The Wheel World

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.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig