Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Hug It Out, Bitch 

Like the rest of the world, I cannot help but be helplessly tickled by Jeremy Piven'’s star turn in HBO's Entourage. As master agent Ari Gold, Piven manages to embody the strange truth of certain powerful nutjobs: they simultaneously disgust and engage us. Revile us and seduce us. Offer us opportunity at the cost of our souls.

Gold's relationship to Eric (winningly played by Kevin Connolly) feels all to familiar to me. As best-friend-cum-manager to rising Hollywood star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), Eric finds himself out of his league. He has no real world business experience to speak of; his main talent is his trustworthiness and his ability to influence Chase. As an experienced wheeler dealer, Ari knows this from the moment he sets eyes on Eric and is constantly seeking opportunities to use Eric, or to disintermediate him from the cash cow that is Vincent.

To me, the relationship Ari and Eric is the archetype of the scary/sexy dance between any individual and the powerful person who appears to have the ability to grant one's desires at the potential sacrifice of one's values.

Drop Down Into the Frog

The first time I found myself in this position was at a Shakespeare festival in New Jersey. I was a struggling young actor, longing to join the union and do real professional work. Summer repertory festivals are where young actors earn "points"
towards union memberships while building sets, running the box office, making coffee, understudying the union performers and IF YOU ARE LUCKY getting to get onstage and carry a spear and IF YOU ARE REALLY FUCKING LUCKY getting to speak a line or two of the immortal bard.

As it happens, this particular festival was notoriously poorly managed. The interns were brought on in droves, which ensured that there were lots of free hands to make things run and that the competition for the supernumerary roles was quite fierce.

The theatre took on an extraordinary number of female interns, too. (If you're not familiar with Shakespeare's plays it might help you to interpret this hiring practice properly to know that there are a VERY FEW ROLES FOR WOMEN.)

The festival had some great union actors to understudy. And it had great plays (natch) to watch and perhaps carry a few props onstage. What it featured in spades, however, was the deep imprint of its agingmegalomaniacalal director. A man who had
developed his own acting technique (classes with him were mandatory) that was very strange indeed. Young interns were asked to arrive in a field at the crack of dawn, stretch endlessly, and then to perform arcane breathing exercisedevelopeded by the
so-called master which involved a lot of glutteal flexing and the repeated barking of "SQUEEZE, RELEASE, DROP DOWN INTO THE FROG!" Frankly, the most tangible result of all of this was a tight ass and a ton of mosquito bites and some in jokes that have survived more than a decade of wear.

A few more choice details: we did three show repertory. This involves rehearsing a show, opening it, beginning rehearsals on the second show during the day while performing the first show eight times a week. The second show then opens after four or five weeks and then you run both shows in an alternating fashion. As those two shows alternate, you begin rehearsal on show THREE during the day. Finally, you are running a three show repertory, which looks like this:

Monday: "Dark House" = no show
Tuesday: Romeo & Juliet
Wednesday Matinee: Measure for Measure
Wednesday Evening: King John
Thursday: Romeo & Juliet
Friday: Measure for Measure
Saturday: King John
Sunday Matinee: Romeo & Juliet
Sunday Evening: Measure for Measure

Rinse. Wash. Repeat!

Now what is not obvious to the uninitiated is that after each *three hour show* (dear Will's shows were not designed for the MTV generation), the interns had to do a "change over". This means changing the set. In this particular season, on top of taking down lots of walls and wall coverings and what not, this also included unscrewing EVERY floor panel in the stage (roughly 100 in total) and flipping it over to reveal a different pattern (one for each of two shows), or removing each floor panel entirely (for show three), or screwing the DAMN THINGS BACK ON to return the stage to the proper floor for show number one. If a show started at 8pm and ended at 11pm, interns could look forward to completing change over by 1am. And for the bonus round? Wednesday and Sunday the set had to be changed over twice.

So, why did we put up with it? Because we were dying to be actors, we were dying to get into the union, we were dying to perform Shakespeare. The director had power. He had the union points to dole out. He gave you theatrical credits you could put on your sorry ass resume (if you were a male and got to actually go onstage).

Years later, a friend asked K. and I why we went there. She informed us that the summer theatre guide she bought for young actors described the place and finished its description with the phrase "RUN LIKE HELL" in capital letters. We didn't believe her. Then she showed us the guide.

The sad part was that we all knew at the time that we should be running like hell. But we were frozen in place. The summer had started. Where would we go? Could we afford forfeit the points? We knew damn well we were being abused.

Finally, after much renting of my clothing, an attempt to start an intern rebellion, and lots of other offstage theatrics, I quit. I swore to myself that I would never prostitute myself like that again just for "experience".

Add "NET" and Stir

Years later I was at my first Internet startup. I had moved from theatre to the business world and this job promised to be a key part of that transition. The environment was dynamic and lots of other creative folks with earrings around. No one cared that I had started my career as an actor.

The upside was that there was a lot of opportunity to do new things and learn. The downside was that were were inventing a business that we ourselves did not understand. And there were a number of players in our environment who were there largely for one thing: a big payout.

It was that crazy time where simply adding the words "NET" made things cool. Pitching Sprint? Sell them SPRINTERNET. Pitching Radio Shack? SHACKNET! Pitching a company called IGI? Sell them D.I.G.I.N.E.T, The Digital IGI Network! We were faking it AS we were making it.

A sample week from those heady days: I went from NYC to LA on Sunday and replaced an entire technology department (the Mac technicians resigned en masse when we went to a Microsoft platform) by Wednesday. I received a phone call on Wednesday to go to Silicon Valley on Thursday to do due diligence on a potential acquisition. On Thursday, I got a call telling me not to come home but to fly to Chicago instead Thursday night to pitch the Tribune business on Friday. By the end of that poorly planned week, I had flown four different airlines and conquered my fear of flying.

The net result of this environment (ha, ha) was experience. I worked all day, all night, all weekend. My pager went off at all hours. I hired 100 people. I fired 100 people. I went from recruiter to HR Director, to Operations, to Mergers & Acquisitions to client management. I ran a luxury car account. I given responsibility for one of the most successful consumer packaged goods sites on the web. When we won our largest client ever, it was handed to me.

The downside to this glamorous life? The fear and the mania caused by the power struggles of the super-caffeinated egos in upper management. When people left the room with one of my bosses, he slagged them so badly in language so foul that I shuddered to think of what he might say about me when I wasn't present. He knew that, I'm sure.

Also generating a lot of angst was the fact that our hiring and firing curves seemed entirely unpredictable to those not in the know about the gritty details of our revenue stream. Personally, I never knew when I would be asked to let someone go. I began to feel like this particular task often fell to me because I was basically a "nice guy" and it was somehow fun for my boss to watch me have to execute an order I agonized over.

Once the order was "fly to Colorado and fire the Managing Director." I flew out with a colleague under cover of night. We called everyone else in the office ahead of time and told them to meet us for dinner at a certain restaurant, but not to tell anyone else about our being in town. We landed, we called the MD and asked him to meet us at a restaurant. Lunch was over and the restaurant was empty. Then we took everyone to dinner, closed the office for business the next day and took everyone to Austin Powers to cheer them up. Three weeks later, we sold the office to another company. Taken as a whole, our shameful days there were Jerry McGuire as if it had been directed by Terry Gilliam around the time he made Brazil.

I think my boss thought he was toughening me up. Making me a man. Teaching me the way of the world. Perhaps he did.

In the end, it was a somewhat brilliant business. We really did things that had never been done before that time. On the other hand, it was equally a pretty skeevy business: too much of its major deals done at strip clubs, too many of its financial quarters engineered through "cutting edge accounting", and too many of its employees being fired as they hit the wall of burnout - having bled company colors for the entirety of their tenure.

When the time came for me to resign, I stood in front of this most feared boss trying to figure out how to say the words. I had arrived like Eric in Entourage - with little real business experience and my main attributes being trustworthiness, a willingness to learn and a deep desire to get things right and not to fail.

Like Ari Gold, my boss simultaneously intrigued and scared me. He always seemed to have access to knowledge that I didn't. Knowledge that I thought I needed to attain my goals. But I wasn't sure whose side he was one. I wanted to trust him. I needed to trust him for my own sanity. But still, I always wondered what went on when I wasn't in the room.

Given our history, I found myself facing two men in one. The first man was someone who had given me opportunities that in effect compressed what seemed like 10 years of business experience into three years. The second man was the guy for whom I had done a heck of a lot of dirty work - including closing down the division that had originally hired me. The second man was the boss who compulsively flirted with my wife when he called and found out I was not home. Together, these men were the person in whose service I had needlessly lost countless hours of sleep due to various cockups beyond my control. The physical toll of all this was visible in the 15 plus pounds I had added to my frame during those three years.

I stood in front of him, all of these contradictorimpulseses flashing through me and then...I cried uncontrollably. And he reached out his arms. And we hugged. And I meant it.

Yes, he had done some things I found very, very hard to stomach. But through it all, I still felt somehow that in the final analysis he had as good to me as he knew how to be. He trusted me. He gave me opportunities I felt I had not earned in any way. Did I do things I thought were wrong at his instruction? Yes. Whose fault was that? Mine.

He didn't say, "Hug it out, bitch." But he might as well have. And we did. And I was grateful.
It seems that HBO has decided that the phrase in question is so much in the zeitgeist that they've created a website called "Let's Hug it Out Bitch" at www.lhiob.com. Unbelievable.
My thoughts. Sadism is unfortunately not an appropriate behavior to motivate management. Effectively, "Hug it out bitch" actually meant "I'm sorry for the way I acted", albeit with a sado-masochistic tone. It did not mean "the world is this way, take it or leave it" and "there is no other way". To be manipulated is an unfortunate thing and to justify it is entirely cynical. It is something that I personally would not want to recreate as a manager. The better slogan is "be human" and what that effectively means is to recognize human nature and that there is a built-in program and set of standards that we are intended to follow as to how we are to behave and to treat subordinates. Obviously, the executives at HBO are probably not in touch with this kind of professional behavior and I am actually surprised that they have not created a series on it. Thank god for free will!
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