Friday, December 5, 2008

"Major Dad 'Mop-Up' - Part B"

It wasn’t always a nightmare.

Major Dad had a solid writing staff (featuring Janet, Lisa, and a consulting Miriam), and they consistently kept me afloat. The team had talent, energy, and most importantly – something I rarely displayed myself – a positive attitude.

If there’s one thing I’m sensitive (arguably too sensitive) to, it’s my limitations. I know when I’m done. During one rewrite session, laboring well past midnight, I suddenly announced, “Guys, I have three left”, meaning three jokes, or whatever. I was right on the money. In the ensuing ten minutes, I pitched three really funny lines. Then – as previously announced – I ran out of gas. The writing staff powered me through to the end.

We continually devised techniques for keeping things lively. Early in production, McRaney, who had asked us to call him “Mac” in the show, instructed us not to call him “Mac” in the show. I think it was because his wife called him “Mac” in real life, and she didn’t want him called “Mac” on TV. “Mac” was for home.

Well, we’d always forget. So, to reinforce the rule of not calling “Mac” “Mac” anymore, whenever a writer made a mistake, and referred to “Mac” as “Mac”, we would immediately shpritz the miscreant with water guns.

There were three reasons for that. The Writers Room was generously stocked with water guns. We were trying to teach the miscreant a lesson. And we were in a mood, especially late at night, where it seemed hilarious to us to make other people wet. Burdened with the murderous schedule of a TV series, vacations from sanity can be deliriously welcome.

You’d think I’d be good at working with writers, but, quite often, I wasn’t. The process could be very frustrating. The problem, simply put, was that I wanted my writers to write like me, and they stubbornly insisted on writing like themselves.

Many times, during rewrites, I would get three or four very funny and totally viable pitches, reflecting three or four different storytelling perspectives and, often, a equal number of comedic styles, none of which were like mine, and many unhelpfully incompatible with mine. This stopped me in my tracks. I was not articulate about what I wanted, and wasn’t sure it would change things if I were. I had no idea what to do.

Somehow, we plodded along. Major Dad had a first-year order of twenty-two episodes. That was the “Finish Line.” That’s what I was lurching towards. And it looked like I’d make it. I had already planned my reward – a week’s stay at this spa I go to in Mexico, beginning right after we filmed Episode Twenty-Two.

The network calls: “We’re ordering four additional episodes.”


You’re supposed to be happy when that happens. Ordering additional episodes is a vote of confidence, signifying an almost certain second-year pick-up of the show. And since hardly any series gets cancelled after two years, a pick-up for Season Two points to the show’s running for quite a while, possibly reaching “syndication level”, where the real money is. That call was a really good thing.

And yet I was crying. Why? Because they’d moved the “Finish Line!

There were a couple of characters on the show that weren’t working. They didn’t fit naturally into stories and their comedic value was only so-so. Our plan was to finish Season One with those characters, then drop them, and create new characters for Season Two. Extending Season One with characters we were getting rid of, didn’t make any sense. The reasonable move was to finish the order of twenty-two episodes, then re-tool the series for the following year.

I made my case to Universal’s head of Current Programming, a smart and caring man named Garry. Garry listened patiently to my argument, after which he said he agreed with me. It was stupid to do more episodes using characters we were going to replace. Then he told me to do them anyway.

The Episode Twenty-Three script was ready to go. I finalized the details, then went off, as planned, to the spa. I should never have done that. I should have cancelled the trip. But I didn’t. I was angry about the extended season. And I was exhausted. I really needed to go.

During my spa week, I checked in on the show. I learned from my second in command, another guy named Rick, that McRaney had written a different last scene from the one in the script and was insisting on performing his version of the scene on show night. (Time and trauma have erased any memory of further specifics.)

When I got back, the damage had been done. Actors, unilaterally writing their own material, that’s just not acceptable. McRaney, as the studio possibly racistly put it, had gone “off the reservation.” I announced to Garry that, if that’s the behavior I could expect in the future, I would not be returning for Season Two.

By Episode Twenty-Four, my body couldn’t take anymore. It removed me from the fray by detaching my left eye’s retina. I was out for the season.

A sigh of relief.

Except for the retina.

Getting wind of the fact that I was finished on Major Dad, not just for that season but for good, Rick and McRaney high-tailed it over to CBS and announced to the network’s president, a “Yaley” named Jeff, that the two of them would run the show (as they had wanted to all along). As soon as they left, Jeff called Kerry, the smart and decent president of Universal and said,

“Who’s Rick (last name)?”

When he heard Jeff’s story, Kerry called Rick into his office and fired him on the spot. That’s not the way you do things. You go through channels. The next season, and the two after that, Major Dad was run by my former second-in-command from Season One, the other Rick.

After co-writing Season Two’s first episode, where the two new characters were introduced, I was informed by Rick that my participation in the show would no longer be welcome. (During that period, I had very little luck around Ricks.)

Major Dad flourished during its second and third seasons, airing Monday nights, before Murphy Brown. Starting of its fourth season, the show was rescheduled to Fridays. The ratings immediately plummeted.

There were two reasons for that. Friday was a terrible comedy night for CBS. (Shortly thereafter, CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond languished in its Friday time period, taking off only after it was transferred to Mondays.)

The second reason for Major Dad’s diminishing ratings was that on Friday nights, Major Dad’s core audience was out, attending High School football games. CBS’s president, “Yaley” Jeff, who had engineered the show's move, was clearly unfamiliar with the folkways of the Heartland.

By this time, Kerry had left Universal to become President of Television at Paramount. It fell to two Universal executives named Tom to negotiate Major Dad’s fifth-year pick-up. Facing dwindling ratings, and “hardball” negotiating tactics from the Toms, who were apparently tone deaf to the realities they were dealing with, CBS abruptly cancelled the show.

And that was that.

In all, three series have aired on major networks, created or extensively developed by me. Best of the West was my funniest series. Family Man was my truest. Major Dad was my most commercially successful. I figured, one day, I’d put all the elements together.

This now seems unlikely.
Postscript: Every year, I get a statement from Universal, informing me that Major Dad is still “in the red”, meaning there are no profits for me to participate in. I have no doubt this is the case. I can’t imagine a studio lying about its profits.


thevidiot said...

As a sitcom editor, I was blindly ignorant of the writer-actor situation until I heard Doug McIntire host a 3 hour discussion on talk radio. His guests were writers and they frankly discussed the problems they had with actors who often said "I am the character I portray so who could write for him/her in a better way?" I went to work the next day and saw the lead actor on our series (a VERY nice guy, by the way) say exactly that to the show runner. My eyes were opened! Thanks for a great blog, Earl... I have followed you for quite a while and hope to for a long time to ocme.

Max Clarke said...

Between this and Ken Levine and the Phil Rosenthal book about his years with Everybody Loves Raymond, this is quite an education about comedy writing.

They didn't show this on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but they didn't show Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore sleeping in the same bed, either.

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I think the problem, simply put, was that I wanted my writers to write like me, and they stubbornly insisted on writing like themselves, that's a common problem but we should have our own style if we want to reach our goals.m10m

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