How I Went from the Set of New Girl to a Startup Product Manager by@rhortx

How I Went from the Set of New Girl to a Startup Product Manager

After years working in the morally optional world of online direct marketing I was looking for a new path toward fulfilling employment. But so were forty other strangers on the Fox Studio lot in the middle of the night.
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Human living in the general LA area.

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I gradually woke to the warmth of Harry licking my lips, just frantically enough so I knew he needed to pee. It was three in the morning, cold and quiet. I hooked the leash to his collar and we headed out into the night.

I'd been unemployed since July and this was October. I'd been in online direct marketing for six years, becoming Creative Director, and in theory, I could go back to something like that. We sold 'cosmeceuticals' like wrinkle reducers and scent-based weight loss powder and did surprisingly well through rigorous A/B testing and a deep understanding of human laziness. It was a risk-free trial long as you return your shipment in 30 days. The price to land each customer sometimes approached the cost of the product, but as long as 30 or 40 percent forgot to cancel their continuity, we'd bank a solid profit. --Oh, you didn't know it was a continuity program? Should have read the fine print, sucker.

The difference between financial success and abject failure was around 1.5 shipments per customer. It was honest work, as long as your bar for honesty was just above wire fraud. We'd optimized the process into a ruthlessly profitable juggernaut, but who wants to wake up every morning to make the world just a little bit worse than the day before? Could you wake up each day knowing the world would be better off if you didn't wake up? As fun as it sometimes was, and my bosses knew how to throw a decadent party, I got tired of shilling for the dark side and finally had to quit.

I could go back to school thanks to stock options money. But for what? I researched school psychology and genetic counselling, I could become a nurse practitioner or maybe a physician’s assistant. But then I talked to a friend who's a PA and she likes nothing more than assisting surgeries all day long, the bloodier the better. She bragged about holding a beating human heart in her hand like some Aztec priest. Nothing felt right, time was running out, and I could only tread water for so long before I'd have to go back to selling perfumes that could make you look ten years younger based on actual scientific data.

I couldn't claim unemployment since I'd quit. But an actress friend told me a trade secret. Every show is its own job. As long as you have a decent income history, you can work once as an extra then qualify for unemployment after the shoot. That might buy me enough time to find my path. So I signed with Central Casting, a company that provides background workers to shows across the LA area.

Unfortunately, so many people are either hoping for their big break or else can't stomach manual labor that call lines tend to max out the second a job is posted. It took a lot of patience and effort, but eventually, I landed the role of 'wealthy patron' at a late-night tiki bar, in the background of The New Girl, starring Zoey Deschanel. The timing was perfect because the very next day I'd arranged to shadow a clinician in South Pasadena. After flipping through a dozen possible careers, I'd landed on Speech-Language Pathology. It was science-based, could be achieved after a few years of college, and best of all I could wake up every morning with the knowledge I was actually going to help people improve their lives. I'd already ordered a set of cranio-facial flashcards and begun memorizing the bones of the skull.

First, of course, I needed that bi-monthly unemployment check, so two days later I pulled into the Fox parking garage in my finest bar crawl gear with my only good suit in a garment bag. The New Girl stage was a massive warehouse with its interior partitioned off into sets. There were maybe 30 extras slouching on folding chairs or rolls of carpet in an area walled off on the left and right by the sort of painted flats seen through the window of a situation comedy. Varying levels of hope and desperation were on display, from empty nest housewives to absurdly attractive 20-somethings trying to make a few bucks between auditions. But there was a sad, resigned quality to it all, as if we were just waiting for a flight to some industrial town for a contractually obligated visit.

Keep in mind these people get minimum wage, they arrive early, stay late, are often asked to bring specific items like dry-cleaned suits or musical instruments to the set, and the majority of their day is spent sitting in a cold dim warehouse in group isolation. Most importantly, there is absolutely zero chance this experience will result in any sort of acting career. You'd be better off driving around town with 'Cast Me!' spray-painted on the side of your van, which Dennis Woodruff did years ago to limited success. Background work is menial labor wrapped in the mind-numbing boredom of a waiting room, loosely held together by the thinnest tissue of show-biz. It's purgatory with a paycheck. And so we waited, for what felt like a full working day, as I memorized terms like 'Anterior nasal spine' and 'Zygomaticofacial formen'.

Hours later, a background wrangler brought us onto the brightly lit set of a tiki bar, to be arranged in clumps of two to four. Our job was to hold elaborate tropical drinks, not look at the cameras, and pretend to have interesting conversations while the actors spoke their lines. They placed me in a far corner facing an oddly placid woman, and I smiled at her pantomimed repartee as the show's male star mused with his friends about the emotional repercussions of an upcoming pub crawl. The cast and crew and even the extras were patient and professional, and I couldn't help wondering what it would be like to wake up every morning to work insanely long hours creating mildly interesting commercial delivery mechanisms that people watched while eating their dinners on the couch. Would that be enough to live your life without regrets?

The setups moved at a glacial pace, and after an hour even my fake conversation began to run dry. Eventually, I fell back on the usual nervous tics --nodding, grinning sheepishly, taking long slow sips of my drink --at which point I remembered they didn't make me a drink. They'd poured tap water into a tiki mug without washing it out. Suddenly I had a mouthful of drywall runoff and spackle. My partner reacted to the panic in my face as I realized you can't spit up brown sludge in front of the cameras; they'd fire me in an instant and I'd never get unemployment. The lady touched my shoulder with concern as I tried desperately not to projectile vomit across her teal party dress, before finally choking down the gack with a grimace.

Hours later, wandering the deserted lot during our nighttime lunch break, I realized there was no way the coffee I'd been pounding could power me through the next 10 hours of the shoot. This is why, to maintain energy and focus, I swallowed a couple of psychedelic mushrooms. They were medicinal, brought as a metabolism booster in case of emergency, and I quickly forgot I'd even taken them. Until about an hour later during the climactic scene at the tiki bar.

We're standing silently, inches away from each other in our club crawl finery, trying not to meet each other's eyes as camera people tinker with something at the bar. A dapper Filipino guy in a bow tie mocks me for eating the fruit décor of my tiki drink --which, to be fair, we'd been explicitly and repeatedly asked not to do by the support staff. And in that instant of self-awareness, some combination of caffeine, hunger, and psilocybin combines to wake me to our reality like a slap in the face.

You should remember, 'hallucinogen' is a misnomer. You don't see things that aren't there, you see things that were there the whole time that you've trained yourself not to see. Anything beyond a microdose and preconceptions fall away, all that pigeonholing of reality into conceptual chunks like inartfully translated poetry. Things like psilocybin let you bypass the cognitive shorthand you've learned since birth in order to deal with this nonsensical cathedral of human culture we've trapped ourselves in.

I'm looking around wide-eyed and innocent. Somehow, needing to change careers has resulted in me standing here with thirty strangers in the night, packed shoulder to shoulder in a high-walled pen, solemnly ignoring each other's blank yearning faces while lights and cameras glare down from the fake walls of a fake bar decorated in a fake vision of Polynesian culture. We're being paid a small amount of money to pretend to be human beings —and isn't that just a metaphor for what being a human being is?!

I take a drink from my mug and thank god this time its pineapple juice. Then someone yells 'background!', and time lurches into motion.

There's me, that smartass with the bow tie, a proud grandmother of four and a brunette woman in an evening dress who's giving off 'swinging divorcee' vibes. But as I give in to the motions of pretending to relate to them, silently smiling and laughing, the anxiety melts away. One by one I look deep into their eyes and see through to the core of each person's soul. The shot involves what I think is a famous Wayans brother, playing a disgruntled pickup artist on Valentine’s Day. He tries to liven the scene with a few ad libs, which noticeably improves the dialog.

Later, as we head back to the waiting area, an efficient-looking man in a Bluetooth headset taps me on the shoulder, shaking his head, wagging a finger. "We see what you're doing there guy." I'm pretty sure he was referring to the moment in the final shot when our grandmother silently told a joke and the irony of actually laughing at a pretend joke created a humor feedback loop that gave me stomach cramps as I tried so desperately not to laugh out loud that I almost fainted. He thinks I was showboating for attention, so I nod to reassure him it won't happen again, and we head to the portable dressing rooms to suit up. For the last half of the day, we'll be diners at a fancy restaurant.

I walk out in my best wedding outfit and the wardrobe lady with a straight face tells me she likes my weird, quirky look. Before long we're gathered around picnic tables on the lawn near the stages and I'm watching James, the smartass with the bowtie, teach a regular from Sons of Anarchy how to tie a Windsor knot.

It turns out James came from the Philippines six years ago to work in LA as a nurse. But he's already burned out from the hospital politics and the gruelling hours and thankless doctors. He's in the middle of a career transition himself, probably real estate. It's after midnight now, moonlight glinting on the rustling Magnolia branches in the silence of the empty lot, and it's clear that The New Girl is some kind of modern-day bardo, the Buddhist realm between death and rebirth. Forty well-dressed souls in limbo, lit by the midnight moon, transitioning between lives or else waiting for this one to end. Our conversation drifts into philosophy and James tells me about the new age guru Eckhart Tolle with such eloquence that I order his book from Amazon then and there.

Soon the wranglers pair us off into male-female dyads. I take the elbow of a beautiful blonde in a black evening dress and we stroll down the sidewalk toward a building in the distance, not knowing each other or where exactly we're headed. Everything is a metaphor now. Her name is Susan and she just arrived from six months in Korea with her husband.

We find ourselves in an immense dining room, sitting across from each other at a beautiful meal we're not allowed to eat (more metaphor!), while Zoey Deschanel and some handsome Euro-accented fellow with a well-trimmed beard film their dinner scene. We're far enough away to have a real conversation and I grill Susan about her life in Korea. She and her husband taught, explored the world, and are ready for the next stage of their lives. To take that leap into darkness confident the universe will catch you —I'm in awe. I get so engrossed in the conversation that for a good half hour I forget we're on a set.

Eventually, the director decides we're distracting and removes our table, then around 4:30 in the morning, the pack of us are brought outside to slowly walk back and forth outside the window of the dining room to appear as blurry shapes behind Zoe's conversation. It's the last stage before rebirth, just flickering shadows at the edge of someone else's consciousness, and I'm so jazzed to begin my new life that I'm not even tired anymore.

The day ends near 5 am, and a few cups of coffee later I'm heading up the 110 Freeway to begin learning what it means to be a Speech-Language Pathologist. Elisa was a wise and friendly professional who took me back through the elementary school where she worked to her office.

And in half an hour I realize no way am I going to be a Speech-Language Pathologist. It's not that I don't like children. They're fine. I understand they're necessary. I just didn't fully comprehend how they'd dictate the entire workday. Elisa had an encyclopedic knowledge of how the physicality of the skull works to create sound, but she utilized that expertise eight hours a day playing speech games with seven-year-olds while taking notes about how they pronounce words like 'the.' My guess is, if you have strong parenting instincts this sort of thing isn't excruciating. But when I left that afternoon full of effusive thanks for her patience and generosity, Elisa could tell she would not be seeing me at any SLP conferences in the distant future. I was back in the bardo with no prospect for rebirth.

But then, out of the blue, a call comes through from the human resources manager I used to work with. She wants to know if I'm interested in a hot new social media startup in Downtown LA. All she'll say is their name --Vixlet.

The next day an elevator rockets me silently to the Gas Company building's 50th floor. The view out the windows looks like you're landing at LAX.

The company is owned by a husband and wife team and she walks into the conference room with a small entourage, lead by a new media guy named Justin who looks exactly like the person who'd play him in a commercial. Seek, coiffed, black glasses signifying intelligence. He scans me head to toe: Camper shoes, Ben Sherman shirt and jacket, Warby Parker glasses. I sense the tiniest acknowledgement, as if I've passed the minimum bar for acceptability. Everyone other than the boss looks like they've just graduated from one of those East Coast colleges you only know about if you're rich.

We sit at an empty table and he gives me the spiel. Vixlet is a revolutionary new form of social media. They've got millions in the bank, and they literally want to take on Facebook.

I keep waiting to show my work, but no one asks. They don't want me for design or user experience. They're starting a new Product Department that will somehow connect design and development, or give them direction, or something. I try to get more detail, but they're intentionally vague. After deflecting a few questions, a hyper-literate 20 year old tells me people succeed at this company if they’re able to adapt to a constantly changing environment. I get the hint and stop asking, even though I have no idea what skillset they're looking for.

Eventually, they march out in unison like the East German swim team, and the head of the company makes an entrance, a hefty subcontinental Indian man with a magnetic personality and the voice of James Earl Jones.

I stand as he takes my hand, doesn't let go, and looks deep into my eyes through to the very core of my soul. His name is Krishna.

"You tell me, Randy," he says after a brief introduction, "when did social media begin?"

It's clearly a rhetorical question, but he still wants an answer. "I don't know... Friendster?"

"No. Randy." Still holding my hand. "More basic than that. Thousands of years before that, in fact, when that first human hand grabbed a bone and struck that first drum. That's social media. Communication!"

It's clearly a prepared speech but he's good at it. Krishna fast forwards through the evolution of human interaction to this new, completely unprecedented developmental stage in the process that he alone has discovered --passion-based social media. Science tells us that the average American has over 50 passions; that's what'll connect us in the future, not the rough simulation of real world 'friendship' that Facebook offers. He talks about the insane growth hacking they're ready to begin, beating Facebook before they even know what happened.

To be clear, I worked in online direct marketing so I know when someone's blowing smoke up my ass. But this was the first time I actually liked it. Somehow that recommendation from the head of human resources short-circuited the process. No one had ever hired me without looking at my work. --And who's to say they wouldn't change the world? I was employed by the company that made MySpace and they went from a few people in a row of cubicles down the hall to a $580 million dollar payout in just a few years on the backs of obsessive preteens without any design sense.

Krishna asks me how much I'd need in order to walk to work skipping and singing every morning, and I tell him my previous salary.

He stares into my eyes for a long while. “Randy. I believe we have a disconnect.”

Eventually, Krishna hires me for thirty thousand less, with vague promises of stock options, but it doesn't matter because he's given me hope for the future. I'd emerged from darkness into a new career. It's not until a week later when I hear someone talking about me that I realize my title: Product Manager...

Three years after that we're called to an 11 am meeting. I get a text from my friend Steve letting me know they'd deposited our paychecks early. "Looks like the new round of funding finally came through!"

But the moment Krishna walks into the room I can tell it's over. He's genuinely heartbroken and seems ready to cry. "Take all the time you need." He bites his lower lip, either holding back tears or giving a very believable performance. "But make sure you turn in your laptops, as we no longer own them."

I'd been a Product Manager for three years at that point and (arguably) been good at it for maybe a year and a half. After just a few months the head of the department left for Google when he realized the relentlessly hapless shitshow he'd signed up for, the new head of the department was fired for harassing the designers, one PM left for a better job and another moved to a different position in the company. I was the last PM standing. I had not in any way made the world a better place to live, but had almost certainly made it less bad than I would have, promising women they could look ten years younger through regular applications of cetacean placenta juice.

Despite what they'd paid McKinsey a small fortune to tell us, we had a fundamentally flawed business model. Turns out virality is not a top-down phenomenon. At the end of the day, Vixlet was the startup equivalent of a secondhand Volkswagen piloted by a pack of bickering raccoons from on top of a mountain of investor cash. At first, it felt like we had a direction, but we were just careening downhill, finally slamming after a few short years into the desert hardpan below.

It only cost me one minor heart attack (that turned out to be a panic attack), and constant low-level frustration and dismay, but after three years I'd developed a very particular set of skills that perhaps now I could put to good use.

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