Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Six"

Where do ideas for new television series come from? That’s an easy one. They come from your life. The more difficult question is this: 

What makes that idea suddenly show up?

As a Beatle might say, “D’nno.”

An idea flashes in your mind. Why? Where was that idea yesterday? And what made it jump into your consciousness today? Why not tomorrow? Or next week? Or never?

Is the process like getting sick? Yesterday you were fine; today, you’re in the hospital?

How does that happen?

Maybe it is like getting sick. You have this germ – or in the creative realm a germ of an idea – inside you, it gradually…germinates, and then, when it’s fully formed – in which case, it’s also like pregnancy – it just pops out.

What do you think about that? An idea equals a baby equals a disease. Each displaying your own personal stamp. Except for the disease, which is, like, squirmy, wormy cocci that look the same in all sick people. But the rest of it seems to fit. The germ and the germinating. And the popping out. Three out of four.

The germ, the “gestation period” and out it comes. That’s all I’ve got on that process. (And there’s always the possibility that I’m wrong.)

Though, if I am, how would you account for this example? My first pilot idea, arriving unexpectedly at the start of my new “development” arrangement at Paramount. Watch the process: The Germ, the “gestation period” and (as Larry David would call it) “The Pop-Out.” Not necessarily in that order.

The Germ

When I did Best of the West, my stepdaughter, Rachel, was around eight. And she was a knockout – black hair arranged in pigtails, green eyes and freckles. Asian tourists at Disneyland asked if they could take pictures of her. The All-American Kid. Also clever, easygoing, energetic and playful. And in no way show bizzy. Thank God.

I was preparing an episode in which the “Calico Kid”, played by Christopher Lloyd, had decided to retire from his current profession as a gunfighter, settle down and become a peace officer. The only problem was, becoming a peace office required a minimum of a Third Grade education. (I made that part up.) The “Calico Kid” had no education. To earn his Third Grade Equivalency Certificate (something I also made up), the kill-crazy gunman would have to enroll in school.

A scary-looking gunfighter, sitting in a tiny desk with a classroom full of kids. That was the concept, a hopefully funny one. To fill the other desks, we would obviously need a bunch of “students.” On a whim, I asked Rachel if she’d like to be an “extra” for the filming. She said it sounded like fun. So I put her in the show. No big deal.

Not so fast.

On the night the episode was filmed, there were agents in the audience. After the show, the agents approached Dr. M (who was M at the time). They told her how much they liked Rachel’s “look”, and they handed her their card. Very nice. A “professional” compliment. We figured that was it.

Not so fast again.

A few weeks later, we get a call from the agency. “Would you be open to having Rachel audition for a network TV pilot? Just like that. Rachel – no experience, no training – was suddenly thrown into…who knows what?

From extra to potential series regular. Bing-bang-boom.

End of story, Rachel auditioned for the pilot, but she didn’t get the part. But she very easily could have. She didn’t seem too disappointed. Her Mom called it an “adventure.” I viewed it as dodging a bullet. Kids working in show business? Replace “show business” with “coal mines”, and you’ve got my take on the situation. It’s exploitation without the “being buried alive” part.

What Popped Out

An idea for a television show. Though I changed things a little. I mean, “Executive Producer’s kid ends up in a series, that’s Tori Spelling; I wasn’t interested in that. The rich get richer? Not my favorite fairy tale.

I invented a story about a young boy growing up in Indiana, who “just for fun” agrees to sign on as an “extra” in a major motion picture, being shot “on location” in hi sown hometown. The movie’s casting director senses potential and encourages the boy’s mother to bring him to Los Angeles during “pilot season.”

(This actually happens all the time. Every year, parents pull their often entirely inexperienced children out of school, and transplant them to Hollywood, for like a month, in hopes of their kids, against enormous odds, will land roles in upcoming new series.)

In my version, called Big Shot, the kid actually gets the job.

Let’s break this down. “From ‘extra’ to series regular”? That came from what almost happened to Rachel. Call that Element Number One. Element Number Two? “Indiana” came from our having a cabin in Indiana, a locale that is, by its nature, diametrically opposite to Hollywood.

Element Number Three? Not long ago, I wrote about Dr. M’s being upset that, in another Best of the West episode, I had required a young actor to participate in an activity – adult-style kissing – that was inappropriate to his age. Presto! The essence of the series – “insider necessities” clashing with “insider common sense.” Throw in my prejudice against children working in show business as a point of view, and the components for a viable TV series were all in place.

When those elements, drawn from experience and fueled by a focused and passionate perspective, finally congealed in my head, the idea popped right out.

The Gestation Period?

Fifteen years.

But it happened.

How do you make it happen faster?

You’re asking the wrong guy.


A. Buck Short said...

Does this work in reverse? Could you please supply at least a treatment beginning with me being noticed by Charlize Theron? Incidentally, I’m reasonably sure Squirmy Wormy Cocci opened for Iggy Pop at Altamont with his unforgettable cover of David Bowie’s Bing Bang Boom. Maybe not, it’s all such a blur.

Not exactly the same experience, and certainly not exactly proud of this, but our daughter appeared on a billboard while in utero, and in one of the same agency's TV commercials about two weeks after she was born.

Our neighbor was the creative director on both. The first assignment was a campaign to get people to lock their cars to prevent them from being stolen. (Why this is a hard sell, I’ll never know>). The billboard featured a huge airport parking lot full of vehicles except one small parking space, we’re if you focused, you could see my very pregnant wife in an empty spot looking extremely disappointed as she also help the hand of out then two-something year-old son. It was the most pathetic image Paul could come up with.

About two weeks after she was born, Paul called to say they needed a new born red-headed baby to match the red-headed model new mother in a maternity ward they had cast for a gas and electric utility spot. What the heck, my wife was still on maternity leave. A few years later, just as a goof, she took both kids down to a casting session of some sorts. All the pro kids were there, and my wife was interviewed perfunctorily with all the other wannabees. The part of the form that featured our kids’ two credits apparently impressed the casting folks no end. The three of them didn’t hang around long enough to see if anything would come of that – preferring the let’s just chalk this one up to experience moment. What a show business career that was!

Now will you please start working on that Theron thing for me?

Anonymous said...

I went to Jerry Belson's memorial service and amongst many other clips, they played a clip from "Best of The West" with one of my very favorite jokes. I think it was John Astin who spied a guy wearing one of those eye shade things that newspaper copy guys and accountants used to wear and he said something like, "Where is the rest of that man's hat"? Then I think someone explained to him that that fellow worked for the newspaper and Astin replied, "I don't care... but every man in this town gets a full hat". I'm probably butchering the joke, Earl, but trust me it got a huge laugh during a wonderful memorial to a really funny, very nice guy.
"Anonymous Brian"

growingupartists said...

Earl, might some of this have pre-ordained? Just sayin'.