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.