My cousin Kevin Fergus got all the way to Hollywood with an idea for a game show. He was a mathematics grad student at a big school in the Midwest, and an agent flew him out and he got to make the rounds of the production companies in Hollywood that were looking to make game shows. I've always found this impressive. Kevin had been on the mountain, so to speak.
How did he know the agent? The link appears to have been his roommate's brother's fraternity, a Jewish fraternity. Kevin and the brother are half-Jewish, but whatever. The brother was dating a girl whose cousin was an agent in Hollywood. Specializing in syndicated daytime, but an agent, somebody talking about points and putting people on hold and taking calls. He even drove a Porsche, not too old.
So, the way it all happened. The brother and his girlfriend dropped by Kevin's apartment. The place was big and Kevin and the girlfriend liked playing darts. Not drunken darts, just darts, and everyone kept score. It was fun, actually. I visited a couple of times and we had a dart tourney that lasted a few hours.
During it all, everybody's talking and Kevin says he has an idea for a game show. He doesn't know about the girl's cousin, of course. It's just that, when you're playing darts for hours, different subjects come up. They're a bunch of college and post-college kids showing each other a good time, being clever and shooting off their mouths.
The idea: a trail of prizes leading through movable flats. The contestants walk among the flats, point at one flat or another. Flat rolls aside and maybe there's a prize—something big like a refrigerator, something small and chintzy like a new remote, something small and deluxe like an expensive ring. Or there's a lemon and you spent your turn for nothing.
Each prize has an official dollar value announced by the show. The contestants work their way through the flats, and the one with the higher dollar value gets a shot at the big lucky draw, the top thing.
Now, along the way, each time a flat rolls aside and there's a prize, you have to answer a question. The host steps up with his card, and let's say the prize is a Buick Regal from Detroit, “and under what name does Detroit set platters spinning?” Get the question wrong, and the buzzer goes off and you're down a point. Down three points and you're out of the game. You go home with what you've won so far.
The final touch is this. When you're standing in front of a prize, deciding whether to go for it or pass, you have to remember that the question could be a do-or-die. That's special. Get that kind wrong and you're out. No prizes, nothing. You just go home.
But you don't know if it's do-or-die until you answer the question. If you flub a question and you get a buzzer, you're relatively okay. But maybe you'll flub it and get the special buzzer, the buzzer of doom: amplified, reinforced with a clanging bell, something. A really monstrous buzzer that tells you, forget it, no prizes, just get out of here.
Either way, the monstrous buzzer or the three regular buzzers, get either of those and the other contestant wins. That person then goes into double or nothing, and again with the buzzers. So there's the game. Kevin called it “Buzzer,” naturally.
The brother's girlfriend liked it. She graduated school, she flew off to California to study tax law, she met her cousin the agent, and she told him the idea. He sat up. “That would work,” he said. “That one holds together.” They'd been talking about possible game show formats as a joke, and “Buzzer” had come back to her.
“It's by this guy,” she said and she put her cousin in touch with her ex-, the brother. Monday evening Kevin comes back from his TA office, there's a message from the agent: Call me, I'm in Hollywood, I think we can make your show.
Next school break, Kevin is flying out there. The agent meets him at the airport. The agent isn't quite a kid. He's a few years older or younger than Kevin, and you notice he's young to be wearing a suit. He gives Kevin's hand a big shake. “I wanted to look you over,” the agent says, big smile.
They drive in together and Kevin stays at the Four Seasons, paid by the agency. He wakes up before his alarm call. He's ready when the car picks him up and drives him to the agency.
A girl ushers him into an office. By now Kevin is starting to feel funny about his sneakers and windbreaker. She shimmies out and a moment later the young agent shimmies in. “Hey, partner,” he says, going right behind his desk. He reaches across and they shake.
“There are five big boxes,” the agent says, sitting down. “We hit those boxes,” the agent says, “and we've done the circuit. Those are the rounds we have to make.”
“'Boxes' as in.,” Kevin said.
“Those are the stores,” the agent said. “These five shops make game shows involving physically sizable, big-ticket, expensive prize items. And participants range across the stage instead of podiums, having podiums. Only five houses make that kind of show. All right? You're swinging for the top.”
Kevin laughed. “Come on,” he said. “Oh yeah,” the agent said. “Stage and prizes demand a big dollar investment. So nobody but the top. That's the kind of idea you had. I mean, I'd also like to talk about others. Take the range of your thinking.”
Kevin felt like he was getting into unexpected territory. “It was a goof,” he said.
The agent slapped his desk and sat up straight. “Goofs sometimes work out,” he said. “Okay, so that's our agenda: sell 'Buzzer,' let the other ideas build a while. Right now the five shops. Something I have to ask: Do you take an interest in how you look?” And he gave Kevin a two-hour talk on selling, on body language and what you did with your eyes. While doing this he took Kevin to stores along Wilshire; the girl came along so somebody could handle the credit card.
“Okay,” the agent said after the last store. “Wear those tonight, and tomorrow the Levis and the stonewashed turquoise. Attica, mark those.” The girl, indifferent, jotted something down.
The next day Kevin put on his assigned clothes (Attica or somebody had put tags on them) and the agent picked him up. They hit two of the big five. The next day they hit one. The third day they hit two, and Kevin thought they were done. He wondered why nobody had said yes. Then again, nobody had said no.
“Yeah,” the agent said. “That's the crazy thing. These five houses? One cannot make a decision unless another does. I call them the committee. The chain gang. One moves, then the other moves. But nobody's going to be first.”
“You mean one wants it, the others want it?”
“No,” the agent said. “One wants it, this other one over here does not. But this third one there does, and the fourth one looks at the third one, and around we go.
Kind of crisscross. They throw out their signals and we wait for the static to clear.”
“So there's more? There's more that we have to do?”
“First time around is the start,” his agent said. “Now second time around as they think it over.”
They visited the shops again. The Four Seasons bill had to be tremendous. Kevin was starting to think about the new semester and when that started. This time around he remembered faces and decor from the first. The bald producer with the fluffy white beard and bodybuilder arms under his black turtleneck. The British couple looking negligently at their clipboard notes as they reviewed his show's format. The tall skinny fellow with the Adam's apple and the Brooklyn accent, wearing a perfectly ironed Replacements t-shirt. The bustling man who looked like somebody's underarm. The peanut butter skin, like the baseball mitt of a Little Leaguer, of the white-haired ex-Western star who had Edgar Cayce books about health and Atlantis on the shelf near his flagstone coffee table. The flagstone coffee table. The flagstone-and-brass sculpture fixed to the office's wall, and how much it must have cost to stick the thing there without its falling down. The Thai caladium plant in the office of the British couple. The big wallboard with its squares filled up by Magic Marker in the office of the skinny Brooklyn man. The way the man with the fluffy beard and black turtleneck steepled his fingers and canted his head forward to indicate attention being paid.
Kevin talked up his idea, with the agent to kick things off and wrap them up. The producers had to hear the idea from Kevin: The agent had been clear about that. He said that otherwise it didn't seem real to them. Kevin was proud of how he managed. It was all a bit more than he had bargained for, but most times he got through without a break in his voice. He joked with the man in the British couple, who turned out to have a “maths” degree. He found he could even like the way the snowy-bearded man inclined forward. It was endearing.
The second round was done. Kevin and his agent sat in a coffee place near the boulevard, their habit after a day pitching. Kevin looked along the crease of his trousers, sharper than anything that had ever been there before, and out at the violet shadows being stretched along the street as the sun faded. Traffic noise came in, nothing big. He felt peaceful.
His agent fidgeted with his device, put it down. “You did pretty well there,” the agent said. “Don't have a lot of pointers this time.”
“Yeah. I think great too. Easier when both wings know how to fly, right?”
“Got to be,” Kevin said, making no big deal of it. But the agent's words stuck with him. Learning to fly. There were two breeds of being, as it turned out, and maybe he was in the right kind. If he could walk into an office and talk people into giving him money for an idea, a notion, and they gave him as much as the agent said, and then Kevin would be living a new kind of life. Even if he went back to school, he'd be doing it as a millionaire idea man. And before he hadn't even thought there were two breeds, never been clued into it.
Kevin looked at the agent, who had his head tilted on one side as he called the office. He liked his agent.
The next day came. They started their rounds, third time. Now a decision would emerge. “It's bleak,” said the man in the Replacements t-shirt (now Bad Brains), wagging his head on one side and crinkling his eyes with a squeezed-looking smile. “You know? I find that, basically, the situation, it comes down, way too much, to a, a...” His hands, angled down at the wrist, shoved toward each other like scoops butting. “Confinement,” he said.
Kevin lifted his chin and opened his mouth preparatory to speaking. Then he realized he didn't know what to say. So far he'd just explained the idea and explained it again. He hadn't been called on to modify it, that was a lateral move.
“People love those sounds,” his agent said. “The buzzer, the alarm. This is a high-energy situation.”
The Brooklyn man wagged his head again, and his smile got more squeezed. He looked like the corner of his mouth wanted to fish something small and irritating out of his ear. “Ehh,” he said.
In the car Kevin realized he could have said the contestant wasn't trapped, the contestant stepped up. With the British couple, the wife leaned forward, gray eyes troubled. She was early 40s, no makeup, arms and throat bare because of her sundress. “Oh my Lord,” she said. “Bleak. How do you manage?”
“One acclimates, I think,” said her husband, over by his desk. He had one knee across the other and was looking at his clipboard, frowning. He didn't bother to look up. Kevin's talk about the contestant didn't leave his throat. “Now what troubles me,” said the snowy-bearded man when they saw him. “What I wonder about is this underlying attitude I find. Where there's—amnff.” He made a blocky sideways motion with his hand, as if flattening something. “No give,” he said. “The situation these people are in, that we're putting them in, you're putting them in.”
“They can step up,” Kevin said, the words coming out smaller in volume than he expected. The bearded man continued. “I don't see bleakness as entertainment,” he said. The man who looked like an underarm raised both arms high as he hurried past Kevin and his agent. This was at the man's office. They were standing by his receptionist, by her desk, and they had an appointment. The small, hairy man passed at top speed. He cursed. He did so distinctly: “Motherfuckers,” he said. It might have been about them, or anything, but that was all they got.
“Thanks, Cam,” Kevin's agent said, loud and ironic. “We'll do business.” Then he looked at Kevin, once. The agent nodded to himself. “All right,” he said. “We'll see Walt.” That was the ex̶-cowboy star, the last producer. The agent didn't say anything on the way over. The cowboy star served them espressos. He sat them both down by his flagstone coffee table, and he sipped his espresso with a womanish concentration about his lips; he was high-throated and a network of tiny white seams sat in his orange skin. “Boys,” the star said. “I'm afraid the answer is no.”
He looked at them, frosty eyebrows high, and the agent leaned forward.
“You're a straight shooter, Walt,” the agent said. “Thanks for giving that straight answer.” The cowboy star smiled, gratified. Kevin realized that neither the agent nor the cowboy star was looking in his direction anymore. “I don't think people care, really, for programs of that sort of an attitude,” the cowboy star said just before they left. The agent drove. “Any simple-format ideas?” he asked when they hit a light. “Podium shows?” Kevin looked out the window. He realized he had thought about game shows just once in his life, when he thought of “Buzzer.”
They reached the Four Seasons and Kevin got out. Making a sudden decision, the agent climbed from behind the wheel. He stuck his hand out and they shook. “Kevin,” he said. “Thanks for giving it a shot.”
The next day Kevin checked out and flew home. He'd missed the first week and a half of classes, and the department was pissed because of his TA duties, but he picked up again. A year or so later he had his doctorate.
I've heard him tell his Hollywood story four times. It's changed; what I have here is the first version, plus incidental details from later ones. I trust the first version the most. Back then he just wanted the whole thing off his chest; when he told the story, it was like a debriefing of his bizarre experience so he could get back to normal. The later versions are different. They stress how detached and blasé he was, and how well he did at the pitches. The stuff about the two breeds and looking over and liking his agent—all gone. The third time I heard Kevin tell the story, I remember noticing how he paused and pulled his mouth out of shape. He was considering something. A moment later he dropped a mention of his strong eye contact when pitching to the British couple.
The story's fourth time around was really just this. Somebody's acquaintance asked about the story. “Yeah,” Kevin said. “I went out to California and I saw a lot of desks.” That's the last I've ever heard him say about the matter. He's teaching at a state college in New York, which is pretty much what he'd always meant to do, but my mother says he generally seems to feel down.