Stephanie Ross — August 2015

Sara Campbell
Oct 2, 2015 · 20 min read

Stephanie and I spoke on a hazy Tuesday morning in her modernist Los Feliz home, which has a commanding view of the downtown Los Angeles skyline. We met a few years ago in Chris Daley’s classes at Writing Workshops Los Angeles, and I instantly appreciated her extremely dry sense of humor and irreverent writing style. After retiring from a long and varied career in late night television and magazine publishing, Stephanie is currently writing a book about her life using a series of writing class exercises. It’s brilliant and daring and hilarious and I wish it was already out so I could link to it.

Tell me how you came to writing.
I don’t know why, but fifth grade came to mind. I don’t think it was really that early. I know I had a poem published when I was in junior high, but I’m so old it’s hard to remember all these things.

In high school I was in Honor’s English, and I did a lot of writing then. I think it started really early. My college education was in writing for the theater at Cal Arts.

That was your undergrad degree?
Yes, that’s all I have. A B.F.A.

Do you remember making the decision to major in theatrical writing?Not exactly. I think I thought I was going to be a poet first, and I met my husband at Western Washington University, which was then a state college. He was an actor and got accepted into Cal Arts, and we were married and had a baby, so I went because I thought, “well, I’ll finish my degree there if I can get in.”

I got in and it was the Critical Studies Program. They didn’t have a writing program then, but they do now. I never really thought about anything else. When I was really young, I was going to be a nurse and do something like Albert Schweitzer had done, and go save Africa. I don’t know when I switched, because I had a nursing scholarship to college at one point.

Cal Arts was an expensive school, but I got a scholarship. In the second year we were the dorm parents, and we got free food. People were like, why would you ever leave? We had an apartment in the dorm, we had food paid for and daycare for our son. It was like thousands and thousands of dollars of benefits. It was stupid to ever leave. But we did. We went to Boston, where Gregg had been hired for summer stock at Tufts University. I audited summer school classes, and we got our son into daycare again there. I studied Virgil and Greek for free from some of the most amazing professors in the world.

So I just kind of never halted after that, really. I did always think, “fuck, am I always going to be poor and struggling?” In Boston in 1973, I worked at a counseling center and got very into psychological thinking and writers and was trying to figure out how to make a living with a school like Writing Workshops Los Angeles. I have all these journals filled with ideas, and I was writing people like Anne Sexton and asking “isn’t there some way to make it as a mother and a writer and a poet and not want to kill yourself all the time?” And she wrote back and said “oh yeah, it’s easy,” but then she killed herself.

Right.
I was like “oh, thanks.” That was terrible.

So at Cal Arts, you studied playwriting, and you were writing plays. When did you have your first play performed?
After Boston we went on tour with this theater company to Europe and then when we got back, I was on the faculty at Western Washington teaching speech and planning to get my Master’s because you couldn’t teach without one. So I was a grad student teaching speech, which I’d never even taken, and writing plays during the day, and waiting tables and washing dishes at night for students. My husband was doing the same, but teaching acting. Our son was four or five by then, and we were still poor, but we were trying to get settled before he started going to school. So I wrote some plays and applied for some grants, and won a couple of them. And then we moved to Seattle and I got a CETA artists job.

What was that?
It was a government funded arts program, kind of like the WPA during the depression. Artists were hired to do public works. We worked with this senior theater company in the schools and did theater all around. We worked with this other couple that had a kid and was having another and basically did years of grants and CETA work and were just constantly scraping by. Even though we were doing well, supposedly, in the artistic community.

Your husband was an actor?
Yeah and he was in a national tour of American Buffalo, and at one point everything just kind of collapsed. We were like, “we just can’t do this anymore.”

How old were you at this point?
That was about 40 years ago, so I was in my late 20’s. It was really tough, working all these jobs and having a kid.

Just a crazy existence.
Yeah. So we came back to Los Angeles like in 1980. We knew L.A. from our time at Cal Arts. Before too long, a friend of ours got Gregg into television. He was working for Chuck Barris and would be a fill-in bachelor on The Dating Game and stuff like that. And then he got into question writing. I worked in pornography at that time, working for Althea and Larry Flynt at Hustler.

How did you find that job?
I worked at this tough trade magazine for apartment owners that was run by this Korean guy. He was such a mean boss. I had to basically write all the articles, manage the office and be there for hours and hours for like nothing. So I got really fed up with that, and then I applied to a job at a national magazine, and it turned out to be Hustler. I was like, “holy shit.” So I got hired. And Althea Flynt loved college graduates, loved having them at her beck and call. There were a bunch of people from Harvard and other places that have gone on to have great careers in less pornographic areas of entertainment. All my feminist friends were appalled. Next thing I knew I was in research, and doing fact checking. And then I was an editor, and was publishing her new rock magazine. Althea really wanted to meet Billy Idol. Finally I couldn’t handle her problems, and Gregg got me into a TV job.

Were you still writing at this point?
I was still writing always. I never quit writing. Even at Flynt, I was writing advice columns and articles about how electricity can ruin your sex life or you know, insane things. Endless articles on the g-spot. It didn’t seem like the best place to be working with a young son. Meanwhile Gregg was doing better. He had moved onto magazine shows that were like early versions of reality programming. Shows like You Asked for It and Name That Tune. Both of us were still paid horribly, though Gregg better than me. Ironically he eventually got into the Writer’s Guild, even though he was an actor. A girl I worked with had come from Letterman’s show, and she brought me with her when she went to The Tonight Show. And that’s where I spent the next 25 years of my life.

So that was the job you had when you retired?
Yes. Forever. Until Johnny quit, then I went over to Chevy Chase’s late night show for that trainwreck, and then back to The Tonight Show shortly after the Northridge earthquake. Just stayed on.

What were you doing for those shows?
I was finding what they called civilians, people like backwards talkers, collectors of weird things. The everyday people off the street that somebody like Johnny Carson can make into gold. Jay had a lot of good fun with them too. We did animal acts and people. You can’t have enough animals on late night TV. People love them.

So that’s what I did for the longest time, and then eventually I started producing celebrity guests, and booking celebrities. And that’s what I did until the last couple years when I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s like Groundhog Day when you do something that long. And then I moved over to social media, even though I knew absolutely nothing about it. I had grandkids that were teenagers, which meant that I knew more about it than most of the other old people on The Tonight Show. I was put in charge of that because though I didn’t know social media, I knew The Tonight Show very well. We hired people to helm it and I was the bridge between them and the show. We’d figure out where stuff should go, what clearances we had, what Jay and the network would be comfortable with, stuff like that. It helped me keep my brain growing in this new world.

But during all this time, all 25 years, always I was in writing classes.

What kind of writing?
Nonfiction, like the one we’ve taken with Chris Daley. And then Edan Lepucki before that for a couple of years, on and off. And then before that, Jack Grapes, who’s here in town and is kind of a bohemian guy that runs a big group over by the Beverly Center. Lots of others.

In all these different groups I keep meeting people that I really liked and that became my friends. And they would introduce me to other workshops. But I never really had much time to write or think about a big project. I was just trying to stay alive.

Were you finishing plays or pieces and pitching them?
I was not really finishing a lot of stuff. Little things. One play, a new take on Medea, which got selected to be part of a reading at what is now the Actor’s Gang in Culver City. I considered that play reading to be what I call now “my accident.” It was such a bad experience. It was just horrible.

Why?
I don’t know. There had been a little mini-reading that had gone well, and it was really exhilarating. And then of course you want to blame the director and the actors. It was so bad that I was depressed for months.

What, the performance of the play?
It was terrible. All my friends came, and they were like, um… I don’t think I wrote after that for like a year. And the guy that directed it turned out to be someone that I ran into a lot at The Tonight Show, because he was somebody’s manager. I would see him in the halls and be like, I’m so glad he left directing.

Were you embarrassed of your material, or just the production?
I was embarrassed that I thought the material came off so badly. And I would say to myself, “well, you know, you can see really bad Shakespeare,” not that I’m comparing myself to Shakespeare. OK I guess I kind of am. But I would take heart in that even the best people can be produced horribly. So I tried to figure out what had happened.

I think that one of my worst faults or weaknesses as a writer is being way too sensitive. Unlike the comics I dealt with on The Tonight Show — they just had rhinoceros skin. I think they have a lot to teach us as writers, to not give a shit. Tomorrow’s another day. I never had that. I was always devastated.

So it seems like all your work was fairly creative, in and of itself. Did you feel satisfied with that? Or was there a part of you that wished you were a full time playwright? What were your ambitions?
Absolutely. I had this delusion for a long time that I’d missed the boat, that I’d sold out, and that feeling was such a waste of time. That feeling of wow, you only get one time around, why didn’t I hang in there longer or do things differently? And I’ve come to a different place with it. If I was going to have a successful writing career, I think by 27 I would have had it. In a different way. Or I would have had whatever it takes to make you want to get your work out there and get it up, or like blow my head off, like Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf. That’s not exactly the right metaphor, but you know. I just don’t think that ever was really in the cards for me. It was something I kidded myself about. And now that I’m retired, I can kind of check that delusion out a little more. I think there’s a difference in people who have spent 10, 12, 15, 20 years full time writing and trying to get stuff out there. And even though in all my jobs and my daily life I spent a lot of time writing, I do not see myself as being at the level at which I could have made a good living off of it. I would have had to be kind of satisfied with either going back and getting my Master’s and teaching and pretending to be a full time poet who’s just not getting the recognition they should. I think people that are really, really, really gifted writers get their shit out there and make good money.

But then I just read something about Bach and what a miserable life he had, and what, are you gonna say Bach didn’t really have it? He didn’t get it out there? It’s like, who knows? But I’m really glad I haven’t lived his life. Misery. Even if I had produced excellent writing that was never going to get out there, I don’t have time in my life to get back through it all. Just piles and piles of unshaped stuff.

You said something interesting before, where you feel like if you had been the kind of person that was going to get their writing out there, you would have known by 27 or so.
I think so. There are people though that certainly later in their life produce the work they’ve always wanted to produce. You know, the guy who wrote Angela’s Ashes.

The classic example.
Yeah. That happens too. People have a psychology like mine that maybe doesn’t allow them to do it early on. Plus, I think it’s a very different time in terms of making a living. I think I was lucky to get into television when I did, and get out when I did. I don’t think there’s money there anymore. I don’t see it. I feel bad for everyone trying to get into writing and music and the arts and make a living now. It’s probably the worst time in history almost to do that. I don’t have a ton of research to back that up, but from my experience of going to Cal Arts and seeing all my artist friends being poor their whole lives. And they can’t retire now. They can never retire. They can barely make it from paycheck to paycheck, but they’ve stuck with their art.

So there are a couple of things I want to go back to. But while we’re on the topic, the retirement thing. Are you glad that you, in your own words, sold out?
Yes. Absolutely. I was thinking today about this, and that you would be asking me these kind of questions, and though I say to people in our writing group, “write, write, write or you’re really going to regret it,” I also think, in the back of my mind, “are you also going to regret that you’ve not made yourself financially secure? And that you’re not able to do the other stuff you want to do?” It’s such a Sophie’s Choice. That’s really it. There’s a lot of people that have had both — they’ve worked and written. From poets like T.S. Eliot to mystery writers that always seem to be working at the coroner’s office and raising a family and having a sick husband at home and stuff, and still putting out books. But to me, I have never figured that out, how to do that. And I just got lucky. From my point of view. Because now I love my life so much, but I don’t know. If there’d been a way that I could have had financial security and not have to have worked for 25 years, I would have done it. Maybe five years of meeting every celebrity in the world. But 25 is too much.

Yeah, I think everyone struggles with that question. There’s a lot of advice now to young people about following your passion, and there’s also backlash against it because it can be dangerous advice. The less sexy piece of advice that they don’t hear is what you just said, which is don’t neglect to make yourself financially secure. It’s just important to be able to do things you want to do, which may not just be writing.
Right. I just recently heard a speech Jim Carrey gave to college graduates. Though Jay loved him, I found him tremendously difficult to work with. With that said, I loved his speech — he really says that follow your bliss thing. It’s worth listening to. But if I was talking to my grandchildren, I would not say to only follow your bliss. And so I’ve had to rethink that. Am I wrong? Because I really didn’t follow my bliss. I had a child before abortion was legal, I never planned to get married, my husband certainly never planned to get married. On top of that, we never planned to have children. So often there are choices that get made for you.

Doris Lessing left her kid behind to pursue her writing. I couldn’t have lived with that. I have enough problems and shadows to look at without that one. But she’s Doris Lessing and I’m not. I don’t know. It’s really an interesting question. How do you make your life happen, and how do you evaluate a life? Are we really in charge of this stuff as much as we think we are?

Jim Carrey had a difficult childhood. They were living out of the car for a while because his dad was broke, and so when he says “follow your bliss,” he came from a place where he had nothing to lose. His dad had chosen the secure path and lost. So a lot of people do that — they choose security to support their family and still go bust! So it’s like, if your bliss is to get economic security, and if you look back at my life, maybe that’s what it was, then maybe I did follow my bliss. It wasn’t really writing. I do think that I didn’t have the psychology for it. It made me too depressed. It made me suicidal. Like maybe writing contributed to the mental illness of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. Or maybe it saved them. It’s so hard to tell. Certainly with Anne Sexton it played a part in saving her and taking her out. But it wasn’t worth the gamble to me after a couple of suicide attempts and having a kid. I’d rather give up writing for a while. And I did until it felt safer and I felt more stable. I think it’s a hormonal thing.

I feel that. I routinely reach a point where I say, “I can’t do this anymore,” because if you are really digging all the stuff out, it just brings too many painful things to the surface. And life is hard enough. I totally get that.
Yeah. And I think at my age now, I have had enough shoring up of my ego and who I am — I’ve done this job, I’ve hung there, had this long a marriage, raised our son and have all these almost grown grandchildren, I was good to my mom and blah blah blah — so I have all this stuff, and everyone older than me is dead, so I don’t have to worry about their opinion when my stuff comes out. I am at a place now where I am strong enough to face it. Because I have enough counter voices in me that go, that’s bullshit. Or fuck off. Or fuck you.

You’re saying that to the demon on your shoulder.
Yeah, that stuff. Evidently the people who are able to be the Maggie Nelsons of the world, the survivor writers, can just turn that volume down.

I remember having a total light bulb moment a couple years ago when I was watching the first episode of Girls, the Lena Dunham show, which is very true to life. The lead character, who she plays, is just this awful, entitled New York brat whose parents are paying her rent and all this stuff, and she feels no guilt about it and keeps asking for more money. Anyway, the character says in the show, “I want to be the voice of my generation,” and she’s like 21 or 22, and I remember thinking, at 22, I wouldn’t have even been able to say that in my most private self, even though it may have been true. I just didn’t have whatever it was — the ego.
The insanity.

Right. And so I look at someone like Lena Dunham and think, of course you’re successful. You have no shame.
No boundaries.

I would have torn myself down before allowing myself to say it. But even if I had said it, whatever someone might have said about it would have just crushed me.
Yeah. And then people that attack her for being bad or fat or a slut or whatever. She’s had enough support, or good stuff, to come in to counterbalance it. But then there’s the Amy Winehouses of this world that don’t, or that didn’t. So you think “wow, will I go that way, or will I go that way?” So I think — and you are young — that if you go “oh, those that make it are surrounded with support and had a plan B,” you have a way forward. You can think “OK, I’m gonna be alright.” Even without the bankroll parents. That’s like what Virginia Woolf said a million years ago. You need 500 pounds a year and a room of your own. Now maybe it’s more like 50,000 dollars and a room of your own.

That’s more the key — figuring out, what do I need to feel good about myself? Evidently I needed 25 years at The Tonight Show to say “fuck you” to my inner demons, and to be free now. I feel really good about the life I’ve lived. I’ve met every famous person from the last 25 years, I’ve been challenged at the level of public television, I’ve been able to travel everywhere in the world and I feel really fortunate. Having come from a really poor background — my dad was a minister and both of grandfathers were, and there’s no money in that — I feel really lucky to have financial security and not be a burden on our son or our grandchildren. I would recommend to anybody to find yourself a good plan B, find yourself a lot of support and every affordable way you can to do it, and get to work. Take the chance. Dare it. Follow your bliss in both directions. For financial security and for artistic expression. It’s OK to do both. A lot of us have to overcome the idea that money is the root of all evil, and that it’s anti-art and not cool. But it’s really wonderful how it makes you able to buy the books you want to read and spend a day the way you want to spend it.

Absolutely. I think there are so many ways to live. And if you are a person that has a creative impulse, the hardest thing is giving yourself permission if you’re a little bit less like Lena Dunham or whatever.
Yeah. I think that’s what you’re doing with this blog.

Ha. Yeah, definitely. It’s very transparent.
You’re getting the support around you to say, it can happen. This can be done.

Well for me, I’m turning 40 pretty soon and for the longest time I wouldn’t allow myself to write because I had such high standards. I was just such a perfectionist that I couldn’t allow myself to be a shitty writer, which is what you are when you start writing.
I was 38 when I started working at The Tonight Show. So you have no fucking idea what’s ahead of you. No idea. And then 25 years later you go, wow, that happened.

Was that when you started to feel more secure? Would you say you were still unstable economically before you got that job?
Yeah. Gregg was doing much better, but still, the economic situation in L.A. was tough. We were buying a $100,000 house and thinking, “are we crazy for spending this much?”

Where were you living at the time?
South Highland. On the edge of what was then the ghetto. We were in a really mixed race neighborhood, and people from every kind of background and religion. It was a great place for our son to grow up.

Did you ever consider leaving L.A. or going somewhere cheaper?
Yeah, but not once I got the job. We were here to get the money job. Right before we bought our current house, we did consider just paying it off and taking early retirement, but we didn’t. We moved here and that meant working a lot longer. And it worked out. Or it didn’t, depending on your point on view.

Well, from where I’m sitting, it worked out. You live in a beautiful place, and a beautiful house, and you get to write and travel and have a great family that you love. I don’t think anyone could look at that and think, “it didn’t work out.”
Yeah. It just depends. It’s how you balance your life. If it’s based on how much you got published, and where your name is in the writing world, then no, it didn’t work out so well for me. Or at all. I have second place in a Kentucky Playwriting Festival, that’s it.

But that’s good! You’re still working!
Well that’s why it’s like so clear what perspective does. In some ways, great. In that way, sad story. I feel ridiculously good about my life.

Seems like all anyone can ask for.
Yeah. And I’ve spent many years on the job asking myself, should I quit? Should I stay? 15 years of agony.

Well, since you had such an interesting job, can you tell us a little bit more about it? You booked celebrity guests, but what was the crux of what you were doing?
Well, you’d call them up and interview them. Like you call up Hugh Jackman and do a pre-interview of what they would talk about, and you wrote little plays, basically. So my background was perfect for it. You wrote out the whole script. People go, “oh that wasn’t scripted.” But it was. And when they came to the show, you went back over what you wrote up. Some people were extremely gifted at it, like Hugh Jackman, some people were terrible at it, like Heath Ledger. And he would say, “I suck at this.” And I’d think, “well, it’s lucky you’re a great guy.” Comics were always great to work with, because they know good material. Beautiful actresses, not so much, because they just cared about how they looked, what they were going to wear, not what they were going to talk about. Which was always really disturbing. When somebody would say, “I’ll just wing it,” you knew. It was the kiss of death. Like, no. We don’t wing it. There are very few people who could wing it. Maybe Wanda Sykes could wing it. They have to be comedians. Or Brits! The Irish, the Brits, they’re great at gab because they have a pub culture. They still talk to each other face to face.

Interesting about the actresses. I feel like I could interview you solely on working with women in the industry for another hour.
I wish I could have interviewed writers, the people I was interested in. That’s what made me have a compassion for Jay (Leno.) In the sense of how difficult his job was. Because I only had to talk to these people off camera, and he had to talk and be interested on camera.

And make it look super funny and entertaining.
Yeah, and easy and not scripted. It’s really an incredible gift. It’s so hard to do. It was hard to do on the phone, and I’m so grateful every day now that I don’t have to have any celebrities in my life. I had all those years of learning a tremendous amount.

It does nothing for your inner life having that kind of outward success for many, many people. For me, having come from no money, it means a lot. I feel really grateful. And these people that have a bazillion times more than that are just fucking miserable. And you go, what the hell is wrong with you? Because they can’t ever get enough. They know their fame is not lasting and it’s out of their control for the most part. It must be what it’s like for a really successful writers. They must be nuts that way.

And watching other producers from the Carson show that lived outside of their means. They’d get carried away identifying with celebrities and thinking, “oh, I’m one of them.” And it was like, “no, you’re not one of them, and they’re not your friends. You’re serving a purpose for them right now. You’re booking them and making them look good. You’re like a tailor or a maid. You’re nothing.” And so I learned not to identify with them or ever delude myself that they were my friends and to be grateful that they supplied me with a good living and taught me that even if you have great success in your field, and all the material wealth and the ability to do great things for other people, there’s no more likelihood that you’ll be happy than if you’re a complete and utter failure. So why not be happy? Why not take all the chances?

Amen to that.

To Live and Get By in L.A.

Candid conversations with Angelenos about finding the…

Sara Campbell

Written by

communications consultant, writer, media junkie, slow-moving hustler | books + media + technology + psychology + music. www.tinyrevolutions.co

To Live and Get By in L.A.

Candid conversations with Angelenos about finding the balance between making a living and making art

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