Monday, May 18, 2009

"Answering The Bell"

I don’t know about you, but no matter how old I get, the day after Labor Day, it feels like I should be going to school. I’ve been out of school – at least full-time school – for quite a while. But despite the ever-lengthening passage of time, I continue to experience this residual reflex. It’s like the old racehorse hearing the Starting Bell. Brrrrring, and you’re off. (Which can be embarrassing when you’ve stopped being a racehorse and started giving rides at birthday parties.)

“September” equals school. It seems automatic. Summer’s gone. It’s the natural place to be. And when you’re not there, because, you know, you graduated, at least for the first few years, it feels like you’re doing something wrong.

You’re playing hooky, and somebody’s going to come get you. In a certain way, at least for me, maybe because I did well in school, you kinda still want to go.

This week marks that “day after Labor Day” moment in the television business. It’s the week the networks announce their schedules for the coming season. The announcement is the official word on which shows are coming back, which have been cancelled and which new shows have been picked up.

The next day, you go to work.

When I was writing on a returning show (like the MTM series or Taxi), I’d go to the office, and we’d start meeting on new stories. When I ran the show (Best of the West, Major Dad), I’d begin working my way through the stack of agent-submitted scripts, trolling for a writing staff.

As a scriptwriter, I was rarely scared. I just had to write scripts; the final responsibility lay with others. Being a show runner was a different matter. When Best of the West was announced for ABC’s fall schedule, I remember feeling both exhilarated and cramps-inducingly terrified at the same time. I’d spent four months assembling the pilot. Now, I’d be turning out a new episode every week. That’s a lot faster.

Here’s the thing. At this “beginning of school”, Starting Bell moment, despite five years of being, as they say, invariably with a terminal solemnity, “out of the business”, I still wish I were doing it.

I imagine retired athletes feel the same way. Spring training, and you’re playing golf. Opening day of football camp, you’re on a cruise with your family. Not that you hate your family (unless you hate your family), it’s that there’s this nagging feeling that you ought to be somewhere else.

You trained for your profession pretty much your whole life. You knew how to do it. More than “you knew how to do it”, you excelled at it. You performed at the highest level, collaborating with the best people in the field. You played under pressure, you came through in the clutch, you took on daunting challenges and, year after year, you prevailed, surprisingly yourself constantly with dazzling efforts you never thought you were capable of.

A writer named Mark Harris wrote a wonderful baseball trilogy, the most famous of the books being Bang The Drum Slowly. The third book in the trilogy was called It Looked Like Forever. It involves star pitcher Henry Wiggins’ reaction to the end of his career. The title captures the feeling perfectly. When he was playing, with World Championship success, it was as if his baseball career would never end.

It Looked Like Forever.

It wasn’t.

This here is a Full Service blog. I’ve talked about the visceral excitement at the beginning of my career of, virtually if not literally, stepping through my television and finding myself on the other side of the screen. But if you’re seriously considering doing this as a job, it’s important to hear, and maybe file away, some old guy’s account of what it feels like stepping back out.


MikeThe Blogger said...

Try thinking about the day after Labour Day as a teacher would feel. Not just the eighteen or so years as a student but an additional 35 years expecting the first day back to school on that Tuesday. After 53 or so years of this annual routine, the shock of emptiness is even greater. The feeling of playing hooky is common; however, while sitting on the cottage dock laughing and drinking wine there are few regrets about this change. Maybe an "I'll miss the kids but not the marking." comment is as close as it gets. ;-)

growingupartists said...

Earl, I curse the fools who gave you the impression that you've ever stepped out of the field. It's my opinion that you are reinventing the field, transitioning into the most natural media after tv, the internet and how it directly affects tv.

You can quit being modest and pretending that you're in last place. You are in FIRST place Earl, can hardly wait for you to start bragging like that again.

Online, of course. Like the modern diva you are.

Alex said...

I still experience the same Labor Day thing in a way. It's been 20 years since Labor Day was a significant separating date but I still find that is when I'm at most wistful.

The feelings of reflection and "where to now" that a lot of people seem to indulge in around New Year crop up for me in late August.

That's always when I'm at most most antsy and feeling confined by my mundane life. I trace it all back to Labor Day being an annual rite of change. It wasn't just going back to school but it meant big changes.

New friends, new teachers, new routines. It was forced on me but that was good in its way and when Labor Day rolls around and I'm still at the same job I've been in for three years and living in the same house I've been in for four years and the same general part of the country I've been in for a decade, I get wistful.

Wonder how this alters the mental conditioning of students and teachers at year round schools.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Earl, for a very poignant and unfortunately description of our careers as TV writers. I realize that I am actually whistling past the graveyard myself these days.

The whole theme of your post actually reminded me of that great line from "Annie Hall". It comes after Alvy Singer is commenting on some old Catskills joke. ALVY SINGER: "Well, that's essentially how I feel about life - full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."

And thanks for the tip on that other book written by the writer of "Bang The Drum Slowly". I'm going to buy it on Amazon today.
Anonymous Brian

A. Buck Short said...

Appreciated the post and the Woody Allen line comment. Unfortunately for me, life combines the worst of both worlds. No matter what I've got on the plate, it always feels like I still have one more miserable term paper hanging over my head. It never ends.