Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Nine C"

Lateline was not a successful television series. We filmed nineteen episodes, but less than half of those were aired on NBC. The remaining episodes were ultimately broadcast on the cable network, Showtime. Both Paramount and Showtime are owned by the same company, Viacom, so it was arranged to, as they say, “burn off” the remaining episodes there, extending them from their network broadcast length of about twenty-two minutes to a cable-mandated thirty minutes by having Al conduct comic interviews with actual politicians before each episode was shown.

One of the pleasures of working on Lateline was my getting to meet prominent politicians. This is a big deal for me. I know those guys. They run the country.

Once, when Dr. M and I visited Washington, we had the opportunity to have lunch in the Senate Dining Room. I looked around, and there was Teddy Kennedy (wearing a dark suit a house slippers), John McCain and Kay Bailey Hutchison. These guys were superstars. To me, it was like eating in the old MGM commissary, and spotting Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Durante.

Lateline specialized in delivering political heavyweights as guests. The list included Senator (and future presidential candidate) John Kerry, Representative Barney Frank, Democratic House leader, Richard Gephardt and Clinton Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich. Sadly, none of their appearances helped boost the show’s ratings.

My biggest thrill by far was accompanying Lateline’s creators, Al Franken and John Markus, on a visit to the White House, which included a half-hour meeting with Vice President, Al Gore. One reason for our visit was to try and persuade Gore to appear on Lateline. We argued that it would show off Gore’s lighter side, which could help with the electorate, should he decide to run for president. Who knows how history might have changed had the Vice President agreed to our proposal?

One of Vice President Gore’s pet projects involved shortening and simplifying the language in regulations, making them more understandable to the regular person. While in the White House, Al Franken made a comedic plea before Gore and a substantial press gathering, opposing editing the regulations, as the process would destroy the efforts of Franken’s (mythical) uncle, Abe Franken, who had written the regulations in the first place. Heading to the White House, Franken asked us to brainstorm on some ideas for his speech. I remember contributing the line,

“Not all our regulations are too long. The Second Amendment could have used more words.”

Al delivered the line impeccably. It got a huge laugh.

I just thought I’d throw that in.

As far as the show itself is concerned, I liked Lateline, primarily for its efforts to do a comedy about something that mattered, rather than about dating problems. Not that dating problems don’t matter, I just don’t care about them. I also thought Lateline was funny, primarily due to Al’s wide-ranging comic sensibility. I will return to that shortly.

From a conceptual standpoint, Lateline had fundamental identity problems, stemming from the fact that it was a political satirist’s version of a sitcom. I don’t want to be pedantic here, or more specifically, boringly pedantic, or dogmatic, or more specifically, boringly dogmatic, but a television series’ success hangs almost exclusively, not on its agenda, but on whether or not the audience cares about the characters in the show.

A funny series can fail, unless the show’s characters are appealingly drawn (they don’t have to be likable – See: Seinfeld), and the characters are played by actors the audience warms to.

There’ve been a small number of sitcoms set in a newsroom. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of them. I’ve watched the Mary pilot a number of times, looking to see if “Mary Richards” applied for the job at WJM, because she was interested in the news business.

From what I could tell, that wasn’t the reason. She just answered an ad in the newspaper. Her interview for the job with Lou Grant had nothing to do with the news – it was more a Mary-Lou tangle concerning Mary’s typing skills, her age and her religion.

My point is, the news element on The Mary Tyler Moore Show merely served as background. What Mary was really about was the plight of a single woman of thirty living in Minneapolis. We remember the characters – “Mary”, “Lou”, “Ted”, “Murray”, “Rhoda”, “Phyllis”, “Sue Ann” – that’s what made us watch. Why? Because we truly cared about those guys. Also, the Mary show was consistently funny.

Murphy Brown centered on a 60 Minutes-type show. I don’t remember Murphy Brown that well, but what stays with me is "Murphy Brown’s" prickly persona, how she kept firing her assistants (there was a different one every week), and that there was a painter redecorating her house who never finished the job. Again, it’s the characters that stay with me.

In its favor, Lateline did stories never before seen in the history of television. In one episode, Lateline presented a show-long tribute to the wonderful comedian, Buddy Hackett, who, it was reported, had recently passed away. The only problem, as it turned out, was that he hadn’t. You don’t see episodes like that on Cougar Town.

Another episode, involving the ne’er-do-well son of an African dictator, who happened to be a college classmate of Lateline’s intern, Raji, ended with the son’s returning to his homeland, where he was subsequently torn to pieces by the country’s rebels. This episode clearly had dark undertones, but because of Franken’s ability to extend the boundaries defining “what’s funny” – a product of Al’s broad comic sensibility and his experience on Saturday Night Live – the episode was hilarious. For me, that’s what made Lateline stand out. The show took risks unimagined by its tamer contemporaries.

My favorite episode of Lateline was based on a story I suggested. The episode was filmed, single-camera – documentary style – and this was before The Office. Al’s character, “Al Freundlich”, is asked to play a small role, as a newsman in a hundred million dollar movie. The documentary (chronicling “The Making of a Blockbuster”) brings to light how Al, with the purest of intentions, continually points out factual inaccuracies in the script, the corrections of which result in such costly delays and extensive re-shooting that the production is inevitably brought to its knees and is finally forced to close down.

Aside from the idea, which tickled me, and is entirely consistent with “Freundlich’s” character, I marveled at the lavishness of the episode’s production (insisted upon by Al), which included highly paid guest stars, such as Rob Reiner, Vanessa Williams and Martin Sheen, who was cast here as the President, before playing the same role on The West Wing. Who knows? It may have gotten him the part.

I’m proud of the work we did on Lateline. The experience was amazing, the working conditions – especially the living-in-a-hotel part - See: Yesterday's Post – surpassed anything in my career. Plus, I learned a ton about writing comedy from Al Franken.

A favorite comic strategy of Al’s is repetition. Al’s crazy about repetition. Saying the same thing again and again – in other words, repetition – Al just loves it. Al finds it hilarious to say the same thing again and again. Repetition? He can’t get enough of it. Not Al. Not Al Franken. Not our Alsy Boy. Not Senator Al.

It works pretty good, doesn’t it?

And Al would do it more.


A. Buck Short said...

Once again you’ve demonstrated the essence of comedy: selecting the right amendment.

It’s like that old bit where the prisoners are so familiar with the material they laugh at jokes only identified by number – and when number 9 doesn’t, you should pardon the expression, “knock ‘em dead,” the explanation is “Some people know how to tell a joke and some just don’t.”

I think cruel and unusual punishment is even shorter than #2, and post abu ghraib, would also have benefitted from a little more qualification. But how many besides Khalid Sheik Mohammed would be able to identify that one by number alone? You are a genius.

A. Buck said...


Warner Bros. actual regards.