Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirteen-D"

Best of the West was not picked up for ABC’s fall season. However, they did order twelve more episodes to be produced, with the intention of premiering the series mid-season.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

The pilot had been liked well enough by the ABC higher-ups to receive, if not an immediate scheduling, at least an order for production. I suspected early on that somebody big at ABC didn’t believe in Best of the West. The network’s subsequent behavior suggests I may not have been crazy. At least about that.

But that wasn’t what I was referring to when I said, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

I was referring to how I was feeling. Enormously excited and deeply – and I mean as deep as you can go without coming out the other side – terrified.

Remember the movie The Candidate? Against enormous odds, this long-shot candidate, played by Robert Redford, is elected governor of California. In the final sequence of the movie, Redford’s sitting in the back seat of a car with his campaign manager, wearing an expression, which I, in a parallel situation, found strikingly familiar.

The last line of the movie?

“So we won. What do we do now?”

Redford, being a superstar, and a natural under-player of emotion, was prevented from displaying terror and dread. I, being neither a superstar nor a natural under-player of emotion had little trouble displaying both. Whatever the opposite of a “Poker Face” is, that’s what I’ve got. Strangers stopped me on the street to ask me if I was okay. If I could have put words to those feelings, they’d have been,

“I’m fine. I just have to find a way to take a script that took me months to perfect and do it again, twelve more times. And faster.”

Television isn’t like movies. When you write a great movie script, you take your money and you move on to other projects. In television, the reward for success is you stay there, cranking out multiple versions of the same idea. And your time frame for doing so shrinks from months to days.

Hence, the terror and the dread.

In reality, my situation wasn’t actually that dire. There was a significant amount of time before we went into production. However, I did have to write more scripts, hoping to recapture the magic the pilot. The problem was I wasn’t sure what that magic was.

I had a great writer friend named Michael who agreed to help me, and little by little, we identified the essence of the show. The seeds of it were in the original script. I had to maintain that focus as I created new material.

The heart of the show was my lifelong affection for westerns. I wasn’t making fun of westerns. I was offering my interpretation. Since I’m not a serious person, my interpretation came out funny. Not “mean” funny – that’s not me – but affectionately funny.

Example:

The Plummer Gang has taken over the town. The remaining resisters have retreated into the saloon. Preparing to shoot it out, a townsperson smashes a window with his rifle butt – a traditional move in westerns. But in my version, the irate saloonkeeper, Parker Tillman, who’s going have to replace the broken window, easily raises the sill of the adjacent window, with a sardonic

“Wouldn’t this be just as good?”

That’s what I did. I comedically mirrored the conventions of the genre. So to speak.

Another example:

It’s a standard lynching scene. Tillman, the Bad Guy, has a rope around his neck and is about to be strung up. At the fateful moment draws nigh, Tillman calls over his loyal but far from brilliant henchman, Frog, for some final instructions.

TILLMAN: Frog, listen carefully. I want you to go up behind Kincaid, put your gun in his back and say, “If he hangs, you die.”

FROG: (CONFUSED) If who hangs, who dies?

TILLMAN: If I hang, he dies.

FROG: You want me to say, “If I hang, you die.”

TILLMAN: No. You say, “If he hangs, you die.”

FROG: I die?

That’s another thing I did. While mirroring the conventions of the genre so to speak, I also played with the words.

Once, in a moment of spontaneous lucidity, this insight came tumbling out of my mouth.

“I have an adult’s love of language, and a child’s love of adventure.”

I think that’s right. It could have been my formula for success. But in order for it to be a formula for success, your show has to be successful.

When Best of the West finally went on the air – not mid-season but the following fall – the ratings were, at first, encouraging. The pilot episode was the seventh most watched program that week. Unfortunately, it was downhill from there.

Best of the West was scheduled on Thursday night, going against another new show called Magnum P.I., starring Tom Selleck. Shortly into our run, I had a personal insight into how this “head-to-head” was progressing.

I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, and as I was waiting, I glanced at the fan magazines displayed nearby. Every one of them – I mean, all of them – had big pictures of Tom Selleck on their covers. None of them featured Best of the West.

The feeling was nightmarish. It was like every magazine at the checkout counter was screaming,

“You’re screwed!

The fan magazines weren’t lying. After thirteen episodes, Best of the West was picked up for, what they call the “back nine”, meaning the nine additional episodes to complete a full season’s order. But, seeing we were struggling, ABC decided to move us to a different time period. Friday nights, at nine.

Opposite Dallas.

The most popular show on the air.

I believe I mentioned earlier that somebody big at ABC was not a supporter of the show. They definitely weren’t helping.

I once said to a good writer named Andrew, concerning a network’s reaction to your idea:

“The last thing they say is the first thing they say.”

Networks rarely change their minds. If they were “never really a fan” at the end, it’s because they were “never really a fan” at the beginning. The only exception is when the show becomes a hit, like Seinfeld. When a series blossoms into a surprise success, network executives are always ready with this charming disclaimer:

“I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong.”

Thank you.

Best of the West was cancelled after nineteen episodes, but we completed our full-season’s order of twenty-two. Making the last three episodes felt very strange. The patient had passed away, but we were continuing the operation.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Did I learn anything from this experience? My future experiences suggest not. Or at least not much. When I get around to discussing other show-running experiences, you will see that the terror and dread would come racing back from wherever they hung out when I wasn’t making shows.

It wasn’t about the writing; the pressure to deliver was scary, but somehow, the work always got done. I never had to go on television and say, “I couldn’t think of anything this week.” The real hard part was everything else. Which I’ll talk about another time.

The biggest price I paid for getting what I wanted? Being so self-absorbed, I was oblivious to everything – and everyone – around me.

So this happens.

Years later, I was attending a play performed at an outdoor amphitheater. As the audience started to go in, a woman came up and introduced herself. She informs me she’d worked on Best of the West. It was obvious that I didn’t remember her. I tried to be friendly, probably overly friendly, to make up for the slight of forgetting who she was.

The incident bothered me throughout the performance. When it was over, I made a deliberate effort to find the woman in the exiting crowd. I finally did.

“What exactly did you do on Best of the West?” I inquired, in my most personable tone. I did not want her to leave with the memory of me being oblivious and uncaring.

“I was your assistant,” she replied.

Somebody out there hates me.

-----------
Okay, we’re going to go grassroots here.

Best of the West is not currently on DVD. If, after reading this exciting four–parter, you’d like your own personal DVD collection of all twenty-two Best of the West episodes, here’s whom to annoy until they agree to make them available:

Brad Grey
President.
c/o Paramount Studios
5555 Melrose Avenue
Hollywood, California.
90038.

Brad Grey probably has an e-mail address. But he didn’t tell me what it was. That could be because I haven’t spoken to him since they invented computers.

Help get Best of the West on DVD. Don’t do it for me. Do it for yourselves. Join the groundswell. Bring power to be people. You’ll be amazed how good you’ll feel.

Or do it for me. I’ve got the tapes sitting in my garage and they’re turning to dust.

8 comments:

Dimension Skipper said...

I particularly enjoyed this latest blog series re BotW. Thank you.

The description of your dread of show running touches on something I've wondered about for a while...

It always seemed to me that as a comedy writer on even a semi long-running show, there must be some fear or at least a sense of inevitability of eventually running out of jokes or humorous situations. I always imagine a writer coming up with a classic line for a classic character in a classic situation and then NOT being able to enjoy it because he realizes that, "Well, now I can't use THAT ONE again..."

Sure, sometimes you can make use of running gags and variations on themes to squeeze some more laughs out of similar stuff, but doesn't there eventually come a time when you just feel like the "funny well" is dry? I guess this is why it helps to have multiple writers for shows and the interactions and different perspectives they bring to the ensemble.

Anyway, I feel certain that if I were in the position of comedy writer or show runner, I would feel that sort of dread. Only more so.

McCoy said...

Oh, you're bad...bet Brad's wishing our guns will misfire. Ready, aim...

Earl Pomerantz said...

To Dimension Skipper:

Being funny was never a concern. That was there. The concerns involved time - never having enough of it to get things right - energy - never enough - and people who viewed themselves as helping me, but weren't.

But mostly, it was just me. I didn't know everybody who ran shows was scared on some level, but they dealt with their fear better. I never got the hang of that.

Funny is a surprise. As long as there are situations to observe and comment on, there's always something new to say. And when your natural dialect is "funny", that's the way it comes out.

Thanks for your thoughts. Always welcome.

Dimension Skipper said...

Well, no doubt that speculative scenario I laid out was due mostly to my own personal foibles and insecurities coming to the fore. Obviously, there's good reason why I am NOT (nor have I ever been) a comedy writer.

Thanks for the clarification and taking the time to respond. Point well taken about the time constraints and outward pressures.

It's truly a pleasure stopping by here daily. (And I'm not just saying that.)

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I'd love to have a dvd op Bedst of the West, a show which always had a good reputation. But I would also like to have a run of The Associates as a trade off.

I've just started work on a new series (here in Holland), so I sympathise with the whole dread thing. I had similar experience today... when the series was announced by the network as being a 'typical our network show'. Suddenly the whole thing doesn't seem like it's mine anymore... it's in the hands of those who desperately want it to be a succes.

Robin Kelly said...

I watched Best of the West on the BBC and instantly loved it. I wrote begging them to repeat it so I could tape it but they never did. Decades later I'm still annoyed. I bear grudges.

I would genuinely love a DVD of Best of the West and so I will be writing.

This email might bounce: Brad.Grey@paramountstudios.com
But this one may forward messages on:
info@paramountstudios.com

Anonymous said...

Am I remembering the following line from the Mail Order Bride episode of Best of the West:

"I don't mind that you used to work in a warehouse."

JonnyT1971 said...

I tend to remember shows from my childhood as being hilarious, only to feel a twinge of disappointment when I see them as an adult (Welcome Back Kotter comes to mind). Having said that, after reading some of the quotes from "Best of the West", I'm relieved to realize that the show was in fact funny. My brothers and I thought Frog in particular was hysterical. This blog is required reading. Thanks so much for sharing these great stories.