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.  


Rick Steevezz said...

A Joe Sheehan piece in last week's Sports Illustrated covered this theme, but focused on Derek Jeter instead of Mary Richards. Interesting stuff. It does apply to all us.

pumpkinhead said...

I second your recommendation that new readers go back to your Story of a Writer series. Good stuff.

Frank said...

Funny to see the mentality of network executives has not changed at all through out the years. After viewing a few of this years pilots maybe they will be soon thinking about revamping 'The Beverley Hillbillies' starring some rich hip hop family who join the Republican Party.

Louis Castaing said...

How can I find the Story of a Writer?

Mike said...

@Louis Castaing: Click here and use the Navigator on the right hand side of the screen (February 2008).

@Frank: Wasn't that the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?