Monday, May 17, 2010

"My All-Time Favorite Job - Part Three"

In 1975, Lorne Michaels, who had brought me to California and had kept me working for nine months, left for New York to start Saturday Night Live, and I didn’t go with him. Unemployed, and out of patrons, I conceived an idea for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and out of that idea grew a job working for the Mary Tyler Moore Company.

My career at MTM started rockily. I was put on the Phyllis writing staff As I’ve explained elsewhere, I didn’t like that job.

After three weeks of employment, I went to my boss, and, in a strategy that would be repeated throughout my career, I asked to be relieved of the job I was currently doing, and demanded to be be given a job that would pay me considerably less money. For those who tend to stereotype Jewish people and crafty businesspeople – “Exhibit A” of “That’s not always true.”

In a voice trembling with “What the hell am I doing?”, I informed my boss that, rather than serve on the writing staff of a single series, I would, instead, write ten scripts (later reduced to eight) for the various series that MTM had on the air.

My boss said okay. I think he just wanted me out of his office. I may have been scaring him.

It turns out that there was a precedent at MTM – a precedent to a writer who didn’t want to be on staff, but just wanted to write scripts. The “precedent’s” name was David Lloyd. David wrote sixteen scripts a year. I was permitted to follow in his footsteps, albeit with half his output, and a percentage of his reliability.

The job lasted for three years, during which I wrote twenty-four episodes for the MTM company’s various series – the flagship Mary show, Phyllis, a show called Doc, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, The Tony Randall Show, and The Betty White Show.

I was given an office (and my own parking space) on the studio lot. The office wasn’t large. It had no window. When I was later moved, it was turned into the copy machine room. It was a good copy machine room. Copy machines don’t mind “no windows.”

Nor, really, did I. I had an office on the studio lot. (And my own parking space.)

Besides, directly opposite, was the door to the outside. I could look straight out my door and see fresh air and sunshine.

Frequently, seeing them wasn’t enough. At those times, I would take my pen and legal pad, and go outside, sit down on the steps, and work out there, sporting my standard attire, which was cutoff jeans shorts, a t-shirt and sandals.

The breeze was soft and warm. The sky was bright. Birds were chirping. You could smell orange blossoms. Sometimes, I would just stop what I was doing, and smile.

“Look at me. I’m writing in California.”

Before my second season, I was relocated to an office on the second floor of a two-floor Spanish-style building featuring a long verandah and a railing, the kind of railing movie bandidos flipped over after catching a bullet. The office was actually a dressing room. The adjoining private bathroom was bigger than my first office. And it came with a shower.

People who ran shows didn’t have that. It was the height of luxury. I could write for a while, and when the going got hot and heavy,

I could take a shower.

Directly below me was the studio barbershop, headquarters to an impeccably groomed elderly gentleman named Sol, who, in his day, had cut hair for many noteworthy celebrities, including Desi Arnaz. Sol set no fee for his services, asking instead, “How much do you want to pay?” And after dusting me off with a little brush doused in powder, he would always send me off with lemons from his backyard.

Many a lunchtime, I would pick up a sandwich at the commissary, and walk over to the “Gunsmoke Street”, the “Dodge City” exterior used on Gunsmoke – find a seat on a wooden bench where “Matt Dillon” might have chewed the fat with “Doc” or “Chester”, an imagined the dozens gunfights staged directly in front of where I was currently munching my “turkey on rye.”

The studio lot had the relaxed feel of a small town, college campus. Interspersed among the soundstages were little parks, some featuring statues and small fountains. Spanning the studio’s borders were “neighborhoods” of fifties-feeling tree lined streets, which served as exteriors for many long-running family comedies, such as My Three Sons.

So there was all of that.

And, as if all that weren’t enough, there was also included in the job working on the best comedy shows on television, learning my craft from the most talented teachers in the business.

But I’m not finished yet. There was also a feeling. Which I can best describe with a story.

Once, at the end of a script session for an episode I was about to write, in a moment of exuberance over doing precisely what I wanted to be doing, I said,

“This is fun.”

To which my boss shot back, “Yeah. Until you get scared.”

To which I replied, “Scared of what?”

More than anything, that blissful obliviousness is what made my three years writing scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Company my all-time favorite job.


benson said...

Really enjoy your blog. It's a nice compliment/ companion blog to Ken Levine's.

In the past couple of weeks, I've had an opportunity to see some MTM episodes which I hadn't seen in a long time, one of which was yours-Mary's Father, from season six. All those shows hold up very well and it's a testament to the quality of the writing and acting.

Max Clarke said...

“Look at me. I’m writing in California.”

Good post, captures the mood of working there.

Maybe sometime you can write about the work you did for Cheers. The episode Sam's Women helped create the character Sam Malone, and it showed us how bright and principled Diane Chambers was. One of my favorite episodes of the entire series is How Do I Love Thee.

Brian said...

Earl, that really does sound like the dream job of all time for any TV writer. And the way the TV business has changed, I'd go so far as to say that no job like that will ever exist again. You have both a wonderful and amazing body of work. Nice job, Earl.

A. Buck Short said...

What, you couldn't have turned in a 9th "Abby Singer" script? Alhough what little interaction I had with MTM was with a dramady rather than a sitcom, they seemed like a very happy shop, even the producers. I hope you've already gathered that I too have considerable respect for your oeuvre.

Matt said...

Earl - Thank you for your behind the scenes peak at MTM. When people talk about all that great TV in the 70s, they are talking about MTM. Quality shows. Magnificent casts and outstanding writing.

The "crown jewels" in my DVD library seem to be the MTM shows: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere.

Now, if only "Lou Grant" would find its way to DVD ...