Sunday, March 2, 2008

"Story of a Writer" - Part Six

When we left this thrill-packed saga, I had just moved to Los Angeles, based on the promise of a job from a guy who subsequently never returned my calls. I was there, and I was out of work. As Joey Lawrence would pathetically say years later on Blossom


Besides the stress of unemployment, there was also the persistent issue of immigration. Though still a Canadian citizen, every job I’d done in the States, I’d done legally. The problem was the work permits I was issued only lasted for the duration of the job. When I finished each job – and writing jobs on “specials” only lasted four weeks – I was not only out of work, I was then considered to be in the country illegally. Periodically, I’d receive a stomach-churning letter from the Department of Immigration, requesting information about my plans for returning to my country of origin.

“Whoh” times a hundred.

I didn’t have plans for returning to my country of origin. Ever. It was too cold in my country of origin. And my future was here.

My immigration troubles triggered a bizarre but a scarily realistic fantasy:

I was caught being here illegally, but since there weren’t a sufficient number of illegal Canadians, I was herded onto a bus with the Mexican “illegals” and I ended up in Guadalajara. I was the only one who didn’t get met at the bus station.

Fortunately, my “hard times” were short-lived. Lorne Michaels kept getting work producing comedy “specials”, and whenever he did, he’d hire me (and I’d be “legal” again). The assignment was a Flip Wilson “special.” For those too young to recall, Flip Wilson was a moderately funny black comedian who scored biggest when he dressed up as a woman character named “Geraldine” and said, “The Devil made me do it.” Nothing in my background prepared me to be a writer for Flip Wilson. But early jobs are like that.

Lorne had an idea for the concept of the “special.” Looking back, this seems to be the foundational premise of Lorne’s long and extremely successful career. The idea is this:

Do a revue.

Let’s go back a little. I met Lorne Michaels at the University of Toronto, while auditioning for our college’s annual revue – which Lorne had written and was directing. I was very funny at the audition, but not, unfortunately, with Lorne’s material. I was funny around the material. Understandably, I didn’t get into the show.

At first.

It turned out the show was a little short. Lorne contacted my older brother, Hart, who’d worked on the show a couple of years earlier, asking if he had any comedy material he could borrow to beef up the show. Hart had been writing with another writer at the time, and they’d written a “blind date” sketch, material that was perfect for a college revue. Hart said he’d let Lorne to use the sketch under one condition:

“My brother has to be in it.”

That’s how I got in the show. I performed the “blind date” sketch, and Lorne also asked me to write and deliver a monologue. He wasn’t being totally generous with that offer. It turned out Lorne needed someone to perform in front of the curtain while, backstage, they engaged in an elaborate costume and scenery change for the “funny opera” that was coming up next.

I didn’t mind. I was in the show. And the scenery change was relatively quiet.

A lot of things started with that show. My brother’s relationship with Lorne, which would blossom into a five-year partnership, my introduction to Lorne, and Lorne’s enthusiasm for the revue format, from which, a decade later, evolved Saturday Night Live.

Between those two landmark events was The Flip Wilson Special, onto which Lorne grafted the revue format. But with a marvelous twist. Instead of traditional sketch players, Lorne assembled an ensemble of the greatest comedy talent alive.

In the revue format, performers work to service the sketches, sometimes playing the lead characters and, sometimes, the maid. That’s the revue tradition. You star in one sketch, play a supporting role in another. Lorne wanted to use the revue format for Flip Wilson. The twist was he wanted to use comedy superstars.

Which superstars? The Flip Wilson Special had three guests: Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor and Peter Sellers.

I’d love to say something about Richard Pryor, but the truth is I was afraid to talk to him. Not only because he was the most talented comedian I ever saw, but because, every time I looked his way, I saw the angriest face in the entire history of faces. Mix together shyness, awe and sheer terror, and I have no stories to tell about Richard Pryor. I wish I had known him better, or at all. He was the best.

Lily, Flip and Richard were on board with Lorne’s ensemble concept for the show. Peter Sellers hated it. Arriving from England, Sellers took one look at the script and threatened to immediately fly home. Why? “I do two thing,” he explained. “I play a bumbling detective. And a person who breaks things.” He refused to play small parts. He refused to play big parts, unless they were a bumbling detective or a person who breaks things.

The writers scrambled to provide the material Sellers demanded. One writer wrote a bumbling detective sketch. A veteran writer named Don and myself, using the template of “a person who breaks things”, came up with an idea about an auctioneer who accidentally demolished every object he was auctioning off.

After the new material was written, we were required to present it – go to his hotel room and read it – to Peter Sellers. Don, being the senior writing partner of our team, pulled “seniority” and sent me. So there I was, facing one of the great comedy geniuses of all time, reading – the sketch was comprised entirely of physical comedy – five-minutes of, hopefully hilarious, stage directions. When I finished, Sellers agreed to perform on the show. The “auctioneer” sketch was later cut during editing.

I don’t exactly remember how the “special” turned out, but I have a faint recollection it was disappointing. The experience suggests that the ensemble concept works better when you’re not using stars; hence, the inception of The Not Ready For Prime Time Players. (Lorne’s other gift: picking talent.)

After Flip Wilson, Lorne got a job producing a variety special called The Hollywood Palladium. Once again, he hired me. He really shouldn’t have. I’m not all that gifted at what that show needed me to do.

The Executive Producer and director of Hollywood Palladium was a guy named Marty. Marty assigned me to write an opening monologue for John Davidson, a singer who was only a little bit funny. The problem wasn’t him, however, it was me. I’m not a joke writer, and jokes are what monologues are primarily comprised of.

I wrote the monologue, as best I could. I delivered it to Marty. Marty gave the material a quick “once over” and said, “Write it again.”

I felt deflated, but not surprised. I wrote a second monologue, trying a different approach. I handed it in.

“That’s not it. Write it again.”

I was getting frustrated; also scared, ‘cause by now, we were running out of time. Out of desperation or rebellion or a little of both, my third crack at the monologue included virtually all the material I had written in the first monologue. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I figured I was fired anyway.

On the night before the show would be taped in front of a live audience, I delivered my third shot at the monologue, which was basically the first monologue over again. Marty read it over, and said,

“Now, you’ve got it!”

Now I’ve got it?!

The man had just approved a monologue that he’d previously turned down! What’s going on?!

What was going on was this. We had run out of time. As long as Marty was stuck with this monologue, he might as well say,

“Now you’ve got it!”

Whether I had “gotten” it or not.

This story is important for writers to hear. Sometimes – a lot of times and for a whole range of reasons – the response to your work has nothing to do with the work itself. In this case, it was a matter of when I delivered monologue. “Early” was “Write it again”; “late” was “Now you’ve got it!” Even though it was the same monologue. There is the possibility that Marty believed that, earlier, when there was still time, I might be able to improve on my performance. There was one problem with that belief:

I couldn’t.

After Hollywood Palladium, I did another Lily Tomlin “special”, which I believe won an Emmy for writing. It was either that one or the first one I did; they were both nominated and I don’t remember which of them won. I do remember the year we didn’t win, we lost to The Muppets. They’re great, but it’s kind of demoralizing losing an award to a piece of felt.

Things were chugging along. I was working steadily, moving from one “special” to the next. Then, something happened which would change not only my career but my entire little Jewish fellow’s life.

Story of a Writer – Part Seven: The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Saturday Night Live.

Thank you for reading this much. I had no idea it would run so long. I’m still new at this. I'll tighten up, I promise.


Anonymous said...

So true. This sort of thing has happened to us all. Thanks for sharing.

Max Clarke said...

I like the long posts because they sustain a line of thought or a topic to what seems a natural conclusion. However, as you get into topics that you probably remember better because they are more recent -MTM and SNL- you might actually have so much material, you can write a bunch of shorter posts. I'll be happy either way.

Glad I read this twice, it wasn't till the second time I caught the line about losing to the Muppets. It was a little demoralizing to lose the Emmy to a piece of felt. Very funny.

Veggie Gal said...

It didn't "read" long. I'm looking forward to the next installment!

Doctor BS said...

No, don't tighten up! We love the details!

Anonymous said...

Keep the long posts! Thanks for sharing your stories.

jean said...

In your post you say "I'm not a joke writer." I was wondering if you would be able to talk about what type of writer you are if you're not a joke writer.

Also, keep the posts this length. Too many blogs give you blurbs.

andrew said...

For a guy who isn't a joke writer, you're pretty damn funny.

RAC said...

Still laughing. And it wasn't long enough, IMHO.

pamela said...

To tell you the truth...I don't want any of your posts to end.

kmyers said...

I just found this post through google trends (the Flip Wilson catch phrase pushed it into the top 100 today on google trends - imagine that).

As one Canadian to another, I can sure "relate" to some of the telling... thanks for sharing!

By the way -- love your long posts.

Dave Madden said...

Currently going through these old posts, and they're great.

For the record: the Lily Tomlin Special won a primetime Emmy in 1975.

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