Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dispatch from CBS: When Diane Ruggiero attacks

I should start this post with a disclaimer: Diane Ruggiero (pictured above right) and I are friends. Friend-ly? Friends-ish? Not exacty sure what noun to use, but I interviewed her when she had first made the transition from Jersey waitress to TV show creator (of CBS' "That's Life"), and we hit it off well enough that we've kept in touch, even when I wasn't interviewing her for one of the several profiles I've done over the years. (The two best ones are the one from when our first meeting, when she was brand-new to Hollywood, and one from five and a half years later, when she was working on "Veronica Mars" after her initial dreams kind of crashed and burned.)

Or, to put it another way, we know each other well enough that, when I (sitting way back in the cheap seats) asked her a question during the press conference for her new CBS show, "The Ex-List," she asked, "Is that Alan?" and when I confirmed that it was, she waved at me. (That's now two showrunners in two days name-checking me from the stage, and it needs to stop, immediately. I'm getting far too much grief from the peanut gallery.)

I say all this because I like Diane, and therefore recognize that I'm not unbiased when it comes to her. So don't take my word for it when I say her performance during that press conference was one of the funniest of the tour. Take it from more objective critics like Peter Ames Carlin or Robert Philpot. The general consensus seemed to be that even people who weren't fond of the pilot would give the show a second look based on how funny Diane was on stage. After the jump, some of the many highlights.

"The Ex-List" is about a woman (Elizabeth Reaser, aka Ava/Rebecca from "Grey's Anatomy") who is told by a psychic that she must find her soulmate and marry him within the year or else die alone, and that her soulmate is a man with whom she was romantically involved in the past. A critic opened the session with the obvious question of asking what happens if the show gets renewed for a second season.

Diane put a hand to her mouth, made like this had never occurred to her before, and let out a perfectly-timed, "Oh, no."

Later, a critic referred to the subplot in the pilot that featured a lot of "vaginal humor," and without missing a beat, she replied, "I actually let my vagina write half of the script, so it's not my fault."

She discussed how her father is so proud of her he intends to have his whole church group watch the pilot, and when she warned him about the racier material, he then made sure that she was being well-paid and had health insurance, and left her with only one other instruction: "Don't make fun of Italians."

Like many proud Italian-Americans, Diane tends to talk with her hands, and at one point, the gestures became so frenetic that they started to create feedback in the microphone she was using. She tried to keep her hands clamped to the armrest in her chair, and there was a very long pause.

"That's awesome," she noted. "Now I stopped doing that and I have nothing to say. What the hell was I talking about?"

At another point, while trying to discuss the dynamic between Reaser's character and her friends on the show, she shared a Keanu/Sandra Bullock-related game she and her own friends like to play.

"We have a 'Lake House' drinking game in which we watch 'The Lake House' and if you want to make a joke, you have to drink. And we're drunk in, like, the first five minutes, because none of us cannot, like, not make a joke. It's just ridiculous."

Finally, Philadelphia Inquirer critic Jonathan Storm asked her about her transformation from neophyte Meadowlands waitress to the sleek Hollywood veteran who sat before us, and the resulting monologue (interrupted on occasion by Stormy) was so funny and charming that it won over even the real cynics in the room. I don't know how much of it translates out of context, but I'm going to reproduce it in its entirety for you to get a sense of the pure, unfiltered Diane Ruggiero:
DIANE RUGGIERO: I mean, in the beginning when I first got out here and I was like "Whoo-hoo. Look at this. Keys to the kingdom." I was like "Oh, wait. I have to actually do something. Crap." It was scary and I had no idea, you know, what I was -- terrifying. I literally was waitressing one day and then three months later was at my typewriter like -- but then the show was cancelled and I didn't work for like a year and I'm like "So does someone come and tell me to go home? What happens now? They don't just give you another pilot?" I was just waiting for that to happen. Apparently no one else was waiting for that to happen, and so it was scary.

And that's like one of the things -- you know, being a writer, it's not just like they're constantly like giving you jobs and shows. There was some lean years, man, and -- well, a lean year and a half. "Woe is me." Right?

Then I went on "Veronica Mars" and that was the best experience of my life, hands down, and that is why I'm here, I believe. And doing "Veronica Mars," Rob Thomas is a genius. He's one of my best friends. I had this feeling like I couldn't write anything other than my stuff in Jersey and what we were talking about, like that little world, like if I can throw my Aunt Janice into it, I'm cool, but otherwise I'm screwed. And working on "Veronica Mars" meant that I can actually write and, you know, other things. It was a great experience.

As far as California goes, it was like Alan, who I know from New Jersey. I used to be heavier by like 50 pounds, 50 pounds, and they actually weren't going to let me stay here because apparently -- I would like go into a store and "Do you have a size 14?" And they're like "Bitch, you're in California. We don't carry a size 14. What are you talking about? Put down the fries. Go to the beach."

Talk about ex lists, like in Jersey I was like cute, you know, kind-of-ish. I'm not -- I never had a problem getting a boyfriend. I dated. I had people. I literally was out here. I'm like "Oh, my God. If they're not coming at me with like a head shot going 'You're a producer, right,' there's like nothing." That's how I met Adam. But yes, it's different. I don't know. I'm just talking. Did I answer anything that you wanted to know?

How am I still here? Is this cool? This rocks. It's really -- like getting to do -- I have this weird, funny thing with CBS where I love them and they're very, very sweet to me and very supportive of me and, you know, there were times we were trying to work together again and it was always me and Barbara Hall. It was always me and some rock-star producer. And I'm like "Why are you even pretending that I'm going to get this job?" Like I'm going to go in with my little like note cards and pitch you and then like some bad-ass producer is going to come in and I'm going to be -- you know, and it was like pulling away the football a couple of times and then they called me about this and I was thinking "Okay. Who is the bad-ass producer attached?" And there wasn't, so I just sunk my teeth in and was like "We have to do this quick because of the strike? Cool. You're stuck with me. Try to shake me now. Just try it."

QUESTION: What do the friends and family back in East Rutherford or wherever it is think about what you have become?

DIANE RUGGIERO: I have such like a "boom" response that I just go "Don't cry." I'm literally thinking about my sister and my parents. They're -- I mean, it's cool. It's cool to -- it's great. My family is so incredibly supportive and they love it and my father is still surprised, I think -- well, actually, no. He's not surprised anymore, but I think there was a long period of time where I was such a loser like that my family -- if you looked -- big Italian family, tons of cousins, and if you looked at all of them and you said "Okay. Who's the jackass? Who is moving back home and living with her parents," like universally they would all be pointing at me. So me doing this is like kind of a big -- it was a big deal, but now they're all very supportive and proud and it's cool. It's cool. I have to say as far as exes go and all that business, it's cool to get to -- this is awful. It's kind of bad-ass and cool to get to know that the people that knew you when and perhaps maybe didn't think that -- it's like "How do you like me now?" It's like "You broke up with me. Gee. I hope you're not a storyline."

I have to say -- there is -- am I supposed to -- is there like another question or -- I'm going to tell you something really quick.

QUESTION: Just keep going.

DIANE RUGGIERO: So we're talking about like -- you know, I have -- when I meet Elizabeth, I'm looking at Elizabeth and I'm going "Who is" -- I love the idea that people broke up with -- as different from the Israeli version where they only did 11 episodes and she broke up with all the guys. I wanted to have -- to be -- to throw some egg on Elizabeth's face and have some unrequited -- unrequited stuff. And the whole premeeting with Elizabeth is me going "Who is the guy that dumps Elizabeth?" I'm trying to like think about -- what I could think about -- my own personal stories, what I could bring to the table and see Elizabeth doing those things just brought me so much joy. Thinking about the jackass moves that I made, I literally -- and I thought this guy I was dating was cheating on me, right? So of course I snuck around and so he -- because you have to make sure because perhaps you're wrong. And so I'm in his apartment. I see him do this thing in his closet. He has this paper and he puts it under this box and I knew about this box. This box was like a box where he kept shit and it was this cardboard box and it was on the shelf in his closet. He puts the paper and I'm like "What's the paper?" Whatever. And so he leaves and I'm there and I'm like it's my right as the person who is sleeping with him to know what is in that -- it's my right.

So I go to take the box down and I'm not kidding. I go like this (indicating) and then it was just like (inaudible) and this whole like white -- actually yellowish cloud of stuff came out and then just went (inaudible) and settled on everything. It was a box of ashes from Mount St. Helens and it was. You can't like -- that's when you go "I guess we broke up" because there's no --


Seriously with the DustBuster and then like sitting there with Elizabeth just going "How badly do I want to see her" -- and then just ash everywhere. And so I guess we can't do that now. But just seeing her as like my little person that I get to make do all the embarrassing things I did, but look cool and be funnier.
Maybe you had to be there, I don't know. Go read the old Star-Ledger profiles if these didn't work for ya.


Anonymous said...

That was (to use a favorite word of Diane's) awesome.

She is my friend. She has been through a lot of changes in her life and retained the core of "good people" that is her essence. Thanks for being so supportive. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting all that, Alan. My husband and I were big fans of "That's Life," and I was thrilled when I saw her name in the credits of "Veronica Mars." I might not have bothered with "The ex-List", but now that I know of her involvement, I will definitely take a look.

And I agree with everything she said about "That's Life." I loved LML's work on "Knots Landing" and Homefront", but hated what she did to Ruggiero's show.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of That's Life, whatever happened to Heather Paige Kent? She seemed to be getting tons of TV for a while and then disappeared after that show. Too bad b/c she was really likeable.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Speaking of That's Life, whatever happened to Heather Paige Kent?

She married a very wealthy plastic surgeon shortly before "That's Life" began -- that's the reason the show had to film in LA instead of on location in Jersey -- and I could see her deciding that, if money wasn't a factor anymore, maybe the whole acting thing wasn't that interesting.

Just speculating; I have no idea. But she did appear in an unsold pilot with Camryn Manheim a few years ago.