Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Clearing My Desk (Cont'd)"


When I attend to an e-mail concerning a post I wrote entitled “The New ‘Funny’” (3/25/14), my desk will be entirely clear.  It is not that big a desk.

A commenter by the name of gourdcranium took keyboard to computer screen to disagree with my “dubious assertion” that

audiences today wouldn’t  respond to joke–driven comedy.  I think if the next Frasier arrived on the scene tomorrow, it would find a substantial audience though admittedly an audience old enough to vote which may be too old for the networks.”

Where do I start with that?

Okay.

First of all, Mr. of Ms. gourdcranium answered, or at least blunted, their own assertion with the qualification that that the theoretical “substantial audience” that would amass to watch a Frasierly-comparable comedy would indisputably be an older one, “indisputably” because nobody assiduously following these matters would disagree with that assertion, most particularly the networks, who have proven consistently that they have no interest in such an audience, with the possible exception of CBS, about whom David Letterman, in the course of a “Branding Competition” bit concerning that network’s upcoming season’s schedule once quipped, “CBS – Your grandparents like us.  Why don’t you?”

It is consequently no surprise or coincidence that the Chuck Lorre stable of hit series are all broadcast on CBS.  However – and I assert this without specific evidence; it is merely an educated hunch – although ABC’s Modern Family has approximately half the audience that The Big Bang Theory has, I would bet a shiny new nickel that buying a thirty-second commercial “spot” on Modern Family is considerably more expensive than buying a similar “spot” on The Big Bang Theory, the disparity explained not by the size of the audience (which actually trends strongly in the opposite direction), but by Modern Family’s audience’s superior desirability to the advertisers.

So there’s that.  Joke-driven comedies, as reflected by the disparity in their commercial value are considered – not by me but by the marketplace – to be retro and, dare I say it, along with their audience, a dying breed. 

Now.

Creatively. 

Which was specifically what “The New ‘Funny’” was talking about – and if that was not accurately delineated in the post, the fault lies entirely with the writer and nobody else. 

For thirty years on the network level, I was a successful writer of television comedy.  Then, due to the confluencial changes in the audience’s tastes in comedy and to the burgeoning “Demographic Revolution” (in which audiences were adjudged valuable not – or at least not exclusively – by their volume but by the presumed intensity of the viewers’ attracted to the show’s buying interests – my services became in increasingly diminished demand, until it was time to go home and write a blog.

This – or at least the “changes in the audience’s tastes in comedy” component – is, as I alluded to in “The New ‘Funny’” hardly a contemporary phenomenon.  American comedy has been continually evolving, from baggy-pants vaudeville through The Red Skelton Show (1951-1971) to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which brings things up to date, if by “up to date” you mean the late 1970’s.  

Though I perhaps would have preferred that it had, comedy did not freeze at the precise point where I was good at it.  Instead, tastes in comedy continued to evolve, ultimately “evolving” me right out of the business, as it had inevitably booted out the departing cohorts of once “hot” comedy writers who preceded me.

Unlike, England, where the theatrical offerings – and this phenomenon is reflected in English television as well – can simultaneously accommodate (as they did during the time that I lived there) a variety of comedy genres from classical Feydeau farces (A Flea In Her Ear), to ingenious Shakespearean re-imaginings (Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), to broad sex comedies (Brian Rix’s Let Sleeping Wives Lie), American comedy, like American everything-else in my view, adheres inflexibly to what I call the “Gunfighter Mentality”, where one genre stands triumphantly alone, while their sadly slower adversaries lie still and lifeless in the anachronistic dust, this (quintessentially American) Darwinian fashion process (it's about restlessness, competition and selling) prompting the “What’s Hot and What’s Not?” columns in every magazine in every doctor’s office I have ever waited in.
  
If America favors series filmed in front of a studio audience, then you will see virtually nothing else on the airwaves.  (When shows of that configuration ruled to sitcom roost, the only sitcom not filmed before a live studio audience was M*A*S*H.)  If, however, the “Fashion Wheel” turns and “What’s Hot?” moves on to shows that are filmed “single camera” without a studio audience, then the few remaining series filmed in front of an audience devolve almost immediately into the Nehru Jackets of situation comedy.

Why did “single camera” sitcoms become popular?  One, digital technology made them cheaper to produce than they had previous been, elevating that format to a fiscally viable alternative.  Two, the audience got tired of the less naturalistic-feeling “joke-driven” format.  And three – and who knows what order these should really be in – TV writers, whose heroes tended more towards Judd Apatow than Neil Simon, favored the movie-inflected format over its stodgy and stagy theatrical counterpart.

(And I frankly, at least in spirit if not in physical collaboration, am with them.  It seemed strange to me that my bosses insisted upon reality when it came to character and motivation and then would go, to me, incongruously “the other way” with their insistent formula joke-constructed dialogue.  It did not make consistential sense to do that.  Or make me many friends for mentioning it.)

Although, “The New ‘Funny’” never suggested that the joke-driven format could not at some time in the future generate a popular success, my intention, clearly a failed one with gourdcranium, was to assert that no such series could ever again represent the cutting edge of half-hour comedy.

My experience is that trends in comedy almost never proceed backwards.  (Laugh-In was a memorable exception, but the show augmented its vaudevillian hi-jinx with colorful miniskirts and lightning-fast editing.) 

If trends in comedy did, in fact, revert to their earlier incarnations, the Red Skelton writers would be happily rising from their graves and driving excitedly back to the studios. 

And I would be enthusiastically right behind them.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Clearing Off My Desk"


Sitting on my desk are two printed-out comments whose queries and observations I am addressing today.  Why didn’t I address them when they originally came in?  A fair question.  But keep in mind that, until recently, I was barely addressing comments at all.

In my defense, to quote a line from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (although perhaps not entirely accurately):

“When an elephant flies, you don’t complain because it didn’t stay up that long.”

Okay, so anyway.  Here we go.

pumpkinhead has contributed three questions.  I will respond to them in backwards order.  Because it somehow feels right.

“Question One” refers to “Rewrite Night” concerns about the legitimacy of a “story point” that would never arise if, for example, a character simply revealed some information about which they have chosen to remain silent.  Such as forgetting an anniversary, or overhearing, or possibly mis-overhearing a particular conversation or misconstruing an overseen event, or maybe mistaking somebody for (the assumed to be long deceased) Hitler.  (Or, less upsettingly, Xavier Cougat.)

The flip answer to pumpkinhead’s question is, “It depends what time it is.”  A rewrite room is considerably more amenable to “logic and credibility” questions earlier in the evening.  After midnight, you are likely to get looks.

A slightly more serious answer is that pumpkinhead’s question highlights the distinction between the more aspiringly realistic series and the ones whose M.O. is comparatively broader and more cartoony. 

“Credibility” questions would arise all the time on Taxi (I had one about how could Elaine Nardo reasonably drive a cab, work in an art gallery and raise two children at the same time, which led to the produced episode “Elaine Loses Her Marbles”), while queries of a similar nature might regularly be ignored on Laverne and Shirley, where the divergence from rigorous reality might even be appreciated and comedically exploited. 

The answer therefore is:  It depends on the show.

“Question Two” relates to a professional writer’s offering “a comedy response to something someone says instead of a real life response.” 

Speaking personally – and embarrassingly – there have been numerous occasions when I had to use all my self-restraint muscles to keep me from delivering a “jokey” response to a legitimate question.  Most recently, I was at eating alone at a restaurant counter next to a woman from Chattanooga Tennessee when a conversation began to spring up. 

When I told her I was orginally from Canada and she asked me “Which part?”, it took everything in my power not to reply, “All of me.”   In fact – God forgive me – the words actually slipped out.  But, entirely ashamed, I immediately “covered” with “Toronto” and my dining companion, a gracious Southerner, did me the everlasting honor of pretending that she hadn’t heard.

Pumpkinhead’s third question involves the long-running British sitcom series Red Dwarf.  To which I reply thusly:

Around 1992, when I had a Development Deal at Universal Studios, I shared an office suite for a time with Linwood Boomer, who would later attain fame and fortune creating Malcolm In The Middle.

Our jobs were the same – to come up with ideas for new television series.  Or, in the case I am about to discuss, to develop series from elsewhere for American consumption.  At one point, Linwood’s assignment was to produce an American incarnation of Red Dwarf.

Somewhat like Star Trek, but different, Red Dwarf (created originally by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor) was a futuristic comedy involving the inhabitants of an intergalactic mining spaceship engaged in a never-ending quest to return home to earth.

At some point after the pilot script was written, Linwood asked me if I would be willing to consult on its production, and, after reading his script and enjoying it, and then screening some produced British episodes of Red Dwarf and enjoying them as well (for the originality of their comedic tone and unlikely setting), I enthusiastically agreed to pitch in.

During the week that the pilot would be produced, the studio flew in the creators of the show to oversee the proceedings.  Although it made sense “on paper” to have the original participants involved, this was not a wonderful or fun or helpful or ultimately productive idea. 

Imagine obsessively over-protective parents hiring a babysitter to take care of their children, and then hovering oppressively over that babysitter to make certain they behave exactly as the parents would behave if they had decided not to hire a babysitter and stayed home.

A victim to conflicting sensibilities, the pilot was an ignominious failure, and Red Dwarf USA would never see the light of day.

What stays with me most strongly about that experience occurred when Linwood and I were at lunch during the pilot’s arduous “Casting Period”, a time during which, this being “Pilot Season”, frantic efforts are conducted to compete for the best available talent, and finalize the deals.

Linwood believed the ideal choice for the “Lead Player” on Red Dwarf was an actor named Craig Bierko, and a ferocious battle was waged to secure his services for the show.  After much anxiety and turbulence, the battle was finally won.

At the time, Kerry McCluggage was the President of Universal Television, and, speak of the Devil, who should walk into the restaurant we were eating in than the very same Mr. McCluggage himself.

Unable to contain his excitement, Linwood Boomer exploded in – what else – a booming voice, and to the confusion of a packed restaurant exclaimed,

“Hey, Kerry!  We got Bierko!

This, to me, became a seminal experience.  The announcement of this “casting coup” was meant to imply that, from now on, everything was “clear sailing.”  When, as it ultimately turned out, it most definitely was not. 

I retain that recollection to remind myself that, although it may momentarily appear so, nothing is certain in show business – or in life as a whole for that matter.  And whenever I begin to think otherwise, those three telling words come rushing back to my mind:

“We got Bierko.”

I have another commenter to respond to but I need to leave it at that for today because I have an appointment to go do my taxes. 

When you are no longer receiving a paycheck, going to do your taxes is like a bald person going to a barbershop.

There is little to do but reminisce.

I shall respond to the second commenter tomorrow.

And b the way, pumpkinhead, wow about the robotic surgery.  That was so incredibly cool to hear about.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"A Couple Of Questions Lying On My Desk"


You ask ‘em, and if I can think of something to say about them that won’t put either me or you or both of us to sleep, I’ll answer ‘em.

First, the easy one, because the answer is clear, if not perhaps reflective of the better parts of my personality. 

Re:  “Why Major Dad Ended So Abruptly….”

I had written about how, following a scheduled but unwise departure before the end of Major Dad’s production (the first year of production had been unexpectedly extended), I had returned to a Major Dad in thespatorial insurrection.  (The show’s lead actor had refused to perform the climactic scene of the episode and had replaced it with an alternate version of his own.  (An egregious “no-no” rivaling in unacceptability my own premature evacuation.  So to speak.)

In response to that blogatarial revelation, regular reader (and thank you for that) Canda wondered,

“Did you consider a meeting with the lead to say you returning would have to be under “your conditions”, i.e. that you were in charge of the scripts?”

The answer is “No”, though the explanation is longer, although not much longer. 

I did not want to go back.

Running a TV series – especially if you want it to be good – is maximally exhausting, stressful, emotionally draining, an organizational nightmare, and nowhere near as creative (and fun) as devising a new show from scratch.  That’s what I really wanted to do.  And was substantially more temperamentally suited to do.

So that’s what I did.

Not that it planned that way.  (I rarely plan anything.)  Upon my return to action, a studio executive had asked (because he needed to know) if I was planning to come back the following season, and I replied not “I’ve got to talk to the lead actor first” but “No!”  Which says a lot – possibly everything – about what I really wanted to do. 

My replacement at “show runner” was more capable than I was, though his standards of excellence were arguably less scrupulous.  (Truth be told, a TV series does better with consistency than with inspiration.)  I had subsequent difficulties with my replacement, but overall, I’m not sure Major Dad would have run for four seasons with me at the helm.  (I would likely have passed away in two.)

Besides, if you can get paid exactly the same amount of money (as, contractually, I was being paid) for running yourself ragged producing an ongoing series or for sitting contentedly in your office thinking of new ideas for television shows with no actors anywhere in the vicinity…

Are you kidding me?
------------------------------------------------
Re:  “Another Of My Occasional Glimpses Behind the Curtain”

Regular reader (and I thank you for that, as well) Johnny Walker weighs in on the issue of the writer’s “voice.”  Paraphrasing, Johnny muses, “Can you write something you do not personally believe?  Can you create a character that does not reflect at least a certain part of ‘you’?  Can you write a character that you fundamentally do not like?”

My answer is, I can’t. 

Expanding on that, it’s not really that I can’t, it’s that I do not believe I can breathe credible and insightful life into such “alien” characters.  I don’t know how to fool people, so how can I accurately deliver a character who can?  Imagine one?  Sure, I could do that.  But it wouldn’t be the same.

Imagine a New Orleans House of Prostitution in the Louis Armstrong era.  (I was considering a football player-down-on-the-field/observer-in-the-stands analogy, but what the heck.)  Think about the difference between being inside the place, enjoying its…availabilities, and standing outside, wondering what it’s like.

Sure, you could fantasize, and those fantasies might be highly entertaining.  But what chance do they have of accurately reflecting the reality that could very well be equally entertaining, with the resonating advantage of also ringing spectacularly true.

Let me add something here, if I may.  Let us “posit”, as the philosophers I would love to be but am not smart enough to be say, two kinds of writers – writers whose personalities are undetectable in their work, and writers like me, whose personalities are on glorious display.  This concept is perhaps easier to think about with actors. 

In the olden days, the quintessential example here would be Sir Alec Guinness.  Alec Guinness was a thespatorial chameleon, his persona disappearing entirely in the characters he played, almost as if there was no actual “him”, no standout characteristics detracting from his delivering the character he was portraying.  (In contrast to, say John Wayne, whose personality was so strong, he could never entirely set it aside.)  (And who’d want him to?) 


Who’s Johnny Depp?  (Versus “Who’s Tom Cruise?”)  Well, in that same dichotomous contrast, there are writers.  Some with dominant, undisguisable personalities, and others whose fictionalized characters are inarguably “not them.”

Different writers, different styles, some who can envision any character because their personalities are more on the recessive side, and others who can’t because their personalities are not.

Once in my earliest twenties I spontaneously blurted,

“Nobody does me better than me.”

A little show-offy, but sewn into to lining of that braggadociousness (if you bothered to search for it after finishing rolling your eyes), was a self-effacing corollary:

“Other people do ‘other people’ better than I can.”

So I decided to stick with my best thing.

“But Earlo,” you might rejoin, “all that stuff I wrote for television.  You had to do ‘other people’ sometimes.”

Of course.  And some of it was okay.  But what characters did I write best?

The characters who were closest to me.

I am not asserting that about everybody.  That is just the kind of writer I am. 

More questions, please.  I am starting to feel it.   

Monday, April 21, 2014

"He Works Hard For His Money"




I have a friend who manages the money I made when I made money.  From the time I began to realize that my moneymaking days were numbered, my investment instructions to him were simple and direct:

“I would like to make money from my investments, but way more importantly, I would not like to lose money from my investments.”

Following these guidelines, my friend has helped my investment portfolio to remain healthy.  And I truly appreciate that.  At my friend’s wonderful and accomplished wife’s request, I once wrote a commemorative limerick for a party honoring his birthday.  It went:

A man of great prudence and purity
He takes care of our money with surety
As our net worth advances
He reduces our chances
Of depending on Social Security.

My highest praise is reserved for my investment adviser’s ability to have kept me relatively un-wiped out during the economic meltdown of 2008.  I now brag that during “the Collapse”, my investment advisers lost me less money than almost anybody else I know. 

I don’t know if the company would care to highlight that achievement in their brochures, but as a result of my appreciation for their efforts, I have desisted from calling the quarterly fees that they charges me exorbitant.

Extremely high praise indeed.

My financial adviser friend is now retired, though his name remains on the company letterhead, along with one partner who is also retired and a third partner who is dead.  Leaving the money I need to sustain my wife and myself for the rest of our lives in the hands of three people who are no longer there. 

I suggested renaming the company, “Retired, Retired and Dead”, but my friend suspected – correctly, though not one hundred percent correctly – that I was joking.  (In truth, my friend continues to serve as a consultant for my investments, thus altering my proposed title changed to “Retired, Dead, And Retired But Not Entirely Out Of The Picture.”  Which was also rejected.)

I like my friend a lot.  He has hosted me to numerous hockey games, and he and his wife have invited us to Disney Hall concerts and to parties at their house.  It was on one drive to a hockey game that my friend informed me that his firm’s other retired partner now had a yacht anchored somewhere near Tahiti, a yacht, he described, that a helicopter could land on, providing some idea of the size of the yacht, since were helicopters to land on the majority of yachts, they would presumably sink under the helicopter’s formidable weight.  This one demonstrably does not, which, to me, says we are talking about a prodigiously sized watercraft.

My friend’s story reminded me of a anecdote I once read in a book whose title I cannot presently reveal as it is the punch line to the anecdote.

A visitor to New York is taken on a tour of Wall Street, and then to the Battery, where his guide pointing to the boats anchored in the harbor says, “Look, those are the bankers’ and brokers’ yachts.”  To which the visitor not inappropriately queries,

“Where are the customers’ yachts?”

The book Where Are The Customers’ Yachts? (by Fred Schwed) refers to a long ago era, so the disparity described in the anecdote is hardly unique to our times.

The difference, however, is the scope.

Metaphorically speaking, the “Money People’s” yachts have grown exponentially larger.

I realize I am veering into a touchy area.  In our economic system of choice it is not possible to say that a person makes too much money.  Culturally speaking, this claim makes no semantical sense.  It’s like saying a batter in baseball is getting too many hits.  That’s what you’re supposed to be doing.

The entire arena of personal income in our culture is a sensitive one.  Though it is acceptable to ask someone what they do for a living, it is unacceptable to ask them how much they make doing it.  Salary inquiries are an etiquettian “No-no.”  It is simply not done.  (Declaimed in a quavering Margaret Dumont voice, waving a lorgnette.)

It is the marketplace that determines how much you make, rendering judgments concerning its magnitude confusingly inappropriate.  And of course there are never complaints in the other direction.  At no compensation level will you hear someone say,

“Yeah, that’s too much.  Pay me less.”

That is also simply not done.

The problem, at least for me, arises when the recipients of the bountiful beneficences handed down by a disinterested marketplace start believing that they actually did something to deserve that much. 

Since I know almost nothing about what investment advisers do, allow me to analogize with an example from an arena about which I am somewhat although not substantially less ignorant: 

Baseball.


Up till the mid-sixties, a good salary for a baseball player hovered around twenty thousand dollars a year.  (The superstars got more, but the “mean”, round figures, was in the general neighborhood of twenty G’s.)

Then, as a result of free agency (no longer bound to a specific team, ballplayers could now peddle their services to the highest bidder), agents negotiating on the players’ behalf, and, most importantly, skyrocketing cable television contracts, it is not unusual for players (See:  The recent multi-year contract signed by ace Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw) to be paid upwards of (keeping it in round figures) twenty million dollars a year.

No question, Clayton Kershaw is an excellent pitcher.  But, as an example, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax – one of the greatest pitchers of all time – in his best year, Koufax made a hundred thousand dollars a year.  

They are both doing the same job, exceedingly well.  Yet Sandy Koufax was paid one hundred thousand dollars and Clayton Kershaw will be paid twenty-three million.  Inflation?  I don't think so.

The difference between today’s ballplayers and the Hall of Famers of the past is that Clayton Kershaw and his contemporary ilk simply lucked out magnificently with their timing, entering the game when a combination of circumstances totally beyond their intention, effort or control dropped astronomical salary remunerations into their (and their agents’) fortuitously “Lucky Ducky” laps.  (And the future bodes even more auspiciously for the players to come.)

Does Clayton Kershaw deserve twenty-three millions dollars a year?  Does today’s retired money manager deserve a yacht that can support landing helicopters?  Does the word “deserve” have any meaning in this context whatsoever?

I cannot answer that.  I don’t know if anybody can.  Or if the question itself makes any reasonable sense.  What I do know is that when today’s astronomical compensations are sincerely defended by the words “I earned it”, my spontaneous response to such claims is an arched eyebrow and a skeptically expressed,

“Really?”