Tuesday, May 6, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Twelve"

Four senior MTM writers moved to Paramount where they created the show, Taxi. I went with them.

Once again, I wasn’t on the writing staff, an opportunity and salary boost I did everything in my power to avoid. Instead, I signed what they call a “Multiple Script Deal”, which meant I wrote a multiple number of scripts. They don’t spend a lot of time thinking up imaginative titles for deals.

The first season, I wrote four Taxi scripts. I wasn’t the only one with a “scripts-only” arrangement. David Lloyd pioneered the concept at MTM, and far more prolifically. When I wrote eight scripts per season, David wrote sixteen. I don’t know how he did it.

The original Taxi script (a “series commitment” allowed the creators to leapfrog the “pilot” process) was over seventy pages long. A normal-length half-hour in those days paged out in the high forties. The script would inevitably be cut down, but first, the writers got to explore their newly-minted characters.

The first Taxi was very character-driven, introducing the “regulars” through the people they chose to call for free from a broken payphone in the garage. It was an inspired device, made possible by the creator’s series deal, which did not require them to “sell” their show with a more flashy, story-driven pilot.

When I read that first script, the boxer character was an Irishman named Ryan. When I wrote the series’ second episode, featuring the boxer character, it was “Ryan” I was writing for. Then Tony Danza, an Italian, was hired for the part, and the character’s name was changed to Banta.

“Banta” was originally “Ryan”. I feel kind of sad revealing that. I used to know something very few people knew. Now I’m a little less special. I also know who the “Nardo” and “Banta” characters were named after. But you gotta keep some things to yourself, don’t you? Otherwise, who are you? If people know everything you know, what, then, is your purpose on this earth?

Sorry for that existential moment. I’m moving on now.

As a scriptwriter, I would either bring in a story idea or have one offered to me. Some story ideas came from Jim Brooks, a prodigious talent I had trouble keeping up with. Jim’s stories were heavily character-driven. Example: The “regulars” get drunk together and sit around, spilling their guts. In a hilarious fashion.

“Don’t you love it!” he’d cry, after the idea had been pitched to me. My uncomfortable and not infrequent response:

“I don’t understand it.”

I was happier writing stories with plots.

One of my favorites – also a Jim Brooks idea, but with a little more “movement” – featured a Taxi character named John, who was dropped from the show after the first season. I wrote a number of John-centered episodes that first season. I was fortunate they didn’t drop me.

John was an innocent non-New Yorker who had trouble getting girls. In the episode, called “The Great Line”, Bobby, the would-be actor, suggests a pick-up line he assures John is a guaranteed winner. He instructs John to walk up to a girl in the bar they’re in and say to her, ”Forget the preliminaries; let’s get married.”

Goaded into giving the line a shot, John walks up to a girl and says, “Forget the preliminaries; let’s get married.” To his surprise, shock and chagrin, the girl replies,

“Okay.”

Twenty-four hours later, with neither of them willing to back down, John finds himself married to a total stranger.

The next day, John returns to the garage, a frantic basket case. The idea of being married fills him with dread. I wrote his reason why:

“I always thought they were connected: you get married, you have kids, you get old, and you die. Somehow, I thought, if you didn’t get married, you wouldn’t die.”

As usual when I had a personal identification with the storyline, the episode turned out very well.

The Taxi story meetings would take an entire day, and sometimes longer. You’d start with the premise for the episode, then find a dramatic place to break the action for a commercial, then pitch out the scenes, then, finally, the beats within the scenes. There was often a paralleling subplot, which I hated, because they always felt like filler.

My preference was for all the characters to participate in a single half-hour-worthy story. The often more frivolous subplots were invariably joke-driven, and joke writing was never my strength.

Many scenes started with, what was called, a “free joke”, one out-of-story-context laugh-getter before the plot dialogue would begin. I had no idea where those came from. I’d wrack my brain for a “free joke”, and my brain would come back with,

“What do you mean?”

Ed. Weinberger, one of Taxi’s creators and Executive Producers, was a Night Owl. The social aspect of his day began when I went to sleep. As a result, Ed. was consistently late for our ten o’clock story meetings. Like three hours late.

When this happened consistently, I decided to speak up. I told Ed. I didn’t think it was fair to keep me waiting so long. If a meeting was scheduled for ten, it ought to begin at ten. I was rather assertive on the subject. Assertive and scared. Because Ed. was my boss. And he could fire me.

Ed. Weinberger didn’t fire me. Instead, he took out a giant checkbook, picked up a pen, and asked me how much I wanted.

“For what?”

“I’m paying you for your time. How much do you want?”

“I don’t want money. I want you to be on time for the meetings.”

Ed. insisted I name a price for my wasted time. His strategy caught me off-guard. Money wasn’t the issue. Besides, how much was I supposed to ask for? A hundred dollars? A thousand? A million? I was very uncomfortable. Which may well have been the point.

The negotiation continued.

“Take the money.”

“I don’t want the money.”

“You can buy yourself a present.”

“I don’t want a present.”

“Then get something for your girlfriend.”

“I don’t want to get something for my girlfriend.”

In the end, Ed. put away his giant checkbook and promised he’d be more punctual. That lasted about a week.

One Friday shortly thereafter, my girlfriend, who later became my wife, came to the studio to watch the Taxi filming. She later reported an encounter with Ed. Weinberger that had confused her. During a break in the filming, Ed. had walked past her in the hallway and said, “If your boyfriend’s going to have integrity, we’re all going to suffer.”

He must have thought she’d heard the story. I’d never mentioned it to her.

One last Taxi-related incident. This one concerns “trivia buffs.” A man called me, twenty years after Taxi had been off the air. He said he was writing a book about television and he wanted to ask me some Taxi-related questions. I said fine.
“You wrote the episode where Tony’s going out of town for a fight and he asks Bobby to take care of his goldfish?

“I did. It was one of my favorite episodes.”

“Mine too. Where was Tony going?”

“What?”

“Tony was going out of town for a fight. Where was he going?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember where he was going?”

“No.”

“Who was Tony going to fight?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember who he was fighting?”

“It wasn’t a major element in the story. It was mainly about the goldfish.”

“That’s true. What was the name of the goldfish?”

A long pause.

“I don’t remember.”

“You did write the episode.”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

Man. I really let the guy down. But what am I going to do? I remember what I remember. Everything else I forget.

4 comments:

Rinaldo said...

Doesn't everybody know who "Nardo" and "Banta" were named for, by now? I thought it had been mentioned in an earlier entry here, in fact. If not here, certainly in another blog and probably in a book or two.

none said...

Can't wait to hear about Alex Rieger, he was my first taste of sophistication. Reading his character synopsis though, I may have misread him. Perhaps I saw Judd Hirsch himself shining through.

MikeThe Blogger said...

It is in IMDB.COM "The "Taxi" characters, Tony Banta and Elaine Nardo, were named after writers Gloria Banta and Pat Nardo. James L. Brooks, the creator of "Taxi", often worked with them on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda"."

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Taxi was famous for a lot of things... it was the last comedy about people who are not reaching their goals and have to learn how to settle ( a complete no-no in these 'you can be anything that you want - times). It was the place where Jimmy Burrows came into his own. It was the first sitcom to hop networks. It was the series that introduced America to Andy Kaufman. And it was a series that combined acid dripped humor with heart wrenching sentimentality. My guess is you had something to do with the last part and I would like to know about the place of emotion in comedy as illustrated by Taxi.