A few weeks after I started my column in the paper, I took some sample stories to CBC radio, the national radio network in Canada, to inquire about doing commentaries on one of their shows. One show said okay. So now I had two jobs, one paying twenty-five dollars, the other paying fifty.
Then, through a contact, I was hired to write a column (salary: thirty-five dollars) for the Canadian version of The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Post. Their editor wanted me to read the PR material they received touting new products, and write short blurbs about the three or four I considered the most interesting. He also encouraged me, when appropriate, to make my writing humorous.
Every week, I’d sift through a stack of promotional bulletins, looking for interesting and unusual new products. There was one, I remember, for an automatic manure spreader; apparently, till then, people had been spreading the manure manually. I mentioned the product in my column adding that, “The automatic manure spreader is not only a boon to the manure spreader himself, but also to everyone who has to shake hands with him.”
Add ‘em up and suddenly, I had three jobs. I was making a living as a writer. Although, after six months, I lost the Financial Post job when the paper’s publisher read my column and told his editor to fire me because I was being funny with the new products, which was exactly what the editor had encouraged me to do. Apparently, a scathing five-page, single-spaced memo about my column, citing “egregious” examples, had altered the editor’s opinion of my usefulness.
My television break came when my brother, Hart, viewed by many as the funniest person they’ve ever met, and his partner, Lorne Michaels – remember the name – returned from a Hollywood writing stint to write, produce and star in four one-hour comedy “specials” a year on Canadian television. I was invited to join their writing staff.
This was a new kind of writing for me. I’d written my column in the paper, I’d done a similar version of that style – my style – on the radio, and I’d written about manure spreaders. Now, they wanted me to write ”blackouts”, a “joke-and-run” style of comedy popularized at the time on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a show my brother and Lorne had worked on in Hollywood. I sat there with a pad and a pen. Two hours later, the pad still had nothing on it.
I called Lorne and told him I didn’t think I could do the job. Lorne calmly reassured me, reminding me that there were a lot of writers on the staff, so the burden wasn’t entirely on me. Or even that much on me. In fact, it wasn’t on me at all. Somehow that worked. Relieved of the pressure that had never been there is the first place, the writing eventually started to flow.
The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour ran for three seasons. At some point, I was able to break out of “blackout mode” to create short films which were included in the “specials.” One was called The Puck Crisis.
The Puck Crisis was a mock-documentary recounting the harrowing saga, at least to Canadians, of hockey pucks, growing on trees in the Canadian “puck belt” being decimated by “Dutch Puck Disease.” Apparently, some lethal “pucktacockae”, having been accidentally carried into the country on the sticks of a touring Dutch hockey team, had infected the trees the pucks grow on, leaving the current puck crop in danger of being wiped out. Quite the mess, eh? Serious puck depletion could force cancellation of the upcoming hockey season.
The film was done completely straight-faced – the “expert scientists”, the concerned hockey players, the “Man in the Street” interviews, culminating with the immortal Foster Hewitt, the Dean of Hockey Broadcasting, making a fundraising plea to Canadians who care to “Send a buck to save a puck.”
The Puck Crisis was one of the most satisfying pieces I ever wrote. I’m extremely proud of it. I know it’s not Crime and Punishment, but I couldn’t write Crime and Punishment if I wanted to. It had already been written.
I also wrote a short film, which began in a hospital Maternity Ward. A woman has just had a baby. The nurse approaches the happy couple carrying their newborn, wrapped in a blanket. She hands the child to the mother. With beaming Poppa standing proudly at her bedside, the mother carefully unwraps the blanket, revealing a child bearing some shocking characteristics: frizzy red hair shooting out in all directions, a powdery white face, a bulbous red nose and gigantic feet. The woman had given birth to a natural born clown.
Eventually, my brother and Lorne split up and Lorne returned to California. I did my best to make a living in Canada, working in radio, television, I even wrote and performed in some radio commercials:
"Hi, I’m Salisbury Steak. I come with mushrooms, but they don’t talk.”
Then I was hired to write and perform on an American co-produced talk-variety show. The salary was five hundred dollars a week, seven hundred and fifty on the weeks when I also performed. It was, by far, my biggest payday to date.
One day, I get a call from California. It’s Lorne Michaels. He tells me he’s producing a TV “special” starring Lily Tomlin. He showed her my “Clown Movie”, and she asked him to invite me to Los Angeles to write on her show. The job would last four weeks; the salary was twenty-five hundred dollars for the job.
I quickly did the math. Four weeks for twenty-five hundred dollars, that’s about six and a quarter per week. I was making more than that in Toronto, and that job lasted longer.
I told Lorne, “No.”
A couple of months later, the talk-variety show I was working on was unexpectedly cancelled. I was about to be out of work. Now, get this. On the Wednesday before my last on the job, I get a call from Los Angeles. It’s Lorne Michaels again. Apparently, the Lily Tomlin “special” had been postponed and it was now about to be produced. Would I be interested in working on it?
I told Lorne, “Yes.”
When my clever daughter, Anna, heard this story, her reaction to it was,
“Opportunity knocked twice.”
She was right. And the second time, I answered.
I was on my way to Hollywood.
I want to use this blog to tell all kinds of stories, but I promise I’ll include reminiscences about the shows I worked on. You’ll see. You’ll like the other stories too. I promise.
Thanks for coming around. It’s fun having somebody to tell stuff to.