Dreamers of the Golden Dream

Liz Tigelaar, showrunner on the Hulu comedy Casual, knew she wanted to work in television at a young age. Obsessed with sudsy serials like Days of Our Lives while growing up in Connecticut, she harbored fantasies of someday writing for television. And so when she learned of TV internships in Los Angeles while majoring in television and radio at Ithaca College in the mid-1990s, she jumped at the opportunity to study the medium up close—and get a taste of Hollywood.

As with so many, the path to industry success did not travel a straight line. After landing at LAX, Tigelaar hopped into her cheap rental car and cruised up the 405 to her new home, a Burbank housing complex carved into a hill off Barham Boulevard called the Oakwood Apartments. “Home to the Famous, and Almost Famous,” read the sign at the front gate. Tigelaar recalls the nearly 1,200 units in the complex housed divorced fathers, the families of child actors and the drunk college kids she would soon call her peers. She shared a bedroom with a friendly girl from back east, while the young lady in the other bedroom had chosen a motif that psychologists would have a field day with: dozens of penis pictures, cut out from magazines, covered the bed’s headboard.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m living in Los Angeles with Penis Girl!’” Tigelaar remembers with a laugh.

Her westward gamble is the type that stokes the dreams of countless young hopefuls. A veteran of several prominent network shows over the years, including Dawson’s Creek, Brothers & Sisters and Nashville, Tigelaar runs the production on Casual, which was nominated for a best comedy Golden Globe last January. Working in television was a lifelong dream, and Los Angeles was where the fantasy had a fighting chance to become reality. In 1998, she left her friends and family for the great, sunny, smoggy unknown on the other side of the country.

“My friends were backpacking in Europe and I made myself come out here,” Tigelaar says. “I’m so happy I did it.”

Boom Time

Los Angeles has had plenty of ups and downs over the years, but the city by many measures is now enjoying a boom. Its restaurant scene is among the tops in the nation; tech firms have turned once-seedy Venice into Silicon Beach; housing prices are nearing New York’s otherworldly levels; and construction cranes hover above the revitalized downtown like giant robotic marauders, indicating the outsized bet many are placing on the city’s future. “No city in the country is more exciting than Los Angeles right now,” gushed The New York Times in July.

California’s history as a sun-splashed magnet for dreamers, charlatans and those in search of a better life has long been intertwined with that of Hollywood. In 1920, as movies were getting ready to talk, the state’s population was just 3.4 million. More Americans lived in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio. In the decades that followed, the global explosion of movies and, in time, television, sent the state’s population exploding to its current level of 38.8 million, by far the highest of any state.

As Lew Wasserman and other moguls discovered when TV took off in the 1950s, the small screen was the town’s economic locomotive, providing a sense of stability compared with the wildly unpredictable movie business. A single hit series could keep networks and stations humming; agencies quickly learned that by packaging a show they could reap huge sums from clients on both sides of the camera.

TV has hit new heights in recent years in terms of both prestige and volume. Billboards towering over the city’s main thoroughfares once mostly touted blockbuster films, but now the bulk of them promote buzzy shows such as Netflix’s Narcos, HBO’s Westworld and NBC’s This Is Us. The age of peak TV, with an estimated 450 scripted original programs on the air, and no burst of the bubble in sight, has sparked a gaping need for people to staff the shows. Waves of emigrees raised on TV are hitting town, dreaming of showbiz glory.

It’s difficult to put a specific number on those working in television, as trade organizations tend to lump TV and movies in together. But the blended numbers are on the rise. FilmLA says there were 125,050 people employed in film and television in L.A. County in 2015, up substantially from 2014’s 118,354, and the highest number since 2008. “Most of this growth will be from all the scripted TV in town,” says Adrian Mc- Donald, research analyst at FilmLA.

FilmLA also recorded 4,091 TV shoot days in greater Los Angeles in the second quarter of 2016, up 1.4% over the previous year’s second quarter. “Web-based TV,” representing Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, among others, accounted for much of the increase, the category up 20.6% in the quarter. Fully 89% more pilots were shot in the second quarter.

It stands to reason that a larger number of recent college grads are making the move. A decade ago, the University of Notre Dame started a dedicated television major (prior to that, film majors had a handful of TV classes to choose from). Amidst television’s elevated prestige, Christine Becker, Notre Dame associate professor of film and television, says the program now has more TV majors than film ones. “Students all over the world today have a closer view on how the industry works thanks to online access to the trades and TV criticism, as well as writers, producers and directors sharing information about their work via DVD extras and social media,” she says. “These things make working in the industry seem like more of an attainable goal for students.”

Yet the Hollywood influx is even more notable in that, in an era when an aspiring auteur can film, edit and share their work with the world from a musty basement in Topeka, they continue to come to Los Angeles. And while Atlanta and New York and Vancouver report giant gains in television production, people continue to come to Los Angeles.

The Move

Everyone in the business has a story about how they got to Hollywood, how long they suffered, and how their first big break happened. Some headed west with dreams other than television. Famed TV producer Norman Lear bolted his Connecticut life to work in PR. He had an uncle who was a press agent, and who upon seeing young Norman, would flick the kid a quarter. With his own father in prison and the Great Depression gripping the nation, the shiny quarter impacted Lear.

“I wanted to grow up to be someone who could flick a quarter to a kid,” says Lear, executive producer on the new Epix docu-series America Divided.

While selling home furnishings door to door, Lear and a relative wrote gags for comedians, and a showbiz career slowly developed.

Many in television went to pursue musical ambitions. Uber-producer Chuck Lorre left Long Island in the ‘70s with dreams of being a songwriter and guitarist, and quickly learned how cutthroat that scene was. Lorre was selling chintzy radios door to door in office buildings in the early ’80s when he stumbled upon the office of animation outfit DIC Entertainment, where he talked his way into writing a script for Heathcliff, an episode he called “An Officer and an Alley Cat.”

“My dream had quickly turned into a nightmare, and I could no longer put protein in front of my children,” Lorre tells B&C. “So I put my head down and tried to make the transition to television.”

Others headed west not so much with dreams of life in Los Angeles, but because their hands were more or less forced. Sarah Treem, showrunner on Showtime’s The Affair, met the man of her dreams while writing for the first season of House of Cards in a Venice loft. His name was Jay Carson; he was the former press secretary for Hillary Clinton. Best friends with House creator Beau Willimon, Carson was consulting on the Netflix show.

A playwright out of Yale, Treem had no plans of staying in Los Angeles. But when she learned she and Carson had a baby coming, plans changed. “I tell people, don’t date in a city you don’t intend to live in,” Treem says with a laugh. “If you don’t want to move to a city, don’t date there.”

Another Ivy-educated playwright with a blasé attitude about cross-country moves, Mindy Kaling, star of The Mindy Project on Hulu, garnered substantial buzz with her 2002 show Matt & Ben. A spoof about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the (way) Off-Broadway play caught the eye of Greg Daniels, showrunner on The Office. (Years before, Daniels himself had moved to L.A. with Harvard pal Conan O’Brien.) He offered Kaling a writing job on his show.

“I didn’t want to go to L.A., but it felt like the only place to make an impact for what I wanted to do, which was write for television,” Kaling says. “There are jobs in New York, but they’re so few. So L.A. was kind of the only reasonable place to go.”

The Struggle

There’s a Hollywood adage that it takes six months or six years to make it—though those still turning up at auditions while hustling restaurant tables or driving a cab decades after arriving in California would gladly take the six years. Misery followed Kaling to Los Angeles, though not for long. “It was me watching Chappelle’sShow, alone, in my Hollywood studio apartment,” she says. “It was a pretty grim first couple months.”

Grim may be too mild a word to describe the angst and uncertainty that can descend on aspiring TV pros navigating Los Angeles, which novelist John Rechy memorably described as “a place you can rot without feeling it.” Alienation creeps in when you’re new in town and driving 20 miles to a meeting, wishing you had a friend to ride in the carpool lane with, waiting for a call back from an agent, and all the while noticing the disorienting lack of any seasonal weather shifts. L.A. has built a subway system that now spans downtown to the Pacific Ocean, but the sprawl of freeways and six-lane avenues, usually driven alone, still define the experience of living there.

Kaling faced the challenging times by drawing inspiration from her parents, who’d earlier moved from India to Nigeria, and then to the States. “That gave me a sense of, A., fearlessness, and B., don’t complain,” Kaling says.

Liz Tigelaar, for her part, is still living down The Golf Cart Incident. She’d landed an internship at The Leeza Gibbons Show, where she was frequently mistaken for another intern named Lynn. It was a Soap Opera Spectacular stunt on Leeza, and Tigelaar had a dream assignment: driving Days of Our Lives star Robert Kelker-Kelly, who played hunky detective Bo Brady, from the show’s set to the commissary for lunch with a lucky fan in a golf cart, the cameras rolling. She dutifully picked up the cart early and, eager to set her work apart from the intern Lynn, bustled about taking care of other menial tasks.

When she returned to the cart a short while later, moments before taping, security had outfitted its wheel with a lock. Kelker-Kelly, trailed by a live camera crew, exited the Gibbons set to find an immobile golf cart and a mortified intern.

“The stage manager said, you’ll never go anywhere in this business,” Tigelaar recalls with a laugh still tinged with anxiety years later. “I called my mom on a pay phone, crying. I wanted to drive home—in the golf cart.”

The Break

But TV’s luminaries all caught a break at some point. Lorre’s talent was evident in those early Heathcliff scripts, and he was hired full time. “[DIC founder] Jean Chalopin believed in me early on and made me feel that I could actually do this,” says Lorre. “I saw television as an incredible opportunity to communicate to a lot of people. If I did it right, I could conceivably make millions of people laugh.”

Another producing megatalent, Greg Berlanti, was banging away at screenplays when an independent film he’d written and directed, The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy, got a wisp of attention. His coproducer was Julie Plec, a college pal who was fairly well connected in television at the time. She put Berlanti in touch with producer Kevin Williamson, and got him in the door at Dawson’s Creek. “I didn’t know I wanted to work in television,” says Berlanti. “I did know I wanted to write for a living.”

Besides Plec and Berlanti, the Dawson’s Creek writers room at the time included Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City), Mike White (Enlightened) and, yes, Liz Tigelaar. Scoring an internship there, she rented a VCR at Oakwood Apartments, and caught up on Dawson’s VHS tapes while lying in her Murphy bed. “I missed home,” she says. “I missed my friends.”

But Tigelaar parlayed the internship to a writer’s assistant job, and then to assistant to star producer Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life, thirtysomething) at ABC drama Once and Again. The young writer learned the craft and made connections, and Holzman later honored her protégé by naming the scarecrow in her Broadway smash Wicked “Fiyero Tigelaar.”

Until Atlanta or New York suddenly leapfrogs Los Angeles as the center of the television universe, and until film studios break out of their rut and turn Hollywood back into a film town, young hopefuls will continue to turn up in sunny Southern California with hopes of being the next Norman Lear, or Greg Berlanti, or Liz Tigelaar.

Returning with B&C to the Oakwood Apartments for the first time since 1998—it’s Toluca Hills Apartments now—the visit brings back memories of a lonely yet ambitious girl making her way in Hollywood. Tigelaar is married with a 16-month-old boy now, and her first roommate, Jennifer Euston, is an Emmy-winning casting director. Tigelaar sits overlooking the pool as the memories flood in—of Sunday morning donuts in the Oakwood common room, of Penis Girl and the Golf Cart Incident, of those television industry dreams.

Once in a while, dreams do come true. “I thought that maybe I could write something that could someday end up on television,” she says. “I actually thought that might take me the rest of my life.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.