Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Major Dad 'Mop-Up'"

There was this guy named Bernie Slade. Bernard Slade. Also a Canadian. Bernard Slade’s primary claim to fame – or at least his most prestigious claim to fame – is that he wrote a successful play, which later became a movie, called, Same Time, Next Year. My interest was in Slade’s television work, where he created two popular series, The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family.

I always admired – make that envied – Bernie Slade. To me, Bernie Slade had the greatest job in television.

Bernie Slade created TV series. That was his whole job. He created the series, but – and herein lies the envy part – he was not required to work on them. He would do the pilot, and if it got picked up as a series, someone else was brought in to run the show. Bernie would then go back to work creating other series. (At least, this how it appeared from the credits: I’d see, Created By: Bernard Slade, but no writing or producing credits on the series.)

I ravenously coveted that job.

I never got it. (The job may actually have disappeared.) When a series I created got picked up, the network required me to run the show myself. This was unfortunate, all around. I had some aptitude for making up series ideas. I was considerably less effective at running shows.

In a way, it makes sense. You’re the chef who created the delectable menu for the opening of your restaurant, and the next day, you’re gone, and another guy is preparing the food. They’re following the recipes, but it’s not the original chef. When the networks buy a show, they require the original chef to stick around. Whether they’re good at sticking around or not.

You created the series, you ran the show. That’s how it worked. It wasn’t all bad. They paid you really well.

So I ran Major Dad, along with the aforementioned “Executive Producer”-coveting Rick, and a crusty but good-hearted codger named John Stephens. John had been the Executive Producer (along with Rick) on Gerald McRaney’s previous series, Simon and Simon, transitioning to Major Dad after Simon and Simon completed its run. John handled the show from a production standpoint, hiring the crew, scheduling, etc. He did pretty well, for someone who had no sitcom experience whatsoever.

(Point of Personal Privilege: John would tease McRaney by calling him "Sergeant Markoff", after an unlikable character from the Gary Cooper version of the movie, Beau Geste. I got a kick out of that.)

Take note. This is significant. In all my years working in television, Major Dad was the only series I ever worked on full-time for an entire season. You read that right. In my entire career in half-hour comedy, I worked on a full season of episodes only once. I don’t know how people do it. (And do it year after year.) It darn near broke me in half.

You read a script on Wednesday. You film it the following Tuesday. The next morning, you read another script, and do the whole process over again. You produce three, sometimes, four episodes in succession. Then you have a week’s break from production, called a hiatus, but it’s not a vacation.

You’re preparing new scripts. You’re editing episodes that were already shot. You’re casting roles for episodes down the line. You’re approving set designs. You’re mixing sound for the episode about to be aired. You’re polishing the script ready for the upcoming reading. You’re giving the staff writers notes on the drafts of scripts to be produced later. And you’re writing a script yourself.

And while you’re doing this, you’re putting out fires – dealing with the actors, plus the studio and network executives, who are totally indifferent to what you’re trying to accomplish (and the murderous time schedule you’re working under) and pressuring you to do things differently (invariably in a way the audience has seen before several million times.)

At first, Major Dad ran relatively smoothly. The actors were cooperative, the audiences were enjoying the show. (Just as a side note, my capable stepdaughter, Rachel, was given the assignment of naming the Major Dad children. I wasn’t being generous. She was way better at picking appropriate children’s names than I’d have been.)

The work was exhausting but it somehow got done. We were moving ahead.

Then, without warning, while we’re filming our seventh script, McRaney announces that he hates the eighth script, and he refuses to do it. Unsettling but fine. We send him the ninth script, which will now become the eighth script, and we’ll write new ninth script.

McRaney hates that one too.

Now, we’re in trouble. Why? Because we don’t have any more scripts.

Major Dad shuts down production for two weeks. Replacement scripts (based on replacement ideas we haven’t come up with yet) need to be written. Stomach churning and sleep disturbances ensue.

I meet with McRaney and his manager to discuss the problems McRaney’s having with the scripts. At some point in the discussion, McRaney’s manager, coincidentally a former Marine, says, “Now, putting on my ‘comedy hat’….”

I, internally, hit the roof, and bang my head against it a few hundred times. I’m not a Marine. I don’t claim, and never have claimed, to have a “Marine hat.” McRaney’s manager had never been involved in a comedy. Where the heck did he get a “comedy hat”!?

It appeared that McRaney simply wanted to be consulted on the scripts. Which was my fault. I had deliberately kept him out of the loop. The reason I had kept McRaney out of the loop was because he was generally irrational in his objections to the scripts. So my keeping him out of the loop was, arguably, his fault.

Nah. It was still my fault, for being incapable of handling the irrationality. Which when you think about it, made it the studio and network’s fault. I never wanted to run a show in the first place.

I wanted to be Bernie Slade!!!

Okay, I need to calm down. I’ll finish this tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I am completely in awe of your ability to put so much of yourself on the page (or blog). I always feel as if you are standing in the room speaking to me. My writing always sounds stilted to me. Even when I am trying to write as if I were talking to a friend. It just never comes out that way. I hope you are getting enjoyment out of writing this blog because I know that reading it is one of the high points of my day.

Anonymous said...

I continue to empathize with you plights.

Anonymous said...


Sparky said...

I love these stories...thanks for sharing them.

Anonymous said...

Earl, I enjoy your writings, but I wish you wouldn't put Gerald McRaney down without him here to defend himself. To me that is just gossip.

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