Getting fired is never fun. But Annabelle Gurwitch's journey to the unemployment line was particularly unpleasant: Not long after she landed a dream gig in a Woody Allen play, the neurotic nebbish complained that she looked "retarded" and promptly sacked her. The comic actress — who's best known for her six-year stint as cohost of TBS' Dinner & a Movie — was devastated. How could she fight back? By mining her experience for laughs, of course! First she published a personal essay in Show People magazine. Next she organized a series of performances, both in Los Angeles and New York, where celebrities like Illeana Douglas and writer Andy Borowitz shared their own tales of dismissal. Gurwitch soon became a beacon to anyone who had ever lost a job, as audience members from all walks of life approached her with their stories. That led to an anthology bookfollowed by a documentary of the same name, Fired!, which debuts tonight on Showtime at 8:30 pm/ET. TVGuide.com asked Gurwitch how she became the doyen of the downsized.
TVGuide.com: It's amazing how you turned one of life's most distressing experiences into a successful franchise.
Annabelle Gurwitch: It wasn't intentional. I just truly felt driven to do Fired!, to get this message out. There's this need for people to talk about the experience of being fired that I tapped into. And it's so common right now, too. I could have made a totally serious, depressing film about it, but I thought, "Let me give people something to laugh about."
TVGuide.com: Not all of the film is hilarious, though. While the celebrities' stories are lighthearted, that GM rally was hard-core.
Gurwitch: The funny thing... well, the tragic thing is that that was just a coincidence. I didn't set out to cover that rally. It just so happened that the person whose story I was there to film was organizing that event. Which goes to show that even if you've never been downsized or outsourced, chances are someone in your life has been, you know? The emotional experience of being fired hits people the same way, whether they're canned because they sucked in a play or replaced by a fax machine. As Anne Meara says, "It's like you're caught touching yourself by a nun." It feels so shameful.
TVGuide.com: Your project has gotten a good deal of attention in all its forms. Did you ever contact Woody Allen to thank him?
Gurwitch: I wrote many letters to Woody that I sent without stamps because I realized that, having never learned my name, he wouldn't know who I was or what I was talking about. Like most people who are fired, my initial fantasies of revenge were many and varied. But how do you get revenge on a cultural icon? Make him take back all the contributions he's made as one of the premier comedians and filmmakers of the last 35 years? It's hopeless. Anyway, my story is so small in comparison to these tales of people all over the country. I feel that if my coming forward and admitting that I was called "retarded" by Woody Allen has made one person who has been laid off feel better about themselves, then I got my revenge.
TVGuide.com: Maybe it's because I work for TV Guide, but I kept waiting for a Donald Trump tie-in.
I wanted to stay away from that, although in my book there is the story of someone who was fired by Donald Trump for real. I don't understand [The Apprentice]. Those people aren't actually working for him, so how can they be fired? He should really say, "You're not hired!" — but that doesn't have the same ring, does it?
TVGuide.com: Lest anyone think your film is a bunch of talking heads, there are some charmingly quirky bits, like that scene with you and Fred Willard in a hot tub.
I've had terrible nightmares about that! I keep worrying that people won't get that it's a joke. I just thought it would be funny, as if everyone in L.A. hangs out in hot tubs, which we don't. I've never been in a hot tub with Fred... at least not until that day.
TVGuide.com: David Cross' "inspirational" video was also pretty riotous.
Gurwitch: I was waiting for David to send me something. I didn't know what it would be, but he never had time to do it. So I got on a plane to New York, showed up at his door at 7 am, woke him up and said, "OK, we're doing the thing now."
TVGuide.com: Then there was Tate Donovan's saga of being replaced by Matthew Broderick in Torch Song Trilogy — as reenacted by puppets.
There's a reason we did that. My film was so low-budget we couldn't afford people. So I thought, "Let's do it with puppets!" My kid's art teacher stayed up for two nights in a row making them. I think the ultimate comment on the acting profession is that the Tate puppet and the Matthew puppet are the same puppet, just with different hair.
TVGuide.com: It sounds like you and the two directors, Chris Bradley and Kyle LaBrache, had a lot of fun shooting this.
Gurwitch: It was great, like a three-way without the sex.
TVGuide.com: Out of the hundreds of stories you've heard, do you have a favorite?
The one that prompted me to embark on this project: a woman named Sossee Gomar came up to me after one of the Fired! shows and told me how her company fired her after she was held up at gunpoint — they said that she wasn't good in a crisis! So she went back to school, and now she's a therapist who treats people dealing with crises. How inspiring is that?
Get a sneak peek at Showtime's The Tudors, starring Match Point's Jonathan Rhys Myers, in the April 2 issue of TV Guide. Click here to subscribe.