Friday, January 9, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-One C"

Do you remember the movie or the book, Being There? Being There is the story of an “innocent”, who, due to unusual circumstances, is able to observe the world around him with fresh and unspoiled eyes. At least, that’s one way seeing it.

That’s the way Kerry, the smart and decent president of Universal Studios saw it. It’s also the way he, at least one some level, saw me. It’s also, in my more charitable moments, how I like to see myself.

This is far from an accurate appraisal. Seeing the world with fresh and unspoiled eyes, that would be, “Oh, Happy Day”. But, you know, there was that negative conditioning. And the schooling that didn’t help. Plus, a stubbornly experience-shaping temperament. I’m a little too jumpy.

As a medium for the “fresh eyes” perspective, I am seriously flawed equipment. But it doesn’t stop me from trying.

Anyway, for my second effort at fulfilling my “Two for One” pilot deal with CBS – the “one” of the “Two for One” having already been shot down (See: Yesterday’s posting) – Kerry suggested that I create a series showcasing a Being There type character, an “innocent” who could comment on the “taken for granted” loony bin we call civilization.

From this emerged Island Guy.

Island Guy centers on an upbeat and energetic young fellow (already, that’s not me) from a remote Polynesian island who, seeking adventure, climbs into his outrigger canoe and paddles to the West Coast of the United States, where he is promptly run over by a giant yacht, taken home by the yacht’s rich and remorseful owner, and therefrom does the series unfold – a natural “innocent” in a wealthy person’s house.

As you can see, we’re talking serious “Allegory Country.” This was a departure for me. Before Island Guy, I worked hard to ground my creations in an identifiable reality. I did considerable research for Best of the West. For Major Dad, I visited Camp Pendleton. And for my North Dakota project, I spent time in North Dakota. And ate buffalo. Twice.

Island Guy was half reality – the rich people’s house – though even that was made up, since I have never lived in a rich person’s house. The other more dominant half of the show involved a totally fabricated character, a “Natural Man” – as imagined by me – unique, hopefully funny, with the last thing from an, “I know that guy” perspective:

What do you call your island?

Island.

You call your island Island? What do you call everything else?

Water.

It was a truly insular perspective. (Insula means island in Latin. I’m just throwing that in.)

I liked the opportunity Island Guy provided to examine our culture’s peculiarities by contrasting them with a diametrically different way of life. In a series-defining scene, Arthur, who’s amassed a fortune manufacturing mattress handles, lectures Dharmo, the Island Guy, on his highly effective method of operation:

ARTHUR: The secret to my success is imagination, hard work and organization. (PATTING HIS FAX MACHINE) I can run this entire operation and never leave this room.

DHARMO: Why?

ARTHUR: Why, what?

DHARMO: Why you want to stay in the room?

ARTHUR: What I’m saying is, because I’m organized, I can do things faster.

DHARMO: Oh. Then you leave the room.

ARTHUR: No.

DHARMO: What do you do?

ARTHUR: I do more things. And make more money.

DHARMO: Then you leave the room?

ARTHUR: (LOSING PATIENCE) Forget the room! (THEN) Look, I’ll make this easier. What do you do?

DHARMO: Fish.

ARTHUR: Okay. If you could catch your fish faster, what would you do then?

DHARMO: Go home.

ARTHUR: No. You catch more fish.

DHARMO GIGGLES

ARTHUR: What’s so funny?

DHARMO: I can’t eat more fish.

ARTHUR: Sell them.

DHARMO: To who? Everybody fish.

ARTHUR: So that’s your whole life? You fish and you go home?

DHARMO: Oh, no. Whole island bring fish to big cooking fire. Tell stories, laugh, dance. Later, maybe take girlfriend to quiet spot on the beach and…

DHARMO’S WORDS TRAIL OFF, REPLACED BY A DEEPLY CONTENTED SMILE. AFTER A BEAT.

ARTHUR: You call that living?

I liked the culture conflict that Island Guy was grounded in, but in retrospect, doing it was probably a mistake. Too conceptual. Too much “in my head” and not enough “getting under the skin of identifiable characters.” Not that there aren’t precedents for this kind of series. Mork and Mindy comes to mind. Guy from another planet, doesn’t “get” how we do things. It mines pretty much the same territory.

The difference is Mork and Mindy had Robin Williams starring in it, a one-of-kind comedy tornado. Anchored by this inspired whirlwind, Mork didn’t have to depend so heavily on its concept. Though after a couple of seasons, even that show ran out of allegorical steam.

We did what we could, assembling a solid team of actors, under an angelic, “got what I was after” director named Noam. As you can imagine, the “Island Guy” himself was the toughest part to cast. After an extended search, we found a capable and appealing Hawaiian actor. We were ready to go.

Hold the phone.

CBS called at the last minute, telling us they wanted us to see somebody they’d found for the “Island Guy” role. They sent over a tanned and beautiful man. Brad Pitt, but with Scandinavian proclivities. You could see why the network wanted him. He was a walking magazine cover.

There was only one problem with him. The guy couldn’t read.

Dyslexic.

Not a crime. Not a sin. But unfortunate. Especially when you’re the star of a television series and there are a lot of lines that you have to read and learn.

How did the guy audition? Very deliberately. The casting director would “feed” him each line individually, and then he’d say it. It was an excruciating process. I couldn’t imagine it working very well when we were filming in front of a live studio audience.

He didn’t get the part.

In order for a show to overcome network reservations about it, the “show night” has to be spectacular (as it had been for Best of the West and Major Dad.) Island Guy had some gratifyingly effective moments, but it was unable to reach that lofty plateau. I did the warm-up for the Island Guy pilot. That went extremely well.

(I’ve sometimes suspect that I put myself through the ordeal of the pilot process just so I can do the warm-up. Though shameful, this suspicion is very difficult to shake.)

They call it a “Two for One” deal.

My first pilot was cut off at the script level.

My second pilot was not picked up.

And that was that.

Moving on.

4 comments:

Corinne said...

I have to say, I still love the first idea more out of the 2.

As mentioned by others yesterday, I'd watch that show today.

But wait. I'm 38. They don't make smart, funny shows for this demographic do they?

Anonymous said...

I had to laugh when you mentioned the director, Noam, and I thought about how you were saying you don't like naming the people you write about. Hmmm, TV director named Noam... could be just about anybody, I guess.

Joe said...

What do you call your island?

Island.

You call your island Island? What do you call everything else?

Water.


I'd've ordered a full season just on the strength of that line.

-J.

Anonymous said...

A shout-out from Debbie who, along with Bob, "manned" the 80s UTV publicity department. Seems like galaxies ago that we were meeting with you for "Family Man" et. al. ... This was at the tail end of the UTV staples "Magnum, P.I.," "Miami Vice," "The Equalizer," "Northern Exposure," "A Day in the Life" ...). Hope all is well with you and Yours!