If I ask you if you know who Fred Stoller is, you might say no. But I wouldn’t believe you. Because once you saw his face or heard his credits, you’d say, “Oh, THAT guy. HIs name’s Fred Stoller?”
Stoller is a perennial guest star on hit sitcoms. He’s been on Friends (Monica’s mean-spirited restaurant kitchen colleague), Seinfeld (Elaine’s date who doesn’t remember her), Everybody Loves Raymond (Ray’s cousin, who joined a cult) King of Queens, The Nanny, Murphy Brown and on it goes. His droll, Eeyore-like mannerisms make him stand out but he’s never been a series regular, except in voice only on a cartoon. Thus, the name of his autobiography: Maybe We’ll Have You Back.
Stoller started as a stand-up comic who got booed off stage as often as he enjoyed applause. He’s a basket of anxieties wrapped up in the cellophane of insecurities, tied with a bow of self-doubt. His book is best at explaining the ins and outs of showbiz, the broken promises, who’s nice and who treats guest stars and extras like dirt, and just how humiliating it is to build a career in Hollywood.
He was on the writing staff at Seinfeld for one terrifying year. There were backstabbings and cliques and loads of pressure to come up with something original for the show. One of Stoller’s scripts became a Seinfeld classic – The Soup. It’s the one where Jerry pays back Kenny Bania for an Armani suit by offering to treat him to “a meal”. They go out, Kenny orders soup and decides it’s not “the meal”, which he’ll have another time, thereby ensuring they’ll hang out again. Apparently, this really happened to Fred. While on the writing staff, Stoller found Larry David volatile and difficult, not to mention always impatient. It sounds like an awful way to work. The office culture was built on intimidation and fear. You know your contract won’t be renewed when people stop making eye contact with you, or opening their office doors to hear your ideas.
Stoller’s anxiety pond runs deep. He can’t see that he has it good compared to most actors. If you’re able to make a living in Hollywood without waiting tables, you’re a success. Millionaire celebrities are the freaks who hit the lottery. Stoller is taken advantage of by friends, dates, colleagues, family members and tolerates possibly hundreds of unfulfilled promises. But he has hope.
I enjoyed Maybe We’ll Have You Back because I find show business fascinating. It’s glamorized and idolized but it’s hard work, and it’s soul-sucking. Casting Directors will criticize you – not just your performance – within earshot. It’s an awful way to make a living, but nailing an audition and getting the gig makes the bad stuff all go away for a while. Stoller has been doing it for decades and he tells his story with a lot of whine, but also with the cold, hard facts of a life lived in bit parts.