Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"The Job I Am Somewhat Sorry I Turned Down"

If something remains in your consciousness for forty-plus years it is reasonable to believe that it somehow matters to you.

Don’t you think?

Okay.  So there’s this.

I imagine every writer who rose to the level of “We want him (or her)” has a story of a job they were offered that they for some reason turned down.  Which, if not entirely regretted, survived insinuatingly in their “The Road Not Taken” file. 

I had a fantasy conversation with Neil Simon whose Memoirs I am currently enjoying and whom I once met at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara but never mentioned this issue.  On that occasion, I imaginatorially said to him,

“There is one joke you wrote that I have been laughing at for thirty years.  Not all the time… but intermittently, and still.”

That’s how I feel about this incident.  I do not incessantly dwell on it.  Nor, on the other hand, has it flown my memoratorial coop.  (Okay, that’s the last one of those made-up words with “ial” at the end of them.  I have exceeded my quota.  By possibly two.) 

It is not like I am habitually pummeling myself for letting this particular employment opportunity get away.  I had persuasive reasons for doing so, lightening my load of self-recrimination and guilt.   One of them was a doozy.  But more on that later.

Knowing my background, you might possibly think the job I passed on and then wondered if I should have was Saturday Night Live, which I had been invited to participate in at its inception, incentivized by the “carrot” of being potentially its Head Writer.

When I inform strangers of this abandoned opportunity, I invariably get an unspoken “Awww” response, similar, I imagine, to the one that is accorded the “Fifth Beatle”, replaced at the moment of celebratory “lift-off” by Ringo Starr. 

Truth be told, that is not the job I am referring to.

Briefly, (because I have discussed this before) why did I say “No, thank you” to SNL?

Nine months before the SNL job offer, I had moved lock, stock and Mazda from Toronto to Los Angeles.  I was not at all ready to move again (To New York, where Saturday Night Live would be produced.) 

Ensconced comfortably in Hollywood, I had found a reliable doctor and a dentist and an accountant and a hair cutter, and I did not look forward to initiating the search process all over again in Manhattan.  And then if the show failed, going back to Los Angeles and asking all those people to take me back.  How would they respond to that?

(LIKE AGGRIEVED SPOUSES)  “Do you think you can just come and go as you please?”

L.A. had the weather that suited my clothes.  L.A. was “laid back”, a descriptive never applicable to Manhattan, at least since the Indians sold it.  New York was also too close to Toronto, where I had baggage.  Not luggage.  Baggage.

In an uncharacteristic flash of determination and grit, I maneuvered my way into the Mary Tyler Moore Company, simultaneously liberating myself from “broad-stroke” sketch writing – as opposed to meticulous, character-driven storytelling – and a history of exclusive employment in Lorne Michaels operations. 

When, during SNL’s pre-production shakedown, Lorne called to urge me repeatedly to join him, my unemotional though arguably disloyal answer was, “I’m working.”

In the end, weighing the reputation and solidity of MTM employment against an uncertain late-night variety show experiment in New York, I elected to remain steadfastly where I was.  (Subsequent stories of creativity-coaxing drug-taking and scriptorial “all-nighters” – Okay, three, but that’s it! – reinforced my decision as being an unquestionable “Good call”)

So it was not rejecting SNL that I have residual qualms about.

It was this.

During my second season servicing the half-dozen or so sitcoms MTM had on the air, I was approached by veteran comedy writer Jack Burns – of comedy-team icon Burns and Schreiber fame – with a tempting and tantalizing proposition.

“Would you like to go to London for six months and write The Muppets Show?”

Yeah, I know.

“It’s time to play the music
It’s time to light the lights…”

Man, was that enticing.  Living in London a second time and this time with money?  Imagine the difference.  “The London Experience”… with heat!  (Rather than the agonizing forty-five minutes of warmth rationed over a three-and-a-half day period until the new cylinder of Calor Gas was delivered.  And now… If I were a rich man, yeidel deedle-deidel deedle-deidel deedle-deidel dum!)   

And it was the Muppets!

That’s the one.  That’s the “job-not-taken” I still think about.  But, for better or worse…

I said “No.”

Opting for the continued job security at MTM.  And because I preferred sunshine to soot.  And because I knew I could adequately write MTM sitcoms but who knew for sure if I could write The Muppets?

Plus… wait for it…

I had met a woman. 

And it looked a lot like it was going someplace.

Game, set and match.  (And, as it turned out, a marriage.)

Despite his persistent entreaties, I informed Jack Burns that, though his offer was appealing – and extremely flattering – I was going to stay put.  And he flew off to London without me.  And, instead, with somebody else.  Enjoying my heat.  And my advantageously exchanged-rated per diems.

And that’s it.  You know how lucky I was in my career?  I have not even talked about jobs I wanted but didn’t get, because there weren’t any.  The closest to that was this single opportunity that I, appreciatively, turned down.

Labeling my reaction to it “regret” would be an exaggerating overstatement.

I just wonder about it sometimes, that’s all.


JED said...

Thanks a lot, Earl. I've had The Muppet Show theme rattling around in my head since I read this post this morning.

frank said...

Kermit is still green about your rejection.