Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Trolling For A Job"

I could tell that my days at Universal Studios (where I had worked developing new television series for eight plus years) were numbered.  Strangers randomly dropped by, to check out, what they’d apparently been informed, would be soon to be vacated office space.  The handwriting was on the wall.  Not literally.  But if it had been, my lame-duck situation was such that no Universal cleaning crews would be dispatched with hot water and squeegees to wash it off.  I was a man with no future at the studio, and, at least figuratively, ominously scribbled-upon walls.

(There had been a regime change at Universal Television.  My president-patron – whom I would eventually rejoin – had moved on to run Paramount Television, and the current president had botched a Major Dad negotiation with CBS, causing the show to be prematurely cancelled, leaving us less than disposed to a friendly working relationship.  Also, since Major Dad’s success, I had been unable to sell another series, making our mutual disappointment a two-way street.)

Uncharacteristically – I traditionally left career matters to my agent, or just passively allowed things to happen – I determined to initiate a self-generated effort to take charge of my destiny.  (That sounds so bold.  I am retroactively quite proud.)  

Everybody Loves Raymond was a successful sitcom that I greatly admired, and had a natural affinity for.  Raymond was a character-driven family show, whose stories generated from legitimate life experience, rather than “What would be funny for us to do?”  From a “comedy preference” standpoint, Raymond and I were entirely in sync.

With the help of a producer on the show whom I knew, I arranged an invitation to a Friday night filming.  “Who knows?” I semi-rationally conjectured.  Perhaps my display of interest would kindle an opportunity to join them. 

(RED FLAG:  Throughout my career, which to that point spanned almost twenty years, I had written scripts for shows, been in charge of shows and consulted on shows.  I had, by personal choice, never worked on a writing staff.  And yet, here I was, suddenly behaving like I wanted to.  Did somebody out there say “desperate”?)

When I arrive, I am treated like a visiting dignitary, a Marco Polo of Comedy, accorded the utmost cordiality in a far-off land.  I am invited to join the cast and crew at a pre-show dinner, offered a seat of honor opposite Raymond’s creator and Executive Producer, whom I did not know, but who knew me by reputation, and who, though understandably distracted by last-minute production details, exacted every effort to make sure I felt welcome. 

For the filming, I was invited to join the production staff, watching the proceedings from the “floor”, rather than sitting up in the bleachers with the audience.  You do not get to do that, unless you’re…well, it virtually never happens.  It’s like a VIP at a ballgame, permitted to witness the festivities from the dugout.  Which happened to me once in South Bend, where I was a team part owner.  I felt equally special both times.

In reality, I had no idea if Raymond had any staffing needs, especially at my (elevated) level.  I was simply putting myself out there.  And so far, the signals of acceptance were the diametrical opposite of, “Get outta here, kid, you bother me.”   

Then they started the filming.  And things took a turn.

The story that week began with Raymond’s brother Robert’s ex-girlfriend revealing an alarmingly observed pattern:  Every time she had broke up with a boyfriend, they had subsequently turned gay.  She started wondering if she was responsible.  Could there possibly be something unconscious in her nature that inevitably sent previously “straight” men in the opposite direction?

This leads, first, to the suspicion, and eventually, the virtual certainty that Robert is gay.

A workable premise, elevated by the grounded-comedy virtuosity Everyone Loves Raymond was justifiably famous for.  The audience was on board.  Every joke was at least, as Billy Crystal described in Mr. Saturday Night, “a double, off the wall.”  A number were prodigious home runs. 

There was only one problem for me.  The episode was unquestionably funny.  The trouble was, I had been watching Raymond regularly for years, and never for a second…

Did I ever believe, imagine or consider that the “Robert” character might be gay.

There’s a reason for that.  In the series to that point? – Not a single scintilla of gay-revealing evidence.

The current episode, by contrast, was replete with telltale gay “indicators”, the one “dead giveaway” I recall being that, when Robert returned home from work, he immediately switched on Barbra Streisand music (“Hold on a second.  I used to like Barbra.”) 

Isolating that episode, and the evidence therein, Robert could easily have been suspected of being gay.  But from a global series perspective, this “new wrinkle” is an egregious breach of character.  You simply cannot do that. 

Well, actually, you could.  They were doing it right before my eyes. 

I was understandably taken aback.  I could imagine such transgressions in lesser series, but not this one. 

This was definitely not Raymond at it best.

I guess I made a face.  I didn’t mean to.  But quite often my face acts entirely on its own.  And not always in my immediate best interests.  I do not call that integrity.  Nor is it self-sabotage.  It is simply the way it is.  My face does what it does.  And the rest of me’s stuck with the consequences.

Which is this case were these.    

By the filming’s end, Raymond’s creator and Executive Producer had picked up on my less than unqualified enthusiasm for the episode.

“What’s wrong?” he wanted to know.

“Nothing”, I dishonestly replied.

“Did you not like the show?”

“NO!  It was very funny”, I assured him, telling the truth, though not the entire truth.  

“How would you have done it differently?” he inquired, with a detectable combative edge.

Ducking the question, I came back with a smartass response.

“Why?  Are you doing the show again?”

There was no point in debating the issue.  The episode was over and in the can.  And as far as everyone else was concerned, it was a certifiable success.

Our conflicting views concerning a story idea that, to me, should never have been considered, suggested there could be some serious head-butting in any future working relationship.  My independent facial response assured that we would never get to find out.   


Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

Artistic license-wise, he could have been repressed up till now. And as long as the possible red flags, so to speak, were grounded enough and not heaped onto us in this episode... signs that any one of us could be gay, basically... like watching Barbra Streisand, etc., etc., (almost a message that we're not all that different from each other) ... my face would have gone along for the ride, because I think the premise and set-up were worthy enough. But I understand your point, and it depends on the execution. I don't recall the particular episode.

Canda said...

Robert listening to Barbara Streisand after work definitely seems far-fetched. Raymond was a well-written show, but it was never strictly a family show. In the first few seasons the kids were props, who had no personality.

You have to be true to yourself, Earl. Socrates didn't bend his principles...not that you want to end up like him.

Rex Barney Miller said...

Curiosity got the better of me so I capitalized on my Netflix streaming privilege...Season 4, episode 12, What's With Robert?

Gotta say, I had no problem w/the episode. I didn't find it out of character because it was his ex-girlfriend, Amy, who stated that 'she turns them gay.' With that premise, I had no trouble just watching and chuckling - frequently.

I do have an advantage however. I'm not an expert in your field. I can just sit down and watch and enjoy w/out very much concern for anything other than: is it a good story? If it is, I'm likely entertained. You, however, cannot watch TV w/out your professional experience interfering. Just a burden you must endure through every TV show/movie you watch.

Also, I did not hear any reference to Barbra. However, when Robert went to his apartment, alone, he flipped on the radio or tape/cd player and it was Carol Channing singing Hello Dolly. Minor stuff, but since I just saw it. That clears up any repressed intentions any of Barbra fans might have. No, I never had any!

journeyman said...

Yeah, I saw that face you're describing, Earl, the day we were both doing punch-up on a sit-com script about 12 or 13 years ago.

I was young(ish),and respectful -- even worshipful -- of your chops and your reputation, but I left that room at the end of the day feeling uncertain about myself, my talent and even my future. (Yeah, I know, I know -- I just described every comedy writer in town. Whatever...).

Because that whole friggin' day, Earl, whenever I would turn to you to pitch a joke or a piece of business -- privately -- quietly -- in a "Hey, would THIS be funny?" sort of a way -- you were invariably smiling at the build-up, purely out of good will and my own contagious excitement, but when I finally got to the heart of the pitch -- the ostensibly "funny" part? -- that smile just vanished, Earl. Poof! Gone in a cloud of dust.

I mean it collapsed like a goddamned souffle.

Not every time, mind you, but, say, five out of six times. And yeah, after the fifth or sixth slap in the face (for that is what they felt like, Earl) I guess I kinda shut up as I mentally retreated to lick my wounds.

You were simply incapable of concealing your... not disdain, exactly, but something akin to that.

What I saw on your face, eventually, was the weariness with which a professional regards an amateur, and I got the distinct impression that after each one of my pitches didn't land, that I fell a little bit more in your esteem. (I could almost SEE it happening!) I felt that you eventually resented me for wasting your time, so that by the end of the day, if you thought about me at all (I know, I know, you probably didn't) it was mainly to wonder "How did HE get in here?"

Think about Cloris Leachman's remark after the read thru of your second PHYLLIS scipt ("Did he have help?")

Think about how you felt when she said that, Earl.

Because that's exactly how you left me feeling that day.

I know you didn't mean to, Earl. You're not a bad guy. But your contempt for my ideas, and, my extension, by talent (such as it is) was unmistakable.

And I just think you could have concealed it better.

Actually, no, strike that, you very likely couldn't have.

journeyman said...

Okay my earlier post was petulant, Earl. And self-pitying. And more than a little churlish.

Guess I've been carrying my share of bitterness around ever since that "punch up" day 12 years ago.

But despite an obvious... let's just call it a clash of personalities, you were, and remain, an incredible talent, sir. I adore the half-hours you've written, all of which are smart, relatable and very, very funny.

And this blog of yours... particularly your musings on the state of TV in general and comedy writing in particular, is consistently fun and enormously insightful.

Thanks for writing it.