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.
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.