Give The People What They Want Even If It Kills You
“Life is a never-ending show, my friend, a twisting turning ever bending show/The audience is everyone you know, my friend/Leave them with a smile when you go!/You can bet that you're a star, so don't forget/How fun you are!/Get up there and give it your all!/And don't stop dancing, don't stop dancing til' the curtains fall!”
(Gina in BoJack Horseman s5e11, “The Showstopper”)
I have always been obsessed with Los Angeles and with Hollywood and with the entertainment industry. I was the sort of little girl who stole her aunt’s Hi-8 camcorder, recruited her cousins to paint backdrops and make costumes, and forced them in front of and behind the camera to make short films that I’d then edit on a double VCR set up I’d wired together myself. While I had free reign to pursue my creative projects at my grandparents’ house (where my cousins and I OD’d on MTV and Nickelodeon and all kinds of garbage pop-culture from the time our parents dropped us off early in the morning to the late hours of the evening when they’d pick us up after work), my own household was incredibly strict. Even though I was inclined to sing and play music (like many children of immigrants forced to learn an instrument, I played a few—the piano, the guitar, the clarinet, and later the bass guitar), my father always told me to SHUT UP. Not just a polite and stern, “be quiet” but a SHUT UP. My mother could do little at the time to curb his anger. I often took the brunt of it unabated and he did succeed for a very long time, in shutting me up. I turned into a mouse. I went for years without speaking. Both parents vehemently discouraged any pursuit of a career in entertainment or the arts: it wasn’t practical. It would never make me any money. I could never possibly succeed as a woman. The industry only hires white women, who ever heard of a successful Asian-American in Hollywood?! Blah blah blah. I learned to silence my dreams.
When I got older, I often found myself in relationships with more dominant personalities whose success in even vaguely entertainment-related fields killed any sort of desire I had to perform. And when they asked me to perform for them, in their projects, like some Eliza Doolittle, some discovery of theirs to be presented to the public, I wasn’t inclined to be compliant. (This retaliatory non-performance extends to some of my current work.) Instead, I became incredibly introverted and focused on media studies and film criticism. (Those who can’t perform, or direct, or create….critique. Or something.) It was only when I broke out of those relationship patterns that I reconnected with that performer and creator locked inside of me, and I began to seek out old friends from my NYU and NYC days who, now, as adults, managed to make it in the industry. There wasn’t a minute during any of these disparate periods that dormant performer in me didn’t dream about moving to Los Angeles.
Like many people obsessed with Hollywood, I love tragic showbiz stories. I love the heartbreak, the betrayal, the disappointment…the death stories. When I take a break from applying to jobs, I’m often lurking among the tombstones at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, sitting and smoking with Jayne or Vampira or Dee Dee. I love my dead icons.
As far as media consumption, my tastes are the same. Currently, I’m devoted to BoJack Horseman and I’m Dying Up Here. I find both shows to be fairly honest and relatable. Maybe it’s just because I suffer from depression, dreams deferred, childhood trauma, adult disappointments—the general stock and trade of those two shows—but damn, I fucking love them because as a damaged adult on the margins of the industry, BoJack Horseman and I’m Dying Up Here make me feel seen.
Here’s where some delusional shit kicks in…. I will tell you that three men in my life make up a BoJack composite, and I hang onto their every word as far as industry stuff is concerned. (I was raised Catholic, of course I need three men to tell me what to do, it’s fucking dogma.) One of these men is a rising indie actor, who used to talk to me far more frequently when he was miserable. Another is a well-known comedian and writer, who is very successful but struggles with manic-depression/BPD, and who, frankly, reminds me of Ron from I’m Dying Up Here (see above photo), so please understand, I’m terrified every damn day that he’s going to OD or hurt himself. The last man in this trifecta is my partner, who’s worked in the industry in only minor roles, but shares BoJack’s height, alcoholism and some other bad habits and coping mechanisms.
I guess you can say, that like any woman who considers herself an Ophelia type, or in this case—a Sarah Lynn (minus her success, but I do share her self-objectification and bad tattoos)—I constantly need my BoJack figure. An authority (toying the line between fatherly and flirtatious) who understands the business and shares his insight, but who is struggling with personal issues as well as feelings about his treatment by the industry. Like any Sarah Lynn, I trust my BoJacks with shit I wouldn’t tell anyone. But since this webzine is likely about to be as dead as she is, I’m going to share some recent texts. (I don’t think it’s particularly clear who this conversation is with, so I don’t feel the need to censor too much, but for clarity’s sake my texts are the ones in blue.)
Texts to BoJack Figure #1:
…good dude, right? If we could ever actually hang out, maybe I’d feel like I had…one friend in Los Angeles.
Texts to BoJack Figure #2 (I’m still texting in blue, BoJack #2 is texting in grey and talking about the industry):
…doesn’t that sound like a BoJack and Diane conversation? And note the flip in emotional labor, I’m consoling him, for once, not the one being consoled. Are you all paying attention, though? Are you learning anything about the entertainment industry yet? Success equals…unhappiness. But also…lack of success equals poverty and abject misery.
But hey, for fun, or, FOR CLARITY’S SAKE on where the site and I currently stand, here’s an email to a distributor who kept asking me to profile one of their films on this site. (Some sensitive information redacted.)
I guess I thought things in LA were going to be different. I don’t know why. I’ve seen all the same tragi-comic shows and films you have. I have friends here who have had nothing but terrible experiences. I should have known things were going to go bad.
Now, some context, so you can comfortably sit at home with the assurance that I’d been warned repeatedly about how cruel this town is long before I moved here.
A long time ago (like, last year, bitches), in a place not too distant from here (literally, last year’s internet), a young, incredibly talented, rising pop-star who who was getting features in Fader announced that she was deleting all almost all of her social media pages. That popstar’s name was Ayesha Erotica. Before she disappeared, she spent years uploading catchy songs that served as guides to Hollywood:
“So you came to LA with a dime and a dream, say you wanna be a name on the Hollywood scene? You wanna party with the stars, do coke on a yacht, but you gotta learn the rules and shit there’s a lot, like never do heroin and never do meth, never go to parks below Sunset, never drink anything below $10 grand, never suck dick unless the money’s in his hand. Never fuck Sheen and don’t do porn. Never wear anything already worn. Never get caught in a poor man’s car. You can leave LA, but don’t go far. Don’t go to the beach, unless it’s for drugs. Don’t fuck waiters and don’t fuck thugs. Don’t get a boob job or marry famous. Don’t do drugs that are intravenous. Do get tested, stay protected. Please stay smart, don’t get arrested. You want a job? Go socialize. Don’t eat, don’t sleep, and don’t ask why. Sell your soul for the Hollywood Dream […] You’re gonna be the next big thing.
[…] Get all the numbers that you can. When you meet someone famous, don’t say you’re a fan. Don’t turn down gifts or any jobs. Don’t shit where you eat, don’t talk to the mob. Say yes to blow, say yes to x. Say yes to directors that ask for sex. Don’t go to castings or open calls, don’t turn to the camera and break the fourth wall. Do get fillers and plump your palate. If the music’s loud, go outside, don’t shout. Don’t go down without a cause. Don’t tell anybody about your flaws. Don’t talk to the magazines. And don’t give suggestions on your very first scene. […] Sign your name on the dotted line. As long as you listen, you’ll do fine.”
(Ayesha Erotica, “Hollywood Dream”)
In perhaps the most comprehensive and succinct “do’s and don’ts” list for the most unforgiving city on the planet, Los Angeles rapper/electroclash musician Ayesha Erotica sums up her advice for surviving this garish, liposucked, pill-popping, coke-snorting, neon lit, dream factory in under four minutes. Joan Didion this ain’t…but Ayesha makes some very relevant points. Every day I get texts or calls from industry friends about parties, auditions, work meetings, sordid sex stories, wild drug trips—but more often than not, I hear about personal and professional rejection, unhappiness with their bodies, how vacuous other people in Hollywood are, LA traffic, how soul crushing every aspect of the industry is, how boring rehab was, how unsatisfying a detox or diet is… In short, I’m privy to a lot of terrible gossip that leaves me feeling horribly insecure in my choice to have moved to Los Angeles. Because from what my friends tell me, and from what the pop culture manufactured in and about this soul-sucking cesspool tells me (from Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust to Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt’s BoJack Horseman), Ayesha Erotica’s seemingly superficial—but PRACTICAL—observations are right.
So yes, there are things I know about Los Angeles. It’s for the young and beautiful. It’s for the rich. And if you’re in the business, best of luck to you, because chances are, your 15 minutes of fame are almost up.
Predating Ayesha Erotica’s albums by several decades, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) is also a severe dissection of Hollywood culture. One of the most iconic showbiz satires ever written (and a title that you will read repeatedly in many of the articles in this issue), the film is an indictment of a business that uses human beings to turn a profit and then discards them with no regard to their emotional or physical well-being (nor provides them with a backup plan for life outside of the limelight). Sunset Boulevard hammers home the heartless nature of the ageist, sexist, lookist entertainment industry and the fast-paced consumer culture that drives it. Moviegoers want newer, better, more attractive thrills, and Hollywood has become a machine that caters to these desires at the expense of actors, writers, directors, and other people in front of and behind the camera who become caught in its cogs. This forward momentum for younger, flashier, bigger budget material has, for Norma Desmond and the other “waxworks” left over from the silent film days, turned Los Angeles into a cesspool devoid of value and human decency, one whose currents are so strong that they will eventually envelop and drown even the most initially idealistic artist (literally, in the case of Joe Gillis).
In the first few minutes of the movie, Joe (William Holden) explains to the audience that the film is going to be about the “price” of fame—one that for him and for others in the industry turns out to be “too high.” After shlepping around LA, pitching a script to save his car and his career, Gillis winds up at the home of former star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) while trying to avoid his debt collectors. Desmond, faded beauty of yesteryear, has locked herself up in an old mansion, an ornate, decaying hold-over from the town’s decadent early years. She lures Gillis into becoming her kept boy by asking him to revise her comeback script, an adaptation of the biblical tale “Salome,” about the young slave girl who asks for the head of John the Baptist. This is, of course, a wildly age-inappropriate picture for the elderly Desmond, but the woman is delusional and refuses to accept that the town has turned a blind eye to her. Her inability to accept her standing as a has-been is due largely to the the work of her butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), who is revealed to be not just her first husband, but also her first director, a man who discovered her as a child and made her into a “great star.” His duty to her drove him to continue working for her after their divorce and after their careers had died. Max’s devotion also compelled him to forge fan letters to Norma daily when the real ones stopped arriving. His kindhearted but misguided con fueled Norma’s delusions of grandeur, her ego, and her incapacity to accept that her time on screen has long been up.
When Joe first encounters Norma, she mistakes him for the undertaker that is responsible for burying her deceased pet monkey. He clarifies that he is not and attempts to excuse himself from the sordid affair, but stops upon recognizing the grieving woman: “Wait a minute, haven’t I seen you before? I know your face. […] You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Her defensive retort comes quickly: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small. […] They took the idols and smashed them. [...] And who’ve we got now? Some nobodies.”
Norma’s self-worth and life-purpose are tied to her beauty, her celebrity, and her value as an actress. Accordingly, she attempts to prove that she is still relevant throughout the course of the film. In service of mounting her comeback picture, she more or less kidnaps Joe, puts her body through a crazy health/fitness/diet/beauty regimen, and harasses one of the few directors from the golden age still working in the 1950s, Cecil B. DeMille. In a modern picture, these attempts would be hilarious, in Wilder’s picture, Norma’s desperation is depressing and ultimately the source of not just her undoing but Joe’s as well. This wild despair comes from the star’s need to be loved, not just privately, but by the public.
Celebrity as the source of danger is also discussed in Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979), wherein some stars of varying levels of fame and notoriety (Jim Morrison, Charles Manson, Huey P. Newton, Roman Polanski, etc.) are more of a killer flame threatening to envelop and destroy themselves and anyone else in their orbit. Didion’s celebrities are desperate, disorderly, destructive, drug-addicted, anarchic. The White Album posits that our culture itself a killer, at least during certain periods. When we as a society erupt into chaos, we leave human casualties en masse, some expected, some not, as in Didion’s case. Her role as a documenter of this societal disorder is subtly blamed for the illness that she discovers she has during this dystopian period in LA/America’s history.
There are a vast variety more films and materials that allow a greater, updated look at Los Angeles and how the unabashed lack of morals and superficial values that hold Hollywood together is destroying its celebrities and us as a society. Or is it the other way around? Is our need for newer, juicier entertainment destroying the people who entertain us? You’ll read about many of the other titles in this issue, but my personal favorite in this cultural critique/showbiz satire genre is the Netflix series BoJack Horseman, about an anthropomorphic horse who was once a major television personality, his circle of friends who also have various degrees of attachment to the showbiz spotlight, and who are all trying to secure their own fixed place in the entertainment industry. While Sunset Boulevard and BoJack Horseman depict very different types of celebrities, an aging “great star” of silent film versus a handful of washed up 90’s actor-addicts, this crucial difference reflects changes in the entertainment industry, societal values, and Los Angeles. Ultimately, however, both are meditations on the ephemeral nature of fame, the meaninglessness of accomplishment, the emptiness of stardom, and the loneliness that comes with success.
Like Sunset Boulevard, BoJack Horseman starts in the land of Hollywoo(d)* has-beens and stays there. A dark-horse candidate in this growing field of media critiques of Hollywoo(d)’s narcissism, self-reflection, and love affair with itself, BoJack Horseman revolves around its titular character, a humanoid-horse who “back in the 90s…was on a very famous TV show.” Despite acquiring a huge mansion, some awards, and fair share of wealth, BoJack (Will Arnett) hasn’t done too much after his sitcom Horsin’ Around’s “cancellation 18 years ago.” Instead, he basks in shadows of his former glory, binge-watching DVDs of his show in a drunken stupor on his big screen at home (he even watches old episodes while he has sex in order to facilitate climax). The first two episodes of the series catch BoJack at near-rock bottom. After appearing drunk on an episode of Charlie Rose on which he defends his “saccharine” sitcom despite the fact that it isn’t exactly “Ibsen,” he has a nervous breakdown that lands him in the hospital, then later, after trying to drink away his pain at a bar, he picks up a girl whom he initially berates for the privilege she has in LA given her youth and beauty. Smoking a post-coital cigarette, he exclaims, “Well, that was another in a long series of regrettable life choices.” His young conquest Pam is still in bed “tweeting about all the weird stuff [BoJack does] in bed,” blessedly oblivious to everything Horseman’s just said.
By episode three of the first season, “Prickly Muffin,” the most relevant themes are introduced in the form of former child star and BoJack’s former co-worker Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal). In a flashback at the beginning of the episode, we see BoJack giving a young, impressionable, and terrified Sarah Lynn some advice on the set of Horsin’ Around: "Your family will never understand you, your lovers will leave you or try to change you, but your fans, you be good to them. […] give the people what they want even if it kills you, even if it empties you out until there's nothing left to empty…” Sarah Lynn is clearly traumatized by the time BoJack finishes speaking. His careless between-takes remarks have left an indelible impression. Cut to nearly two decades later, and a Hollywood gossip show called Excess Hollywood (an obvious play on Access Hollywood) is discussing Sarah Lynn’s latest pop single “Prickly Muffin”—a reference to the line that the cast and crew stalled on during that fateful taping depicted in the flashback as well as to Sarah Lynn’s own genitalia. Sarah Lynn has taken her lack of a father figure and age-appropriate friends and displaced her needs for love and affection onto her fans, but when she’s ousted from the spotlight by virtue of her age (in present day reality on the show, she’s turned 30), she then sets her sights firmly on BoJack.
Sarah Lynn is BoJack’s closest character to Norma Desmond, and one of the clearest indicators of how our values have changed as a society since Sunset Boulevard (for instance, our accelerated sexist ageism: 30 years old is viewed too old for the business if one is a woman). A composite character equal parts Linsday Lohan, the Olsen Twins, Britney Spears and other former child stars turned pop stars turned business moguls turned major fuck ups, Sarah Lynn (like Norma) illustrates the danger of being discovered as a child, and how the industry can ruin an individual that could have contributed so much more to society than just her pretty face and her body. Throughout the series, Sarah Lynn is depicted as both human garbage fire and lost child. Drug binges and suicide attempts are broken up by wide-eyed reveries about how she “always wanted to be an architect” when she was younger.
Both Sarah Lynn and BoJack were pressured to succeed by demanding parents: BoJack’s mother tells him that she gave up her beauty when she had him, and Sarah Lynn’s mother tells her she prostituted herself to a Star Search judge so that she could get her breakout role. Accordingly BoJack and Sarah Lynn (like Norma) have a touch of Peter-Pan syndrome. Los Angeles has become a Neverland where they “can constantly just surround [themselves] with sycophants and enablers until [they] die tragically young.” They “both have substance abuse problems and daddy issues” and are both “terrified to be alone.”
Towards the end of the first season, under great pressure to complete his autobiography, BoJack goes on a massive bender and realizes: “This is all I am and all I’ll ever be.” He proclaims himself to be “stuck”—in life, in his career, as a person. In a drug-induced hallucination, his friend and biographer Diane (Alison Brie) tells him: “It’s never to late to be the person you want to be. You need to chose the life you want.” She expands on her advice, telling BoJack that being is a matter of action—of actively being good to the people in one’s life, of making the moments with them count. It’s a lesson that BoJack struggles to learn as the seasons progress. BoJack is so obsessed with having everyone’s affection that he hasn’t been good about giving it to others. His selfishness and poor choices have adversely affected his life and that of those around him.
An ongoing story line in the show is the relationship between BoJack and his youngest television daughter Sarah Lynn. Several episodes show how his callous behavior on the set of their 90’s sitcom Horsin’ Around severely traumatized the girl. When she comes back into his life in her 30s, she’s an industry wash-up, having reached the heights of fame (her own clothing line, perfume, pop-music career, etc.) only to hit the same rock bottom BoJack has. In trying to help her and work through his own demons about failing her when she was a kid, BoJack only enables her to continue her drug and alcohol binges and self-destructive behavior. By pursuing his own selfish ends when they are together (BoJack is trying to absolve himself of the guilt he feels for possibly destroying her life), he is negligent of her current needs (rehab, doctors, real friends, someone to help her get clean and teach her to love herself for who she is and not for what the public wants her to be). Instead of providing actual care for the girl, BoJack’s self-centered ignorance is what ultimately causes Sarah Lynn’s death by drug overdose in season three. However, when Sarah Lynn first comes back into BoJack’s life as an adult woman, Diane tells BoJack the former pop-princess’ downward trajectory and self-destructive nature isn’t his fault—it’s the industry’s. BoJack attempts to use this to wash his hands of his culpability in her downward spiral. Later in the series, Sarah Lynn and BoJack discuss another casualty of fame. BoJack asks: “who really killed Princess Di?” Sarah Lynn gasps: “It was all of us.” This is no coincidence, but a clear example of how both public and private pressure can destroy celebrity.
The most powerful episode of the series, “That’s Too Much, Man!” (s3e11) begins with a close up on a portrait over Sarah Lynn’s bed—it’s of Sarah Lynn as Ophelia, drowning. This motif of drowning occurs frequently: BoJack too has a portrait of himself in a pool treading water as another iteration of himself watches on, he is also drowning in the opening credit sequence (a direct reference to Gillis drowning in Norma’s pool in Sunset Boulevard), and he drowns during his drug trip in the first season. There’s a desperation in all of these characters, the sense that they know they’re trapped in something much greater than them, something they can’t fight, something that will ultimately kill them in the end. In short, they’re all metaphorically drowning and they all voice their feelings about this in various ways throughout the course of the series. The two most damaged celebrities, BoJack and Sarah Lynn, complain and soul-search far more than the rest depicted in the show. They are the two characters in the series who have been ruined by their celebrity, yet they're still preoccupied by their standing in Hollywood now that their time in the spotlight is over.
Aside from the show’s references to and cameos by contemporary celebrities, it also pays homage to Hollywood history. Horseman himself is a bit of both Sunset Boulevard’s Norma and Joe—fragile star and jaded Hollywood playboy. Even the title sequence in BoJack Horseman references both Sunset Boulevard and The Graduate in two different pool shots: one from the bottom of the pool looking up as Horseman drowns, limbs askew, with paparazzi, police, and his friends looking down at him from the pool’s edge (exactly like the composition of the pool shot at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard, with Gillis dead in Desmond’s pool), and one with from above looking down at Horseman as he floats in the pool on a pool toy (a la Benjamin’s “Sound of Silence” pool sequence in The Graduate). There are a few party sequences in BoJack’s title sequence that are also reminiscent of the empty, isolating party sequences in The Graduate and in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou—both instances in which the main characters feel disconnected from the “plastic,” vacuous guests around them. The primary reference, however, is the drunk steady cam shot in Scorcese’s Mean Streets, where the camera is fixed to the actor as he stumbles shit-faced around a party, drink in hand.
Obvious references aside, BoJack Horseman’s similarities to Sunset Boulevard also include its embrace of the awkward “celebrity has-been” and “aspiring writer” coupling. But while Sunset Boulevard’s Gillis is working on Norma’s screenplay, BoJack Horseman’s Diane is working on his memoir. She coincidentally has written the book on the racehorse Secretariat which will be adapted into BoJack’s comeback movie, but this doesn’t fully come into play until season two, when BoJack gets a chance to play Secretariat but can’t give the performance required of the role (the studio ultimately replaces him with a computer-generated CGI version of himself to finish the film).
The biggest difference between BoJack Horseman and Sunset Boulevard is that BoJack has a larger primary cast. So, to complicate matters, BoJack’s biographer-memoirist Diane Nguyen is engaged to his arch-nemesis/“frenemy" Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a humanoid dog who, when we are first introduced to him, is trying to pitch a celebrity reality show to VH1. (In a way, he’s similar to Sunset Boulevard’s Artie Green, a caring, devoted, good-humored love interest for the female writer character, but Mr. Peanutbutter’s role is much larger than Artie’s, and he becomes a more powerful figure as BoJack Horseman continues, whereas Artie is largely written out of Sunset Boulevard.) Mr. Peanutbutter’s claim to fame was a knockoff of Horsin’ Around called Mr. Peanut Butter’s House, which aired at the same time and had the same premise—a humanoid animal raises orphaned human children, hijinks ensue, catch phrases are uttered, everyone learns a valuable life-affirming lesson, and the audience laughs. Unlike BoJack, Mr. Peanutbutter is happy and surprisingly well-adjusted. He has no bitterness towards the industry and is delighted with what he has accomplished in it. His positivity and kindness bring him more opportunities to get back into the public eye, first by becoming a game show host, then a ride-share business owner, and finally, by the end of season three, he is asked to be the governor of California. By contrast, BoJack’s bitterness and refusal to let go of the image attached to his 90’s TV role costs him every romantic and sexual relationship, his friendships, and comeback roles in films that are guaranteed hits, like a a part in a Quentin Tarantulino (anthropomorphic arachnid Quentin Tarantino, obvs) film and a surefire Oscar winner, the titular role in an adaptation of Secretariat, based on Diane Ngyen’s biography of the race horse, which is BoJack’s equivalent of Norma’s Salome (he is too old for the role, but has wanted to play it ever since he got into the business, it is the reason he became an actor). As with any good tragedy, BoJack’s pride (his hubris) is his downfall. His arrogant attitude (expressed throughout the course of every episode) is reaffirmed in the closing theme song’s lyrics “Back in the 90’s I was on a very famous TV show. I’m BoJack Horseman—BOJACK—don’t act like you don’t know.”
BoJack and Sarah Lynn’s constant need for affirmation, attention, and love is of course echoed in Norma’s sentiment: “Great stars have great pride” as well as her dreams of her comeback. All three characters are looking for their prized comeback, for the return of fan worship and all the trappings of fame career longevity brings. After Sarah Lynn’s premature death, BoJack is offered another comeback role in Ethan Around, a very belated Horsin’ Around spinofff. In the last episode of season three (“That Went Well”), BoJack finds himself on a living room set almost identical to the one on his first series, with a young girl almost identical to the young Sarah Lynn. Between scenes, he talks to the kid and asks what her dreams are. She tells him: “I want to be like you. I want to be famous.” BoJack panics. He storms off set telling his director, “I can’t do this again.” BoJack then takes off in his car. Thus, the third season of BoJack Horseman ends with BoJack leaving Los Angeles to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Stars.” The song is a clear illustration of the highs and lows of fame and celebrity, as well as some of the series’ main themes. While only the track is only partially sampled in the sequence, the entirety of the song’s lyrics capture the themes of not just this show, but of many other showbiz films and series, if not the gist of the entertainment industry, in general: “Stars, they come and go, they come fast, they come slow/They go like the last light of the sun, all in a blaze/And all you see is glory.
Hey, but it gets lonely there when there's no one there to share
We can shake it away, if you'll hear a story
People lust for fame like athletes in a game/They break their collarbones and come up swinging
Some of them are crowned/Some of them are downed, and some are lost and never found
But most have seen it all
They live their lives in sad cafés and music halls/And they always have a story
Some make it when they're young/Before the world has done its dirty job
And later on someone will say "You've had your day, now you must make way" […]
But you'll never know the pain of using a name you never owned
Years of forgetting what you know too well/That you who gave the crown have been let down
You try to make amends without defending
Perhaps pretending you never saw the eyes of young men at twenty-five/That followed as you walk and asked for autographs/Or kissed you on the cheek and you never can believe they really loved you
Some make it when they're old/Perhaps they have a soul they aren't afraid to bare/Perhaps there's nothing there
But anyway that isn't what I meant to say, I meant to tell about a story/Because we all have stories […]
The latest story that I know is the one that I'm supposed to go out with.”
The song choice is pointed and bears dual meaning: stars are a recurring metaphor on the show. Sarah Lynn is obsessed with them—her music video for “Prickly Muffin” is shot in the iconic Griffith Observatory/Samuel Oschin Planetarium, she often likes visiting this planetarium, and she dies in BoJack’s arms in the Griffith Observatory/Samuel Oschin Planetarium (see side note) on their last drug binge together in the season three episode “That’s Too Much, Man!,” named after her signature catchphrase from Horsin’ Around (which she uttered as a child actress when things became too overwhelming and continued to do so until her 30s when she changed her catchphrase to the more aggressive “Suck a dick, dumbshits”). During BoJack’s major drug trip in season one, he hallucinates that he is raising a young child with Penny, a former flame of his. When he is teaching his (imaginary) daughter to swim, she asks him: “Where do stars go?” This is ultimately, aside from the major philosophical debates that punctuate the show, the question the series attempts to answer. Stars, be they celestial or celebrities, burn out, we know this. But BoJack Horseman depicts that twilight period when one’s fame may dim, but life, unfortunately just drags on. The solutions that the show is positing—leaving Los Angeles/the industry, self-harm, getting involved in government (or any other industry), drug overdose, suicide, doing humanitarian work—aren’t all positive, but it’s refreshing to see a Hollywood product state that perhaps this career path isn’t as wonderfully glamorous as it seems, nor should Los Angeles continued to be revered as a mecca where desperate, celebrity-obsessed pilgrims may prostrate themselves for a shot at fame. In the end, both BoJack Horseman and Sunset Boulevard make it clear that perhaps celebrity isn’t worth it after all. In their depictions of hasbeens, teen queens, decrepit divas, and the Hollywood Dream, both portray Los Angeles as a wasteland where stars are used and then die. That’s not exactly glowing praise for the City of Angels or the entertainment industry.
I’m not going to cover BoJack’s 4th season (it’s too triggering), or BoJack’s 5th season (which is incredibly meta and self-reflexive), but both seasons address many of the issues in this piece. Season 5, in particular, forces BoJack to confront his past as he is working on a detective series that bears many strong similarities to his life, prompting an escalation of his addictive and abusive behaviors. Though BoJack has attempted to run away from his wrongs, himself and Hollywood, as soon as his career picks up, he finds himself deep in his reliable, old self-destructive, toxic coping mechanisms. And he continues to hurt others in his life who try to love him or be present for him.
Fortunately, the IRL BoJacks I know tend to disappear when they feel they’re going to hurt others. And I worry about them when they do, but I trust they’re making the best decisions for themselves and everyone else. But where does that leave me, a self-proclaimed Sarah Lynn? Am I doomed to her fate, the same way I watch my entertainment friends repeat patterns I’ve seen onscreen a million times before? Or can I change paths? These things aren’t written in the stars, after all…
Now to briefly touch on my other show-about-showbiz obsession…. Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here follows the trajectory of a group of aspiring stand-up comedians in the 1970s as they navigate careers from the stage of Goldie’s, an iconic comedy club, to a television soundstage. The first episode follows rising comic Clay Appuzzo (Sebastian Stan) from his first (and last) purportedly “star-making” appearance on The Tonight Show, to his death.
Yes, that’s right, the show about comedy begins with a suicide. (Not depicted above, just foreshadowed above.) And as the series continues, there’s heavy drug use, there’s heartbreak, marriages to strippers, hospitalizations, blatant industry racism and sexism, more suicide attempts, shock treatment, grifting, the abandonment of children and family in favor the pursuit of an entertainment career…the gamut of tragedies and bad decisions that could possibly befall people trying to make a career out of finding humor in life. In one of my favorite episodes, Ron (Clark Duke)—whose story arc involves a rise to sudden stardom and instant wealth after being cast as a beloved recurring guest character on a TV sitcom, and who other characters repeatedly compare to Jonathan Livingston Seagull—turns down a renewal of his sitcom contract that would require his character being written out of the show…and then, of course, he dies. He ODs alone. Other than Sarah Lynn’s death, it’s my favorite television overdose, and a morbidly beautiful sequence.
So, what else do I have to say about fame and Los Angeles and media about such things? Man, I don’t know, read the other essays in this issue. My writers are far more eloquent than I am, anyway. Personally, I wish I’d taken Ayesha’s advice. Or BoJack Horseman’s or I’m Dying Up Here. [Or, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s (never move to Southern California to follow a hot guy named J*** because when you get down there, he will have a girlfriend and anything you try to have with him, even a friendship, probably will not work out).]
THESE ARE ALL CLEARLY CAUTIONARY TALES!
I mean, why did I come out here even? I wasn’t chasing fame. I came because I was in love with something that wasn’t real. A city. A person. An ideal. Something and someone I could never have or be with. And the allure of the city, the Hollywood dream, has proven to be as artificial and unsatisfying as attempting to find warmth and connection with an image on the screen. It’s all an illusion and nothing more.
With that realization, what did I do? I reached out to all of you, to build community. To talk about this thing that we are all obsessed about. But regrettably, like my pop-culture heroes, my work ethic is my death ethos, and this beautiful thing we created together is the thing that will likely be the end of me.
I neglected to mention, maybe I’m not a Sarah Lynn. Maybe I’m a bit of a Norma Desmond. And maybe Caleb isn’t a BoJack but instead is my Max. He made me. And like Max, he protects my fragile ego, fixes my makeup when it’s uneven, weathers out the suicide attempts, the dates with other conquests, all the things a director turned first husband turned manservant generally does. Whatever. I digress…
Depending on when you followed me online you may or may not remember that I used to have a fairly successful video channel with a decent following and hundreds of thousands of views. And then the video hosting site I used claimed that my channel was in violation of their rules and they deleted my videos and my channel. (To be clear: I NEVER violated their rules or TOS; my videos are frustrating to viewers on purpose—I never wanted to lose my ability to post on their platform.) While I fought to get my work and channel back, I was shadowbanned. I watched my work be restored slowly, hidden, doomed to permanent private mode, and without the correct number of views. In this pivot-to-video/likes & retweets/numbers game driven market, without the views, YOU ARE NOTHING. Not desirable, not employable. NOTHING. Shadowbanned, I lost the ability to share my work easily, to contact my followers about the changes to the channel, and I flat out lost my followers. As with losing views, without followers, no one cares about a content creator.
Norma complained about the pictures getting small, but me and the rest of us savvy content creators, we adapted to making work for tiny screens. What I couldn’t adapt to was what Norma couldn’t adapt to—losing our audiences. It’s enough to drive a person crazy. To obsess about one’s increasingly sagging body, the wrinkles, the white hair, the inadequate tits and ass, every other flaw…. It’s enough to drive a person to be suicidal. Norma had her attempts, I had and have mine. There isn’t a day that goes by in which I don’t think about death.
But it’s not just the loss of an audience. Or the flat out denial of opportunity. It’s been months of watching friends turn fake then disappear. Months of watching promised job opportunities evaporate. The same old stories a million people have told about this town.
I’m just trying to survive. And I’ve been honest and reached out to all of you for help repeatedly. But no one helps. Because no one cares.
Yet another aside: before my father destroyed the performer I was in my youth, my half-brothers used to refer to me as “Princess Di” because of my theatrically over-the-top yet graceful and giving nature. In bringing up the BoJack and Sarah Lynn “who killed Princess Di?” “maybe it was all of us…” exchange earlier, I was perhaps attempting to make another point.
If anything happens to me, as I try to keep it together, keep this site together despite falling into debt and poverty, blame your collective disinterest. But on the off chance you do care, and want to help:
Or don’t. To quote Nina Simone one last time:
“Some women have a body men will want to see/And so they put it on display […] But anyway, I'm trying to tell my story […] Janis Joplin told it even better/ Billie Holiday even told it even better/ We always, we always, we always have a story/ The latest story that I know is the one that I'm supposed to go out with.”
Danica Anna Uskert-Quinn (@donnauwanna) is a mixed race Filipina-Indian-Chinese-Spanish-Slovak hapa writer, curator, director, video/performance artist whose work has screened at PFF BERLIN, PFF VIENNA, VAULT FESTIVAL UK, ATA, CENTER FOR SEX & CULTURE, and many other domestic & international venues. She hopes to stay alive long enough to finish post-production on an indie feature she wrote-directed-produced and starred in last summer, but your collective disinterest is killing her. She’s also the editor in chief of this publication you’re currently reading. She probably loves you. Right now, she needs your help & generosity: