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

National Post (National Edition) - - Arts & Life - ROB MCKEN­ZIE On Television

“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.

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