Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Another Office Story"

The following, in fact, chronicles a collection of offices, as will shortly be revealed.

In 1984, I accepted the job as the first Executive Producer of The Cosby Show, which would be produced in New York.  Regular readers are aware that I am no fan of show-running, and am, at least equally if not more so, no fan of living in New York.  However, a viewing of the fourteen-minute presentation which served as The Cosby Show’s pilot had so enthralled me, that I temporarily lost my mind and enthusiastically told them, ‘I’m in!”

I was billeted in Manhattan at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, corner of 47th Street and Second Avenue, a diagonal block-and-half from the United Nations.  (The apartment complex named after the former U.N. Secretary-General.) 

My lodgings were more than adequate.  Two bedrooms, three bathrooms.  (Upon my late-night arrival, I found my refrigerator fully stocked.  The three bathrooms? – No toilet paper.)

Our “show office” would be a forty-five minute drive away, in Brooklyn, where The Cosby Show would be produced.  The office, such as it was, was located two blocks from the soundstage.  I say “such as it was” because what it was was a converted three-bedroom unit in a standard Brooklyn apartment building.  We were like tenants in a domestic housing facility.  You pushed a button in the lobby, and they “buzzed” you in.

A tiny elevator took us up to our offices.  Each writer occupied what, in the unit’s previous incarnation, had been a bedroom; as Executive Producer, I was dutifully accorded the Master Bedroom.  The office staffs’ desks were set up in the “hall.”  Also, the floors were apparently uneven, so every time I stepped out of my office, I tripped.

Reflective of the property’s Jewish clientele, on Friday afternoons, you could detect the distinctly Shabbatical reminders of chicken soup, tzimis (a carrot and prune side-dish) and kugel.  Elderly ladies, whose slips slipped lower than their colorful housecoats, would invariably get on, smiling knowingly of our purpose and tax bracket, and coyly asking if I would care to meet their attractive, young granddaugher.  Or their “genius” comedy-writing nephew.

On such occasions, I needed to constantly remind myself that I was actually working in big-time show business.

(Note:  As an explanation for this less than luxurious arrangement, The Cosby Show’s bankrollers, Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey were, at the time careful, penny-pinching producers, not the billionaires they would ultimately become.)

Since nobody wanted to trek all the way to Brooklyn on the weekends, or during “hiatus” periods when we were out of production, our employers would arrange for us to work in temporary offices in mid-town Manhattan.  We were a gypsy writing staff, roaming from building to building, rarely inhabiting the same office venue twice.

One weekend, we were taken up to our transient workplace in a massive (compared to its Brooklyn counterpart) freight elevator, by an operator who said he would return to collect us when we were finished. 

“Just press the button, and I’ll be right up.”

We took care of our business, and around seven in the evening, ready to depart, we assembled outside the freight elevator, and pushed the button.  From the distance, we could hear the insistent “BZZZZZZ” of, what we imagined, was a ground-level buzzer. 

We waited.

The guy didn’t show up. 

We re-pressed the button, and again heard the buzz.  (So it was not like it was broken.)

We waited.

The elevator operator still failed to appear. 

A third press of the button yielded similar results.  This was not good.  We were pretty much trapped in the building.  Possibly for the entire weekend.

The floor had an “Emergency Exit”, but if you opened the door, an alarm went off and the Fire Department arrived.  So that option was out.  I do not think the NYFD would take kindly to having braved the traffic-clogged streets of Manhattan to discover, not a fire, but a hapless team of abandoned comedy writers.

I had theater tickets for that night; it did not appear I’d be using them, stranded, as we were, on the upper floor of a building a man had promised to collect us from but had not, because he’d forgotten, or was napping, or – hopefully – had died.  (What, me vindictive?)

My imagination ran rampant.  I saw very clearly the floor’s regular inhabitants returning Monday morning, to discover skeletons standing by the elevator, one of them with their forefinger pressing urgently against the button.  We were definitely doomed.  (As doomed can be.)

The elevator guy finally arrived, and I raced to the theater, barely making the curtain.  An adventure with no consequences, but one I would nonetheless happily have missed.  You know, if you’re a true claustrophobic, you don’t need to be enclosed in a tight space to get frantic?  It could simply by a building you are unable to get out of.

Another temporary work spot was the historical Brill Building, the erstwhile office address of songwriting greats the likes of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Leiber and Stoller and Gerry Goffin and Carole King.  (The Brill Building now houses, in part, Lorne Michaels’ editing empire, Broadway Video.)

I was working on a Saturday.  Alone this time, having a script to complete in two days.  (Normally, it took me a week to ten days.)  The air conditioning was blasting – I was typing in my windbreaker – and, it being Saturday, there were no maintenance people to call to help me out.  As I froze inside, outside, the temperature was nudging towards a hundred. 

I had to do something.  My teeth were chattering, and I was turning into an icicle.  I got up, walked over to this enormous window, and with all my strength, I managed to raise it just a crack, to allow the outside air to mix palliatively with the Antarctica that was my workplace.

Unfortunately, I had inadvertently created a “weather system.”  When the blast furnace breezes from outside met the indoor meat locker chill – and I swear this is true – it actually started raining in my office.  Swear to God!  As I sat at the typewriter, heavy drops were landing on my head.

How did I respond?  I laughed.  I was re-energized.  And I wrote.

I left The Cosby Show after the seventh episode.  I did not leave early; it was the end of my original contract.  But I chose not to renew it, and I went home.  I had burnt myself out, a combination of (mostly self-imposed) stress and overwork. 

Not making excuses, but rather completing the picture, it must be truthfully acknowledged that the working conditions on The Cosby Show were hardly ideal. 

Beginning with the offices.

Still, to this day, almost thirty years later,

I wish I had stayed.

A special shout-out to the Ohio-born member of our family, whose birthday just coincidentally coincides with the day that will live in infamy in our history.  Not your fault.  If they known what a cool guy you were, I'm sure they would have postponed their attack till the 8th. 

Thanks for your company, Big Guy.  You are a pleasure to have around.  And I think my daughter is fond of you as well.

Happy birthday.  And enjoy.

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