Friday, March 26, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part 30C"

I have one thing left over from yesterday’s post on casting, which I didn’t include, because I had reached my quota of anti-network-executive venom, and I didn’t want to cross the line and run the risk of appearing unduly hostile to network executives, rather than being just hostile enough.

I had a deal with CBS, wherein I would write two pilot scripts, and, due to the (temporary) clout I had established by delivering a hit show called Major Dad, the network was contractually obligated to “green-light” one of them into production. I’ll tell the end of the story first. The project I’m about to talk about was rejected (for reasons I will shortly explain), resulting in my second project (called Island Guy) being “green lit” instead.

The project that was rejected, entitled The Voice of Firefly, concerned a single, female programming executive who flees the New York rat race, where her career advancement seems permanently blocked, for a job running a “Mom and Pop” television station in Firefly, North Dakota. The idea intrigued me. Fish out of water. Big City versus Small Town culture clash. A microcosmal depiction of show biz mishugus (craziness). It had a lot going for it.

This time, the casting process worked magnificently. We had three wonderful candidates for the leading role. (The networks, at least back then, required producers to bring in three actor-options for each of the major roles in the series.) I would have been thrilled to have any one of these women approved.

The three actresses came in one at a time, and auditioned for the CBS president - whose name was Jeff - and the other CBS executives. When they were finished, Jeff announced that he was unhappy with all the candidates. Not just unhappy, intensely unhappy. “Impossible to change his mind” unhappy. Unhappy to the point of vehemently proclaiming, “I will not have these women on my network!”

Who were these totally unacceptable women? Well, one of them went on to enjoy a solid career in half hour comedy. The other two found jobs on a little hour-long hospital drama called ER. Their names were Sherry Stringfield and Julianna Margulies (now back, starring in The Good Wife.

Okay, anyone can make a mistake. You can watch gifted performers audition, and say, “Yeah, they’re good, but they’re not right for the part.” You can say, “They’re not exactly knocking my socks off.” But when you’re in a room watching unquestionably talented actors perform impressively, and your response is, “I will not have these women on my network!”, you are definitely going out on a limb.

And the problem was that in this case, the guy was terribly, terribly – I don’t want to say “dangerously” because nobody got killed or anything –


Being wrong is not a crime. Though it can often cause as much damage as a crime. Going out on a limb is acceptable, and even praiseworthy. The key is, you have to have some idea of what you’re talking about.


We wrote an episode of Kristin, where the payoff of the story involved someone suddenly pulling a gun and shooting one of the “regulars” on the show. The thing is, they weren’t really shot, not even in the theatrical sense. What was going on was an unrepentant practical joker was being paid back by his victims’ playing an even bigger practical joke on him, that being the apparent homicide.

John Markus, whose show Kristin was, and I agreed that, though risky, it was an exciting idea. We believed it would work, both dramatically and comedically. The studio executive assigned to shepherd the show, however, disagreed, vehemently proclaiming,

“Guns are ‘death’ to comedy.”

Again with the “vehemently proclaiming.” Here was a person with minimal comedy experience, who was not only disagreeing with comedy professionals, but guaranteeing failure. Nay, disaster.

Were we certain that the “moment” would work? There is no certainty in comedy. That’s why comedians drink. And take drugs. And bite their nails. And pop antacids. And knock around their significant others.

Choosing a career in comedy commits you to a lifetime of uncertainty. All you can do is rely on your experience and comic instincts, and take your best shot. If you succeed, it’s “Hat’s off!” If you fail, it is best for your loved ones to be somewhere else.

John and I stood our ground. We believed in our decision, though it didn’t stop us from being extremely nervous. If we were wrong, things would get very quiet in that studio. Our reputations were on the line.

Well, sir, when the gun went “Boom!”, it did, indeed, get very quiet in that studio. But at the precise, comedically timed moment, when the “deceased” popped up and revealed themselves to be unhurt, the place went nuts, an thunderclap explosion of surprise and delightedness. Laughter, cheering, tumultuous applause. The “moment” had worked beautifully. We had pulled the thing off.

I have to commend myself here. Not for my judgment being vindicated – that was as much a relief as a revelation – but for my deportment. No gloating. No “Nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh!” I let the moment speak for itself. And I left it at that.

The studio’s executive’s response? I don’t remember there being one.

As the cowboys say, “Sometimes, you eat the ba’r, and sometimes, the b’ar eats you.” There are no guarantees. But there are people who are likely to know and people who don’t have a clue.

Before you go out on a limb, it’s useful to recognize which one you are.

1 comment:

Max Clarke said...

Guns are death to comedy. Yes, they bring the real world into the make-believe world in a snap.

Cheers brought a gun to the party a couple of times, but the writers and actors did a great job keeping the real world out. One was the episode when Sam shot himself by accident, then tried to defend his lie that somebody had tried to rob the bar. It was handled well enough that the reality -Sam Malone actually suffered a bullet wound- never sank into the collective audience mind.

The other was a fake death, when Rebecca shot her sister because she was going to take Sam away from Rebecca. All a little bit silly, but it had the great line by Kirstie Alley after she fired the last of the "fatal" shots, "Everybody does at least one bad thing in their life."