Ben Domineau is the luckiest s.o.b. on the planet.
The Onion contributor and sometime Weekend Update joke wizard penned a wickedly funny spec script for Seinfeld set in the days after one of the most unfunny events in American history since Pearl Harbor: 9/11. Yet, irony often finds a home amidst human devastation—why should our iconic television characters be immune?
Jerry is neurotic about human ash coating the city around him. Kramer tries to satisfy an insurance claim for the box-cutter he lent to hijacker mastermind Mohammed Atta. Elaine rejoices when her dullard boyfriend dies in the tower collapse, but alas, he reappears and mires her in guilt. George falsely masquerades as a hero survivor.
For every geek out there hunched over a keyboard looking at a blinking cursor in Final Draft, don’t even think about writing something this innovative, scathing and groundbreaking. Satirical creativity that cuts through the façade of network television to reveal a deeper and more painful truth is mostly unwelcome.
Delete your screenwriting software and apply to work at Ruby Tuesdays.
Why so cynical? Well, as the fates would have it, I was similarly inspired back in 2014. Over a restless weekend, I penned my sardonic magnum opus—Homeless Improvement.
The concept was simple and dark. You remember the happy Taylor family from 90s standout sitcom Home Improvement? Yeah, they’re homeless on the streets of Detroit now.
Tim scavenges the ruins of Detroit. Jill is a crazy wino haunted by her son Randy’s death on 9/11. Brad is doing a bid in the clink for rape. Wilson works a glory hole. Al Borland manages for Chengba, the Chinese tool company that put Binford out of business. Mark is a junky, obviously.
If you’re laughing right now, you’re one of the few good ones. Thank you for your cooperation (and presumably your root alienation).
If you’re disturbed by the very thought of this scenario, don’t worry, you are not alone.
Here’s the whole script if you want to take the trip down a rabbit hole guaranteed to ruin your childhood.
Thanks to a few devoted friends, the script began to grow legs. Homeless Improvement made it to the desks of people I’d been watching on television since before I could grow facial hair. I began to feel as if this sordid affair might be my ticket.
Clearly, I was relying on linking up with my fellow deviants (of whom there are many in the film industry). A few people really dug it. I got notes back strewn with ugly descriptors like “twisted,” “deranged,” “demented” and “disturbed.” All of which were used in the positive, non-pejorative sense.
Unfortunately, the most emblematic notes I received were part of a boilerplate critique from a renowned yearly screenplay contest seeking “originality and promise in a work.” Let’s call it “Scamprance” for conversation’s sake.
I delight in thinking about the impressionable, fresh-outta-film-school kid who got a few bucks to read through Homeless Improvement. Ten minutes later, he’s sitting in his soiled office chair, sobbing uncontrollably, hands tensing around a copy of Save the Cat, wondering if America can ever pull itself out of the tailspin of moral decline.
Here’s what he (or she, I guess) had to say. I’ve gone ahead and annotated it in italics.
“This is definitely an original sequel of sorts (Backhanded compliment—at least you tried to say something nice. Ma would be proud). However, the Reader isn’t clear what audience this script is written for (Obviously, sick bastards who have grown to despise the saccharine sweet, phony culture we were spoon fed as children. Or, alternately, anyone paying attention to our sad sack world). The story is much more tragic than funny, and this is something that would largely alienate the original fans of Home Improvement (Bingo! If you thought Home Improvement was an untouchable, be-all-to-end-all moment in TV, I don’t want you voting for president much less reading anything I write). The original show also went off the air more than ten years ago, so many of the jokes may not be as effective as they could be (I’ll bet you don’t even remember the Wonder Years). If the Writer could do more to increase the darkly comedic aspect of the story, these issues can be resolved (Like, I dunno, having Brad get raped by a prison inmate named Sourdough?). The Writer should also consider taking out the 9/11 references, however, as they may alienate the potential audience. (You can go ahead and get on your knees in front of Ben Domineau now)”
Suffice it to say, Homeless Improvement did not go viral. I did not get a manic call from Tim Allen in the middle of the night asking me to fly to Monaco a.s.a.p. so we could spitball ideas together. I did not even get the satisfaction of a cease and desist from the show’s original creators.
The script had a lot going for it. You already know the characters. You already know the world. Anyone who watched TV in the 90s knows this family better than their own. More to the point, this idyllic version of life seems so far away nowadays. The world has changed and with it our view of “average” and “happy.” The Taylors and all their bull shit were primed to get eviscerated.
The script was also incredibly problematic for a variety of reasons. Chief amongst them—it went too far, killed too many sacred cows. Detroit is an apocalyptic wasteland. Jill is clearly on the lunatic fringe. All-American, toe-headed Brad is clearly getting assaulted in jail. Tim, the TV father you never had, but always wanted, becomes a lawless sex fiend iconic of the spiritual collapse of our western world. Also: 9/11.
I unknowingly touched the third rail at the heart of popular culture. In the violation of a symbolic family, I violated our society itself. TV and the people who critique scripts written for it are in the business of selling ads. No problem, I like money too. Unfortunately, this particular script questioned the basic feasibility of the American economy. Homeless Improvement wonders aloud if things will ever get better or if the Chinese are just going to buy everything.
As a takeaway, let’s just say that some people come around at the perfect moment with a great idea that’s been perfectly executed. Others got there first with something much more ugly.
I’ll say something no one else in Hollywood will: be as messed up as possible, damn the rules, create a hideous version of the world around you, relish in your alienation, force people to ingest your wickedness and laugh when you realize you’ve irreparably damaged their naïve idea of what it means to be an American today.
Just don’t expect to get paid for it.