Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Nineteen"

A deal at a studio. In my case, Universal. Where every fifteen minutes, a tour tram drives by your window. With the accompanying tour conductor’s memorized narration:

“Okay, folks, if you’ll look out the window to your right, you’ll see the luxurious office of one of the newest writers in the Universal family, Earl Pomerantz. Earl is a multiple Emmy Award-winning writer, who’s worked on some of television’s finest situation comedies, most recently The Cosby Show, where he served as Executive Producer, and wrote the classic episode about the goldfish.

“The studio recently signed Earl to a lucrative two-year contract to develop new situation comedies for us. That’s a pretty common strategy in the television business. Studios make exclusive deals with members of the writing staffs of hit comedies, hoping those writers can duplicate the elusive magic of hit-making for them.

"It’s kind of like in horse racing, where investors, betting on the bloodlines, pay big money for the offspring of horses who had won the Kentucky Derby. I don’t know how well that works with horses, but you know how often this strategy pays off with writers? Almost never.

“That’s a little inside information, and I’ll probably be fired for telling you.”

(None of the above actually happened. The Universal tour came nowhere near my office. I just thought it was an interesting way of summarizing the development deal arrangement. I apologize for the lying, or, more generously, the artistic conceit.)

It was my first development deal ever. I had always shunned them, fearing the loss of my low-paying freelance status, or, putting it less frivolously, my independence. The other fear was that if I didn’t come up with any ideas, they’d yell at me.

I had already produced Family Man for Universal. Though it only ran for seven episodes, I could legitimately consider myself “on the board.” I now, officially, hadn’t done nothing.

It’s a funny job, coming up with new ideas. For anything. Because I’m me, I think about stuff like that, in other contexts. Every time I’m drying my hands in a public washroom, I take notice the various approaches employed to limit the amount of paper towels I use.

That’s a job. Somewhere, people are being paid to sit around, wracking their brains, trying to devise ways of limiting the amount of paper towel use in public washrooms.

Where do those new ideas come from? Who came up with the one-sheet-at-a-time machine? Who invented the you-pull-on-the-paper-but-hardly-anything-comes-out apparatus?

Whose idea was the hot air blower? Who invented linen towel loop? (That one’s disgusting.) Were these the best of hundreds of innovations for reducing paper towel use in public washrooms that never made the cut? What were the others like?

Is there a paper towel dispenser’s Hall of Fame? Who’s in it? What exactly did they do to earn paper towel dispensing immortality?

That’s enough, Earl.


Too silly? Perhaps. But, for me, hardly a theoretical consideration. Though I may be no great shakes in the area of hand-drying paraphernalia, I wrestled with the same problem as it concerns coming up with original ideas for situation comedies, which was what Universal was paying me handsomely to do, and I had no idea how to do it.

Coming up with Family Man had been easy. It was somebody else’s idea. The president of NBC asked me to “Write The Cosby Show, but with your family.” That, I could handle. I had worked on The Cosby Show and I had a family. The fundamentals were in place.

But Family Man was over. As I’ve mentioned, a famous talent manager said the most important word in show business is, “Next.” What was my next idea? How should I know? I hadn’t thought of it yet.

“But, Earl, they’re paying you to…”

“I know!

As a freelancer, ideas came to me when they came to me. No pressure, no rush. First decade of my career, I came up with one idea. A cowboy comedy. That was Best of the West. After that, I had no ideas. I wasn’t suppressing them. They weren’t showing up.

You wrote stuff when you thought of it; that was my natural way of doing things. I wrote songs that way. I never forced things. They either came to me or they didn’t. In my life, I have written a grand total of four songs. My guess was Universal was expecting me to be more prolific.

And I was far from certain I could be.

Tomorrow: Six series ideas I made up at Universal.


Cezar said...

Excellent, I'm not the only one who suffers of this malady.

Anonymous said...

It makes me feel better about my reluctance to kowtow to my manager and churn out yet another new sample, following a half a dozen (very) original pilot scripts (that have been individually, if not universally, well received) that are already in my arsenal. As if cooking up a show was like cooking up a chicken. Then again, if you're paying me to come up with it, I'll put my chef's hat on. Okay, thanks for the therapy. See you next week?