New York City
October 19, 2000
It's a Saturday morning and I need to log on from home to check my email. I am reluctant to do so because I know that I'll have a big fat bunch of work emails to sort through and respond to, but I have to do it, because I'm about to leave my house to go to my parents' to be home for Yom Kippur the next day, and I'll be out of the office on Monday for the holiday. All the people I work with know that the best way to get me is to email me, not call me, and they're all expecting that I'll have looked at whatever they send before Monday. I've already packed my kids' "temple dresses," pajamas, play clothes, and essential stuffed animals and books into their rolling Teletubbies overnight bag, and my partner is wrangling with final getting-out-of-the-house logistics, so I log on.
I have sixty-nine new emails. I'm scanning the subject lines, looking for anything concerning this big show that we're premiering on VH1 on Monday. It's the latest in a series of documentaries we've been doing: the 100 Greatest Whatevers of Rock & Roll. We've done Greatest Artists, Greatest Women Artists, Greatest Songs, Greatest Music Moments on TV. It's become a franchise. Monday is the 100 Greatest Dance Songs. It's a multi-million dollar production that has been plagued with problems, miscommunications, setbacks, and pressure.
Part of the pressure I'm feeling is the pressure that the creative team must be feeling. We've paid them a lot of money, in absolute terms, to do this show, but probably not enough to really do it the way we keep pounding them to do it. My team of hench-people and I keep going back and going back and going back to them with criticisms. We're sending them notes that say things like, Don't shoot a copy of the single under the title camera and spin it towards the camera and fill in the spindle hole with a picture of someone's face! It looks like Ralph Kramden's coming on next! Don't slam that artist for doing a disco song it was his biggest hit!
On most other series we establish the format in the first couple of segments or script passes, and then the outside producers take it from there and other people monitor it for me and that's it. But this show has been a 24/7 kind of thing for months messengers and couriers follow me around the country, around the world, delivering cuts and scripts with a demand for immediate turnaround. The process has sucked. And the show is suffering for it.
Out of those sixty-nine emails, about fifteen deal with the show. They have arrived at various points since my departure from the office on Friday and most of them I delete, or respond to quickly. One, however, is from one of the two executive producers. It was sent late on Friday night, and the subject line is blank, which is unusual. I open it. It is a message I was never meant to see.
Sent: Friday, October 06, 2000 9:21 PM
To: Zalaznick, Lauren
did you write lauren z a note regarding the credits - I just dont want her calling up and complaining because we started the roll too early - I agree with your change - and I think she's a fuckin cunt - but I just dont want her coming back and saying (WHY IS D. ON THE ROLL - blah blah) also, can you believe she crossed out all the writer credits? no one wrote the show? whatever! can you please let lauren z know that you changed the roll to keep D. - she never says no to you.
Obviously, R. intended to send it to the addressee, F., who is R.'s long-time producing partner. But he sent it to me, instead.
Right away, I hit "reply," cc:'d F. (the person for whom the email was intended), typed nothing else, and hit "send."
Many minutes passed during which my heart was pounding, my eyes were stinging, and my mind was out of control. It was like what I imagine the visceral response would be to walking in on your partner having sex with someone else. But it was also tinged with a sensation of petty pleasure, an immediate emotional victory. I had regained a certain advantage over the offending party by that simple act of sending back the note. I could envision the gasp, the pain, the stunning re-alignment of his world knowing immediately that not only did I know what he had done in error, but also knowing that his producing partner, too, would react with shock and horror.
Then we were off to my parents' for the holiday. But I kept obsessing about it, replaying both sides, thinking: It was a blow-up, he doesnt really mean it, get over it. It's not like this person is a stranger to me I have a multi-year, extremely close working relationship with both him and his partner. But then again, there are a million producers who can do the work, why do I even need to deal with this? I thought about the fact that I could take away three million dollars worth of work in the same amount of time it took R. to hit "send" on that email in the first place.
This all happened during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a period of reflection at the highest level upon the concept of forgiveness. It is a holiday that is in a sense about exactly this kind of dilemma do you look past one persons bout with weakness, in this case an uncontrollable anger and frustration, and consider it a lapse, a mistake, albeit a hurtful one?
I kept thinking about the Alphabet of Woe, the traditional list, recited on Yom Kippur, of all the infractions against the moral code that every individual must confront in him/herself. It starts at A with the sin of Arrogance, goes through Bigotry, all the way down to Xenophobia, and Zeal for bad causes (Ive forgotten the "Y" sin). The underlying idea is that we're all guilty of all twenty-six sins and that the biggest sin of all is to think that you're not guilty, that you're somehow blameless, that you're better than everyone else. Yom Kippur is about atoning for your own sins, but it's also about considering others' weaknesses and infractions and forgiving them for whatever unkindnesses have been done to you. Under the rules of Yom Kippur, holding a grudge is wrong, just plain wrong, especially when the other person has made an offering, a concession, a confession.
So all of this was pounding and flashing through my mind when, sure enough, the chain of apoplectic, agonized apology emails started to flow.
Sent: Saturday, October 07, 2000 6:27 PM
To: Zalaznick, Lauren
nope I didnt mean to cc you - I feel like a total idiot. it was in the heat of the moment and after an all-nighter. no excuses but you gotta know its absolutely not an accurate reflection of my feelings. I'm thinkin no muffin basket or poo poo platter will make up for it. I cannot grovel enough - I am now going to throw myself off the top of a tall building. please feel free to call me a complete and utter dickhead - and cc whoever you want. I'm sorry sorry sorry. yours abjectly, the hot-headed italian asshole (and that's not an excuse - cause I really am sorry)
* * *
Sent: Monday, October 09, 2000 11:55 AM
To: Zalaznick, Lauren
r. is devastated and we are both very upset about hurting you.
it really should be taken with a pinch of salt because it was a heat of the moment thing he simply dashed off and intended to send to me.
no excuses but in addition to [the two shows] the office move and flu have just sort of piled on top.
anyway I know he feels absolutely wretched about the whole thing and I just wanted to say sorry and let you know he really does not think of you like that at all. as I'm sure you know anyway.
will be in NY this fri 13th (!) and hoping you might have a mo' to meet. will call the office tuesday.
bye for now
Their emails were reasoned and maybe even reasonable, but theres something about seeing the words on the page well, on the screen that is so irretrievable and irrevocable. So easy to pore over. It's not like an overheard conversation. It's text, and text still has the power of being something you can't "take back."
Over the course of the next few days, my reactions fluctuated not only on a personal, emotional level, but also on a professional one. I wrote a snotty email telling them that I wouldn't be renewing their contract, but I didn't send it. I knew my boss would support me no matter what I did, but I thought about everything I'd have to say to everyone else I work with: Gee, we just don't do any more work with them - they sent me a mean email?
I'm the second-highest female employee of VH1. I don't take it upon myself to reflect, frequently, on this fact. But I know I'm under an emotional microscope all the time. My reaction to every stressful and negative situation is closely monitored. Other people make it clear usually when referring to some other woman and how she performs at her job that emotions, and demonstrations of them in a corporate setting, are used to assess a woman's performance, achievements, and chance for success. For women in a corporation, it goes without saying: the higher the degree of emotion a woman brings to the job, the lower the esteem in which she is held. Which is why the idea that R. should be excused because he's "hot-blooded" seemed more than a little unreasonable to me.
I'm probably regarded as being tough, fairly hard-hearted, outspoken. I am occasionally criticized for digging in and being less accommodating to other people's ideas and criticisms than I "should be." But this is a weird sort of (double) standard to be held to, especially in a "creative" job where passions are usually what get ideas heard and shows pitched and accepted and produced. This is a place where strong disagreements (among men) are usually taken as a sign of strength and vision and leadership and upward potential.
In his email, R.'s partner, F., requested a meeting with me in New York on Friday. I agreed, through my assistant (since that Saturday morning, I had had no direct contact with either of them).
The meeting was in my big beautiful corner office looking west across the Hudson and south into and over Times Square and downtown. There are piles, scores of tapes and binders full of scripts and two TV's going all day (one always tuned to VH1) and signed photos from famous people on the walls. My assistant, who had somehow intuited that it was a good idea to close the door, was answering the phone and checking the fax machine next to his cubicle with no knowledge of the fact that this conversation was different than the fifty meetings I've had with these people before. F. and I didn't kiss hello or goodbye, as we usually do. And I tried to do more listening than talking, but as F. reiterated the tone and substance of the apology emails, I got rather bored. And I got annoyed with myself for not really feeling like a resolution was going to happen. I was trying desperately to focus on what he was saying sir can you just explain that one more time, why I should forgive you, the partner of the person who called me a fucking cunt? Because that's just him and I should know he didn't mean it and look at all you've been through to deliver my television show?
We reached some sort of détente, I guess, but the questions keep cycling through my mind: Do I care enough about what they must have been going through to reach that level of emotion? Should I care about the person that hurt me? Isn't that like the hostage feeling bad for the hostage taker? Was the mournful, soulful high holy day period getting to me? If some guy was rude to my boss on a golf course would it be a matter of course that the relationship would be ended? Would he torture himself for days on end about whether he was being unreasonable? In the end, in this business, it's all a matter of who needs who the most you only say fuck you if you really, truly, never need that person again, and you can never really be certain of that. One Emmy award and we'd be begging to be back in business with them.
I just hope the show pulls a decent rating this weekend.