Monday, April 28, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eleven"

For some reason, which I’m not sure I can explain, when you’re writing a lot of scripts a year, invariably, one of them will stand out. It’s better in some way – sharper, funnier, more focused, more fully realized. It may have something to do with the connection you have to that particular story. Or it may just be a better story. Or maybe you’re just having a funnier week. I told you I couldn’t explain it.

As I mentioned, for three years, I wrote eight scripts a season for the Mary Tyler Moore company. Every year, it seemed, one of those scripts would “pop”, just somehow be superior. I wrote a Rhoda script entitled “Brenda, The Bank Girl”, on the subject of competition. How you’re drawn into a competition, which you claim not to care about, but which, by the end – to your surprise and dismay – you desperately want to win. That one has strong personal reverberations; I think that’s what invigorated the script.

I’ll talk about competition another time, when I can figure out how to do it better than anyone’s ever done it before. There I go again.

One year, I wrote a Mary Tyler Moore Show episode entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart.” Over its seven-year run, the Mary show had stories about a lot of things. There was a memorable two-parter about Mary’s having to go to jail for refusing to reveal a news source. But sometimes, the show was about things I didn’t care about, like Mary’s myriad difficulties with her dates.

The subject seemed endless: Mary’s date is too old, Mary’s date is too young, Mary’s date is too loud, Mary’s date is too short, Mary’s date has one arm – that one might have grabbed my interest; unfortunately, they didn’t do it.

I wanted to bust the mold. So I thought, “Instead of another trivial problem, let’s give somebody a heart attack.” I just wanted to shake things up. Something joltingly different from “The Department Store delivers the wrong couch.”

We decided to strike down the show’s on-air news reporter, Ted Baxter. Ted’s character was a pain in the ass: vain, self-interested, the whole world revolving around him. This made Ted irritating. Hilariously irritating, thankfully, but irritating nonetheless.

So we gave him a heart attack. Writers have that power.

When he returns to work, Ted is a completely changed person. As a result of his brush with death, he’s now deeply appreciative of absolutely everything.

TED: Did you ever really stop and take a good look at salt? Tiny little grains, so white so pure…and every single one of them is salty.

Ted’s now also deeply attached to people, insisting on hugging his co-workers every time he leaves the room, and demanding that they breathe and relax during stressful moments in their day, a requirement which seriously prevents them from doing there jobs. It turns out the “new” Ted Baxter is as irritating as he was before, maybe more so. But he’s irritating in an entirely different way.

The difference, his co-workers come to realize, is that this time, Ted Baxter is right. Life needs to be appreciated more. So, as irritating as he is, they can’t in good conscience tell Ted to knock it off. In the end, Ted’s feeling inevitably wears off, and he returns to being irritating in the same old way.

The experience, however, has affected everyone else. Deciding to take advantage of their current feelings of appreciation for life, they all go to the window, and appreciate the sunset together.

The End.

“Ted’s Change of Heart” was nominated for the Humanitas Prize, given to the writer whose script best reflects…I don’t know, something about human content. I really didn’t get it. Don’t all scripts reflect human content? Humans are in all of them, so what are they talking about?

What I did get was that the prize included a check for ten thousand dollars. Back then, ten thousand dollars equaled the price of two completed half-hour scripts. Good money for writing about humans.

The Awards Presentation was held at a restaurant luncheon. We’d eat, and then the winners of the Humanitas Prize – in a number of categories – would be announced. I was nominated in the half-hour script category, along with Alan Alda, for a M*A*S*H script, and a script by writers from All In the Family. Judging by the heavyweight competition, I knew I didn’t have a prayer.

So I kicked off my shoes and started drinking.

Let me explain both things. I don’t wear shoes a lot. This comes from growing up in Canada, where, for the bulk of the year, when you come in the house, your shoes or galoshes or whatever are always wet, so you slip them off at the door, and walk around in your socks. I still do that today. It’s a habit.

On the other issue, I can’t drink a lot. One beer. One glass of wine. After that, I either get grumpy or fall asleep. The thing about the luncheon was I was certain I wasn’t going to win. And the wine was free. (I have never been able to turn down anything free.)

There was no reason not to drink as much as I wanted. If I got grumpy, it would fit, because I lost. And if I fell asleep, so what? I’d just miss the winner’s acceptance speech.

So there I am, sitting with my MTM bosses, barefoot and drinking.

They announce the prize, and I win.

Oh, boy.

I pad up to the Head Table microphone with no shoes on. And I make a totally incoherent speech. There’s applause as I walk away. Then, I remember I forgot to say something, so I turn around and I go back to the microphone. I stop the applause, and add this:

“I forgot to say something. I’d like to thank the people who put up the money for this prize. They must really make a lot to be able to give this much away.”

How’s that for grateful?

Wait. My humiliation is not yet complete.

Traditionally, after the Humanitas Prize ceremony, the winners are driven to the NBC studios in Burbank, for a taped interview that will be broadcast the following morning on The Today Show. I remember, during the drive, sticking my head out the window, praying that the passing breeze would return me to sobriety.

It didn’t. I was terrible once again. Rambling and incoherent on national TV.

Fortunately, there’d be an opportunity to redeem myself. “Ted’s Change of Heart” was later nominated for an Emmy Award. If I won, I would have a chance to address America sober.

I was seated directly behind my bosses, who were nominated for co-writing the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They won. I lost. My one consolation was that, when my bosses vacated their row to collect their awards, you could see me on television. I didn’t look at all happy.

The cumulative image the American viewing public had of Earl Pomerantz?

Drunk and bitter.

Next on Story of a Wrter: We Move to “Taxi.”


huffingtonpost banned me said...

Tell me about Jim Ignatowski. Then, Cool link.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Years ago I worked on a dutch adaptation of the Mary Tyler Moore show. It ran for two 13 episode seasons. You may even have recieved some residuals if you worked on the shown the first year.

More recently I was asked to look into the possibillity to do another adaptation. Hey, it was a good show and there are a lot of episodes. This time, I had seen more of the show and decided that any adaptation would have to start around the time Sue Ann was added.

To illustrate the possibillities of such an adaptation, I chose the script you just mentioned. Apart from the reasons you mentioned, the scenes with Ted in the hospital were very funny as well.

I did shorten the ending a bit, because the 'lesson' at the end did seem to be a bit sappy after al thee years. Some things age better than others.

The adaptation didn't fly, but it still gets mentioned every once in a while. Man, what I wouldn't give to get my hands on those scripts...

Any stories you would be willing to share about your collegues would be appreciated. David Lloyd wrote so many great episodes for that show. How did you view them?

Anonymous said...

One of my all-time favorite episodes, from one of my all-time favorite shows. And the drunk and bitter addendum: great.

Max Clarke said...

Excellent, funny and sad. You ever get the feeling your life has much in common with a sitcom?

James said...

I just watched this episode, and I think it's my favorite of the whole series. Maybe we choose our favorites because they are not typical of the show as a whole -- as you mention, it's an unusual episode -- but I feel that in a way it's as interesting a goodbye as the final episode.

I particularly like the last 7-8 minutes and am struck by how odd they are. I mean this in a good way. The meaning or lesson is clear from the moment Lou Grant returns from the park, but what's so fantastic is observing these characters as they have an extended discussion of this moment of enlightenment, as they step just a bit out of the sitcom world and into something else. After seven years it's just striking to watch the scene slow down and focus on the actors as they get to take their time and really look at each other.

It made such an impression on me that I had to search for your name and the episode. Glad to see that you remember it fondly as well.