Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"The Essence of Congenital Non-Commerciality"

It was 1976.  Or ’77.  That’s a definitive opening, don’t you think?

It was way early in my career.  I had written a draft of a Phyllis or a Mary Tyler Moore episode – continuing in the “definitive” mode – and I was getting notes from my boss Ed. Weinberger before beginning my Second Draft.  (Ed. always insisted on being referred to in print as “Ed.”.)

Again not entirely clear on the specifics, I had introduced a “Guest Character” into the episode who, for hopefully humorous effect, I had named Jimmy Carter, the same name as the then sitting President of the United States.  Attention was drawn to this coincidence, to which I had my ”Jimmy Carter” character reply,

“Why not the best?”

The reason I believed that would be funny was because Jimmy Carter – the president not the “Guest Character” I had invented for the episode – had just published a memoir entitled “Why Not The Best?”  So “ha-ha” for the contemporary reference. 

Or so I foolishly believed.

My boss Ed. Weinberger disagreed, demanding a replacement for that joke.  His reason, Ed. explained pedagogically though not entirely sensitively:

“That is about the ninth best joke you could possibly have come up with.”

Well, at least he considered it a joke.  Albeit a joke he was certain no one anywhere would laugh at. 

I felt stung by Ed.’s reaction.  Jimmy Carter (the president) had written a memoir entitled Why Not The Best?, the character of the same name had made the connection in his response.  That seemed like a joke to me.  If not the greatest joke, certainly higher than the ninth best alternative.

The problem was, that my boss Ed. had never heard of Why Not The Best?, leading him to inferentially determine – and I had no way of disputing this contention – that the overwhelming majority of the audience had not heard of Why Not The Best? either.  His conclusion, therefore, was that the joke I had written had not the slightest chance whatsoever of obtaining the comedic reaction it – egregiously misguidedly – was looking for.

(Feeble Evidentiary Rebuttal:  Jimmy Carter’s “Official Presidential Campaign Song” was also called Why Not The Best?  I just listened to it on YouTube.  It is quite terrible.)

It is important for comedy writers to see what the majority around them does not see, earning peals of laughter through its, hopefully skillfully constructed, revelation.  However if, after drawing it to their attention, the majority around them continues to not see it, the writer will be unsuccessful in achieving the desired result, and if that happens often enough, they will soon be on the lookout for an alternate line of work.

Fortunately for me, this happened less often then a summary dismissal from the comedy-writing fraternity would necessitate.  Nevertheless it remained a perennial cause of self-questioning recrimination. 

And not an entirely unjustified one.

What if I thought not just differently from other people but too differently for other people to identify with, resulting in their not laughing, and my inevitable relocation to Toronto, followed by the inevitable reapplication to Law School?…

Remained my ongoing concern.

Sometimes during script meetings – again during “Notes Sessions” for subsequent drafts – I would discover that I had selected, in my original version, an emotional direction for a character that, I was subsequently informed, was not the most “natural” direction for that character to pursue. 

It was not that I was attempting to be different or “boldly original” in these cases.  I was simply opaquely “out of sync” with the “conventional human reaction.”  Now I was not only not thinking the way the majority of people (Read:  the TV-viewing audience.) think.  I was also not feeling the way the majority of people feel.

This is not a good sign for an aspiring, young television writer hoping for an extended resume.

(For The Record:  Despite these limitations, I managed to do all right in the end.)

I have noticed that, even now, I continue to find myself promoting what is the equivalent of the “ninth most popular” opinion concerning certain matters of the day.  In this space recently, I have expressed my position on the likes of suicide – ultimately a personal decision – and on spousal (and also child) abuse involving NFL participants – “Why be surprised when a man in a violent profession behaves violently when they are off the clock?” – that not a single “professional observer” has considered worthy enough to include in their widely disseminated public pronouncements.

Maybe I am not just an “outsider” – as virtually all writer-observers are – but I am an “outsider-outsider”, experiencing things in a way that barely a sliver of the populace can relate to.

Thus defining – with the accompanying limited success level –  

“The Essence of Congenital Non-Commerciality.”

(See Also:  The inherent clunkiness of the above-mentioned title.  In case further evidence is required.) 


Canda said...

Maybe Ed. was also concerned that it was a topical joke, thus would have no resonance in future re-runs.

Bea Arthur once said about a joke the writers of "Golden Girls" wrote with a Donna Rice punch line,
"In 20 years no-one will know Donna Rice from Minute Rice". Turns out Minute Rice isn't remembered that well, either.

I don't remember an enormous amount of contemporary reference jokes on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Am I right?

Hamburger said...

If indeed your joke was only the 9th best iteration (& I doubt that it was), maybe that's because Pres. Carter was only the 8th best alternative for the office. I also think maybe Ed. was too busy punctuating his name to be current on presidential authorship. I do like the joke even tho you had to explain it. I probably would've understood it at the time as I'd like to think I was up to date on the Carter activities - tho it was more likely on Billy's accomplishments than his brothers. (Donna Rice/Minute Rice: that's a good one - and very true!)

Am trying to catch up on the posts of your previous couple of weeks - I've been indisposed, so let me start with commenting on your trip. Stay away from the Turkey/Syrian border! I know you need that kind of advice what with your need to walk on Wednesdays and get some coffee. Uh oh, it is Wednesday! (I think.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Maybe the word you're looking for, Earl, is "misfit"? :)

Canda: I was thinking that, too. I would never have remembered the title of Carter's autobiography, and I voted for him twice. Last year sometime it occurred to me to watch (1st time) some of THE GILMORE GIRLS, and it was quite noticeable how many pop references were going to date badly.