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The Wheel World

Wild Don Lewis

People are getting restless.

The oppressive late-afternoon sun is glaring down on the parking lot outside Desert Body & Custom in Chandler, and about 50 onlookers — many of them in wheelchairs — are gathered, waiting for the body shop owner to stop fidgeting with a shoddy microphone. He's standing next to a long, white van, about to make an announcement. Along the side, there's a refreshment table loaded with snack cakes and chips. Blue and white balloons tied to a chainlink fence bob in the breeze. Out front, an oversized banner reads, "DBC Welcomes the Superquads."

Just as the man with the mic is about to launch into a full introduction, the van lurches forward, knocking him in the arm with a side mirror. Suddenly, the crowd starts clapping and whooping loudly — not for the body shop owner, but for the man behind the wheel. He's a quadriplegic, and the fact that he's actually driving the van is nothing short of a miracle.

Everybody murmurs in amazement as the vehicle smoothly cruises around the end of the lot and makes a couple of laps. The folks in wheelchairs grin and nod approvingly. And then something goes terribly wrong.

The van violently screeches to a stop, then speeds forward again, swerving erratically around the curve, now heading straight for a petite woman in a wheelchair. The woman tries desperately to get out of the way, but her motorized chair won't go any faster. People scream and run toward her.

And then, almost as if in slow motion, the oncoming van hits the woman, sending her stiff, helpless body into the air. She lands face-down, squarely into the table full of snacks, and everybody gasps.

Panic ought to break out right around now, but instead, there's more applause as somebody yells, "Cut!"

Turns out, the lady is no quadriplegic — she's a stuntwoman. The snack cakes she landed on are a made-up brand called Los Dongers. And just beyond the crowd of actors and extras are a few strategically positioned cameramen.

And no, we're not really in Chandler, Arizona — we're in Burbank, California, on the set of a new Comedy Central series called American Body Shop.

Take the grease-monkey milieu of American Chopper, and shoot it pseudo-documentary-style like Reno 911! Then add a stiff dose of political incorrectness, a dash of slapstick humor, and plenty of off-kilter Phoenix references. Stir until completely addled.

Welcome to the twisted mind of Sam Greene.

All of this is his creation, from the characters, to the absurd scenario, to the little dribble of chocolate on the corner of the Los Dongers mascot's mouth. The attention to detail is insane.

And so's the backstory.

Just a year ago, Sam Greene was living in Phoenix, hoping Comedy Central would pick up his idea for a series. Eight other competing pilots were in the works at the same time, so the odds were against him. Still, it was by far the closest he'd ever come to achieving his dream.

Greene had spent half of his life as a struggling writer and aspiring producer, an outsider with no industry experience. Twenty years of sending out scripts and writing novels and pitching agents had netted him only a measly 200 bucks. At one point, he'd given up completely, out of sheer exhaustion and frustration. But then he got the call.

These days, Greene's living in L.A. and commuting back to Phoenix to see his girlfriend and 1-year-old daughter. A former cop whose success as a real estate investor allowed him to live leisurely in recent years, he now works 80 hours a week. He's suddenly at the top of the Hollywood food chain, with a four-season contract as an executive producer, writer, and director for his show.

"It's preposterous," he says. "When I tell my story to people from L.A., they're flabbergasted."

And it's all thanks to his sense of humor. Greene says he makes himself laugh out loud just thinking about the most socially inappropriate things that could happen in a given situation. As a result, American Body Shop fearlessly pokes fun at every character to show up onscreen. It's also a very Phoenix show, with Mexicans, Mormons, Van Buren prostitutes, and, in one episode, an unruly bishop named "Thomas K. O'Bannion." All the episodes are pieces of Greene, or people close to him.

To meet this guy, you'd never guess the kinds of demented — and ridiculously funny — things he comes up with. Greene is charming, with a warm smile, wavy brown hair, and the kind of well-defined biceps that come from pumping free weights during script meetings. Usually clad in T-shirts and Pumas, the 40-year-old has a hip, young energy. And while he's extremely witty, he doesn't feel compelled to make people laugh at everything he says.

 

Instead, his humor comes out in over-the-top episodes. Although his series hasn't aired yet, Greene's imaginary body shop already has a rich history of notorious high jinks, like when the mechanics pool together some cash to get plastic surgery for a prostitute, or when the receptionist hands car repair fliers to car crash victims for a little extra cash.

American Body Shop is set to premiere on Comedy Central on July 8, and Greene readily admits that it's the kind of show America is either going to love or hate.

"It's kind of offensive," he says, laughing. And, he says, it's all him.

"What you see onscreen," Greene says, "is what I'm really thinking all day long while my face is friendly and benign."


Around 9 a.m. on a hazy Wednesday in late May, Greene's already on his second can of Red Bull. Along the sidewalk outside the set — a nondescript warehouse on a quiet, shady street in Burbank — there are a half-dozen director's chairs lined up two by two. Greene's sitting in front, dressed in gray jeans and a black hoodie, leaning toward a stack of video monitors connected by a tangle of cords. A petite young woman with choppy blonde and maroon hair sits next to him, constantly jotting notes into a thick binder. A handful of other people huddle around, fixated on the screens.

They're watching the mad scientist mechanic, Rob — played by Nick Offerman, who's wearing goggles and camo face paint — fumble with a crappy, homemade-looking remote control and accidentally spill soda all over it. Real sparks fly and the controller knob stops working, so Rob smacks the hell out of it until the batteries fly out and roll through a puddle of Mr. Pibb.

This footage eventually will cut in and out of the parking lot scene, in which the quadriplegic man behind the wheel isn't really driving the van (although the character thinks he is, and so does everyone in the wheelchair crowd). Building a remote-controlled van just to trick a bunch of quadriplegics is all in a day's work for the staff of Desert Body & Custom.

Most of Greene's characters go to desperate lengths to cover up mistakes, make themselves look good, get revenge on enemies, or sneakily get their way. Lying gets them pretty far, like when a yuppie couple returns their car to complain about the high mileage and weird smells in it. The customers would never imagine that the mechanics actually drove it to Mexico for a wild prostitute-and-taco-filled weekend, until somebody opens the trunk and a few Mexicans scramble out.

Between takes, Greene explains that the pressure's on today because they're shooting this brief outdoor segment in the parking lot. Usually, the pace is more laid-back. On most days, they shoot inside on a set that looks remarkably like a real body shop. The space is cavernous, with old cars parked on pockmarked concrete floors, a real Col-Met spray booth, dusty car lifts, piles of neon orange extension cords, and banged-up metal cabinets filled with dirty cans and jugs. Everything looks like it's covered in decades of grease and dinge, although the pungent smell of toxic substances is conspicuously absent.

Special permits, dozens of extras, and rental stunt equipment add up to more time and money, and there's a lot that needs to get done before 7 o'clock tonight. From the looks of the day's call sheet — a detailed instruction chart for the cast and crew — shooting nine scenes should be pretty straightforward. But no amount of planning can determine how things will actually play out.

"It just keeps changing," says Greene. "What sounds funny on paper might not be funny onscreen, or what seemed funny when we shot it might not be that good when we go back and edit it."

Moments later, after several takes of Rob shaking the remote while Peruvian mechanic Luis looks on, Greene's talking into a walkie-talkie, telling them to give each other an "oh shit" look. They do it over and over, slightly changing their wild-eyed expressions with each take, and the crew can't help but quietly chuckle every time.

A day later, the same thing happens when they're shooting a scene in which a group of pissed-off quadriplegic gals beats up shop owner Sam (played by Peter Hulne). Greene instructs them to look furious as they ram him with their wheelchairs and run over his arm. It's a fake arm, but the way it's positioned looks completely real, and every time the crew sees a closeup of it onscreen — getting squished by a wheel as Sam squeals — everyone has to stifle their laughter.

 

The movement, the look of a shot, the way actors say their lines — as director, Greene has to approve all of it. (Jim Jones, the show's other executive producer, directs on alternating episodes.)

"Even that pinkie ring, that shade of lipstick — nothing will ever get on the screen that doesn't go by me, ever," Greene says.

At first, people were obviously resistant to a nobody from Arizona.

"This is the only business in the world where you can go from zero to hero with no experience. It's like going from owning a liquor store to being governor of the state," he says.

A few days in, things changed. Talk to anybody on the set, and they'll inevitably mention "Sam's vision," like a mantra. Even Jim Jones, a 15-year TV veteran who worked on The Ben Stiller Show, talks about how excited he was to work on the project, to "bring Sam's vision to life."

Sure, Greene's a control freak, and he'll admit it. The entire show is in his head long before it's shot. But that's a good thing — no decision takes him more than a matter of seconds.

"Sam comes up with these great ideas spur of the moment," says line producer Craig Wyrick-Solari. "He was made to do this."


American Body Shop really opened for business three years ago, when Greene's friends suggested he shoot a reality show about their Chandler body shop, Drew Brothers Customs. He'd first met Rob and Richard Drew when they all went to the same gym, and later, he cast them in an indie film he was making.

Greene nixed the reality show idea. Too many car shows already, he figured. But what about a fake reality show?

"I dislike reality television so much that I wanted to make fun of it," he says.

Suddenly inspired by the possibilities, he started writing. Greene had spent a lot of time just hanging out at the garage, trying to give Rob Drew advice on how to lift the business out of the red, and observing the dysfunctional family dynamic between the Drew brothers and other family members who worked there.

"It was funny just to watch the place," he says.

The garage became the perfect setting for ridiculous characters and their high jinks. There's shop owner Sam (Peter Hulne), who's struggling to keep the business afloat. He usually tries to do the right thing — but he's not above doing a horny female customer who's trying to blackmail him. Sassy receptionist Denise (Jill Bartlett) barely tolerates the oddball crew of mechanics, and she's not afraid to talk back to her boss, either. Rob (Nick Offerman), the resident weirdo, likes to invent new contraptions and make obscure pronouncements. With googly round glasses, a dead serious expression, and a conspicuously unnatural bald patch on the side of his head (something that's never explained but makes you wonder), he's funny without even saying anything.

Luis (Frank Merino), a Peruvian mechanic who puts up with way too many Mexican jokes, sometimes ends up as Rob's guinea pig. Staff slob Tim (Tim Nichols) is pretty devious when he gets off his lazy ass, and isn't too proud to eat a sandwich that's been stashed in the first aid cabinet. Brooklyn Johnny (John DiResta) is a shady greaseball who considers himself a ladies' man — in the pilot episode, he tries to sweet-talk an insurance investigator by telling her she looks like Oprah, "another strong, powerful African queen."

While the actors in the Comedy Central show are accomplished — DiResta even starred in his own eponymous sitcom on UPN in the late '90s — none is a household name. Greene says they went with anonymous actors by design. Celebs would break the reality show illusion.

Originally, Greene didn't want the show to be scripted, so he wrote outlines and workshopped the scenes with a handful of Phoenix-area actors he'd recruited to participate. At that time, Greene was playing the lead character, Sam. Over the course of two weekends in the summer of 2004, Greene shot the pilot and then edited all the material himself.

"I wore so many hats," Greene says. "Catering, costumes, props, special effects and sound, hair and makeup . . ."

He thought the pilot was really funny and was ready to start shopping it around, but when he showed it to a writer friend, he got some honest feedback.

"He told me, 'Don't send it out,'" says Greene. "'You don't have any story, the jokes run long, and you don't have any structure to it.' I had to write new material and shoot another two days, and then re-edit the whole thing, but it was so much better. He did me a huge favor."

 

By that point, Greene was really gung-ho about selling American Body Shop. But he called around 100 agents and managers, and nobody even wanted to see it. They'd tell him they weren't taking new writers, or that they only accepted people by referral. He started losing hope.

Then, a neighbor suggested he just mail the pilot directly to the networks. Greene balked.

"I told her, 'The system doesn't work that way. It's made up of a series of gatekeepers and tall walls designed to keep people out,'" he says. "But she said, 'Postage is cheap.'"

The next day, he mailed copies to seven networks. A little while later, the post office called to tell him he didn't put any postage on the packages. Luckily, they'd gotten his phone number from his return-address labels.

After he got that straightened out, Greene sat by the phone, waiting for a response. Nobody called, not even to say "no thanks." Three months passed.

Greene was approaching 20 years of trying to make it as a writer, and he started to wonder if it was a lost cause. After a heart-to-heart with his girlfriend Michelle Johnson, who's known him for 15 years — she runs his real estate development business and gets the first look at everything he writes — Greene decided to give up and move on for good.

"I thought, 'I'm done,'" he says. "After Michelle and I talked, I took a long shower and it was like this moment of clarity and relief when a relationship ends. I felt like a thousand-pound weight had been lifted."

When he got out of the shower, there was a voice mail from Comedy Central.

"I listened to the message and thought someone was playing a really mean joke on me. But I checked the caller ID, and it was a 212 number," he recalls.

It was no joke — network execs in New York really did want to meet with him about American Body Shop. Turns out, Greene had sent the pilot to the wrong department — acquisitions instead of development. (Okay, so the guy won't ever get work as an administrative assistant.) The former deals with existing programs, while the latter fields ideas for new ones. His package probably would've wound up in the trash if he'd sent it to the right people, and this way, somebody actually watched it. His mistake saved him.

Lauren Corrao, executive vice president of original programming and development at Comedy Central, says it was a fluke that American Body Shop eventually made its way into the right hands. Another development executive in New York liked it and sent it to her Los Angeles office — but didn't include any details on what it was.

"As I was watching, I was laughing a lot. I had to e-mail the guy in New York to say, 'What is this? Who did it come from?'" she says. "I told him, 'This is really too good for us to pass up!'"

When Corrao and other executives met with Greene in the New York office, they found out just how much of an outsider he really was.

"It was shocking for us, actually," she says.

But they could tell that Greene knew what he was talking about, and they were convinced that American Body Shop would hit a chord with the young male demographic (ages 18 to 34).

Comedy Central optioned the pilot for one year. Network execs had him write outlines for 10 more episodes, to see what he was capable of, and ultimately paid him to reshoot the pilot last June, with a real budget and a professional cast. Actor Tim Nichols, who plays the character Tim, was the only person from Greene's original Phoenix cast to star in new the Comedy Central pilot. When Los Angeles actor Peter Hulne got the role of Sam, it freed up Greene to focus on writing and producing.

He had mixed feelings about it at the time because he'd created the role for himself and he'd scored high with audiences at test screenings before the final casting. In retrospect, though, he's hugely relieved not to play the part of Sam — and he's also become close friends with Hulne. Considering how busy Greene is writing, producing, and directing, there's no way he'd be able to have a significant role anyway.

Early on, Greene was worried that the network simply wanted to buy his idea and send him packing. But soon he realized that it was his comedic sensibility that they wanted.

 

"It's really funny, first and foremost," Corrao says. "What I loved about it is it's a lot of guys being guys, in a very honest way — but it's smart. It's a little bit of The Office mixed in with Monster Garage."

Last September, the network picked up the pilot for a series, and put nine additional episodes into production. It was a radical lifestyle change for Greene, who found himself spending more and more time in L.A. Although Greene worked 80-hour weeks a few years ago while he was rehabbing run-down properties, things got easier after the real estate market heated up. Before he started working full time on the TV series, he spent his days in Phoenix shopping for real estate, looking for land deals, going to the gym, and seeing movies.

Now, he has no life outside of the show.

"From 6:30 in the morning to 10 p.m., I never stop working," he says. "It's brutal, but this is what I asked for."


Greene was raised on television, and he'd much rather chat about his favorite childhood shows — The Bob Newhart Show, Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Barney Miller — than his childhood.

He grew up in the Bronx and moved to Flagstaff with his family when he was 11. Two years later, Greene's father left his mother, a German immigrant, to raise Greene and his sister alone. "Let's just say that we were always on the brink of financial disaster," he says, keeping mum on the specifics.

Greene didn't like school and wasn't a good student, but he loved writing and was obsessed with television. He found an escape in both.

"I was a movie fanatic, too, but TV was free," he says.

When he was 19, Greene devoted himself to becoming a serious writer and started mailing out one or two scripts a year, hoping to find an agent.

In 1990, he moved to Phoenix to join the police department because he didn't feel he had enough life experience to be a writer. He thought he'd do it for a year.

But one year turned into four. Greene got hooked on the job security, the benefits, and the adrenaline rush of being out on the streets, working the graveyard shift in some of Phoenix's toughest neighborhoods.

"I got addicted to the freakshow," he says. "Every night was like a 10-hour episode of Cops."

For a couple of years, he worked with prostitutes on Van Buren, and he was often the first responder to shootings. In many cases, Greene was the last person to talk to the victims — usually about who killed them. It damaged him.

"The job turned me into a crazy person," he says. In May 1994, he says, he was accused of sleeping on the job and misbehaving. It was mostly true, he admits. Within two months, he was transferred to a desk job answering phones in the basement of police headquarters. He resigned shortly after that. (According to the Phoenix Police Department Public Affairs Bureau, personnel files are purged after six years, so New Times was unable to obtain Greene's file.)

"I still have a little baggage from it," says Greene. "I saw a lot of people die, and a few of them were kids. It was very difficult."

He collected his $30,000 pension and decided to move to Los Angeles in 1995, convinced it was the only way to make it as a writer. Greene got meetings with agents, but nobody would sign him. One fruitless year later, Greene was miserable and "drinking like a madman." He decided to come back to Phoenix to finish his degree in communications at ASU. He graduated in December 1998.

The entire time, he kept writing. One of the books Greene wrote, a memoir about his tenure with the police department, did land him a book agent in New York. He was never able to find a publisher, though, and eventually gave up. Instead, Greene directed his energy into film. In 2002, he wrote, directed, and financed Inevitability, a mockumentary about a religious cult that forms in the desert outside Phoenix. A now-defunct downtown coffee shop, Espresso Depot, used to screen it on Sunday nights, but Greene never pursued mass distribution for it.

"It took me a year to make it, and by the time I was done, I realized that it had no marketability. But it was a phenomenal learning experience. I ran the camera and sound myself, and I had to buy my own editing system. I'm self-taught at everything."

Without that experience, Greene says he never could have made the pilot for American Body Shop.

But for two years after that, Greene didn't write at all. He got caught up in the real estate boom.

 

He'd begun investing in properties in 1994 and kept borrowing against the growing equity to buy more buildings. With a business partner, Greene bought 10 run-down parcels in the Roosevelt District and spent most of 2003 and 2004 restoring them. The project turned out to be very profitable, and the property sales allowed him to take a year off and work on his writing again.

"Here's the irony: I didn't have a passion for real estate, but it was extremely good to me," he says. "I have so much passion for television, and it was very bad to me."

But even now, Greene's still involved in real estate. His girlfriend, Michelle Johnson, a former financial controller for the Arizona Diamondbacks, oversees their business, Macy Metro Development. They have 35 condo units in the works at three different locations downtown.

These days, Greene gets calls from people who didn't want to have anything to do with him a couple of years ago. Thanks to his luck in the real estate market, financial security sets him apart from other writers, he says.

"I can turn down offers all day long and it doesn't affect me."


Around 3:30 in the afternoon, out on that lot in Burbank, Greene is still in his director's chair on the sidewalk, only now he's under an EZ Up tent, darkened by black nylon panels. Several people are crowded inside, and the stack of video screens casts a bluish glow on their faces.

Outside, the haze has long since worn off, and people are squinting into the sun, looking dazed. They're shooting the crowd scene in the parking lot, which is swarming with extras in wheelchairs. Take after take keeps getting ruined by somebody cracking a smile or moving when they're not supposed to.

Greene gets up and walks over to get things back on track.

"I'm a little stressed because we're starting to run behind," he says, heading over to talk to the crew. "It's hard when you're working with 40 extras. They can't act, and they can't take direction."

After a several-minute powwow with everyone in the scene, Greene heads back to his chair and lights up a cigar. Smoke swirls inside the tent. A little while later, he pops a pill and guzzles another can of diet soda.

By 6:30, he's moved on to pretzels.

"Whenever you see me eating, that means things are not going well. Let's see how many of these pretzels I burn through," Greene says, grabbing a handful from a table of snacks that are props in the scene. (Amazingly, stress and snacking don't seem to have made a difference in his weight since he started this gig.)

Greene looks genuinely worried at this point. If shooting isn't finished by 7, they go into overtime. With around 90 people working on the set, plus so many extras, that translates to completely blowing the episode's budget. They went into six minutes of overtime only once before, and it caused shockwaves with the Comedy Central execs.

A few minutes later, the assistant director says, "We're screwed if they can't get this shot."

Now the cameramen are shooting the stuntwoman in a wheelchair rolling away from the van. She's supposed to roll right into the table full of snacks, but the van hits her too soon and she leaps away. It looks like the chair may be broken.

Greene lets out a big sigh. "Well, let's just shoot what we can for the next 21 minutes," he says, wearily. As he walks out of the video tent, several crew members stand there in an awkward silence.

But there's no time for angst. Everybody crunches right up until 7, and they don't go into overtime. Instead, they figure they'll make up for lost time in the morning.

The cast and crew go home, but Greene, his assistant Shane Ayotte, and executive producer Jim Jones head over to the post-production offices in a nondescript strip mall. Most days, Greene spends a few more hours here going over edited footage, looking at script revisions, and checking e-mails before finally calling it a day.

At least here, he's able to sink into a plush couch in one of the editing rooms, sneak in a call to his girlfriend, and sip on a glass of Jameson Irish Whiskey.


It's the end of June, and American Body Shop is in the final week of shooting. Greene's busier than ever. Too busy, for now, to take a quick, weekend trip to Phoenix. And definitely too busy to worry about the show's debut on Comedy Central.

 

After shooting's finished, he'll still have another two months of editing ahead of him, but at least the work weeks will be scaled back to 30 hours. He's been doing 80-hour work weeks for months now.

"I'm just so exhausted that emotions don't even register," he says. But he's still convinced the show will be a hit. It appeals to the entire spectrum of sensibilities, he says, so 12-year-olds and 40-year-olds will get an equal number of laughs.

"I'm a pessimist and a realist by nature, but this show is so good that I'd see it doing 100 episodes," he says.

The Comedy Central publicity machine has been revving up for a while, with teasers that started around Memorial Day, full commercials that started airing in June (during popular programs like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), and Web previews and bonus outtakes (a show trailer had more than 134,000 hits as of press time). Associated Press television writer Frazier Moore called it "a hilarious horror show every car owner will relate to." Actor Nick Offerman, who plays the character Rob, recently appeared on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

"We're hoping to get him on Leno, too, and it would be great to get on Howard Stern — there's our audience," says Greene.

A couple of weekends ago, Comedy Central flew the cast and producers to Las Vegas for a "celebrity appearance" at a UFC Fight Night, which aired on Spike TV. The whole expenses-paid trip happened just so they could show a quick clip of Greene and the actors sitting ringside. The trip came just hours after a brutally long shoot that ran from 1 p.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday.

"We started drinking early in the morning. All of us were drunk for 26 hours. It was ugly," he says. But everybody needed the break. "I think everyone is getting on everyone else's nerves, and there's anxiety about what happens next. For some people, if the show doesn't get picked up for a second season, they may never work again."

It's impossible to know how American Body Shop will fare. As for whether there will be a second season, well, it'll depend on the ratings. Lauren Corrao, the programming and development executive, says they try to be patient, and that the definition of success varies from show to show. They've re-upped shows that were a smash right out of the box within a few episodes, but they've also waited the whole season on shows that built their momentum gradually.

Although the ratings could simply be mediocre, Greene doesn't expect that. He thinks it'll either be a bomb or a blowout — by Comedy Central standards, anyway.

Worst-case scenario, he figures he can always write his way out of unemployment. And besides, he says lots of people want to work with him now — famous people he'll name only off the record — and he has several options lined up for the interim before a possible second season of American Body Shop. Trouble is, he can't possibly do them all.

"It's a good feeling to finally be the person who says no," Greene says. "And you can quote me on that."


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