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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Sunday 30th May 2004

My Novel is Overtaken By Events

When I told my friend Cosmo Landesman--an American film critic--that I was setting off to Los Angeles to write a satirical novel about the movie business he told me I was wasting my time.

"It doesn't matter how imaginative you are, those crazy bastards will always go one better," he said. "Plenty of writers have tried it--better writers than you, I might add--and they've all failed. Hollywood is satire-proof."

Aha, I thought. That may apply to all those other losers, but my idea is so diabolically clever I'm bound to succeed. In my novel, which is set about 10 years in the future, the American public turns on the celebrity class when a link is discovered between a coterie of Hollywood liberals and various Islamic Fundamentalist terrorist groups. Before long, no celebrity can appear in public without provoking a full-scale riot. The title of this masterwork is Starmageddon.

Ingenious, right? I mean, there's no way that could actually happen.

How naïve can a man be?

I was walking past a newsstand on Monday when I spotted it. There it was, in black and white, on the front page of this week's National Enquirer: "Government Investigation: Celebs Donating Cash To Terrorists."

With trembling fingers I forked over $2.99 and turned to the story. Sure enough, fiction had once again been trumped by reality. According to the article, a government task force that includes the FBI, CIA, Justice Department, IRS and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives is investigating over a dozen celebrities who have given money to charities that are suspected of channelling funds to terrorists.

Among the celebrities named in the piece as possible suspects--though this is pure speculation on the Enquirer's part--are Michael Moore, Jessica Lange, Sean Penn, Barbra Striesand, Woody Harrelson, Martin Sheen, George Clooney, Jim Carrey and Richard Dreyfuss.

"Now the key issue investigators are focusing on is whether the celebrities knew where their contributions were going--or were they unwitting do-gooders who were duped by innocent-sounding charities?" said the Enquirer's inside source.

"If they knew they were contributing to terrorism--and that becomes public knowledge--their careers will be destroyed. They'll be the ultimate pariahs, not only in Hollywood but in the entire country."

Oh well. I can't say I wasn't warned. I'm either going to have to abandon my novel altogether or come up with an even more outlandish scenario.

Sitcom Blues

Any day now, I expect to see a homeless man on the street with a sign around his neck saying, "Will Write Jokes For Food."

The American television networks have just announced their autumn line-ups and it's bad news for comedy writers. Situation comedies, once the tent poles of prime time programming, are all set to disappear. NBC, which has seen both Friends and Frasier come to an end this year, will soon have only four sitcoms on the air, its lowest number since 1980. Compare that to the mid-90s when it had no fewer than 16.

"In the comedy writers' community, it's pure panic," said Sue Naegle, one of the heads of the television department for United Talent Agency, which employs scores of comedy writers and performers. She predicted that about 150 comedy writers would soon be out of work.

One of the reasons the networks' have commissioned so few new sitcoms this autumn is the soaring popularity of reality shows--and reality shows are a bargain compared to sitcoms. A single scripted programme costs an average of between $850,000 and $1.2 million, whereas an episode of a reality show can cost as little as $500,000.

However, a broader cultural trend may also be detectable. According to the New York Times, younger viewers just seem to be bored with the whole conceit of four-to-six characters sitting around a sofa on a Hollywood sound stage trading one-liners about each other's sex lives.

"There's a whole generation now that has been weaned on all kinds of different comedy," said Doug Herzog, president of the Comedy Central cable channel. "For young people it plays like television for Mom and Dad. It's like black-and-white movies for them."

Schwarzenegger's Souvenirs

Schwarzenegger may not be able to rescue the California economy as quickly as he did the whole of mankind in The Terminator films, but he's certainly done wonders for the souvenir trade. Since he became Governor, the gift shop in the basement of the state Capitol in Sacramento has been doing a roaring trade in Ah-nuld action figures.

The best-selling toy to date has been one depicting the former bodybuilder in a business suit and toting a machine gun, but that may be about to change. A Florida-based manufacturer of novelty toys has just announced a new addition to a popular line of mouse figures: the Mousinator. This six-inch rodent holds a barbell in one hand and a cigar in the other and belts out a rendition of 'California, Here I Come' in an Austrian accent.

I think I've solved the problem of what to get my daughter for her first birthday.

Day After Tomorrow

Europeans tend to think of the United States as a monolithic superpower, but the reality is more complex. It's like a saloon full of bad-tempered old cowpokes who are constantly breaking chairs over each other's heads. Whatever antipathy they feel towards their common enemies pales in comparison to the passionate hatred they feel for their fellow countrymen.

For instance, the freewheeling, laid-back residents of Hollywood detest the arrogant, uptight denizens of New York--which might explain why they're constantly making films in which Manhattan is destroyed.

This week sees the release of Day After Tomorrrow in which virtually the whole of the East Coast is engulfed by a huge tidal wave before freezing over. This is the third time the director, Roland Emmerich, has laid waste to New York, having previously made Independence Day and Godzilla.

As someone who spent five years trying--and failing--to take Manhattan, I can't wait to see it.

Overheard in the Supermarket

I overheard a typical Californian conversation between a woman in my local supermarket and the man behind the fish counter last week.

Woman: I just want to say I fully support this store's policy of not selling farmed fish.

Man: Actually, I think the fresh-water salmon is farmed.

Woman: Oh. [Pause.] Well, if it's a fresh-water farm, I guess that's okay.

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