Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-One B"

Dr. M and I are winging to Fargo, North Dakota, to visit a nearby (seventy mile away) couple who run their own “Mom and Pop” television station, as research for a series I’m interested in creating as part of my “pilot commitment” deal with CBS. Did I put enough information into that sentence? Okay, you’re caught up.

Before we left Fargo, Chris, the “Mom” of the “Mom and Pop” operation, who had come to pick us up, invited us to a popular Fargo eatery for lunch. There, I enjoyed what I was told was a North Dakota specialty, beer and cheese…something, I think it was soup. Made exclusively with beer and cheese.

My arteries were screaming, “Why don’t you just inject us with cement!” I imagined a new cause of death: Suicide by soup. Turned out, I actually liked it. Which doesn’t mean that it couldn’t kill me. It just didn’t. That time.

After lunch, Chris drove us to her hometown, and our destination.

North Dakota is flat and very cold in the winter. That’s all you need to know. Wait, that’s insulting. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anymore, because that’s all I know.

Chris informed us that she drove the seventy miles between her hometown and Fargo all the time. She explained that there were two hairdressing salons in her town, and if she wanted them both to buy commercial time on her television station, she couldn’t favor one over the other by patronizing them. Instead, she drove seventy miles and got her hair done in Fargo. (Plus, she may secretly have preferred the Fargo hairstyles.)

Chris also explained how she and her husband, Roy, came to run the television station. They already owned a cable company serving the surrounding area, and, since the infrastructure was already in place, they decided to create a TV station offering programs of interest to the local citizenry. (Interspersed with a teletype crossing the screen delivering the latest prices on “choice porkers.”)

Say, a famous local personage passed away and the church was too small to accommodate all the people who wanted to attend the funeral. Roy and Chris would dispatch a camera crew to the church, thus allowing people to watch the funeral on TV from the comfort of your own homes. They could even sell ads for the program – mortuaries, flower shops, embalmers, the broadcast offering double duty – community service, plus commercial enterprise.

On a larger scale, since the inhabitants of North Dakota are widely spread out, making it difficult for candidates for political office to reach them, the biggest VIP’s – running for Congress, governor, maybe even president – would dutifully appear at this tiny, little television station to be interviewed. (By Chris.) The station was the best way for the candidates to reach the largest number of constituents at the same time.

If the interview, or any other news event, was deemed newsworthy enough (this was before the Internet), an employee of the station would run out and stand by the highway, flag down a passing truck, hand them a videotape of the story, and tell the driver there was fifty bucks in it for them if they’d deliver it to the larger TV station in Fargo. It was kind of like the Pony Express, but with trucks.

When we reached her town, Chris drove us to a place where we could rent a car. Before leaving, she warned us to always lock our car doors. We were surprised. Was there a crime spree rampant in this very mini metropolis?

“No,” she explained. “But we had a bumper crop of zucchini this year, and if you don’t lock your car, they’ll leave a bunch of it in your back seat.”

We conscientiously heeded her advice. Who wants a back seat full of zucchini?

The TV station was across the street from a grain elevator. That’s my favorite fact of the trip. This information did not come naturally to me. “Is that a grain elevator?” “Yes,” I was told. I actually wasn’t sure. I had never seen one before.

Chris introduced us to her husband, Roy. Quiet, smart, polite, with a mustache. And a really interesting desk. Think of a spool of thread. Multiply its size by a thousand. That’s a spool of bailing wire. Roy had taken the bailing wire spool and turned it on its side. That was his desk.
The Production Area was compact but high tech for its day. I knew it was high tech, because I didn’t know how anything worked. (To me, anything beyond radio is high tech.) I only knew one thing. You could make shows there. That was the exciting part.

The town we were in was small (duh) and its population seemed, generally, on the Senior side. (The kids mostly take off to seek their fortunes.) You could imagine the town itself getting one big Social Security check, and divvying it up amongst its citizenry. One pair of bifocals. They passed them around.

This was weird, I thought. I went into a number of stores, searching for some souvenir of the town. It turned out there weren’t any. Not even a commemorative t-shirt. I’ve never experienced that before. Everybody advertises, don’t they? Some civic self-promotion? I imagined a “fantasy t-shirt” for the place saying,

“Nobody Ever Comes Here.”

The one tourist attraction was an enormous concrete buffalo, plus thirteen actual buffalo. That place had t-shirts. But they had to find them.

We actually ate buffalo. Twice. (Was the herd once fourteen buffalo?) We were informed that the meat had been marinated for two days. You know overcooked brisket? Filet mignon, compared to buffalo. Forget chewing your food thirty-two times. You chewed till your jaw hurt.

During the trip, I asked lots of questions, looking for details that would provide my pilot with verisimilitude – a big word for “making it feel real.” I always do research on the shows I’m creating. I never want them to feel generic. “It’s about this, but it could be about anything.” I didn’t want that. I wanted it to feel uniquely “about this.” Also, for me, the biggest “funny” always derives from the specifics.

I thanked Chris and Roy profusely for their help and hospitality, returned to L.A. and I wrote the pilot script, combining my “I was there” experience with some, hopefully, creative fictionalizing.

To provide the show with an outsider’s perspective (my perspective), I made the leading character a woman who, desperate to escape the New York show business “rat race”, answers a “blind” ad for “Television Station Manager”, and winds up managing a “low-power” station in Nowhere, North Dakota.

CBS accepts my script, and we move on to the “casting” phase. We bring them three truly exciting candidates for the leading role. After their network auditions, the CBS president, Jeff, proclaims, “I will not have any of these women on my network.” And that was the end of that show.

(Postscript: Two of the women Jeff refused to have on his network ended up starring in the original cast of ER. Eh. Meaning – big sigh – sometimes they get it wrong.)

They call it a “Two For One” deal. Two shows – one gets made. “Show One” had now been shot down. It was time to move on to “Show Two.”


Ian said...

To a TV-outsider (well, this TV-outsider), it does seem a bit strange that a pilot script can be accepted and yet the whole thing is kyboshed because of a casting dispute?

The older I get, the less I understand the machinations of business!

Wonderfully written and evocative as ever, though. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I so would have watched that show! You could do a continuing running gag on the zucchini in the back seat. I can relate to that. My sister once decided to grow zucchini, not realizing that it is a mutant vegetable that takes over until you have a massive population explosion of zucchini (if that's possible). She desperately tried to give it away to friends and neighbours until people would see her on the street and run to get away from her.

I could definitely see her leaving zucchini in the back seats of unlocked cars in a last ditched effort to get rid of it all.

Sometimes I wonder if John Wyndam was inspired to write "The Day of the Triffids" based on zucchinis.

Anonymous said...

I think I've seen that somewhere before. Couldn't of been on tv, though. Was I alive when it was exclusively radio? Don't think so.

Then again, whoever heard of zucchini growing anywhere besides Caprice's garden. It's not like it's replacing North Dakota's sugarbeets anytime soon.

Well, unless word gets out that Hawaii makes better...

uh oh. Don't tell the Simplot guys about this.

Anthony Strand said...

So you were in Jamestown, I'm guessing, based on the buffalo? Here in North Dakota, we actually consider that "kind of a big town".

I wish I was kidding. I really, really do.