Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Story of a Writer - Part Twenty"

“I’m going to say a name to you. If you respond to that name, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. I just want your honest reaction.”

A television executive said that to me. A smart and decent television executive named Kerry. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m not all that generous towards television executives, my sentiments on my least generous days bordering on “Grrrrr!”

The reason for this attitude – it wasn’t personal – was that television executives, through their “notes” and “pitches”, which included (shudder!) the pitching of jokes, clearly indicated that they didn’t respect the uniqueness of what I did. And when I say “I”, I don’t mean me personally, I mean me, as a representative of a category of humanity called “writers.”

Television executives in the period in which I worked habitually overstepped their boundaries, depriving the writers of their creative prerogatives. (Imagine restaurant patrons barging into a kitchen, ordering the chefs to “pour on the salt.”) The executives projected the clear impression that they could easily write the scripts themselves if they weren’t too busy wielding power.

(I imagine that the arrogance of today’s television executives is even greater, now that the networks own their own shows, rather than – as they did previously – buying programs from studios and independent producers. Before attaining an ownership position, networks could merely make threatening suggestions. Now they can make threatening demands.)

Read the first lines of this posting again. You notice something? There’s no pressure. No manipulation. No buttering up. And no demand.

“I want your honest reaction.”

It was a breath of fresh air.

(Paranoids may feel some justification in suspecting a “breath of fresh air” manipulation. I have to say I bought it.)

I was in my second, generous two-year deal at Universal. Getting Family Man on the air – albeit for only seven episodes – had earned me another contract. I worked off a portion of that contract consulting on other Universal series, one of them being Coming of Age, a sitcom set in a “Seniors” community in Arizona. But they don’t give you substantial weekly paychecks, a big office and a patio where you can barbecue hamburgers on a hibachi until the fire marshals tell you to stop for consulting. It was time for me to step back up to the plate and deliver a new show.

That’s what I was being enticed with that day. Kerry, the smart and decent president of Universal Television, was about to reveal the name of an actor, who, if I responded positively, would be starring in my next series.

To those less familiar with the inner workings of television, the building of a show around a star, or at least a “known quantity” – meaning the audience has heard of them – is a common practice in the development of new series. For openers, the inclusion of an attached “name” makes for an easier sale to the networks.

The networks see the attachment of a “name” as an advantage, because, then, they’re not just buying a concept they’re hopefully enthusiastic about, they’re buying a concept they’re hopefully enthusiastic about, plus a familiar-to-the-audience-so-they’ll-be-predisposed-to-liking-to-the-show-or-at-least-giving-it-a-fair-shot “name.”

In the high-stakes gamble known as “Pilot Season”, having a “name” attached to a project is the equivalent of holding a poker hand that includes at least one ace. (It is hoped that the writer-creator will be considered another ace, but owing to my uncertain track record, I was perceived to be somewhere in the area of a nine.)

(Note: Stop for a moment and think about how many television series succeeded because there was a “name” attached – The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Cosby Show – and how many failed applying the same formula – for example, the shows starring “names” (Jason Alexander, John Goodman, Patricia Heaton), who’d succeeded in earlier series. Also, consider how many shows scored featuring relative unknowns – such as Married With Children and Friends. As the great Chief Dan George observed in the movie, Little Big Man, “Sometimes the medicine works, and sometimes it doesn’t.)

Returning to our story…

“I’m going to say a name to you. If you respond to that name, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. I just want your honest reaction.”

“What’s the name?” I asked a little nervously in case I hated it and had to tell my boss that rather than earning my substantial salary creating a television series, I’d prefer instead to return to my office and take a nap.

Kerry told me the name.

“Gerald McRaney.”


That was interesting.

In what can easily be considered a coincidence, I had recently watched a tape of Gerald McRaney, performing as the “second lead” in a failed comedy pilot. McRaney, who made his name co-starring in the long-running hour detective series, Simon and Simon, had displayed a grounded – meaning unforced and believable – acting style and a light touch for comedy, rivaling, if not quite equaling, the easygoing charm of James Garner.

I had Gerald McRaney if I wanted him.

I told Kerry I did.

And with that, I was off on an adventure that would produce the longest run – four seasons – of any Earl Pomerantz-created television series. *

* My actual credit on Major Dad is, “Developed By”, by that’s just business stuff.

Coming up on “Story of a Writer” – Earl Pomerantz returns to producing. (Just writing that gives me a retroactive stomachache.)

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