For film and television writers, an awards show awash in liquor, raunch and self-loathing brilliance
The theme, pretty much every year, at the Writer's Guild of America East's annual awards ceremony is a double-whammy inferiority complex.
There's the inferiority of being writers in an industry that depends utterly on your work but treats you, largely, as afterthoughts when it comes time to hand out the awards (and rewards); and the added inferiority of being writers for television and film who live not in Los Angeles but on the East Coast.
But the conspicuously untelevised event has its own writerly charms: it is also invariably raunchy and mean, and often decidedly un-sober.
This year's edition, held at BB King near Times Square, did not surprise on any of those points. The host, actor Richard Kind (most recently seen in Argo but most widely known for the role of Press Secretary Paul Lassiter on television's "Spin City") said, in his opening monologue, "What's more unknown than the Writers Guild of America? I found out. The Writers Guild of America East Coast!"
Kind's manic monologue consisted primarily of jokes at his own and the guild’s expense, and the first few awards, which honored work on web series, seemed designed to further discredit the ceremony. Bobby Cannavale, recently featured on "Boardwalk Empire," got a laugh from the crowd of about 425 writers and other industry types just reading the name of the first category of the evening: "Outstanding Achievement in Writing Derivative New Media."
Guild President Michael Winship's attempt to rally the room with a defense of hard news—"A journalist with whom I collaborate is fond of paraphrasing a famous dictum from the late great British newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe: 'News is something someone somewhere doesn't want published; everything else is advertising'"—on the other hand, was greeted with weak applause.
A too-chilly nude scene in his cancelled HBO quirk-comedy "Bored to Death" (“My penis—and I was in the editing room—looked like a red welt with a slot for a penny”); his own affected speech patterns; his relationship with his parents—these are a few of the subjects Jonathan Ames touched on.
He was, ostensibly, onstage to present four awards. But a perhaps facetious attempt to make up for a drunken presentation at the previous year’s W.G.A. ceremony quickly turned into what Mike Birbiglia, star of "Sleepwalk with Me," called, fairly accurately, a one-man show—a totally digressive, occasionally nonsensical, sometimes vulgar and often hilarious one-man show.
Ames, who came onstage around 10 p.m., began talking almost immediately about his decades-long struggles with rectal itch. From there, he went on to note the disappearance of female pubic hair, which he inexplicably linked to the Chernobyl disaster; he claimed he was "wearing a beard so that I look like Scott Rudin with Hep C”; he complained repeatedly about the food that had been served; he revealed that he'd been in rehab in his twenties for smoking crack and that his parents had believed him to be completely sober since—until seeing a YouTube video of his 2012 WGA performance.
He spoke backwards; he offered the audience pot, then appeared to pack a one-hitter; he sounded three “hairy calls”—trilling barbaric yawps Ames works into most of his routines, which he said (again) he would make with his friends “on the playground, when being attacked by more normal children,” and which he thought would help “clear the air from last year’s performance.” He discussed personal medical issues—he is afflicted with both Dupuytren’s contracture and Gilbert's syndrome—and shook a bottle of Dilaudid.
It was unclear how planned the performance—which, including the four awards presented, approached 30 minutes—had been, or how genuinely inebriated Ames was. After the ceremony he did seem to be chatting coherently with novelist Meg Wolitzer.
But this is still an awards show, and every awards show strives to hit two divergent notes: the self-deprecating and the self-congratulatory. When presenters and winners take themselves and the entertainment industry too seriously, they risk seeming dangerously out of touch; but going too far in the other direction often looks like disrespect, even entitlement.
Ames hit a bizarre note no one was aiming for, somewhere between genially irreverent and genuinely unhinged, but which—in part because the WGA East Awards are not televised and in part because he was playing to a room full of more and less disgruntled writers—the crowd was delighted by.
In fact, Ames was a bright spot for the WGA East, which has little to offer in a crowded awards season. Without the glamour of the SAG awards, or the edginess of the Independent Spirit Awards, the ceremony is doomed to fall short—even pitted against the relatively more luxe West Coast WGA presentation. Throughout the night, the more prominent awards—for Drama Series (which went to "Breaking Bad"); Episodic Drama (won by "Mad Men" episode The Other Woman); Original Screenplay (Zero Dark Thirty); Adapted Screenplay (Argo)—were accepted by surrogates; the winners were all in L.A.
This gave boundary-pushing stand-up comic Lisa Lampanelli the opening she needed to move the tone of the night from sheepishly self-deprecating to viciously self-lacerating. "What a bore!" she crowed, of Winship. "All the electricity of the Amish, and all the charm of rectal itch."
Her jokes, spicier than most, had an understandably mixed reception.
She got a hearty laugh for this: "I'm honored to be here delivering two awards for the WGA. Sadly those awards are for on-air radio. On. Air. Radio. Are you fucking kidding me? Who gives a shit! It's an obsolete medium, on an untelevised awards show; my career sucks worse than Richard Kind's fucking monologue, okay, I'm angry!"
But her next line—"These categories are drier than Susan Boyle's cunt"—elicited what sounded like genuinely shocked whoahs from the crowd. "The first cunt of the night," Lampanelli said, "and it won't be the last."
It wasn't. Lena Dunham, accepting an award for Best New Show for "Girls," told a story about going to see Lampanelli at Caroline's Comedy Club on New Year's Eve with her mother when she was fifteen. Afterwards, Dunham's mother had embarrassed her by going up to Lampanelli and telling the comedian that her daughter wanted to be just like her; to which Lampanelli responded, as Lena recalled: "What, a cunt?"
When Kind returned to the stage after Lampanelli departed, his first line was delivered in all innocence: "I think we have a new candidate for Pope."
Wolitzer did manage to deliver a sincere and well-received tribute to beloved late New York writer Nora Ephron. After recounting examples of Ephron's willingness to befriend and encourage young writers—especially young female writers—Wolitzer quoted from Ephron's Wellesley College commencement speech: "Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to ladies. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women."
Dunham, one of the young female writers lucky enough to have had a relationship with Ephron, ended her own speech with a dedication: “We’re all trying to make some trouble for you.”
The WGA's underdog status is a bit of a feint, of course. They're underdogs only by virtue of the outsized competition. New York's homegrown geniuses are the real deal (Fred Armisen and Louis C.K. both came to pick up awards). There was still a red carpet before the ceremony, and the most prominent "celebs," as a handler upstairs referred to them—Dunham and her co-star Alex Karpovsky; Gina Gershon—were late to arrive and difficult to snag (Dunham posed for photos, but didn't stay for interviews).
But Ames’ monologue—“If I don’t get drunk, I don’t have personality. I’m not spiritually present, but I have personality!”; “There were emails between me and HBO called ‘The Cock Grab’”—could only have happened at an under-the-radar ceremony.
"This is such a low-profile event," Birbiglia deadpanned while presenting, "I'm not even sure it's happening,"
"I will never get a job again after alienating all of you," Lampanelli declared, a few sentences into her presentation. "And for that, I'm very freaking proud."
It was a distillation of the Writers Guild as they would like to imagine themselves: irreverent, unnoticed, unemployable, angry, brilliant and damn proud of all of it.