Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Different Ways To Go"

“Any old ‘Newhart’ tales you might share?” inquired commenter Guy on February 11th.

I fear, overall, that I generally disappoint my readership with the paucity of “war stories.” Were my blog to be rated on a scale of “one-to-ten” in the category of “Battlefield Memories”, I would be lucky to achieve a “3.”

There’s a reason I provide so few colorful reminiscences from my thirty-year television writing career, thirty-five if you count Canada. I’m just not entirely certain what it is.

I once speculated that one possible explanation for why I recall so little of what I experience is because of a show business version of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, with immediately apologies to those who suffer from the real version, which is exponentially more serious.

A second explanation – Read: excuse – for my paucity of recollections about working on shows is that for a substantial chunk of my career, though I was steadily employed and handsomely remunerated, I didn’t work on any shows.

Instead, due to some earlier success, I was offered “Development Deals”, where my job involved sitting in an office and “developing” ideas for new television series. If these ideas were shot down, during the two “pitching seasons” of the year – “Fall” and “Midseason” – I was then pretty much on my own. To nap. To experiment with other forms of writing – screenplays, personal essays (some of which subsequently morphed into blog posts.) To watch every second of the O.J. Simpson trial that went on for months. Such solitary, sedentary and often horizontal and unconscious activities do not evoke scintillating recollections.

Explanation Number Three: In a large number of the series I’m identified with – Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Cheers – I wrote scripts, while never being on those shows’ writing staffs. Ipso facto, for those of you scoring at home in Latin, combining my solitary scriptwriting time with my “Development Deal” activities, we’re looking at a man who spent eighty or more per cent of his career,

Working alone.

Providing less than a breeding ground for “Front Line Memories.”

Now, so that Guy does not go home empty-handed…

Newhart, comedian Bob Newhart’s second hit series in a row, involved Bob’s character, Dick Loudon, and his wife, buying and running, with no prior experience, a country inn in rural Vermont. I knew Newhart’s creator Barry Kemp from when we both worked on Taxi. I recently wrote, in a comment response, about helping Barry with suggestions for his pilot script. When Newhart sold, Barry invited me to write an episode.

Barry Kemp also provided me with my first full-time job as a consulting “Story Editor.” Every Monday, that week’s script would be messengered to my house. I would study the script, and then offer suggestions, as I had on the pilot. The job offered two great satisfactions. I enjoyed evaluating scripts, and proposing ideas I believed would improve them. Additionally, I could perform this enjoyable duty without “going in.” No driving. Yay!

When you’re pitching a story idea, however, you have to go in. I can happily report that, on this occasion, there were no car accidents, and no getting lost. As to the competency of my driving, you would have to ask the other drivers on the road. I do not, however, remember much honking.

We live in a Craftsman Bungalow, which Dr. M (and her friend Ruth) had rescued from demolition by getting it declared a Santa Monica historic landmark. (Then later, we bought the house.)

Drawing from my life as I consistently do, my Newhart proposal was a story in which Dick submits his inn for consideration as an historic landmark. The upgrade in the inn’s status would be good for business, and, though Dick refuses to admit it, it would also make him extremely proud.

The story would include the overtly calm but actually excruciatingly nerve-wracking preparations, leading up to the inevitable inspection by the outwardly polite but scrupulously picky Landmark Committee. Finally, there would be the decision.

In the story – in contrast to my own experience – Dick’s inn is deemed charming, but not worthy of landmark designation. Dick then has to deal with the reality of being the owner of a charming but ultimately landmark-unworthy country inn.

In the end, after wandering off to some nearby hill to do some thinking – a spot the locals have appropriately dubbed “Thinking Hill” – Dick’s “Aha!” Moment involves the transforming insight:

“So what?”

Dick loved the inn before, and there’s no reason to now love it any less, just because some know-nothings rejected it as a landmark.

So that was my story. I really liked it. It felt real. I saw the potential for comedy. And I believed the “So what?” resolution had freshness and a reverberating significance. Barry Kemp liked the idea too.

Also in the room when I was pitching my story was Bob Newhart’s close friend, comedian Dick Martin, who is most famous as half of the comedy duo that fronted the once extremely popular variety show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

Martin, who directed episodes on both of Bob Newhart’s series, was asked what he thought of the story I had just pitched as an episode for Newhart.

“Great drama”, he replied.

Ouch. What Martin, a veteran performer in the comedically broader venues of Las Vegas and nightclubs, was saying, was that my “landmark” story was not an inherently funny idea.

To this day, Martin’s observation continues to rankle. Primarily, of course, because it was true. I guess what I do is “tell stories funny”, rather than “tell funny stories.”

I guess that’s okay.

Although I kind of wish I could do both.

Do you see why I never liked going in?


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; you may not think it's a war story, but to those of us who have never worked in show business they are. At least they're dramatic. Your stories about the folks you have met professionally and privately are fascinating, particularly because you show their ordinary humanness.


KBTime said...

I agree- I enjoyed this blog post! I went back and found it because I just watched the other episode of "Newhart" for which you are credited, "The Visitors." What was the genesis of that story? I love that episode!