Joel Stein Mourns Quibi: "I'm the Only One Who Didn't Sell Them Stuff"

Quibi-Jeffrey-Katzenberg-and-inset-of-Joel-Stein
Denise Truscello/Getty Images; Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

A writer laments the death of the streamer before he could personally cash in: "I worried that my career would be over if people heard I couldn't even sell a show to Quibi."

I keep my change in one of those white sacks with a dollar sign on it, the ones burglars favor. As I was leaving for my first pitch at Quibi, I thought about taking it with me as a prop for a joke I would use to cut the tension by admitting I was only there to get my fair share. Long before it launched six months ago — before most people believed it would ever launch — Quibi was famous for walking into an already hopping Hollywood streaming party and making it rain.

A lot of my friends had packed their old, unsold ideas in a suitcase and traveled with them to the weird new office complex on Barton Avenue in Hollywood. Each had sold at least one to Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s startup, which was funded with $1.75 billion. So when I walked in last February, I wasn’t sure if I’d unload Drunk vs. Stoned (people first smoke weed and then drink whiskey to determine which substance most limits their ability to drive a truck, navigate an escape room and recite a poem); Inside the Phone (record a celebrity’s screen for 24 hours and edit it down to 10 minutes with their commentary); or my scripted film Revenge of the Jocks (the sales team takes over Facebook from the power-mad, mean and sexist engineers) — but I knew I’d make my WGA insurance minimum for the year.

I was led through Quibi’s beautiful offices to the waiting room, where I was welcomed to help myself to a museum-lit wall holding huge jars of gummy worms, Sour Patch Kids, Smarties and other treats. I demurred, because I knew I would soon be able to buy all the candy I wanted with sweet, sweet Quibi money. I did, however, go to the kitchen, where I pulled myself a foamy pint of nitro coffee.

When I entered the conference room, however, the Quibi execs pulled some sales judo, insisting on first telling me all about the company. I learned that Quibi means “quick bite” and that young people have small portions of time — for instance, when waiting for an elevator, which the exec explained, I had just done — that they could use to watch a couple of minutes of a new big-budget film or TV series. After all, he explained, while The Da Vinci Code was 464 pages long, it was broken up into chapters. I considered explaining that people look at their phones because they’re anxious and want to scroll through distractions, which is why no one reads books, which require attention. I also considered pitching them my last book, which I knew was just their thing because it, too, was split into chapters.

Quibi also had proprietary technology, which the exec could not explain to me partly because it was proprietary and partly because it was technology, and there was no possibility I’d understand it. But the gist was that their floor of engineers had figured out a way you could watch video on your phone.

As I explained Drunk vs. Stoned, which, honestly, seemed unnecessary given the title, I got a bad feeling, because the exec wasn’t reaching into a desk to pull out a pile of money.

After an hour, the meeting ended and I was no richer. Driving home, sad and wishing I was at least on a candy sugar high, I worried that my Hollywood career would be over if people heard that I couldn’t even sell a show to Quibi. More infuriating, my friends who sold Quibi shows were having a great experience: generous terms, creative freedom, minimal notes, ownership of the show reverting back to them quickly, free candy, no pesky critics or viewers to tell them their shows weren’t great. As far as anyone knew, Barkitecture, the dog house design show hosted by The Bachelorette runner-up Tyler Cameron was the new Sopranos.

Mike Farah, the CEO of Funny or Die, made two Quibis, which was what Quibi, and absolutely no one else, called their shows. One was Flipped starring Will Forte and Kaitlin Olson. And he loved his experience. “They were very smart and thoughtful,” Farah says. “ Jeffrey hired a very good team and trusted his team. I know everyone needs a punching bag, but I bet most of the people who were complaining didn’t have success selling them stuff.” I was pretty sure he was talking about me, since I’m the only one who didn’t sell them stuff. I feel particularly certain of this since Quibi made Dishmantled, a cooking show in which chef contestants dress in hazmat suits and get shot with liquid versions of a dish they have to figure out how to create. It sounds like an idea that emerged from the “pitch me a TV show” segment in Drunk vs. Stoned.

I returned the next month to pitch someone else there, because Quibi had what one person called “an amorphous management structure,” in which execs were free to buy what other execs there rejected. I got myself a nitro coffee, assured this new exec that I knew all about quick bites and The Da Vinci Code storytelling breakthrough, and was nevertheless subjected to the sales pitch again. I did not sell my ideas the second time.

Over the next year, I pitched two more ideas to Quibi, neither of which sold. The last time was a few weeks ago, over Zoom. This time I was smart enough to go with Farah and the Funny or Die team.

We pitched Quibi Best Presidency Ever, the joke of which was that we would chronicle the horrors of the Trump administration by using the cheesy, passé I Love the ’80s clip show format in order to show how much time it felt like had passed. After some consideration, Quibi passed, but said they were interested in the cheesy, passé clip show format to make a daily news show.

Then, on Wednesday, Quibi folded. The lessons for the industry will take years to understand, but the lesson for me was clear: Always take the candy.

Joel Stein is the creator of Best Presidency Ever. New episodes come out Monday, Wednesday and Friday.