Creating The Winner
How a once penniless Canadian conquered his video poker gambling addiction and came up with this season’s most-hyped TV show
“As long as I didn’t try, I still had my dream.”
— Ricky Blitt
On lunch breaks he would walk to the Eaton Centre, read The Hollywood Reporter and dream of being a writer in Los Angeles rather than the telemarketer he was in Toronto.
He had taken runs at the big time before but things always fell apart. So now he debated whether to try again. What’s the point of not even trying, he thought — but what if they rejected him, how could he bear that? He was good at internal debates. Obsessivecompulsive disorder does that to you.
He was living in a rooming house and going nowhere. He hadn’t hit bottom; that would take several more years.
Yet this weekend, a heavily promoted sitcom called The Winner, starring former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry, debuts on Fox. Ricky Blitt created it. He tamed his OCD and an attendant problem with video poker in Las Vegas. He surpassed his lack of co-ordination (can’t drive, has trouble with can openers) and modest looks (a shorter George Costanza with a hairstyle he himself calls a “Jewfro”). He has gone from a rooming house in Toronto to a swank home in the Hollywood Hills. He counts very creative people, among them Seth MacFarlane and Peter Farrelly, as his friends. Ricky has always had loyal friends. He grew up in Côte St. Luc, a Jewish part of Montreal. “Certainly we didn’t have any problems with him,” says his mother, Irene. “He was a good student. He had good friends. … He’s a good kid. He’s not a kid anymore, but he’s very interesting, always had a good sense of humour, maybe a bit dry. Their father has a very good sense of humour.” Ron Blitt is also a big sports fan, like his sons, and wrote an article on hockey’s Hull family that the Montreal Gazette published in 2000.
Ricky and his older brother, Barry, put together a homemade magazine about hockey. They would hang around the lobby of the downtown Sheraton to meet players from visiting teams. The Pittsburgh Penguins were especially friendly.
“Ricky and I became crazy Penguin fans,” Barry says in an e-mail. “We’d go see them get shellacked by the Canadiens at the Forum, and we were always the only fools cheering for them there. Much later, we took a trip to Pittsburgh to see a game surrounded by our own kind, which Ricky said felt like he was ‘in Israel.’ ”
After high school Ricky enrolled at McGill University. By his own estimation, studies in his chosen field of English communications “didn’t qualify you to do anything.” But in his final year he signed up for an eight-person directing class. He wrote and directed a play called Test is a Four-Letter Word, and he heard people laugh.
That sounded sweet, so he kept writing.
He was still at McGill when he sold his first scripts to CBC for the sitcom Hangin’ In. He studied at the prestigious American Film Institute in Los Angeles, but returned homeafter he put his arm through a window and severed a nerve. He impressed up-and-comers Andrew Nicholls and Darrell Vickers with a script he sent them. They wanted to hire Ricky for the CTV comedy Check It Out, where they were story editors, but their bosses said no. He had a stint at a U.S. game show called WordPlay, but it was promptly cancelled.
His career had dried up. By the late ’80s he was working at Market Facts as a telephone interviewer. He was living in a rooming house in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood when, through his friend Josh Morris, he met Carolyn Bennett, a comedian and writer. Carolyn recalls Josh saying to her: “‘Is it okay if you meet this guy? He’s a little off, just bear with him.’ The moment I met him I thought I liked him more than the guy I was dating.
“He would be self-deprecating and I would be self-loathing and we would try to outdo each othe,” she recalls. “I’d meet him for lunch, and he just had this haunted look, because the people in the rooming house were getting to him.”
He moved in with her. “Ricky was supposed to stay for a couple of weeks. He ended up staying for a year.”
They had a third roommate, a woman we’ll call L.
One night Carolyn came home hammered after a gig at Yuk Yuk’s. She opened the apartment door and saw Ricky with his hand on L.’s breast, “which for him was like the biggest move he’d ever made in his life. ... I felt like I’d walked in on my parents.”
She worried she’d messed up the moment. Regardless, Ricky and L. became an item. “She was like his nurse,” Carolyn says. “She was so sweet. She used to call him Richard.”
They broke up. Ricky returned to Montreal, retreating further away from Los Angeles. For about three years at the start of the ’90s he roomed with his friend Shawn Goldwater. Shawn recalls him as “this blob on my couch.”
In Ricky’s own words, that was “the extended low point” of his life — his OCD was immobilizing him. “It crippled me and it withdrew me from life for several years,” he says. “Shawn basically saved my life. When I was at rock-bottom he took me in as a roommate and paid most of the rent.” And more: Ricky would phone the Pittsburgh Penguins’ radio station and ask to be put on hold so he could listen to play-by-play of the team’s games. “Unfortunately,” Shawn notes, “he was charging it to my calling card.”
Shawn likes to drive. They took road trips to Las Vegas. Ricky was bored in Vegas, but Shawn fixed that: “One day I, growing a pair of horns, said — terrible, in retrospect — ‘Why don’t you try video poker?’ Terribly bad thing to do, the guy’s OCD. I think he lost hundreds of thousands gambling.” (Ricky has since described video poker as “satanic yoga.”)
Finally Shawn had had enough and threatened to kick Ricky to leave, for his own good. “That scared me straight,” says Ricky, whopromptlywhippedoffhisown scripts for Cheers and Seinfeld. But with nobody to pitch them to, he fell back into his slump. Finally he borrowed $5,000 from his parents and moved back to Los Angeles.
He hooked up again with Vickers and Nicholls, who were now in Hollywood. Nicholls describes Ricky’s Seinfeld script as “probably one of the funniest three scripts we read out of 800, when we were staffing The Parent ’Hood at Warner Brothers in 1994.” They helped Ricky get work on The Parent ’Hood.
This time, Ricky would stay in Hollywood. He truly found his home there when he met Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, a very popular cartoon sitcom.
Still, for several years Ricky gambled away a lot of his newfound money on video poker. Nicholls says he “apparently hadn’t caught on that if the casinos are sending a car to pick you up at the airport you’re probably losing too muchmoney.”
Ricky and Carolyn had lost touch, until one evening in 1999 she was watching Family Guy and was astounded to see Ricky’s name in the credits. She phoned Fox, got through to his voice mail and left an “If this is the same Ricky Blitt … ” message. Five minutes later he called back. “He’s genuinely gifted and quite a sweet guy,” Carolyn says. “He’s endearing as hell.”
Ricky left Family Guy to develop his scripts for other projects, including The Winner and The Ringer. The Ringer is about a man who pretends to be handicapped in order to win at the Special Olympics. Peter and Bobby Farrelly, two of Hollywood’s leading comedy creators, produced the movie. Some critics found The Ringer repulsive. Others said they were surprised to find they liked it and that it didn’t patronize the handicapped. The organization behind the Special Olympics endorsed the movie.
Meanwhile, Ricky was trying to get The Winner made but its various incarnations, including one with him as the star, went nowhere. Finally MacFarlane championed it, and Fox bit.
Around Christmas of 2005, Shawn travelled to Los Angeles to visit Ricky. “There’s this dead palm tree in his living room,” Shawn recounts. A dead 20-foot tree. It was perfectly healthy the previous time Shawn visited. Ricky’s explanation: “Well, nobody told me it was alive so I just assumed it was plastic. “
About a year ago, Carolyn bumped into L. on the subway.
“She said, ‘How is Richard?’ And I said, ‘He’s doing really fantastic.’ She was so pleased. She was so pleased. She said, ‘I always knew Richard was talented.’ ”
Ricky Blitt, shown here in a portrait by his brother Barry, an acclaimed illustrator whose work has appeared in The New Yorker.
Celebrated illustrator Barry Blitt depicts his younger brother’s Hollywood escapades.