Authors: Roger L Simon
The Straight Man
Roger L Simon
ROGER L. SIMON
I had two inspirations in writing The Straight Man:
my personal experiences in psychotherapy (I wouldn't bore you with
them), and my adventures working with Richard Pryor on a movie called
Bustin' Loose 9anything but boring). After writing the script of The
Big Fix, I had a temporary—everything in Hollywood is
temporary—reputation for being a good comedy writer. I was asked if
I wanted to write a screenplay for Richard Pryor. Pryor, easily the
greatest standup comic of our time and an idol of mine, was close to
the hottest thing in the business in those years (1980) and I said
So I was taken out to Pryor's house by a couple of
Universal executives who shall be nameless because they might be in a
position to hire me again (highly unlikely, they've been fired too
may times themselves since, but still . . .), and we sat in Pryor's
office waiting for the great man. After about a half an hour, he
staggered in with a glass of bourbon in his hand. He took one look at
the junior of the two execs and declared quite instinctively: "You
don't like me, do you?" The exec flushed and stammered something
like, "Oh, no, Richard. No, no, no. I like you very much. I
promise. I really like you." He did everything but bow down and
kiss the comic's feet. When the exec got through genuflecting, Pryor
flashed me a conspiratorial grin and I knew immediately why I admired
the man so much.
That was only my first adventure with the comedian
who, many will recall, nearly burned himself to death that same year
freebasing. I wasn't present for that event, but I was there on other
occasions that had, shall we say, an edge to them. A few weeks later,
when I actually started writing, I would arrive at his house for an
appointment at three in the afternoon to go over the pages with him,
only to be informed by the staff that "Mr. Pryor is asleep."
This went on three or four times until I figured out that "asleep"
was a euphemism in the Pryor household for "upstairs frying his
I did my best to ignore this until, finally, I was
admitted to the inner sanctum. Richard eyed me suspiciously from
behind a brick of cocaine the size of a small bus, wondering whether
I was some judgmental white boy. Nervously, I had a couple of toots
with him to lighten the mood and from then on we worked together
pretty successfully, so successfully in fact that by the time we had
finished the script, Richard wanted me to direct the movie. This, not
surprisingly, sent the aforementioned execs up the wall and within
another couple of weeks I found myself mysteriously fired from the
film altogether. Three weeks later, though, I was rehired and then
fired again and then rehired once more after Pryor had his freebase
disaster. This did wonders for my bank account but not much for the
finished film, which was something of a hodge-podge. Thanks to
Pryor's popularity, however, it was the number one box office hit for
People often ask me what I thought of Richard and I
have to say, despite his wildly self-destructive mood swings, I liked
him immensely. When he was sober, and even when he wasn't, he could
be extraordinarily generous both on a personal and social level.
Once, when I was sitting in his office, he got a solicitation phone
call from a hospital in South-Central L.A. After what seemed like
only a few seconds, Pryor offered them a hundred thousand dollars if
they promised they wou1dn't use his name so it didn't seem as if he
was doing it for the publicity.
As an artist, Richard is a national treasure and it
is a tragedy that the man will spend the rest of his life coping with
spinal meningitis. He is, of course, the model for Otis King in The
Straight Man and I owe him big time for the book, which was nominated
for the Best Novel Edgar in 1987.
Roger L. Simon
THE STRAIGHT MAN
When the analysis is over, the
There's nothing like a shrink for making you feel
depressed. Five months ago, when I walked into Dr. Eugene Nathanson's
office, wondering what to do with my life, I wasn't feeling that bad.
And it wasn't just that he was a shrink. He was a cripple. Sitting
there in a wheelchair, for crissakes. Here I was with my little
problems and this guy had had poliomyelitis or something at the age
of six or whatever and still was a full-fledged psychiatrist with a
thriving practice in Santa Monica Canyon.
He smiled at me politely as I sat in a beige leather
Eames chair angled between his desk and a photograph of an aging
Jewish bohemian I later learned was Fritz Perls, the founding father
of Gestalt therapy.
"What can I do to help you'?" he asked,
pressing a servocontrol that straightened the motorized back of his
"I'm not exactly sure." I hesitated,
looking at Nathanson. He was a dark man with thick eyebrows, and the
dim lighting in the room gave him an ominous, almost menacing cast.
"I just quit a job as security director of a computer company
and I don't know what to do next."
"What would you like to do?"
Maybe expand. Start my own detective agency.
But . . ." I shrugged.
You are a detective . . . ?"
"A private detective, yes."
He didn't react, although I assumed he didn't have a
lot of PIs wandering into his office. At his location he was more
likely to get lawyers' wives and frustrated screenwriters. We sat
there awhile not saying anything. At that moment my problem seemed
increasingly mundane, almost dumb. I had come to a psychiatrist for
career guidance? At ninety-five bucks an hour, that was pretty stiff,
considering you could get much the same thing from one of the
brighter clerks in the back cubicles of the unemployment office.
"You seem depressed." He spoke as if this
were simply a fact. Nothing more.
I guess I am," I answered, looking away
uncomfortably past his wall of books to a cactus outside his window.
"How do you experience it?"
"What do you mean?"
"How do you feel it . . . in your body?"
"Well, uh, it's a kind of ache . . . in my
stomach . . . near the groin."
Describe it to me more precisely."
And that was the last I heard of my career problems
for a while. I spent the next few weeks playing Gestalt games—rolling
around on the floor, going from chair to chair inventing crazy
conversations with my parents and children, yelling at old girl
friends and my ex-wife, jumping up and down like an Indian in a
shamanistic trance and generally acting like some kind of lunatic on
a drug-free acid trip.
"So what does this all have to do with why I
can't get it together as a detective?" I finally asked him after
another session of standing on a desk proclaiming like Cicero in
front of the Roman Forum.
"What do you think?"
What do I think? What do you mean, what do I
think?" I got angry whenever he got conventionally shrink-like
on me, refusing to answer my questions directly.
Look," I said. "It's my dime here.
I'm the client and we're on a fee-for-service basis. If you think you
know, tell me."
Okay, you want a clinical diagnosis? You're
suffering from a dysthymic depression caused by acute diminution of
self-worth probably stemming from trauma during the oral phase of
child development. Now, does that help you?"
"Not a whole hell of a lot."
I didn't think it would."
How about I'm feeling lousy because I had a
high-powered job and I'm back to being a gumshoe again?"
"That makes sense."
"So what does that mean, Dr. Shrink? Every time
I have some kind of reversal I'm going to plunge into depression?"
"Until you learn how to do something about it
"How do I do that?"
"Find out why you don't. Find out what you get
out of failing."
"Find out what I get out of failing? An empty
bank account—that's what I get out of failing. If it hadn't been
for my fancy computer job, I couldn't even be here paying you."
But that, obviously, wasn't all of it. I got a hell
of a lot more than that out of failing, and in the weeks to come, I
found out more about it than I wanted to know.
"So your initial sense of failure came from your
father . . ." Nathanson prodded me slightly one afternoon
further along in the therapy.
A sudden sadness came over me as I remembered my
father, who had died several months before. He had been a successful
corporate lawyer with a powerful Wall Street firm who often
disapproved of what I did, although he didn't say it. I had strong
feelings of loss now that he was gone, but also a nagging discontent,
as if there were something unfinished between us. Maybe it was
because I never completed law school.
Nathanson must have noticed this, because he said,
"You know, Moses, it's not just grief. Most patients seeking
psychotherapy suffer from disturbances of self-esteem like yours
feelings of inner emptiness, lack of initiative social or sexual
maladjustments of various kinds .. . usually stemming from some
problem in their relationships with their parents. But"—he
stared directly at me—"I have confidence that with time you're
going to work yours out."
At that particular point in time, I didn't share his
confidence. I had gone back to my private investigative practice in
Los Angeles with all the enthusiasm of a clerk at the Motor Vehicles
Bureau. Process serving, missing persons, insurance claims—I moved
from one to the next like an automaton. Even an ecology-oriented case
involving a massive toxic waste suit in the Valley scarcely
interested me. My social life was, as that kid wrote, less than zero.
And with the AIDS scare, like everybody else with half a brain, I was
watching my random contacts, even though they were heterosexual. Even
my fantasy life wasn't much. My only concessions to personal pleasure
were the turbo-charged BMW I had left over from my high-paying job at
Tulip Computers and the overpriced, undersized
apartment I rented on Kings Road in West Hollywood with a panoramic
view of the city and a useless wet bar.
visits to Nathanson had become the true focus of my life. Three times
a week I would troop into his office. Meanwhile, I would spend
sleepless nights, dousing myself with Dalmane and sinsemilla to get
two hours of fitful rest before I had to meet another depressive
During that insomnia, I was prey to vicious night
thoughts. My children were growing up and leaving me. All my
relationships with women ended in disaster or absurdity. My friends
were deserting me—or were bored with me. I was a fraud in work, a
second-rate gumshoe who had never finished law school. I had nothing
to look forward to but forty more years of repetitive depression. The
truth was obvious: from here on in, I was on a straight-line path to
It usually gets worse before it gets better,"
said Nathanson, one session after he returned from a brief vacation
Thanks. It gets any worse and you might as well
put me on intravenous morphine."
"An interesting case might help you."
"I thought an interesting case was merely a
temporary distraction from my problems . . that I had to find
tranquillity in myself."
Nathanson smiled. "You really are hard on
yourself, aren't you?"
Did you ever think maybe you expect more of
life than most people?"
"That's not a very shrinklike thing to say. I
thought I was paying you so I could have it all."
This time Nathanson didn't smile. He pressed his
servo to right himself the way he did at the end of a session and
stared directly at me. I was aware once again of his thick eyebrows,
his dark, almost black eyes that were at once penetrating and
"Moses, this is one of the more unprofessional
things I've ever done—perhaps it's even a first—but a client of
mine is in great need of help. Your kind of help."
Immediately I felt a strange discomfort. Under normal
circumstances I would have been perfectly delighted to get new work,
especially work that promised to be interesting. But here? This was
my safe haven from the world's distresses—untouched by women, work,
parents, children. Even my own loneliness. Everything could be safely
"reexperienced" and "integrated." I could become
whole again. But . . . at the expense of a job?
"I see you're concerned about something, Moses.
What is it?"
I don't want anything interrupting the work
"Do you think it would'?"
"I don't think I'm finished."
"Yes, I agree with that. You're making some
"Yes. Some. You have had certain therapeutic
resistances, like any patient. Look—" He spun his wheelchair
toward me about half a foot. I always marveled at his dexterity. "I
promise to redouble my efforts on your behalf. I owe you at least
that much if you do this for me. I'd be very grateful, Moses, and so
would my client. And feel free to charge her any fee you feel would
be fair. She can afford it."