Friday, June 20, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen C"

The Cosby Show – Day One:

We had our first “table reading.” The president of the network gave me notes. The NBC liaison executive gave me notes. The star gave me notes. The producers gave me notes. And the director game me notes. Then I remembered. This is what I hate about running a television show.

I’m going to try and write this without getting too upset. Or blamey. Or “poor me-ish.” It’s a tricky line you walk, between reporter and “crybaby”, especially when you’re reporting about yourself. But I’ll do what I can.

The first script after the presentation script was written by me. Since it seemed well suited to the family setting, I reworked a story I had written on Taxi – the dead goldfish. This story was based on a personal experience. Those ones always turn out the best. Unless your personal experiences are boring.

I had once taken an extended vacation and had left my goldfish with my friends, Les and Zora Charles. When I got home, my fish was dead. Les and Zora felt terrible, I felt worse, and the fish felt, you know, “Dead Parrot” territory.

Some people never got it. A dead goldfish. So what?

“It’s a quarter!” whined Ed. Weinberger, one of Taxi’s creators, when I pitched him the idea. “You get another one.”

Weinberger suggested a dead bigger animal. What he meant was a more valuable one. I stuck to my guns. It wasn’t the expense that was the issue, it was the attachment. I had lost a companion, a tiny, orange friend.

Writers know this. There’s only one good thing about misfortune: You get material out of it. Unless you die. Then, someone else gets good material out of it.

Back to The Cosby Show. We’ve gotten our notes. We try to accommodate them, and also tackle the areas we think need improving. We made efforts to honor the parameters of the presentation. Character comedy. Play the moments honestly. No hard jokes. It wasn’t easy. Our training had been otherwise.

During that first production week, we were also required to add eight minutes to the original presentation to bring it up to the required length for an episode. Why didn’t we just shoot the whole episode over again, so the living rooms would match? The original was too special to discard. You can never count on lightning striking twice.

Early on the second day, we read one of the scenes we’d be adding to the presentation. The idea was inspired by a Cosby routine about an expectant father who’d suddenly developed “cold feet” about his participation in the “Birthing Room.” Cosby asked me if I’d like to read the part of the terrified father-to-be.

“What if I mess up?” I asked. Cosby’s was response to my concern was immediate and direct:

“Bases loaded. Two outs. Bottom of the First.”

I read the part at the “table reading.” A real actor was hired for the show.

Despite first show “butterflies”, our rewrite process went smoothly. The Cosby Show had a four-day production schedule, rather than the traditional five, so that Cosby could make it to weekend concert appearances.

This meant, instead of having three rehearsal and rewrite days, we only had two. (The third day was for camera rehearsal; the fourth, Thursday, was “show day.”) The shortened schedule had pluses and minuses. You had to work faster, but there was less time for outside interference. I’ll take that deal any time.

Thursday came very fast. Tom Werner had taken me to his favorite menswear store and helped my purchase a black blazer with gold buttons to wear on show nights. I was very excited. My goldfish episode was being produced. And I’d never owned a blazer.

Every episode would have two tapings, one at four in the afternoon, and another, around seven. The intention was to edit the best parts of each taping together to produce the show that would be aired. With two tapings, you had time to rewrite or adjust performances between shows. The afternoon show moved quickly, because everyone was aware they’d have a chance to do better that night.

I wasn’t the Warm-up Man on The Cosby Show – I had to oversee the taping – but I did get to say hello to the audience. I remember saying, “I haven’t gotten used to living in New York yet; I’m still acting like I’m from another place. The other day, I was walking down Forty-seventh Street and somebody honked their horn, and I turned around, because I thought they knew me.”

That was fun. Then, the show started.

The first taping was a truly surreal experience. It was as if a stenographer had taken down the dialogue, but when they hadn’t quite understood what they’d been told, they had made something up, producing a version that was similar to the original, and yet, different.

When Cosby delivered his lines, sometimes I’d hear the words we’d written, and sometimes, I wouldn’t. Sometimes, I’d hear a variation on the line. Sometimes, I’d hear an expansion on the line. And sometimes, I’d hear an entirely different line. An sometimes, I’d hear a new line, a line that had no counterpart in the script whatsoever.

This was a new experience for me. I had written maybe forty sitcom episodes. The actors always performed the lines that were in the script. Cosby, on the other hand, employed the script as a jumping off point, written suggestions you could use or ignore.

This hadn’t happened during the run-throughs. Then, Cosby had stuck to the script. But now, inspired by standing before a live studio audience, Doctor Cosby had taken it upon himself to riff on the material.

The problem was two-fold. One – ouch. The guy was disrespecting our painstaking efforts to get things right. Two, and more importantly, though some of his flights of comedic imagination were inspired, a number of others fell flat. Cosby would also jump over essential lines of continuity, without which the story we were telling did not make any sense. Did his contributions, on balance, improve the shows? Yes. Though in the goldfish episode, it was fifty-fifty.

The afternoon taping ended. Things had gone reasonably well. During the dinner break, the director and I gave the actors our notes. Then we went to talk to Cosby. “We”, meaning Tom and Marcy, the director, Jay Sandrich, and myself.

We came into the room. Cosby wasn’t wearing a shirt. The man appeared to have considerable upper body strength.

The mood was upbeat. Everybody was happy. The notes from director and producers were minimal. “Take a beat before you say this”, “Don’t move until after you say that” – standard stuff.

Relax and enjoy. Have a great show.

The notes session appeared to be over. We discovered it wasn’t, when Cosby directed his attention towards me and said,

“I want to know what this guy has to say.”

Okay. I had been in New York less than two weeks, I did not know my co-workers that well, and there was at least one person, who was currently shirtless, that I was seriously afraid of. But, hey. The guy wanted to know what I had to say. So I told him.

“I really wish you’d learn your lines.”

You know that sound you hear when you put your ear to a seashell – a loud, whooshing sound – that’s the sound that enveloped that room after I said, “I really wish you’d learn your lines.” Everyone was just standing there. There was no, “You know, Bill, Earl does have a point” or “He’s dead wrong about that” – nothing. Just that eerily howling seashell sound.

It was a very unbalancing feeling, though my mind was clear enough to be certain that I’d would very shortly be going home – and I don’t mean to my apartment in New York.

Finally, Cosby mercifully broke the silence. The doctor was not pleased with my observation. For the first time, he attacked the material, applying the questionable standard, “A doctor would never say that.” I don’t remember what else happened at that meeting – there was an element of shock involved – though I do recall being hastily hustled out of the room.

Before the second taping, I was told that Cosby wanted to see me down on the stage. When I got there, he made fun of my blazer (“You look like a Door Man”), then he apologized for before. He promised from now on, he’d learn his lines.

He never did.

Looking back afterwards, I’m not convinced he was wrong. One of the unique elements contributing to The Cosby Show’s appeal was its spontaneous sensibility, sparking a refreshingly unsitcomly “anything can happen” possibility. Cosby is a jazz enthusiast. He recognizes the soaring surprises that can result from departing from the melody. I needed to be accommodating of his instincts. And perhaps a little more humble about my own.

Nuts, there’s too much to talk about. I’m sorry. I’ll have to wrap this up on Monday.


Brian said...

I was in the audience for the first Cosby taping (the early taping - still have the ticket!), and I have a memory of you singing the Best Of The West theme song for the audience.

I also seem to remember that you *were* the warm-up guy, I guess my memory fails through the years.

My friend and I left the studio thinking it was a good show and could be on for a while.

Keep the stories coming, they are a great way to start the day!

Matt P said...

Thanks, Earl! Great story and I continue to enjoy the tremendous insight into the writing and production process.

mensa said...

Eagerly awaiting the Monday sunrise.

Mark Heath said...

This isn't a comment on this post, but on the dozen I've just read (having found your blog this morning, courtesy of Google Reader, which considered my insecurities and sent me your way.) I draw a comic strip called Spot the Frog for United Media. It's ending in a few weeks, after a five year run (not enough newspaper clients to satisfy my insatiable desire to eat every day), and my confidence in writing another strip -- or anything else with a cartoon in the vicinity -- is shaky.

But the insight and honesty of your blog -- your suggestion to
“Acknowledge your liabilities and minimize the damage,” -- is hitting me straight behind the shoulders and delivering a second wind.

I've loved your work over the years, and I'm loving your blog, and its timely intervention. Many thanks for both.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

More, more more!!!

The problem with this type of acting seem to me that a. not every actor can do it
b. more think they can than actually can
c. other actors think they can do it when they see their boss do it (unless he was enough of a dictator to forbit the others to improvise)
d. not even an actor who can do it can do it every time

Isn't this a way of working that works much better on a one camera show (like Curb Your Enthousiasm) or do 'jazz actors' need the audience?

ChetBaker said...

Hi Earl!
MeTV in Chicago uses an excerpt from the goldfish episode to promote its "Cosby" airings. I thought Vanessa got many of the early best lines:
"I always felt safe when he was around" referring to LaMont, the dead goldfish.
And "Can we get a dog if Rudi dies?" in the epidsode where Denise has kicked the two younger girls out of the bathroom and Rudi still has shampoo in her hair (and eyes).

Brendan Gill said...

Meant to post to your Woody Woodpecker cartoon post. Chas Addams had a very similar cartoon: