Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Were You Any Good?"

There’s a saying in baseball – and it could easily apply to all sports, and many other endeavors as well. The saying goes like this:

“The older I get, the better I was.”

As a natural contrarian, my perspective seems headed in the other direction:

“The older I get, the more how good I was needs to be qualified.”

Which is not as catchy, nor nearly as warming to the spirit.

Let me be clear here. This is no exercise in revisionist humility. I know what I did, and I’m aware of how it was viewed. I remember how, when I was writing for Taxi, a highly regarded show in its day and perhaps even more highly regarded today, there were writers at my studio doing Laverne and Shirley – a substantially bigger hit – who looked upon the Taxi writers with admiration bordering on awe.

Taxi writers were universally respected. In contrast to the Laverne and Shirley writers, who, as the studio scuttlebutt had it, regularly saw their scripts thrown against the wall by – I don’t want to unfairly malign a star here – either “Laverne” or “Shirley”, the actors refusing to perform what they ungenerously categorized as “this crap!”

That never happened on Taxi. Even Andy Kaufman, who I only later learned from his biographical movie, was unhappy with his sitcom internment, treated us with deference and respect. (Though he may have sublimated his hostility by going overboard with chocolate. Being assigned to the same table at a dinner party, I once watched Kaufman gorge himself on a giant slab of chocolate cake, two scoops of chocolate ice cream, all slathered in massive swirls of thick, chocolate sauce. Perhaps if he’d been more forthcoming about his writing concerns, he could have avoided the chocolate overkill. I mean, that can’t be good for you, can it?)

There were times back then I must have thought I was really something. And the evaluation wasn’t entirely illusory. When I broke in, writing scripts for the Mary Tyler Moore Company, then perched at the pinnacle of the sitcom hierarchy, the revered MTM show runners seemed genuinely grateful to have me around.

Later, after screening the presentation that would blossom into The Cosby Show, the show’s owner asked me, “What would you like to do on the show?” I said, “Run it”, and he said, “Great!” And he gave me the job.

Later still, when I was consulting one day a week on the HBO classic, The Larry Sanders Show, the show’s star, Garry Shandling, asked if I’d be willing to work a second day, and I said, “Sure.” I could sense he was happy about it. Or as happy as Garry Shandling can get.

I know view these as deliriously heady times. I was genuinely “in demand.”

And then… I mean, I had a considerable run, but there was definitely an “and then…”

I wasn’t.

How did that happen? Can a person, generally acknowledged to be good, be reassessed and reclassified as not good? Can the “good” you once were unexpectedly disappear? Are you a gas tank with only so much “good” in you, and you eventually run out? Are you a once fully stocked refrigerator, now holding only an ancient carton of baking soda?

And other equally evocative metaphors?

It’s different in sports. In sports, there was a time a player hitting eight home runs a year was considered a prodigious slugger. Then Babe Ruth came along, slammed sixty, and hitting eight was a joke. Then the “steroids era” came along, and sixty wasn’t that great.

But that’s about something else. In baseball, as in all sports, records are continually surpassed. There may be extenuating circumstances – there always are – but as time goes on, the athletes do, in fact, get better.

With writing, it’s not about “better.” It’s about different.

Changes in style – the once dominant “family show” giving way to the “family of the workplace.”

Changes in morality – a liberalized culture bringing with it, though always lagging behind, an expansion of you can say and do on television.

Technology changes. The less expensive digital format has led to the single-camera series' outnumbering the previously dominant multi-camera shows, altering the method of laying out a story, and inspiring a less joke-driven writing sensibility.

It is arguable that there’s been a change in the way the audience’s mind work – or at least the mind of the younger audience, most coveted by advertisers – evolving from a preference for linear storytelling into a more impulse-driven, scattershot approach – think Family Guy – reminiscent of a video game.

Change is good. In half-hours, it refreshed a virtually played-out model, renewing the possibilities for comedic surprise.

Venturing beyond longstanding boundaries, an expanded comedic landscape allows what might once have been considered not funny, or simply weird, a chance to test its merits in the marketplace.

Change opens the door for new writers.

But it closes the door for old ones.

You can check out my credits. I was good.

But with a necessary qualifier:

I was good for my time.


PG said...

You were good for ALL time.
You have to accept the fact that TV comedy has definitely deteriorated with a very few exceptions which still cling to the old qualities like character and relationships.
You found the funny in the real, which is forever. Stuff like 'Family Guy' finds the humor in 'sophmoronic' shock value, which only works once. People grow out of that stuff, while the other kind of comedy stands up for always.
Besides, it's probably cheaper to produce, always a big factor these days. Who wants to pay upstart stars a million bucks an episode if they can just draw the characters?
My students loved watching reruns of 'Golden Girls' which goes against all this theory about what kids like. What could be farther from their 'demographic'? But they thought it was hysterical.
They uncover old sitcoms with delight like archeologists on a dig.
I bet a lot more of this has to do with money than tastes. And, of course, dumbing down.
If it gives you any comfort (which, it won't) nothing is as good as it used to be.
When you say things like this, you know you are getting old. A crime in America, but not necessarily back in your old country.

Onpoint said...

Earl, Taxi was certainly "of the workplace," and so was Larry Sanders. While styles evolve, I suspect you would adapt to current writing needs pretty easily. Are there shows on now for which you'd feel at home writing? Any shows, apart from Family Guy, whose style you don't think you could match? Age is the issue, which stinks.

Gary said...

As PG intimated, Good is good, regardless of the times. Good stories, good characters and very good writing will always be in demand. That's why we anticipate the next Sorkin show, the next David Kelley production - that and the irrational hope that Michelle will do a guest shot. Quality. I haven't been reading your blog very long, but I assumed you are retired by choice. And maybe you are. After today's topic, I'm not as sure. Is this more of a loss of confidence than a glut of humility? Or just another topic?

growingupartist said...

The neat thing about you Earl, is that even though your not *in* the field, your opinions on the industry are as current as those acting within the field.

I think people just like who their friends are a little too much in Hollywood, and are quicker to backstab than a lifelong friendship can digest.

Brian said...

I've always liked what Billy Wilder said to some moron executive who was disparaging an older writer in a meeting once by saying something about the writer not being good because he hadn't done anything lately. Wilder supposedly shut the executive up by saying, "A writer is as good as the best thing he's ever done". I believe that, and I believe that you ARE a damn good writer, Earl, because you have MANY examples of "the best thing you've ever done". Any writer currently working would kill to have your credits... and few writers working today will ever have amassed so many good, classic credits by the time their careers wind down. My hat is off to you, Earl... okay, it's only 7:08 AM so technically I'm not wearing a hat yet today, so... my pants are off to you, Earl.