AL­MOST FA­MOUS

FromMamet to Fey, Jef­fHands has seen his ideas find suc­cess with a grand list of other peo­ple

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ARTS & LIFE - ROB MCKEN­ZIE On Te le­vi­sion

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.

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