I regularly read Ken Levine’s spectacular blog, bykenlevine.com, which is about a variety of things, but primarily it’s about sitcom writing. I recall a posting he wrote – he writes numerous postings on this subject – wherein Ken educates his readers on the thought processes behind the decisions he and his partner David Isaacs make when they’re putting together a script.
“To get out the exposition in the most interesting way, we did so-and-so. We set up the problem like this, introduced the complication like that, we inserted the office scene to service the this and establish the that, we raised the stakes with an obstacle such as this, and we imagined the funniest possible payoff for the story, which we determined was that.”
It was truly masterful. A virtual sitcom-writing textbook in a single posting. Aspiring writers could stick it on the wall over their computers, follow the template, and before they knew it, they’d be buying a big house. Well, maybe not, but they would definitely be on the right track.
“I got the blah, and then the thing, and then the obstacle and then the payoff. ‘Fade Out.’ ‘The End.’ Ship it!”
What amazes me is not that Ken Levine knows how to write the heck out of a sitcom script. I worked with him. I knew that already. What amazes me is that he remembers all that. Not the story structure. After years of doing it, that’s ingrained in your Brain Place. What Ken remembers that amazes me are the specifics.
I, on the other hand, whose career extended roughly as long as Ken Levine’s, recall almost nothing of the experience. Peaks and valleys. But a detailed breakdown of an entire script? I won’t know. Don’t ask me.
I know I did it. I have the dusty scripts in the garage to prove it. But for the life of me, I do not remember how.
Ask me what I remember most about my three years writing scripts – twenty-four in all – for the Mary Tyler Moore Company, and I will immediately respond,
“Eating lunch on the Gunsmoke street.”
There was a standing exterior set on the Studio City lot, where they filmed all the Dodge City gunfights, as well as those scenes with Doc and Festus yammering away as they headed down to the Long Branch for a drink.
Every chance I got, I would pick up a sandwich at the studio commissary, trek over to the “Western Street”, plunk myself down on the boarded sidewalk, eat lunch, and luxuriate in my surroundings.
I know I attended meetings where we “beat out” the stories, that means we mapped out in painstaking detail the two acts and the, usually, three scenes within those acts, down to the smallest story moment, before I was sent off to write the script. But quiz me on the specifics, and you’ll be met with a blank, lost and helpless stare.
What remains in my mind are the cowboy lunches.
Moving on to Paramount Studios, where I created Best of the West, my first thought in the Remembrance Department is that my parking space was in a lake.
Not when the lake was filled with water. But my designated space in the Paramount Studios parking lot was in a numbered spot in a humungous water tank, which, when filled for production purposes, served as a lake. And sometimes, for the filming, for example, of The Winds of War, an ocean.
This is my strongest recollection of my tour of duty at Paramount Studios. Parking in in a water place. And being relocated, whenever the water showed up.
Universal? Where I created Family Man and developed Major Dad?
After lunch in the commissary, my friend Paul, who also worked at Universal, and I would take walks, tracing the route of the world famous Universal Tour, where we would invariably stop by the “Flash Flood” exhibit, where the big tree fell down on cue, and wave cheerfully at the tourists on the passing trams, assuring them we were okay, and undamaged by the raging torrents.
Eight and a half years at Universal. And that’s what I remember.
It’s like I was sleepwalking through my entire career.
As a result of my surprisingly spotty recall concerning close to thirty years (thirty-five if you count Canada and is there any reason I shouldn’t?) in which I was working in television, I have begun to suspect there’s a malady attached to this remarkable and unfortunate – if you happen to find yourself writing a blog – memory loss.
Meaning no disrespect to people suffering from the actual affliction, I believe I am suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. It must be. It’s the only way I can explain the cavernous lapses in my recall ability.
The following description does not seem unduly hyperbolic. There I am, cowering in the trenches, scared out of my wits at the enormity of the undertaking and the omnipresent fear of career extinction, the unceasing emotional battering resulting in my only being able to remember assorted scattered incidents, illuminated by the “rockets red glare” and the “bombs bursting in air.”
Normally, I remember things. I just wrote about my Junior High School teacher from fifty years ago. I remembered Miss Lloyd! Why can’t I remember my months of creativity and planning assembling Major Dad and Best of the West?
Why? Because I was out of my mind!
That’s the only reason I can think of.
Do I equate my experience with a soldier in combat? Don’t think for a second that I do. But there are similarities. The enormous gaps in my recall. And my reluctance to dwell too long on what happened.
Bruce Jay Friedman wrote a book where his protagonist toils in the Public Relations Division of the Police Department. For his services, the character receives, not the real thing, but a mini badgette.
I think I have the badgette version of PTSD.
Call it Post Traumatic Television Syndrome.
It was fun. But boy, was it scary.