The chair! The chair! The chair!
by David Marko
I hate being compared to a chair. And who doesn’t?
After I was hired for my first real executive gig, my new supervisor took me to lunch to offer me, as he said, ‘the straight dope.’ I appreciated the gesture. My new supervisor had a reputation as a smart guy with excellent taste. But he lost me when he whispered, as if imparting the secrets of the universe, “Never forget . . . it’s not you.” A dramatic beat. “It’s the chair you sit in.”
Well, that’s nice to hear. Thanks! I spent two months hustling and hounding people to make calls for me, endured four interviews, and took a pay cut at a pretty decent job to come play second fiddle to a chair? If I was the director of development, what did that make the chair? Overlord of production?
I’m sure you’ve all heard variations on this. It’s not you, it’s the desk you sit behind. It’s not you, it’s the company you represent. It’s not you, it’s the famous actor-producer we work for even though he will never set foot in the office because he doesn’t know where it is.
Believe me, I get it, and I’m sick of hearing it. Everyone on the planet gets it. It’s a warning not to take yourself too seriously. A friendly reminder that nobody wants to do business with someone as insignificant as you; rather they want to do business with the company and the talent/money/resources behind it. It’s also a reminder that you’re replaceable, and therefore superfluous. It’s a subtle threat, warning you that when you get the boot, the chair will still be there, ready to accept its next occupant.
Five years later, I lobbied like crazy to get a job at the number one network in America. People in features were too crazy. I yearned for the gentle corporate governance of broadcast television, idiot that I am. After months of indecision and repeat interviews and writing multiple sets of script notes, I finally got the call to start in two weeks. I was teamed with a senior executive notable for his curly black hair. On the first day, standing in my office, he pointed to my chair, and told me in a patronizing tone . . . ugh . . . don’t make me repeat it . . . all about my personal value relative to my chair!
“Wait a second,” I said, “do you mean that chair?” My new office was the size of a toilet stall, and smelled like one too. The chair in question was upholstered in scratchy shag carpeting, and had weird brown stains all over it. “That chair looks like it has cancer,” I said. “Or it needs to be retired, because compared to that chair, it isn’t just me, it’s anyone off the street.”
My new senior executive wasn’t listening. He never listened. To anything. He was preoccupied with scraping a patch of mold off the wall. “Try to keep the mold down to a minimum,” he sighed, as if I had brought the mold with me. “It reflects poorly on the network.”
I scrambled to get reassigned to the hotshot senior V.P. down the hall from me. On my first day with her, she said, “Has anyone ever told you that it’s not you, but it’s the chair?”
My heart sank. “Yeah,” I muttered. “Curly told me the chair equals the vast power of this media conglomerate, and I was hired to answer its phone, check its email, read its submissions, and make it look smart in meetings.”
“He’s a dick,” she said. “Obviously it’s you, or we would’ve just gotten some new chairs. Now get the hell off my couch and get back to work.” She called me back a moment later, a glint in her steely eyes. “You gotta do something about that chair in your office. It creeps me out.”
That night I waited until the network building had cleared out. Back in those days, that was 5:00 PM sharp, which I suppose is acceptable when you have Friends, Seinfeld, Law & Order, and ER in the fall lineup. And Veronica’s Closet too. As dusk gathered, I dragged the chair outside and threw it in a dumpster behind the Hungry Peacock. “Rest in peace, you bastard,” I muttered as I closed the lid.
Next, I went up to the third floor and helped myself to one of the fifty new Aeron chairs delivered to the big conference room. The Aeron was already a cliché of the dot-com bust, which is probably why everyone at the network was so excited to get them.
I wondered if executives in the dot-com industry said, “It’s not you, it’s the chair.” If so, perhaps an Aeron chair was responsible for the AOL-Time Warner merger. Maybe the same chair advised Yahoo! to buy Broadcast.com for $5 billion and GeoCities for $3.5 billion. It’s impossible to know for sure, because if you ask a chair a question, it rarely answers in a language you can understand.
A few weeks after I murdered my moldy, overpaid chair, an agent complained to the head of the department that I had taken 36 hours to return his phone call. The big boss came thundering down into my toilet stall. He was too angry to notice that I was chillin’ in my stolen Aeron. He roared that my chair was properly trained to return phone calls promptly, so what the hell was my problem?
“The old chair is dead!” I screamed triumphantly. “It’s rotting away in a landfill in Moreno Valley! The new chair is my servant, my loyal minion, my partner in evil! Begone, and don’t come back until you have my ergonomic keyboard!”
Of course, I said nothing of the sort. I nodded quietly, and said I would apologize to the agent and to my chair. Later, I called the agent back and apologized for my rudeness. It was the last time I ever spoke to him. When he complained to my boss that I wasn’t returning his calls at all, I was able to say, “Hey, I called him back and apologized profusely. What more do you want me to do? Have my chair meet with his chair?”
Next time, I’ll discuss a few things demonstrably worse than being compared to a chair, and that’ll include being compared, unfavorably, to a dog.
But before I go, I wanted to add a quick note to my last post in Hollywood Journal. I confessed that while working as a network executive I gave notes on a script I hadn’t read. One phone call would have prevented this mortifying episode, but I didn’t make the call, and so I didn’t even know the script existed until its writer and producers brought it into my office for a notes meeting. The subsequent success of the project, to which I contributed nothing, plunged me into a crisis of self-doubt, forcing me to consider that my job might just be pointless.
After my confession was posted, I decided to send the link to the screenwriter on the project. He and I worked together on many projects over the years, and I respected him as a hard-working and talented friend. He would get a laugh out of my lame confession and the distress it caused me. That’s when I learned he died in January after a long illness. His name was Tom Cook, he was a lovely human being, and I’m sure his close friends and family miss him terribly.
The awful news of his passing put a few things in perspective. I didn’t waste any more time wondering if my job was pointless or not. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe every working stiff in America wonders the same thing. But if that’s the worst problem I have in life (besides being endlessly compared to a chair), then I’m pretty fortunate.Tags: Aeron chair, Broadcast television, David Marko, ER, Film, Film and television executive, Friends, Hollywood, Law & Order, Seinfeld, Tom Cook, Veronica's Closet