What: A terrorist cell has set up operations in Chicago but the “home office” is not pleased with the results.
Who: Musab, Salar, Ahmed and Abu live together in a sparsely furnished 2 bedroom apartment, each having established an assimilating identity. They have blended in so well, Abu complains, that they have attracted the attention of Haseb in Afghanistan who will soon be paying them a visit.
Another series of knocks. Musab tenses.
Abu: (V.O.) Red Hawk.
Musab: Just a minute.
Musab quickly turns off the TV and hides the can of Pringles while Salar opens the door. Abu enters.
Salar: Hey Abu. Just so you know, there’s a new password. “Kelly Ripa.”
Abu: (angry) What do you mean there’s a new password? Only I can change the password. And who the hell is Kelly Ripa?
Ahmed: She’s a delightful co-host of the number one morning show in America. And co-star of a successful sitcom on ABC. Which is saying something because ABC has really been struggling with their new comedies.
Abu stares at him.
Abu: You know too much about this depraved culture.
Ahmed: That’s part of our job.
Abu: Don’t tell me what’s part of our job.
He crosses to the radiator. Gives it a kick.
Abu: Is this thing working? I’m freezing.
Musab: Me too. I thought spring was coming. Abu, has there been any more talk of getting transferred to Arizona or Florida?
Abu: That is not a priority right now.
Musab pulls a Polaroid off the fridge.
Musab: Look at these photos from Gazir’s cell. They love Daytona Beach.
Ahmed: How’d they get invited to the MTV spring break party? Is that Carson Daly?
Salar: (off picture) Wow. Gazir really let himself go.
Abu: He’s soft. We’re here to teach the Western dogs a lesson, not join them.
Musab happily bounces out of the kitchenette, wearing oven mitts and carrying a tray.
Musab: Hot Pockets?
Abu angrily knocks them to the floor.
Ahmed: What’s with you?
Abu: (sighs) I got a communication today. Haseb is coming.
They all tense.
Abu: This Friday.
Salar: He only visits when there’s something wrong.
Musab stops picking up the Hot Pockets.
Musab: (whimpering) He’s going to slit our throats a hundred ways.
Ahmed: You only really need one way.
Salar: We’ve got nothing to hide. We’ve been doing our job.
Abu: Haseb doesn’t think so. Admit it, we’ve been getting sloppy. This country, it makes you weak. It hypnotizes you with the signs and the slogans –
Musab: And the super sizes.
Salar: And the sexy coeds.
Ahmed: And the double coupons.
Musab: It’s true. Everything’s a bargain.
Ahmed: Haseb can’t have it both ways. They want us to blend in, we blend in.
Musab: I am personally offended that anyone would think this country has claimed us as one of its own.
There’s a knock at the door.
Pizza Man: (O.S.) Domino’s.
Abu glares at Musab.
Musab: (defensive) We have to eat.
Musab is addicted to television, especially Judge Judy; Ahmed has a crush on a girl he passes on his way to work as a bicycle messenger; Abu is the linchpin of his bowling team; and Salar attends the local community college for an accounting certificate – these boys have taken assimilation to such a height that they’ve neglected the job they were sent to do.
Salar holds up the newspaper.
Salar: They closed the power plant.
Musab: What power plant?
Abu: The one we’re supposed to blow up.
Salar: Seems the city’s switching to hydro-electric from coal.
Musab: Much cleaner. I saw a whole thing about it on the Discovery Channel.
Abu: We’re dead men.
Ahmed: Why? We can tell Haseb they just now closed it. How were we to know?
Salar: Well, they actually closed it three months ago. It’s being turned into a science museum.
Abu: Oh, that’s an interesting tidbit you can share with Haseb while he’s strangling you with your own intestines.
Ahmed: All right everyone, just calm down. Haseb’s not coming til tomorrow. That gives us a whole day to come up with a new plan and a new target. He’ll be happy, everyone keeps their own intestines, you might even make your bowling league.
The boys are in over their heads because Haseb is no one to treat lightly.
INT. Airport Security checkpoint
A long line of passengers wait to pass through security. In the line, we see a large, dangerous-looking man, Haseb, talking in hushed tones on his cell phone
Haseb: I’m in Chicago. Yes, a day early. I wanted to surprise these useless jackals. If things are as bad as I think they are, I will personally flay them and skin them alive. (then, cheery) Okay, bye Mom. Love you, too.
He hangs up. Then tenses as he approaches the checkpoint. A trio of Security Guards barely give Haseb a look as they wave him through. Haseb relaxes and begins to walk away when suddenly…
Security Guard #1: Sir!
Haseb freezes. The guard approaches him.
Security Guard #1: You dropped your paper.
Haseb smiles, nods, takes the paper and exits. Suddenly, we hear a ruckus at the checkpoint. An elderly, Waspish looking woman with two canes has been stopped.
Elderly Woman: How dare you!
Security Guard #2: Put a sock in it! Just doing our job.
He runs a security wand over the woman’s body. It beeps.
Security Guard #1: Oh, hiding something from us!
Elderly woman: Maybe it beeped because of the metal plate in my hip.
Security Guard #2: Yeah, yeah. Take off your shoes. (shoves her) Now!!
As the elderly woman slowly tries to comply, we…
Indeed, Haseb is disgusted with the Chicago cell and promises swift retribution until Abu comes up with a plan. Having worked as a temp at the Chicago branch of the U.S. Justice Department, he was able to hack into the system and download files. They now have something that Haseb will value and if nothing goes wrong they will be allowed to live; and even better, allowed to stay in Chicago. But…
No Meaner Place: Truly one of the funniest scripts written in the last few years, this was obviously never going anywhere; or at least not during the Cheney era. Certainly 9/11 had a chilling effect on our collective sense of humor, but we used to be willing to tolerate humor aimed at our fears and enemies. Not only that, we have always been able to bathe in the bad taste of some jokes – the Hitler musical in “The Producers,” the pregnant good-time girl in “Miracle at Morgan’s Creek,” the omni-sexual lascivious cross dressing musicians in “Some Like it Hot.” I suppose “The Cell” would have met the same fate as “The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer,” a comedy based on the travails of Lincoln’s black butler – meaning an outraged public, never even viewing an episode, would hound it off the air. Still, this is a classic “fish-out-of-water” comedy, very much like “Third Rock from the Sun” but with terrorists. It deserved to be considered by a wider public.
Life Lessons for Writers: Sometimes a bomb is the bomb.
Neely: I’ve been looking forward to this for so long.
ML: I really appreciate this site because when I’m writing I can’t read fiction, I can’t read other people’s worlds or other people’s characters, so I read a lot of non-fiction. I read a lot of books about the business, especially about writers by writers. As you probably know that aren’t a whole lot of them out there. Larry Gelbhart’s book, No Laughing Matter, is brilliant, but to able to go to your site and read all these personal experiences from other writers about the trenches is invaluable.
Neely: What I like the best is that everyone has a great story to tell. And speaking of stories, I can still remember how hard I laughed when I first read this script four or five years ago. When did you write it? It made a huge impression on me at the time and my first impression is undiminished. So where the hell did this perversity come from?
MW: It was about 5 years ago. Mark and I had worked together on “Dave’s World” several years back and had always wanted to work together again. We were having lunch one day…
ML: That’s about right – we wrote it about 5 years ago. I remember that we were at La Loggia, a really good Italian restaurant in Studio City. I had just been brought on to a sitcom to try to “fix” it and it was a really toxic experience. I was really fed up with half hour broadcast television. Mark and I had stayed fast friends after “Dave’s World” as he and I went on to work on other shows. We had always stayed in touch; we’d always give first drafts to each other – we had the kind of relationship where we trusted each other’s judgment. At that point he had drifted into one hour drama (which was really smart because now he’s on “Gray’s Anatomy”).
MW: I was then working on a show called “Jake 2.0” which was a cool show for UPN. A nerdy nice guy who gets an infusion of nanobots – these little robots – and he becomes like a super spy – I think “Chuck” is sort of similar to it. I was telling Mark that we were always doing these shows where he was fighting terrorists and we were running out of terrorists – there are only so many kinds of terrorists you can portray especially when you’re shooting the show up in Vancouver where the acting pool is kind of shallow.
ML: Because of political correctness the only villains you could have (it’s still true today) were terrorists. Terrorists are the free-for-all villains; with every other group you really have to watch it. So every week their hero was battling terrorists. At lunch he told me that the network told him one week “Does it have to be terrorists? How about South African jewelers?” He was laughing about it but frustrated; so I said, “We’ll show them. We’ll make a sitcom about terrorists.” and we just went Wow! Mark thought that was really interesting.
MW: I thought we could make a sitcom with a positive message – the idea that these guys had come to America to destroy it and ended up falling in love with it was a message we both thought was funny and novel. And that’s when we decided to do the pilot.
ML: As I was driving home, I had to go down Ventura Boulevard which is the epitome of American commercialism. It’s got everything you need – all the chains, all the fast food places, I’m seeing “double coupons” and “all you can eat” and “two for one” and I thought - how can you not be seduced by this country if you were coming here with fresh eyes? I went home and wrote the beats and a very rough outline and then called Mark to tell him that we had a way in. We’ll put him in Chicago; they become Cub fans; they become completely seduced by America. And Mark said “God, that’s funny!” We really got together just to make each other laugh. We wrote it so quickly; we didn’t edit ourselves at all, and just really made each other laugh. We never ever thought we were going to sell it.
MW: As an aside, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Our Man in Havana, but the main character sells vacuum cleaners and then he ends up doing a fake plan to convince MI-6 that there’s a bomb installation in Cuba. And I thought, Oh my god, that is so similar to our guys having to come up with to convince the powers-that-be that they are actually intent on blowing up America.
Neely: The coincidence in that is that last week I was trying to come up with a quote, both for the beginning of the article and for the announcement, and one of the first places I went was to Our Man in Havana. The similarity instantly hit me.
I have to say that I envisioned you guys sitting at a bar together, downing shots and feeding lines to one another.
ML: I’m sorry to disappoint you. He and I are pretty much light weights that way. We’re not real drinkers. We wrote it at his house and we just had a field day. We would just laugh, especially when all the violence that was threatened when their boss shows up – all the different ways he was going to kill them.
MW: We went through this thing pretty quickly. In a sitcom you work in a room and break stories with people and he and I would sit at a local coffee shop or at Jerry’s Deli and we’d pass out a few ideas and then went to my house for a day or two in order to come up with a general sense of what a show like this might look like. The idea was that we’d use the British sitcom model and do 6 episodes. We did a general outline over a couple of days and then worked on the script and turned it out in about 4 days which is pretty fast. We were just trying to make ourselves laugh and at the same time make our characters show real emotions, at least as real as you can. By the end of about 2 weeks we had an actual script in hand; but then we also didn’t know if we should put our names on the script because we didn’t know what our agents would think about it. Would they think it was inappropriately outrageous and never going to sell? We were nervous about our names being on it because of the way it poked fun at humanity, not just Muslims; so we ended up using pen names for the script, which was the only time we’d ever done that.
Neely: Did you really? What names did you use?
MW: I forget what Legan used but I think I used David Miller – the first name was after my brother and the second name after the golfer Johnny Miller. I’m a big golfer. We were just a little bit hesitant; it was just 4 years after 9/11. Sometimes the atmosphere is so fraught with fear when you deal with extremists even though we were doing it in a funny manner.
ML: We didn’t quite know who we were going to show it to – we both rather meekly handed it off to our respective agents at the time. We figured that they’d either get it or they’d drop us as clients. They both got it and read it just to enjoy it but they were definitely “oh, yeah, we can’t sell this anywhere.” Smartly, they got the feature departments of both agencies to take a look at this “weirdly funny” piece and thank god they did because it just got handed around like a naughty novel in Victorian times. It was like “Hey you’ve got to read this sitcom about the terrorists.” Some of the characters were based a bit on the guys who came here to do the 9/11 plot who left behind credit card receipts for strip clubs and Appleby’s. It was like these guys wanted to sow some wild oats. So there was certainly a grain of truth to our pilot – the coming here and completely falling in love with America. Our guys didn’t want to do anything to hurt America, they wanted to do everything they could to stay here and be part of it. I do remember when Wilding turned his in they loved it but they also said “Oh we have some thoughts.” And he was like, “No, no, that’s it. We wrote it just to write it and we’re not interested in thoughts.” I don’t want to come off as someone who says that writers are always right and all the notes they get always suck. Of course that’s not true. There are times when you get a note and it saves the script, absolutely changes it and helps it. But surely we also all know that there’s so much interference and many times you’re… Right now I’m reading a lot of Raymond Chandler (as I said, I love to read about writers). Chandler came to Hollywood and had a pretty horrible experience. He had a great line; I’m not sure I’m getting it right, but, “People who can’t write are trying to tell me how to write.” That’s pretty damn accurate.
Neely: So where did it go?
MW: The script got sent out to a bunch of studios and production companies, places all over town. We ended up getting probably 50 or 60 meetings out of this, including meetings at HBO, Fox and Ben Stiller’s company. I think the thing that prevented it from ever becoming a TV series or a movie was the fact that it’s very funny to read but if you were to see it, in some people’s eyes it becomes less funny.
ML: People just really liked the characters in the script. Features guys said if you can make a funny terrorist then we really want to meet you. The wonderful offshoot of this, as Mark said, was that we ended up with tons of meetings in the feature world. They knew it was half hour but as far as they were concerned, good writing is good writing. It was biting and dark, and of course none of them wanted to make it, which we always completely understood, but they all said “What else have you got?” And we were able to sell 3 other features that way.
Neely: You couldn’t actually have thought that it would ever go in this country.
MW: It’s funny. That’s what my instincts told me but then you have these meetings and people say I think maybe I can make this go or happen. And then you get caught up in it and think maybe this is a soul brave or foolish enough to try it. And then, of course, it doesn’t happen.
ML: Every now and then we’d get a call out of the blue about “The Cell.”
MW: We met with Fox and that was one of the stranger meetings. They said they really loved the script but could we do it with demons instead of terrorists? And the sad thing was that we actually thought about it for a while. Because, work is work, so we tried to do it with demons, but that didn’t happen.
ML: Sasha Baron Cohen was a huge fan of “The Cell.” We had a series of meetings with him and he, at one point, said we should do it as a British series. Their prototype is very smart – you make 6 episodes of something and then see what happens. We even broke 5 more episodes for him. Of course, timing is everything because the week he was going to personally hand it over to Channel 4 or whatever his affiliate was in London, the London subway bombing happened. People have also come to us about doing it as a film at 88 min. We agree; you could make a dark, funny little satire about these guys who’ve totally fallen in love with America.
Neely: As I was rereading “The Cell” I was thinking of ways to repurpose this material and I thought this was the kind of thing Comedy Central could do. You can do so much in animation that is outrageous. I find “Family Guy” sometimes to be jaw-droppingly shocking in a hilarious way. And that’s exactly what this is. Of course I came up with this idea before the guy tried to bomb Times Square. Timing, timing, timing.
ML: You’re right. I think animation would be a very smart possibility for it. It would be the smartest way to do it because animation softens it just enough. I think “The Simpsons” is absolutely brilliant, but in live action if you had an actor grab his son around the neck and start to strangle him, people would turn off the TV and call everyone and protest and that show would be yanked off the air in no time flat. But it’s so funny when Homer does it; same thing with “Family Guy.” At one point I think we’d discussed the possibility of selling it as an animated series.
Neely: But the other thing I was thinking was that this would make a great play – a great one act or two act play. That should be explored. Have you written plays?
MW: We both have; as a matter of fact. It’s how I broke into the business and Legan got his agent.
Neely: I think this would make a terrific play. It’s just off the wall enough. You can be more of a cartoon on stage than you can in film because there’s an immediate connection with the audience – theater is a claustrophobic personal experience, so there’s an immediate connection. You can do “wink wink” and they’ll get it.
MW: A play is a really good idea. We thought of movies and someone a while back did pitch us the idea of animation. But I had never thought of it as a play and I don’t disagree with you on that. It would be very confined and you could do a lot with it.
Neely: And no one would ever mistake it for being serious. One of the ways to present it that way is through a table read. Just like you workshop plays, and even though it’s slight – I don’t know if you could ever expand it to a 90 minute – it doesn’t really matter because people are still doing short plays.
MW: I do think we could expand it to a 90 min. play. In our own minds we’ve already done a movie treatment for it. We came close to a movie deal a few years ago. Yeah, that’s a really good idea.
Neely: I’m glad. Like I said, I had come up with the idea of animation but then when I thought about it some more I thought of theater. You know they had a series on a long gone cable station called “Brilliant but Cancelled” and I’m thinking, why can’t we do “Brilliant but Never Shown?” For those things that never got produced, do table reads. Many of the scripts highlighted on No Meaner Place would make great table reads, and it would be a lot of fun to do.
MW: I like that idea.
Neely: I hope you think about it again. Obviously it was never going to be produced on Broadcast television and it’s such a delicate balance that if you were to do it as a small feature the kind of broadness that would be demanded on a comedy feature so that no one could ever mistake this as anything but funny might interfere with some of the delicacy and sweetness that is actually in there. Of course you could still always do animation, as long as the Muslims don’t come after you like they came after “South Park” … I mean you do both have kids.
ML: Absolutely that’s something to consider. Comedy writers aren’t known for being the bravest souls. It’s not just something we would have to consider but also any company that would want to make it would have to consider that also. We’d have all these meetings with people and they’d say “Oh maybe we could do this.” But we understood that the stockholders would go “Wait a minute. Are you crazy?!” We live in strange times and that’s why we have to write about it.
Neely: What is each of you working on right now?
MW: I’m going to continue working on “Grey’s Anatomy;” I’ve got another year on my contract there. I remember when I came on “Grey’s” the second season, I’ve been on it for the last five years, and I remember looking at a billboard for “Grey’s” for that second year and it showed 11 characters on the show and I remember thinking that each of those 11 characters has a distinct personality and I thought that was cool. I much prefer working in one hour. You get to tell cool stories and get to dig deeper into things. I like the aspect of drama that makes it more compelling, it’s just more compelling television. That said, I still enjoy a good comedy. I love “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock”, I think those shows are brilliant. For me, though, in one hour I get to do both the drama side and the comedy side especially on a show like “Grey’s Anatomy.” I don’t know how well I’d do on a procedural show like “Without a Trace.”
I also wrote a pilot this year called “Love and Death” but it didn’t get shot.
ML: For the last two years I’ve been staffed, writing for half hour sitcoms. This year I just got finished writing for an NBC comedy that they’re going to air now in May called “One Hundred Questions for Charlotte Payne.” There was a lot of interference there; I felt badly for the creator of the show. It’s tough. If you really fight for what you believe in you get the label that you’re difficult; and if you truly do every note it’s going to be pabulum, it really is, especially in comedy. You can’t do it that way. Comedy by committee is just bland.
Neely: Jack Bernstein had a great quote about that: “I can walk into a room of 10 people and point a gun at them and all 10 will have the same reaction. I can walk into a room with the same 10 people and tell what I think is the funniest joke in the world and 5 will laugh uproariously, 2 will chuckle, 2 won’t think it’s funny and I’ll have to explain it to 1 person – usually my mother.” That’s comedy. You just can’t please them all.
ML: You’re right. You can sit down 10 people and look at the reactions. The ones who hate it are entitled to their opinions but that doesn’t mean they’re right. They’re right in the sense that it’s not their sense of humor but that’s not a reason not to make it. I know that the William Goldman quote gets used to death, but it gets used to death because it’s true – “Nobody knows anything.” And the frustrating thing is that a lot of these people in power act as though they do know; and they don’t. They should just admit that they don’t and say, “Hey let’s try this.”
Neely: If only they had a sense of humor and just go with it; but I’m not sure that they do have a sense of humor.
ML: I love comedy and will never stop doing it, but now there are some one hours being done where there’s also a lot of humor – “Monk” was a perfect example of that. You can do things a little bit differently on cable.
Neely: And Mr. Wilding – any more comedies?
MW: You know, I really enjoy working with Mark. We’re a great team and we have fun. We make each other laugh and hope to come up with something good. I have to think of the next good idea.
Neely: There was far too much ground to cover this week so we’re going to carry over the rest of this interview for next week when we’ll discuss the journey that led you here.