Five years and about 29 VH1 presidents ago, someone at the channel approached me about creating a show. So I pitched an animated sitcom in which I would interview two celebrities an episode and then build a flimsy plot around them involving a guy named Joel Stein who works at a magazine. If VH1 had wanted imagination, it would have gone to David Lynch.
The channel got Robert Risko, who does all those Vanity Fair drawings, to draw the characters, and a Grammy-nominated band, Fountains of Wayne, to write two original songs an episode about the plot. They also composed what may be the best theme song ever written, which I would play whenever anyone came into my office, as if I had my own talk show. Then I'd say, "Can I hear your theme song?" and act really sad that the person didn't have one. The end of my theme song went, "Hey, Joel, what do you know?/You've got your own show/Try not to blow it/Because if you're not funny, then it will soon be gone/And they can fill the time with some more Lenny Kravitz songs/Then you'll be back in obscurity/Where you belong." The Fountains of Wayne have psychic powers.
VH1 liked the pilot I wrote for Hey Joel and ordered 13 episodes at about $450,000 each the most money the channel had ever spent on a series. The only reason VH1 could afford it was that the station hired Canadian animators and a Canadian supporting actor, which brought in Canadian government funding in what may be the most wasteful use of Canadian tax dollars since the country went bilingual.
Because they had made such a huge investment, the VH1 execs quickly decided I couldn't be trusted as the head writer. Or the No. 2 writer. Then they decided, after watching the animated pilot, that I was such a bad actor I couldn't play myself in a voice-over. So they hired Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men) to play me, which, oddly, we both found insulting. Next they concluded that booking celebrities for interviews was too difficult, so they wrote fake interviews and had actors pretend to be the guests, thereby removing the entire premise of the show. Then they set the show at VH1 instead of a magazine and made Joel an incredibly unlikable jerk. It had morphed from my idea to an idea that kids who used to beat me up would have liked. After I showed an episode to my father, who gushes over everything I do, he delivered what was supposed to be a comforting speech about how many bad movies Robert De Niro has been in. I hadn't been that sad in a while. Even the thought that I had wasted $6 million of Sumner Redstone's money wasn't cheering me up.
The last episode was finished more than a year ago, and VH1 has spent much of the time since then not putting the show on the air. Because of the Canadian financing, however, Hey Joel was on Canadian Bravo. I have seen the ratings, and I am tiny in Canada.
Eventually VH1 got yet another president and became this weird version of E! that I hated until I started getting invited on all the time to talk endlessly about stuff like My Two Dads. It doesn't pay, but where else can I espouse my My Two Dads theory that it's wrong to make a sitcom about a promiscuous dead mother?
Lately I have been at peace with being responsible for the Heaven's Gate of VH1, the network's last bad idea before it found its new identity. Then, a few weeks ago, two VH1 execs called me and asked if I would be the host of a show they're thinking about. It's a blend of scripted and reality programming, they said, in which I would interview people and then we would write a sitcom around it. They were, in fact, pitching me back the idea I gave them five years ago. Deep inside, I'm afraid I'll say yes.