Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Clearing Off My Desk"

Sitting on my desk are two printed-out comments whose queries and observations I am addressing today.  Why didn’t I address them when they originally came in?  A fair question.  But keep in mind that, until recently, I was barely addressing comments at all.

In my defense, to quote a line from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (although perhaps not entirely accurately):

“When an elephant flies, you don’t complain because it didn’t stay up that long.”

Okay, so anyway.  Here we go.

pumpkinhead has contributed three questions.  I will respond to them in backwards order.  Because it somehow feels right.

“Question One” refers to “Rewrite Night” concerns about the legitimacy of a “story point” that would never arise if, for example, a character simply revealed some information about which they have chosen to remain silent.  Such as forgetting an anniversary, or overhearing, or possibly mis-overhearing a particular conversation or misconstruing an overseen event, or maybe mistaking somebody for (the assumed to be long deceased) Hitler.  (Or, less upsettingly, Xavier Cougat.)

The flip answer to pumpkinhead’s question is, “It depends what time it is.”  A rewrite room is considerably more amenable to “logic and credibility” questions earlier in the evening.  After midnight, you are likely to get looks.

A slightly more serious answer is that pumpkinhead’s question highlights the distinction between the more aspiringly realistic series and the ones whose M.O. is comparatively broader and more cartoony. 

“Credibility” questions would arise all the time on Taxi (I had one about how could Elaine Nardo reasonably drive a cab, work in an art gallery and raise two children at the same time, which led to the produced episode “Elaine Loses Her Marbles”), while queries of a similar nature might regularly be ignored on Laverne and Shirley, where the divergence from rigorous reality might even be appreciated and comedically exploited. 

The answer therefore is:  It depends on the show.

“Question Two” relates to a professional writer’s offering “a comedy response to something someone says instead of a real life response.” 

Speaking personally – and embarrassingly – there have been numerous occasions when I had to use all my self-restraint muscles to keep me from delivering a “jokey” response to a legitimate question.  Most recently, I was at eating alone at a restaurant counter next to a woman from Chattanooga Tennessee when a conversation began to spring up. 

When I told her I was orginally from Canada and she asked me “Which part?”, it took everything in my power not to reply, “All of me.”   In fact – God forgive me – the words actually slipped out.  But, entirely ashamed, I immediately “covered” with “Toronto” and my dining companion, a gracious Southerner, did me the everlasting honor of pretending that she hadn’t heard.

Pumpkinhead’s third question involves the long-running British sitcom series Red Dwarf.  To which I reply thusly:

Around 1992, when I had a Development Deal at Universal Studios, I shared an office suite for a time with Linwood Boomer, who would later attain fame and fortune creating Malcolm In The Middle.

Our jobs were the same – to come up with ideas for new television series.  Or, in the case I am about to discuss, to develop series from elsewhere for American consumption.  At one point, Linwood’s assignment was to produce an American incarnation of Red Dwarf.

Somewhat like Star Trek, but different, Red Dwarf (created originally by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor) was a futuristic comedy involving the inhabitants of an intergalactic mining spaceship engaged in a never-ending quest to return home to earth.

At some point after the pilot script was written, Linwood asked me if I would be willing to consult on its production, and, after reading his script and enjoying it, and then screening some produced British episodes of Red Dwarf and enjoying them as well (for the originality of their comedic tone and unlikely setting), I enthusiastically agreed to pitch in.

During the week that the pilot would be produced, the studio flew in the creators of the show to oversee the proceedings.  Although it made sense “on paper” to have the original participants involved, this was not a wonderful or fun or helpful or ultimately productive idea. 

Imagine obsessively over-protective parents hiring a babysitter to take care of their children, and then hovering oppressively over that babysitter to make certain they behave exactly as the parents would behave if they had decided not to hire a babysitter and stayed home.

A victim to conflicting sensibilities, the pilot was an ignominious failure, and Red Dwarf USA would never see the light of day.

What stays with me most strongly about that experience occurred when Linwood and I were at lunch during the pilot’s arduous “Casting Period”, a time during which, this being “Pilot Season”, frantic efforts are conducted to compete for the best available talent, and finalize the deals.

Linwood believed the ideal choice for the “Lead Player” on Red Dwarf was an actor named Craig Bierko, and a ferocious battle was waged to secure his services for the show.  After much anxiety and turbulence, the battle was finally won.

At the time, Kerry McCluggage was the President of Universal Television, and, speak of the Devil, who should walk into the restaurant we were eating in than the very same Mr. McCluggage himself.

Unable to contain his excitement, Linwood Boomer exploded in – what else – a booming voice, and to the confusion of a packed restaurant exclaimed,

“Hey, Kerry!  We got Bierko!

This, to me, became a seminal experience.  The announcement of this “casting coup” was meant to imply that, from now on, everything was “clear sailing.”  When, as it ultimately turned out, it most definitely was not. 

I retain that recollection to remind myself that, although it may momentarily appear so, nothing is certain in show business – or in life as a whole for that matter.  And whenever I begin to think otherwise, those three telling words come rushing back to my mind:

“We got Bierko.”

I have another commenter to respond to but I need to leave it at that for today because I have an appointment to go do my taxes. 

When you are no longer receiving a paycheck, going to do your taxes is like a bald person going to a barbershop.

There is little to do but reminisce.

I shall respond to the second commenter tomorrow.

And b the way, pumpkinhead, wow about the robotic surgery.  That was so incredibly cool to hear about.  


Alan said...

wait! what?? Robotic Surgery????
Talk about your throwaway!!!

Mike said...

Happy St George's Day, people!
You can slay dragons until midnight (local time), then it reverts to a criminal offence.

pumpkinhead said...

Alan, I forget exactly what I told Earl about the robotic surgery, but I'm assuming I told him that, when my wife was offered the opportunity for robotic or non-robotic surgery for a major operation, I recalled his positive experience with robotic heart surgery a few years earlier, and we drew on that as part of the decision to go with robotic, which turned out well for her.

And thanks for answering my questions again Earl.

Johnny Walker said...

I have another side to this story, Earl! I had the pleasure of enjoying a beer with one of my idols, and co-creator of Red Dwarf, ROB GRANT.

Among Red Dwarf fans the US pilot is largely treated with derision. Indeed the evening I talked with Grant, the interviewer (an American) felt it necessary publically apologize for it on behalf of her country. (Don't feel too bad, the story gets better!)

Afterwards I told Grant that I'd actually enjoyed the US pilot, and thought it was rather good.

His enthusiastic response was: "SO DID I!" but he didn't want to make the interviewer feel bad, so he kept his mouth shut.

He then began to tell me the story of what happened from his point of view.

According to him, they had indeed gone over to help with the production of the pilot, and yes, he and Doug Naylor had clearly stuck their oars in.

As I recall, he said they felt the pilot, as it had been written, had missed many of the things that made the original great, and they suggested changes (possibly actually re-writing the script, I can't remember the exact details).

From Grant's point-of-view, these "improvements" were fought for and eventually accepted by the creative team and cast.

Feeling they'd successfully convinced you guys on the merits of these changes they boarded a plane back to the UK, only to discover that their changes had been tossed out the moment they'd left the country. (One caveat: This was conversation happened 10 years ago, my memory may not be perfect, and he may have been skimping on the details himself.)

And so you were left with Linwood Boomer's version -- which wasn't picked up.

As I say, I don't know if that's exactly a fair assessment of what happened, and he clearly did think there was plenty of good things about the US pilot.

He talked very enthusiastically about the Hollywood process, and working with you guys, saying how exciting it had been. They thought it was so great they had even started looking at property in LA (I think the studio execs were telling them how much of a "sure thing" the pilot was). But the feeling I got was that he felt he should have stayed during production and made sure that most of his changes had been actually filmed the way he imagined, and a deep sadness that the show was never picked up.

Indeed, although he didn't tell me about it himself, I believe it's true that Rob and Doug returned to LA to help shoot an alternate pilot, in the desperate attempt in keeping the project alive. (This one changing the "Cat" character to a woman, as per the network's request(?).)

Either way, thanks for sharing your side, Earl!