FromMamet to Fey, JeffHands has seen his ideas find success with a grand list of other people
Jeffrey Hands had a very good idea, but nobody wanted it and now it’s too late.
This evening, 30 Rock premieres on CTV. Starring Tina Fey, formerly the head writer of Saturday Night Live, it’s a sitcom about what goes on behind the scenes at a sketch-comedy show. It’s in the same vein as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, though the latter mines the vein for drama rather than comedy.
“I can’t watch it without thinking how much I prefer the way we did it,” Hands says of 30 Rock.
Only two years ago, he directed and co-wrote a TV pilot, Almost Entertainment, that likewise depicted life in the corridors of a sketch-comedy series. Hands and his team did a great job. Almost Entertainment is funnier than much of what passes for Canadian comedy, if only for the sketch that depicts Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David as a student in junior high (in the hallway, he blows off a schoolmate with “I don’t do stopand-chat between periods.”)
Hands peddled the pilot to every Canadian network but none saw merit in it. And now, of course, the idea would seem horribly derivative.
“I have had,” Hands says, “far too many disappointments in my career thus far.”
Disappointment comes up a lot in a discussion with Jeffrey Hands. It is not the disappointment of someone who never got a sniff at success, but of someone who has come close again and again.
Like many sane people, Hands loathed high school. He isn’t the type to fit into a clique. On Saturday nights, when the cool kids went partying, he stayed home and absorbed the lessons of comedy from Saturday Night Live.
“It was kind of tragic,” Hands observes of his life then. He does tend to be hard on himself.
But he leapt the fence of adolescence’s intellectual prison by creating his own world, inside short films he made. In this larval phase of his career, luck would be on his side. His first shorts, Double Daniel and The Cutaway, both of them privately financed, won awards and were broadcast on Nickelodeon, CBC, Family Channel and YTV. In 1989, the Toronto Star published a profile of Hands under the headline “Move over, Spielberg, for Jeff, 17.”
Hands went to film school at New York University, and had a dream come true when he was an intern on Saturday Night Live, during the 1991-92 season. At SNL he bonded with Jack Handey, one of the writers. “His pieces were by far the strangest and most subversive,” Hands says. Examples: Toonces the Driving Cat, Unfro- zen Caveman Lawyer and Deep Thoughts (such as “The crows seemed to be calling his name, thought Caw”).
While Handey, Adam Sandler and Hands’s idol, Phil Hartman, were friendly, for the most part Hands, being an intern, was treated as a nonentity by the show’s eminences. He was in an elevator once with Lorne Michaels, SNL’s executive producer, and star Mike Myers while they conducted a terse argument; they acted like Hands wasn’t even there.
“They didn’t even care because interns don’t count as people,” he recalls, “but the interns get to see everything, and they’re the only ones that get to see everything.”
It was a lesson that would stick with him.
Hands was still at NYU when one of his high-school films premiered in Canada, landing him a guest spot on The Dini Petty Show. Backstage hemet Jonathan Katz, co-writer of the 1987 movie House of Games with playwright David Mamet and creator of the late-’90s Comedy Central series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.
“He was a boy wonder and I was a working comedian,” Katz said via e-mail. “We wrote a really funny screenplay called The Great Canadian Ape, which no one has had the good sense to produce yet.”
Katz added, “Jeffrey created a superb TV show called Almost Entertainment and like many superb TV shows it has not yet found a broadcaster smart enough to air it. He has come close but still ...
“We remain friends and often collaborate on smallish projects. Smallish is not really a word by the way.”
Hands and Katz came up with Ape in 1993, a mockumentary done in Hinterland Who’s Who style. Katz and Hands wrote a first draft and Katz forwarded it toMamet.
“And to my absolute astonishment,” Hands says, Mamet “thought it might be fun for him to direct.”
As Hands recounts what happened next he shakes his head (sometimes he will also rub his brow, as if to ease the pain). He made the rounds of Canadian funding agencies and production com- panies to get the money required to make the film. He lost a lot of time convincing them he wasn’t making up the part about Mamet being interested in directing it. As time passed, Mamet moved on to other projects, such as Wag the Dog and State andMain, that had a broadly similar tone toCanadianApe.
“My first truly painful disappointment,” Hands summarizes.
His next one was the pilot for a 1995 version of Almost Entertainment. It shares a title with the 2004 version, and a few cast members, but is a sketch-comedy show rather than a depiction of life backstage at such a show. Again, he shopped it around, but nobody bit. Although it has its moments, and resolutely adheres to Canadian topics, it is a bit rough around the edges.
He worked part-time in a video store, did freelance directing, writing and editing, began some documentary projects, and kept plugging away on his ideas.
One was a short that parodied those DVDs showing a toasty fire that allegedly create livingroom ambience. His take on it was a “making-of” film in which the director discusses how he got each shot. Fireplace: Redux ran at Just for Laughs in Montreal and the Rooftop Film Festival in Brooklyn.
And then came the latest Almost Entertainment, which he conceived before 30 Rock was even a pebble. Hands directed the pilot and co-wrote it with Doug Murray, who also acts in it. Almost focuses not on the stars or producers of the sketch-comedy show but on three of the interns: Katie, smart, humble and prone to migraines; Zack, a filmschool grad and self-professed “ideas guy” whose main idea is to suck up; andMaria, loud, desperate and not very funny.
Hands borrows liberally from his experiences. There’s an elevator scene that parallels his with Michaels andMyers, and the Fireplace making-of is resurrected.
The actors worked for free, Hands says, because they liked the script. Perhaps the most recognizable is Maria Thayer, who was on the cast of Strangers With Candy and has been a guest star on Law & Order: Criminal Intent andWill & Grace.
Thayer plays Maria, who’s idea for the Larry David piece is immediately stolen by one of the show’s writers. The sketch has David— besides conveying his view on hallway stop-and-chats — accusing the principal of being an anti-Semite and arguing with the cafeteria lady over “this whole milkandmeat thing.”
Once again, Hands shopped his show around to broadcasters and money agencies, with no success. Why didn’t they go for it? It’s because, Hands says, there are a very small number of people making these decisions, and they’re not especially adventurous. He finds it ironic that CTV, “the one place that wouldn’t even screen the pilot” of Almost Entertainment, is now forking over big dollars for two similar American shows.
“This small group has been making decisions for years and the people in this group are basically playing musical chairs.”
Almost did attract interest from Steve Coogan, star of the BBC series I’m Alan Partridge, but as with Mamet, the moment passed because funding couldn’t be found at the Canadian end.
At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Hands met with two Spanish production companies interested in raising 60% of the money to film his Great Canadian Ape screenplay, although they would make the ape Spanish. But having found no partners in Canada, they’re now looking in Europe.
With the exception of his work on Ape, Hands has given up writing and directing feature films or television projects. He’s devoting himself to the documentaries he started years ago and is creating original content for theWeb.
If he’s learned one thing in all this, it’s something David Cronenberg told him when he was starting out: Don’t work with assholes. He has a cadre of friends he brings into his projects whenever he can.
“I guess the key word in this story is ALMOST,” Hands wrote in an e-mail after our interview. “ALMOST Entertainment 1995 & 2004, ALMOST made a film with Mamet, ALMOST made a TV series with Steve Coogan, etc.”
But Len Blum, a Montrealer whose screenwriting credits include Private Parts and Over the Hedge, believes Hands’ day will come. “I think it’s just a matter of time before some clever producer realizes how talented he is and really makes full use of his uncanny ability to sense where the world of comedy is going to go.”
To see a trailer of Hands’s parallel to 30 Rock, visit www.almostaseries.com.