If you had asked me when I was a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, you’d be dead wrong if you thought I’d say a fireman or policeman or a carpenter, like my dad. You’d be closer if you had guessed a fashion designer; I practically fell over when I first saw Melanie Moniz’s Barbie in full-blown ballgown splendor.
No, what I wanted to be was a star.
But not just any kind of star. Not a Fanny-Brice-becomes-a-huge-Ziegfeld-star kind of star. Not even a Barbra-Streisand-playing-Fanny-Brice-becoming-a-huge-Ziegfeld-star kind of star. I wanted to be the brightest star in the firmament of all stardom. I’m not talking elementary-school dreams here. Every kid wants to be the star of the class play. I’m talking kindergarten dreams. Even younger. If you ask my mother, I’m pretty sure she’d say I was being a diva at birth, because it took 18 hours of screaming labor for me to make my debut.
And for those first blissful years, I was the object of everyone’s affection: parents, godparents, grandparents, and neighbors. I took on the mantle of the family jester. And heavy is the head that wears the pillowcase hat.
My shtick? Goofy faces, silly pratfalls, singing into my father’s comb while he was trying to watch the evening news. But, as I describe in my memoir, Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, all that came to a halt when my cousin Wayne was born when I was five.
“Overnight, no one [seemed] to care anymore…Instead, I was met with a quick nod and a distracted “Uh-huh,” as everyone leaned in to coo at the swaddle in my godmother’s arms.
Trying harder was my only option. I rehearsed and rehearsed Tommy James and the Shondells’ song “Hanky Panky,” choreographing the number with two of the neighborhood girls as backup singers. We practiced the dances we saw on Saturday afternoon TV—the Monkey, the Frug, and the Watusi. Their arms oscillated double-time, legs kicked, asses wriggled.
When family, neighbors, and my godfather’s friends—tough-looking men with knots of muscles wrestling under their T-shirts, and their skinny wives with lipstick the color of pink cake frosting—arrived carrying gigantic wrapped presents for Wayne, I ran to the front of the porch, sending the girls to the back.
I started: “My baby does the hanky panky!”
“Yeah, my baby does the hanky panky!” The girls repeated.
As I sang, I walked down the stairs, arms out, touching each step with my toe first like I’d seen on TV. They all just waved and hurried past, the women’s high heels clicking Morse code on the pavement—“S-o-r-r-y, . n-o-t . t-o-d-a-y, . D-a-v-i-d.”
Was I daunted? Puh-lease. It took 16 more years and countless performances, but I ended up in Carnegie-Mellon University’s theater program in 1981. (That’s my theater headshot on top.)
And at CMU, it took me just a year and a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown (chapters 17 to 20 in “Banana“) to learn it wasn’t performing or singing or acting I wanted, but stardom. Fame. Pure unconditional love of millions. I wanted auditoriums to stand and cheer when I stepped on stage; fans to fairly catapult themselves over cars and busses in New York City traffic to get my autograph; my face, three stories tall, to loom over Times Square and Hollywood Boulevard. I wanted to be a male EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) winner, second only to the incomparable composer Richard Rodgers.
But famous for what, though? I didn’t know. I just wanted it. And I was positive when I got it, I’d feel successful, whole, and healed. This was the early ’80s, remember, and there was no such thing as being famous without some kind of talent attached. It took the Kardashians to invent fame for fame’s sake.
Life has a funny way of beating the silly out of you over time. After dropping out of CMU, I went on to become a waiter (obvious career move), past-life regressionist (we can talk about that later, Ms. Maclaine), then onto the writerly part of my life: advertising copywriter, food writer, and founder of this website. My untethered (some would say “unhinged”) dreams of being a star were folded away, grandiose fantasies shrunk to human size. I replaced my lust for fame with a good life with The One, my unlawfully wedded husband, and our furbabies.
That is until Aella and Roxie entered our lives.
Aella and Roxie were TV production partners. Aella was brusque and all business. Roxie was the personable one. They found us through a friend of a friend of a publicist. Our friend suggested we “take a meeting” over Skype to see if we all liked each other. Didn’t people ever just have meetings anymore, I wondered.
The One and I squeezed into the frame. We were frantic, talking over each other, flinging the zingers, all to make them laugh. We must have looked like two desperate chipmunks on speed. But underneath it all, I could feel the engine of my fame-lust turning over. Calm down, David, I reminded myself. It’s only a meeting.
“What kind of show were you thinking of?” Aella asked.
The One and I had rehearsed this. We had it down cold. “Neither of us wants a cook-and-look show,” I said, referring to those programs where the hosts dump, stir, fry, and sauté, while telling tired anecdotes to fill time.
“We’d like a more reality-type TV show,” The One added.
“Think The Real Housewives of Orange County without the botox or silicone meets The Barefoot Contessa,” I said. “Real but educational and funny.”
“And we have a great title,” The One beamed. He’d come up with it, and I agreed with him; it was fantastic. He paused so they could take it in: “Two Hungry Homos.”
Finally, a single “huh….” from Roxie.
“Well, we can always work on the title,” I interjected, not wanting to derail the whole project over a title.
“Let us think about it and run it by some colleagues, ok?” Aella said. Roxie explained they were going to some sort of convention of TV production companies and producers. If the idea sparked some interest, they’d get back to us. And that was it. The entirety of the meeting.
“I knew this was going to happen,” I said to The One. I’d heard of production companies listening to pitches from gullible folks and turning them down. Then the next thing you know–boom!–their show’s on the air with other talent. I imagined Two Hungry Homos on Food Network with A-lister gays, like Neil Patrick Harris and David Burka.
The next few days were Xanax territory for me. I vacillated between imagining The One and me winning Emmy Awards for best culinary show to me hurling myself off the roof after watching Harris and Burka starring in our show.
A few days later we got a breathless call from Aella and Roxie.
“We’re here at the convention, and you’ll never guess what!” said Aella.
“Never!” Roxie reiterated.
“What, WHAT??!” The One and I pleaded.
“Well…,” Aella started then paused to build the suspense. “…we talked up your show….”
“And…are you sure you’re ready?”
“Aella, bottom line!” The One barked.
“Al Roker’s production company, Food Network Canada, and a new lifestyle channel expressed interest.”
“Jump back and get out of town,” I said. “Are you serious? Really?”
“Totally,” added Roxie. “But remember, this is just interest. It means nothing unless they buy it.”
“So what’s next?” The One asked.
“A down-and-dirty pilot. As soon as we get back, we’ll work up a treatment,” Aella said.
“Oh, one thing: David, do you have a chef friend you could rope into being in the pilot?” asked Roxie.
I flipped through my mental Rolodex. I had written the newsletter for Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant Aquavit. No, he wouldn’t remember me. I’d been a front waiter at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s first U.S. place, Restaurant Lafayette. I knew he’d remember me, but be on my TV show? Nah, he’d never do it. Too far of a step down for him. I’d been a guest on Emeril Lagasse’s show, The Essence of Emeril, once. Forget it, we spoke for all of a minute on camera.
“I really don’t have any,” I answered.
“What about Jacques Torres?” said The One.
“Right! Jacques Torres!” In 2008, I had spent six months researching how to make a better chocolate chip cookie for a New York Times article. The recipe that appeared in the piece was based upon Jacques’s famous cookies.
“I think Jacques would be game,” I added.
“Great! Got to run. Talk soon.”
The One and I looked at each other, stunned. We hung up the phone and sat on the couch. Neither of us spoke. I think he was wondering what he’d gotten himself into, and I was searching the living room for the perfect spot for my Emmy–the first accolade in my star comeback EGOT pursuit.
About a week later, all four of us had a working Skype session. Aella and Roxie had created a pilot treatment and wanted to go over it with us. At the top of the one-sheeter they sent us it read:
"Unnamed Food Pilot"
THAT didn’t sit well. I was betting on the controversy and alliterative fun of “Two Hungry Homos.” Were we already losing the battle before waging war? I let it go. For the moment.
FADE IN: MORNING. DAVID and THE ONE are in bed waking up. They wish each other a Happy Valentine's Day. We see them getting ready for the day. THE ONE, a NYC real estate agent, makes coffee and looks over his schedule of properties. DAVID makes scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. They sit at the dining room table eating and talking. Occasionally, they reach out to hold hands. When it's time for THE ONE to go to work, they hug goodbye. DAVID sees him out and starts his day at the computer working on his website, Leite's Culinaria.
“Do you want us to comment?” I asked.
“No, let’s get through the whole pilot.” I went to say something but The One dug his heel into my foot.
DAVID gets up, goes to the window, and watches THE ONE cross the street. Suddenly, he dashes to the bedroom and dresses. CUT TO a montage of THE ONE at work...meeting clients...lunching with colleagues...attending a seminar, walking down NYC streets--which he adores. He's a gay Marlo Thomas on THAT GIRL.
I held back an eye roll. A gay Marlo Thomas? Granted, The One loves the city, and he even loves That Girl, but I couldn’t see him running around in a red-and-blue skirt suit with a wide-brim hat looking into store windows and pirouetting at Lincoln Center.
CUT TO DAVID meeting JACQUES TORRES in his downtown store/chocolate factory. DAVID asks JACQUES if he would be willing to teach him how to make Valentine's Day truffles. JACQUES agrees, and together they make two dozen truffles, which DAVID boxes and tucks under his arm as he says goodbye to JACQUES.
Now, this sounded interesting. Educational and possibly fun. I could do my best Lucy at the chocolate factory imitation. So, a big thumbs up. Aella continued:
CUT TO THE ONE at home at night. He's arranging flowers in the middle of the dining room table as DAVID enters the apartment. We watch them prepare a Valentine's meal from LEITE'S CULINARIA. CUT TO the bedroom. DAVID and THE ONE are tucked in opening Valentine's Day cards. Finally, DAVID takes out the box of truffles he made earlier in the day. The ONE is deeply touched. He opens the box and they each take a truffle and kiss as we... FADE OUT
“Well, what do you think?” Roxie asked.
I looked at The One hoping he’d jump in before I blurted out something.
“It’s…um…interesting,” he said. “I don’t know what a pilot is supposed to be like,” he added, trying to sound diplomatic.
“What about you, David?”
The One squeezed my fingers hard under the desk. Translation: “Hold your tongue.”
“This is terrible. That’s not us.” I turned to The One and asked, “Tell me: When have we ever not argued on Valentine’s Day?” He scrambled to answer, but I beat him to it. “Never. That’s when.” Then to Aella and Roxie, “We argue just about every day, let alone every Valentine’s Day.”
I went on to say that this wasn’t reality TV. There wasn’t anything real about it. I explained none of my readers would believe that story. They expect me to screw up. They expect me to get in a bind that only The One can extricate me from. Like the time I almost burned down our house baking a Thanksgiving pie.
“They know our banter,” I said, “how we can be the Bickersons at times. They know we’re the “Odd Couple”–I’m sloppy, big-mouthed Oscar, he’s fastidious, proper Felix. They rely upon that dynamic. They love that dynamic.”
Yes, I could smell the bridges burning as I spoke.
“And who in their right mind would find a reality show about New York real estate agents remotely interesting?” I added as punctuation to all this silliness.
(Flash forward to the run-away hit Million Dollar Listing. So successful is the show and the star brokers that real-estate mogul Fredrik Ekland and his business partner John Gomes bought wildly expensive homes near us in Roxbury. So, yup, I got that big-time wrong.)
It was their turn to be speechless. Finally, Aella fairly shouted, “You don’t understand reality TV. It’s not real, it’s all set up. It’s all scripted. We put you in scenarios we think are best for a network’s viewers. We create your relationship based–sometimes loosely based–on what you tell us.” I rankled at the emphasis on the word “we.”
From there, we went around and around. Me insisting our life had to look like our life, them insisting our life needed to fit a gap in the network’s programming. After close to an hour, we ended the call.
To their estimable credit, Aella and Roxie tried several more times to explain the ways of reality television, networks, and programming. And afterward, The One and I discussed if we could allow who we were to be created by a conglomerate. Each time we came to the same conclusion: No.
So back into the drawer went dreams of being a star and fantasies of dumpsters full of money. Our home wouldn’t be on any tour of Roxbury’s celebrities, which have included Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Stephen Sondheim. (And, now, the brokers from Million Dollar Listing.) I would never get my barn-cum-TV studio in the backyard.
But I found it was easier this time; my life was so much richer and fuller than when I was in my twenties. The ache was less, the need for approval blunted.
Instead of gunning for stardom, I spent my time writing a cookbook and, later, my memoir, and entertaining. And over the years, every time a guest would watch us together in the kitchen and invariably say, “You two need your own TV show,” we’d smile and nod. If they only knew.
Then one day it hit me. It was so obvious, I didn’t see why I hadn’t thought of it before. I don’t need a production company. I don’t need producers or a network. I can create our own show, our own cockeyed, poorly-produced-but-utterly-“us” show.
So now, every once in a while, The One and I film ourselves in the kitchen–when one of us hadn’t stormed off in a snit because we argued over lines or screen time or direction. Sometimes we’re alone, other times we have a special guest like Zoë François. Clearly, there are no Emmy, Webby, or James Beard awards in our future. But it’s us. As we are. Real.
But just in case TV comes calling again, I trademarked the name. I wasn’t about to allow some pretty young twenty-something A-list gays to take our name. As far as I’m concerned, there are countless gay guys who like to eat, but there will only ever be two hungry homos.