Monday, July 14, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Sixteen"

This post brings me to twenty-one posts of “Story of a Writer.” I know it says “Sixteen” in the title up there, but two of the stories, “Thirteen”, on Best of the West and “Fifteen”, about The Cosby Show, turned out to require four installments, making it, now, twenty-one posts in all. You can check the math on that, it’s not my strongest area.

(Though I’m unbeatable in Roman Numerals. I help Dr. M with them when she does the crossword puzzle. Five hundred is “D.” Just so you’ll know.)

While reading my show biz reminiscences, the question may have crossed your mind, “Earl’s memories seem so detailed and precise. Did he keep a diary of his experiences?”

The answer is no. How do I remember all this stuff? It’s my life. What else should I remember?

It’s obvious I don’t remember everything. I covered sixteen years of my career in twenty-one posts. I clearly left a lot of stuff out. For many reasons. The main reason being I didn’t keep a diary.

A lot of my experiences were boringly repetitive, though I’m aware that the writers out there would like me to go into detail about story meetings and how scripts were developed. I mentioned this interest to a writer friend of mine named Lloyd (who has a wonderful blog at lloydgarver.com) Lloyd offered a single – and I agree with it –recollection of story meetings.

“They were long.”

Lacking a diary, I am required to work entirely from memory. It’s interesting about memory. (A “Duh” observation is coming up now.) We only remember what we remember.

Duh.

The rest we forget.

Double duh.

The things we remember, and the things we don’t. It’s a fascinating phenomenon. How to explain what memories we decide to do what with? I think it has something to do with the way we like thinking about ourselves. The memories that don’t fit with our vision of ourselves, we leave out. What’s left is consistent. And that becomes our story. I think.

Anyway…

After returning from The Cosby Show, I went into a fog and a funk. A funky fog. Or a foggy funk – your choice. But it was one of those. A trained professional might call it Depression. Or, if they’re promoting a book on the subject, “Post Traumatic Sitcom Syndrome.” (Or P.T.S.S. Make the call. Operators are standing by.)

Because of my post-Cosby Show fog-funk, I’m at a loss to remember exactly what happened next. I have a feeling, at least for a while, nothing did. My ignominious exit from The Cosby Show had me feeling that I’d never work again. My career was careening precariously toward “You may want to consider alternate employment.”

I’m so blocked concerning the post-Cosby Show era, I had to Google my resume to find out what I wrote.

It wasn’t that much. But it was interesting. For example, I wrote two episodes for Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. (I remember I did it. It was my Spielberg credit. I just didn't remember when.)

Both episodes were from the first season. One’s called “Mummy Daddy”, where the wife of a movie actor starring in a horror film suddenly goes into labor, and unable to get his costume off, the husband races to the hospital in full “Monster Mode”, accidentally terrorizing the community.

The other episode’s called, “Fine Tuning.” In that one, High School students, working on a science project, build a television set that can pick up programs from another planet, and discover that the other planet has appropriated American sitcoms and is broadcasting a robot version of I Love Lucy.

My favorite moment in the episode happens when the show biz-crazed planet sends two aliens to kidnap comedian Milton Berle, and they decide to find out where he lives by taking a guided bus tour of the Stars’ Homes.

I wrote this into the script: The aliens are like human (well, alien) Polaroid cameras. Being typical tourists, they’re continually taking pictures. But they do it by blinking their eyes, there’s a whirring sound, and then the picture is ejected out of their mouths.

The moment was filmed impeccably. I was delighted. Being a four-camera comedy guy, I had little contact with the magic of moviemaking. The First Class execution really made me happy.

I guess this was my “single-camera” period, because I also wrote an episode for a single-camera PBS anthology comedy series called Trying Times. The star of my episode was Steven Wright, one of my favorite comedians. Wright specializes in deadpan-delivered one-liners like,

“My friend is a disc jockey. And when he walks under a bridge, you can’t hear what he’s saying.”

I liked writing single-camera episodes. It’s like writing a movie, which I never got to do, at least not a produced one. Movie writing suits my natural abilities, more honest storytelling, naturalistic dialogue. I would have been good at.

Eh.

A further Google investigation revealed that I consulted on another ambitious anthology, comedy series called The George Burns Comedy Week. I got to give notes to one of my writing heroes, Bruce Jay Friedman, who had adapted one of his most hilarious short stories, “The Mission”, into an episode for the series. (The script came out short and needed some expanding. I helped with that.)

It was a thrill meeting show biz icon George Burns, though things didn’t end well. When I was ushered into his trailer, I found Burns wearing a shirt and no pants. (Vaudevillians kept their pants off until they went on, so they wouldn’t get creased.) George Burns reminded me of my grandfather, and like with my grandfather, we immediately got into a fight.

I could hear myself thinking, “Why are you arguing with George Burns?” But I couldn’t help it. He was wrong.

Along with scriptwriting and consulting on series, I also wrote some pilots, sometimes for money, and sometimes on “spec.”

Did I hear someone ask, “Where do series ideas come from?” Thank you.

They come from everywhere.

Sometimes, they come from your life. After The Cosby Show, I found myself at home a lot, with my infant daughter. From that came the idea for The Home Team, where a former star baseball player who, forced into retirement by injury, becomes an unexpected househusband, as his wife pursues her suddenly flourishing career.

(You catch the parallels there? I couldn’t write about a retired show runner, because back then, the networks ruled: “No show biz-related series!” The audiences wouldn’t identify. Too “inside.”

Yeah, well, The Jack Benny Program. Yeah, well, The Dick Van Dyke Show. Yeah, well, That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Yeah, well, Seinfeld, later. But you know network executives. They know what they’re talking about.)

A series idea can walk past you in an airport. Once, waiting for a plane, I noticed a passing black family that apparently employed a white maid. “That’s a show,” I remember thinking.

Sometimes, you do a twist on what’s already there. I used to like this English series called, To The Manor Born, in which a genteel member of the British aristocracy had fallen on hard times and was forced to sell her country estate to a nouveau riche (Jewish) businessman, and move into the gardener’s hut. Needing money, she ultimately accepts a job as the new owner’s social secretary.

I noodled with the “menial in the house they used to own” concept, and turned it into The Actress and the Dentist.

Backstory: A journeyman actress captures a recurring role in a long-running television series, playing an irreverent secretary to a Mannix-like detective. With her now-regular paycheck, the actress purchases a small house, a stabilizing anchor in her perennially gypsy-like existe

Flash Forward: The detective show has been cancelled, and since she can’t keep up her mortgage payments, the actress is forced to sell her beloved house. On the day the new owners, a recently divorced dentist and his sullen son, move in, the actress is still there, refusing to leave. When the actress demonstrates an ability to “reach” the sullen son, the dentist allows the actress to stay, in exchange for her serving as the family’s housekeeper.

(Remember Eileen Brennan from Private Benjamin? She would have been perfect for the actress.)

Another series idea came from two sources: an old television dramatic series, and me winning the Humanitas Prize.

There was this series in the Sixties called Run For Your Life, an anthology about a guy who’s informed that he has a terminal illness, and determines “to squeeze 20 years of living into one year, or two.” The episodes found him in exotic locales, enjoying death-defying adventures, and affecting people’s lives.

I decided to do a paralleling comedy anthology, which I called Mr. Sunshine. I called it, that, because as a result of being told he has a terminal disease, my character dedicates his remaining time to bringing “sunshine” into other people’s lives with the message: “Life is short. Live it to the fullest!”

This “message” comes directly from my Humanitas Prize-winning Mary Tyler Moore episode, “Ted’s Change of Heart.” The comedy in the series would arise from the misfires and misunderstandings arising from encouraging people to change their lives.

I imagined one story about an elderly man and woman who sit on separate benches in the park, never interacting, until our terminal Cupid brings the couple together. He nurtures their relationship, hoping these geriatric loners will fall in love, only to discover at the “Act Break” that the elderly lady is already married.

None of those shows ever became series. I never even wrote the script for the white-maid-for-a black-family idea. Too chickenshit. But it could have been something. Beulah backwards.

Somehow, as often happens in my life, my fog-funk lifted. In time, I careened back from show biz oblivion and entered what would turn out to be the most successful – at least financially – period of my career.

(If I run out of stories, it will be because of the way I’m doing this. I just covered four years in one post.)

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Somebody mentioned somewhere that I wrote about my experiences on The C0sby Show. If you're looking for that, click the arrow beside "June" and check "Story of a Writer - Part 15, 15B, 15C and 15D.

7 comments:

dentednj said...

Hey, I think you could always tell us stories you may have forgotten while doing the life of a writer thing... I LOVE stories.

You didn't mention the thing that George Burns was wrong about...

Was it about boxer shorts matching socks, vs. socks matching pants? tee hee... I remember seeing him this way in one of his films... maybe he liked the visual effects of his knobby knees...

RMS said...

You had to go and mention another writer's blog. Just great. Between you, Ken and now Lloyd, I'm never going to get any work done.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

Keep writing your Story Of A Writer posts, Earl, they're great.

I've often had the suspicion that tourists visit us from other planets, and when they blink, they're actually taking a photo. I thought of that last week up in Marin County, actually, when I was taking some photos, so maybe it's true.

Lloyd said...

(Speaking of "long,"), you wrote for Milton Berle! A far more impressive credit than writing for Spielberg.

Lloyd

JeffH said...

Okay, myth debunking time. Since you worked for Milton Berle, I'll ask. Did he really have a big...uh...well...you know? And if YOU know. How?

Rob Bates said...

Great post -- and that Steven Wright show on PBS was really terrific, and had an awesome message (really!) I wish it was available on video.