Thursday, June 19, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen B"

Oh, the amnesiizing excitement a new project. I imagine it’s like childbirth, without the excruciating pain. You endure it once, you swear, “Never again!” and a couple of years later, you’re doing it again!

I couldn’t help myself. The Cosby Show was too good to pass up. Now let me be clear here. I hadn’t the slightest idea the show would become a phenomenon. The euphoria at that point was not, “I’m working on a hit show!”, it was “I’m working on an amazing show!” Amazing shows aren’t always hits, though this one…well, you know what happened.

Ed. Weinberger and Michael Leeson, along with Cosby himself, had crafted the electrifying Cosby Show presentation. A number of lines had been lifted, I’m sure with permission, from the recent HBO special, a filming of Cosby’s stand-up concert. The presentation and the special, both chronicling the excruciating delights of modern day parenting, (defined, basically, as, “You try and survive till they go off to college”) were the seeds for the groundbreaking television series that was about to emerge.

Ed. and Michael decided not to accompany the show to New York, where the series would be produced. (The presentation had been filmed in Los Angeles.) That’s why there was an opening for a show runner. And that’s how I got the job. If Ed. and Michael had decided to run the show, I’d have missed this rollicking adventure in its entirety.

My introduction to Bill Cosby was on the telephone. I’m not good on the telephone. I like to see faces. I’m also not real comfortable with successful, famous people. It feels like a mismatch of power. And, of course, there was the obvious difference between us. Bill Cosby had been a football player. The man could beat me up.

So I was nervous.

At some point, Tom Werner, or maybe it was Marcy Carsey, filled me in on the backstory of this historic undertaking. Every year, the fledgling Carsey-Werner production company would call Cosby’s representatives and inquire if Bill was interested in doing a television series that season. The answer had always been, “No.” For some reason, this time, the “No” became a “Yes.”

In the early stages of the series’ creation, Cosby was to play a limo driver. Bill Cosby. Street corner philosopher, puttin’ the rich folks in their place – heh, heh, heh.

No, it was decided. Bill Cosby was beyond that.

It was suggested that since Bill Cosby’s real life involved wealth, education and social position, it would be more believable to the audience if he played a more sophisticated character. Enter Dr. Huxtable. And to sweeten the upwardly mobile pot, his wife, Claire, the corporate attorney.

I was happy Cosby had abandoned the limo driver idea. A doctor would be fine, a doctor who delivers babies, even better. But why did his wife have to be a lawyer? To me, this smacked over status overkill. Couldn’t she be, say, a highly respected college professor instead? Cosby’s response was simple and clear:

“I’m a doctor and my wife is a lawyer.”

I tried, diplomatically, to dissuade him of this arrangement, alluding to the mid-century Jewish miscalculation known as “conspicuous consumption” – oversized houses, gaudy accessorizing, block-long Cadillacs, with fins. I was lobbying for the same concept but with some tasteful restraint. There was a silence on the phone, where I imagined Cosby drawing deeply on an oversized cigar, and then he replied:

“I’m a doctor and my wife is a lawyer.”

Case closed. Moving on.

We started looking for writers to staff the show, a challenging task at the best of times, made even more difficult by the specialized requirements of the series. The submitted scripts I read had jokes aplenty and twisty storylines guaranteed to score. I understood why the writers wrote that way. That’s what other shows were looking for. But not this one.

I needed writers who could elicit laughs the way Cosby got them in his stand-up act. Cosby identified the insane happenings of everyday life and described them simply, accurately and hilariously. Unfortunately, that was not what I was reading. Script after script disappointed me with their formula constructions and their repetitive joke rhythms. I was feeling frustrated. Couldn’t anyone out there write like Bill Cosby? (No, Earl. Bill Cosby is a genius.)

I finally hired two women who were a team (one of whom would distinguish herself on Murphy Brown) and a guy named John, whom I had met before and whose audition script stood out from the formidable stack I had dutifully plowed through. I had made inquiries about other people, but for them, relocating to New York was a deal breaker. It was understandable. If I’d called myself, I’d have probably said no.

The writing staff was too small, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time. I was used to small staffs from my MTM, Taxi and Cheers days, but I forgot that those staffs’ efforts were supplemented by scripts from outside writers like Earl Pomerantz. Damn. Where was I when I needed me?

I remember my first “face-to-face” with Cosby. Tom Werner and I were invited to dinner at his house in Los Angeles. The other guests were a group of advertising people from Jell-o. Tom and I were the only people of our color.

I mention that fact for two reasons. It was only the second time in my life I had ever been racially outnumbered (the first was at a New York nightclub performance by Richard Pryor, where my female companion and I were also the only white people in the room. Remember, I grew up in a totally white country.)

The other issue was that Cosby was committed to trumpeting his other guests’ superiority. Throughout the evening, recorded jazz played on the sound system, and Cosby repeatedly challenged Tom and me to identify the performers. We couldn’t. The other guests could. By the time “Doctor John” came on, whom I did recognize, I felt too defeated to speak up.

Then Cosby handed out cigars. To the other guests. That was too much.

“I want a cigar,” I heard myself say.

Cosby took me downstairs to a huge wine cellar type of room whose shelves were stocked with quality cigars.

“Which one do you want?” he asked.

“Just give me one that isn’t too big for my face.”

As we left, I requested that Cosby and I meet, so he could give me notes on my script. Cosby said it could wait till we got to New York. There’d be too many other things to do when we got to New York, I insisted, the time pressure would be overwhelming. To accentuate my time-pressure concerns, I admitted something you don’t usually reveal to a person you’re meeting for the first time.

“I don’t want to die.”

A few days later, Cosby and I sat down and worked on the script together. The experience was exhilarating, the maestro and the kid. And I was pretty much keeping up. This may be bragging or just stupid, but early on, I named the Huxtables’ fifth child, Sondra, and the black college, Hillman.

Just a white guy, dipping his toe into unfamiliar waters. And happily, no “What do you know about that?” I admittedly knew nothing, but to my relief, my suggestions seemed acceptable.

I also asked to read Cosby’s doctoral dissertation (the subject: Fat Albert, and its effect on racial stereotypes.) I don’t believe anyone had previously made such a request. Doctor Cosby was hardly enthusiastic. Finally, he went upstairs and returned with a leather-bound volume, handing it to me, with the words,

“You don’t have to sit down to be a writer.”

I leave it to you to make the interpretation.

It’s remarkable now to remember that there was not much excitement concerning The Cosby Show before it went on. At a press junket interview, Cosby was asked what prompted him to get into the dying field of half-hour comedy. “We have thirteen televisions in our house,” replied Cosby. “It was either do a show I was willing to watch, or throw them all out.”

When I was asked to comment on the concept of the show, I was unprepared, and I offered a long and rambling response. After the interview session, I introduced Cosby to Dr. M. Cosby cordially greeted her and said, “I hope your husband can write, ‘cause he certainly can’t talk.”

Before I knew it, and much faster than I wanted it to be, the pre-production period was over and I find myself sitting in (Writers’ Guild contractually mandated) First Class, flying to New York. Tom and John are flying “Coach” on the same plane, Tom, to save money (this was the last time Tom Werner would have less money than I had) and John, to (as many writers did) pocket the difference between the First Class ticket he’d received and the “Coach” ticket he’d traded it in for.

Throughout the trip, the flight attendant came up from the back of the plane to deliver a series of notes, obviously from the abominably fed, legroom deprived Tom and John. “Any steak left over?” “How’s the sundae?” “Did you get your hot cookie yet?” They were determined to embarrass me in my luxury. They didn’t come close.

My family would be arriving later, and be staying with me through the summer. A woman who would later become a Carsey-Werner partner, had been assigned to locate appropriate accommodations. She’d rented us an apartment in the Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, a block from the United Nations – three bedrooms, three baths. The building included a concierge and a swimming pool. It was exactly what we’d requested.

My apartment looked very luxurious. I immediately started exploring. “Look! Art! And real sculptures!” They were all hideous, but they were art and real sculptures. I had a magnificent panoramic view, there was thick wall-to-wall carpeting in every room. And look at that! They filled up the refrigerator!

I had to hand it to them. My employers had done everything they could to make me feel comfortable.

It was almost midnight. Exhausted from the trip and the excitement, I decided to hit the sack, stopping only to avail myself of one of my three bathrooms. That’s when I discovered that none of them had toilet paper.


The Minstrel Boy said...

beautiful stuff dude. i've worked with some megapowers myself. your description of the power exchange in working with cosby is spot on.

thanks for writing the blog. it's a great inside look on things, both the industry, but also into your mind.

thank you. i started blogging for a lot of the same reasons. i needed to create something, even if i wasn't making music on a daily basis anymore. i figured if i ended up being lear howling at the wind on the moor, so what?

maybe the wind would notice, maybe not.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing to think that next year, "I'm leader of the free world and my wife's a lawyer" could make the doctor/lawyer combo seem like no biggie.

Anonymous said...

Clever, informative...just what I needed today, thanks!

Unknown said...


I'm working as a Researcher at Nutopia- an independent TV Production Company based in London, UK. We're researching for a major history Documentary for National Geographic US called the 1980s and we'd really like to speak to you about your time working on the Cosby Show. This blog post is fascinating and I'd really like to have a chat with you. Please email me at!!! I'd really appreciate your contribution!

Kind regards,

Renasha Khan