In the writers room for an AMC drama, we called it “the Ferrari.” Our producer’s assistant had ordered it from the premium Ping-Pong company Killerspin, whose chic table tennis paddles retail for hundreds of dollars. He claimed he bought his used for $50, but we still mocked him, mainly because he kept trouncing us with it. Then we tried the Ferrari ourselves, and another writer purchased one, full price. After all, how can you have a fair match if only one side is swinging a high-priced designer paddle?
That’s how seriously TV writers in Hollywood take Ping-Pong these days. Can you blame us? We need something to distract from the industry’s creative clamor.
On my next job, the period drama Strange Angel, we carried a table from stage to stage across the Paramount back lot. And we weren’t alone. Josh Gordon and Will Speck, of Hulu’s upcoming Marvel’s Hit Monkey, are said to be table tennis fiends, and I know from experience that Jason Cahill, one of the executive producers on Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings, has a wicked pop serve. The Whiskey Cavalier room played so much Ping-Pong that the Gotham and Swamp Thing rooms above and below it had to break story over the constant patter of stray balls.
“I buy a Ping-Pong table for every production,” Bryan Cranston told me earlier this month as he entered Dodger Stadium for pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s Ping Pong 4 Purpose fund-raiser. Cranston was kidding—I think—but it’s clear that even Walter White has picked up on how weirdly obsessed TV writers have become with the humble pastime of table tennis.
There’s something about the casual thrill of Ping-Pong that provides the perfect release from 14-hour days on set or epic all-nighters in the writers rooms of contemporary Hollywood. The truth of TV’s second golden age, which has L.A.’s soundstages humming nonstop, is that there’s a lot of downtime on set in between takes, which comes in 15-minute increments—perfect for a quick game. And in the writers room, where an entire group of laptop-bound scribes spends all day bunched around a conference table, an ad hoc tournament is the perfect excuse not to worry about episode seven’s squishy story arcs. For hypercompetitive Hollywood types, it’s also a great place to drop the public facade of bonhomie and respect for each other’s work and indulge in what’s truly important: wiping that smug grin off your fellow artist’s face like some merciless, paddle-wielding Daniel Plainview.
Tony Tost, creator and showrunner of the Depression-era gangster epic Damnation, bought a table for his show and found it to be the perfect counterbalance to the high-pressure demands of showrunning. “With all the frustrations that go into making a show,” he says, “it was super cathartic.” Perhaps too cathartic: After playing Ping-Pong all season, Tost woke up one morning to find he couldn’t lift his arm over his head. He’d torn his rotator cuff and needed four months of physical therapy. Injuries notwithstanding, Tost stands by the benefits of Ping-Pong for overtaxed writers: “It’s such a relief from the navel-gazing discussion and analysis. It’s just so much immediacy…it occupies your conscious mind but doesn’t tax it, and allows your subconscious mind to kind of do some work.” It’s true. I’ve often found I’ll come back from a quick Ping-Pong break with a new perspective and different, if not better, pitches. “It’s a distraction,” Tost adds, “but I always feel refreshed coming back.”
If poker, with its cigar-puffing, bet-till-dawn bravado, was the Hollywood craze of the mid-aughts, it’s fitting that humble, sober Ping-Pong is the pastime du jour now. It’s less hedonistic escape than work therapy for an industry running its dream factory at full tilt. The edgiest thing about Hollywood Ping-Pong is probably the existence of a secret, guests-only table at the Chateau Marmont—which in turn is probably the tamest thing about the Chateau Marmont.
Still, in post-Harvey Hollywood, there are worse things to be accused of than being too tame. And there is plenty of wholesome fun to be had at Clayton Kershaw’s big tournament, which has become L.A.’s late-summer charity event of note for those too busy working to flee to the Greek isles on a billionaire’s yacht. Now in its seventh year, Kershaw’s event mingles L.A.’s celebrity super-spheres under Dodger Stadium’s lights, helping raise money to build schools in Africa and combat sex trafficking in the Dominican Republic. Last year Kershaw honored fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey and his Just Keep Livin Foundation. In addition to the usual industry types and generous donors eager to play with their hometown heroes, the tournament attracts Dodger-loving celebrities like Will Ferrell, Jason Bateman, and Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher. “People are intrigued,” Kershaw told me the day before this year’s event. “Honestly, having Dodger Stadium as a backdrop…not many people can say they’ve played Ping-Pong on the infield dirt.”
After all my on-the-job practice, I figured it couldn’t be that hard to compete at charity-circuit levels, so I secured a press pass and booked a lesson at L.A.’s Gilbert Table Tennis Center, a secret monastery of table tennis hidden away in a Jewish rec center south of LACMA. According to owner Michael Zaretsky, the center has helped Jamie Foxx, Justin Bieber, Andrew Garfield, and Billions showrunner Brian Koppelman all perfect their games. (Zaretsky also specializes in designing sleek, high-end Ping-Pong tables for the Hollywood Hills crowd, one of which is set to make an appearance in the upcoming season of Westworld.)
The lesson was humbling, to say the least. While I could hold my own in a writers room, my coach, Elie Mehl, warned me that Kershaw had Ping-Pong skills worthy of his lifetime 2.41 ERA. After arming me with a firmer forehand and a better serve, Mehl showed me a video of Kershaw playing Ellen DeGeneres to illustrate what assured, consistent table placement looked like. (Nothing like mine, it turned out.)
On the day of the tournament, I was paired in doubles competition with Dodgers rookie Matt Beaty, but we had our paddles handed to us by two film execs, Andy Sorgie and Max Jacoby, whose companies produced Manchester by the Sea and Rampage, respectively. Sorgie and Jacoby, who both got their starts as agent assistants at WME, went on to pummel Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Brad Paisley’s dad, Doug, before getting knocked out by two C-suiters from the socially conscious apparel company Toms. They were dressed like extras from Napoleon Dynamite, and Bryan Cranston, the evening’s master of ceremonies, nicknamed them “the Ping-Pong Boys.”
Watching ex-Lakers line up at the bar while Olivia Munn perused the silent auction tables, I couldn’t help wondering why table tennis has such a hold over the town. What need is it fulfilling? Maybe it’s that, in uber-hierarchical Hollywood, Ping-Pong functions as the great equalizer. On set, even the lowliest P.A. can challenge your show’s leads, clean their clocks, and keep them coming back for more. For one shining moment, the most rumpled Hollywood scribe can feel like a competitor, tasting what it’s like to face down an adversary with razor focus and utter ruthlessness. It’s also a safe space to let out all the aggression that bottles up when you worry about your art (and your career). Whereas you can often feel yourself adrift in the chaos of an ever-shifting entertainment industry, on the blank slate of a table, with white spheres bouncing back and forth, you feel capable of anything and everything.
Except you’re not, actually. In the final, Kershaw and his partner, the slugger and MVP candidate Cody Bellinger, took the Toms guys to the cleaners. When the game started, Kershaw’s aww-shucks smiles and soft-spoken appeals to donate vanished like the memory of March rain under the Southern California sun. It was brutal, surgical. Even Cranston felt bad enough to pull back on his quips as Kersh and Belli took a 17-6 lead, before politely giving up a few points to finish 21-9. Just like that, it was over, and Dodger ushers herded us out. The team had a game tomorrow, and we Hollywood types headed home, away from the stadium’s towering lights. If we wanted to keep dreaming, we’d have to go back to our writers rooms and studio lots and manufacture the fantasies the way they pay us to.
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