Monday, September 30, 2013

"Going Backwards"

I think I know the reason for this (and if I’m right, then I have provided a misleading title, though, for me, this is hardly unusual and barely rates mentioning.)  It is possible, however, that I am egregiously off the mark.  Perhaps this writing will unearth some fresh insights.  Or maybe you will think of something and pass it along.  Should that, in fact, occur, I shall extract that modular hunk in my head that represents “faulty thinking” and replace it with a superior, albeit externally derived alternative.  I am not married to my mistakes.

Okay, what am I talking about?

I am talking about this.

Recently, they came out with the iPhone 5, placing me officially five iPhones behind the curve.  I still have a “flip” phone, which generally sits cradled on a table in our front hallway, and costs me two hundred and twenty-one dollars and seventy-six cents a year for the privilege of (almost) never using it.    

The point is, somebody believes that the iPhone 5 is an upgrade from the earlier iPhones, and I am in no position to dispute that.  Because I’m ignorant, and I don’t care.  (And I have no life, and nobody calls me.)

In the technological arena, “upgrades” are the necessitarian norm.  Nobody touts a new product as being “Not quite as good as what we’ve been selling you to this point.”  Everything must be newer and better.  “Newer” is easy.  You just make it later than the older stuff.  “Better”, they work hard on, and invariably, they come up with something.

“What’s on the Drawing Board?”


That doesn’t happen.

There is always something in the works.  And it is always, according to someone’s perspective, and hopefully the consumer’s perspective as well, an improvement. 


We move on to sitcom writing. 

Where the progression we see in technology does not seem to be the case.

My eyes were opened, or more accurately, re-opened to this contrast while reading the recounting of the Mary Tyler Moore Show saga in Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong  (Amazing.  Four post ideas from a book I didn’t care for.)  The book’s “epilogue” contains the discouraging but undeniable observation that “The television of the 1980’s (Mary and the equally groundbreaking though stylistically different All In The Family aired in the seventies) made it feel like the previous decade’s progressive television revolution had been nothing more than Mary’s Impossible Dream.  A return to vapid female roles and token people of color marked the superficial programming of an empty calorie decade.”

I knew that.  But the book’s reminder still jolted me.  In technology, the products always get better.  (With the exception of our new toaster-oven that toasts bread slower than the toaster I recall growing up with in the fifties.)  In sitcoms, after a decade of hard-hitting and real-feeling comedies, things went noticeably qualitatively backwards. 

Think:  Three’s Company, Different Strokes, Co-ed Fever and What’s Happening!!   

It was like, after ten years of substantially reality-based entertainment, the audience said, “My head hurts!  Bring me vacuous comedies!”

Or, more precisely, “No more education and illumination.  I just want to laugh.”

Times change.  The sixties spawned consciousness-raising comedies.  The seventies said, “Enough learning and growing!  Bring on Disco!”

Responding to an apparently immutable Law of Nature, a glut of one thing – even a good thing – spawned a clamoring for its opposite.  This is the quintessential “Fashion Cycle”, and entertainment is simply another branch of fashion (Take it from a writer who was once demonstrably fashionable and now, equally demonstrably, is not.) 

It’s wide ties; it’s narrow ties.  It’s short skirts; it’s long skirts.  Common sense is not an issue.  Legs could be your not most attractive attribute, but “Mini-skirt Season” hits (after a spate of its opposite), and up go the hemlines. 

“But I don’t want them up.”

“Hey, there’s only two directions they can go.  And they just finished being down.”

“Why don’t I just stick with what I’ve got.”

“You can do that.  But you’re not going to be popular.”

My mother once overheard a conversation in a bakery where a kid was complaining about the cookie assortment, and his mother said, “What do you mean?  There are a hundred different kinds of cookies here.”  To which the kid angrily replied, “Yeah, but it’s always the same hundred.”

An era brings us an array of comedies that do no insult our intelligence.   And, simply because of the desire for a change, the next cycle brings us an entirely different array that do.

A glut.  A reaction.  And an inevitable reversal.

That’s my explanation for why half-hour comedies, once smart and reality-based, reversed themselves and became broader and stupider. 

Feel free to offer an explanation of your own.
A recent reader asked how they could access "Story of a Writer",  an extended series I wrote a while or two back.  I don't know, couldn't you just write, "Story of a Writer" is the "Search" place and it will pop up?  If that's wrong, please let me know, because I would really like anyone interested to have a chance to read it.


Friday, September 27, 2013

"That Close"

This blog post is directed particularly to people who took a shot at show business, but things did not satisfactorily work out.  You can file it under “Luck and Timing.”

Reading Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong – I am getting a lot of mileage out of this book, which is not to say I recommend it; I actually find it kind of superficial – I was reminded of how close we who attain some measure of success in show business come to falling completely off the radar screen and ending up in another line of work.

Case in Point:

CBS originally hated The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Required to produce thirteen episodes of it because of Mary’s accumulated clout (she had scored big on The Dick Van Dyke Show), the naysaying network scheduled it in a timeslot where it was almost certain to rate lowly and be cancelled.  (Thus proving the brilliance of the executives who had predicted that it would.  A show can be extremely promising, but the wrong time slot – a weak or incompatible surrounding lineup – can still cause it to fail.  Everybody Loves Raymond died on Fridays night, and blossomed into a super-hit when it was moved to Mondays.)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was ostensibly doomed. 

And then, something happened.

(Note:  We are ignoring whether The Mary Tyler Moore Show was good.  It was obviously really good, CBS’s strongly negative response saying more about their executives than about the show.  What this post is about is not “quality will out”; sometimes it outs, and sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s about the external factors that affect the fate of a series, and the ultimate fates of its participants.)

In the Mary situation:

CBS had been the “Number One” network, due to the success of its rural-skewing programming such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw and Petticoat Junction.  But as the song goes, the times – the late sixties and early seventies – they were a-chan…gin.’

In an early incarnation in audience demographic measurement – before then, the audience was simply counted by the “number of eyeballs” divided by two – give or take the odd Cyclops viewer.  Now advertisers were pressing for, rather than merely volume, a specific type of audience, that type being – unban and younger.

Suddenly, with a change of network presidents, as cornpone comedian Pat Buttram observed, “everything with a tree in it” was cancelled.  Instead of “lowest common denominator” programming, the replacement shows would be smarter and younger, with an upscale – Read: “No haystacks” – sensibility. 

Did CBS have anything like that in the pipeline?  Why, yes, sir. 

They had The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And that, children, is how a show that was once deemed a network pariah became a show with a more propitious timeslot and enhanced corporate support. 

Think about that for a second.  If The Mary Tyler Moore Show had been pitched a season or two earlier, it would have succumbed unnoticed in its sleep (with a network executive pressing down the pillow.)  Forget about “a season or two earlier.”  Only months earlier, the Mary show was out of sync the rest of CBS’s schedule.  Then, in a fortuitous twist of topsy and turvy, the majority of the other network’s shows were adjudged “out of sync with the zeitgeist”, and – Presto!  Chango! – the Mary show became the savior. 

The odds were huge that this was not going to happen. 

But it did.

Okay, that’s their “that close” (to not happening) story. 

And now – mine. 

After submitting a two-page outline for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I am brought in by the producers, Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, who help me develop it into a complete episode, and then dispatch me to write the script.  Our meeting takes place during a hiatus period, where, being temporarily out of production between seasons, producers have some breathing room, allowing them an opportunity to take a look at new writers. 

Like me.

As luck would have it – and will shortly see what I mean by that – Jim Brooks, Mary’s gifted though somewhat mercurial co-creator is at the time out of town on a “hiatus vacation.”  When he returns to the office, he asks Ed. and Stan who work under him what he had missed while he was away. 

Jim is informed that they had met with a talented new writer, and they had sent him off to write a script based on a notion he had originally brought in.  Jim asks them what the idea is and they tell him:

“Mary believes that a priest is leaving the priesthood because he is in love with her.”

Jim Brooks responds, with his trademark volcanic passion, “I hate that idea!”  He demands that they call the writer (if you’ve lost track, “the writer” in this scenario is me) and tell him to cease and desist from completing the script post haste.

It is explained to Jim that contractually, even if he were instructed to stop, the writer would still have to be paid.  Why not, it is proposed, let him finish the script and see how it turns out?  Acceding to this reasoning, Mr. Brooks reluctantly relents.

(Note:  I had no idea at the time that any of this was going on, and did not find out until a number of years later.)

Long story, slightly shorter:  The Mary script, when submitted, was positively received.  The episode is filmed, and the writer goes on to a respectable career in situation comedy.

In the end, The Mary Tyler Moore Show made history.  And I did not become history.

But it almost didn’t happen. 

It was “that close.”

And, experience tells me, with a surprising number of “success stories”…

It invariably is.
A self-serving - though it may serve you as well - proposal:

Having heard from some readers who have joined up along the way, it occurred to me that some of you, especially those with show business propensities, might appreciate my previously published "Story of a Writer" series, that I put out a number of years ago.  Remember, just because something's old doesn't necessarily mean it smells funny.  It may be worth checking out.  In fact, I intend to go back to it myself sometime, to see if there are any gaps in the odyssey that I can fill in.

Just a suggestion.

For extra credit.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"A Missing Moment"

This is a strange one.  It may not even qualify as a blog post.  Unless “surprise and dismay” can be considered story-worthy.  And I’d be surprised and dismayed if it couldn’t.  Check it out.  And if it ends up being a time-waster for you, send me your name and address and I’ll send you a quarter.  Nobody should have their time wasted for nothing.

Okay, for those who are left, here we go.

I can remember watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show regularly on Saturday nights.  I can see myself sitting on the basement floor of a friend’s house, absorbing every moment of the sitcom which I considered from its inception to be indisputably top-o’-the-line.  Okay, not every moment.  It being Saturday night, there were always quick “switch-aways” to the local (Canadian) CBC station for updates on the hockey game.  I mean, I loved Mary, but the Leafs were playing!

In 1974, I relocated to Los Angeles for work, and a year later, I wrote a script for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  This transformation is still amazing to me.  I love and admire the heck out of this show as a viewer, and, like, a blink-of-an-eye later, I am writing for that self-same series. 

I have mentioned this descriptive before, but it seemed that almost literally – a phrase which make no literal sense, but still… – almost literally, I had gotten up from that basement floor, stepped through the television screen, and suddenly, I was on the other side, working on the show I had previously worshipped.  Take a moment to be me, and imagine how that felt.

During subsequent television seasons, I would write scripts for a number of Mary Tyler Moore Company series – Rhoda, Doc, The Bob Newhart Show, The Tony Randall Show and, of course, Mary.  One of my Mary scripts, “Ted’s Change of Heart”, won the Humanitas Prize and was nominated for an Emmy.  The show I lost to Mary’s “Final Episode”, for which six writers were credited.  I felt gratified that it took half a dozen writers to beat me.  But I would preferred to have won.

It is, in fact, that final Mary episode that is the subject of this meandering.

I am writing eight episodes per season (for all the shows), which included four episodes (over two seasons) of Mary.  It was actually a demand that the Mary assignments be part of my seasonal workload, though, as the bottom man on the totem pole, the amazement that I was making demands is exceeded only by the fact that my bosses were agreeing to them.

The Mary show meant everything to me.  It was, first, my inspiration and later, a ”Certificate of Approval.”  In a relatively short period, I had advanced from “audience member” to a player on the roster of The New York Yankees of half-hour comedy.

I am reading this book about the show entitled May And Lou and Rhoda And Ted written by Jennifer Keisin Armstrong (in which I am not mentioned, which is understandable due to my comparatively minimal participation and the fact that the book’s agenda focuses primarily on how the Mary show opened the door for female writers) and I arrive at the chapter chronicling the 168th and final episode of the beloved Mary Tyler Moore Show, its broadcast watched by tens of millions of people.  (I tried to research the actual number, but I got tired and gave up.  I am sure it was a big one. 

 So I’m reading this chapter, when suddenly, a question flashes blindingly in my mind.

There was an historical and emotional filming of the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a show I revered and had benefitted personally from participating in.

And I could not remember attending that filming. 

I certainly would have if I could have, don’t you think?  He asked strangers, though he is really asking himself?

Then why didn’t I?

I suppose I could have been out of town.  But what would have been so important elsewhere for me to deliberately absent myself from a landmark moment in television history?

I think about the possibilities and draw a Black Holishly total blank.

Though the audience for that final filming was specially selected, I cannot imagine that I would not have been invited, and me being me, I certainly can’t imagine not being invited and not retaining a thirty-six year-old grudge about it.  I hold grudges about things considerably less significant than that.  Once at Christmas, they gave out MTM (with the cat logo on them) belt buckles, and they neglected to give one to me.  I am still steaming about that one.  So it seems unlikely I’d have forgiven the considerably greater slight of not getting invited to the final taping.

For some reason, however, I, bizarrely it now seems in retrospect, did not attend.

The only explanation I can think of is that somehow, despite tangible evidence to the contrary, I did not feel an integral part of things, and felt therefore unworthy of taking up a seat.    

That sounds like me.  Although hardly me at my best.  Misplaced self-diminution  could very well be the reason for my absence.  Though there are certainly other possibilities. now buried in the obscurational mists of time.

I cannot tell you what a jolt I got reading the book and realizing that a monumental moment had taken place that would have – certainly should have – mattered to me tremendously, and I simply, and pretty much inexplicably, was somewhere else.

I wonder where I was?

And why wasn’t I there?