At a recent breakfast with a good writer friend – the “good” describing both the writer and our friendship – he informed me that he had written a play about himself as a young writer embedded in the staff of idiosyncratic veterans. And by “idiosyncratic” he meant borderline meshugah. (Yiddish for crazy. Although some of the writers were Irish.)
The following incident took place forty-two years ago, this summer. So you know I can reliably nurture a grievance.
I told him it was a great idea for a play – a work is always more resonant when writing from personal experience. I told myself – silently – that I could have written that play, having endured similar experiences early in my career. The only difference between my good writer friend and me was that he did it and I didn’t. Which would only bother me if I cared.
Did I care? At that moment, a little. But truth be told, I’ve got bigger fish I have left unfried.
Besides, I prefer doing this. You tell one story, and you go home, or if you are home, you go out. A whole play? That’s like seventy-six blog posts. With the same characters, a compelling storyline and a blockbuster resolution.
I lost confidence just writing those words.
So here’s todays “one story” our conversation brought to mind. Which I shall try to keep brief. Yeah, right. Two hundred and forty-one words, and I haven’t even begun yet.
After writing on two Lily Tomlin specials, which turned out…
“Move it along.”
I was a young writer on a Flip Wilson special, teamed up on the first day with a longtime, respected writer named Don, who was nineteen years my senior in age, and even more so in experience. We had been given the “go-ahead” to write a sketch idea we’d come up with concerning a “Nature”-documentary filmmaker and his accompanying cameraman, assigned to wait for “as long as it takes” to “capture” some (likely apocryphal) exotic, miniscule insect emerging from its burrow.
We wrote it together. It was pretty good. A team of professional filmmakers, one an optimist, the other a pessimist, the pessimist railing against the excruciating boredom – because, after days of round-the-clock surveillance, the thing had not yet come out – and the optimist’s unshakable certainty – confident it eventually would.
(You can guess which of those characters I brought brilliantly to life.)
To my surprise, after some initial jitters collaborating with an “Old Pro” – who was twenty-five years younger than I am today – I found myself successfully pulling my weight. I pitched a commendable share of jokes, a lot of which made it into the script. (Don, understandably, being the final “arbiter of inclusion.”)
A brief but necessary digression.
Producer Lorne Michaels had this one idea for a show, which served him well later in his career:
A comedy ensemble.
This time, however, Lorne upped the conceptual ante. He would surround then popular comedian Flip Wilson with a troupe of comedy All-Stars: Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin and Peter Sellers.
Consistent with the “ensemble concept”, these superstar stalwarts would be featured in some sketches and play subsidiary roles in others.
So far, so “Revue-like.”
Then Peter Sellers flew in from London, immediately announcing that he would not play subsidiary roles in anything. (Or one of two guys waiting for a bug to come out.) His instructions as to what he would do were definitively simple:
“I play a bumbling detective. Or a character who breaks things.”
Otherwise, he was going home.
Given this deal-breaking ultimatum – I always hate when performers I revere behave like idiot prima donnas – we immediately went back to work. Another writer threw together a “bumbling detective” sketch, while Don and I cranked out “a character who breaks things” routine: a clumsy auctioneer who breaks every priceless antique he touches – which I believe was my idea, but maybe not, but I’ll take credit for it anyway, because I’m angry.
And here’s why.
When the new sketches were completed, the next step was to take them to Peter Sellers at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where, as instructed, we would perform them out loud for his approval. The prevailing stakes were substantial. He likes them – he stays. He doesn’t – he’s in a car to the airport.
During the last moment before departure, veteran temporary partner Don calls me aside and conveys two words that will be forever etched in my consciousness:
“Senior Writer on the Team” Don had wimped out, “pulled rank” and dispatched “The Kid.”
It was I who would be reading a “physical comedy” sketch in which there was virtually no dialogue to the incomparable star of The Pink Panther and The Mouse That Roared.
I was nervous because of what was on the line. But my predominant feeling was rage, at Peter Sellers, for putting us through this torturous ordeal, but even more so at Don.
I mean, the man’s like, decades in the business, and I’m, you know, four months out of Toronto.
Shouldn’t he be going and not me?
Well, I went, reading the “Auctioneer Sketch’s” ubiquitous stage directions in a quivering voice – a combination of “Stage Fright” and resentment – and we awaited his response, which was this:
Peter Sellers would remain in the show.
I, by rights, should have been happy and gratified.
But instead, I was furious at Don.
And despite the salving element of time,
I still am.