Monday, March 17, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eight"

Here’s a contest for you. No prizes, other than the satisfaction of getting it right. I realize “no prizes” is a little un-American, but remember, I wasn’t born here. What’s wrong with just feeling good about yourself, eh?

Okay, the contest. In this post – a continuation of this writer’s journey – see if you can count how many times I was really lucky, where things could easily have gone the other way and I could have been back in Canada, doing something else for a living. What that would be, I have no idea. Writing is the only thing I’m half-way decent at.

The contest is only partly meant to give you a pleasurable counting-involvement while you’re reading this story. It also relieves me of the necessity of announcing each time I was lucky, “Boy, was I lucky!’ thus allowing this post to read more fluidly, and be less boringly repetitive. It will also drive home the message of the essential part luck plays in people’s careers. I say “people’s” careers and not just mine, because I can’t imagine I’m the only writer who wound up doing well, for whom luck played an indispensable role.

Okay. Back to our story.

When we left off, I had just told Lorne Michaels I wasn’t going to New York to work on Saturday Night Live. Then, falling asleep one night, I’d come up with an idea for an episode of the wonderful Mary Tyler Moore Show, and people who’d written for that show had told me it was good. I then wrote a two-page outline of my idea. All that was left was to sell it. If I did, I’d be working on my favorite show on television, and I wouldn’t have to move to New York.

By the way, if I have any readers living in New York, I don’t want you to be confused by whether I didn’t want to work on Saturday Night Live or whether I didn’t want to live in New York. The answer is both.

I love short visits to New York, but I’ve tried it three times, and I can’t live there. The place freaks me out. Too many people in too small a space. This living arrangement makes its inhabitants abrupt; I’m not comfortable with abrupt people. Or with skyscraper-induced claustrophobia. I know there are millions of people who love living in New York, though as my friend, John, once observed, “People say they love New York; and yet, every weekend, they can’t wait to leave.” Maybe they just love it Monday to Friday.

Sorry for the digression. I just hate losing an opportunity to alienate readership.

I wrote my two-page outline in March. The time of year is important to my story. March is part of the three-months-or-so-long “hiatus” period for television production, meaning, it’s the time when they’re not making shows.

Why is that important to my story? Because during the hiatus period, the runners of the shows, liberated from their grueling production schedules, are now free to get to things they would otherwise not have time to get to. Such as reading submitted material. Like a two-page outline, that just happened to have been completed at that time.

This part is strange. I don’t know why I wrote a two-page outline rather than an entire spec – meaning audition – script. I think it probably had to do with my not wanting to provide the producers with too much to hate. There are two things wrong with that strategy. First, you’re expected to write a whole script; that’s how the producers know you can write a whole script. Secondly, it’s not a volume situation. There’s no magic in two pages. Producers can hate two pages just as easily as they can hate something longer, and more complete. All I was really doing was saving paper. Which, considering my finances at the time, was probably also a consideration.


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had a female agent during that period. The woman, whose name was Helen, later went on to become Jay Leno’s manager, representing Jay during his struggles to succeed Johnny Carson as the host of The Tonight Show. But that’s for Leno’s blog. He doesn’t write about me; I don’t write about him.

There were barely any female agents back in the seventies. I’d started with a different agent, whose name was Dan. Any time you asked Dan how he was doing, he’d always answer, “Perfect!” This was very strange to me. I had no idea how anyone could feel “Perfect!” all the time. I’ve never felt perfect one day in my life. Dan was my “variety” agent, meaning he represented my on the variety shows I’d been working on. When I turned my attention to sitcoms, my agency transferred me to an agent who “covered” sitcoms. That was Helen.

Helen liked my two-page outline. And she got the show runner of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to read it. How did she do that? Well, first he had time, because it was the hiatus period. Second, he happened to be in town – a lot of show runners go on vacation during “hiatus” – but he hadn’t, because he was producing two pilots for the upcoming season. The third reason I believe my agent was able to get my material to him was because the show runner of The Mary Tyler Moore Show really liked women.

Did anything happen between the show runner and my female agent? I have no idea. All I know is this: One night, I drove to the show runner’s house. The show runner had hired a limo to take the show runner, me and my female agent to a Dodger game. After the game, the limo returned us to the show runner’s house. I got in my car and drove home. The show runner and my female agent disappeared into the show runner’s house.

The next day I had a meeting about my outline.

It’s hard to see the same thing would have happened if I’d had a man agent.

The show runner who really liked women had a partner, whose name was Stan. Stan was smart, funny, hardworking and extremely kind. Years later, Stan and his wife generously allowed my wife and I to be married in their back yard. Allowing us to be married in his back yard was the second kindest thing Stan did for me. I’ll tell you the first kindest in a minute.

The two show runners liked my story idea, and before my amazed and inexperienced eyes, they shaped it into an episode that I would write and they would produce. I couldn’t believe it. Not only had my little outline gotten me a meeting, it was going to be made into an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show! I’ve spoken to other writers about it. A spec outline turning into a produced episode? It never happens.

I went home and started writing. First a longer outline, which they approved, then, the script. I’m sure I was terrified. A lot was riding on this script being good. But I was also incredibly excited. On another level – the “doing it” level – it didn’t seem that hard. It seemed, in fact, like this was not the first time I was writing a Mary Tyler Moore script; it felt very much like I’d done it before, although I could well have been confusing writing the show with watching the show.

Here’s something else. Years later, somebody told me this story. I can’t remember who it was, but I have the strong sense that the person who told it to me had no reason not to be telling the truth.

The show running team had a boss, the co-creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When one of those co-creators returned from his hiatus vacation, he checked in to see what was going on with the show. The show-running team informed him that they’d met with a promising new writer, who’d pitched them an idea they really liked. What’s the idea? The show runners told him. The boss responded to my idea like this:

“I hate that idea! You have to stop him from writing it!”

The show runners explained that the script had already been ordered and they’d have to pay for it, whether they stopped the writer – me – or not. Why not let the writer finish, and see how the script turned out? The boss relented, and the completed script turned out acceptable, thus rescuing my career from early cancellation.

It was that close.

Now. Returning to my obliviousness.

Unbeknowing of the foregoing story, I finished my script and I handed it in. I remember it was a Friday. What’s important about that is that a Friday submission condemned me to a long and miserable weekend, agonizing until Monday over how the Powers That Be would respond to my efforts.

It never happened. Why?

Because Stan called me on Saturday.

He’d read the script and he though it was great. Adopting a slightly English intonation, he opined,

“You’ve got it, My Boy!”

Stan’s Saturday call relieved me of two days of lacerating self-torture. His thoughtful gesture taught me a lesson. Throughout my career, I tried to emulate that thoughtfulness in my dealings with other writers. The man set the standard. I wanted to be like Stan.

I never came close.

Things moved quickly after that. My Mary script was accepted. I was hired for the staff of the producer team’s new series, Phyllis, and I was provided with an office on the studio lot. My office was located directly opposite the door that led out to the parking area. Often, dressed in cutoff jeans and sandals, or sometimes barefoot, I would sit on the steps outside the door and do my writing. It was all pretty amazing. I had my ideal job, I was writing in the sun – in March! – and I didn’t have to move to New York.

The cherry on top of the sundae? One day, I was sitting in my office when a bunch of people came clambering down the stairs from the second floor, on their way to lunch. My door was open, so there was no reason to knock. The crowd walked right in. I looked up to see who it was.

Who it was were the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the creators of The Bob Newhart Show – the one where he was the psychologist – my two favorite shows on television, coming to welcome the New Guy aboard. I was blown away. Literally. As this Dream Team of comedy moved towards me, I reflexively backed away, until I found myself standing atop my couch, my back against the wall.

The gesture spoke the word, and the word was “overwhelmed.”

Okay, did you catch all the “lucky” moments in the story? I counted six of them. In a two-week period! If you didn’t catch all six, you’ll probably want to read the story again. My fantasy, when I write something, is that the world immediately stops what it’s doing and reads it, if necessary, more than once.

Next on Story of a Writer: Quitting “staff writer” for a job I liked better.


karyrogers said...

Since you gave away the contest answer I guess we're all winners. Do I still get to feel good about myself?

Max Clarke said...

And those are just the lucky moments you've recognized. Worth the wait from the previous cliffhanger ending to part seven. Some of those moments were lucky, sure, but there was also a bit of courage in your decision to stay in LA.

Anonymous said...

I get a vicarious charge out of hearing this & imagining the acceptance from this iconic show, and embrace by the other iconic Bob Newhart Show. My very first spec script, written back in Philly at the time, on my portable typewriter with the broken carriage return, was a "Phyllis." About ten years later when I was meeting with the Charles Brothers on my first "Cheers" episode, I'd reminded them that they were nice enough to have sent a green writer some positive comments on his spec Phyllis. Their response, "Oh, you were the one who watched." Still, being a part of that great seventies era of MTM comedies, it was worth watching.

growingupartists said...

Happy anniversary, Earl. And much luck to you this March Madness season. Ahem, productive March season.

I never take you to be oblivious, though.