Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight


March 26, 2003:

Funny man
Michael Jamin '92 at home on King of the Hill

Caption: Jamin and his wife, comic actress Cynthia Mann Jamin, who he met on the set of Just Shoot Me.

For Michael Jamin '92, the low point on his quest to make a name for himself as a TV writer came when he was working as counter-man in a Los Angeles-area frozen-yogurt store. He took the job to make ends meet while he waited for his big break.

One day, Jamin recalls, he happened to wear a ratty old Princeton T-shirt to work. When the high-school kid who shared his shift saw the shirt, he asked, "Dude, you went to Princeton? What are you doing here?"

Jamin could offer no good answer. But eventually — after four years on the fringes of the entertainment business — the breaks started going Jamin's way.

In 1996, three years after serving frozen yogurt, the producers of a new NBC sit-com hired Jamin to be a writer. The show was Just Shoot Me, which eventually became a staple of the network's "Must-See TV" Thursday lineup. He worked there until 2000, when he made the leap to writing for Fox's animated series King of the Hill, which by the time he joined was a well established hit about a group of quirky suburban neighbors in Texas. Today, Jamin serves as a co-executive producer of the show.

"It's weird," Jamin says. "It's such a crapshoot. You can struggle and you still may never get a break."

Jamin knew he wanted to be a television writer "from the moment I began watching Cheers," the celebrated '80s sit-com on NBC. And he was willing to start at the bottom and pay his dues.

At Princeton, Jamin dabbled in standup comedy, performing at various eating clubs, at residential-college dining halls, and at campus open-mike nights. During breaks, he would sometimes perform in small clubs near his home in Edgemont, New York.

Jamin wrote his senior thesis on the evolution of the network sit-com. In retrospect, he kicks himself for not using the exercise to make contacts out in Hollywood.

Instead, Jamin got his wisdom teeth extracted right after graduation — while he still had health coverage — and hit the road for L.A. The only person he knew there was a former high-school classmate who generously offered Jamin a place to stay. They wound up rooming for the next year and a half.

Jamin's first job was to be an assistant at the William Morris Agency, one of the major firms for Hollywood agents. The job was low-level, but hard to get. Right before Jamin started work, his father sent him a fancy briefcase to celebrate the occasion.

On his second day of work, however, Jamin mistakenly put through a phone call that his boss wanted to duck. The boss, he recalled, said, "Michael, does everybody in the world think you're the biggest f---ing idiot?" The next day, Jamin quit, seconds before being fired.

Jamin took low-level jobs in the Burt Reynolds sit-com Evening Shade — as an errand boy — and the Tina Turner movie What's Love Got to Do With It — as a writer's assistant — and wrote infomercials for Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network. "The reason they hired me, I think, was that the guys running the operation didn't wanted anyone on staff who knew more than they did," he says. "And the only person who would have known less was me."

Later, Jamin moved up to a job on ABC's The Mike 'n Maty Show, a morning talkfest that was a poor man's Regis and Kathie Lee. "The show was doomed from the beginning, but my job was to write jokes and sketches, so it was a dream come true. I was finally writing a real show," Jamin says. "I did that for half a year, and then they realized that they didn't actually need comedy writers on what was basically a cooking show. So they fired me."

Around then, Jamin went to see an agent. She was ecstatic about him, telling him, "You're going to be a star!" Jamin drove home that day "on cloud nine." But later he asked for the phone number of someone else who had become a star under the agent's tutelage. The writer Jamin was referred to laughed when he called." And he said, 'Dude, I work at a record store.'"

The upside of the episode was that the record store guy, Sivert Glarum, and Jamin quickly hit it off. They became — and remain — writing partners. They landed their big break with Just Shoot Me, after sending a script to the assistant to the show's producer. The bigwigs liked it and hired the duo as staff writers for the first six episodes. "They expect you to be good already so they don't have to train you," Jamin says. "But we weren't good yet. We really didn't know what we were doing."

In short order, though, they got the hang of it, and they wound up staying for four seasons, writing four shows a year and handling other duties on an additional 18 to 20 episodes. "It's unusual to stay with a show for four seasons," Jamin says. "You usually run out of ideas after two. Four is really pushing it."

The world of comedy can be high-stress, Jamin says. "On Just Shoot Me, if a joke bombed in front of the studio audience, the director would yell, 'Cut,'" he says. "Then the writers would all have to pitch in to come up with an alternate joke. That's when you're really on the spot."

Writing for TV is considered a young person's game. "At Just Shoot Me, which was a well-run show, we could easily work until 10 or 12 every night," Jamin says. King of the Hill is a little less strenuous because the show doesn't have a weekly grind of rehearsing and performing with live actors. Jamin and Glarum recently finished a movie script and might some day make the switch to movies.

Still, writing for TV remains the thing Jamin most wants to do for now. "In movies, the director is in charge," he says. "In TV, the writer is in charge. So if you want to see your work get made, you have to be in TV."

By Louis Jacobson '92

Louis Jacobson is a staff correspondent at National Journal magazine in Washington, D.C.