September 2008

No Grunts, Please

The path to success is paved with good assistants—if you can find one

Silvio
Horta

Silvio Horta Photo by Eric Ogden

Even after several years working as a television writer and producer, it hadn’t occurred to me that you need a good assistant—probably because I’d never had a good one to begin with.

There was Painful Introvert Assistant, who would lock himself in an empty office, lights off, watching Dancer in the Dark for hours on end. My phone went unanswered, and my writing staff was petrified by the sound of Bjork shrieking through the ventilation system.

There was the Assistant Who Loved Too Much, who sprayed 35 cans of Silly String in my office as a birthday surprise and—SURPRISE!—refused to clean up the mess. I spent a year scraping green goop off my belongings.

There was Tightly Wound Canadian Assistant, who worked for me during a shoot in Toronto. My laptop was stolen from a production trailer, and I asked her to find out if the show could rent me one. She said they refused. When I found through my own sources that wasn’t true, I confronted her. “WHY DID YOU DO THAT?! WHY DID YOU DO THAT?!” she screamed, incensed that I’d go behind her back to verify her claim.

Truth of the matter was, having a mediocre to bad assistant didn’t cause irreparable damage to my career. Somehow, I was able to squeak by.

Then came Ugly Betty. The show, which at its core is about a boss-assistant relationship, ended up defining the importance of a good assistant and led me to find the best one I’d ever had.

I hired Brian right after the show was picked up and just before it was about to send my life into a complete tailspin. To get a true sense of how grueling an experience launching a show couldbe, picture me two months in and 15 pounds lighter. Anxiety was a somewhat unexpected way to curb my appetite.

Every day, there was a huge crisis, usually several, requiring my undivided attention. But even—and especially—when I was absolutely, positively unable to take any more, Brian coolly and calmly kept me and everything in my office purring, insisting I return a certain call, have my notes ready by a certain time or write a birthday card for a certain person. Oh, yeah, and that I eat.

One of my best learning experiences was just how great the demands on a show runner’s time could be, and I’m not even talking about the show itself. With Ugly Betty’s success came an onslaught of publicity and charity requests—speaking engagements, solicitations for money, gifts and clothes and even an invitation to be a judge for the Dogs of Valor Awards. It was a full-time job.

Of course, I already had a full-time job—running the show. There was no way on earth I (or anyone) could handle it all alone, so Brian became the guardian at the gate, managing everything with effortless aplomb. When I was quitting smoking, he insisted there be no cigarettes at the office. When I was ill, he pleaded with my doctor for more codeine cough syrup. When I mentioned trying a restaurant for which reservations were impossible, he hammered away at the maître d’ and succeeded.

Then there was the public-speaking incident. It was an event that appeared out of nowhere and required a speech. I had no time to prepare, so Brian jumped right in. My speech on the Latino experience moved people to tears, and no one had a clue that my 100 percent Jewish assistant wrote most of it.

Toward the end of his two years with me, he began to seem more and more disconnected from the job. It turned out (shockingly) that being my assistant was not his lifelong goal. He wanted to be a writer. And so, at the end of the second season, I gave him the opportunity to do a script. It ended up being one of the season’s best. He was ready to move off my desk and into the writers’ room, where, ironically, I would see far less of him than I ever did.

Brian’s final coup was finding a replacement as good as he was. Now, much of my life is in Casey’s hands. The demands are just as great, but I’ve gone through such a learning curve I know what he should be doing and how he should be doing it. Because if he doesn’t, well, I’m completely screwed.

I can’t help but wonder if in my prior work experiences I’d had a better assistant, would things have turned out differently? Would one of my failures have been a success simply because I’d had the right help? I’ll ponder that as Casey keeps the world at bay so I can meet the deadline for this article.

SILVIO HORTA is executive producer of ABC’s Emmy-nominated Ugly Betty. He is proud of helping name Buffy the Valor Dog of the Year.