Friday, May 14, 2010

"My All-Time Favorite Job - Part Two *"

* (I never know something will go longer than one part until it does.)

I was asked what my all-time favorite job was. Yesterday, I ruled out The Cosby Show. My Cosby experience had its pluses, but it eventually made me mentally ill, or, more accurately, it ignited the mental illness buried not too deeply beneath the surface.

So, not that.

Continuing the search…

There were three TV shows that I either created or helped create. This seems like a hopeful direction in the hunt for my “all-time favorite job.” Let’s take these show in the chronological order of their creation, and see what turns up.

Best of the West

By far, my funniest series.

Best of the West involved an arena I knew and loved – cowboy shows. I knew the fictional cowboy turf like the back of my hand. (Old joke: “I know…whatever like the back of my hand. (ABSENTLY EYEING THE BACK OF HIS HAND) Hey, I never saw that before.)

I had a lifelong familiarity with the stock company of western characters. Fictional cowboy lingo was my second language. I reveled in riffing comedically on the classic cowboy show situations:

A gunfight, where the guns wouldn’t shoot straight.

The hanging of a corrupt local citizen, where the apparatus collapses in mid-hanging, the scaffold having been built by the construction company owned by the corrupt local citizen.

A miraculous transformation of a saloon into a respectable House of Worship, executed at breakneck speed before the viewer’s incredulous eyes.

Best of the West had a talented cast of regulars. Great guest stars (Andy Griffith, Chuck Connors, Slim Pickens.) We even had a bear.

But the network was never behind the show, (they wound up scheduling it against Dallas, at the time, the most popular series on television.) And the pressure of handling my first showrunning opportunity was immense. This was the time when, during a break from an agonizingly slow-moving rewrite session, I was whinily heard to lament,

“There has to be an easier way to make three hundred thousand dollars a year.”

I know. Crazy. But I was seriously stressed.

Being the first show I ever created, Best if the West, as with all firsts, holds a special place in my heart. But my “all-time favorite job”? As the great “Duke” Wayne himself would say,

“Not hardly.”

Family Man

My most honest comedy, meaning, while remaining comedic, it was my most accurate depiction of actual life. This hardly comes as a surprise. Consequent to my accomplishments on The Cosby Show, the then president of NBC commissioned me to write a sitcom version of my family.

I was intrinsically familiar with the territory. Every story idea on Family Man sprang from an event that happened to me, either as parent, or as a kid.

Our objective was maximum verisimilitude. We used our house as the show house’s “exterior”. We recreated our living room as the living room “set.” Even the “backing” behind the set was a blown-up photograph of what we saw when we looked out our window.

I made Family Man without a live studio audience. No audience meant no bleachers. No bleachers meant more room for more sets. More sets meant more locations, allowing for richer and less sitcomically traditional storytelling possibilities.

Excluding the audience also gave me the freedom to experiment with a wider range of comedic options. For example, we did an extended husband-and-wife “I’m not talking to you” scene entirely without words, scoring it in post-production to an orchestrated tango.

Due to the arrangement of the schedule, and the smaller number of shows ordered, I was also able to write all the episodes myself.

But Family Man only went seven episodes. And the leading man, the guy who played me, though a true, comedic genius, wasn’t anything like me. Plus, once again, there was the torturous pressure of running a show.

Family Man was a lovely and rewardingly innovative experience. And it gave Alison Sweeney her start. But my “all-time favorite job”? ‘Fraid not.

Major Dad

My credit here was actually “Developed By”, but I did, in fact, co-create the series.

Major Dad was my greatest commercial success. It ran for four seasons, and might have run longer, if the Universal executive at the time, whose name was Tom, hadn’t butchered the negotiation for a fifth season pick-up.

I only worked on Major Dad for the first season, after which I returned to my office to create new shows and take naps. As I mentioned elsewhere, in my entire career in television, Major Dad was the only time I worked on a show full time for an entire season. The experience wore me down to kindling. (Are you getting that I wasn’t built to run television shows?)

Major Dad’s star, Gerald McRaney, was a talented and appealing performer. (I once asked him why he thought the show was popular, to which he candidly replied, “They like ‘the guy’.”)

In the beginning, McRaney was game to make Major Dad as funny as we could write it. But as it grew in popularity, he adjusted his priorities, now requiring that his character’s credibility as a Marine to take precedence over the comedy.

This led to conflicts, McRaney complaining we were distorting what “a Marine would actually do” for comedic purposes. (We were. But it’s not like I had a reputation for buffoonery. Harumph!)

The last straw occurred when McRaney personally rewrote a scene without telling anyone – and by “anyone”, I mean me. You don’t do that. And if you do, you lose my participation in your show. Which is what happened.

Major Dad? It got us a swimming pool. But as a work experience? Decent, but no Oorah.

Okay, that’s it. Three shows. All memorable in their way, but out of the running as my “all-time favorite job.”

I guess I’ll just have to keep looking.


growingupartists said...

Looking forward to more favorites, but those top three are pretty stellar as is!

growingupartists said...

P.S. Most men ultimately realize it's the jobs of husband and father they like the best.

Grace said...

Are you talking about bringing in the Gunny, General and moving to Va.? That part was McRaney's idea?
Because I thought it got less funny then but McRaney was always wonderful in that show. I did 'like that guy'. Liked him in anything he's ever done.

TimpWriter said...

Hey Earl, I know that your former "Cannibal Girls" co-star Randall Carpenter is working as a TV announcer in British Columbia. Do you know what "Cannibal Girls" stars Mira Pawluk and Bonnie Nielson are doing for careers nowadays?


Brian said...

Hey, Earl, I heard that McRaney once took a promotion for his character to Colonel over a pay increase for playing the part? Is that true? I always heard he was a bit of an idiot, but that's pretty stupid even for an actor. So I'm gonna guess it's true.