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Saturday Night Dead

Contents

  1. Cover
  2. About the Book
  3. About the Author
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Dedication
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  1. Looking for more suspense?
  1. Cover
  2. Begin Reading

About the Book

A late-night TV executive falls to his death, and Blissberg must crack the case before the killer has the last laugh.

When Harvey Blissberg is hired by Roy Ganz, the pretentious, pint-size producer of a legendary but fading late-night network comedy show, he has no idea that he’s about to walk right into a television tragedy. The private eye thinks he’s doing a short, easy job by dragging a missing guest host out of a Times Square bar. The show goes well but just as the cast and crew start to celebrate, Ganz exits a twenty-fourth floor window, plunging faster than his show’s ratings.

Hastily hired by the network to conduct a discreet investigation, Blissberg slowly makes his way through the show’s ragtag roster of writers and actors, many of who would have relished a chance to defenestrate their manipulative boss. The joke’s on Blissberg, however, when he’s forced to make an unexpected detour back to the early days of television.

About the Author

R. D. Rosen’s career as a writer has spanned mystery novels, narrative nonfiction, humor books, and television. Strike Three You’re Dead, the first in Rosen’s series featuring major league baseball player Harvey Blissberg, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in 1985. Blissberg’s adventures continued in four sequels, including Fadeaway and Saturday Night Dead, which drew on Rosen’s stint as a writer for “Saturday Night Live.”

Saturday Night Dead

A Harvey Blissberg Mystery

R. D. Rosen

 

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to Mac

LAST LAUGHS

Executive Producer

ROY GANZ

Producer

Leo Rhoades

Director

Ralph Morello

Head Writer

Joey Hanes

Writers

Karen Baldwin

Marty Beaver

Chuck Causey

Curt Geller

Dickie Nacke

Barry Sondell

Rick Vergaard

Cast

Tom Angel

Eddie Colasono

Ron Fellows

Nancy Pildone

Candee Wersch

Rob Whent

Featured Players

Brenda J. Johnson

Jimmy Lanahan

Musical Director

Nash Fieldman

Production Designers

Miles Papierniak

Gloria Sams

Costume Designer

Deborah Shibko

Makeup Supervisor

Celeste Temkin

1

HARVEY BLISSBERG STOOD IN the doorway of the Ninth Avenue bar, watching the man who had been watched by millions the night before as he flied out to end the World Series. It was less than sixteen hours since the New York Mets had beaten the Boston Red Sox in the seventh game of the Series, and less than two since Harvey had taken the Pan Am shuttle down from the city of the losing team to the city of the winning team.

In the brown light of the bar a fly orbited Dave Kasick’s head like a little loud planet. He was oblivious to it behind his designer sunglasses. Harvey was certain that even the detonation of a hand grenade at Dave Kasick’s feet would have occurred well below his threshold of awareness.

Travel bag in hand, Harvey walked slowly toward Kasick’s booth, took the bench opposite him, and counted five empty tumblers on the table. A grizzled piece of lime lay in the bottom of each of them. The ice cubes in three of the glasses were still in various stages of decomposition, indicating the furious rate at which Kasick had been absorbing his favorite fluid, Stolichnaya vodka. Kasick’s large hand enclosed a sixth, half-filled tumbler. Given his present condition, there was little prospect of the glass reaching his mouth any time in the near future.

When Harvey leaned over and removed the sunglasses, Kasick’s eyes were closed. The bender had rubbed all the handsomeness off his face. Harvey knew from experience what would be required. He gently removed the active vodka-and-lime from Kasick’s hand and poured it over his head. Kasick seemed not to notice. Harvey took Kasick’s nose between two knuckles and pulled it to within a few inches of his own. Kasick’s left eyelid twitched slightly.

“Batter up!” Harvey yelled in Kasick’s face.

One of the few other patrons in the bar, a man in only marginally better condition than Kasick, lifted his head at a nearby table and inquired, “What inning is it?”

Harvey released Kasick’s nose.

Kasick slowly smacked his lips twice. “I—” he managed to say before the effort exhausted him.

Harvey laid his chin in his right palm. “Yes, Dave?”

“I… am…”—he opened his right eye—“…faced. I… am… completely… faced. And it is… is sho unlike me.” He was wearing a slice of lime on his head.

“No, Dave. This is just like you.”

Kasick’s head teetered on his neck, dropped forward against his chest, and popped up. “And who are you?”

“Take a guess, Dave.”

“I’ll need”—he closed his eyes to reflect—“a clue.” His breath was quite bad.

“A clue,” Harvey said. “All right, Dave. Several years ago this man was your roommate on the Boston Red Sox, the team for which you still play. It was his honor to rescue you several times from the brink of personal degradation in dives around the American League.”

“I’m… afraid… I’m afraid I’ll need… more’n that.”

“The first name is Harvey.”

Kasick shook his head. “Thash not a whole lot to go on.”

“I’m being careful not to make it too easy.”

“Then jush give me the lash name.”

“Dave, that’d give it away.”

“Hey, let me be the judge. Wha’s your lash name?”

“Blissberg.”

Kasick rubbed his two day’s growth of beard. Between the stubble and the sunglasses, he would have gone unrecognized. “Let me take a shot in the dark,” Kasick said. “Your name’s Harvey Blishberg.”

“You’re getting warmer.”

Kasick slammed his hand on the table, knocking over two of the six glasses. “Harvey Blishberg! So! And how is your large and exquisite pershon?”

“Fine, thank you.”

“Okay,” Kasick said. “Now who am I?”

“Oh, Dave, I knew it would come to this.”

“Well, damn it,” he said with great urgency, “who am I?”

Harvey sighed. “You’re Dave Kasick, Dave. You play the outfield for the Boston Red Sox. You’re one of America’s most popular athletes.”

“Tell me more.”

“You hit thirty-four home runs this past season. Your gilded tongue and your ebullient personality have made you a favorite of post-game interviewers and lady baseball fans everywhere. You’re an alcoholic.”

“You know, this pershon… shounds… shounds vaguely familiar… to me.”

“Well, you think about it for a moment.”

Harvey got up, went to the bar, and asked the bartender for a pitcher of ice water and a towel. “How long has he been here?” he asked.

The bartender consulted a watch halfway up his forearm. “Let’s see. He was here when I started my shift. So I’d say he’s going on eight hours.” He bent down to fill a pitcher with ice.

“Don’t you have a policy about how much a guy can drink in this place before you kick him out?”

“Sure, we got a policy,” the bartender said, sliding the fluted plastic pitcher across the scarred bar. “If a guy’s brain-dead, that’s it. We cut him off. No more to drink. That’s the policy. Don’t matter how much he kicks and screams.” He handed Harvey two bar towels.

“You know,” Harvey said, “if more bars in New York cared as much about their customers as this place, I think we’d see a real significant drop in the city’s alcoholism rate. Thanks for the water.”

As Harvey approached the table, Kasick was saying, “Hey, tell me more about thish Dave Kasick. I shwear to God I know him.”

“I’ll tell you more about him in a minute,” Harvey said. “First I want to get that piece of lime off the top of your head.” He stood behind Kasick and poured the contents of the pitcher over him.

Kasick’s body barely registered the event. When the pitcher was empty and Harvey had taken his seat across from him, Kasick blew some ice water at him and said, “Well, tell me, did you get that piece of lime off my head?”

“You’re a dickhead, Dave,” Harvey said, whipping the two towels at him. They hit him in the chest and dropped in his lap.

“You know this guy you were talking about, Harvey? Well, I’ve got to confess something to you.” His dark hair hung down his forehead in spikes. The gray buckling linoleum around his chair was flooded.

“What’s that, Dave?”

He wiped his face. “You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you.”

“Try me.”

“I think that guy is—are you ready for this, Harvey?”

“I’ll brace myself, Dave.”

“Well, I think that guy is me.” He covered his eyes with his right hand. There was a blood blister on the tip of his middle finger. “Now I feel like—I—I’m having a vision that I’ve just played in… a World Series. Am I right?”

“Correct.”

“And we lost the Series, am I right?”

“Right again.”

“We lost it in seven, am I right?”

“Yes.”

“How’d I do, Harvey? It’ll come back to me soon, but I think I’d like to know now.”

“You did just fine, Dave. You hit two-seventy-three and played the outfield with much grace and aplomb. In game six you even threw out a runner at home.”

“Well, that’s good to know.” Harvey could tell how far Kasick was from sobriety by the fact that the movements of his mouth were still badly coordinated with his speech. “How’d you find me?” Kasick asked. There was more jaw action than the words warranted.

“I assumed you’d be in one of the sinkholes on Ninth Avenue you used to drag me to when we were in town playing the Yankees. Your taste in bars, Dave—must be something in your steel-town background.”

Kasick pondered this information with the false gravity of the drunk. “I had a fine upbringing. But why’d you find me?”

“Roy Ganz asked me to.”

“Who’s that?”

“For God’s sake, Dave, sober up.”

“Can’t, Harvey.”

Harvey sighed. “Ganz is executive producer of ‘Last Laughs.’”

Kasick squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “Wait—why’d this person ask you to find me?”

“Do you mean why did Roy Ganz want you found, or why’d he ask me to find you?”

Kasick clutched the edge of the table with both hands. “Give me both barrels, Harvey. I can take it.”

“Roy Ganz wanted me to find you because you agreed to guest-host the show this Saturday night. But, as I understand it, you didn’t show up because, apparently, you were busy getting completely faced, you dickhead. So Roy Ganz’s people called your agent, who told them he had no idea where you were, but that I might.”

“You?”

“I’m your former roomie and drinking buddy, Dave. And, as you may know, since I left the game you still play so admirably, I’ve been making my living as a private detective.”

Kasick licked his lips contemplatively. “It’s coming back, coming back, coming back to me,” he mumbled. “This show you’re talking about—I believe there was… there was some talk about my being on the show.”

“Not talk, Dave. You and your agent agreed to it.”

“But it’s a, if I’m not mistaken, a live show, Harvey. In front of many, many million Americans. No can do.”

“I’ve come to take you back, Dave.”

Dave fished an ice cube out of a glass and lobbed it into his mouth. “No, Harvey, I’m not going!”

“Yes, you are.”

“I’ve got stage fright.” He broke the ice cube between his teeth.

Harvey patted the breast of his mountain parka. “You’re not going to make me use my tranquilizer gun on you, are you, Dave? You know, if I have to, I will. If it’s necessary, I’ll return you to Roy Ganz with a tag in your ear.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“If I don’t bring you back, I don’t get paid. I took the case on contingency,” he lied.

“They’re paying you? To bring me in? How much are they paying you?”

“Two grand if I bring you back today.”

“Bounty hunter,” Kasick said. “That’s all I’m worth? Two lousy grand?” He reached into his pants pocket and brought out a stack of bills folded in half. He dealt out twelve one-hundred dollar bills on the table in front of Harvey, and then slapped down three twenties. “There we go—what’s that? Two grand?”

“Twelve sixty.”

“Okay. I’ll write you a check for the rest.” He pushed the money at Harvey. “Just please don’t take me back.”

Harvey put his hand over the bills and pushed them back across the table. “Let’s go, Dave.”

“Harvey, I can’t go ahead with it.”

“For God’s sake, be a big boy. You’re an MVP.”

“Huh?”

“Dave, you’re a shoo-in for American League MVP this year. So act like one. You know, Roy Ganz probably could’ve had any New York Met he wanted for the show this week. But he wanted you, Dave. You’re hot shit. You’re somewhere between a cultural icon and a national treasure.” Kasick’s role as TV spokesman for a popular motor oil had as much to do with his current crest of celebrity as his baseball career.

“M… V… P… M… V… P,” Kasick said slowly, with a little lopsided smile. “Most Vicious Prick in the league?”

“Let’s go,” Harvey said, unable to contain a grin.

Kasick was busy thinking. “Much Vanity on Parade?”

“Let’s go, Dave.” He stood.

“More Vodka, Please.”

“I’m giving you ten seconds to stand up, Dave. Unassisted.” Harvey was not smiling now.

“Me Vacate Premises?”

Harvey looked down at his former roommate. “Must Vamoose, Pardner,” he said. “Me Very Pissed.”

2

HARVEY PUSHED A DAMP Dave Kasick into a cab on Ninth Avenue, got in after him, and directed the driver to the offices of “Last Laughs” in midtown Manhattan. He thought it wiser to produce Kasick as soon as possible, even in this sad and fragrant state, than to waste another hour making him presentable at his hotel. Harvey was also eager to conclude the transaction and make the six o’clock shuttle back to Boston.

“More Vodka, Please,” Kasick said while the taxi idled in rush hour traffic on Forty-second Street.

“Be quiet, Dave.” Harvey rolled down the window another few inches.

“Championship ring would’ve been nice,” Kasick murmured.

“You almost had it.”

“I don’t believe in almost, Harvey.”

“Well, it’ll have to do for now,” Harvey said. Although he and Mickey Slavin had watched grimly on TV back in their Cambridge home as the Red Sox surrendered to their ancient curse and pissed away late-inning leads, the Series had been an exhilarating dose of miraculous occurrences that, when over, moved Mickey to mutter something about “a major spiritual experience.” The games had left them with the impression that baseball was less a metaphor for life than life a metaphor for baseball. At the very least, the games had forced them both to abandon the customary cynicism of their respective roles—Harvey as a former major leaguer, she as Boston’s only female television sports reporter.

The security woman at the Art Deco elevators in the ANC network building lobby did not believe that the derelict clutching Harvey’s arm could be in any way associated with “Last Laughs.” She agreed to let the two of them pass only after calling up to the twenty-fourth floor.

At the bank of elevators on the twenty-fourth, they were met by a young woman in green suede pumps and matching jade earrings. “How nice to meet you,” she said to Kasick, who didn’t answer because he was busy wiping some residue from his mouth with a corner of his denim jacket. “I’m glad you’re all right.”

“You have an extremely generous concept of all right,” Harvey said, still discreetly supporting Kasick with a finger through one of the back belt loops of his jeans.

“And you must be Harvey Blissberg,” the woman said. “I’m Paula Coles, the talent coordinator.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Thanks for finding him.”

“My pleasure.”

Kasick suddenly started rotating his head.

“Well,” Coles added with a worried expression, “we’ve got four days to get him ready to perform live sketches on national TV.”

“Oh, I believe he’s ready now,” Harvey said. “Provided you’ve got a lot of sketches involving a thirty-two-year-old ballplayer with delirium tremens.”

She glanced at Harvey, as if to say, Nice try, but why don’t you leave the comedy here to us.

“Many Vile Projects,” Kasick mumbled.

She turned to Harvey again. “What’d he say?”

“He said, ‘Many Vile Projects.’”

“Well,” she said, lightly clapping her hands. “There’s a shower in the executive men’s room. I don’t think Roy wants to see him like this. I want to get him cleaned up for the writers’ meeting at six. I’ll have wardrobe send up some fresh clothes for him.”

“Sixteen-and-a-half, thirty-five,” Kasick said. His eyes were closed.

“Now what’s he saying?” Coles said.

“I believe he’s telling you his shirt size.”

Coles swiftly led them down a carpeted corridor, past white walls covered with framed vintage movie posters. She turned Kasick over to a young, casually dressed man with scarlet-framed glasses, and guided Harvey toward an open area, where several women were on the phones at their desks.

“Wait here just a moment,” she said. “Roy wanted to see you. I’ll make sure he’s free. Of course”—she smiled wearily—“he’s never free, so what I really mean is I’ll see whether this is one of those moments when he can be deceived into thinking he’s free to see you.”

She headed for a closed door at the far end of the open area, leaving Harvey standing awkwardly between a desk and a rubber plant in the offices of the comedy show that had, as the critics were fond of saying, reflected and defined a generation. Harvey, like so many others in his generation, remembered the show’s first broadcast back in the mid-seventies, an event that now belonged in the Baby Boom’s canon of historical moments. You remembered exactly where you were for the assassination of one Kennedy, possibly both; the first time you heard the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”; Martin Luther King’s assassination; the killings at Kent State; the secret bombing of Cambodia; Nixon’s resignation. And you remembered where you were the night that a dapper twenty-eight-year-old former television child-actor named Roy Ganz suddenly appeared on your set after the local evening news. He was standing behind a butcher’s block holding a meat cleaver.

“Hello,” he had said dryly into the camera, “my name is Roy Ganz and I’m the producer of the new network comedy you are about to see. It will be performed live, which makes me very nervous. But we’re the generation that likes to take chances. That’s why we’re doing the show, and that’s why you’re watching it. I hope you like it. In fact, I really hope you like it. Because if it doesn’t work, if the next sixty minutes don’t prove to be funny, I will reappear at the end of the show and chop off my pinkie with this meat cleaver. That’s right—I will dismember myself on national television as a token of how seriously I take this new enterprise. I will also be dismembering myself so that nothing that the network executives have in store for me if I fail can really hurt me. So remember: if you enjoy the show, I won’t have to mutilate myself—it’s that simple. Remember: my pinkie is in your hands. The choice is yours. Thank you and welcome to ‘Last Laughs.’”

During the seven years that Ganz had produced “Last Laughs,” other networks had tried unsuccessfully to imitate his formula. It was widely believed that he possessed an alchemical touch for combining unknown improvisational actors with the countless other, and sometimes ineffable, elements of television comedy production. Some fifteen million Americans had tuned in weekly. Harvey used to watch the show on the road in his hotel room, and had even spearheaded, during one rain delay in Baltimore, a dugout contest to determine which teammate could do the best impersonation of original cast member Warren Howard’s much imitated impersonation of a stoned Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. During those seven years under Ganz, the show had launched several suddenly famous cast members on movie careers, most of which wobbled and exploded like inferior NASA missiles once they entered Hollywood’s atmosphere. The fact that original “Last Laughs” cast members like Claire Strawbridge and Tony Rocchio never truly thrived outside Ganz’s protective custody was taken as further proof of his genius.

After seven years, though, the party was over. Every postmortem on Ganz’s regime that Harvey had ever read concluded that the mood had begun to turn a little ugly by the show’s third season, although there was some difference of opinion as to why. The show itself had not completely lost its sparkle, even toward the end of the Ganz era, but it was rotting within. The humor’s original varnish had started to wear away, revealing middle-class snobbishness underneath. Some observers blamed the widely publicized drug use for the show’s decline. Some favored the too-much-too-soon theory of self-destruction, while others speculated that the moment in history that had made Ganz’s triumph possible in the first place—a unique crossing of social, political, and cultural forces—had simply passed.

The show’s ratings settled downward at a level that network executives still found tolerable, but that an exhausted Roy Ganz took as one of several signs that he should get out while the getting was gracious. In a New York Times interview at the time—like many of the show’s fans, Harvey had monitored the program’s fortunes like a favorite stock, had read what he could about the intriguing Ganz—the producer had remarked that, after seven years, watching the show sometimes seemed to him like looking at a photocopy of the original. And so at thirty-five Ganz had disappeared with his golden name into that entertainment industry ether of development deals, television pilots, and screenplay projects that evaporated somewhere between pitch and production. For several years Ganz wandered in the West Coast world of costly near-misses and elaborate failures; meanwhile, “Last Laughs” survived under far less inspired leadership, pumping out fainter and fainter Xeroxes of that first, vivid, Ganz-inspired image.

Then, three months before, the network had lured Ganz back as executive producer to rejuvenate “Last Laughs.” Most of the publicity had concerned how much money it had cost the network to rebag such big game. For the most part, the press had greeted his return as messianic. But they had treated the show roughly. On the shuttle down from Boston, Harvey had read the Globe’s television critic’s denunciation. Something about “the Emperor’s New Jokes” and reaching new depths of tastelessness in last week’s sketch portraying the Kennedy brothers as gay: one of the generation’s dynasties violating another. But however bad “Last Laughs” might be at the moment, Roy Ganz was unmarked. You felt that his present would always be adequately illuminated by his past. Roy Ganz still glowed.

Paula Coles was at Harvey’s side. “Roy would like to see you,” she said.

Harvey’s stomach fluttered, and it took him an instant to identify the feeling. It was what a baseball fan felt, pen in hand, tentatively approaching a favorite player in the parking lot after the game; what he had felt years ago waiting for the Red Sox of the early sixties outside Fenway Park. It was the slight dizziness experienced in the face of celebrity. Harvey was a Roy Ganz fan. He fell in step behind Coles.

The sputtering of a commercial popcorn machine in one corner of the open area caught Harvey’s attention. Exploded kernels were dripping softly over the edge of its metal pan. It was the only detail that might have distinguished the scene from a secretarial pool at an insurance agency.

“I don’t get it,” Harvey said to Coles. “I expected to see a bunch of writers furiously smoking cigarettes and shouting gags at each other.”

“They’re over in the writers’ wing,” she said, walking ahead.

“Got to segregate these creative types, huh?”

“You must be thinking of the old days. I was an intern back then, with the drugs and the fist fights and the pet iguanas and all that. Sometimes I think the only thing that’s left from those days is the hours. I think most of the writing still gets done after midnight.” She stopped at the door of a corner office. “Right in there.”

When Harvey entered, Roy Ganz turned briefly to him from his perch on the edge of his carved oak desk and said, “Come in. I’ll be right with you,” before returning his blue eyes to a man sunk deeply in a wing chair. Harvey could only see a bit of flannel cowboy shirt. “I want to be sure you understand me, Leo,” Ganz said.

Harvey’s first impression was that Ganz did not seem so much to be wearing his clothes—red-and-white striped shirt, pleated pants with gray suspenders, fashionable high-topped black lace-up shoes—as displaying them. His shirt was so heavily starched that it hardly changed its contours when Ganz reached into a small wicker basket of popcorn on his desk and placed a single kernel on his tongue. His face possessed a corresponding wrinklelessness. Behind him on the desk stood a row of unopened one-liter bottles of Diet Coke.

“The last thing is Alex’s agent called me today,” Ganz was saying to the person secreted in the wing chair. “Alex is worried about hosting the show. He’s worried about the bad reviews, and he wonders if hosting the show can do anything for his career. Leo, it’s your job as producer to allay his fears. I want you to convince him that hosting the show will help his career, to say nothing of improving his chances for happiness in this life. And as executive producer, Leo, it’s my job”—Ganz smiled condescendingly—“to take the credit when you get Alex on the show.”

Ganz turned toward a large bulletin board on the far wall of his office. Colored index cards in a row across the top were hand-printed in green ink with the show dates for the season. Vertically, underneath the dates, were index cards inscribed with the names of that week’s guest host, featured musical act, and stand-up comic. Under “November 1,” the three cards read “DAVE KASICK”; “BASKET CASE”; and “JULES THE BARBARIAN.” Under “November 15,” the next scheduled show, the name of “ALEX RIND,” the movie actor, was written in blue ink.

“As you can see, Leo, Alex’s name is now in blue ink. Blue, as we know, stands for ‘tentatively scheduled.’ Blue is also for how sad we’ll be if he declines our invitation to participate in the renaissance of ‘Last Laughs.’ You must make it your business to change the color of the ink on that card from blue to green. Green for ‘booked.’ Green for money, which is what the network makes more of when the ratings go up, which is what the ratings are sure to do that week if Alex hosts the show. Green is also”—that quick, imperious smile again—“for the envy others will feel toward me because I have so capable a producer as Leo Rhoades. Comprende?”

Leo Rhoades rose out of the wing chair. He was a large, unkempt man in his thirties with a low forehead and a pale, unbaked loaf of a face. On it, his small features seemed lost. He was out-of-focus compared to Ganz’s clarity. He said, “I’ll give him a call this evening, Roy.” Rhoades’s flannel shirt billowed, and the cuffs of his corduroys failed to meet the tops of his unpromising brown shoes by at least three inches.

Ganz reached behind him for another kernel of popcorn and chewed it meditatively. “Leo, I want you to be charming, giving, and enthusiastic with Alex.”

Rhoades looked uncomfortably at Harvey for an instant. “No, no, no, I will, Roy,” he said, punctuating the sentence with a beeping sound that came from the back of his throat.

“I want you to suck up to him, Leo.”

“I understand.”

Ganz hopped off his desk. He was much shorter than Rhoades. “I’m not sure you do, Leo, so let me put it to you this way: after you’ve talked to him, I want to smell ass-hole on your breath.”

Rhoades moved toward the door. Ganz advanced a few steps and said, “Leo, this is Harvey Blissberg, who’s been good enough to find Kasick for us.”

“Good,” Rhoades said, shaking Harvey’s hand distractedly.

Ganz stood in the middle of the office’s peach carpet and said, “Harvey’s also been good enough not to have heard anything that we’ve just said, and to remember even less.”

Harvey smiled stiffly. If Ganz hadn’t wanted him to hear official business, why had he allowed him in his office with Rhoades still there? Just to treat Harvey to a demonstration of the Ganz style?

Once Rhoades had left, Ganz motioned Harvey to the wing chair and sat down behind his desk, where he promptly unscrewed the cap from a bottle of Diet Coke and poured a glass. He had pretty, even, crisp features; the only evidence of his real age were the bursts of poorly trimmed hair in his child-sized nostrils. “When I think of the things I put in my system the last time I occupied this office,” he said after a polite sip. “So what’s the story with Dave?”

“Stage fright,” Harvey said. Through the window behind Ganz’s head, he saw the lights of midtown, whole blankets of them. The top of the Empire State Building was lit blue and orange in honor of the Mets’ World Series Championship.

“It happens. Where’d you find him?”

“Where people with stage fright go,” Harvey said.

“Is it likely to happen again this week?”

“The drinking?”

Ganz tasted his Diet Coke. “I remember when Craig Barton spent most of the week before the show in a stupor. We were pumping black coffee into him right up until air time. If Kasick likes to drink, that’s not my business. But putting a show on the air this Saturday is. So my question is whether it’s likely to happen again.”

“You want my honest opinion?”

“I’d value it considerably more than the alternative.”

“Yes, I think it’s likely to happen again.”

“I want to get this straight,” Ganz said. “You think it’s likely that between now and Saturday night Kasick might disappear to a watering hole again without leaving a forwarding address?”

As Harvey nodded, the door to Ganz’s office opened and a middle-aged woman poked her head in. “Roy, the writers are all waiting outside your office for the six o’clock. When shall I tell them you’ll be ready?”

“I’ll just be a few more minutes,” Ganz said. “And see if you can get Kasick toweled off and in here too. Paula put him in the shower ten minutes ago.”

“Will do,” the woman said.

“One other thing, Tina. Change my reservation at Balfrey’s to nine-thirty and make it for three. I’d like Harvey here to join us.”

Tina withdrew and Ganz placed a small hand on top of a stack of stapled scripts on his desk. “Harvey,” he said, and paused to let the confidential tone communicate itself. “I’d like to hire you from this moment until twelve-thirty A.M. Sunday as Dave’s escort.”

“You mean his baby-sitter?”

“As you wish.”

“Well, it’s not the wish I had in mind.”

“Well, how can I make the proposition more attractive to you?” Ganz compressed his sandy eyebrows in an expression of sincerity. He was boyish even at his most businesslike. Harvey was too young to have watched him in “My Baby Brother” in the mid-fifties, but he remembered from a rerun or two the cute belligerence still apparent in Ganz’s features.

“Let me think for a moment about my obligations in Boston.” Harvey would have to postpone a meeting with some local officials about establishing a new antidrug campaign in Boston’s suburban schools. A woman in Weston wanted him to determine whether her daughter was living with an ex-con in New Hampshire. He would miss Mickey’s birthday, which would be a serious, but not fatal, breach of decorum. Besides, she had been working hard on her documentary for Channel 7, editing late, imposing on him the occasional hardship of falling asleep clutching a pillow instead of what he had referred to recently in her presence, and with surprising impunity, as her “tawny body.”

Roy Ganz mentioned a figure. It was surprisingly large.

“Of course,” Ganz said, “I realize you wouldn’t be doing it for the money. The main appeal of my proposal is that it gives you a chance to watch how a successful live network comedy show operates.”

Harvey detected the arch note in Ganz’s voice, and matched it—“You took the words right out of my mouth”—but Ganz was absolutely right. Harvey would be flattered to be part of Ganz’s clubhouse for a few days.

Ganz awarded Harvey a smile. “Well, I can see we have a deal. I’ll have Tina book you a room at the Boswell House, where”—he impersonated “Last Laughs” announcer Geoffrey Doone—“guests of ‘Last Laughs’ stay in exchange for this promotional consideration.”

Ganz reached over his desk and shook Harvey’s hand. “You’re welcome to stay for the writers’ meeting,” he said, and punched his intercom. “Tina, send them in, please.” He reclined in his chair and said to Harvey, “As you may know, I cleaned creative house when I came back this fall. New cast, new writers. I didn’t want to be reminded that there was a time when I wasn’t here. Leo and I hand-picked the comedy writers who are about to walk into my office. So, presumably, they are among the funniest individuals you would ever want to meet.” He flashed his smile. “Presumably. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable on one of the couches.”

As Harvey settled into a blazingly white couch at the far end of Ganz’s long office, the door opened and a group of seven men and one woman quietly filed in. Leo Rhoades took the wing chair again, pushing it against the wall. The others deployed themselves on the two long couches and a pair of velvet tub chairs. What they had in common was their race—Caucasian—and their style of dress, which erred on the negligent side of casual. Harvey didn’t know what he had expected. The smirk of the perpetually amused? A small brand on their forehead indicating that they had passed inspection as worthy of Roy Ganz’s comic standards?

Two of them—one fat, one lean—seemed to be in their twenties. Leo Rhoades, the woman, and two other men looked to be in their thirties. One had crossed the great divide into his forties. And the last and best-dressed of them—he wore a navy blazer and slacks with running shoes—had to be pushing sixty. They sat expectantly, some of them with legal pads on their laps, while Roy Ganz thumbed through scripts on his desk.

“The gentleman you don’t recognize,” Ganz finally said, “or perhaps you do, is Harvey Blissberg. I’ve retained him to keep an eye on Dave Kasick, who, you may now know, is at last among us.” He cast a glance at the door. “Well, he’s on the premises.”

The writer sitting next to Harvey on the couch leaned toward him and whispered, “I saw you beat the Angels a few years ago in Anaheim with a bases-loaded triple.”

“I think I remember that one.” Harvey smiled.

“Let’s just wait another minute for Dave,” Ganz said.

As if on cue, the door opened and Kasick stepped uncertainly into the room. He was wearing a fresh shirt and pants and he was freshly shaved and had combed his wet hair back from his forehead. He surveyed the room from the door and smiled sheepishly. “Here I am,” he said. “I hope that if any of you are Mets fans, you’ll just be real sensitive to my feelings at this difficult time.”

Everyone in the room except Harvey and Ganz started to applaud, which caused Kasick to break into that large grin he sometimes adopted while rounding the bases after a home run. He came across the room and sat on the arm of the couch next to Harvey.

“Well,” Ganz said. “Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way.”

Harvey looked up at Kasick. “How’s it going, Champ?”

Kasick bent down and put his mouth close to Harvey’s ear. “Me,” he said softly, “Vastly imProved.”

3

LET ME TELL YOU where I’m at,” Roy Ganz began, inspecting his cuticles.

Among the writers in his office, there was the nervous collective shifting of those about to be judged. Next to Harvey, Kasick struck an absurd pose of serene sobriety that was belied by a trembling lower lip.

“This is show number four coming up,” Ganz said. “As you know, the first one had an eleven rating, with a thirty-two share. These numbers, because they eclipsed last year’s best numbers, have allowed me, for one thing, to become arrogant again.” He offered the assembled his ironic smile. “Naturally, I ignored the generally vicious reviews of the first show, as well as the generally less vicious, but still quite damning, press on the second and third shows. The reason I was able to do this is because I know from experience that, in the case of a program like ours, advertised as the new ‘Last Laughs,’ it takes the press a while to overcome its reflexive tendency to exercise its encyclopedic knowledge of negative modifiers. I think the sketch about the gay Kennedys did a lot for us, the proof of which is that the critics universally singled it out as tasteless. As for the critics calling the show ‘sophomoric’ and ‘tasteless,’” Ganz said, pausing to sip his Diet Coke, “well, that says less about our work than the conditions of their arteries.”

A few feet from Harvey, a sallow, trimly bearded man in his thirties covered his face with his hand in a private gesture of despair.

Ganz dropped his voice into a lower, foreshadowing register. “Now the ratings slipped some for the second and third shows, and I’m willing to live with that for now. In the second show a couple of sketches got lost in the control booth; changes we made between dress and air weren’t communicated to them. In the third, some of the cast seemed to have misplaced their talent for reading cue cards. What we ended up with was a lot of eye cheat, and some pretty mediocre performances. But I can live with it.” He sampled his Diet Coke again.

“Here’s what I can’t live with. A couple of the guest hosts we’d planned on are now bowing out, and their agents say it’s because of the writing on this show.” He scanned the staff portentously. “I’m telling you this so you won’t hear it first from someone else. Although some of you, I’m sure, will be hearing it from your agents.”

Harvey thought Ganz had the demeanor of an extremely articulate executioner. Most of the writers were now too nervous even to shift. Except for the older man, who kept plunging what looked like an orange toothpick between his teeth, they sat motionlessly, looking down, like a classroom of contrite seventh graders who had completely misunderstood the assignment.

Ganz gave them a moment to reckon with their chagrin. “I sense—no, I’ve observed,” he said, “a lot of cheap hysterical criticism of the show around the office. This is not only counterproductive, but immature, since you ought to be criticizing yourselves. I mean that in the very best sense. You were all hired because you represent competence at various shadings of comedy writing. We are paying you to do what you have already proved you do so well. If the writing is not up to the quality I expect, it’s not for lack of talent. Partly, it’s because some of you have never written for a live comedy show and are trying to get the hang of what works: namely, small, short, bright pieces that show off the cast. I am not looking for long sketches where you build on the premise with endless variations that may be ingenious, but which bore the audience, which got the idea in the first thirty seconds.”

Ganz’s ritual was transparent. Harvey had spent enough time in his life being chewed out by coaches at all levels of organized baseball. His eye caught a photocopied New York Times article lying on the coffee table; the headline read: GANZ REDUX: “LAST LAUGHS” LINES UP FRESH FACES, NEW WRITERS.

“… Ten, twelve years ago,” Ganz was now saying, “it was sufficient just to get a new kind of humor on network television. By now viewers have been inoculated against a lot of what worked for us. Now the humor’s got to be the best of its kind. It’s got to be”—he looked directly at Leo Rhoades, the producer—“bright. I don’t want pieces that could go on other comedy shows. I just want pieces that could only go on this show. …”

Harvey reached over and picked up the photocopied article. It had appeared on the morning of “Last Laughs”’s first show of the season three weeks before. Harvey read: Forty-year-old Roy Ganz, known as “The Miniature Man” in the mid-fifties when he played Jimmie Boiling on the sit-com “My Baby Brother,” is the big man the network is counting on to restore “Last Laughs” to its former glory and high ratings. He has hired as his producer Leo Rhoades, who worked under Mr. Ganz as a writer during the show’s early years. But with few exceptions, Mr. Ganz is relying on new personnel, new cast members, and new writers to turn the trick.

The only cast member with extensive television or movie acting experience is 34-year-old Rob Whent, best known for his infectiously funny performance in the movie “One at a Time, Please.” Tom Angel and Ron Fellows, both 28 years old, join the cast after spending several years with Warm Front, the Los Angeles comedy troupe they helped to found.

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