Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"The Stupidest Thing I Ever Said"

This could actually be a tie among thousands, but this one sticks particularly in my mind. I’ve had it quoted back to me by people who weren’t there when I said it but who must have heard it from someone and thought it was worth remembering. I guess that’s what makes it a special “stupidest things I’ve ever said.” This one is memorably stupid.

I’m jumping ahead in my story of a writer; I’ll get back in sequence later in the week. I just feel like telling this story, get it out in the open, and move on with my life. This gallstone of shame has got to be expelled. Or whatever.

In 1981, or so, I created a television series called Best of the West. In all, I created three television series. This one was my favorite, and, I believe, my funniest. Best of the West is about cowboys and such and, as you know, the most recent evidence being yesterday’s posting, the cowboy genre are dear to my heart. I imagine I could have been a cowboy, except for the skills, which I don’t have, and the courage, which I also don’t have. That’s what’s great about imagining. No reality element whatsoever.

Okay, so I’m running Best of the West. It’s my first time running a television series, an experience that, for me, delivers a daily dose of soul-shaking terror. The issue was quality. I had written and produced a really good pilot, but that took three months. With a series, I’m now expected to duplicate or improve on my pilot’s standard of, if not excellence, then, at least, very-goodness, every week.

And, many weeks, I can’t.

I’ll digress long enough to tell you something you already know. America is about money. No element of the television-process has “quality” as its primary objective. It wasn’t created for that. It was created to make people rich. As my wife once observed, considering what’s involved, when a show turns out successfully, it’s a miracle.

One of the creators of Cheers once calculated that on any given day during production, he’s working on five different episodes at the same time: He’s pitching out the story for a future episode, he’s supervising production of a current episode, he’s casting the following episode, he’s editing the previously filmed episode, and, frequently, he’s writing the script for yet another episode. Five episodes. On the same day.

I get a retroactive stomachache just writing about it.

In England, shows like Fawlty Towers and the original version of The Office have runs of twelve episodes. That’s the entire series, twelve produced episodes. What’s envious about this arrangement from a creative standpoint is that in England, all the episodes are written before the first episode is produced. Instead of working on five episodes on the same day, they work on one. You think that might possibly make the shows better? (Not that Cheers wasn’t good; it was wonderful. But even with the best shows, there’s no way the crushing work load doesn’t influence quality.)

We can’t duplicate the English schedule here, because, first and foremost, we’re trying to get rich. To do that, it’s necessary to produce a package of at least a hundred episodes to rerun in syndication, where the real money is. You can’t make diddly with twelve.

A succinct statement of the contrast between the American and the English systems of production was delivered by an English producer I once heard, who said, “In England, we need money to make shows, and in America, you need shows to make money.” A pretty good summary. He probably worked on that a lot before he said it.

Okay, so I’m stalling a little before I reveal the stupidest thing I ever said. But I also wanted to set the context, the context being the gut-churning insanity of making a television series in the United States.

Back to Best of the West, a series I not only created, but for which I also wrote the theme song. I mention that, not so much to brag, but because I’m writing this on a Monday, I’m a little blue, and I wanted to remind myself that once I wrote a song. I’m feeling better already.

My writing staff consisted of myself and two other writers. One of the writers went on to write the movie Good Morning, Viet Nam and is now the conductor of the Myanmar symphony orchestra; the other writer co-created The Simpsons. It was small staff but a talented one.

The writer who co-created The Simpsons was particularly interesting. For one thing, he was the only Republican comedy writer I ever met. For another, and I’m not sure the two aren’t related, he was congenitally upbeat. No matter how hard things got – how late we were working, how stuck we were – he’d suddenly look up from his script, his eyes alive and dancing and he’d shout, “Isn’t this great?” I thought he was out of his mind.

So here we are, Earl and his staff of two, slogging through a “rewrite.” For those who don’t know the process, during the week a script is being produced, there’s an ongoing rewriting process, often following a run-through – meaning rehearsal – where you get to see which parts of script need to be fixed. Scripts are rewritten down to the last minute, sometimes, during the filming itself.

Imagine the situation. It’s twelve-thirty at night. We’re on page eight. The script is forty-eight pages long, so there’s quite a ways to go before we can go home. I mention going home, because that’s always my goal. Well, not always. My goal, originally, was to do the best work I possibly could; but at some point, I got worn down, and that goal was replaced by something that was attainable.

The room we’re working in seems to be completely lacking in oxygen, and it’s affecting our, or at least my, thinking process. I also find an implicit criticism in working at night. I have this nagging feeling that if I were any good at this job, I’d be sleeping by now.

I call a break. Even though we’re only on page eight, I feel like we need to stop and clear our heads, the belief being that we’ll be sharper when we come back. At that point, it’s more a prayer than a belief.

I walk outside. Not far from my office, is a small park, or park-like area the studio has built. On daylight writing breaks, I have found myself out there, with a great joke writer named Bob, playing catch, complete with softball and gloves. At twelve-thirty a night, “catch” is not a consideration. I just want to be out of that room!

I drop down on a bench. I try not to think about our script problems, and fail. I feel bereft. It’s all on my shoulders. I’m supposed to be the leader. And I’m tired, anxious and scared. Hardly leaderly qualities. But that’s the kind of leader I was.

Before I know it, my assistant comes out and informs me that our “break time” has expired. I sigh, rise unsteadily from the bench and, putting one foot in front of the other, drag myself ever so reluctantly back to the office. And that’s when I say it. The stupidest thing I ever said. And this is what it was:

“There’s got to be an easier way to make three hundred thousand dollars a year.”

I knew it was ridiculous when I said it. I felt it, coming out. “This is ridiculous”, I was thinking. “Do not finish this sentence.” But the sentence had a momentum of its own. It could not be stopped.

Yes, I was tired, and yes, I was upset. But oh, the ingratitude. The spoiled brattedness. The total and complete lack of perspective. I was thoroughly ashamed.

But I said it.

And, at the time, it was exactly how I felt.


Anonymous said...

Someone did a study a year or two ago and found that Republicans on average are more cheerful than those of us in the reality-based community.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Bush ever said there's got to be a better way to make 400,000 a year? Probably not. He's too stupid.

Actually, you captured the memory of overworking on staffs. You're miserable when you're on the outside looking in. Then when you're lucky enough to be on the inside looking out, you're so tired that you think thoughts like yours.

Creating when you're not tired -- that's the fun part.