Monday, March 29, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part 30D"

Years ago, I wrote this “blackout” (a short, one-joke vignette) on a Canadian television variety special called The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour (Hart, being my older brother, Lorne being Lorne Michaels). It went something like this:

Two men are standing on the sidewalk, looking up at the construction site of a new skyscraper.

Man One: Look at those guys. They walk on those girders a hundred stories up like they’re walking on the sidewalk.

Man Two: They’re from the Caughnawaga tribe. They’re famous for not having acrophobia.

Man One: Acrophobia? What does that mean?

Man Two: It means that when they fall off a hundred-story building, they don’t feel dizzy.

In the series, Kristin, Kristin works for a big-time New York building developer. I personally knew very little about this arena, but, as a result of the above “blackout”, I knew this: Whenever they build skyscrapers – going back to the Empire State Building – they always hire members of the Caughnawaga tribe – based in Quebec, Canada – because of their apparent immunity to a fear of heights.

I used that information to construct a story for Kristin. To wit:

One of the “regulars” on the show is a willful, amoral temptress, whose job is to rent out office space in her boss’s newly constructed buildings. Because she’s that kind of person, one evening, the temptress elevators to the top of the skyscraper-in-progress, carrying a bottle of champagne, and, to be delicate as well as concise, leads one of the Caughnawauga construction workers astray.

The following morning, the building developer hears there’s a problem at the worksite. A Caughnawaga has “disgraced himself” on a girder a hundred stories up with the company’s resident temptress. His tribal brethren, many of whom are relatives of the unfaithful Caughnawaga’s wife, are now refusing to go back up and work with him. And the debauched Caughnawaga is too ashamed to come down and face the music.

The result: A complete work stoppage. If the situation persists, hundreds of thousands of dollars could be lost to construction delays.

A tiny, slightly silly, incident accidentally triggers an enormous mess. One of my favorite kinds of stories. And also, I believe, funny.

After it was filmed, there was a serious question as to whether this episode would ever be broadcast. Can you guess what that problem was?

You’re a winner if you said, “Drunken Indian.”

Remember? The temptress had plied the Caughnawaga with champagne before they had used the girder as a motel room.

You can’t do that. Who says? NBC’s Standards and Practices Department.

The “Standards” department is comprised of men and women, whose job is to pore over every script, line by line, searching for words, behaviors, points of view, issues of taste, suggestions, insinuations or hints that might offend some unspecified members of the television viewing audience.

(This is no trivial matter. A surprisingly few irate letters, written to the network, or perhaps, to a sponsor whose ads appear on the offending program, can get that program thrown off to air. Or, in the case of a potentially offending new show that has been mentioned in the media but, as yet, has not been seen, it can be kept from ever getting on.)

The “Standards” people were disturbed by the idea of an Indian drinking alcohol, or, at least, disturbed on behalf of viewers who might be disturbed. (Content controversies know no ideological bias. Though it’s generally conservatives who complain, the Left – case in point: “Drunken Indian” – is hardly immune.)

It didn’t disturb the writers. We were not exploiting the issue of Native American alcoholism. The champagne drinking was a natural component of the story. A man and woman have a couple of drinks, and some crazy stuff happens. It’s a standard story element. Check out it’s Complicated.

(Soapbox Moment: To me, true equality allows members of any race, gender or ethnicity to behave in an unfortunate manner. We weren’t singling any group out. It was simply an imperfect human being, messing up.)

The Indian actor playing the role was not disturbed. We asked him to let us know if there was anything in the script that made him uncomfortable. He said, “Okay, Chief.” (He didn’t say, “Okay, Chief.” He just said “Sure.” But I would have been tickled if he’d said, “Okay, Chief.”)

Nobody was concerned. Except the person whose job it was to be concerned.

I suppose I could clumsily have inserted that the Caughnawaga was aware of his alcoholic proclivities, but had been seduced by the charms of an office-space-renting femme fatale. But I doubt if it would have made any difference.

“Drunken Indian.” Ehhh! That’s the “buzzer sound.” And the buzzer means, “No can do.”

I once ran into a guy who no longer worked in television. I didn’t recognize him. He understood why I didn’t recognize him.

“It’s because I’ve stopped seething.”

“Drunken Indian” and similar television battles.

It can make you so crazy, it will alter your appearance.
Happy Passover, to those so inclined. It sure great to be out of Egypt, isn't it? I'm tellin' you, I couldn't carry one more hod.


Brian Scully said...

LOVED the "Okay, Chief"... :)

Anonymous said...

G'Day Mr. P. I was trying to fix my computer the other day and I accidentally elecrocuted myself. Fortunately my computer wasn't harmed but I don't remember anything after 1970 (which I'm told by the old lady who is taking care of me and says she is my wife, it is not a bad thing). Anyway I'm haunted by something that is called "Life Times Nine." Do you know what that's all about. And do you think I could update it? Might be interesting.