In 1986, after only three or four years in Los Angeles, Garry Shandling called to offer me a job on his new show. I don’t remember how I knew Garry well enough for him to call me, but whenever I’d run into him at Hugo’s, we’d share a laugh or two, and once he asked me if I could help him find a snake man. Even though I lived in a snake-free condo, I found him one. And not to brag, but this was before Google.
Anyway, he offered me a job on Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and even though all I knew was the title, that was enough for me. It started out as a lot of fun. A bunch of cool, smart guys and me working on a show where Garry didn’t just break the fourth wall but rode around behind it in a golf cart.
Once we got on the air, we were golden. I was, at any rate; I wrote two of first six episodes, both of which got a nice write-up in the L.A. Times, both of which said nice things about me, the writer, the only woman on staff. What could possibly go wrong?
The guys started excluding me from meetings: “Oh, we couldn’t find you”…at my desk. Then they started excluding me from the table, instead assigning me “the slit scenes” to write. Even though these scenes were the ones that featured the only female castmember, it didn’t occur to me exactly what slit they were referring to until one day in the ladies room.
My mantra became, “I won’t cry until I get home.” It was amended to “I won’t cry until I get into the parking lot,” which became “I won’t cry until I get into the stairwell,” which morphed into “Fuck, I’m crying.’
One day, I was sitting in Garry’s office across the desk from him. A few of the writers and one of the actors were in the room, too. I felt a tap on my shoulder, I turned, and there was that actor’s flaccid penis draped on it like a pirate’s dead parrot. Riotous laughter ensued from all but one of us.
A day or so later, Brad Grey, one of the show’s producers, called me into his office. “I understand we have a problem,” he said. He knew! I was so relieved. “So I think you should quit.” Wait, what? This was my problem? Shouldn’t he at least fire me so I could get paid? Nope. I was to do the smart thing and quit. Today.
I called my agent on a pay phone (I told you this was pre-Google). I suggested we sue, but the cold reality was that I was a broke baby writer. And even if I could afford to sue one of the most successful production companies in town, I’d never work again. So I vowed to make this my go-to anecdote. I told it in every single writing room I was in, most of which were male-dominated. Not that any of those guys would’ve tapped their penises on my shoulder — God knows, we worked “blue” but not hard-X blue — but telling that story was like displaying my enemies’ heads on stakes at the village gates. Try it and you will be laughed at.
And no matter how hostile it may seem for me to dine out on this story, karma’s a way bigger bitch: the actor with the dead-parrot penis? In two of his latest credits, he doesn’t even have a name; he’s listed as “father” and “judge.”
Thirty-one years later, I was punching up a wonderful pilot (though not so wonderful it got on the air) and met a bunch of really funny writers I’d never met before. At the end of one particular night, two of these really funny writers, Jessica Goldstein and Chrissy Pietrosh, walked me to my car on the Universal lot. We talked about how nice the guys were we’d just worked with, about how while there are still He-Man Woman-Haters in sitcoms, we all know who they are and can avoid them. As I was unlocking my Prius, they stopped me. “Thank you for getting that flaccid penis on your shoulder so we never had to.”
I cried in the parking lot, in my car and all the way home.
Janis Hirsch is a writer-producer whose credits include The Nanny, Frasier and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. This story appears in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.