Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Eight"

Sometimes, I simply enchant myself.

Not all the time. Enchantment, in my work, reflects the achievement of something original and surprising, an accomplishment as exhilarating as it is rare. And “rare” is fine. I wouldn’t want to enchant myself all the time. Or even a lot.

“Ho hum. I’ve enchanted myself again. Yawn, yawn, yee-awn.”

Enchantment doesn’t happen that often. Just often enough to remind you it could.

Case in point.

I’ve got a development deal at Paramount. They’re paying me to create new series ideas for half-hour comedies. I mentioned one of them in “Story of a Writer – Part Twenty-Seven.” Company Man. I read that script in preparation for writing that post. It’s okay. Workmanlike. Funny in spots. Moments of originality. But it feels fundamentally formulaic, and it doesn’t really hold up.

This one does.

When I was a kid, there was this long-running afternoon local talk show that was broadcast out of Buffalo. (Toronto got all its American programming from Buffalo.) The only time I got to see it was when I was home sick from school. The show wasn’t really for kids. Still, I found it bizarrely mesmerizing.

It was called Meet The Millers.

Meet The Millers was co-hosted by a husband and wife couple, Bill and Mildred Miller. When you’re a kid, you’re not good at judging ages. I guessed the Millers to be in their mid-forties. Even if they were younger, they had an older feel about them. Bill had a military-short haircut, wore loafers with tassels, accessorized by a rotating series of cardigan sweaters. Mildred masked her spreading girth in large print dresses, and stuck knitting needles through her tightly wound bun.

Even as a kid, I sensed some gender-related role reversal going on. Bill covered the cooking segments and gave imaginative tips on making your own Christmas tree decorations. Mildred interviewed suspected members of the Mob. If there’s such a thing as a Gender Demarcation Line, Bill and Mildred seemed to have slipped over in opposite directions.

Bill was fussy. Mildred was stern. Bill was emotional. Mildred was a rock. Bill was passive aggressive. Mildred was brutally direct. But beyond their atypical personal traits, what made the show irresistible was the subtext of their interactions, which subtly but clearly exposed the nature of their relationship. Nothing was ever expressed directly, but there were definitely moments when even a boy watching at home with a fever could receive the message that…

These people hate each other.

And sooner or later,

They’re going to explode.

The purported concept for Meet The Millers may have been straightforward – a long-married couple hosting a local talk show

But underneath, it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Taking that riveting relationship as a starting point, I wrote my version of Meet The Millers, as a pilot for a half-hour situation comedy.

I didn’t pitch it anywhere. The show was too one-of-a-kind. I had to demonstrate what I wanted to do. So I wrote the whole script. “On spec”, as they say.

At this point, I would normally quote extended excerpts from the script, to give you a sense of what it was like. But with this one, I can’t. Meet The Millers is cut from one extended piece of cloth. You can’t extract hunks of it out of context and have them mean anything.

Meet The Millers is different in fundamental ways. For example, the fifty-page pilot script concerns a grievance Bill is harboring, which seriously affects his behavior, but we don’t discover what’s eating him until Page 42. Professional “script doctors” would frown mightily at that. But in this case, the extended buildup and its belated resolution is what Meet The Millers is all about.

The naturalistic dialogue is designed to appear improvised, rather than structured in the set-up, punch line tradition. With “Bill” and “Mildred’s” voices clearly in my head, I wrote down what I thought – what I was pretty certain – they’d say. The situation was fabricated by me, but their responses to it were uniquely their own.

A couple of months after finishing the script, I met Martin Short in an airport VIP Lounge. (I was commuting to a show in New York at the time, and everything was First Class.) I knew Martin to say hello to, but not well enough to call him Marty. I said hello. I also, very uncharacteristically, asked if I could send him a script I had written.

It was Meet The Millers. I thought he’d be perfect for Bill.

A few weeks later, Martin Short invited me to his house. It was Canadian Thanksgiving. (Martin Short is Canadian.) I never knew when Canadian Thanksgiving was, but apparently he did. (Now I know too. It’s the same day as Columbus Day. Canada can’t wait till the fourth Thursday in November to celebrate Thanksgiving. By then, the only thing you’re thankful for is the arrival of the snow plough.)

I guess I’d been notified ahead of time, but I was still surprised when Catherine O’Hara (also Canadian) showed up, interrupting her own preparations for Canadian Thanksgiving. (Apparently, everyone knew when it was but me. I don’t even understand Canadian Thanksgiving. We didn’t have pilgrims.)

We then went off to this little room, where Martin and Catherine sat down with their scripts, and provided me with a private reading of Meet The Millers.

As the script was performed, I could see the mistakes I had made. To my relief and satisfaction, there were not a lot of them. And I was confident I could fix them.

The performances were sublime. Martin had remembered Meet The Millers from his youth. (He sang me the show’s theme song, which I’d forgotten but immediately recognized.) Martin got “Bill” immediately. And Catherine shone as “Mildred.”

When the reading ended, I thanked them both profusely for the “audience of one” demonstration of their prodigious talents. I was extremely excited by what I had witnessed. The script had passed the test, sparkling under Martin and Catherine’s knowing performances. If these two talented and name recognizable actors were willing to sign on, I was certain we could at least get a pilot made.

Unfortunately, they weren’t.

Martin, though clearly intrigued, chose instead to star as a show biz blowhard in a fat suit named “Jiminy Glick.” Catherine expressed a general disinterest in series television, proclaiming, “Who wants to play the same part over and over?”

Meet The Millers would never be made. Was I disappointed? Of course. Some series are cancelled after a couple of episodes. Meet The Millers bit the dust after one, unofficial reading.

But what a reading it was.

Hearing “Bill” and “Mildred” brought to life by two comedic virtuosos, what can I tell you?

I was enchanted.

And reading the script this morning, I realized a major contributor to that enchantment?

Was me.


Joe said...

a) Not having Met The Millers my own self,
b) Being aware of MS & CO'H (used to have a bit of a crush on her, truth be told) and their talents since, at the very least the early 1980s,
c) Not having read your script for Meet The Millers

I'm thinking it might have flown better as a movie.

Just sayin'.

MikeThe Blogger said...

MY RANT....I mourn the changes to our language as the "dumbing down" of our media perpetuates the lack of rigour in language; we are losing something - the ability to easily communicate subtle ideas. I would of written this earlier but the topic seems relevant now. If a word is used incorrectly often enough it gets included in a dictionary because dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive, hence giving credence to the misuse. Earl's use of "disinterested" instead of "uninterested" is now an accepted use because people lost its meaning of "impartial" - the two words now mean the same thing, no distinction. Alot of words fall to the common tongue - "unique" no longer means there's only one - it now means different, or strange. "Enormity, because it sounds like "enourmous" now is used to express "bigness" not "strangeness" or "dreadful", like: The enormity of Katrina. And the pretentiously incorrect: between you and I - don't get me started on imply and infer. I could go on and on. I know language is a river that flows and changes, many times for the better. But rivers usually get wider and deeper as they flow - this river is drying up. Oh, BTW, if you were dying to comment on the split infinitive, my misuse of the preposition "of" as a modal auxiliary, and the spelling of "alot" please join me at the shiva next month. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Dear linguistically rigorous Mike (the blogger): It's "would've" or "would have," not "would of." See you at the shiva.

MikeThe Blogger said...

Anonymous, please reread the end of my post. We ARE in agreement.