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Powells.com
Saturday, April 30th, 2005


 

The Bones: A Novel

by Seth Greenland

It's All About "The Bones," Babe

A review by Chris Bolton

Whenever the subject of David Cross or Bob Odenkirk (the near-geniuses responsible for the sketch comedy series Mr. Show) comes up around a friend of mine, she mentions with disdain the time she met them after a show and they were "really arrogant dickheads." Aside from wondering how this could possibly blunt the impact of their comedy, I find her surprise puzzling. My internal response is always, Of course they were. Why wouldn't they be?

It occurs to me that the general public tends to think comedians are, or should be, warm, caring, fun-loving, truly hilarious, and cheerful. My experience in almost ten years of working in comedy is exactly the opposite. No one who is cheerful and fun, let alone warm and caring, gets onstage in front of a group of strangers and hurls jokes at them, first begging for their laughter and then haranguing them until they get it. It's quite common, in fact, to find professional comedians disdainful of the very audience whose laughter they covet. Real comedians are an awful lot like Frank Bones.

Frank -- who often refers to himself in the third person as "The Bones" -- is a middle-aged stand-up comic who is reaching the peak of his glory days without a sitcom or hit movie to show for his career. While a great many of his colleagues have leapfrogged over The Bones into a higher tax bracket, he still finds himself working four shows a weekend, beloved by fellow comics for his misanthropic material but met with lukewarm reception by mainstream audiences -- and having difficulty getting booked after an incident in which he fired a gun into the ceiling in response to a heckler. Clamoring for his last chance at stardom, Frank pitches his own show, My Life and High Times, about -- who else? -- Frank Bones. In response, the network offers Frank the lead in Kirkuk, an "edgy" sitcom about an Eskimo and a talking walrus.

Increasingly desperate, Frank seeks out a compadre from his old days in "the city" (i.e., New York), Lloyd Melnick, a former magazine writer who has hit the big time, thanks to his tenure on the writing staff of a smash-hit sitcom, The Fleishman Show.

Lloyd has spent the last seven years working on The Fleishman Show, which was spawned and run by the cranky misanthrope Phil Sheldon, with all of its scripts masterfully composed by the same Phil Sheldon. The job of the overpaid writing staff essentially consisted of coming to work, eating lunch, avoiding Phil Sheldon, and going home. Lloyd had virtually nothing to do with the triumph of the endeavor.

However, since no one else on The Fleishman Show wanted the exposure, Lloyd consented to a number of high-profile interviews, without ever actually admitting he hadn't written a solitary word on the show. Now the Lynx network -- the very network that wants Frank Bones to play an Eskimo -- has signed Lloyd to a lucrative three-year deal to develop his own show. Lloyd's wife, Stacy, resembles her former self (dietician with a degree from NYU, middle-class childhood in New Jersey) less with each new dollar, and seems to view Lloyd as a meal ticket more than a husband. And to top it off, Lloyd suddenly finds himself being pursued by Frank Bones, the comedian he'd idolized years earlier, who had treated Lloyd as little more than an underling... and will suddenly do anything, up to and (possibly) including commit homicide, to get Lloyd Melnick to write the show that will finally make Frank Bones comfortable for life.

Seth Greenland's The Bones navigates the treacherous waters of dark comedy, between the Scylla of broad farce and the Charybdis of serious crime fiction. Nudging too far in either direction leads to certain destruction of tone, which Greenland narrowly avoids (though his ending comes perilously close). In Frank Bones he has created a protagonist to simultaneously love and loathe, much as Bones himself desires and despises his audiences. While most of the novel's big laughs come from Bones's self-loathing and relentless narcissism, there are many quieter moments of human comedy from the neurotic, similarly self-loathing, Lloyd Melnick. And when these two finally collide in the breathless climax, Greenland's sparks catch fire.

Like so much else in The Bones, the gag about The Fleishman Show works on multiple levels. First, there's the parallel to that other hit sitcom about the life of a successful Jewish stand-up comedian, only Greenland makes his version a family sitcom. (Try to imagine Seinfeld with a wife and kids -- Everybody Loves Jerry?) Then there's the lunacy of any successful sitcom starring Charles Fleishman, the wacky comedian best known for providing the voice of Roger Rabbit and filling a corner square in the '80s incarnation of The Hollywood Squares. And finally, there's the character of Phil Sheldon, the "cranky misanthrope" who wrote all of Fleishman's scripts and bears more than a passing resemblance to Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld (who wrote damn near every episode of the first seven seasons, as well as the hilarious, misunderstood finale) and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. That David himself provides a glowing blurb on the back cover of The Bones suggests he's in on the joke, which only makes it that much richer.

The Bones shares a central problem with the otherwise brilliant Curb: however deep a hole the millionaire Larry David digs for himself on Curb, I can't help thinking, "I should have his problems!" Similarly, while Lloyd Melnick hates his social-climbing wife, his oversized new house ("Melnick Manor"), and even his emotionally distant son, and feels like a sellout as he bides his time in a lucrative development deal, I couldn't stop myself from wanting his miseries. I kept hearing the Frank Bones inside me: "Hey, Lloyd, babe -- at least you ain't punchin' a clock."

The Bones works as wish fulfillment for those of us who yearn to be a part of the industry Greenland both lampoons and fetishizes. An insider himself (among his credits is the screenplay for the "hip-hop whodunit" Who's the Man? starring Ed Lover and Dr. Dr, as well as the HBO sitcom Arli$$), Greenland knows the inner workings of the entertainment industry at least as well as novelist Bruce Wagner (Force Majeure, Still Holding), but Greenland's perspective feels less inclusive, more worldly. He manages to be skeptical of simple-minded executives without resorting to a cynical dismissal of all television as a whole. And he is familiar enough with the turf to offer little nuggets of information:

Traditionally, writers in Hollywood have been viewed as well-remunerated doormats to whom absolutely no one has to kiss up. Everyone knows the joke about the Polish actress who tried to get ahead by sleeping with the writer. What people don't realize is that joke is about the movie business. The television business is something else entirely, because in the television business, successful writers automatically ascend to loftier levels, and if they create a show, they become what is known as an executive producer, and royal powers come with that title. So if this Polish actress had been in television, the writer/creator is exactly with whom she would have career-advancing sex...

I can only imagine how The Bones might read to someone who doesn't find the prospect of a table read for a sitcom pilot to be irresistibly exciting. I can't fathom what someone who doesn't understand the dual feelings of worship and disdain a comedian feels for his audience would make of a character like Frank Bones, let alone a desperate figure like Lloyd Melnick. I can, however, suggest that if you find either of these subjects the least bit interesting, then The Bones is likely the "Hollywood insider" novel you've been waiting for -- and I'm pleased to announce it delivers in full.


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