Sometimes I exaggerate.
When you take a meeting with Chuck Mercer there’s no question who’s in charge. His desk is larger than yours, his voice is louder than yours, his goatee is wilder than yours, and he’s been laughing at his own jokes longer than anybody else in the business. So when Wade and I sat in his office and listened to him pitch his latest pilot, we knew we’d be working for one of the heavy hitters in reality television.
He spoke with the confidence of a producer who sells bad ideas in his sleep.
“Imagine you were a nerd back in high school. You got no friends, no pussy, you’re a hopeless loser.” This was not hard for us to imagine.
“In fact, there’s this one guy, a bully, who’s always stuffing you in a trash can. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a show that let you get revenge?”
We smiled and nodded enthusiastically. We needed a job.
Chuck told us we’d be doing a hidden camera show that gives geeks the power to track down a bully, years later, and pull a prank on him. It would be Revenge of the Nerds meets Punk’d.
This was the full extent of the idea the he had sold to the network. Our job as writers would be to help develop and expand the concept, to devise a hidden camera prank for the pilot, and to write whatever dialogue was needed.
We were thrilled. Finally Wade and I would be involved in the creative process from the very beginning. We’d be creating a show from the ground up. Chuck tossed in one last detail.
“We film the pilot three weeks from today.”
We attacked the assignment with the vigor of young writers who don’t know any better. Sure, three weeks sounded like a ridiculously short amount of time to develop, write, prep, cast and shoot a pilot, but hey, what did we know?
Our first assignment was to come up with the hidden camera prank that would form the climax of the pilot. How would our Nerd get his sweet revenge? This task was especially tough because the casting process had only just begun. We had no Nerd, we didn’t know who we were “punking” or why? In short, we had no story. But there was no time to waste, so we wrote up a list of pranks anyway. Hopefully one would fit.
Chuck wasn’t too impressed with our ideas. He explained that he used to be a writer, so it took a lot to “wow” him. The only idea he sparked to was one that he had come up with himself.
“Maybe the Nerd got picked on because he drove a crappy car,” he bellowed. “So we take the Bully’s car and crush it. Give it back to him and it’s the size of a toaster. HA!” Then he added, “Write that up.”
It wasn’t a bad idea. Very visual. Now all we had to do was cast a nerd who got picked on back in high school because of the car he drove, and we’d be set.
Casting, however, was already a nightmare, and this new requirement didn’t help. The casting people put notices all over town looking for the perfect Nerd. No one answered. Turns out there aren’t that many people that want to go on TV and talk about their high school humiliations. Nerds aren’t looking for revenge, they’re looking to forget, and our show was a particularly bad way to do this.
How would we possibly cast an entire season if we couldn’t find even one guy for the pilot? Thankfully we were the writers, and casting fell into the category of Not Our Problem.
We worked the entire week before Chuck, undeterred, took our bit ideas, our script, and the casting problems to the studio for a progress report. We were convinced they would immediately pull the plug, and we’d have no job tomorrow. It was clear, even to a couple of novices, that there was no way a Revenge of the Nerds reality pilot was being filmed next week.
But when Chuck finally returned from the meeting with the studio, he was upbeat.
“It went great!” Chuck beamed. “I pitched them everything, and they were cracking up. They really love this project!” He gathered up his leather jacket and moved to the door to head home for the weekend.
“The studio had two minor notes,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “They don’t want us to use the word ‘Nerd.’ It’s too mean. And they’re not comfortable with the idea of ‘revenge’. So that’s out too.”
And then he walked out of the office.
We arrived at the studio Monday morning with no idea what to expect. As far as we could tell, the show we were being asked to write had no title, no cast, and no concept. The only thing set in stone was our shoot dates.
Nevertheless, production assistants were buzzing around and Chuck was in a great mood. To energize the troops, Chuck called a production meeting. In his boisterous, aggressive way, he exclaimed that we were going to make it work. It wouldn’t be a “Nerd” but a “Geek.” And this would be not “revenge,” but a “good-natured prank between old friends.”
Some of the staff were swayed by Chuck’s bravado, but Mike, the beleaguered production supervisor, stubbornly reminded us that we still hadn’t found the main Nerd, er… Geek. Chuck scowled, and it looked like he was considering stuffing Mike into a trash can.
“What about that kid, Zach?”
“He backed out.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Chuck barked as he grabbed his phone. “Everybody out!”
Ten minutes later, Chuck strode from his office looking quite pleased with himself.
To this day, we still have no idea what Chuck said to Zach. In retrospect, we should have been more suspicious, but we were too relieved the show had found its second wind. Not only did we have our Geek in place, but apparently Zach drove a crappy car in high school and a bully named Ben used to tease him about it. It looked like we could use the car crushing bit after all.
We had the remainder of the day to devise the rest of the prank. This was supposed to be an elaborate “sting” operation that would take up fifteen minutes of screen time. How would we realistically entrap Ben the bully? How would we get his car? And how exactly would we crush it into the size of a toaster?
“A Sherman tank!” Chuck ordered, emerging suddenly from his office. “Get on the phone and see how much that’ll cost.”
For the rest of the day, we struggled to create a hidden camera prank that we could realistically produce within the show’s budget (read: not flattening a car with an armored vehicle). By ten o’clock that night, we were still working away. Naturally, Chuck had left the office promptly at six. At eleven, dinner finally arrived— lukewarm El Pollo Loco— with no forks. Or plates. Our morale was low, and eating guacamole off a napkin with a knife wasn’t helping. It took an all-nighter but we completed a workable outline of the entire sting operation.
The next morning, we plopped down in Chuck’s office, exhausted. We couldn’t wait to share how we had found a way for the ‘not Nerd’ to get his ‘not revenge.’
“Nevermind! I got it!” Chuck proudly exclaimed before we could even begin talking. “It all came to me on the drive home last night. Listen to this…”
He pulled out an outline and went on to pitch us his own idea. One that he’d rejected a week ago when we’d pitched it to him. He was clearly unaware that he’d heard the idea before. From us. And even more oblivious that he could have saved us hours and hours of work if he’d just called the office last night and told us he was writing it himself. Deeply fatigued, we could only smile and tell Chuck what a brilliant idea it was.
By the end of the week two, cameras were set to roll, actors had been hired, permits obtained, and everything was in place. Zach, our “Geek,” stopped by the offices for a costume fitting, and we pulled him aside for a quick interview. We needed to know some of his “nerdier” qualities from high school. The first thing we noticed was that he was considerably more handsome and confident than we were expecting. When we asked him about the geekiest aspects of his teenage self, Zach looked at us blankly.
“Were you in the Chess Club? Or a Mathlete, maybe? Or did you get a 4.0?”
Zach shrugged, “I played lacrosse.”
After he was called to makeup, we picked up the high school yearbook Zach had brought to the set. We flipped to his senior picture and there he was: handsome, broad shoulders, big smile, displaying a very un-nerdy level of self-confidence.
We flipped nervously to the photo of Ben – the supposed ruthless Bully who’d made Zach’s life a living hell. He was overweight, with glasses, his skin peppered with acne, and beside his name, his interests were listed: drama club, Latin club, National Honor Society.
We looked at each other, resigned to our fate. Thanks to the unstoppable force of our bullying producer, this doomed project would end in the only way it could…
We were about to crush the wrong guy’s car.
To Be Continued…
© Aaron Ginsburg
The Bully - Part One - Originally published in Script Magazine’s May/June Issue