Thursday, November 10, 2011

"The Flying Dutchman"

As I recall, “The Flying Dutchman” was an old-time sailing ship that, from a distance appeared as if all was well – the sails unfurled and catching the wind, the ship bobbing slowly but steadily ahead. But on closer examination, when you climbed onboard, it was a “Ghost Ship.” There was nobody there. (An alternate I’ve seen in pirate pictures – my second favorite kind of movie, after westerns – was that the ship, though unresponsive, seemed okay, but when you went onboard, everybody was dead.)

I endured a similar experience. Though on a television show, rather than a sailing ship of old.

I remember when we got the news. It was late at night, and I and my Best of the West writing staff – made up of myself and two other writers (good writers; one went on to write the movie Good Morning, Viet Nam, the other co-developed The Simpsons; that’s right, my entire writing staff was two people) were toiling away in my office, rewriting Episode Nineteen (of an order for twenty-two).

For me, these rewrite sessions felt like wading through molasses. Working when you’re exhausted, trying to fix a script you once thought was okay – or you would never have put down the stuff that turned out not to be okay in the first place. It was an arduous, bleak, soul-pummeling slog. Hardly the most fertile terrain for nurturing hilarity. Yet there we were, trying to make America (and neighbouring Canada) laugh.

(A similar low point triggered one of my most telling, and simultaneously most self-pitying, pronouncements: “There must be an easier way to make three hundred thousand dollars a year.” A beaten man, lacking all perspective.)

One of the numerous reasons I was an inadequate show runner was that I didn’t know what I wanted. Writers would pitch jokes – sometimes I’d laugh, sometimes I wouldn’t – but either way, the “pitches” just didn’t seem “right.” What was “right”? Paraphrasing the Supreme Court justice, opining on pornography, “I may not be able to say what it is, but I’ll know it when I hear it.”

I rarely heard it. And being unable to define “what it is” myself, I was voiceless in communicating what I wanted to my staff. That’s why it took so long,

Anyway, the clock was lurching towards midnight. We were on, like, Page 8 of a rewrite of an, approximately, fifty page script. We were stuck on one joke – meaning we needed to replace a joke that was in the script with a funny joke – seemingly for hours.

Then, a man appeared at my door. It was my boss. Along with my visceral fear that I was about to be reprimanded, I also felt guilty when my boss materialized. And with good reason. On those not infrequent occasions when I was required to come in on the weekends – and my boss was not – I would regularly trespass into his office and pilfer cigars from his humidor. A minor, arguably pathetic, act of rebellion. My way of saying, “You may not have to work today, but it’s costing you Havanas.”

A further justification for my thievery?

My boss, and his partner, had supervised Best of the West from its inception, through the pilot process, to its selection on the schedule, to its full-time production as a series. With their superlative track record, the duo were trusted by the networks, whereas I, a good writer with no production record and a wavering temperament, was not.

As a reward for their involvement, my boss and his partner, without apprising me beforehand, stamped their production company’s brand on a show I created. This was hardly unprecedented – veterans shepherding neophytes in exchange for production credit. But the “ownership grab” is generally conducted transparently.

I assertively voiced my displeasure. They apologized. But it wasn’t enough. So I took some cigars.

As it turned out, my boss’s visit had nothing to do with tobacco theft. It was, instead, to inform us of this:

“ABC called. They’re cancelling the show. But we have to complete the order.”

The cancellation was a shock, though not a surprise. After an encouraging beginning – the Best of the West pilot ranked seventh in the weekly ratings – the numbers took a precipitous slide. The most recent ratings placed us last.

This was hardly unexpected. We had premiered against Tom Selleck’s new series, Magnum P.I., which quickly became a national phenomenon. (I could tell we were in trouble when, while standing at the checkout counter in the supermarket, I noticed that all the tabloids boasted a scarily handsome Tom Selleck smiling dimplingly from their covers. Best of the West? No covers. No articles.)

Experiencing a continual drubbing, ABC strategically moved Best of the West to a different time slot. Friday at nine. Against Dallas. The Number One show in the country. Their strategy, apparently, was to get Best of the West cancelled. And they succeeded. This was somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy. The ABC higher-ups had never championed the show.

I don’t recall whether the actors and production crew were aware of the cancellation. It would seem like they had to be. Variety would have reported it in their paper. (And my boss likely clued them in as well.) All I remember is the way it felt. People avoiding each others’ eyes, hiding from the stinging acknowledgment of failure.

The usual frantic pace seemed noticeably slower. Legs felt unnaturally heavy; voices funereally subdued. Everyone kept trying, but beneath our ongoing efforts to make the show better lay the not unreasonable question:


Why? Because we were professionals. And that’s what professionals do. We make things better, whether it matters anymore, or not.

Still, the effort produced an eerie, almost creepy “Lost Dutchman” kind of sensation. Going through the motions of making a show – three more episodes of that show, to be accurate – that in reality

Was already dead.


Frank said...

With so many movies being made from old tv shows maybe one day Best of the West might fire up again.

YEKIMI said...

Yes, especially since they've announced that they're going to remake "The Rifleman"

Mac said...

Loved that show. It was must-see TV in my house. Disappointing that it didn't catch on.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

So did you come up with the joke?

Word Verification this time: ingutfun. Which is probably the word to describe your feeling of "I know it when I hear it".