Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty B"

I found this out later…

Okay, so there’s this long running detective show produce by Universal called Simon and Simon, a murder mystery played on a lighter note – bullets, fights, car chases, wrapped in a continuing stream of amusing banter. The show ran from 1981 to 1989.

One of the show’s co-stars, Gerald McRaney, has a studio deal to star in a situation comedy after Simon and Simon finishes its run. (You have clout coming off a hit show.) With Simon and Simon winding down, McRaney and the show’s Executive Producer, a guy named Rick, put their heads together and come up with a sitcom idea, where McRaney would play a widowered Marine major with children. Hence, the title:

Major Dad.

Red Alert: At the end of this posting I will say something complimentary about a network executive. Spread the word.

McRaney and Rick set up a meeting with the smart and decent Universal president of television named Kerry. They pitch Kerry their idea. They explain that McRaney will star in the show, Rick will write the pilot script, and they’ll run the series together.

Done deal?

Not so fast.

Kerry patiently listens to their proposal, and then says this: “You guys have no comedy experience.” Rick replies, “Yes I do. I write amusing banter on Simon and Simon.” Kerry replies, in a firm but non-insulting manner, “You do that admirably. But it’s not comedy.”

Kerry then tells them that in order for him to support the project, their creative team should be supplemented by an experienced, sitcom-writing veteran. Rick and McRaney are understandably less than thrilled, but for the sake of their project’s moving forward, they agree.

Shortly thereafter, Kerry calls me into his office and says,

“I’m going to say a name to you. If you respond to that name, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. I just want your honest reaction.”

I say, “What’s the name?”, Kerry says, “Gerald McRaney”, I say, “Yes”, and there we are. I’m a partner with two people I have never met.

So I meet them. One at a time.

Rick is charming and easygoing. He is happy to collaborate with an experienced veteran like myself. His only deal breaking condition in the arrangement is this: “I have to be an Executive Producer.”

This is his dominant concern, and I immediately agree to it. Rick will have an “Executive Producer” credit on the show. Along with McRaney. who had the clout to get the deal, and who came up with the show’s concept, I believe by saying, “I want to play a Marine.”

I then inform Rick that I have a deal breaking condition of my own, and it’s this: “I want the last word concerning anything that goes into the script.”

Rick immediately agrees, the speed of his response revealing that he doesn’t care what goes into the script, as long as he’s the Executive Producer. Did I just suggest a value judgment in the comparison of these priorities? I believe it did.

Credits matter, I won’t deny it. I’ve fought over them in other contexts. But control over content matters more. Feel free to disagree.

I have lunch with McRaney in the Universal commissary. Straight out: I’m afraid of actors. In general, actors’ minds are not primarily wired for reasonable thinking. Plus, they are trained in acting school to project in ringing, reverberating voices. Which means, sometimes, maybe more than sometimes, actors are known for saying unreasonable things very loud.

(It’s your basic logic. I feel comfortable around people who say reasonable things in regular voices. Actors are people known for saying unreasonable things in volcanic voices. Ipso facto, I don’t feel comfortable around actors.)

I only recall one exchange from that lunch. (Forgive me. I’m trying to remember stuff I haven’t thought about for twenty years.) Since McRaney seemed so “gung ho” about playing a Marine in the series, I asked what seemed to be a reasonable question:

“Were you ever in the military?”

To which McRaney responds, with what seems like a hint of derision,

“Not this boy.”

Okay.

The partner meetings are over. We are now a team of three. The next step is to “pitch” the concept to the networks. Somebody has to want to do the show or, Universal support or otherwise, there’s no show.

Things go poorly at ABC. McRaney did most of the talking, and at the end, an ABC executive took me aside, and for the first time I could remember, he treated me as if I wasn’t the craziest person in the room.

In the executive’s opinion, McRaney’s “pitch”, leaning heavily on Marine Corps history and lore, made little sense as an idea for a situation comedy. I didn’t totally disagree. But I tried to reassure him that we were still tinkering the “elements.”

The “pitch” took a similar trajectory at CBS. But there, the reaction was not immediate. Instead, as networks invariably do – ABC’s response was exceptional, because they hated the “pitch” so much – the CBS executives told us to “leave it with us.” They’d discuss it “in house”, and they’d get back to us shortly.

I left the meeting certain the show was finished.

I was wrong.

A few days later, a lower Universal executive named Brad informed us that they'd heard back from CBS. As he ushers Rick and I into McRaney’s trailer outside the soundstage where they're shooting the final episode of Simon and Simon, Brad confides to me that CBS has suggested an “adjustment” to the concept, adding encouragingly, “I think you’re going to like it.”

In the trailer, Brad tells us that CBS is willing to “Green light” the pilot but with this new wrinkle. Instead of McRaney’s playing a widowered Marine major with children, CBS suggests he play a bachelor Marine major who marries a woman with three daughters.

McRaney immediately hits the roof. (We’re in a trailer, so it’s only about six inches above our heads.) In a professionally trained vocal eruption, McRaney thunderously reminds us that this is not the series he agreed to do. He wants to play a widower Marine with children, not a bachelor Marine who marries a woman with three daughters.

Brad patiently tries to explain the advantages of the altered concept, not the least of them being that if we don’t accept their "adjustment", CBS will not be willing to do the show. Rick chimes in in Brad’s support, his main concern, I believe, being that if CBS doesn’t do the show, he won’t get to be Executive Producer.

At first, I say nothing. McRaney’s outburst has been untargeted, and I’m afraid if I cross him, the targeting will be re-directed at me. I’m not the most popular person in the trailer to begin with. I’d been foisted on my partners by Universal. Nobody likes the foisted guy.

Finally, I find my voice. Concerning CBS’s "adjustment", I opine, as the veteran comedy person Kerry’d forced them to take on, that, “It gives us more to work with.”

It did. Instead of having a widowered Marine disciplinarian with kids who couldn’t fight back because they were kids, you had a woman of equal stature and three skeptical stepdaughters the McRaney character would have to win over. From a writing standpoint, both comedic and dramatic, CBS’s proposal was a considerable improvement.

In some ways, McRaney and I aren’t all that different. I consistently say “No” first and change my mind later when I’ve calmed down. (Which explains how my daughter, Anna, got Hawaii for her twenty-fifth birthday.) That’s what happened here. A couple of days later, McRaney, persuaded he could do any story that he’d wanted to do in his version of the series and would therefore lose nothing by the alteration, finally, with a magnanimous, capitulating sigh, surrendered.

Next step: Pitching the pilot story to CBS.

But before I go, I don’t know who it was – I never found out – but whoever you are, Mr. or Ms. CBS executive person, thank you for your wonderful improvement on our idea. It saved the show and got me Lexus.

Whoever you are, I honor you as a truly creative executive, and I am eternally appreciative and grateful.

How’s that for class?

Great. Till you said, “How’s that for class?”

3 comments:

Corinne said...

More! More! More!

diane said...

I heartily agree with Corinne!

growingupartists said...

How's that for class, perfect!