Friday, March 28, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Nine"

In the pilot season of 1975 – “Geez, I wasn’t even born then!” – I’m speaking for my daughter and, hopefully, other young readers, and they probably wouldn’t say “Geez”, which explains why I can’t sell a movie.


In that pilot season, the show-running team that ran The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ed. (“Allow me the affectation”) Weinberger and Stan Daniels, had both of their pilots picked up as series for the upcoming season. That meant they’d be running three shows at the same time. Running one show is excruciating; running three at the same time, I don’t even want to think about.

The new shows needed to be staffed with writers, and liking the work I’d done on my Mary script, Ed. and Stan hired me as a story editor on one of their new series, called Phyllis. Phyllis Lindstrom was a character that originated on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A standard programming strategy is to “spin off” a character from a hit show and create a new series, starring that already popular character. The last time they tried that recently, it was Joey. “Spin offs” are hit and miss. Sometimes, they work – Frazier came from Cheers – and sometimes, they don’t. Joey.

This is great, wait till you hear this. Before they hired me for Phyllis, Ed. and Stan reserved a large screening room and sent me there to watch the Phyllis pilot, to see if I liked it. You notice two amazing things in that one sentence? They’d reserved a large screening room. For me! I could sit in any of the thickly padded movie seats I wanted and say, “Roll ‘em!” when I wanted the projectionist to “Roll ‘em”, and he’d “Roll ‘em!”

The second amazing thing was that people I respected and revered wanted me to decide if their show appealed to me enough for me to be willing to work on it. I was almost giddy. I’m giddy again just thinking about it. That’s the third amazing thing. As old as I am, I can still get giddy.

I really liked the Phyllis pilot. It had all the attributes of the MTM brand – it was funny and human, and not at all stupid. I reported to Ed. and Stan that the show had met with my approval. They seemed happy to hear that. And they put me on Phyllis.

The Phyllis writing staff, besides Ed. and Stan, consisted of me – the story editor – and one other writer, who would be the show’s producer.

A moment for boring clarification.

If you ever wondered what the various titles on the writing credits mean, from a writing standpoint, they don’t mean anything. As a writer, you do what you do. Sometimes, a gifted story editor will make a greater contribution than a mediocre co-executive producer. That’s just the way it is.

The title reflects how much you get paid; the loftier title, the bigger your salary. (Titles and salaries are all negotiated.) When it comes down to doing the job, however, everybody’s pitching, and everyone’s the same. Except for the show runner, who retains the final say on what goes in the script.

The producer on Phyllis, whose name was Michael, was younger than I was, but he had more experience. Michael had a unique and original comic imagination. A moment that did not appear that funny on the page would explode when it was performed by the actors. Michael was tuned into something special; he possessed a comedic chromosome the rest of us lacked.

Anyway, it was Michael and me, and Ed. and Stan, who were working on two other shows at the same time, Mary and their other new show, called Doc. With the writing staff set, work began on the scripts. We’d pitch out the stories together, then one of us would go off and write the outline, and then two drafts. Later, we would polish the script together.

I was given the honor of writing the second episode, the first one after the pilot. Even before I started working, when I was merely a viewer, I always believed the second episode was the most important episode of the series. The second episode proved that the show was more than a great pilot. There were other interesting stories to tell. The series concept had “legs.” And a regular viewer. Me.

During my career I was fortunate enough to have written many second episodes. Besides, the second episode of Phyllis, I also wrote the second episode of Taxi, the second episode of Cheers and the second episode of The Cosby Show. When I mentioned this to a group of writers, one of them, a good writer named Ron, said, “Earl, you were one script away from a billion dollars.”

I liked writing second scripts. The characters are still fresh, and not fully formed; the writer of the second episode, by their choices, is contributing to fleshing out characters that could live on for years. You can make them stingy, by a single stingy joke in Episode Two, and that character will be stingy forever. There’s a thrill in contributing to the establishment of the characters. Even if you miss out on the billion dollars.

As it turned out, however, my first Phyllis script was not that successful. I was still a rookie, and being a rookie, I wasn’t as good a writer as I would ultimately become; also, though I showed flashes of ability – even at the beginning – I remained “rookily” inconsistent.

Trouble in “The Room”

The “table reading” room, where the script would have its first out-loud reading, was crammed with actors and production staff. This was the first production day of a spanking new series – lots of excitement, lots of chatter. I had a stomachache. They were about to read my first script. (I wasn’t involved in the production of my Mary episode, though I was invited to the filming, which I’ll tell you about another time. You’ll like that story; there are drugs involved.)

I’ll make this fast, because it wasn’t pleasant. The lead actress arrived two hours late. That means a two-hour stomachache for me. When the actors read the script aloud, the laughs were small and sporadic. At the end, the lead actress was not happy. I felt terrible and about-to-be-fired. I didn’t like being in that room.

The rewriting process improved the script immeasurably and the episode turned out reasonably well. Two weeks later, another of my scripts was read, and things went a lot better (though the lead actress still arrived two hours late). The script garnered a lot of laughs. The lead actress was very pleased with my work. Though confused.

“Did he write it alone?” I heard her inquire, perplexed by how the same writer could have written a funny script and a crappy one.

By this time, I had had enough. No more stomachaches for me, I resolved. I demanded a meeting with Ed., and I came in with an agitated proposal. (The proposal wasn’t agitated, I was agitated when I proposed it.)

“I don’t want to be a story editor anymore,” I announced.

Ed. was caught off-guard. He wasn’t used to having story editors making ultimatum-like pronouncements.

“What do you want to do?”

I told Ed. that instead of working on the writing staff of one show, I wanted to write scripts for all the MTM comedies, of which there were four at the time. I insisted – insisted, mind you – that at least two of the episodes be for the Mary show; the rest could be spread out amongst the other series. In total, I would write ten scripts per season. (This number, at my request, was later reduced to eight.)

Chutzpah. A new guy telling his bosses what he will and won’t do. Where did it come from? Agitation and fear. I didn’t know much, but I knew one thing:

I didn’t want to go back in that room.

The agreement was made. From then on, I just wrote scripts. No more “table readings”, no more petulant actors, no more rewrites – other people would handle that – and no more late nights. I could keep my own hours as long as the scripts were delivered on time.

They always were.

My great job, which had turned nightmarish, had evolved into an even better job.

And all it cost me was my Phyllis story editor salary, and the chance to learn how to deal with the ups and downs of the series-making experience. Which I, ultimately, never did.

A Footnote: The two brothers who replaced me as the story editors on Phyllis would later go on to create Cheers.

Next on Story of a Writer – The three most enjoyable years of my entire career.


growingupartists said...

Interesting to hear about the career of a television writer, and to witness how your thoughts flow. Sitting, staring at the screen, we viewers never get a solid or reliable glimpse at what makes the magic happen. Only since the writer's strike did your world become tangible for me. I hate being kept in the dark!

So, since you have a toe in that world, I'd love to hear what kinds of shows you'd create, if you had a magic wand...or a lasso.

Max Clarke said...

Sam's Women. I can see your point so well, now, the power of the second episode. The first episode of Cheers let us in the door, but the second episode was so important to the relationship of Diane and Sam. I still love the line, "On behalf of all the intelligent women in the world...whew!" Simply brilliant. It was a mixed script, with Sam trying to show he dates smart babes, and Coach dealing with that guy who came to Cheers to get advice from Gus. Thanks for the script. You're not Gus, Earl, but you're not bad.

Anonymous said...

Why didn't you end the chess match in a draw? After everything Dad went through, a draw could have produced some funny reactions such as baiting both characters into demanding a rematch.

Anonymous said...

Duh, sorry, I posted the chess match comment to the wrong blog. It should be for "The Audience Writes the Script".