Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-One"

They call it a “two for one” deal.

The deal was a reward from CBS, the network on which Major Dad was currently being aired, where it consistently ranked in the top ten or fifteen in the ratings. Maybe you can help figure out what the reward was. I still don’t get it.

The deal went like this: I would write two scripts as the prototypes for two television series. CBS would guarantee that one of those scripts would be produced as a pilot.

Unless they didn’t like either of them. (Oops. There goes the guarantee.)

If they were unhappy with both shows, as a consequence of, you know, obliterating the guarantee, CBS would be required to pay a financial penalty.

To the studio I was working for.

Not to me. The guy who had to come up with two original concepts for television series, and write many drafts, till I delivered two acceptable scripts. To Universal Studios. Which…is a studio.

UNIVERSAL EXECUTIVE: “Hey, Earl, bad news. CBS passed on both of your series ideas. But there is a bright side. They’re paying us a whole bunch of money.”

Ah, show business.

Of course, I agreed to the deal. I couldn’t be ungrateful. It was a reward.

In a way, it was. When writers who didn’t have hit shows on television pitched their pilot ideas and the networks turned them down, that was it. It was over. No “two for one” deal. No guarantee. No penalty payment. My situation was clearly better.

Just not for me.

It could be my congenitally negative nature, but when I looked at this arrangement, all I saw was twice as much work. For starters, I had to come up with two new series ideas. History reveals I wasn’t that prolific in that department.

I may have mentioned this before, I don’t remember. I don’t know where ideas come from. (I don’t know where anything comes from. Including me.) Wherever it was, I needed two series ideas from there pronto. Good ones. Ones that would trigger the guarantee. Not the penalty payment to somebody else.

Eventually – I’d say miraculously, but in a non-religious sense, if there’s such a thing as a non-religious miracle, which I don’t think there is, so forget “miraculously” – two ideas showed up.

I liked them both. Which is hardly a surprise. I like all my ideas. Ideas are like children. They’re surprising and satisfying, and somewhere – sometimes obviously, sometimes buried beneath the surface – there’s a substantial slice of you in them.

I was reading one of the “trade” papers the studio had delivered to my office. Daily Variety or the Hollywood Reporter. I’d peruse both periodicals every morning. Some might say I was carefully studying the business I worked in, looking for trends that might focus my creative exploration. Others might say I was killing time until lunch.

This time, I actually found something useful.

“Look! Bob Barker’s getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!”

It wasn’t that.

It was, instead, an article about a “Mom and Pop” television station in North Dakota. Two people – a married couple as it happens – producing, broadcasting and hosting scheduled television programming for local consumption.

Ding! Ding! Ding!

That. Is a show.

At least, to my way of thinking. The idea comfortably suited my imagining style. Creatively, and personally, I’m the opposite of flashy. “Flamboyant” is alien to my nature. I notice small things and write about them. That’s what I’m good at. I do “close-in” magic. Card tricks, rather than disappearing motorcycles.

The small town television station idea excited me. I could filter my “big time” experiences through this not-all-that-different microcosm. It’s still “making shows”, with the tension and turmoil that that involves. The location just happens to be (as it turned out) across the street from a grain elevator.

I made up my mind (with the studio’s agreement). This would be one of the two series ideas I would deliver to CBS.

We have a cabin in Indiana – not far from Chicago – where we vacation every summer. After contacting the “Mom and Pop” couple and receiving their permission, instead of flying back to L.A. after our vacation, we took a shorter commuter flight:

Chicago to Fargo.

The “Mom” * of the “Mom and Pop” station picked us up at the airport, and chauffeured us back to her town

Seventy miles away

Where she and her husband made television shows

In the heart of the Heartland.


* I’m not comfortable mentioning people’s names without their permission. Others may disagree, but to me, it’s exploitation simply talking about them. Unfortunately, I can’t help it. Other people are part of my story. This issue is an ongoing dilemma for me, and I haven’t successfully worked it out. Maybe I’ll try and contact the North Dakota people and see if it’s okay.

1 comment:

Disciple said...

I think giving people distinct nicknames is a perfectly valid alternative to real ones. My father-in-law does it in his blog (I'm the Geek-in-Law there) and it's an easy way to keep track of people without having to worry about privacy issues.