Why can't I find a Jack Donaghy to my Liz Lemon?
by Rebecca Bohanan
There's something about the world of film and television production that turns me into a doe-eyed innocent. When I step onto a lot or into an office, I carelessly throw my pretty white hat into the sky of endless entertainment possibilities, and the rejection, disappointment, and sleaze that I sometimes see in the industry evaporate. Just one step, and I transform into Tina Fey: a successful television writer who has not yet become incredibly jaded, and also, coincidentally, happens to be a woman. And that’s exactly how I was feeling the afternoon I sashayed into Steve's office.
If I had guessed what lay before me, I might have checked my doe-eyed wonderment at the door. But my perception was clouded by my doe eyes and pretty white hat, so what I couldn’t make out in that moment was that Steve was the kind of guy who oozed “stereotypical producer,” from the streaks in his spray tan to the Botox scars on the sides of his receding hairline. He stood when he greeted me, and gave me a weirdly intrusive handshake that sandwiched my hand. “How Hollywood,” I thought.
“Hi, I’m Steve,” he said.
“Hire me!” squealed the mini-Tina Fey camping out in my brain.
He added, “You’re not what I expected,” as he led me to my chair. I didn’t think much of it, at the time, but I did remember it later.
I was in his office to interview for a job as a P.A. Steve seemed interested in my “insight” (his well-chosen word), and was impressed by my film education and screenwriting achievements up to that point. (I blushed with pride.) He said I should be “more than just a P.A.,” (I blushed harder) and that I “should be involved with preproduction on the next project.” (By that point I probably looked sunburnt from blushing.) He noted that the only thing I really needed to become a success was a mentor, and said he'd like to be that for me.
“You mean… like Jack Donaghy is to Liz Lemon?” I managed to not say out loud.
I kept wondering it as he led me on a private tour of his production studio: his sound stage, his editing suites, his super-cool hang-out kitchen with his super-cool film-nerd employees — all of whom reported to him.
After only an hour, I truly believed this guy might help me, just as Jack helped Liz hire Tracy Jordan, write a book, host a talk show, and buy her very own Manhattan apartment. “He actually sees something in me,” was all I could think.
In the previous hour, Steve had learned the following key facts about me as a person: I love Bruce Springsteen more than Spanish Johnny loved Puerto Rican Jane down on Shanty Lane; I swam competitively growing up and I love being in the water; and I love dissecting screenplays.
Before the elevator arrived, he added, as an afterthought: “I’m headed to the Hamptons tomorrow. I might actually be meeting up with — you’ll never believe this — some of Springsteen’s people. You should come out with me.”
“What? You’re what?” The words sounded so absurd, I had no idea how to process them. “Meet Springsteen’s people?” Who was this guy?
“I… I work tomorrow. No. Thank you, though.”
“That’s a shame. Well, I’ll send you the first script. Let me know what you think.”
The elevator doors opened and Steve ended the interview with something even more awkward than his initial handshake. He leaned in and gave me a hug. My doe eyes quickly turned to deer-in-the-headlights eyes, and I pulled away, backing into the elevator.
“Bye,” I managed, although I was suddenly so confused. Jack never hugs Liz. Jack would never even shake Liz’s hand. Or pretend to like her music. Or invite her to the beach.
I liked the job, and I wanted the job, but suddenly I wasn’t entirely sure what the job was, or just what kind of mentor Steve wanted to be. Over the next three days, without contacting Steve at all, I became acutely aware that he was no Jack.
From Thursday afternoon to Sunday evening, I received the following one-sided correspondence:
Thursday evening, email:
rebecca, such a pleasure meeting you — quite surprising — definitely more than expected. i'm kind of reeling… so, here's the script & teaser & writer's summary of the director's notes from tuesday. read whenever you feel like it and get in touch as soon as you want. till then, steve.
Friday morning, email:
morning rebecca, doing a little work and then on my way to the beach. call me later – maybe make a plan, come see me, and we’ll make it a really happy friday! till then, steve.
Friday evening, text message:
u wanna catch a train to asbury park in the am — read the script on the way— have lunch, go for an ocean swim – head back to the city on the boat in the evening… might be a nice change from yr routine. I’d like to spend the time w u if u feel good about that. steve
Friday, late night: missed call.
Saturday, text message:
I’m in town and wld like to invite u to brunch if u r comfortable w that. steve.
Saturday, late night: Three missed calls.
rebecca, didn't hear back so hope you were not put off by my inviting you again to the shore for lunch & a swim on saturday. funnily enough, i had lunch with bruce's pr lady that day — seems he might even come to my screening in asbury park on the 29th. that'd be something….bet you'd come to that one! don't know if you've taken a look at the script (no rush there) but i'm in town and going to make brunch — omelette and feta salad — come over if you'd feel comfortable doing that. if so, give a call. maybe do that anyway… till soon i hope, steve.
Finally, Sunday evening, I caved and sent him an email:
Steve, It was nice to meet you. Just want to let you know that other projects have materialized and I won't be able to give your script due consideration. Thank you for the opportunity to interview. Good luck to you, Rebecca
Five minutes later, email:
rebecca, no worries — i fully understand — good luck to u too! just plse return the script and materials that i gave u as they r in short supply. I’ll be at my office, just stop by. all best, steve.
The whole thing was off-putting: though I’ve had my fair share of creepy professors, jerk filmmaker boyfriends, and even awkward situations at internships and jobs, I never really thought I’d be asked to the Hamptons as part of an interview to get on set. The idealist in me thought the sleazy producer was just another work of Hollywood fiction, but after the text and emails, I wondered if Tina Fey's version was the fiction: men like Jack Donaghy who selflessly — and sexlessly — assist in the lives and careers of creative women.
Whether or not Fey was mining her relationship with Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels for Liz and Jack’s dynamic remains unknown. In Bossypants, Tina describes their dynamic as something a little bit formal, and not very close. Obviously Michaels sees Fey, and other female SNL cast members as good investments; he’s produced a number of their films and TV series after they’ve left SNL. But has Michaels been the kind of mentor in Tina Fey’s life that Jack is to Liz on Michaels’ and Fey’s joint production? It doesn’t seem like it, if only because Michaels likely doesn't bow-hunt polar bears.
Then again, the women I've talked to in film and television are often without support from either gender. Reflecting on her career in TV (as a writer/producer for the likes of Al Franken, Joan Cusack, and Dan Aykroyd), Robin Epstein shares, “I’ve never really had mentors. No male mentors, nor any female mentors.”
Fellow writer/producer Lesley Wake (10 Things I Hate About You, Traffic Light) agrees: “I learned how to be a successful woman in this business by watching other women from a distance. I saw them succeeding in a male-dominated world without overcompensating for their femininity, and I tried to notice how they did it.” But as far as a Jack Donaghy figure is concerned, Wake says, “No, I’ve never met anyone like him.”
It might be that female TV and screen writers, directors, comediennes, anything, are not seen as career-long investments, and they certainly aren’t mentored to be, either. Instead, they’re seen as a one-shot creative gamble with an expiration date, one that kicks in at the start of their inevitable pregnancy and maternity leave. As Epstein notes, “If you go on maternity leave, you’re not necessarily coming back, because there are so many eager and capable people ready to jump into your spot. It is definitely a hazard to your career.”
If Liz Lemon were to become pregnant, what would it take for Jack to stay her mentor? How do we get the Jack Donaghys of the world to view women as smart, potential long-term mentees — the same way that they might look at a younger guy who reminds them of their up-and-coming former selves? Or will the real producers of the world continue to view doe-eyed girls in pretty white hats as nothing more than targets for ham-handed come-ons?
I will never forget that interview with Steve, or the creepy tone in his voice when he told me I wasn’t what he expected. Well, guess what, buddy? Thanks to Tina Fey, you weren’t what I expected, either. But I don’t blame her for that — maybe Jack Donaghy is equal parts construction and projection; what Fey wishes more men in the industry were actually like. Maybe the ripples from Bridesmaids, 2 Broke Girls, and Whitney will keep spreading. And who knows, maybe there is actually someone out there like that. Either way, I’m going to keep looking, and maybe years from now, it'll be me greeting some doe-eyed young female writer, and she'll be just what I expected.