Friday, October 25, 2013

"The Calling"

Between 1968 and 1970, I wrote a weekly column for a Toronto newspaper, penning columns on any topic that fluttered into my consciousness.  For the past coming-up-on six years, I have been writing a series of five-days-a-week blog posts on the same subject – whatever comes to my mind. 

It seems like I have come “full circle.”  A quibbling difference being that working on the newspaper, I was paid virtually nothing, and today I get nothing at all.  But that’s really just bookkeeping.  And an unfortunate allocation of rewards.

In between these identical undertakings, I wrote for television, where I was compensated so munificently over the years that when it was determined that I was no longer work-worthy, I had enough stashed away to negotiate the transition. 

I then – after a few years of brooding – returned, via the Internet, to my original activity – writing anything I wanted.

Which, as today’s post will argue, is my true and actual “Calling.”

I don’t know if you do this, but sometimes I look at people I know, and it occurs to me that they are in the wrong line of work.  They may not have missed by a lot.  If, for example, career tracks were laid out in a bowling alley, they could have chosen (or fallen into) “Lane Seven”, when, it seems to me, they’d have bowled substantially more successfully in “Lane Five.”  (That’s not a precise comparison, but it is my first “bowling alley” analogy, and, if I say so myself, it is not entirely off the mark.)

Considering one person of my acquaintance, with their encyclopedic knowledge of the entertainment industry, they might well have found more satisfaction, money and acclaim as a chronicler than they did as a participant in the entertainment industry itself.  (Although you would have to ask them if they’d have been comfortable the trade-off.) 

The distinction is minor – we are not talking “mine worker” versus “opera singer” – but I believe it’s significant.  The outcome, this thesis suggests, may have been more rewarding had they adhered to a m├ętier more suitable to their natural proclivities.

I am thinking about this, because once in a while, while reading Ken Levine’s insightful blog about show business, I will find Ken waxing nostalgically about the foxhole camaraderie of the situation comedy “Rewrite Room.” 

When I read that, two thoughts come to mind: One, Ken was exactly in the right place for him.  And two,

I wasn’t.

It is not that I was entirely miscast for the role; this is more of a “Lane Seven” – “Lane Six” situation.  I was actually pretty close.  For which I am eminently grateful to whoever it was who provided me the opportunity.  (I am thinking here about God or some agnostic counterpart rather than Ed. Weinberger who gave me my first sitcom writing job.)

I did all right in television.  But while I was there, I experienced the gnawing anxiety that I was not exactly in the right place.

You know how Lou Grant hated spunk? 

I am not a big fan of camaraderie. 

(That was one of my bigger problems with camp.  I would have greatly preferred my own cabin.)

It is not human contact, per se, that I am discomfited by.  I am not Howie Mandel.  The real problem is working together as a team.

You’re in a room, your stated goal – to rewrite the script in a positive direction, and you are required to complete that task – be it easy or excruciatingly difficult – in that single evening (often extending well into the following A.M.), and you cannot go home until you do.

If I wrote that description correctly, you will now be feeling the same “butterflies” that I am currently experiencing myself.  They’re retroactive.  But they’re “butterflies.”

“Rewrite Night”, by its nature, is a collective undertaking.  Writers – sometimes up to a dozen of them – sit around a table, pitching “story fixes”, clarifications, cuts for time and funnier jokes.  The show runner is “The Decider” in this situation.  Though hopefully there’s a consensus, they have the last word on what makes it into the script.

But what if you don’t agree? 

You’re panning for gold.  You slosh away the sand and the sediment, and suddenly, there’s this sparkling nugget gleaming up from the effluvium.  You say to the prospector next to you, “Is this gold?” They say, “It sure is!”  Sometimes adding the words, “By crackie!” for emphasis.  (After which they knock you down and start panning where you were panning.)

Setting aside “Iron Pyrites” (known on The Lone Ranger and elsewhere as “Fool’s Gold”), gold is gold.  Precious metal ascertainment is not a matter of opinion.  There’s a standard concerning its assessment, triggering universal agreement.  There is no,

“I struck it rich!

“No you didn’t.”

about it.  Either you struck it, or you didn’t.

Not so with comedy. 

Comedy, like ice cream, comes in various flavors.  Some, like the “Big Three” – chocolate, vanilla and strawberry – are considerably more popular.  As with the most popular ice cream flavors, a “Big Three” comedy pitch – a gratuitous sex joke, a joke at another character’s expense, a joke that, although funny, undercuts character or the integrity of the story – would invariably garner a big laugh in the “Rewrite Room”, guaranteeing its inclusion in the script. 

But what if your comedy is of the “Maple Walnut” variety?  Still an ice cream flavor – nobody’s pitching “bark” here, which is a tree covering, not an ice cream flavor – but it is barely in the “Top Ten.” 

What if you are blessed with a distinctly “Maple Walnut”-like mentality?  You think in an indisputably “Maple Walnutty” kind of way.  They “get” you, but they don’t exactly love you.  More importantly, you get them, but you are not at all convinced that “popular” equals “good.”

There is a disagreement about the pitch.  Suddenly, it’s not “camaraderie” anymore.  It’s “Maple Walnut” against the world!

If you take the thing personally.  Which, perhaps, I may have in those cases, a little too much.

The mature understanding is that the “Rewrite Room”, if judiciously assembled, includes numerous flavors, each making its own unique and valuable contribution.  A “fruit salad” of ice cream flavors, if you will allow me to mix naturally grown produce with something confected in a dairy.

Looking back, it appeared like I was expending enormous amounts of energy trying to convince others that “Maple Walnut” was, in reality, the “One True Flavor.”  (While subduing inner doubts that “Maple Walnut” belonged in the “Rewrite Room” at all.)  Fearing all the time they might agree with what I was concerned with in the foregoing parentheses and summarily dismiss me from the business.  (Which, though advancing years played a part in the process, they eventually did.)

In school, I was never graded highly on “Plays Well With Others.”  My real “Calling” is writing alone, where the “Final Word” is my own, and myself and the arbiter are rarely in dispute. 

It’s not a question that it’s easier.  It’s what I was actually meant to do.

When I made a big pest of myself on “Rewrite Night”?  It was not the other writers I was upset with.  I was upset about missing my “Calling.”

If only by one lane.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

It strikes me that you would have been much happier - though far less wealthy - in the British system, where a single writer or writing partnership writes all the episodes in a series before production starts. Much shorter seasons, of course, but much more individual in terms of voice and sensibility. (Today's US cable channel shows are somewhat similar.)

Canda said...

Very good post, Earl.

Yes, I believe Wendy Grossman is right. Perhaps you would have been happier going from Toronto to London, and writing TV there, where you would have all the time in the world to write a season of 6 shows. Fawlty Towers has only 12 episodes, but they're distinct and unique.

Rewrite rooms, much like comedy clubs, sometimes thrive on fast, loud and dirty.

Ken Levine said...

I like when you pitched Maple Walnut. It'a that Toffee Swirl you sometime pitch that is too sweet.