Monday, March 10, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Seven"

After I finished the second Lily Tomlin “special”, I was once again out of work, and out of work permit, reviving my nightmare about being nabbed by the INS and bused to Guadalajara, since there weren’t enough Canadian “illegals” for a bus back to Canada. Strange dream. Funny yet true-feeling, with an unwavering point of view. Something like this blog. When it’s not being pretentious.

I get a call from Lorne Michaels. Calls from Lorne inevitably meant work, and this call was no exception. The problem was the place the job was going to be done, a problem that led to the biggest decision thus far in my fledgling career.

I’m aware of how the next part is going to sound. It could easily be read as the story of the "Fifth Beatle", the guy who missed the boat, or the gravy train, or the rocket to fame and fortune – something that moved that I wasn’t on. I never saw it that way. At least not to any bothersome degree. Everyone has a road not taken. This one was mine.

No matter how it comes off sounding, I have to tell it like it happened, because that’s how it happened. I once saw this musical, The Will Rogers Follies, chronicling the life of the famous cowboy comedian. To inject an endearing element of self-awareness into the proceedings, the character Will Rogers had the awareness that he had no choice but to do what the actual Will Rogers had done in real life, leading to the following exchange:


WILL’S WIFE: Do you have to go, Will?


WILL’S WIFE: Why, Will?

WILL ROGERS: Because I went.

That always tickled me.

You write about what really happened, because that’s what really happened. This is what really happened.

Lorne tells me he persuaded the executives at NBC that he can produce a successful late night television show on Saturday nights, to replace reruns of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. He wanted me to be a writer on that show. There was some mention that I might be the Head Writer, but that may have come later. For sure, he wanted me to be an original part of his developing project.

I’m sure Lorne didn’t have the entire concept fleshed out, but since what he did was revues – a mixture of comedy and music – it was a good bet the new show be along those lines. But with a revolutionary thrust. Though I wasn’t at the NBC meeting, I’m sure Lorne’s “pitch” was grounded in the claim that he knew what the younger generation – an increasingly attractive demographic for advertisers – wanted to see. Television like no one had ever seen before. Counterculture television, television for the Sixties Generation. Television that would forever change the face of…television.

Lorne wore a green army jacket back then; he looked like he knew where it was at. Maybe he did or maybe he just acted like he did. The only thing I knew was that Lorne Michaels had come a long way from managing the Sweaters Department at Eaton’s, a major Toronto Department Store.

So there we were. The man who’d brought me down to California, given me my first major network television writing credit, hired me for The Flip Wilson Show, The Hollywood Palladium and two Lily Tomlin “specials”, a man who’d arranged my living arrangements and a rental car for the first four months of my stay, who’d included me in every party and event he was invited to, not to mention a “doing mushrooms in the desert” adventure I politely turned down, the only person I could rely on in a fiercely competitive business, my benefactor, my friend, that man was asking me to come to New York and support him in putting together his exciting new show. What else could I possibly say?

I said no.


I’m not too good on “why.” It’s not that I can’t think of reasons, it’s that I can think of bunches of them, but I can never tell which one is, not the right one – they’re all right to some degree – but which one is the primary reason, the one that really sealed the deal.

Reasons I said “No” to going to New York:

I had just relocated to L.A. and I didn’t want to relocate again.

I loved L.A., not the place people turned it into, but what it naturally was. Warm and breezy, especially by the ocean. And it had an ocean. You should also know that Lorne’s call came in the winter. It was seventy degrees. In February!

I wasn’t a great sketch writer, sketches being the meat and potatoes of the revue format. No, just the meat. The “potatoes” was the music.

It bothered me to be beholden to one person for my entire career.

New York was too close to Toronto.

I was not a good friend.

I’m a scaredy-cat fraidy pants.

I didn’t think the late night replacement for reruns of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson would last.

That’s enough of that. You pick it. I’m tired.

Whatever the reason, I told Lorne I wasn’t going to go. It felt like an easy decision. But that doesn’t mean I was certain. It could have just meant I was stubborn about not wanting to move. Not that I had a plethora of options. It wasn’t like I turned down Plan A because I preferred Plan B. There was no Plan B.

I just didn’t want to go.

But what was I going to do?

After he moved to New York, Lorne would periodically call to see if I’d changed my mind. Also, I believe, to stir up doubt in my ability to make it on my own. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe he just felt more secure being surrounded by familiar faces as he put together his new show, and my face was currently missing. (Maybe he thought I was really talented and my presence would be an enhancing addition to the writing staff. Ever think of that, Dodo Head?) I told you I wasn’t great at reasons.

What I did know was I was seriously feeling the pressure. It’s not like I had a lot of contacts. I had two. One of them, a man who’d promised me work, was now refusing to take my calls. The other had hightailed it to New York. It was not a comfortable time.

And then, one night – I’m hearing music here – as I was about to fall asleep, an idea came to me for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I have no idea how that happened. But I do know I’ve often gotten inspiring ideas as I’m about to drop off to sleep. Sometimes, I don’t write them down, because, being such fabulous ideas, I’m sure I’ll remember them in the morning. I never remember any of them. Sometimes, I write them down, but I write them without putting my contact lenses back in, so in the morning, what I wrote is totally illegible. I now keep glasses by my bed. But I don’t have any ideas.

But that night I did. And here’s what it was. Mary thinks a priest is giving up the priesthood because he’s in love with her. I have no idea what generated that idea, but there it was. And I was pretty sure it was good, “good” meaning potentially funny, and right for the show.

The next day, I wrote a two-page outline for my episode idea. I showed the outline to two writers I’d met on the second Lily Tomlin “special”, women who’d previously written for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Their names were Nardo and Banta, names which would later be appropriated for characters on Taxi. I asked them what they thought of my idea. They said it was on the money.

I now had an idea for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, by far, my favorite comedy then on the air. I had professional writer-women telling me it was good. I was all set. This was my – you know, the round thing they throw to people in the ocean when they fall off a ship – this was that. This idea was my ticket to an independent career, staying in L.A. and not having to move to New York.

All I had to do was sell it.

Next on “Story of a Writer” – “Hello” MTM, “Goodbye” SNL!


Max Clarke said...

You ended this on a cliffhanger, perfect. Of all your Story of a Writer episodes, this is the best.

Anonymous said...

MTM... Taxi... the two biggest influences on my sitcom sensibilities... Look forward to the next chapter! And I appreciated your honesty about saying "no." I once talked Aaron Sorkin out of hiring me for "Sports Night," because I feared I didn't know enough sports minutiae. My agent thought I was insane.

Anonymous said...

Good luck, Earl ! I hope they buy it. I loved that episode.