Monday, February 1, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Nine

It’s important for a writer to remain productive. It’s especially important for a writer being paid weekly under a studio “overall deal.” If a writer’s not productive while being paid weekly under a studio “overall deal”, the studio “overall deal” goes away, and the writer is sent home, languishing grumpily until somebody invents blogs.


One afternoon, while napping in my long, narrow office (I never liked that office) in the Clara Bow Building on the Paramount Studios lot, I am informed that there’s a call for me from (now Senator) Al Franken. I get up and head to the phone, hoping not to sound like someone who was just recently asleep.

I had met Al Franken once, about a quarter of a century earlier. He was working on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live – our meeting took place during the show’s first season – and I was visiting, at least partly, to see what I’d passed up. (I’d been invited to write on the show, but had turned the offer down.)

I had brought Lorne Michaels a crate of oranges from L.A.’s Farmers Market as a present. (A Californian bringing his New York-based buddy some oranges in the winter. What I guy!) Looking for a place to put the crate down, I ran into Al in the SNL offices, and he gave me a hand.

I introduced myself. Hearing my name, Al’s immediate response was:

“Oh. You’re the guy who wouldn’t work for us.”

My decision seemed stupid at the time. The show was on magazine covers. It was a national phenomenon. Reminding me that I’d turned down working on a national phenomenon struck me as Al’s saying,

“Oh. You’re the guy who’s really stupid.”

Al’s comment had remained with me for twenty-five years. And now, here he was again. I was apprehensive about picking up the phone.

It turns out, what Al was calling about was a series idea he’d come up with that he’d recently sold to Paramount. He was wondering if I wanted to develop it with him. (I imagine a Paramount executive had suggested he call me, due to my sitcom experience, and also due to the fact that I was not currently productive.)

Al explained that the series he had in mind was a multi-camera, half-hour comedy concerning a fictional news-interview show, modeled after ABC’s Nightline.

Al’s show would be about putting a nightly news-interview program on the air. The series “regulars” would include a hierarchy of producers, a team of news gatherers, and a host.

Al’s enthusiasm rose noticeably as he described his intention of including actual politicians as guests. It peaked when he explained that the show would stay current by injecting material at the last minute, commenting on the top new stories of the week.

Regular readers know that I am not a person who sees the glass as being half full. For me, the glass is always chipped, cracked and mildewed, and whatever liquid fills half of it is seen as terminally murky and crawling with germs.

I told Al I wasn’t interested.

Why? I just said why. I invariably vote "Nay." But if you want actual reasons…

The biggest upside of Al’s project was Al. He knew politics, and could be counted on to deliver a show that was smart, pointed and extremely funny.

I knew Al could come through with the political guests, because he knew these people – especially the Democrats – personally, having written jokes for many of their campaign speeches.

(As I later learned, Al is fearless about calling people, and he always thinks big. Al originally wanted Jerry Seinfeld to do the warm-up for the pilot episode of this series. He ended up with me. He also invited Neil Simon to write an episode for the show. He ended up with me.)

The biggest downside of Al’s project was Al. First, although unquestionably a funny writer, Al had no experience writing half-hour comedies, where, in the final analysis, creating strong, identifiable characters is more important than the funniest jokes.

Writing broadly drawn sketches, based on some clever comedic concept, with one-dimensional characters and, often, inconsequential endings, is hardly the ideal training ground for writing what are essentially televised one-act plays. (He harumphed, in a condescending tone.)

Also, having worked almost exclusively on a show that did inject jokes at the last minute, commenting on the top news stories of the day (in their Weekend Update segment), Al ignored the fact that the “lead time” between a sitcom’s production and its airing on television – at that time between two and three weeks – would prevent his most cherished element of the concept from ever happening.

One final problem that precluded our working together was that Al lived in New York and I lived in Los Angeles. Why is that a drawback in the era of modern technology? It isn’t, really. It just gave me another reason not to do it.

I wished Al “Good luck”, and went back to my nap.

A few months later, I get a call from John Markus, a writer I had hired for The Cosby Show, who had remained in New York – where The Cosby Show was produced – after his participation on that show had ended.

John explained that Al Franken had contacted him about the project I had said “No” to, and John, a man of considerably more optimism, had said, “Yes.” They had written first draft versions of four scripts for a show, now called Lateline, and John wondered if I’d be interested in reading them.

I said I’d be very much interested in reading them. (Partly out of interest, and partly, once again, to check out what I'd passed up.)

I received the scripts, and I read them. They were fresh and exciting. They also made me laugh. I called John and complimented him and Al on their work. John asked if there was any way I could see myself participating in the show. I said I would consider being a consultant of some sort. And John, with Al’s approval, said “Great!”

That’s how I became a consultant on a news-themed situation comedy called Lateline.

More on that later.


emily said...

Earl, it is so great to see you back at the keyboard on a regular basis. I'm sure the rest of your lurkers are thrilled that you're mending so well.

Welcome back, Oh Productive One, and thank you for these stories.

growingupartists said...

I think harumphing is good for your character. Happy Monday!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Lateline is a favorite of mine. I especially liked the later episodes when the Al Franken chaacter was sidelined and the other characters got more plots. And don't tell that was when you had left the show...

I recently bought the dvd of this series and I would love t if you could do a 'commentary', either typing your comments as you go through an episode or taping your comments live while watching the show (on earphones, so the sound isn't recorded with your comments) and posting the sound file as a seperate file we can download an play while we watch the dvd.