I was planning to write this yesterday, but I didn’t feel like it.
The most satisfying compliments you can receive come from your peers. So too do the most devastating critiques.
I am co-running Major Dad, which I co-created, having been asked by the President of the studio I was working for at the time, Universal, if was agreeable to helping a non-comedy-writer develop a series to star Gerald McRaney, and I respond with a word that sends me both exhilaratingly and screamingly off the High Diving Board, that word, of course, being “Yes.”
We are heading towards the stage for a runthrough. Walking beside me is a woman named Mia (except she is actually called something else), a highly talented writer on the Universal payroll who, having no current project of her own, has agreed to serve as a one-day-a-week consultant on Major Dad. Writing consultants adjunct themselves to the regular writing staff for an agreed-upon period of service – one or two days a week – where they help rewriting the show.
“Consultant” is my favorite job in television. It’s like being an uncle. You visit, you have fun, feeling no burden or responsibility whatsoever, and then you go home. And they pay you really well. Plus, you get a free dinner. Oh yeah, and since the show’s staff are totally exhausted, they are really happy to see you. You’re like the “reinforcements.” They actually cheer when you walk in!
Okay, so I’m walking to the stage with Mia, and somehow…wait. Let me first say that Mia and I have known each other for some time, going back, I believe to Newhart, Bob Newhart’s second series, where he owned the inn. We had the same agent. We always got along. Mia was smart, funny and candid in her communications, and that’s the way I like it.
So I’m walking to the stage with Mia, and somehow we come around to talking about the show, and, by unmistakable inference, about me. It is here that Mia expresses the opinion that the show is good,
“But it’s hardly groundbreaking.”
The thing about the Atomic Bomb is that it is – the massive devastation and loss of life aside – extremely loud. I do not have a font big enough to duplicate the “BOOM!” made by an Atomic Bomb. Roughly speaking, it’s what I just typed times a million.
When a personal bomb explodes, it makes no sound whatsoever. Except inside. Where the “BOOM!” rivals the Atomic Bomb. Also, in contrast to the Atomic Bomb whose reverberations eventually dissipates, the reverberations of a personal bomb can last forever.
As witnessed by my still thinking about it a quarter of a century later. And my putting off writing about it. At least for a day.
“It – (the show I had helped create and infused with all the talent and imagination within me) – is hardly groundbreaking.”
Is it professional? Yes. Is it commercially successful? It lasted – four seasons – longer than any series I had ever been involved in putting together, so again, the answer is “Yes.” Were the people who were paying me and the people who were putting it on happy with it, and by implication with me? They were.
But it wasn’t groundbreaking. Inject the word “hardly” before “groundbreaking”, implying a standard I had tacitly been counted upon to shoot for and had failed,
And that was one of the most agonizing walks to the stage I had ever experienced.
A critique can only “strikes home” if it’s true. (Or if you’re afraid might be true. Though in this case it was.) I had crafted a serviceable series for a bankable star, it was funnier than it was lame, and, when aired on Mondays instead of audience-starved Fridays, it was a hit.
From a business standpoint, I was a success. But from a creative, groundbreaking, “Stop the Presses!”, water cooler conversation standpoint…?
Something more had clearly been expected of me.
I knew “groundbreaking.” I had written for The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which made a quantum leap in situation comedy). I had been knocked out by Barney Miller (where the writing was consistently funny but unforced.) Later, I would consult on The Larry Sanders Show (where the line between the storytelling and reality was virtually obliterated.) And I had marveled at the breakthrough of Seinfeld.
I can recognize “groundbreaking” when I see it.
But I could never deliver it myself.
I could venture into explanations, mentioning issues such as intrepitude, a single-mindedness of commitment, the ability to think in a truly original manner, to name but three. But I shall defer instead to a man undeniably more authoritative on the subject, to wit; Mark McGuire, a prodigious home run hitter, now serving as the “Hitting Coach” for the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Also a purported steroids user but I shall eschew such transgressions as irrelevant to the conversation.)
In a recent TV interview, slugger Mark McGuire asserted that, though you can teach a player to be a better, more consistent hitter, the certified home run hitters are born.
Ditto, say I, for groundbreaking comedy writers.
I played many years in the Major Leagues. But I am not qualified for the “Hall of Fame.” Can I live with that?
I am working on it.