Monday, June 12, 2017

"What I Did Sometimes"

I had planned to write something else today, about how certain procedures are much different today, referencing baseball and half-hour comedy writing, but I thought another “Things were better then” story can wait, at least till tomorrow, as it is unlikely those certain procedures will switch back again in one day, so its relevance will likely survive the interim and I will not have to throw it away.  The delay also provides time for me to rethink whether things actually were better then or if I was just younger and everything’s better when you are further from the End.

Instead, what came to mind this morning was the recollection of a thing I once did at work, which offers an explicatory glimpse into why people on respected TV shows were willing to have me around, a dream-come-true situation I could never, even to this day, entirely understand.  It definitely wasn’t because my parking skills, as I was frequently rebuked for inadvertently filling two spaces, requiring me to exit meaningful meetings to resituate my car.  

It might, however, have been this.

In 1977, I was working for the Mary Tyler Moore Company, contracted to write eight scripts per season for the various series the production juggernaut had on the air, among them, the Mary show, Phyllis, Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Tony Randall Show. 

This was, as has been mentioned elsewhere, the happiest time of my career.  I wrote scripts in an office I was provided, and I went home around four.  Others worked late into the night and had to deal with actors and network executives – they made numerous multiples of my salary, but I didn’t care, because, looping the sentence back around, others worked late into the night and had to deal with actors and network executives. 

When I arrived, the Mary show was in its sixth season, so that, unlike the other series I wrote for, there was a certainty it would go into syndication.  I insisted that at least a couple of my episode assignments be on Mary, partly because it was, everyone agreed – except those preferring All in the Family – the preeminent comedy on television and I intensely wanted to be identified with it, but also because of the guaranteed syndication residuals.  Who said you can’t have standards and be mercenary at the same time?  No one?  Well, me neither.

By its seventh season The Mary Tyler Moore Show was inevitably losing some of its steam.  The show’s storylines were getting thin – I believe there was a “bad haircut” episode.  I wanted to write an episode that mattered.  So, armed with a notion of a possibility, at the next story meeting, I chirped, “Let’s give somebody a heart attack.”

And they went for it.  They decided that Ted Baxter, the egotistical news anchor would receive a “television heart attack”, where it doesn’t hurt much and nobody dies.

The next step was the story’s specific development.  “What happens after Ted Baxter experiences a heart attack?”

My boss goes, “So, what?  He comes back and uses his heart attack as an excuse to shirt his responsibilities and have everyone waiting on him hand and foot?”

My reflexive answer – meaning I had given absolutely no thought to the matter beforehand – was “No.”

It could have been “Yes.”  A workable storyline could have been developed around, “Don’t touch my heart!” in which Ted Baxter milks the consequence of his cardiac episode for all its worth.  That’s exactly what you’d expect from Ted, exploiting his temporary infirmity to the ultimate “max.”

After becoming thoroughly exasperated by Ted’s excesses and demands, the story could evolve into his coworkers understanding that, deep down, Ted is afraid to re-shoulder to his previous workload, and therefore, for his own good, they have to – gently and sensitively, and if that doesn’t work, forcefully – “encourage” Ted to climb rehabilitatingly back onto the horse.

That’s a story.  You could do that episode.

But somebody said, “No.”

And that somebody was me – the least significant person in the room.  To whom the responsibility now fell to justify that “No” with a superior alternative.

Which I, fortunately came up with on the spot.  “Fortunately”, because, if I hadn’t, I’d have had to write a “Don’t Touch My Heart” episode and that would not have been satisfying.  It’s hard to make “eminently surprising” out of the “yawningly predictable.”  You can make it funny, because you’re funny.  But you cannot make it a standout.

What I suggested, on the spur of the moment – if I have not sufficiently patted myself on the back – is that Ted returns from his heart attack hiatus a radically altered individual, a man who is now loving, considerate and, most importantly, deeply appreciative of glorious miracle of being alive.

Admirable sentiments.  Unless they are taken egregiously “over the top.”

Which is exactly what Ted does. 
(At one point, Ted demands that everyone stop what they’re doing to appreciate the awe-inspiring qualities of salt.)

As result, rather than irritating his coworkers to the breaking point with an inflated rendition of his traditional narcissism, Ted Baxter instead irritates his coworkers to the breaking point in a diametrically opposite direction.

That’s surprising. 

And the idea for it was mine.

Ted’s Change of Heart went on to win The Humanitas Prize and an Emmy Award nomination for the writer, so apparently some people felt it was all right.  (Although, ironically and somewhat disappointingly, not Mary, whose reaction after screening the episode was, “Strange show.”)

If there was any reason to keep me around, it related to my enthusiasm for shaking things up and my ability to see things from a unique and original perspective. 

That was, thankfully, enough.

Because my concomitant attributes – my unwillingness to work full time, my highly limited social skills and my more limited ability to pull big jokes out of the air?  That recipe’s a one-way ticket to “YYZ”  *

*  Toronto International Airport  (and that’s with a “zed.”)

No comments: