants and P.A.’s have incredibly hard jobs. You hear about all the hours writers work. The support staff puts in way more. Once the rewrite is over at 2 in the morning and the writers stagger home, the assistants stay behind to type, print, and distribute the scripts. In some cases, actors still require a hard copy on their front porch. An emailed file won’t do it. So someone has to drive to the star’s home in a winding canyon at 4 in the a.m.

There was one star a few years ago who demanded the script be on her left night table when she woke up. The P.A. would have to enter the house, tiptoe into her bedroom, and gently leave the script in the assigned spot. If he woke her up he was dead. One day, for some reason, she awoke to find no script. World War III broke out. Killing her in her sleep would be too good for her. She needs to know she’s being killed and why.

The support staff is also woefully underpaid, generally has to park three miles from the lot, and is on call 24-7 to be their masters’ personal gofer. A writer I know who was based in Hollywood demanded her assistant drive to Malibu to pick up her birth control prescription. Another made his assistant take traffic school for him.  More than once I’ve seen a P.A. in a garbage dumpster rooting around in search of something the showrunner thought he might have mistakenly thrown out. A major television star who was quitting smoking by chewing nicotine gum would call over her assistant and every time she had to go on camera to film a scene he had to hold out his hand so she could deposit the chewed gum in his palm. When the scene was over she put the gum back in her mouth. This poor assistant also had to follow behind the star as she walked her dog on the lot. He would be required to clean up the shit.  (Sounds like that old joke right?  "So why do you clean up after the circus elephants?  Quit."  "What?  And leave show business?")

In the article, Nelson worked for an insecure comedy writing team. He didn’t identify them by name but sprinkled enough clues that a quick trip to IMDB easily outs them if you’re interested. The point is they were monsters.

Here’s one of those irrefutable laws of the universe: If a comedy writer has to constantly tell you how funny he is, he’s not funny.

The concept of gravity can be debated before this truth. Truly funny people don’t have to announce it to the world (or to his writers assistants). There’s not enough indignity in working for one of these jackals that you’re expected to actually laugh at his cringeworthy material?  Dumpter diving suddenly seems less appalling.

The truth is showrunners are under a lot of stress. Some handle it better than others. Writing and management are two very different skill sets. And today the job is even harder because there is way more network and studio interference. Anger and even tantrums are not uncommon. I’ve had them myself. But there’s no reason to take out your frustration on the support staff. None. It’s just a matter of simple human decency.

And here’s the thing – if you treat people well they’ll work harder for you. You don’t have to buy them cars. Just appreciate them. Thank them. Not take them for granted. Let them take off early one night to witness the birth of their child. Stock up on extra packages of nicotine gum.

My heart goes out to anyone working for a horrible boss. Sometimes karma comes into play. This author is now an editor-in-chief of GQ. The last writing credit from the team he worked for is 1995. Often times P.A.’s and writers assistants rise among the ranks. One of our P.A.’s on CHEERS later became the VP of Comedy Development at NBC. Good luck to any of the writers who sent her back all the way across town because there were onions on their patty melt. So hang in there. Not every boss is horrible. And better jobs are coming.

But most off all, if and when you do reach a position of power don’t you become an asshole. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this. Abused workers feel they can now be the abusers. Break the string. Be a mensch. Just because Hollywood indulges bad behavior doesn’t mean you have to practice it.  Remember -- you’re a human being first, in the industry second. It’s not the other way around.


MikeK.Pa. said...

Very funny blog today. I'm still laughing at: Killing her in her sleep would be too good for her. She needs to know she's being killed and why.

Hopefully enough of the good guys/gals move up the chain and break the cycle of abuse. One can only hope.

Mary Stella said...

Although I've never worked in the television/show business industry, I've experienced a couple of horrid bosses. I resolved, like you suggested, to never treat anyone who works for me the way that I was treated.

I also appreciate the great bosses even more.

As a fiction writer, I take some pleasure in drawing on some of the bad boss characteristics for characters and then creating satisfying comeuppance scenarios.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The cycle of abuse thing isn't just Hollywood, of course - you see it in medicine, when older doctors argue against reducing hours for interns and residents on the basis that exhaustion leads to their making mistakes that put patients in danger. There's a "we survived it, so you have to, too" mentality. And, of course, assistant abuse was a lot of what THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA was about - and that, too, was based on a real-life account.


Bob Leszczak said...

I seriously need to anonymously email this to three of my former radio bosses. And you're right, I have a great one now, and I've had great ones in the past. However, the last three were all "designated Hitlers." Great post.

Bryan L said...

Bad bosses are universal across industries. I just escaped one, and it struck me how it's really similar to an emotionally abusive domestic relationship. Please note I'm not trying to equate this with the horrors that some people face, but I think it does have some parallels.

I was plagued with nightmares for months, and when I saw someone who resembled my old boss from a distance, I started to have a panic attack. I wonder if this is kind of what post-traumatic stress disorder feels like.

I guess my point is that these "relationships" can affect people (or at least me) pretty profoundly.

Stephen Robinson said...

Wendy Grossman wrote: <>

SER: What I found interesting about DEVIL WEARS PRADA is how it demonstrated how some employees respond to abuse. For instance, Miranda dumps her coat contemptuously on the desk of the junior assistant each morning. The day she dumps it instead on the senior assistant, people in the theater where I saw the film actually *applauded* because they saw that as a "step up" for the protagonist.

That mentality can be seen in workplaces across the country. "The boss calls *me* dirtbag and he calls everyone else scumbag! He likes me." It's not healthy.

I agree with Ken that treating employees well is always the key to success. I recall a meeting with an especially odious executive at my last job. She thought my staff's performance was not up to snuff (though nothing they could ever do would be sufficient in her eyes) and believed the problem was that my colleague and I "liked" them too much. When has that *ever* been the problem?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

One of my favorite quotes from Ken goes something like this, "Money and power make you more of who you are."


Yep, no reason for treating people poorly; and if you ever find yourself being treated that way, there's no better feeling in the world than leaving the situation...

Joseph Aubele said...

"But most off all, if and when you do reach a position of power don’t you become an asshole."

This is a universal truth, good advice for anyone, in any business, who has a team of people working for her/him.

P.S. I have my tickets for "A or B?" for November 8 -- hope to run into there!

Hollywood said...

As a former Hollywood assistant, I could start my own blog with war stories of shitty bosses, but here's the best one:

My boss's dog was going to have surgery to have an anal gland removed. My boss thought this surgery might be a scam. See the dog had already had one anal gland removed a few years before and my boss thought maybe the vet was asking to remove an anal gland that had already been removed. It's a scam as old as time.

Anyway, she wants me to call her old vet to find out which anal gland was removed years ago. I call and the old vet has no record of this dog having surgery. I bring the news to my boss. She tells me to call back, there must be a mistake. I call back, insisting that there has been a mistake, my boss isn't crazy after all. I've learned by this point to never tell my boss she's wrong and to press on people hard when my boss wants me to get something for her.

The vet continues to insist there's no record of surgery. I go up the food chain. I talk to the vet himself. I have the staff go into their records that are in off-site deep storage. I try to track down the surgeon that no longer works there but may have performed the surgery years ago. No luck.

I go back to my boss explain the situation. She's disappointed, then remembers, maybe it wasn't that vet after all.

I call the right vet and find out which anal gland was removed. Turns out it wasn't a scam. The new vet was taking out the remaining anal gland.

Sure I made a veterinarian's office assistant nearly cry and brought her day to standstill while she looked for non-existant records. But at least my boss knew her dog was having a real anal gland removed.

Scooter Schechtman said...

@Wendy Grossman: But the "Prada" movie was a romance-fantasy, with Streep the Boss revealed to have a heart of gold. 'The Office" sitcom was more realistic.with the Ricky Gervais/ Steve Carell shown to be pricks. And we all know those.

Anonymous said...

I want to apologize for how often my my boss asked me to lie for her. and how often her husband asked me to lie for him. the constant dishonesty in HWD is what really gets me down.

Paul said...

When I hear people say that they have an asshole for a boss, I tend to reserve judgment until I've heard the particulars. I had one office assistant who I'm sure complained to anyone who'd listen about what a jerk I was. Why? For making her dress appropriately, for making her stay off her phone, and for refusing to let her stay plugged into her iPod all day.

jbryant said...

I don't know how many horrible bosses were in the fraternity/sorority system, but it seems like there's a similar hazing mentality in play. As Wendy said about doctors, it's the "we survived it, so you have to, too" mentality.

Arthur said...

There is a response from one of the writers he wrote about (Mr. M), as well as Jim's reply, here:

Anonymous said...

The same is true for how co-workers treat one another. I work at a TV production company in LA doing the more corporate-type of work required, and I'm working alongside an admin assistant who is one of these clich├ęd hybrids polluting Hollywood: an aspiring actress-model-singer. She's also a snappy little brat of a jerk to me, and at times speaks to me as if I'm her employee (despite the fact that, unlike her, I don't answer the phones).

But unlike a boss/employee situation, I just ignore the bitch, which I know kills her because she's an incredibly needy drama queen who is desperate for attention. And plus it's one less person for her to unleash her snippy attitude and dirty looks to.

I guess I'm simply venting, but I guess I'm also sharing a Hollywood story where even the assistants think they can treat people like crap.

Jay said...

After today's post, I gotta ask: may I be your assistant? Please? I'll laugh at everything you say. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

@Scooter: Streep/Miranda doesn't have a heart of gold at all. (She has some vulnerability, but that's where it ends.) You're supposed to be glad that Anne Hathaway escapes her clutches, soul intact.

Anonymous said...

"Here’s one of those irrefutable laws of the universe: If a comedy writer has to constantly tell you how funny he is, he’s not funny."

We're all looking at you, McEwan...

DBenson said...

Bud Grace, who draws the "Piranha Club" comic strip, used to be a physics professor.

In one sequence, central character Ernie was strapped to a table in a UFO for some alien medical procedure. The chief alien was wildly abusive to his sidekick.

"My graduate student," the alien politely explained to Ernie.

PNW Corey said...

Rabbi, Very good words to live by.

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous said...
"Here’s one of those irrefutable laws of the universe: If a comedy writer has to constantly tell you how funny he is, he’s not funny."

We're all looking at you, McEwan..."

"We're all"? Who would that be, Mr. Anonymous Coward? Did you forget how to spell your own name?

Very amusing article. I see that "M-" hasn't worked in show business in 19 years, while "L-" has recently produced a ("Hilarious"?) short documentary on weather after his last comedy writing credit 11 years ago.

During my time working at The Hollywood Reporter back in the mid-1980s, I spent one week assigned to fill in for the vactioning (Or more likely fleeing for her life) assistant to a very famous columnist there. (Not Robert Osbourne.) Quite a hellish five days, though fortunately, only five days before returning to a better position at the HR with sane people.

The primary things I was hollared at (And I was hollered at hourly) was my inability to read this columnist's, let's call him G-, mind. Again and again G- screamed at me for not knowing what he had not told me. What was interesting to me was how this guy's malice was turned outward at everyone. G-'s column always included photographs of celebrities attending social events. I got screamed at one day for not telling the photographer not to photographer not to photograph married people with their own spouses. He, of course, had never told me to tell his photographer that. (Nor why his usual photographer didn't already know his rules.) But G- then explained with a weird mixture of anger and glee that one NEVER photographed people with their own spouses; that was "Boring." You couldn't ladle innuenndo over photos of people socializing with their own spouses. Then he yelled at me some more for not having been born with the knowledge and malice of a talentless gossip maven. And also for not knowing that the most-important person on earth was, at that time, Candy Spelling.

Well, at least he didn't bother me with his pets.

But on the whole, I was lucky; I worked over the years for a number of comedy mentors who were sane and reasonable. I've dedicated books to two of them. One in particular, had a real temper, and would lash out once in a while, but always solely at whomever was responsible for a cock-up, but it never spilled over in other directions. He could be standing next to you and shout at someone who'd screwed something up, then turn back and continue a quiet, polite conversation with you. He never raised his voice to me.

The other did sometimes let his temper go in all directions. (That period when he was quitting smoking was hell for all within blast range.) But once calmed down, he was always ashamed and would apologize. Once, in a writing session, he had a fury about three of us returning from lunch too late and threw a hamburger past us at the wall. A week later, on a pre-arranged cue, the three of us threw our hamburgers at him. There was a moment of silence, tension and suspense, and then all four of us burst out laughing. He knew he'd deserved it and took it.

And he cared for his own pets and cars. Still does.

D. McEwan said...

PS. Horrible as some show business bosses can indeed be, the worst bosses I have ever had were in the industry known as Banking. Bankers deal solely with money and greed (And it was amazing to me in the two years I spent working in banks, to see how MANY of them stole, from tellers who pilfered $5 from their own till up to one branch manager I knew who went to prison for kiting over $4,000,000!), not with talent or accomplishment, and care only about money, devoid of any human values. I quickly learned that when my bank bosses said someone was "A Good Customer," this did not mean longtime association and bills paid. It meant "Persons with 4 or more figures in their accounts." Period. Someone whith only a couple hundred bucks in their accounts (Like, say, all the tellers) was not a "Good Customer."

Let's see: who bankrupted America? Oh yes, bankers.

Cap'n Bob said...

I was lucky and unlucky with bosses as an Air Force employee. The problem was turnover. Most people wet to another position after a year or two so it was good when a jerk left but bad when a good guy did. And if you got two or three jerks in a row, it was really bad.

Cap'n Bob said...

went to, not wet to.

Hamid said...

Funniest bad boss story I've ever heard went as follows. Staff arrived in the morning to be met with a furious rant from the boss that her computer wasn't working and demanding to know who had been using it. Everyone denied having touched it. She demanded an IT technician be called in to fix the problem. One of the staff examined the computer and immediately found the cause of the problem. He explained to her it wasn't plugged in.

Greg Ehrbar said...

• Larry Tate was real, and at work there are a lot of Larrys in both genders. A lot of witches and warlocks, too, but not as funny as Paul Lynde and Marion Lorne. In the halls, look out for Gladys Kravitz.

• Re: the gum. Maybe that kind of abuse is what inspired Mel Brooks to play the "piss boy" in The History of the World Part One.

• Management and bosses are flim-flammed by every Harold Hill who comes along to find ways to relieve them of having to do what you said -- treat your people right and spend a few minutes once in a while to tell them they did good on something. They get all starry-eyed when "studies" say that employees aren't looking for money, they want recognition. That's partly true, but recognition in the form of awards and mechanical means while still being distant and indifferent does not work.

We once worked for an executive who blew her stack when one of our peers rode a Segway on the carpet. She made him stop because it would "leak oil on the carpet." She also berated an administrative assistant -- for bringing in her dog -- then made her apologize when the lady called her "Cruella."

One of my bosses had to rush upstairs to his boss to kill a bug.

And the list goes on...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Scooter: Before it was a movie, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA was a *book*. The book was a somewhat fictionalized account of the author's year working for a women's magazine. Similarly, before THE NANNY DIARIES was a movie it, too, was a book, written by two women who worked in wealthy, UES Manhattan families. The two former nannies composited their own stories with those of others they knew.

Sure, don't trust the icky romances in the movies. But there's a lot about genuine horrible bosses in the books.


odJennings said...

I've had two truly horrible bosses, and in both cases they were ex-Marines. Oh sorry, as both of them would frequently say, "There's no such thing as an ex-Marine."

There's a mindset the USMC beats into their skulls, and forever after they can't resist running a Gladiator School whenever someone gives them an ounce of authority.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

i actually did have a boss who angrily called me looking for a sales report...when he knew i was in the hospital with my wife having a baby.

ScottyB said...

@Scooter Schechtman: I never thought Michael Scott was a prick. Someone damaged by an unending need for attention and lacking in social skills maybe, but not really a prick.

Ricky Gervais, now he might actual be a prick. A rather funny prick maybe, but still.

ScottyB said...

I *never* understood why assistants are so abused. Hasn't anyone figured out that these people, treated right, would pimp out their hot sisters and give you U-Hauls full of coke for free?

Really, is the advice of 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure -- "Be excellent to each other" -- all that that hard to do? (Altho yeah, "party on" is probably easier.)

Rowan said...

I read the GQ article - and as someone who started out as an agent's assistant - I felt his take on how horrible his bosses were was rather tame. The agent I worked for was (probably still is) a childish, whiner who threw fits, blamed you for his mistakes and would ambush you in attempts to look better to others. He wanted someone who would go the extra mile without being asked to, anticipate his every need and be someone the clients would be happy to talk to instead of him, so he could sell, sell sell! None of those things are unreasonable and to be fair, he is one hell of a salesman.

That said, throwing a hissy fit while on the phone with a casting director because I didn't hand him a specific type of pen (when he never specified anything in the first place), calling me at 2am because he lost something in his computer (it was simply in the wrong folder and it had nothing to do with work) and not telling me he was on speakerphone when he called me into his office to berate me for not sending a client to an audition, (when, as the casting director on the phone told him, I didn't take the information about the audition - the agent did and never told me or the client about it) was only the tip of the iceberg. Oh, and there was zero training. I was told there would be training by his former assistant who was now a manager. Nope, none. I was thrown in the deep end to figure out how that office worked by myself, so I got yelled at a lot those first couple of weeks.

Being an Agent's Assistant for a year was my Vietnam. A year in hell where you do your job, keep your head down and dodge grenades and land mines. For the record, I quickly became exactly what he wanted - I anticipated his needs and wants, went above and beyond for him and the clients, made him look good, willingly took blame for his mistakes and became the person his clients would rather talk to - which became a problem when they were no longer asking for him.

I was fired the friday after pilot season ended and was told by his old assistant that this was how he worked. He wanted someone like me, would get jealous that he was not the center of attention, then replace them with someone who only does what they are told - then gets sick of constantly having to give direction and talk to the clients, and gets rid of them to find someone more on the ball.

When I was fired that Friday I was crushed. I thought that was the inauspicious end to my career. By Monday at noon, I had received four job offers from other agencies and talent managers, about twenty calls from clients asking if I was ill (they hadn't been told the truth yet - just that I wasn't in) and needed some of Jerry's Deli's chicken noodle soup sent over. Sometimes getting booted out of Vietnam is the best thing that can happen to you.

Anonymous said...

Just piping up for "the bosses." For every one bad boss there are 10 employees who are batshit crazy.

I've got tons of stories. The alcoholic who thinks nobody will notice he's drunk. The coke heads who think nobody notices they're talking like a 33 1/3 record set on 78. The entitled little brats who won't take initiative except to play on their iPhones.

I've fired people who then decided to try to argue me out of firing them, yelling and screaming as if I might say, "you know, the way you frame your argument, your logic is impeccable. You're right. I am an asshole, and you should be running this company, because you know better. I'm going to hire you for my job, then resign to travel the world to find myself. Thank you for the quality of insight you've never displayed once since working here. We're all winners now. Look for my instagram posts from Bora Bora."

Anonymous said...

Great article although you don't have to work in the "biz" to experience this type of behavior. I dealt with it even when I worked in a high school cafeteria! Interesting sidenote to Jim's story. He mentions Jen Aniston in FB Day Off. Jen was in the "Horrible Bosses" movie from a few years ago. She played the dentist. Off topic, but can you imagine being an assistant in the room with Ryan Murphy when he comes up with some of the American Horror Story stuff??
Jan B

Hank Gillette said...

Seems like the assistant who had to clean up his boss’s dog shit and hold his boss’s gum in his bare hand had a perfect opportunity to get his revenge.

Johnny Walker said...

Michael Scott/David Brent weren't pricks exactly, they were two people who confused popularity with respect.

D. McEwan said...

In her later years, my mother, bored with watching game shows and soaps, took a half-day job in an office, and was home by 1 PM every day, But her boss was still working and she got those "Where is my...?" calls every few minutes the rest of the day. I'd hear stuff like "Look on the right side of the phone. Yes, there it is." (Whoa unto this dweeb when she wasn't there and he got me on the phone. "Have you tried looking up your own ass?")

I told her that I fully expected to hear her say on the phone some afternoon: "Hold your hands just above your shoulders. No, two inches higher. Good. Now bring them together slowly. I said SLOWLY! There you are. That's it. It's the thing right under your hat." Mother laughed heartily at that. (She found his incessant phone calls because he could not see what was right in front of his face annoyed her as much as me.)

Once, when my mother's car was in for repairs, I let her use my car to go to work that day, and to make some deliveries for her boss in it. The next day she related her boss's request that I remove the "Legalize Marijuana" bumper sticker from my car when he was using it for his busness's deliveries. I told him he could go fuck himself, and would he like to me charge him for the use of MY car. He shut up.

Anonymous said...

As a former PA I've had my share of horrible bosses. I've actually had one tell me as I was quitting and let it be known it was because of their behavior, "I'll make sure you never work in this town again". I was so shocked that someone actually trotted out this old cliche that I laughed in their face, in their office. I then walked out and continued to work and cross paths with them for 4 years.