Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"You Gotta Buy The Whole Package"

The biggest mistake I ever made in my career was leaving that sitcomical “Shooting Star” of the eighties, The Cosby Show, after running it for only seven episodes. 

Financially.  Creatively, as I have always identified with Bill Cosby’s humane and observant comedy style and believed – and I still do – that there would never be a more compatible writer for that series than me.  And who-knows-whatilly – meaning, who knows what might have happened had I remained with that monster success, which is unknowable, because I did not remain, so that “what”, as a consequence, did not occur.

I must quickly include this before I drown in the ignominious sludge of my own ingratitude.  I had a stellar career, the most remunerative component – a multi-year deal at Universal being the direct result of my association with The Cosby Show.  (Executives appreciate, and regularly overvalue, pedigree.  Stand-ins” on The Cosby Show enjoyed greater subsequent opportunities, one of them, I recently learned, being  Samuel L. Jackson.  If asked, he would probably attribute his success to his talent.  But I would not entirely rule out his “stand-in” work on a blockbuster sitcom.)     

Since I am, among other less than admirable attributes, a “Serial Lamenter”, I rarely miss a chance to insert this seminal regret into the general conversation.  I do not “push it”, however.  I mean, if the conversation concerns the war in Afghanistan, I do not go, “I imagine, some day, America will regret going into Afghanistan… the same way I now regret leaving The Cosby Show – it is not as blatant as that.  Though “The Missus”, I suspect, may be tired of the mention of it at all.  The moment I begin cranking up my “Inevitable Moan”, I can detect, from her direction, an unspoken but subliminal sigh.

Finally, having endured that sad song one too many times, she inquired, non-judgmentally, like a journalist seeking information for an article:

“In hindsight, knowing what you know now, how would you have behaved differently in that situation?”

I thought about that.  “How would I have behaved differently?”  Avoiding “dead air”, I immediately formulated a response, which was this:

“I’m a good writer.  But it is not in my nature to be the other thing they were asking me to do.”

In other words, it does not matter “what I know now.”  Me being me, I was almost criminally miscast for the role.

The question frequently arises, amongst “non pros” – participants in enterprises other than show business – being sensitive to my abilities and limitations, “Couldn’t you have just stayed a writer?”

The answer to that question is “No.”  The situation requires you move up.  You’re a respected TV scriptwriter?  The natural progression is to create a show of your own, or to take charge of a show created by others. 

Besides, who turns down an opportunity to move up?  I have often said, maybe even out loud, “It is better to be a boss than to have a boss.”  More authority.  Greater independence.  A chance to have your creative vision tested in the marketplace, and, if successful, to get mega-bucksedly remunerated.  

So you do it.  Even if it’s not “you.”

And just how “not me” was it?

A single example.  Not from The Cosby Show, but from the creation of the Best of the West pilot, three years earlier.

I had pitched a comedy western.  A former marshal, returning West after the Civil War, finds his hometown now riddled with desperados and corruption.  ABC approved my proposal, and I set to work developing the script.

Early in the process – I no longer recall the specifics – I recruited a friend and spectacular writer named Michael to collaborate on the project.  I was apparently not sufficiently confident to complete the assignment alone.  That’s the problem, I quickly learned about big-time opportunities – once you get them, you have to actually do them.

So we’re working away, and suddenly, we discover something jarringly disturbing.
There is a debilitating flaw in the original concept.  And that error is preventing us from successfully writing the script. 

I should really have spotted this glitch from the get-go, but I was too busy convincing people I knew what I was doing to actually realize that I didn’t.

It is really quite simple.  The idea of an experienced marshal returning to the West is nowhere nearly as funny as an idealistic Eastern tenderfoot – the proverbial “fish out of water”, if you will – relocating to the West, where comedic happenstance turns this “unqualified innocent” into a marshal.

As they’d say in “Sitcom School”, though there is probably a new word for this by now…


Having realized my miscalculation, the next step was to call the ABC executive in charge of the project, and get him to sign off on my reconfiguration of the concept.  There was little chance he would object.  The call was merely a protocolical formality.  It wasn’t like he would hit the roof and cancel my pet project on the spot. 

Though that’s immediately what I was imagining.  And it froze me in my tracks.

Sensing my trepidation, and being a good friend, Michael asked, “Do you want to call him, or do you want me to call him?”

“You”, I replied, spinelessly.

Michael then called him, and it was fine.

Looking back, I see that as the first – deeply ingrained in my “Memory Bank” – signal that I was the wrong guy for that job.  (Remember “The Peter Principle” – you rise to the level of your incompetence?  I was there.)

It is here that I shall inject an illuminating additional wrinkle.  Though my personal “Character Template” made me screamingly ill-equipped for the position to which I had risen, that exact characteristical configuration made me the unique and original writer that I was.

Do you see where I’m going with this?  The sensibilities that had earned me a promotion to that level simultaneously disqualified me from succeeding at that level. 

Tres ironique, n’est pas?

Oh, well.

It was an interesting journey, don’t you think?


Frank Paradise said...

Funnily enough I see Bill Cosby is returning to NBC with a new family sitcom. I bet you would be a perfect writer for that show though I guess Bill will want young "hip" comedy writers to appeal to the cool 18-25 crowd. I predict dog. Can't wait for your review if it ever gets shown.

Canda said...

Always better to know who you are, and accept it.

You may not be alive today if you had gone against your better judgement.