Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Seven"

I haven’t done one of these in a while. At least, not formally. I mean, when you think about it, every story I tell is the story of a writer. I’m the writer. And I’m telling the story. What else could it be?

But the “Story of a Writer” oeuvre was constructed to focus on my career. I’ve felt reluctant to hurry too quickly down that road, which I estimate is close to eighty per cent completed, because if I complete chronicling my career, readers who were drawn here only because of that aspect of my blog will go away, and I’ll end up with fewer readers, and fewer readers is not what I’m shooting for.

There’s also, well, what I wrote yesterday about specialization. (This point is particularly petty and spiteful.) It rankles me that only my pronouncements on writing are perceived to have value. It makes me want to withhold my wisdom in that area until the world surrenders and says,

“Okay, Earl. We’ll listen to you about everything.”

Yeah, well that’s really mature.

Who said I was mature? You want “mature”, read Paul Krugman.

All right. Enough.

I was working at Paramount, on what ultimately became two consecutive two-year development deals. My primary responsibility was to come up with ideas for new half-hour comedy series. During that period of employment, I also participated in two on-the-air television series, Lateline, co-created (with John Markus) and starring now Senator Al Franken, and Kristin, starring Broadway musical icon, and recent Emmy winner, Kristin Chenoweth. (As a favor to the studio, I additionally served as a one-day-a-week consultant on a Paramount comedy called Goode Behavior, starring Sherman Hemsley, an assignment which I’ll quarantine from the shows I cared about by enclosing it in brackets.)

Like the songs I’ve made up – and I’ve made up less than a handful – series ideas come to me when they come to me. I can’t force them to materialize. There is, however, a structuring external schedule involved. When I was working, there were two “pitching” periods per year, times when you could “pitch” your series ideas to the networks. If successful, these “pitches” would evolve into series debuting in the fall, or as mid-season replacement series.

The rest of the time, writers with development deals either pitched in as consultants in on series the studio currently had on the air, or they took extended naps until the next pitching period. I specialized in the latter. I believe the studio was aware of my marathon snoozes and didn’t care that much, my evidence being that, every year, they’d send me a blanket as a Christmas present.

Of course, there’s always the impetus of guilt. I mean, you see studio executives in the commissary every day. Their hands may be waving a friendly “Hello” from across the room, but their no-nonsense eyes are inquiring, “What have you got for us?” You both know they’re paying you big bucks to come up with those series ideas. Finally, your foot-dragging imagination groans a begrudging, “O…kay”, and it does.

I came up with a notion about a guy with a family (I think everything I ever created was a family show, with one exception, which was an idea called Bob’s Basement, about a man who lives in a basement apartment with his pet falcon, and has this magical television that transforms the humdrum occurrences of his workday to conform with the formats of specialized channels, such as the “‘Cool Bob’ Channel”, the “Honesty Channel”, “Bobby’s Cartoon Channel”, “Bobby After Dark”, and the “Revenge Channel”, to name just a few. Everyone who read Bob’s Basement hated it. Except me.)

The main character for the series was a psychologist working in a major Northeastern metropolis. He made good money, but his clients are everyday neurotics who provide little excitement or professional challenge. Bored and burnt out, the psychologist decides to reconfigure his life, relocating his family from the Big City to his small, “Rust Belt”-blighted hometown, where he takes a job working as a “Human Resources Coordinator” at a struggling factory, badly in need of a shot in the arm.

A one-sentence summary:

Seeking to reinvigorate his life, a psychologist returns to his hometown, taking a job at a demoralized and financially troubled factory, populated by workers who used to beat the psychologist up in High School.

I called the show Company Man.

It felt like a solid series idea. Timely, fish-out-of-watery, interesting characters, natural conflicts. For the deeper levels, I could draw on the training and experience of my psychologist wife. Not to mention that I’d been in therapy once or twice (or five times) myself.

The studio liked the idea and arranged a meeting at NBC. NBC responded to the “pitch”, and ordered a pilot script. I wrote the script, and then a second draft based on the network’s notes. During the writing period, an idea for the show’s theme song came to me, a signal that my unconscious was actively in the game.

In the song, I imagined an alternating “back-and-forth” between a male black, blues singer with a low, buttery-smooth voice and a “yakkety-sax” type saxophone. It went something like this. (If you have an instrument handy, the lyrics section of the melody is an ascending E-G-A-C):







(Different melody)




As luck would have it, NBC cut the project off after the second draft. A pilot episode was never produced.

I knew the project was in trouble the minute I sat down for my “script notes” session with the NBC executive. The first thing he said, was,

“Did you enjoy writing it?”

Any writer who’s been through this experience I am certain will agree. You hear that question, and your show is unquestionably is dead. The only reason for bringing it up is to make the executive feel better about shooting the project down. “Sure, we destroyed his hopes and dreams. But at least he enjoyed writing it.”

I came up with a couple of other series ideas under my Paramount deal, including one that, in many ways, was the most original, half-hour script I have ever written.

But that’s for another reading.

I leave you today, hopefully humming…




Brian Scully said...

Great, now I'm going to have that tune stuck in my head all weekend... or until I hear the TV theme from "It's About Time"

emily said...

Okay, Earl. We’ll listen to you about everything.