William Morris assistant rocks agency world with e-mail
By Gina Piccalo
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 25, 2007
On his last day as a William Morris Agency assistant, Shai Steinberger sent out a whopper of a "goodbye" e-mail, rife with tales of Christmas party debauchery, (failed) seductions in the file room and embarrassing celebrity encounters. He poked fun at agency President Jim Wiatt and his former bosses, agents David Lonner and Jeff Shumway, and in doing so, humorously breached Hollywood etiquette.
Naturally, the "I love you, WMA" e-mail pinged around the agency world in a matter of minutes on Aug. 17. Agents and assistants who'd never met Steinberger sent him kudos, calling his missive "profound" and "epic." The day after, L.A. Weekly's industry columnist Nikki Finke posted it on her blog deadlinehollywooddaily.com and by Monday, Steinberger was "the talk of the agency world," said an agency staffer. "Everyone was e-mailing it back and forth. Everyone thought it was absolutely hysterical."
A bone-headed career move, maybe, but hysterical nonetheless.
On Wednesday, Steinberger, former assistant and aspiring comic, gamely charted his ascent to 15-minute fame-dom at a Beverly Hills coffee spot swarming with actress/model/writer types. He was a little overwhelmed by all the attention, but admittedly not one to shy away from the limelight.
"I'm loud," he said at one point. "I'm out there."
With his mirrored sunglasses firmly in place, he spoke at warp speed, covering everything from freshman year at Harvard to the two years he spent at the agency to the moment-by-moment anxiety he now battles.
Long, long story short, after college, after an "atrocious" year at Creative Artists Agency, Steinberger, now 26, landed in the mailroom at William Morris and persuaded Lonner to hire him over someone else with this line: "I know, like, how many Splendas you like in your cappuccino."
Steinberger's raucous farewell post was a rare act of rebellion in the insular world of talent agencies, where even the most mundane secrets demand Pentagon-level secrecy, where people of much greater status are ostracized for far less. It read like a goofy sendup of agency life as shark tank with Steinberger as the hapless protagonist, boozing and wooing his way around the photocopier.
The letter could easily be taken for a job pitch. But Steinberger emphatically denies he was using the forum for anything but good-natured fun. He wasn't gunning for representation. He was just trying to live up to his reputation. When friends heard Steinberger was leaving, they were braced for the full force of his personality in his goodbye.
"People are expecting fireworks, Shai," one told him.
A spokesman for the agency declined to comment on Steinberger or his e-mail. It's likely though that he ruffled a few feathers over there. Lonner probably wasn't too keen on Steinberger's more colorful musings. Steinberger wrote, for example, that during his year-end review at the Grill, where Lonner introduced him to everyone who mattered -- a big, big deal for an assistant -- Steinberger was still so drunk from the night before that he passed out in the booth just as producer Michael London sat down to discuss his "upcoming slate." (The passing out part, Steinberger later said, was just for comedic effect.)
Steinberger's recounting of the time he mistook actress Molly Sims for a new assistant and invited her to share some Koo Koo Roo probably didn't go over so well either.
Still, Steinberger is clearly genuine when he says he loved his job. A philosophy major who started out pre-med at Harvard, he'd already tasted failure when the Lampoon staff rejected him. Four times. (Apparently, the staff never recovered from his urinating on the magazine's doorstep freshmen year, he said.) Then there were the Open Mic Nights at the Improv ("abysmal") and the Comedy Store ("equally abysmal").
At William Morris, he was earnestly working his way up the food chain -- mailroom, mail cart, coffee runs, legal files, reception, photocopying -- until finally he was chatting up people like directors Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino. Agency life, he said, seemed to get him "very, very close" to his dream.
"I saw the young covering agents, I saw the up-and-coming vice presidents, I saw the powerful agents, and you see where you're headed," he said. "When you go to sleep at night, as cliché as it sounds, you ask yourself, are you pursuing the dream? As much as I loved William Morris, I wasn't pursuing the dream."
Steinberger said he has about four months before his savings run out. Then he'll probably tutor to pay the bills. He has some vague ideas about a sketch comedy website. Next week, he said, he'll fly to New York to shop it to potential investors.
He's still groping for his life's path, he said. Maybe he'll write books. Maybe screenplays.
On one point, however, Steinberger is crystal clear:
"I'm never going to be an assistant again."
On Friday, a William Morris assistant sent out an email (see below) to scores of the agency's staff members and some outsiders as well. This is a lesson in what assistants should never do.
Shai Steinberger (Harvard '04) worked for WMA's David Lonner and Jeff Shumway.
His email is a slice of life of what it's like to work there. Good thing Steinberger is going back into stand-up. Because it's safe to say he'll never get a job at a tenpercentery again. On the other hand, he should get a TV development deal:
08/17/2007 05:03 PM
To: BHAssts, bhagents, BHMailroom, BHTrainees, BHFloaters, NYAssts, NYAgents, Accounting, IT, BHHelp
Subject: I love you, WMA
After an incredibly rewarding 2+ years, I am moving on from WMA. It is not going to be easy leaving behind the two best-looking Indian men in the United States and the sexiest Chief Operating Officer in the entertainment business (Hi Irv!) but a man’s gotta follow his dream: Beginning next week, I will be a tattoo artist at “Hal’s Tattoos and Piercings” in Venice Beach.
There are a lot of things I am going to miss about this place. I will miss Mario De Leon’s enlightening speeches about the cutthroat nature of the entertainment business. I will miss mistaking Molly Sims for a new assistant and urging her to come quickly to the Atrium for free Koo Koo Roo on a Thursday night. I will miss whooping and hollering at the top of my lungs for John Travolta in the 151 lobby. I will miss trying (unsuccessfully) to get lucky with a gorgeous summer intern in the legal files closet of the 150 building. I will miss the tattoo of Joanne Wiles on Jessica Steindorff’s ass. And I will miss sexual harassment training which has been enormously educational for me.
I will miss Chris Petrikin and Christian Muirhead chastising me for being featured in Esquire’s 2005 “Profile of the American Man”. (Hey – I can’t help being so damn sexy!)
I will miss introducing myself to Jim Wiatt at the 2005 WMA Christmas party and Jim responding that he recalled seeing me unshaven on October 16th of that year. I will miss Ian Aroughetti holding my hair back at the 2006 WMA Christmas party in the wake of my immature and unbridled exploitation of the open bar. And I will miss Aaron Reed selflessly driving me all the way back from the Cabana Club that night to Santa Monica stopping every 5 minutes along the Sunset Strip for me to puke my guts out. And I will miss David Lonner taking me to The Grille the next day for my “year-end” meeting - David proudly parading my still-drunk ass (wearing a T-shirt and carrying a 1-Liter bottle of Fruit Punch Gatorade) around the biggest power-lunch venue in the entertainment business, introducing me to all the biggest producers in Hollywood and Endeavor uber-agents. And I will surely never forget passing out in our booth after Michael London decided to sit down at our table to discuss his “upcoming slate” – I vaguely recall drifting off into peaceful slumber dreaming about successful independent films that are artistic but also very commercial. (Think Sideways.) But most of all, I will [miss] Jeff Shumway asking me on a daily basis what color thong I am wearing underneath my suit (lime green today, btw).
I would like to thank David Lonner for teaching me that Asian mysticism and Jewish theology are not mutually exclusive and that being Jewish is more than just being part of a religion – it’s being a powerful man in show business. And Jeff Shumway – I think it’s safe to say that it was love at first sight. I saw that perfect Windsor knot in your tie and the no-bullshit, 3-foot, Mary Poppins-style attorney briefcase you were holding – and I knew we were meant to be together. To both of you – you are the two best friends and mentors one could have in the entertainment business and I know that years from now, when I’m cruising up the PCH on a Ducati motorcycle in a Karate GII, listening to U2 while muttering passages from the Old Testament – I’ll be thinking of both of you.
[More thanks to a long list of names]
I would also like to thank Jim Wiatt just like Steve Martin thanked Steven Spielberg at the 75th Annual Academy Awards – because it can’t hurt.
Over & Out,