'I thought, Come on, you're crazy! They're never gonna do it on network," says producer Joel Silver, getting all riled up. The first time you see his new show Action on Fox, you won't believe they did. Action traces the rocking Hollywood life of film producer Peter Dragon -- played with furious manic narcissism by Jay Mohr -- and his relationship with Wendy Ward (Illeana Douglas), child star turned hooker turned entertainment executive.
Action was actually born at HBO on the eve of the untimely death of The Larry Sanders Show. HBO wanted to replace it with something more globally appealing but similarly in-the-know about the entertainment industry, so Silver, the man behind such major hits as The Matrix and Lethal Weapon, was enlisted, along with Sanders writer-producer Chris Thompson, also a veteran of such classic network sitcoms as Laverne & Shirley and Bosom Buddies. As Mohr puts it: "This show is written by someone who is more in the loop than I am and produced by someone who is the loop."
At the time, Thompson was signed with Columbia TriStar, and when they began negotiating with HBO, the deal quickly dissolved for the usual Hollywood reasons (timing, money, logistics). The show had to either die or be shopped elsewhere. "To be perfectly honest, initially we gave it to Fox simply as a bargaining tool," Thompson says. But it was the first script to come across Doug Herzog's desk when he took over at Fox after leaving Comedy Central (where he'd put South Park on the air, inciting mass hysteria and much tiresome debate about "pushing the envelope").
"I said to him, 'The whore can't become a ballerina,' " says Thompson. "These aren't cuddly people; they're monsters. And I wanna use the language I hear. Are you ready to have the most outrageous show on television?"
"I told him, 'Yeah,' " says Herzog. " 'If it's the funniest.' " (He admits, however, that after he gave them the green light, he had some doubts about his ability to push the show through: "I was panicking: Will Fox really take it? Am I gonna piss off Joel Silver?")
"The only thing they did," Silver says proudly, "was bleep out the curses!"
So Action started as a concept, became a script, and then got bought, in what would seem a natural progression but is actually a reverse-order process for Hollywood. "Trust me, that's not the way it usually works," says Thompson, "and I think it has a lot to do with the quality of the show."
In the first episode, Dragon has just released Slow Torture -- $150 million worth of summer crud that features Harvey Keitel pummeling Winona Ryder's face with a tire iron. In addition, Dragon's underling Stuart has mistakenly bought Adam Rafkin's screenplay instead of Alan Rifkin's. "Adam Rafkin, Alan Rifkin, they're very similar," Stuart whines. "Why are so many writers Jewish?"
"Are you telling me we just spent a quarter of a million dollars," Dragon bellows, "and we got the wrong Jew?"
Later in the episode, Wendy Ward will slide her hand down Keanu Reeves's pants to say hi to "little Keanu," and Dragon's gay billionaire boss -- now husband to his ex-wife and stepfather to his spoiled daughter -- will emerge from the shower and intimidate him by simultaneously rejecting a pitch and exposing his enormous penis. ("It's always the short guys," Wendy tells him comfortingly.)
Silver's experiences as a movie macher are the loose inspiration for Dragon's character. "Yeah, a little of me sneaks in," he understates. "The film-world stuff hopefully adds some excitement to our show: If you go to a movie and your date has her hand in the pants of the guy next to you, it's funny! It's a funny gag! But if the guy is Keanu Reeves, then it's even funnier, right?"
Sure, Action has going for it the frisson of celebrities playing themselves, and it seems that no one can get a long enough look at life in that most glamorous of industries, but what also sets the show apart is the level of talent behind it. "I had been doing a lot of indie films," says Mohr, "and Joel Silver said to me, 'What do you want to be? Parker fucking Posey?' This was like the funniest thing I'd ever read, so where would I get balls big enough to turn down an opportunity like this?"
Illeana Douglas's role was written with her in mind, but she had reservations about playing a prostitute on network TV. "I was leery when it moved to Fox," she says, "because my focus as an actress has been women's stories," like Grace of My Heart and To Die For. "I didn't feel that this channel was particularly, um, woman-friendly. But with television, at a certain point you just have to take some chances.
"The thing that redeems my character is that while she's a little lost, she's also the moral compass of the show, so she can't just be played for crass laughs."
Unless you gave up media for Lent, you will have heard the considerable clamor about so-called gross-out humor epitomized by the sex-with-pastry scene in American Pie, and many have already rushed to lump Action in with the lot -- a notion that offends Doug Herzog. "When I hear that stuff about gross-out humor from people, I'm like, did they even watch this show?" he asks. "This has nothing to do with American Pie or South Park, which I like for different reasons." From Mohr's perspective, "sitting and staring at that guy's thing for half a day was the only element of gross-out, but the viewer is spared that because they use my head as a shield."
Despite the pilot's preoccupation with penises, the show is shocking more because it's scabrous and subversive than because it's disgusting. But in Hollywood as in high school, quality and popularity do not automatically go hand in hand, and there's no guarantee that a mainstream American audience will get these jokes, let alone laugh at them. You never know, though -- even a seasoned soldier like Silver can be surprised by an audience. "Our idea with The Matrix was to do something smarter and more articulate with an action film, and I worried people would reject that," he says. "It ended up being by far the most successful movie of my career." He gives a little snort and says, "Hey, look, I think audiences are ready for this, but if no one watches it, then we're all schmucks."
Please. We know from cable. We're ready.