A Fake Retirement 28 Year Old Writer

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

Rodney Rothman, 31, ‘retired’ to Florida at age 28, then turned his account of it into a book

May 8, 2005
My Fake Retirement
By WARREN ST. JOHN
LOS ANGELES

AN implicit promise of American-style capitalism is that after years of toil and with a little luck, sometime in your late 60’s or early 70’s you will be able to put on a pair of jean shorts and some Velcro sneakers, buy a condo in a Florida retirement community and spend the rest of your natural life sitting by a pool, with ready access to golf and bingo.

But for Rodney Rothman, a former head writer for "Late Show With David Letterman," 40 years was too long to wait. Burned out after years of writing jokes (well, a few years anyway) and unemployed after the situation comedy he was working on was canceled, Mr. Rothman decided to hop off the workaday hamster wheel of life in Manhattan and Los Angeles and give retirement in Florida a try – at the age of 28.

Through a roommate agency he found a room in the condominium of a widow with two cats and three birds at Century Village, an 8,500-resident retirement community in Boca Raton. "I wanted to see if the hard work I was doing was going to lead to anyplace I wanted to be," said Mr. Rothman, who is now 31. "And I figured: I’m Jewish. I’m going to end up there anyway."

Few people younger than 35 undertake any activity these days without first contemplating its potential value as intellectual property, and that is especially the case for a comedy writer with an agent, a manager and a host of contacts in the TV world.

From an intellectual property point of view, Mr. Rothman’s six-month sojourn at Century Village may go down as one of the most productive retirements in history. He has turned his account of life there into a book called "Early Bird" (Simon & Schuster) and a television pilot under development with NBC Universal; the book was published this week, and Mr. Rothman will find out this month whether NBC is going to pick up the TV show.

He is quick to acknowledge the commercial value of what he calls his "stupid little idea," but he said he hung around Century Village for so long simply because retired life, he learned, was pretty chill. "It’s not like I can lie and say I don’t know what you can do with ideas," Mr. Rothman said on Tuesday as he poked at a Greek salad at an outdoor restaurant in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles. "But when you work in a business like mine, people are judging you all the time. There was something very attractive to me about going to a world full of grandmothers and grandfathers who weren’t going to judge me."

Mr. Rothman described his writing motif as cowardly gonzo.

"I go gonzo to, like, the safest places on earth," he said.

The last time Mr. Rothman attempted his cowardly gonzo shtick, things did not go so well. In 2000 he began showing up for work at a failing Internet company that did not employ him, and no one noticed. He wrote about this 17-day adventure as a phony employee in an article in The New Yorker titled "My Fake Job," but ran into trouble when it was learned that he had not received a free massage at the office, as he claimed in the article, and that his mother had worked at the company before he decided to sneak in.

The magazine issued an apology, and Mr. Rothman’s name began to show up on lists of disgraced journalists, never mind that with a career in joke writing he had never considered himself a journalist in the first place.

Of the fabrication Mr. Rothman said, "It was stupid, and I regret it."

That episode raises the question, How much of "Early Bird" is true?

Mr. Rothman insists it is all real, though he said that certain names had been changed, and that some characters had died since his reporting, making his accounts of his time with them essentially unverifiable. Mindful of the New Yorker controversy, Mr. Rothman said he had hired an independent fact checker for the book; GQ magazine checked an excerpt from it without incident.

Toni Gleeson, an administrator at Century Village, confirmed that Mr. Rothman had spent months there with residents. Amy Ballinger, a 95-year-old foul-mouthed comedian Mr. Rothman writes about in the book, said his portrayal of their time together was accurate. Asked if she found Mr. Rothman’s book funny, Ms. Ballinger said, "It could have been funnier."

Mr. Rothman suggested his book was best appreciated not as straight nonfiction but as personal essays that employ comic hyperbole in the style of David Sedaris.

"I’m not a journalist," he said. "I think my track record shows that."

AS whimsical, Plimptonesque participatory journalism gags go, Mr. Rothman’s brief retirement is an effective one, providing plenty of punch line opportunities for a former late-night comedy writer.

But the real appeal of his book is the insight the relatively young author gains into the world of America’s elderly, one he knows he will someday join in earnest – if he is lucky. It’s a place where dinner is eaten at 5 p.m. (when he would normally be having a late lunch, Mr. Rothman writes); where the softball teams play with two home plates, positioned side by side, to prevent collisions between catcher and runner; and where ambulances continually ghost by, reminding residents of their mortality.

Retirement communities, Mr. Rothman is surprised to learn, are slow-motion versions of high school, where cliques dominate the social landscape, leaving many feeling excluded and lonely. Mr. Rothman’s elderly roommate, for example, who is on antidepressants to combat the misery of losing her husband two years before, is spurned by women who hang out together at the pool because they find her "weird."

Mr. Rothman described himself as a joker from an early age. Even his birth was a kind of punch line. He was the second born of twins, but until he appeared, feet first, his parents were expecting only one child. "No one knew I was coming," he said. "I was late and I came out the wrong way. That’s followed me through life."

Mr. Rothman grew up in Queens, then Scarsdale, and began pursuing a career in comedy as a teenager. At 16, he said, inspired by an arrest of Todd Bridges, a star of "Diff’rent Strokes," he came up with a joke he thought was so funny that it deserved a national audience. ("Todd Bridges was arrested today," the joke went. "Gary Coleman’s reaction to the news was, ‘Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout?’ ")

Such was his faith in the line that the young Mr. Rothman and his friends took a train to Manhattan and hung out in the lobby of Rockefeller Center, hoping to find someone who would put the joke on the Weekend Update segment of "Saturday Night Live." Instead, he said, a security guard told them to get lost.

MR. ROTHMAN went to Middlebury College in Vermont, where, he said, a dearth of funny people "helped me to develop a false sense of confidence that has carried me far."

In college Mr. Rothman got his chance to submit jokes to "Saturday Night Live." Through a friend of a friend, he learned that Norm Macdonald, then the host of Weekend Update, would pay $50 for jokes faxed in by freelance writers if he used them on the air. After many failed attempts, Mr. Rothman was at a fraternity party when he watched Mr. Macdonald close his segment with a joke Mr. Rothman had written about Jodie Foster, then starring in "Nell," and Tom Hanks, who that year (1994) starred in "Forrest Gump." The actors, the joke went, had both received Oscar nominations in the category of Best Retard.

"Everything went into slow motion," Mr. Rothman said, recalling the moment. "I remember jumping in the air and making a noise I could never recreate."

Right after college he got a 13-week contract as a junior writer at "Late Show With David Letterman."

"It’s awfully hard to be funny when you know that every bad joke you write can get you fired," he said.

Nevertheless he managed to hang on to his job. He wrote jokes for Viewer Mail, and for a while he wrote remote segments, filmed bits in which Mr. Letterman knocks on doors in the suburbs or harasses customers at the drive-through of a Taco Bell. Improbably, at 24, he was promoted to head writer.

That job lasted two stressful years, Mr. Rothman said. Then he struck out on his own. He wrote the "My Fake Job" article for The New Yorker, tried his hand at sitcom writing, working with the director Richard Linklater on a pilot and with Judd Apatow, an executive producer of "Freaks and Geeks," on the Fox show "Undeclared." When that show was canceled, he said, "that was kind of like the end."

"I was floundering," he said.

For a book of essays he had sold to Simon & Schuster, Mr. Rothman decided to write about buying a retirement condo in Florida. He headed south to stay with his grandparents at a retirement community in Delray Beach, and there, Mr. Rothman said, he had an epiphany. His grandmother was making him a sandwich, he said, and the TV was on in the background.

"I felt safe," he said.

When he did not land a television writing job in Los Angeles, he said, he decided to head for the safety of the retired life.

For six months his life began to resemble a long version of one of those remote segments he had once written for "Late Show." He hung out at the pool with retired women, played golf, softball and bingo, and even summoned the help of a New York advertising executive to help gin up interest in a shuffleboard tournament. (To promote shuffleboard, the executive tells him, he needs to "take tennis out at the knees.")

Mr. Rothman turned those experiences into set pieces for his book, which became exclusively about his time among the retired, and they figure into his television pilot, which stars Timm Sharp as a young man who goes to Florida to sell his dead grandfather’s retirement condominium, and decides instead to move in.

Mr. Rothman said he had hoped to find wisdom at Century Village, perhaps through an elder sage, as happens in the best seller "Tuesdays With Morrie," by Mitch Albom. It did not quite work out that way.

"I wanted to find a Morrie, first of all because I could’ve used the advice, and second because, if you find Morrie, your book is going to sell five million copies," Mr. Rothman said. "I realized the guy who wrote that book only spent one day a week with Morrie. If he’d spent more time with Morrie he’d realize that by Wednesday Morrie would’ve run out of things to say, and by Friday you’d want to strangle the guy."

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