Joel Stein: A Eulogy for the "Beautiful Time" When L.A. Worshipped the Prius (Guest Column)

6_style_valet-Illustration by Sonia Roy - H 2020
Sonia Roy

The TV comedy writer muses on the "moment when liberal Los Angeles' desire to virtue-signal overpowered our desire to success-signal," which ended when Elon Musk sold the first Tesla.

We were lucky to live through the most beautiful time in Los Angeles' history. A decade when we were all equal in public: the struggling actor and the head of a studio, the caterer and the cateree, the nonprofit lawyer and the very-profit lawyer, the James Franco and the Dave Franco.

It was a moment when liberal Los Angeles' desire to virtue-signal overpowered our desire to success-signal. When people who dreamed their entire lives of owning a Porsche and could now afford said Porsche, bought that Porsche but left it in their garage and bitterly drove a Prius to work, to parties and to restaurants.

We lived in a time when everyone had to own a Prius.

The Prius said, "I care so much about the environment, I am willing to drive a Prius." And you got to say all of that even if all you could afford was a Prius. Los Angeles had returned to the days of the Model T Ford, when there was only one car you could buy, and that car wasn't all that good.

Back then, I drove to a party for the future Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, gave the valet my wife's metallic green Prius and walked proudly toward the gala. Then I doubled back to the Prius when the valet yelled that I forgot to give him the keys, and watched my wife fumble around her purse looking for the keys because you don't need keys to start a Prius, which was still a new feature back then.

At that moment I wasn't a guy with a journalist salary. I was a guy saving the citizens of the Maldives from losing their country to floods caused by global warming. Sometimes, I would do that key-forgetting thing on purpose so I could give more people a chance to see me save the Maldives.

At the end of the party, I was waiting for my car with Tom Hanks, who got into his Prius. I could sense people looking at me and thinking, "That guy is just like Tom Hanks."

During the Gay Prius Era, Angelenos drove free on the freeways and parked unselfconsciously at pitch meetings, each of us blissfully unaware of how each other's careers were going.

Then stupid Elon Musk ruined everything.

Shortly after the first Tesla was sold, my successful friends dumped their Priuses, most likely in a landfill inhabited by several endangered species. A studio gave a Tesla as a gift to a showrunner I know, so her minions would stop feeling equal to her. She could virtue-signal and success-signal, all while driving something that didn't automatically shift highway lanes whenever it was windy.

Musk, at the top of the social heap, dating cool rock stars whose names I am nervous about mispronouncing, is bent on stratifying us even more by introducing tiers of Teslas. There are high-status original Teslas, medium-high-status Tesla SUVs, medium-status Tesla 3s and, soon, aesthetically-disabled-status Tesla trucks. I am sure he is working on an IMDb Tesla, which will project your credits onto both sides of the vehicle.

Vehicle shame has returned to Los Angeles, and with it, the dystopia we thought we'd avoided. We will soon find fading stars drowned in their swimming pools. Charles Manson will rise from the dead, gather followers, pack them in an old Prius and murder Quentin Tarantino in his own Tesla, most likely by turning on the self-driving mode and sending it toward a brightly lit area.

There is only one thing that can bring back our lost Eden. Toyota must donate 20 percent of every Prius sold to defeating Donald Trump. Then my friends will have to go back to hiding their Teslas in their garages.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.