Monday, February 2, 2009

Driving Vin Di Bona

[ Continuing my project of reposting articles from the now-defunct, here is a story from February 2007. ]

Driving Vin DiBona

From the very start -- 1990, according to IMDb -- my dad was a huge fan of "America's Funniest Home Videos." The rest of us liked it, but he LOVED it. Every Sunday, the family would gather together to watch the latest in videotaped buffoonery, as hosted by Bob Saget. I was 9.

Even as a youngster, I was a credits-watcher. I don't know why, but I'd always considered credits a part of the show. I had always been a TV addict, so I suppose it was my natural inclination to watch whatever popped up on the screen. If you watched the show, why wouldn't you watch the credits that went along with it? I didn't know who any of these people were; but I knew there must have been a reason their names were there.

The Vin DiBona Productions logo was a memorable one. It was simple, but effective. An orb would spin around the middle of a graded blue background. As it spun, it would unravel, revealing the cursive signature: "Vin DiBona Productions." My dad would often recite the name because, let's face it, Vin DiBona is a pretty sweet name. It just is. Who was this Vin DiBona? Why did his name get to spin around a blue screen all by itself? As I grew older, I began to understand production logos better: how people went about creating shows and forming companies and clouding our airwaves with nonsense like "Sit, Ubu, sit." My viewership of "Videos" eventually flagged. I was a teenager, and I had better things to do. Such as, I don't know, watching different shows. My dad remained a steady viewer, witnessing the awkward periods of host transitions, theme song changes, and name rebranding (by now, they've dropped the word "Home" from the title, although I believe it's still part of their mailing address). High school. College. The "real world." One day, I found myself driving a minivan around L.A. I looked to the right, and there, in the passenger seat, was none other than Vin DiBona himself. Through circumstances that I'm sure will be detailed in some future writings, my friend and former roommate, Rob, ended up working at Vin DiBona Productions as an office- and sometimes set-production assistant. On the occasion of a two-week trip out of town, Rob convinced the higher-ups to let me fill in for him. During this time, Mr. DiBona was buying a new car. It seems Vin is something of a muscle-car enthusiast and, after 15+ years of "AFV," certainly has the money to indulge his tastes. When the hour approached for Vin to pick up his latest prize, the other PAs were already occupied. It fell to me to drive Vin to the dealership to pick up his latest acquisition. At this point, I didn't know Vin all that well. I'd only seen him in person once, having a brief moment to say "hi" as he passed through the lobby. Ah, the lobby. The offices of Vin DiBona Productions are very nice. Tidy, earth-toned and wood-paneled. And on the wall next to the reception desk was the signature I had become so familiar with in my TV-watching youth: Vin DiBona Productions, in all its shimmering, brass-plated glory. Other than that brief encounter in the lobby, I only knew what Vin looked like from the full-crew group photo Rob appeared in for the 2003-2004 season. Santa Claus. Vin DiBona looks like Santa Claus. I'm not the first person to think it or say it. (I may be the first person to blog about it.) In fairness, Vin probably weighs less than your average depiction of Father Christmas. But his hair is white, from the crown to the bottom of his full beard. He has a kind smile, and ruddy cheeks. He's one of the few people in the entertainment industry to wear a button-down shirt and tie to work every day. And he's really, really nice. Cool, even. Several people, on separate occasions, assured me that Vin was "a cool guy." Hence, I was comfortable calling him "Vin," instead of "Mr. DiBona." First, I had to drive one of the company cars over to Vin's house to pick him up. The company had two cars. There was a passenger van and a minivan, one of which had that ever-familiar "Vin DiBona Productions" scrawl along the side. I always insisted on calling that one "the Van DiBona." To this day, I insist that's funny. To this day, I'm the only one I know who ever laughed about it. I had issues driving the Van DiBona. I'm a small-car type of person. I like the ones that can fit into compact spaces. I've driven larger cars, and even the occasional U-Haul truck. But they've never been in my comfort zone. Tough luck for me. Vin was expecting to be picked up in the Van, not in my '95 Escort. Pushing on, I made it to Vin's house in adequate time. Did I say house? Mansion. Mansion. Apparently, 15 or so years of "America's Funniest Videos" affords you more than just a place with a six-car garage. The design, the craftsmanship, the furnishings. I'll refrain from going into detail, for the sake of the DiBona family's privacy. But it's one of the nicest places I've ever seen. I've since been on even more expensive properties than the DiBona estate; though grander and pricier, Stately DiBona Manor is simply nicer, classier, more tasteful. Now, the part where I freaked out Vin DiBona. Already uncomfortable behind the wheel of a minivan, and further uncomfortable with a stranger observing my driving habits, and even further uncomfortable because I had no idea where we were going, I confess that my nerves were quite a bit keyed up. Vin was giving me step-by-step directions as we came to each intersection. I'm the type of guy who likes to know three or four moves in advance. But I wasn't going to tell the Big Boss Man how he should be giving me directions. I just had to do it his way. Vin eventually directed me to the 405, and I couldn't wait to get on it. Even if traffic was jammed, at least I knew I'd be on it for a little while, and I wouldn't be receiving piecemeal instructions every five seconds. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to merge onto the Highway of Freedom, I failed to notice that the on-ramp was at a stand-still ahead of me. I was picking up speed. Just as I reached that critical point where, after passing, it would have been too late to avoid some sort of collision, Vin whooped, "Oh, look out!" and then reflexively braced for impact. But there was no impact. I hit the brakes fast but smooth, gliding to a perfect stop just inches away from the bumper in front of us. Playing it completely cool -- I could be an actor, if I wanted to be -- I replied, "Don't worry. I saw him." Could you imagine if I had to call my dad and tell him I had gotten Vin DiBona into a car wreck? Where do you even begin? In my head, I pledged to take the rest of this drive slowly and carefully. "Don't hurt Vin." We merged onto the 405, and the rest of the trip went smoothly. We were on an instruction-free stretch of road. Vin struck up a conversation. As promised, he was a really cool guy. I told him how much my dad loved the show. He was gracious. He told me a little bit about the design of the inside of his house, specifically the material used on his couches. Then he asked what I wanted to do for a living, as, obviously, no one intends to be a PA for their entire lives. (Since moving to L.A., I've met one guy who seemed content to be a lifelong PA. I'm sure I'll talk more about him in future writings.) I told Vin my goals and ambitions. Suddenly, he was reminded of a story he'd heard, and he began to tell it to me. It was the perfect, ideal "Hollywood dream" type of story. It's the type of story that inspires hundreds of people, year after year, to move to L.A. and take their chance at hitting it big.A month or so later, I returned to my regular job at "The Amazing Race." In the course of office conversation, I had the opportunity to relay the story of success Vin had told me. My boss at the time -- who, for the purposes of this blog, requested to be aliased as Jack Donaghy, which I'm willing to oblige with a smirk -- reacted somewhat negatively to the story. "That's a one in a million shot," said Jack. "You can't count on something like that. That's like hitting the lottery." I disagree. The heroes of the story were smart and prepared. Sure, it was pure chance that this specific opportunity came up for them. But if it hadn't been this opportunity, it would have been another one. At the very least, they would have eventually gotten an agent, who would likely have been able to get them work somewhere else. This wasn't hitting the lotto. This was preparation-meets-opportunity, which is how someone famous once defined "luck." So, here is the story Vin told me that day. Being a third-hand (or more) retelling of the story, certain facts and details have doubtless gone missing. In fact, it's likely that some parts of this story are entirely made up. We have to accept the possibility that none of this happened at all. But, by God, it's still a great story. Besides, it's probably mostly true. It was the first season of the 1980s sitcom "Silver Spoons." By Vin's telling, the show encountered some troubles early on, and was not expected to last long. Eight episodes had been delivered, and people were packing it in... including two set PAs -- also friends -- who aspired to be writers. Following standard protocol, the aspiring writer team used their free time to write spec scripts of existing shows. And since they had such intimate knowledge of it, they decided to write a spec episode of "Silver Spoons."

Without warning, a decision came down from the network: they wanted to order a full season of the show. Great news for the people on the show, except for the fact that they hadn't been writing any more episodes of the show, having been certain it was all over. Panicked and rushed, they instituted an open-door policy for script submissions. Anyone who had any scripts or story ideas should pitch immediately.

The end of this story is obvious, but still exciting. The PAs submitted their script, it was accepted, and a new writing team was born. The Hollywood Dream came true. You move out to L.A. and you get discovered. Boom, you're rich and famous. (Well, maybe writers don't exactly get famous, but you get the idea. General success. Dreams come true.)

With that, I dropped Vin off at the car dealership. I've never seen the guy in person again since then. But I'm a fairly regular viewer of "Videos" again, which means there's no conflict over what to watch when my parents come to visit. During one of my parents' visits, Rob got a surprise gift for my dad: an autographed headshot of Vin DiBona. I'm not sure why Vin has a headshot. I don't think he's done any acting. Rob thinks it's for publicity; like if they need a picture of Vin to accompany a story involving him in Variety. Likely headline: "Alphabet Net renews 'AFV' through end of century."