Friday, June 6, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Fourteen"

You write what you know.

I knew about cowboys, so I wrote about cowboys. But I myself wasn’t a cowboy. Though I do have a big hat. And a marshal’s badge. Everyone who worked on Best of the West got a badge as a “Thank you” souvenir. I had some replica badges made up, with Best of the West engraved on them. The gift seemed appropriate. It’s what I’d have given out if I’d produced the series in 1865.

Of the three series I created. Best of the West was, for me, the funniest. I guess that’s because it was grounded in fantasy – not the fantasy of the real West, but of the western, though, as it turned out, the real West was pretty much a fantasy too. (The main reason westerns lost their popularity is that once we became aware of what the real West was actually like, we didn’t want to see movies about it anymore.)

Best of the West was less about observed life than about observed television. There’s a good reason for my choosing that as my first show. Up to that point, I didn’t have much of a life. And I had watched a lot of television. So, in fact, I did write what I knew. It just didn’t happen to be life.

Then, life started to happen. I met Dr. M, a single Mom with a bright and beautiful young daughter named Rachel. I knew Rachel would be a challenge right from the start. The first time I met her – she was four – Rachel looked up from where she was playing on the floor and said,

“You look funny.”

Not “You’re funny.” I hadn’t said anything yet. “You look funny.”

Okay. Game on!

As a result of now having a life, my creative imagination awoke to new, more grounded-in-reality inspirations. Of course, being me, my imagination turned directly to death.

I imagined a situation where the lead character – surrogate me – suddenly becomes solely responsible for a little girl he has barely met, and who isn’t totally committed to liking him. It wasn’t that I was wishing Dr. M out of the picture; more likely, I was experiencing the unconscious panic of “what if?” Creatively, I was simply following the longstanding tradition of sitcom fathers with dead wives, as exemplified by classic sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons.

(This killing off of mothers in half-hour comedies made up for all the fathers who were knocked off in life insurance commercials.

An idyllic tableau: a balmy summer’s day. A father and son, fishing in the middle of a glass-smooth lake. Over this Hallmark card setting, a deep, disembodied voice intones:

“What would happen to your family if you were no longer around?”

At this point, through some snazzy special effects technique, the father would literally be taken out of the picture. He’s there, he de-materializes, he’s gone. Disappeared from the world. You hope the kid knows how to start the boat. And that his hair doesn’t turn white from seeing his beloved father vaporized.)

My series idea was called Second Dad. Following in the footsteps of premise-summarizing theme songs, like Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, I imagined a Second Dad theme song, sung by the daughter character in the show that went:

My first Dad left us when I was two

A two years later Mommy married you

Now Mommy’s gone and you’re my Second Dad…

Isn’t that sweet? An abandonment and a death in three lines. And off we go to sitcom hilarity.

Second Dad didn’t sell. But it signaled a new direction in my imaginational process. From then on, everything I would create would be grounded in everyday experience, usually mine. I felt confident in my talents as an observer, and I believed two things:

One: If the situation happened to me, it, or something similar, had happened to other people. The audience would be able to identify.

Two: If what I was presenting was grounded in reality, it may not always be hilarious, but it would never feel fake. Instilled with weight, originality and meaning, the story could stand sturdily on its own, rather than merely serve as a coat hanger for wacky situations and sure-fire one-liners.

“Ringing true” would, hopefully, make the stories matter to the audience. The “funny”, I believed, would always be there. Mostly, it turned out that way. Though, occasionally, the earnestness of my approach simmered the comedy in blah.

Before I forget, let me tell the underlying structure of virtually every sitcom episode I ever saw or wrote. Unless the episodes were serialized, like in Soap and the later episodes of Friends, every sitcom episode followed the trajectory expressed, in another context, in Bruce Jay Friedman’s funny play Steambath:

In Steambath, God, depicted as a Puerto Rican steambath attendant controls everything that happens in the world through instructions he delivers via a flashing electronic console. His instructions can be as major as

“Give Canada a little more rain.”

or as trivial as

“Put bigger bath towels in all the rooms at the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel.”

Included in his instructions about how things should go is this one:

“The old lady with the parakeet, flies out the window, flies back in.”

That’s every sitcom episode I’ve ever seen. Things start normal, they get crazy in the middle, and at the end, they’re back to exactly where they were at the beginning. Parakeet flies out the window, flies back in.

Nothing has moved forward. Nothing has changed. Every episode plays as if the preceding episodes had never taken place.

(The “amnesia” tradition is also apparent in non-serialized dramas. In Gunsmoke, Matt Dillon was wounded at least four times a season – once, he was shot four times in a single ambush. This means that over the show’s twenty-year run, Marshal Dillon was shot a minimum of eighty times.)

With no show of my own, I went back to writing for other people. During its first two seasons, I wrote episodes for Cheers, working for the Charles brothers, whose prodigious talent was matched by their generosity and kindness. The brothers always treated me with deference and respect. Not that I wasn’t helpful to them.

Cheers struck pay dirt with the tempestuous relationship between the “Sam” and “Diane” characters. Due to budgetary considerations, the show couldn’t retain all the characters who’d appeared the pilot for the series, and there was a discussion about whom to drop. When they asked me what I thought, I replied with confidence and certainty:

“You don’t need Diane.”

Another great thing about the Charles brothers – they never listened to me. I also said I wasn’t crazy about the theme song.

On Taxi, I specialized in writing for a character named “John”, who was later dropped from the show. On Cheers, half of my scripts featured “Coach”, played by Nicolas Colasanto, who subsequently passed away. Having me write for them did not pan out well for the actors.

I started out saying, “You write what you know.” Cheers is about a bar and a womanizer. There was not a lot of personal experience I could draw upon. I did my best, but it wasn’t really a great fit. I did write an episode I liked entitled, “How Do I Love Thee…Let Me Call You Back.” Otherwise, my memories are of working with nice people. And giving them terrible advice.

Something was beginning to gnaw at my innards. My mood had something to do with the “come down” of not having my own show anymore, but there was more to it than that. After working on them for eight years, I was feeling impatient with writing half-hours.

It wasn’t just me. It was the situation comedy itself. After fifty years – going back to Amos and Andy and Fibber McGee on radio – the situation sitcom genre was getting tired. The modular hunks of one setup-punch line after another, the obligatory parting joke when a character left the room, the surprise twists in story and joke-writing formulas that had lost their ability to surprise, the entire format was feeling stale and creaky.

The audience was feeling it too. Enthusiasm for comedies, measured by the ratings, was precipitously on the decline. People were growing weary of the parakeet flying out the window. No matter what hilarity ensued along the way, they knew in the end, it was certain to fly back in.

The sitcom needed CPR. And I needed a change. Unfortunately, I’m not a creature of change. I’ve eaten the same breakfast cereal for thirty years – Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat – no sugar and it stays crunchy in milk. I wasn’t prepared to leave television for the movies, like some of my contemporaries, one of whom wrote The War of the Roses, and another, Good Morning, Viet Nam.

I do things my own way. What is my own way? “Doing nothing”, would be one way of describing it. “Biding my time”, if you’re being more sensitive. It all comes down to the same thing. When I’m not happy with where I am, I just sit there and wait for something to happen.

And wouldn’t you know it? It did.

Next on Story of a Writer: Dr. Huxtable makes a house call.


Anonymous said...

The "What if?" method of brainstorming can be dangerous at times. :P

Anonymous said...

Earl, I've got a favor to ask ya. I'm leaving for the weekend, going to my cabin if you must know (got a real good security system, in case you stop by)...

Anyway, I'd ask you to stop by some of my friend's sites and leave them a note (I don't know my music, sorry)...

Ken's fine by himself, but bitter animator just lost his dog, and well...

Aw, you're too busy for that kind of stuff, plus you've got your wife's feet to rub. And those dishes to wash all weekend, as a present.

All I'm asking, and I'm embarassing myself because this is getting really long here (I've being attacked by your muses!)...could you not post until Monday? Last weekend was r-e-a-l-l-y long without your writing, but I won't have time to catch up this time. Husband won't appreciate dropping me off at Dunn Brothers (to be with my homegoys).

Just testing my power, of which I have none, as I'm only a wife.

Max Clarke said...

Part 14? How far this series of great articles has come.

I have affection for the Cheers episode, How Do I Love Thee? It wasn't just sitcom humor, there was some wisdom or experience with life moving it forward. I love the line that ends the episode, when Diane tells the bar crowd, "Sam can't say he loves me!" Carla pauses and adds, "Who can?"

Anonymous said...

Wait Earl, don't listen to that Adrianne Curry wannabe, you said "it happened." What happened, what's it? And I need to hear you talk about Carla,...desperately! Perhaps we can figure out together why she's having so much trouble matching up George Clooney (his dad ran a newspaper!) C'mon detectives, let's figure this out.

Earl...? It's not a western, but...

Anonymous said...

All done Earl, you can have your keys back. Couldn't have done it without yew, as I said in my blog for the last time. Yew, and Hugh, and...who am I forgetting? Oh yes, Ken Levine.

Good luck with your movie!

Johnny Walker said...

"When I’m not happy with where I am, I just sit there and wait for something to happen."

That's me to a T! In fact, that's kind of what I'm doing right now.