Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Story of a Writer - Part One

I never wrote mean. I never wrote sexy. I never put characters in humiliating situations. And I never wrote dumb. And I still got a thirty-year career and a pretty nice house.

Visitors to my blog have repeatedly asked me to talk about my writing experiences on shows they enjoyed like Taxi, for which I wrote nine episodes. I hesitate to comply, because the half-hour comedy terrain has been so radically altered that I seriously question the relevance of my experiences with what’s happening in comedy today.

There’s a lot of comedy on television I love; I just couldn’t write it. I love Extras, though the lead character endures humiliation after humiliation, like a man who has a tub of soup showered unceremoniously over his head every thirty seconds of his life. The show can be literally painful to watch. And yet, it still makes me laugh.

I enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show in which Larry David, or at least the character Larry David, behaves abominably on a regular basis. My wife calls the show a cringedy. You laugh, but you cringe at the same time. It’s a funny thing. In old show business, a comedian would reveal only the best side of his personality on his show, while remaining a despicable human being offstage. I’ve met Larry David; he’s thoughtful and polite. It’s only on his show that he’s despicable. This reversal of a show biz tradition – now it’s “Nice offstage, horrible onstage” – is a telling reflection on the expanding parameters of current comedy.

Polite doesn’t cut it anymore. That’s your parents’ comedy, or maybe your grandparents’. To keep audiences onboard, the comedy envelope continues to be pushed further and further to the extremes. I’m referring to cable comedy. Network comedy has virtually disappeared.

Network comedy is dying, because commercial limitations – Rule Number One: “Offend No One” – prohibit comedy from venturing to those necessary extremes. The advertisers won’t allow writers to go there. Even the most successful comedy on the air, Two and a Half Men – which is basically The Odd Couple with sleepovers – handles sexual situations with an obligatory obliqueness, compared to, say, how sex is dealt with on Entourage. Cable comedies are censorship-free, or censorship-lite; network comedy creativity is defeated by the paralyzing dread of “getting letters.” That’s why the two systems are different, and why one is flourishing while the other’s in the tank.

It’s a different world. Though I’d be happy to trot out the old war stories, I’m not sure what they’ll do for you. You can forget about gossip. My naivete at the time was such that I never knew what was happening anywhere. There was a show runner who’d occasionally slip into the bathroom and stay there for half an hour. I thought he had stomach trouble. Only years later did I learn he went in there to snort cocaine. I noticed when he came out, he was in a better mood; I just thought that his visit to the bathroom had “cleaned out the pipes.”

While I’m waiting to hear from you, I’ll tell you a story about negotiations, which, I have a feeling, never change. The Writers’ Guild, to which I belong, is currently involved in a strike, which appears to be winding down. I’m pretty sure I know what they’ll say when it’s done. They’ll say we won. The problem is the definition of the word “won”, which could mean anything from “We got everything we were striking for” to “They didn’t drive trucks onto the sidewalks and run us all down.” I probably shouldn’t have said that; the strike’s still not over.

My experience is that negotiations are more ritual than reality. The goal is to arrive at a mutually-agreed-upon result, even if it means agreeing on things that make absolutely no sense.

Story:

Back in Canada, I was working on a talk-variety show hosted by a comedian who was almost entirely deaf. An odd choice for a talk-show interviewer, but there you have it. I was hired to write material for the show and pre-interview the guests. They also wanted me to perform, ten appearances in a hundred episodes. I love performing. I love it more than writing. My brother has a joke about a man who had a mustache but didn’t wear it. That was me. I had a performing impulse but rarely performed.

But I really wanted to.

My deal for writing was already agreed upon. We had to negotiate my performing salary. Before I went to meet with the producer, I asked Don, a comedian on the show, how much he was getting paid. Don told me they were paying him two hundred and fifty dollars for each appearance. I decided I wanted the same thing.

I went to the meeting determined to receive two hundred and fifty dollars per appearance. The producer stopped me in my tracks. His first words?

“We only pay ‘scale’.”

Uh-oh. I knew “scale”, the union-mandated minimum for performing on such shows, was one hundred and sixty-four dollars and sixty-two cents. There was no way I would settle for that.

“I want two hundred and fifty dollars.”

The producer’s reply:

“We only pay ‘scale’.”

I knew that wasn’t true. I was determined to stand firm.

“I want to hundred and fifty dollars.”

The producer held the line:

“We can’t break precedent. We only pay ‘scale’.”

Liar! You already broke precedent with Don!

We went back and forth, neither of us giving an inch. It was starting to get funny, each of us chanting the same mantra again and again:

“I want two hundred and fifty dollars.”

“We only pay ‘scale’.”

The negotiation was wearing me down. I was angry, I was frustrated, I could feel the “flop sweat” of a man who knew he was going to lose. I have no idea where this came from, I knew it made absolutely any sense, but I needed to break the logjam, and what I said was this:

“Find a ‘scale’ that’s two hundred and fifty dollars and pay it to me.”

And the producer said:

“Okay.”

Okay?

Okay?!

There is no “scale” that’s two hundred and fifty dollars! What the hell is going on! What was going on was you could get the salary you wanted as long as you called it “scale”.

That’s negotiations.

When I moved to the States, I got an agent and I never had to say nonsensical stuff like that again.

“Okay?!”

Why didn’t I ask for more?

2 comments:

Diogo said...

Earl,

You mentioned how comedy has changed in the last 2 decades or so, and I agree. I notice that "Past" sitcoms like Taxi or Cheers or MTM, had WAY more heart than the one joke setups we are delivered weekly, while, we now find much more comedy in drama shows than ever before. Do you agree, and why do you think the change was made?

Vermonter 17032 said...

Earl,

I lament the loss of polite comedy. As diogo said, past shows had way more heart than shows of today. I think this "meaning-up" of comedy begain with shows like Married with Children. I could see it seeping into Cheers during the Rebecca years. Yes, this mean comedy can be funny, but so what? Who wants to watch it? Not me.