Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty C"

In the ferocious competition known as “Pilot Season”, you’re fighting for your life.

That’s a little melodramatic.

In the ferocious competition known as “Pilot Season”, you’re fighting to get your show on the schedule.




When it comes to choosing a pilot story, my strategy is simple: Do the best idea you can think of.

The premise for Major Dad was established: a bachelor Marine major who marries a woman with three daughters. That was done. Now. What story did I want to start with? The best story idea I could think of.

The First Day.

How the whole thing began.

Where we see, for the first time, the tradition steeped major barking orders at his subordinate. We witness his first encounter with the scrappy, local (liberal) reporter. We’re there for the major’s first “head-to-head” with the reporter’s three free-speaking daughters.

The biggest and truest laughs come from these “first time” exchanges. This is where the “money” is, the test of whether your series’ premise has “legs.” If the audience watching the pilot gets into the conflict-laden relationships you’ve set up, they’re hooked, and your show is a hit. These relationships can then be played, and built on, through imaginative variations, throughout the series.

Along with constructing Major Dad’s primary, and hopefully enjoyable, character relationships, I decided to propose something shockingly bold for the pilot’s storyline. I would start with the major’s far from successful interview with the female reporter – she comes to interview him for her paper, and as she’s about to leave, she “surprise attacks” the major, and he flips her. I would then proceed to a final scene where the major arrives in his “Dress Blues” and asks her to marry him.

From strangers to a marriage proposal in twenty-two minutes.


Not too realistic, perhaps, but, still, I couldn’t imagine a story that was more fun and more surprising.

After writing an outline, we – meaning me and my writing partner on the project named Rick – pitched our story proposal to CBS.

CBS had “concerns.”

What concerns?

In those days – I can’t vouch for now – networks were not comfortable with what they called “premise” pilots, meaning pilots whose storylines establish the premise for the series. They were concerned that a “premise” pilot was “atypical.” It was more like a stunt. What the networks more comfortable with was what they called “Show Six” – a pilot representing a typical sixth episode of the series. With a “Show Six” pilot, the network could get a clearer idea of what the series would be like on a weekly basis.

A “first-encounter-to-a-marriage-proposal” story was hardly a “Show Six.” Besides that, the episode had no resolution. It ends with the major down on one knee and the reporter looking like…any woman would look if they’d just been proposed to by a stranger.

My answer to their “concerns”?

“That’s what I love about it.”

After some meaningless “back and forth”, CBS asked me and Rick – whose primary interest was in not rocking the boat – if we’d be willing to come up with an alternate story idea for the pilot. We responded simultaneously.

ME: I really like this one.

RICK: Absolutely.

CBS said they’d think about it and get back to us shortly.

I was confident (as confident as a not very confident person can be) that I was right about this. I understood what the network was looking for, but I was trying to sell a show, and from a selling standpoint, I believed this story provided our strongest chance at outshining the competition. (Of course, you can’t sell the show, if they won’t make the pilot. So there’s that.)

As for the “Show Six” concern, everything I knew told me that “first” jokes were by far the funniest. (“You’ve got spunk…I hate spunk!” Mary Tyler Moore pilot – the first encounter between Mary and Lou.)

The decision was not in our hands. All we could do was wait, hoping that the network would, uncharacteristically, trust the people they were paying to do the job.

Years later, I was told about a chance encounter during that time between Bob, my agent’s hard but highly effective boss, and the then president of CBS, named Kim (a man.) Kim expressed his reservations about our pilot story. A marriage proposal in the first episode? It seemed too…not “Show Six.”

Bob advised Kim that the worst that could happen was that there’d be an “Episode Eight” wedding show that would get huge ratings like the, then, recent wedding episode on Rhoda, at the time, one of the highest rated episodes ever.

Awright, Bob!

After a long and worrisome week, CBS finally approved our story idea.

Exultation and relief.

Rick and I happily set to work on the pilot script. An enormous obstacle had been overcome. It would not be the last one. Or even the biggest.

(A sneak preview, in case you pass away before tomorrow’s installment: Kim hated our selection for the leading lady.)


Joseph Thvedt said...

As soon as you mentioned "first time" I thought about the "I hate spunk!" line from MTM -- the funniest line from a pilot I've seen.

Rusty James said...

I know what you're referring to here with 'first time', Earl - but I wonder when you go to pages, do you keep the 'first joke' you write? Or do you work on each joke to find the best laugh?


Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying reading this series of article.

Anonymous said...


2 posts in one day!


Anonymous said...

Earl, I never missed one episode of MAJOR DAD so I am really enjoying your story.
I especially enjoyed the first season. To me it had more of a 'family' feel to it than the rest of the series.
After they moved and the General and Gunny were added, I didn't like the show as much. So can you tell who's idea that was???
One thing that always bothered me even, though I liked the character, of whom's name I can't think of now. You could always see him reading from the cue cards and that used to be terribly distracting. I always wondered why no one told him to memorize his lines. (His last name on the show started with an 'H').
Keep writing and I'll keep reading. I've always wondered why the show became less funny over time.
Also, how was it working with Gerald McRaney especially when his wife was going through such a hard time?

"See the hill....take the hill".