First, tell me about the cat on the roof

There's a right way to ask for bad news. I chose the wrong way, writes Rob Long

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There’s an old joke about a guy who went away for a long trip and asked his brother to take care of his 16 year-old cat during his absence.

A week or so into the trip, the guy calls home to check in. He knows his cat is elderly and he’s concerned about it.

“How’s my cat?” he asks his brother.

“Your cat’s dead,” his brother tells him.

The guy is upset. “This is how you break it to me?” he asks. “This is how you give someone bad news? How insensitive can you be?”

His brother is, of course, sorry, but can’t help asking: “What was I supposed to say? The truth is the truth.”

“That may be,” the former cat-owning brother says, “but there’s a way to give someone bad news more thoughtfully. You should have psychologically prepared me for it.

“When I called, you could have said, ‘your cat was crawling on the roof of the house when he fell, and I took him to the veterinarian. And then, next week when I called, you could have said, ‘your cat’s not doing so well’. And then the third week, you could have gently broken the news. That’s all it would have taken. Just a little bit of kindness.”

“I’m really sorry,” the brother say. “I’ll do better next time.”

“It’s OK,” says the other brother. “I’m just upset. I really loved that cat. Anyway, let’s change the subject. How’s our grandmother?”

“Well,” the brother says, “she was crawling on the roof of the house …”

Announcing good news is easy. But it takes a professional to give you the bad news in a soothing way.

Agents, in Hollywood, are the professional deliverers of bad news, and most of their day is spent – and this is a matter of the economics of the entertainment industry, sheer statistics – calling up clients to tell them that whatever it was that they were hoping for is not going to happen.

The goal of the person who made the bad-news decision – the network executive who’s cancelling a show, the studio vice-president who’s passing on a pitch, the producer or director who is casting another actor in a role – is to create as wide a space as possible between them and the person who’s about to be disappointed.

So when there’s something deflating to be passed along, it’s passed along through the agent.

When you’ve got a television show on the air and you haven’t heard if the network is going to order any more episodes, you wait for someone to call you. If it’s your agent, you know the news isn’t good. If it’s the network executive, you know you’re in luck. No one ever passes up an opportunity to be the bearer of good fortune.

Unless, as happened to me last week, you’re in a random place at a random time and happen to run into an executive from the network that is currently broadcasting your television show and who probably knows exactly what the decision is going to be about getting another season.

Suddenly you’re face-to-face with the very person with the secret and important information about the size of your income over the next nine months, right there in the local Starbucks in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles.

When that happens, the protocol is to make polite and bland chitchat while smiling amiably into the middle distance and, despite a burning desire to ask about your bank account, you are expected to restrain yourself from asking about your bank account.

I’ve never been good at following protocol, so when I looked up from my cappuccino and saw, unexpectedly, the senior vice-president for current programming at the network, I just blurted out the awkward question: “Are we going to get another season?”

The problem with a blunt question is that it doesn’t give the other person enough time to craft, clever and soothing answer.

His response to me was an equally direct: “Doesn’t look like it.”

But after a stunned moment or two, we both recovered our game.

“I mean,” he said, “we haven’t made any determination yet.”

“Of course, of course,” I said.

“It’s still too early to know for sure,” he said. “We have a lot of thinking to do over the next few weeks and….”

I forget the rest of what he said, because it didn’t really matter.

Without the stately pace in which bad news usually travels in Hollywood – from a studio or network office to an agent to, eventually, the client – the two of us had been startled into being honest with each other, and the worst thing about honestly is that you can never take it back.

In other words, I asked about my show and he told me that my show was dead, rather than letting my agent call me to say that my show had been crawling on the roof.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl