Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"A Couple Of Questions Lying On My Desk"

You ask ‘em, and if I can think of something to say about them that won’t put either me or you or both of us to sleep, I’ll answer ‘em.

First, the easy one, because the answer is clear, if not perhaps reflective of the better parts of my personality. 

Re:  “Why Major Dad Ended So Abruptly….”

I had written about how, following a scheduled but unwise departure before the end of Major Dad’s production (the first year of production had been unexpectedly extended), I had returned to a Major Dad in thespatorial insurrection.  (The show’s lead actor had refused to perform the climactic scene of the episode and had replaced it with an alternate version of his own.  (An egregious “no-no” rivaling in unacceptability my own premature evacuation.  So to speak.)

In response to that blogatarial revelation, regular reader (and thank you for that) Canda wondered,

“Did you consider a meeting with the lead to say you returning would have to be under “your conditions”, i.e. that you were in charge of the scripts?”

The answer is “No”, though the explanation is longer, although not much longer. 

I did not want to go back.

Running a TV series – especially if you want it to be good – is maximally exhausting, stressful, emotionally draining, an organizational nightmare, and nowhere near as creative (and fun) as devising a new show from scratch.  That’s what I really wanted to do.  And was substantially more temperamentally suited to do.

So that’s what I did.

Not that it planned that way.  (I rarely plan anything.)  Upon my return to action, a studio executive had asked (because he needed to know) if I was planning to come back the following season, and I replied not “I’ve got to talk to the lead actor first” but “No!”  Which says a lot – possibly everything – about what I really wanted to do. 

My replacement at “show runner” was more capable than I was, though his standards of excellence were arguably less scrupulous.  (Truth be told, a TV series does better with consistency than with inspiration.)  I had subsequent difficulties with my replacement, but overall, I’m not sure Major Dad would have run for four seasons with me at the helm.  (I would likely have passed away in two.)

Besides, if you can get paid exactly the same amount of money (as, contractually, I was being paid) for running yourself ragged producing an ongoing series or for sitting contentedly in your office thinking of new ideas for television shows with no actors anywhere in the vicinity…

Are you kidding me?
Re:  “Another Of My Occasional Glimpses Behind the Curtain”

Regular reader (and I thank you for that, as well) Johnny Walker weighs in on the issue of the writer’s “voice.”  Paraphrasing, Johnny muses, “Can you write something you do not personally believe?  Can you create a character that does not reflect at least a certain part of ‘you’?  Can you write a character that you fundamentally do not like?”

My answer is, I can’t. 

Expanding on that, it’s not really that I can’t, it’s that I do not believe I can breathe credible and insightful life into such “alien” characters.  I don’t know how to fool people, so how can I accurately deliver a character who can?  Imagine one?  Sure, I could do that.  But it wouldn’t be the same.

Imagine a New Orleans House of Prostitution in the Louis Armstrong era.  (I was considering a football player-down-on-the-field/observer-in-the-stands analogy, but what the heck.)  Think about the difference between being inside the place, enjoying its…availabilities, and standing outside, wondering what it’s like.

Sure, you could fantasize, and those fantasies might be highly entertaining.  But what chance do they have of accurately reflecting the reality that could very well be equally entertaining, with the resonating advantage of also ringing spectacularly true.

Let me add something here, if I may.  Let us “posit”, as the philosophers I would love to be but am not smart enough to be say, two kinds of writers – writers whose personalities are undetectable in their work, and writers like me, whose personalities are on glorious display.  This concept is perhaps easier to think about with actors. 

In the olden days, the quintessential example here would be Sir Alec Guinness.  Alec Guinness was a thespatorial chameleon, his persona disappearing entirely in the characters he played, almost as if there was no actual “him”, no standout characteristics detracting from his delivering the character he was portraying.  (In contrast to, say John Wayne, whose personality was so strong, he could never entirely set it aside.)  (And who’d want him to?) 

Who’s Johnny Depp?  (Versus “Who’s Tom Cruise?”)  Well, in that same dichotomous contrast, there are writers.  Some with dominant, undisguisable personalities, and others whose fictionalized characters are inarguably “not them.”

Different writers, different styles, some who can envision any character because their personalities are more on the recessive side, and others who can’t because their personalities are not.

Once in my earliest twenties I spontaneously blurted,

“Nobody does me better than me.”

A little show-offy, but sewn into to lining of that braggadociousness (if you bothered to search for it after finishing rolling your eyes), was a self-effacing corollary:

“Other people do ‘other people’ better than I can.”

So I decided to stick with my best thing.

“But Earlo,” you might rejoin, “all that stuff I wrote for television.  You had to do ‘other people’ sometimes.”

Of course.  And some of it was okay.  But what characters did I write best?

The characters who were closest to me.

I am not asserting that about everybody.  That is just the kind of writer I am. 

More questions, please.  I am starting to feel it.   


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I guess the obvious question is can you still write characters like yourself when they do things that embarrass or scare you? It's clear from the your writing here that you've often done that yourself. So if you're writing characters who are close to you, do you have the problem of a protective instinct kicking in or are you able to let them crash to the ground if that's what they're going to do?


PG said...

This sort of thing also applies to teaching....many people go into the profession to 'spread the word'...the passion they feel for their particular subject. You might reasonably assume they have spent years indulging in post-secondary and graduate courses, deepening their knowledge and insight...for argument's sake, let's say, in English. They finally land a job for which there is an incredible competition, considering the low pay and aggravation, and they are asked to teach, say, Geography! But, they protest, they do not have an academic background in Geography, although, admittedly, they do know how to look at a map.
"Oh, you can just borrow the notes of the other Geography teachers and stay one step ahead of the students," I (oops! ..I mean 'they' of course) am advised.
Meanwhile, a person with no English undergrad exposure, or even interest, is appointed to teach the subject since, obviously, "Everyone can SPEAK English!"
At my old school, they now have a person with no technology background teaching digital arts, the former photography expert, who is an anorexic vegan with an aversion to all things edible, teaching food science (home ec. we used to call it), and the best math teacher...who tutors University level calculus, standing in the gym with a whistle round her neck, holding a clipboard!
The argument is that if you are a teacher, you should be able to teach ANYTHING!
I guess if you are a comedy writer, you should be able to write funny for all occasions, by this line of thinking.
But we all know that isn't so....I can't imagine someone like Seth MacFarlane writing for MTM or Cosby.
Does anyone in charge GET IT???