Irving Townsend FSA by Steve Legomsky

Irv and Stan are actuaries and colleagues.  They perform their labor at the home office of the James Hickok Mutual Life Assurance Company, located on Berkeley Street in Boston’s charming Back Bay area.

One evening, Irv had an inspiration, which he shared the next day with Stan.  “There are a million TV shows about doctors and lawyers.  It’s high time for a TV show about an actuary.  So here’s my idea:  Together, we write a script for a pilot episode.  We have an in.  I think you’ve met my sister-in-law Gerty.  She’s a producer with CBS.  What do you think?”

Stan didn’t take long to respond.  “That would be so cool.  I’m in.”

So Irv shared his idea with Gerty and asked her if she would be willing to read their script once it was ready.  “No pressure, and I’m not asking you for any kind of commitment beyond reading it.”

Gerty was skeptical and cautioned Irv that a TV series about an actuary seemed like a longshot, but she said “Of course I’ll be happy to read it and give you my honest reaction.  But don’t be disappointed if it turns out we’re not able to run it.  There are a million excellent proposals competing for a small number of slots.”

That was all the encouragement Irv needed.  He conveyed the good news to Stan, and they got started without delay.  Irv began the discussion.  “I think the plots should be serious and suspenseful, but at the same time contain some humor.  We could have the actuary tell a joke once in a while.  Like that old standby:  ‘What’s an actuary?’  The answer?”

Stan reflected for a moment and responded “a mathematician who applies probability theory and other advanced mathematics to develop formulas for calculating mortality rates, insurance premiums, reserves, cash values, investment yield, and other risk assessments.”

“No, it’s someone who wanted to be an accountant but didn’t have the personality.  Get it?”

“I’m not sure I do.  Why would an actuary want to downgrade to an accountant?”

“Well, you know, accountants are supposed to be dull and humorless, so the joke is that actuaries are even more so.”

“Is that really true?”

“No, I don’t think so.  I mean Mike Rosen in Group Pensions is a pretty fun guy.  So is Sarah Pinski.  But this is just a joke.  I think viewers would find it pretty hysterical.”

“I can see the humor now.  Yes, that’s a good one.”

“OK, here’s another one.  A guy walks into a supermarket and sees cow brains on sale for $4.99 a pound, pig brains for $5.99 a pound, and actuary brains for $15.99 a pound.  He asks a salesperson why the actuary brains are so expensive.  The salesperson says ‘Do you have any idea how many actuaries they have to kill to get a pound of brains?’”

“I like that one.  Let’s use it.”

“Good.  So let’s try to come up with an opening scene.”

They fiddled around for a while, before Stan came up with the idea of two actuaries bantering casually as they arrive at the office one morning.

Irv liked the concept.  “What should we name them?”

After tossing out possible names that neither of them was enthusiastic about, Stan suggested “Biff Thunder” for one of the actuaries.  Irv loved it.  “That sounds like a strong, tough character.  What about the other actuary’s name?”

More thought and discussion, culminating in Irv offering “Lance Valour, spelled with an ‘ou,’ you know, like in England.”

Initially, that got both of them excited, but after additional reflection Stan had doubts.  “Do you actually know any actuaries with names like ‘Biff’ or ‘Lance?’ We do want this to sound realistic.”

“Yeah, good point.  Most actuaries are named ‘Irving’ or ‘Stanley,’ with an occasional ‘Beth.’   Why not use our own first names?  We could change the last names for privacy reasons.  How about ‘Irving Townsend’ for the main character?”

“And my character could be ‘Stanley Cooper.’”

Stan mulled this over.  With a mischievous grin, he said “You know what?  Let’s get a little racy.  What if we change Stanley’s last name to something more ethnic?”

Irv liked the idea.  “Yes, let’s live on the edge, as they say.  How about making him Stanley Fong?”

“Hmm, that might be a little too ethnic.  What about something Italian?  Like Al Romano.  That worked for Ray in ‘Everybody loves Raymond.’”

“Perfect.  So what do they say to each other?”

Irv and Stan worked for several days, exchanging and re-writing successive drafts.  After two weeks of work, they settled on the opening scene:

IRV: Morning, Al.  How’s it going?

AL: Fine, Irv, thanks for asking.  And you?

IRV: Doing great.  And the family?

AL: Also doing great.

IRV: That’s terrific.  And the wife?  Sorry, I keep forgetting your wife’s name.

AL: Adele. 

IRV:  Oh, yeah, I remember now.  Does she work?

AL: Yes.

IRV: So does my wife.

AL: That’s good.

IRV, FLASHING EXCITEMENT: Hey, did you happen to see what Bonnie did with that variable premium 20-year endowment plan the other day?

AL: I did.  Amazing, don’t you think?

IRV: Absolutely.  Really amazing.

AL: Well, back to the salt mines, I guess.  Another day, another dollar.  Or with inflation, maybe we should say another day, another two dollars?

IRV, LAUGHING UPROARIOUSLY:  I love that.  I’m going to tell that one to my wife when I get home.

The script then continued with Irv sharing the accountant joke and the actuary brains joke with Al.  Real life Irv was satisfied.  “They say you have to hook the viewer right from the start.  I think this is just what the doctor ordered.”

“Or just what the actuary ordered,” Stan quipped, laughing out loud at his own joke.  He then added, “Seriously, though, have you given any thought to the casting?”

Indeed, Irv had.  “A little bit.  I was thinking John Krasinski, you know the guy from ‘The Office’ who then went on to play Jack Ryan.  He’s good.  I could see him as Irving Townsend.”

Stan immediately warmed to the idea.  “Great thought.  Off the top of my head, he sounds like someone who definitely belongs on our short list.”

That was as far as they had gotten when Irv said: “You know, before we invest more time in this, what about taking what we have so far and running it by Gerty to make sure we’re on the right track?”

Stan agreed.  In an email exchange, Gerty said she would be glad to take a quick look.  Irv asked whether it would be OK if he and Stan acted out the script in front of her instead of sending it to her in writing.  “That would really bring it to life,” Irv said.  Gerty told him that would be fine.

When they arrived at her office, Gerty asked whether they had a working title for the pilot.  Irv told her the title would be “Irving Townsend FSA.”


Irv explained.  “Actuaries have to pass a series of ten exams, over a period of several years.  If you pass all ten, you become a “Fellow” in the Society of Actuaries, which is our professional association.  The designation is ‘FSA.’” 

And with that, real life Irv and Stan performed the opening scene.  When they got to the joke about the actuary brains, they couldn’t contain themselves.  Both were in stitches.  They apologized to Gerty for the distraction but reminded her that they’d seen outtakes in which famous actors couldn’t help laughing at especially funny lines and that doing so had only endeared the viewers to them even more.

Gerty smiled politely but at the end had to tell them that this might not be quite what viewers are looking for.  She said viewers want a little more of a plot, and preferably some suspense – something that will keep them on edge.  She suggested they study a couple doctor shows and lawyer shows, where there’s usually a combination of danger and romance.

Irv allowed that that “is a great idea” and pledged to work something like that into the next draft.  He added “We’ve also been thinking a little bit about casting.  We think John Krasinski would be perfect for Irving’s role.  He did a great job in ‘The Office,’ but we’re thinking even more about his portrayal of Jack Ryan, who’s a precise embodiment of the traits people associate with actuaries — brilliant and fearless.”

Gerty paused, not knowing quite how to respond.  “Hmm.  Well, I’m not sure most members of the public are all that familiar with the important work that actuaries do.  And among those who are, I wonder whether ‘fearless’ is really the adjective that would immediately spring to mind.”

“Maybe not fearless in the traditional sense, but I’ve known actuaries who have taken huge intellectual risks with some of the commutation functions, Bayes theorem, the list goes on and on.  Krasinski would be an excellent choice.”

“Well, Irv, the thing is, shooting for someone like John Krasinski might be a tad ambitious for this particular project.  He’s very much in demand, and I suspect he’d be hesitant to take on the role of an actuary in a pilot program that already faces some awfully difficult hurdles.”

“Then how about Ben Affleck?  He also played Jack Ryan at one time, even before Krasinski did, and he would bring a lot of experience to the role.”

“I think we might be getting a little ahead of ourselves.  Let’s focus on the script and let the producers worry about the casting later, if things progress to that stage.”

Irv said “yes, of course,” and they both thanked Gerty heartily for her time and her guidance.  They returned to the office exhilarated.  Irv said “she sounded pretty excited, don’t you think?”

“No question about it.  I’m psyched.  And I think she makes a good point about having a plot and building some danger and romance into it.”

Irv said “Right.  At some point in the dialogue, we definitely have to get in the word ‘stat.’  That one word alone will project danger and suspense.”

“Excellent.  That means we need an emergency.”

“That’s a tough one.  We don’t have a lot of emergencies in the office.”

“Well, there was that one time when Olivia thought she was having a stroke.  It turned out to be just temporary confusion brought on by Nate’s stupid error with the law of quadratic reciprocity.  But the point is, we could have an employee suddenly experiencing a life-threatening injury.”

“No, too much like a doctor show.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  Wait!  Remember that time Steve Palmeiri discovered that Courtney had badly overestimated the mortality rates for one of the joint life annuity plans, with the result that our reserves fell way below what we would likely need to pay future benefits?  And that happened like minutes before he was about to meet with Massey and some other VP to go over future projections.  Palmeiri got skinned alive at that meeting.  When he got back to his office, he called Courtney in and started screaming at her so loud that everyone on the floor could hear him even with the door closed.  Oh, he was mad as a hatter.  That was pretty dramatic!”

“I love it.  It has suspense and drama, and it’s also poignant.  We all felt really bad for Courtney.”

They continued to work on the script, adding more and more drama and humor as they went along.  Pleased as punch with the final product, they proudly presented it to Gerty, who said she would get to it as soon as possible and share it with the boss.  It was he who would be making the final decision, she told them.

A week later, Irv and Stan received the disappointing news from Gerty.  She told them that the boss had turned it down.  “He really liked it, but as you know we receive so many great scripts that we’re unable to accept.  I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”

Irv and Stan received the rejection graciously.  They thanked Gerty for her support and drove back to the office dejected.

After a few minutes of mutual consolation, Irv said “You know, there’s a reason that we actuaries are renowned for our resilience.  How about we perform this live at the annual office talent show?  They don’t get a lot of near-miss TV pilots.”

Steve Legomsky is a former mathematician, Washington University law professor specializing in immigration, and Chief Counsel of the federal immigration services agency in the Obama Administration.  He has held visiting research or teaching positions in twelve countries.  Steve’s three scholarly books (Oxford University Press and West Academic) and numerous academic journal articles (full list at, were followed by his novel, “The Picobe Dilemma” (, 2017), which explores what it means to be “living” and the personal and ethical hazards in pursuing eternal life in a laboratory (available at and in the usual online bookstores).  His other short stories appear in The Ravens Perch, Fewer than 500, the Broadkill Review, (forthcoming in January 2021), and Offcourse.  Steve’s odd jobs have included shoveling horse manure (literally), caddying, and selling shoes.  He lives in St. Louis and loves his family, children, animals, and the Red Sox.