Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirteen-B"

“What do you want to write?”

“A cowboy comedy.”

That was the gist of a conversation that took place at a breakfast meeting my agent had arranged between me and Tom Werner, later a billionaire from producing The Cosby Show and Rosanne, etc., but at that time a “Development” executive at ABC, along with future partner and billionaire – they were partners; they split the billions fifty-fifty – Marcy Carsey.

As I said yesterday, the time had come for me to create my own show. The guy asked what I wanted to do, and that’s what I told them.

A cowboy comedy.

Why? Two reasons. I loved westerns and I knew a ton about them. Those aren’t the two reasons; they’re two parts of the same reason. The second reason was this:

It was the only series idea I had.

My choice also had something to do with my rebellious, or at least, reactive nature. Remember, I was the one who gave Ted Baxter a heart attack on Mary Tyler Moore.

I’d been working on shows where a crisis in an episode could one of the series’ “regulars” had gotten a bad haircut. Unable to grasp the serious implications of a bad haircut, I found such stories silly and a waste of time, even if the jokes around the follicular catastrophe were hilarious.

It was still a story about a bad haircut.


So I reacted against it. You want problems? I’ll give you problems. How about a gang of murderous outlaws take over your town? How about Indians? How about a blizzard? A drought? A “Mail Order” bride with a questionable past? Life, death, almost marrying a prostitute. That’s trouble! Way more interesting than a bad haircut.

Or another disappointing date.

I told Tom Werner I wanted to do a comedy western. And Tom Werner said okay.

At that point, a “Yes” from ABC was hardly a major investment. They’d pay me to write a script. If they liked it, they’d order a pilot. But there was no guarantee. The commitment was only for the script.

I was a long way from having my new show profiled in the TV Guide Preview Edition. But I could dream.

And I did.

Was a cowboy comedy a good bet for a television success in the early 1980’s? Well, it did have things working against it. They high point of TV westerns’ popularity had been the Fifties and Sixties. This, as I mentioned was the Eighties. Making the timing less than ideal.

If you’re hoping to delight the world with your own personal funny “take” on westerns, it would help if there were westerns – or one western even – currently on the air, so the audience can understand what you’re talking about. Otherwise, you’re running into the “Huh?” factor, as is “I don’t get it.” And also – though for reasons different from the “bad haircut” situation – “Who cares?”

A comedy western in the early Eighties was a definite long shot.

My hope was to make the show so funny and special and wonderful and good that its undeniable quality would make it a success.

Note to Future Series Creators: That may not be enough.

Making a show as good as I could make it was the only thing I knew how to do. It still is.

ABC had aired a comedy western called F Troop back in the mid-Sixties. When there were still westerns on television. F Troop was popular – or at least popular enough for DVD’s of it to be available today – but it was a different style of writing from what I do.

“Yes. F Troop was funny.”

(That was my inner critic talking. It’s a pre-emptive voice. It nails me before anyone else does.)

F Troop was funny. But broadly funny. There was little pretence that the characters you were watching were any more than human cartoons. But if the writing’s sharp, and the acting style’s in sync with the writing, cartoons – even human ones – can be highly entertaining.

It just wasn’t my style.

What is my style? As truthful as I can make it. To me, the more resonatingly true the moment, the funnier it is.

Someone once defined comedy as, “The truth plus ten per cent.” Meaning, the truth, plus minimal exaggeration. F Troop was “comedy plus a considerably larger per cent.” As the exaggeration quotient escalates, the situation becomes less believable and as a result, less funny. It’s comedy from another planet.

But that’s me talking. I don’t claim – and never will – that there’s only one kind of comedy. There are lots of kinds. But there’s one kind I like best.

I didn’t need to study westerns. As a result of a wasted childhood watching every cowboy show from Gunsmoke to Buffalo Bill Junior, I was fully knowledgeable in that department. What I didn’t know was the reality, specific details about the West as it was, which I could contrast with the movie and television versions to generate the comedy.

I started doing research.

My agent generously provided me with the 26-volume Time-Life Books series, The Old West. I studied it like Talmud. As I hope you’ve noticed in this blog, I almost never make anything up. I just tell the stories the way they happened. If there’s comedy, it emanates from the story itself, and my point of view when telling it.

One surprising discovery in my research was that, due to faulty manufacturing, the guns in the real West didn’t always work that well. They blew up, they caught on fire, and for no apparent reason, they, sometimes, didn’t shoot straight. I decided to include that final factoid in my pilot. During the climactic shootout, unlike movie and TV gunfights, the shooters hit everything but the people they were aiming at.

Here’s another moment that came out of my research. Let me set the context.

The premise of the series concerned a family immigrating to the West after the Civil War. (I re-tell the entire “back-story” in the Best of the West Theme Song, for which I wrote both melody and lyrics. If you see me around, I’ll sing it for you. I’ll actually sing pretty much anything. I like to sing.)

The family in Best of the West includes Sam Best (wherefrom, the show’s title), who, inspired by romance and adventure, comes West to start a new life in Copper Creek, Montana. His new wife, Elvira, is an aristocratic refugee from the recently ravaged South, whom Sam, a Union officer, ran into while burning her plantation to the ground. The third member of the family (the “Earl surrogate”) was Sam’s ten year-old son, Daniel, who had calculated his survival prospects in the wild and woolly West, and demanded an immediate return to their home in Philadelphia.

The show’s final scene takes place back at the Bests’ one-room cabin. As a result of the aforementioned shootout, Sam, the unexpected winner, has been appointed town marshal. Daniel views this appointment as a guaranteed death sentence. A heated argument ensues between father and son.

Meanwhile, Elvira, hopeless in this unfamiliar environment, is making herself useful by sweeping the floor, her efforts becoming increasingly vigorous, and increasingly irritating to Sam, setting up this exchange:

“Elvira, would you stop sweeping, please?’

“Sorry, Sam. I just can’t to seem to get the dirt off this floor.”

“Elvira, it’s a dirt floor.”

That came from my research. Many cabins had dirt floors. I don’t know if that’s the funniest thing I ever wrote, but I’ll tell you this:

Twenty years after Best of the West, I was doing a one-day-a-week consulting job on According To Jim. One day, driving onto the lot – Studio Center, once again – I’m abruptly halted by the studio Security Guard. I immediately stop and roll down my window.

The guard comes over and tells me he recognizes me from Best of the West, having then been a Security Guard at Paramount, where Best of the West was produced. As the line of cars behind me continues to grow – and become increasingly impatient – the guard insists on reproducing – in detail – the entire “dirt floor” conversation, including the set-up, to prove to me that he’d remembered the whole thing, and still found it the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

Eyeing the honking congestion behind me, I turned down his request to sing him the theme song. I could hear him humming it as a drove away.

I liked how my Best of the West pilot script turned out. It was funny, and reflected the tone I was trying to achieve. I submitted my script to ABC and waited for the response.

The pilot writing fee was five times the amount I was paid for writing an episode. I made sure not to spend any of the money, in case, after reading my script, ABC demanded that I return it.

Tomorrow: Making my first pilot.


Dimension Skipper said...

Still very much enjoying your blogging efforts here, Earl!

I confess I have only a vague recollection of Best of the West and that scene. Perhaps more stories will jog my brain—if not, well, it could use the exercise regardless.

I just Googled to see if there might be any clips of BotW on YouTube, but found none. However, I did at least find this "Great But Forgotten" blog entry by Chuck Rothman from February.

There I also found links to a BotW description at Sitcoms Online and an episode guide.

Also, here's the BotW IMDb entry where with 27 total votes the show has garnered a rating of 7.8 out of 10. Not bad for a "one season wonder" after more than 25 years! It definitely seems to be well-liked and remembered by those who watched it.

Mr. Rothman says:

Despite some big name guest stars (Dixie Carter, Andy Griffith, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Moll, Betty White), the show did poorly in the ratings, especially since it followed Mork and Mindy on Thursday nights, and was quickly cancelled. The show might have done better if the satire were more biting, but you could see that the producers loved westerns and was willing to poke fun at them, but not attack them.

I'm assuming he must mean it did poorly following M&M because they were two completely different styles, but I don't know. Perhaps he means because this was after M&M's initial popularity had worn off since that show ran 1978-1982. Or some combination of both.

Looking forward to the pilot story...

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. I just wanted to clarify the apparent incongruity of my own "vague recollection of Best of the West and that scene" with the statement that "it definitely seems to be well-liked and remembered by those who watched it"...

First of all, I'm not sure if I watched the whole season of BotW or not. For that matter I could even be remembering that brief scene only from promos at the time if it happened to be featured that way. I don't know.

Second, how much I may have watched the show probably hinged upon the competition in that time slot on the other networks. It's possible I may have been invested in some other show and reluctant to switch, especially since that was before the heyday of VCRs (or before I had one anyway).

Third, if you knew me you'd realize what high praise even "a vague recollection" is after 27 years. Heck, there are times I'm at my PC when I suddenly lose the mouse and can't find it for two days!

Anonymous said...

As soon as you mentioned the actress sweeping, I remembered the punchline about the dirt floor and started laughing.
I also recall the need to add whiskey to the whiskey (red-eye?) to give it any kick.
Thanks for reminding me of a show I enjoyed very much

Max Clarke said...

Love it, Sam and Elvira met when he was burning her plantation down.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading this blog, almost from day 1 and in that time, I never checked your creds on the IMDB...until now. Thanks Dim Skip for the link.

BTW, Got a kick out of seeing that we connect, via a non commercial TV project you worked on...who knew?

I love reading what you write, please keep blogging. :-)

Chuck Rothman said...

Just a clarification about my Great but Forgotten blog about Best of the West. What I meant to indicate was that the low ratings for it was too big a drop off after the high ratings of Mork and Mindy. It lost audience, and that's not good.

James said...

I'm late on this, but I'll post it anyway. I love these stories.

I watched Best of the West when it ran. I remember the dirt floor joke (also remember it was part of the commercials that ABC ran to promote the show, so I saw it about 20 times).

My favorite scene was when the villian said it was time for the shooter and the dimwitted henchman, Frog, knocked out the glass. *Crash*

"FROG!!!" And the villian walked over and slide the window pane up in disgust.

I think of that every time I see a Western where they knock out a glass window in preparation for the gunfight.