Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eighteen"

So I’m doing the warm-up (entertaining the audience between scenes) for Cheers. Dr. M and I had recently had a daughter. Anna was a miracle. But she cried a lot, due to colic. Or something else. I’m not a doctor.

Most babies stop crying when you drive them around in a car. Anna cried more in cars. At bedtime, I’d push her in her stroller for hours. She’d finally fall asleep. I’d lift her out of the stroller, her leg would get caught, she’d wake up and start crying all over again.

I was aware babies couldn’t talk, but I couldn’t stop saying, “What do you want?!”

I begged the Charles brothers, who created Cheers, to find a way to get me out of the house. That’s how I got offered the warm-up job, an opportunity generated less out of a passion to perform than a need for a short break from the crying.

But while I’m doing the warm-up, which contained no prepared material – at least at first – all I find myself talking about is my daughter. Like how she’s almost ready to walk.

“I’m sitting at the kitchen table. She crawls underneath, grabs onto my leg, and pulls herself up to standing. Then she looks up at me with this goofy smile on her face, like, ‘Look what I did!’”

“It’s totally understandable why we’re crazy about these guys,” I observe. “Babies are puppies with your face.”

Years later, after my assignment on The Cosby Show, the president of NBC, who’d been in the audience for “Babies are puppies with your face”, says to me,

“Do The Cosby Show, with your family.”


At this point, I’ve got a deal at Universal. I now feel more comfortable about taking their money, because I have a series idea that I like and a network president who suggested it. If that hadn’t been the case, it would have been two years (the length of my deal) sitting behind my desk with a legal pad and a pen, going, “What do I want to do?” between free lunches at the commissary and extended naps on my couch.

This was definitely better.

I would write an honest, observational comedy about my family. “Dr. Huxtable” as a married Jewish television writer. The thing would almost write itself. A married Jewish television writer – that’s exactly what I was.

I called the show Our House. But, somehow, after I handed in my script, that title flew onto the cover page of another NBC series, so I changed my title to Family Man. I liked Our House better, but you can’t have two shows on the same network with the same name. It confuses the audience.

“I like that show Our House.”

“Which one?”

“There’s more than one?”

It’s embarrassing. It’s like the Canadian Football League, where they had nine teams and two of them were called The Roughriders.

Here’s my only rule. Wait, I’ve got lots of rules. Here’s my only rule today.
When I attended the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA (“Almost Acting” – June 29, 30), I realized one thing. When you’re acting – and it goes beyond acting, this applies, in my view, to everything – “Nobody does ‘me’ better than me.”

Let me repeat that, not in italics. Nobody does “me” better than me. People can be more talented, they can be funnier, they can be taller, but they can’t be me. Why? Because I’m me. “Me” has already been taken. By me.

At UCLA, being me was working pretty well. Though I had miniscule parts in the productions, I was always mentioned favorably in the reviews. There was something about “me” that was working, something, I believed, and believe still, about my uniqueness. Not wanting to tamper with success, I decided to stick with the formula.

And I’ve been me ever since.

(And let's not forget the flip side. If I'm the best at being me, I can be no better than second best at being anyone else. So what's the point in trying to be them?)

Hopefully, this is not totally stupid, or, you know, narcissistic. I know I’m a good writer. And I know what I know most completely – I mean deep down, and from the inside – is me. But here’s the additional element, which I hope is right.

I’m a person. And the world is made up of people. Everybody is people, pretty much – I mean, I’m strange, but I’m not that unusual – people like me. Therefore, if I write about me, my belief is I’m not just writing about me. I’m writing about everybody. Does that make any sense?

It’s not “me” as me I’m writing about; it’s “me” as a metaphor for the all humankind. I choose me to write about, so I don’t have to do the research. I’m an expert at “me.” And “me”, I believe, is a bookmark for everyone.

If “me” meant just me, and nobody else could identify, I’d be wasting my time. (And be a leading candidate for the “Who does he think he is?” award.)

Anyway, this has been the theory behind the way I write, blog and otherwise. Family Man is the half-hour comedy version. Sitcoms, at the time I wrote it, felt totally generic. A workplace comedy set in…who cares? A family of…who knows…but we hired the best actors we could find, and none of them look like each other, so what kind of a family is that?

My sitcom would be real. That’s what would make it stand out, shimmering in the glow of comic specificity. I believed the audience would sense the difference between the real and the generic, and they’d love it.

NBC were the first people who didn’t. After reading my pilot script, they decided they didn’t find “me” compelling enough, and they were betting that the America viewing public wouldn’t either. It was also in their minds that, in the interest of specificity, I was angling to play the leading role myself, which is crazy, I wasn’t, although, if they’d asked me…oo-dee-do-dee-do…which means…I have a real goofy look on my face right now. I mean, if they’d asked me?

The network president who had originally suggested the idea wound up “passing” on the show. Though I hardly went home empty-handed. I was rewarded with three large beach towels with the NBC peacock logo on them, two of which I was required to surrender to my agent (“The World’s Greatest Agent” – February 10, 2008.)

At that time, the Fox television network was just getting off the ground. This was before they found their identity as the network of choice for people who liked watching animals attack. (I’m not talking about Hannity and O’Reilly. They had shows where actual animals attacked.)

After NBC dropped Family Man, the Fox network picked it up. To attract the top writing talent, instead of offering only a pilot, Fox agreed to produce seven episodes. Fox concluded the deal for Family Man with Universal, and I immediately began writing the scripts.

All of them were about me.


bbot said...


On this thing we call the Internet, we have these things called Hyperlinks, which allow you to connect two documents together. So, instead of citing the title of a blog post, you can instead use a Hyperlink; and therefore prevent internet hipsters from leaving snarky comments on your blog posts.

They're handy like that.

Anonymous said...

I think that even though you feel someone out there has to identify with your character. (Yes we are all different but similar and such) I don't think one must identify with a character to enjoy the humor.
I don't identify(have things in common with) with most characters from books I enjoy, or shows I watch.... but I feel and see the humor and other emotions the character elicits.
Someone who can only enjoy people and humor that are like themselves must be very egocentric, 1-dimensional and totally void of imagination.