Sometimes, fate conspires to get you fired from a job you love, but sometimes it saves your ass at a job you hate. This post is about how Christopher Walken stepped in to prevent me from being booted from a job I hated at NBC.
I was a content elf at NBC’s SyFy (SciFi Channel back then), and to say I didn’t fit in is a disservice to leftover puzzle pieces everywhere. Occupying a key post at the cable channel’s web site, everyone was pretty unhappy. (I’d go on to leave on my own, but I heard the baying of hounds behind me.)
For a lot of reasons, not the least of which were my two young daughters, I really fought to do right by everyone and myself. The result, of course, was my feeling miserable day and night.
It occurred to me that I should try to shoehorn in work tasks and projects that appealed to me and satisfy the legitimate corporate need for new traffic. One feature I pitched and my boss approved was a monthly review of high-end cars, trucks and motorcycles — basically any sexy, tech-filled vehicle I could get carmakers to lend me.
A lot of people, and I mean hundreds if not thousands of people across the country, all have the same goal. Even counting just the national-level journalists, a reviewer can wait months for the most desirable cars because manufacturers only make so many cars available.
Also, with a few exceptions, reviews seen by carmakers as not being slavishly positive bring reprisals. A writer could find themselves driving one-cylinder sub-subcompacts indefinitely. That’s no fun for the writer, and it doesn’t make publishers happy, either.
And, as everyone knows, reputations follow you. I’d reviewed cars in San Francisco years before landing in Manhattan, and I snarkily called them as I saw them. It wasn’t an assignment I had for long. I tried to start car columns over the ensuring years at other publications, but car companies politely declined.
But I realized I had an advantage that no one else had, so I dialed up a Ford representative. At the time, Ford had a glass-topped Mustang, and I intended to make that my first review.
I asked the rep, who was stationed in Midtown, if she’d ever been in Studio 8H, where Saturday Night Live was broadcast from. She dropped her phone, and I almost dropped mine. Her hectic schedule cleared up instantly. We agreed to meet on the first floor of 30 Rock the next week.
When the day came, I knew I had this in the bag, and that it probably would work for at least some of the other carmakers with offices in NYC.
For the sheer drama of it, I walked her past the snaking line of people waiting to be the audience for The Tonight Show. We could have gone to the elevator bank that employees use, but I really needed that glass-roofed Mustang. I flashed my NBC card key and we breezed right to the elevators, chuckling with primal self-satisfaction. I might have winked good-naturedly over my shoulder at the commoners. Noblesse oblige.
On the 8th floor, I showed the rep the NBC commissary, made infamous for poor food by everyone on air since at least Johnny Carson. Over here is the costume department. No, sadly the iconic yellow-and-black Killer Bees outfits worn by cast members no longer exist. Most costumes, even today, are made as cheaply and quickly as possible, and the first cast’s garments literally disintegrated decades ago. Did you know that John Belushi, star of those skits, hated wearing the costume? It’s true. Has anyone ever told you the one story no one is supposed to repeat about Chris Farley? I have to whisper this.
As we approached 8H itself, I saw that we’d arrived on the day when every single set was assembled on the studio floor for final inspection. It’s like a maze and made it more difficult to walk up to the stage, which I’ve found is the money shot for people I sneaked up there.
A bit of background. I was not supposed to be on that floor. I was never to take someone into 8H. There’s a perfectly good observation room on the 9th floor overlooking the studio. Of course, almost anyone could stand in the observation room. One doesn’t get a glass-topped Mustang for a week by bringing an executive where anyone can go. I was willing to risk it all.
I’m not being direct enough here. If New York City was flooding to the 7th floor of 30 Rock on the day that Jesus Christ chose to return, and he didn’t want to get his sandals (assuming) wet, I was strictly prohibited from stepping foot in 8H with him. That’s not a good analogy because JC would be walking on the floodwaters, but it’s what I’ve got right now.
If discovered, I could be fired on the spot in 8H, and that is a true statement. I cannot imagine the punishment for escorting an outsider there.
We entered 8H, under the bleachers. (Did you know the seats are from Yankee Stadium, and were originally loaned to NBC for the show by George Steinbrenner? We kept them!)
The craftspeople were everywhere, and they were busy. But there were other people were standing in a knot, sort of facing us but looking to their right. We melted in with them and turned to follow their gaze.
Ten feet from us, Christopher Walken was running his lines in his costume and in his set. Apparently, he was a florist. I turned to the rep to say something else designed to impress, when I felt an awfully heavy hand on my left shoulder. I looked and it was a beefy black hand disappearing up a blue blazer. Security wanted to have a word with me.
The guy was taller than me, and I’m tall. Where’s your ID? Why, right here. This is my client. Good job policing this place.
He had no response. My ID clearly said I worked for SciFi many floors up. I was informed that I had no business being there, and he asked who my supervisor was. That would be the same supervisor waiting for me to quit or to walk in front of a bus, something I was right then wishing I had done earlier in the day.
Just as the security guard was beginning to usher us out the double doors, Walken, who’d finished with his lines, was skewing toward our threesome. I can only imagine how white my face looked. I know the rep looked like someone who saw a $10 bill flapping under her car’s wiper only to find out it’s a fake-out septic-service coupon. The security guy would have looked like a security guy doing his job.
I stopped breathing as Walken came right over to us, brushing aside the page at his elbow.
“Hey, ho. You are. Here right when. I’m done.” Then he reached out and shook my hand. “Will you. Be at the hotel. Later?” Those words. I’ll never forget.
And he walked away. Never saw him again.
I did the only thing I could do. I stuffed away my goofy smile, cocked an eyebrow and turned around to look my giant friend in the eyes. I was going for a friendly “See? If you’d just listen….”
He rolled his eyes. He breathed really deeply, trying to cleanse his soul of something. He leaned down to me, and said the other words I’ll never forget:
“We both know what just happened. That’s the end of your luck today. Get off this floor and stay off it.”
I am sure that he meant stay off the floor that day. That’s how I interpreted it. I got clarity on the point a couple months later when I was showing a friend what is actually behind the door that hosts step out of for the monologue. Did you know there’s a concrete gnome back there that all hosts touch for good luck before bounding on stage? Yes. Did you know it makes an incredibly loud thunk when you accidentally tip it over? Security helpfully explained how long “stay off” lasts. Essentially forever.
P.S.: My boss was bored with my idea for reviews before I got back to my floor on the day that Christopher Walken saved my job.