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That time a Colorado comic took a Hollywood meeting armed with indifference

In "Tragedy Plus Time," the prologue recounts the emotional conflict when professional success arrives in the wake of personal loss

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit

Adam Cayton-Holland is a national touring comic who was named one of Esquire’s “25 Comics to Watch,” as well as one of “10 Comics to Watch” by Variety.

Along with his cohorts in The Grawlix, he is one of the creators and stars of the recently wrapped truTV show “Those Who Can’t.” 

His three comedy albums are all available on iTunes, and his writing has appeared in Village Voice, Spin, The A.V. Club, The New York Times, Esquire and The Atlantic. He once threw out a first-pitch at a Colorado Rockies game and people have described him as “genial” and “with decent teeth.”

The following is an excerpt from Cayton-Holland’s book “Tragedy Plus Time.”


2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Creative Nonfiction

Prologue

I’m sitting in the glassed-in conference room of Amazon Studios, Sherman Oaks Galleria adjacent. Behind me, cars rip by on the 405 like an unflinching river. In front of me, dozens of sharply dressed millennials clack away at their keyboards, furiously expanding an insatiable empire. They pay me no mind, as I sit here in this aquarium with my bottle of sparkling water. They must see twenty of me a day.

The walls on either side of me are dry-erase boards, floorboards to ceiling. There’s a basket of markers on the table. They don’t expect me to draw something, do they? Am I supposed to diagram our show? I’m not up for that kind of effort. If they are expecting some sort of a performance here, these Amazonians will be sorely disappointed. I’ve got no razzmatazz in me, no showmanship.

Author, comic and actor Adam Cayton-Holland. (Photo by Ryan Brackin)

I’m eight years into my stand-up comedy career, taking a huge development meeting; ostensibly this is the biggest moment of my young career, the one I’ve been waiting for. A childhood spent obsessing over everything comedy, those hours in the newspaper backroom cracking jokes, the long nights at the open mics, the endless road trips for a shit one-nighter in some heartbreaking town—it’s all led to this.

My two cohorts in the Denver comedy troupe the Grawlix and I have written a TV script called Those Who Can’t. It’s been making the rounds in Hollywood. We’ve pitched it to Comedy Central, Adult Swim, FX. There’s been interest but no bites. But it’s got “heat,” our people tell us, whatever that means. And word on the “heat” is Amazon is intrigued.

So here I sit, waving the flag for Team Grawlix, my partners-in-dick-jokes back home in Denver. Today it’s all on me.

I see the development duo make their way through the bullpen in front of me, a medley of business casual. There’s always two: one to do the work, the other to congratulate him. They enter. We shake hands. They offer me more water, coffee, whatever I need. We make small talk, the obligatory bullshitting in which creative people sit opposite noncreative people and laugh at the noncreative people’s bad jokes because they know there might be some money on the other end of the whole whorish exchange. Backgrounds, schooling, snapshots of lives that once mattered but now wither in the shadow of almighty Hollywood. Then we get down to business.

“So what’s up with Those Who Can’t?”

“Nothing,” I report. “A few networks are considering it but no one has committed. It’s available.”

“It’s such a funny script,” the Amazonian says.

“I know it is,” I say. “It’s the funniest script you’ll read all year. You should buy it.”

I’m not myself. I’m cocky, an arrogance born of total indifference. Normally I’d be polite, deferential even. They would comment on my manners after I’d left, that nice boy from one of those middle flyover states. But today I’m reckless.

None of this feels real. Just another incomprehensible turn in a recent flurry. Do I want to sell this thing? Of course. Do I care if I don’t? Not in the least. So what does it matter if these people throw me out of their office? Who cares if I punch the guy in the face and take a shit on the conference room table? What’s a development meeting mean in the grand scheme? What’s the point of making a fucking TV show? Suddenly this all feels so goddamned empty.

But my existential indifference, that cliché cache of a disaffected teen, is doing something else for me today. Suddenly, I’m talking their talk. I’m a goddamn shark in this aquarium. I’m becoming fluent in Hollywood asshole. And if there’s one thing an asshole can’t resist, it’s another asshole.

“We’d love to buy it,” he tells me, a bit taken aback by my audacity, no doubt, but also suddenly fully erect for the first time all quarter. “But we’re already developing another high school script.”

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“Fuck that other script,” I blurt out, a little Ari Gold learning to fly. “Our script is better than that script.”

“Well, between you and me, they haven’t even finished their first draft,” he confesses.

“Tragedy Plus Time” by Adam Cayton-Holland. (Handout)

“They haven’t even finished their first draft?! We’ve got a script ready to go!”

He looks at his partner seated next to him. His partner nods. Ego padded.

“Can you make a pilot in Denver for fifty thousand dollars” he asks.

“We can make five pilots in Denver for fifty thousand,” I say.

We shake hands. I leave. My manager calls me twenty minutes later.

“I don’t know what you said in there but they want to buy Those Who Can’t!”

“Really?!”

“Really!”

My manager laughs. I laugh. He says he’ll call me later with more details. He hangs up. I smile, proud of myself, happy for the adventure my friends and I are about to embark upon. I think about the countless shows we put on in those dive bars and DIY spaces and art galleries, the audiences growing with each new iteration. I think about all the hours we spent making sketch-videos for free on the weekends, how we started out so sloppy and amateurish, how we were always tweaking, never satisfied, always pushing forward. And now we get to make our own TV show.

Then I burst into tears. I cry all the way down Ventura, then the entire length of Cahuenga, from the Valley to my budget Ramada hotel room in West Hollywood. Big, choking, snotty sobs, the kind that steal your breath away. That suffocate you.

What a picture I must be: some sad, bearded bastard weeping in his economy rental, KDAY blasting nineties West Coast hip-hop on the radio. There’s probably thirty people doing the exact same thing within a two-mile radius of me.

But none of them just sold a script!

Then again, none of them found their little sister’s dead body ten days ago either, the gun in her hand, the trickle of blood down her blue lips, her tiny bird-bone body lying there in her bed, never to move again. My best friend, my little sister Lydia, gone. Just like that.

I’m a thirty-two-year-old stand-up comic from Denver who just sold his first Hollywood script.

I’ve never been more devastated.

From “Tragedy Plus Time” by Adam Cayton Holland.  Copyright © 2018 by Adam Cayton-Holland. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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— Interview: “Tragedy Plus Time” author Adam Cayton-Holland