Monday, April 7, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Ten"

Look at that. I’m in double digits. I never thought I had such a long story. I hope it’s interesting.

Okay, I’m not on the writing staff of Phyllis anymore. From now on, I’m strictly a scriptwriter. The pressure’s off. I only have to write.

I’m given another office. It was bigger than my first office. And it had a shower in it. Technically, it wasn’t really an office, it was a dressing room. Amazing. They had given me a dressing room for an office. If I got dirty while I was writing, I could take a shower.

My office sat on the second floor of a two-floor, bungalow-style building. Directly below me was the studio barbershop. Whenever I got shaggy, I could hop downstairs and Sol, a veteran studio barber in his seventies would give me a haircut. He'd also offer me lemons from his tree. Sol told me he used to cut Desi Arnaz’s hair, and other famous people’s too. It was a kick having you hair cut by the man who’d trimmed the famously Cuban locks of Ricky Ricardo.

At that time, the lot I worked at was called Studio Center. All the MTM shows were filmed there, as well as certain hour shows, whose names I don’t remember. I didn’t care about hour shows. I was a comedy guy.

What mattered, at least to me, was that Studio Center, in an earlier incarnation, had been Republic Studios, a studio where they shot many of my favorite “B” westerns from the 1930’s and 40’s. Studio Center had retained Republic’s “Cowboy Street”, a recognizable location for hundreds of western movies. The street was decked out with water troughs, hitching posts, and, nearby, a “Boot Hill.” You could almost smell the gunsmoke from years and years of phony shootouts.

In fact, that set served as the exterior for long running television series, Gunsmoke. Many’s the time, I’d grab food from the commissary, head over to the “Gunsmoke Street”, plunk myself down on the wood-planked sidewalk, and eat lunch where Chester once limped and Matt Dillon gunned ‘em down.

Unlike Universal Studios or Paramount – two lots where I spent substantial time – Studio Center was cozy and small. No building was higher than two stories, there were peaceful, suburban 50’s-looking “streets”, lined with facades of picket-fenced houses, with manicured lawns (I think the Leave It To Beaver house was there; or was it My Three Sons?). Studio Center also included a fountain and grassy, park-like areas, giving the studio the relaxed feel of a college campus.

That’s also how it felt working there. The best comedies on television were written in those offices, and filmed on those soundstages. And it was no accident. Everyone I encountered was a First Class talent, all working at the top of their game. The writers never said it in words, but their no-nonsense intensity reflected that their goal was not just to crank out sitcoms, but to work tirelessly to sharpen every story point and hone every joke to comedic perfection.

Studio Center didn’t just look like a college campus, it felt like one too. And not just any college campus. MTM was the Ivy League of half-hour comedy.

In three years, I wrote a total of twenty-four half-hour scripts. I wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, Doc, Rhoda, The Tony Randall Show, The Betty White Show and The Bob Newhart Show. Not all the series were hits, but whatever show I collaborated on, I never met anyone who wasn’t smart, talented, and dedicated to making the best show they knew how. It seems like that should go without saying, but it’s, sadly, not always the case. In later years, I found myself sharing a writing room with a disturbing number of sycophantic no-talents, lazybones, cynics, and burnouts.

For talent, effort, dedication and decency, the MTM experience was one of a kind.

I was unique in another way too.

The boss of MTM was a man named Grant Tinker. Grant was a handsome-looking Gentile man with neatly styled gray hair, the type you’d see in an old-time magazine ad, smoking Pall Malls, or playing golf. Grant looked impeccable at all times, but he was a knockout in a sweater.

At the time, Grant Tinker was Mary Tyler Moore’s husband. Grant ran the whole shebang. And he ran it like this:

Grant Tinker believed in talent. That meant he trusted the writers. Let me say that louder. GRANT TINKER TRUSTED THE WRITERS! Just as importantly, or maybe more so, Grant protected the writers, insulating them as much as possible from the murderous insanity of network interference, “murderous” in the sense that, when the network executives interfered, the writers wanted to kill them.

Years ago, I heard Mary co-creator, Jim Brooks, say in an interview that the main job of the writing Executive Producer was to protect the material. While Jim Brooks and other MTM Executive Producers protected the material, Grant Tinker protected them.

Why am I taking up space telling you about Grant Tinker? Because he was special. In all the places I worked after MTM, no television executive ever treated writers with the same level of care, consideration and respect ever again. Grant Tinker never pitched a joke, suggested a change in the story, altered the director’s blocking, or told an actor how to read a line. He never acted like he could do our jobs better than we could, if he only had the time. He was aware there were boundaries, and he kept to his side.

About fifteen years ago, when Grant Tinker wrote a memoir, I read it, and then sent him a letter. The letter spoke of Grant’s uniqueness as a television executive, and went on to say that in the twenty years (at the time I wrote the letter) since I’d worked at MTM, I had never experienced such a magnificent working arrangement again. Then I got angry. I told Grant his impeccable treatment of writers had set an example that reflected nothing I’d experienced since. I felt cheated and betrayed; I blamed Grant for setting a misleading precedent. I ended the letter by demanding my twenty years back!

An oft-repeated line attributed to Grant Tinker goes, “First be best, then be first.” When Grant went on to run NBC in the Eighties, he renewed low-rated but wonderful series like Cheers and Hill Street Blues. Sticking with these quality building blocks helped propel NBC to the Number One position for years to come.

“First be best, then be first.” Does anyone believe that anymore?

I’ll conclude with this memory. On the Friday night that my first Mary episode was going to be filmed, I was invited to come down to the stage and watch. Since I was not a member of the Mary writing staff, I had not been involved in the rewriting process that took place during the week the episode was produced. Nor had I read the final version of the script. Discovering how much – or more to the point – how little of my original writing remained would be, to put it delicately so I won’t cry, an education.

Before the filming, Mary’s Executive Producer, Ed. Weinberger, invited me into his office. He knew I’d be unhappy about how much I’d been rewritten, and he wanted to cushion the blow. He cushioned it with marijuana.

“Smoke this,” he insisted. I dutifully complied. I was never much of a drug person, but Ed.’s instruction had an urgency to it, like when the doctor in westerns jams a stick into the mouth of the patient he’s about to cut open, and says, “Bite hard, dammit, bite hard!”

I got a little goofy. Then, they ushered me down to the stage. I remember watching the show from the gallery, standing behind the studio audience. The show was going very well, despite the dearth of my original material. Then, at a crucial point in the story, a substantial section of the script was played exactly as I’d written it, and it got a really good response. Hearing the big laughs was exhilarating. And I didn’t keep the feeling to myself. Elated, and on drugs, I heard myself giddily shouting,

“I wrote that!”

shortly followed by

“Wasn’t that good?”

My memory gets a little hazy after that, but I believe I was quickly escorted from the building.

--------------------------

I’m concerned that I’m disappointing the readers who want specific information on the nitty-gritty of the writing process, like how the story meetings worked, etc. I seem to prefer to chronicle my, hopefully, interesting remembrances. I hope I can give you what you’re looking for sometime in the future, maybe in the upcoming posting about Taxi. I just haven’t figured out how to make that kind of stuff fascinating, especially to readers who don’t care about sitcom writing. But I’ll think about it. I promise.

9 comments:

Arun Kumar said...

I'll read anything you write.

Anonymous said...

No-no-no! You're writing exactly what I want to read - Stories from the entertainment industry. They're funny and you tell them well. You could be better only if you paid us to read you.

You're a good time, Earl.

angel said...

Earl, No worries, you are doing fabulous.
I LOVE reading your posts.

It's never time wasted and I am always better for the experience.

Thanks.

diane said...

You go right ahead and write any way you want about anything you want to. I'm hooked and enjoying every minute of it. Your writing always makes me feel good. I take my coffee break in the morning to read your latest post and I always relax and enjoy it.

Corinne said...

Write whatever you want.

I find all your blogs fascinating and I'm not in the business.

Like the others, I'm hooked. :o)

BarbaraCA said...

I'm hooked, too! Keep 'em coming!

john brown said...

You are giving us a fresh look at old friends with your stories. I really can't wait until the next one.

Max Clarke said...

Stick to what you want to write. If something motivates you to write, it'll read well. Lots of bloggers can discuss the mechanics of writing, but they haven't had your experiences.

So Grant Tinker never tinkered with the writing? You were spoiled, really spoiled. It takes a very secure executive to let his people do their jobs without interference, good for Grant.

Anonymous said...

Earl,

Whoever complained to you or whispered sour nothings in your ear ... shoot them. The rest of us are enjoying you meandering through your history.