Monday, June 23, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen D"

I had told Bill Cosby to learn his lines. He promised he would, but he never did.

Cosby and I may have had similar comic sensibilities, but we had diametrically different systems of delivering the mail. Mine was the painstaking crafting of the script, his was saying whatever flew into his mind.

It would have been wiser if I’d been more sensitive to Doctor Cosby’s approach and a little more humble about my own. To quote another longstanding sitcom, sometimes it’s important to remember, “Who’s The Boss?”

(My daughter’s still wondering about that question. To this day, she’ll turn to me, tongue-in-cheekily seriously, and say, “Dad…who really was the boss?” Her dream is to someday run into Tony Danza and ask him directly.)

There were moments on The Cosby Show when my attention to specificity was demonstrably helpful. We were taping a scene where Dr. Huxtable was berating a patient for over-eating during her pregnancy. The woman explained that it wasn’t she who was over-eating, it was the developing child, growing inside her. Cosby’s response began with the words

“The baby’s only two months old…”

We taped the scene twice, and both times, something sounded wrong to my literal-minded ear. During a break, I walked up to Cosby and said,

“You’re saying ‘The baby’s only two months old.’ What you mean to say is ‘You’re only two months pregnant.’” Then, offering some comedy candy to accompany my suggestion, I gave him a line to say after “You’re only two months pregnant”, which was this:

“The baby doesn’t even have a face yet.”

Cosby nodded. On the next “Take”, he delivered the lines exactly as I’d suggested. And he got a huge laugh. I had never done this before - or since - but because I was reaping few satisfactions working on the show, while the audience was still roaring, I raced into the Control Booth, where the director and the producers were sitting, and shouted, “That was me!”

Was Cosby grateful for my contribution? You decide. When I returned to the stage, he immediately went into a discourse about “Wildies”, writers who’d hover on the periphery of silent movie sets and suggest comic “bits” which would then be inserted into the movie, and for each suggestion that was accepted, the writers were rewarded with a dollar. I imagine the story was meant as a “Thank you.” But I prefer the regular kind.

At the beginning of The Cosby Show, the Carsey-Werner company was limited by a very tight budget. As a result, with the exception of my luxurious apartment, the production was suffused with a pervasive sense of cheapness.

Other shows had computers, we had typewriters. We taped the show at an ancient NBC studio in Brooklyn. The writers’ office was located in a nearby apartment building that, every Friday afternoon, smelled of chicken soup and gefilte fish. Whenever I’d get on the elevator, a middle-aged woman in a printed housecoat would ask, “So, are you married?”

Our secretaries had no sitcom experience. (Before computers, a rotating squadron of secretaries would take down our revisions in shorthand, then go back to their desks and re-typed the pages.) The Cosby Show secretaries were recruited from law offices, soap operas, and Captain Kangaroo.

The law office secretary took down our dialogue with lightning speed. But when we later proofread what she’d typed up, we discovered that she’d taken out all the contractions, replacing “I’m” with “I am” and “Didn’t” with “Did not.” You’d be surprised how the deletion of contractions can cause comedy to disappear. Our script read like a petition for Habeas Corpus.

More complaining…

Our fourteen-hour workdays were supplemented by an extended Manhattan-Brooklyn-Manhattan commute, about an hour each way. One night, when I was dropped off at my apartment at one in the morning, knowing I’d be picked up at nine-thirty the following morning, I turned to my co-worker, John, and said, “I’ll see you in ten minutes.”

Even more complaining…

On weekends, and during non-production hiatus weeks, we were provided with office space in Manhattan. It was never at the same building, we were gypsies. At one place, we were taken up to our weekend workplace by freight elevator. The elevator operator said, “When you want to leave, just ring the bell, and I’ll come and get you.”

When we finished our work that day, we rang the bell, and nobody came. We couldn’t use the stairs. It was an “Emergency Exit”, and an alarm would go off and firemen would come. We were stuck there for two hours.

Another weekend – it was always the weekend, when there were no maintenance people around to help – I was writing alone in an office where the faulty air conditioning made the room the room I was working in freezing. I had to work in my overcoat. In the summer.

Finally, to get some relief, I opened the window. Outside, it was ninety-eight degrees. This sounds like a joke, but I assure you, it’s not. Between the sweltering heat outside and the frigid air inside, rain started falling on my head. The words on the page were smearing in my typewriter.

Creatively, things were no less rocky. After exhausting the scripts we’d completed in pre-production, Cosby, basically, dictated all the storylines. That was fine. Cosby knew what he wanted, and he was a natural storyteller.

I saw him pitch out an idea in twenty minutes.

“Is that a story?” he would ask.

“It’s half a story.”

I then sat there in awe, taking notes, as he easily constructed the other half.

However, Cosby had this excruciating habit, guaranteed to increase our already knee-buckling workload. Whenever we heard the words, “Camille and I were talking last night…” we knew we’d be tossing out everything we had written and starting all over again.

It was extremely frustrating, though, invariably, Cosby’s new approach would be an improvement over what we’d been doing. What was I supposed to say?

“I’m sorry, Bill, we have to stay with the not-as-good version, we don’t have time to write the better one”?

A better idea is a better idea. No matter how much aggravation it creates.

As we continued to fall behind, I was forced to isolate myself in my apartment and just write. I was working at a pace I had never worked at before, turning out completed scripts in three days, rather than my habitual seven or eight. The pressure was unrelenting. I divided my time almost equally between writing as fast as I could and freaking out.

My whole time there, I felt resentful at having to deliver hurried first drafts for immediate production. I knew I could do better work if I only had more time.

Once John and I traveled to Atlantic City for a story meeting. Cosby was playing in one of the big casino’s showrooms. Relaxing in his dressing room after a masterful performance, Cosby was particularly thrilled about a new comedy bit he’d inserted, which had been delivered to uproarious laughter and thunderous applause. “That bit took me six months to perfect”, he explained.

I wanted to smack the guy. Six months to perfect a seven-minute bit? I had three frickin’ days!

My contract covered producing the expansion of the original presentation, plus six additional episodes. Feeling totally exhausted, both physically and emotionally, I decided to honor that contract and then leave. The biggest problem? We were horribly understaffed. As Cosby – like me, a westerns fan – explained, describing my situation:

“There were too many Indians and not enough cavalry.”

I still have mixed feelings writing about this more than twenty years later. As beaten up as I felt, I desperately hated to go. You want to succeed at what you take on. You want to stick around, be a part of things, contribute to something you knew was worthwhile and you knew you could do, maybe better than anyone. Instead, I was going home.

With a larger budget, not to mention a calmer temperaments and greater administrative skills, future Executive Producers found ways to make what would always be a difficult situation workable. For me, the conditions, both external and internal, were more than I could handle.

Since the Cosby Show was not yet the moneymaking bonanza it would eventually become, only later were there thoughts of the financial implications of my decision to leave. It was, hands down, the stupidest career decision I ever made.

Parting Moments…

I was on the stage, taking care of some last-minute details for my final taping, when John walked up to me. John, a formidable talent and Midwestern workhorse, would remain on the show and eventually run it. That day, however, he was a messenger. The message was accompanied by three cigars.

“These are from Cosby,” he said, handing me the cigars. “He said, ‘Tell Earl he’s an honest man.’”

And that was that.

A surreal postscript…

Five years later, I was walking down a street on the Universal Studios lot on my way to the filming of the pilot of Major Dad. As I passed a large trailer sitting beside a movie soundstage, there was Bill Cosby, sitting on the steps, reading the biography of Sammy Davis.

“How’re ya doin’, Doctor?” I inquired, as if our last conversation had been a week earlier rather than half a decade.

Cosby looked up, and smiled broadly. Then came the familiar friendly growl.

“Errrl.”

There are some people for whom, despite the difficulty they may have caused you, you retain, against all reason, affectionate feelings. I was “this close” to asking Bill if he wanted to do the Major Dad Warm-up.

7 comments:

karyrogers said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed the SoaW Part Fifteen mini-series. I've always been a Cosby fan and was delighted to read about your experience.

I just found out yesterday that Cosby is performing at a casino about an hour away. I live in Mississippi so it's not like I get an opportunity to see a great like Cosby very often. Too bad it's sold out.

juggernaut said...

Great story! Nothing wrong with posting a couple a day, just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

Just curious...what kind of Cosby financial bonanza did you lose out on by leaving the show early?
And...do the players in Hollywood hold a grudge if you quit one of their shows early over artistic/creative differences--or because the work makes you unhappy or unfulfilled? I've left a few jobs because I didn't care for the direction things were headed, the people I worked for, or the job duties. In hindsight, I think I may have burned a few bridges. And lost out on some earnings potential I'll never be able to recoup.

Earl Pomerantz said...

To Anonymous,

Nobody cares what you do. They just want things to run smoothly. My "Cosby Show" credit served me very well in getting me future jobs. Leaving felt awful at the time, but the consequences were negligible.

I'm not in the therapy business. That's Dr. M''s department. But here's what concerning regrets, I say: "You are what you are, and you do what you do." That's either deep or useless. But I don't think it's irrelevant.

Matt-Man said...

In my experience, I've come across many people who showed their insecurities by acting either aggressive (RE: Cosby's 'Wildies' comment) or immature, in order to save face for the crowd.

Anonymous said...

Reading this really brings me back to the misery of typing scripts in that crappy Brooklyn apartment at 2AM... the weekends when we never knew where we'd be working... the incredible cheapness of Carsey Werner. I had worked in TV for five years prior to the Cosby Show and took the gig because I was thrilled to work for one of my comedic idols, Earl Pomerantz, but the working conditions were really awful.

Love the blog, Earl.

Signed,

The production secretary that had previously worked on a soap opera. ;-)

Johnny Walker said...

I've just sat and read every post in your "Story of a Writer" series -- well every one up until this one. It's been a wonderful read. (I hope it's not the last one!)