I was trying to sell a series.
It was the 1989 “Pilot Season” and…
Wait. First, a some illuminating (and always fascinating) background.
I had what they call an “Overall Deal” at Universal. That meant that, for the duration of the contract – which in that case was two years – I worked exclusively for that studio. They gave me an office, a Personal Assistant and a paycheck (and, because I was unwilling to traverse three freeways to get there, a personal driver.) My job – to come up with viable series ideas we could sell to one of the three available purchasers, CBS, NBC and ABC.
Gerald McRaney was just ending a successful (Universal owned and produced) show called Simon & Simon, an hour-long detective series on CBS (1981-89.) Wanting to stay in the game, McRaney and one of Simon & Simon’sproducer/writers thought up an idea for a new half-hour comedy vehicle for McRaney, about a veteran Marine father, raising three children alone.
Around that point, the president of Universal Television asked if I was interested in helping develop that series. I was unaware of its premise at the time, just that Gerald McRaney was participating in it. I has seen Gerald McRaney in an unsold pilot, and immediately intuited his comedic potential – his dry, understated humor and grounding actorial presence.
I agreed to come aboard on the project.
Our first pitch, at ABC, was a disaster. The idea sounded “so 1964.” (Meaning, “so My Three Sons”, which actually appeared in 1964.) Also Mr. McRaney proclaimed first and foremost his insistence on the proposed show’s scrupulous authenticity. Nobody cared. Who watches a sitcom for its documentary-like adherence to detail? (Though it would be nice if it weren’t stupid.) Later that day, the president of ABC called me with the logical follow-up question: “Is that guy for real?”
The CBS “Pitch Meeting” – a “courtesy outing”, as Simon & Simon had done very well for the network – went better. (The relevant bar being frighteningly low.) But there was still little enthusiasm for the project, I think because they could (understandably) not see the “funny” in it.
And then the tide turned.
An executive at CBSsuggested a “structural adjustment” to the concept. Rather than a veteran Marine, raising three children alone, how about a veteran Marine, marrying a “liberal” journalist with three daughters?
You see the increased “funny” in that?
“Comedy Conflict.” She’s from an entirely different ideological eco-system. And everyone around – save the veteran Marine – is a female.
With the rejiggered series concept, CBS was encouraged enough to order a pilot. (It generally “ups” their excitement when the “rejiggered concept” idea emanates from them.)
Now…what for the first line of this blog post again? Oh, yeah.
“I was trying to sell a series.”
And that’s what this is about.
“What’s what this is about?”
Hold on and I’ll tell you.
What it’s about is the available “weapons” – beyond my superior writing ability – to set Major Dad off sufficiently from the competing pilots, earning it a slot on CBS’s upcoming “Fall Schedule.”
Here’s the thing. (To which I alluded in the previous post.)
Back then – and to some degree, judging by its content, still– commercial networks employ strict, literally codified “Standards and Practices”, limiting a show’s acceptable language, behavior and subject matter. A commonly heard reason a joke needed to be rewritten:
“‘Standards and Practices’ nixed it.”
So there you go. If you want to participate in the “Television Sweepstakes”, you had to obediently “color within the lines.” This process, which, although often bristling, we inevitably accepted, was like writing with one arm tied behind your back. Not literally – which is possible, but slower – but creatively.
The under-recognized marvel is that the writers of that era were able to produce sitcoms audiences in large numbers were willing to come to, despite the censoring rules on “language, behavior and subject matter” the shows airing on cable and streaming services are unburdened with today. True, there were limited viewing alternatives. But no one was making you watch anything.
What was available to me for Major Dad? Beyond the admittedly likeable actor? (Which, today, even thatis not necessary, and may actually be an impediment to success.)
As already mentioned, I had the dueling “Fishes out of Water” – a veteran Marine, surrounded exclusively by females and an outspoken “Modern Woman”, with no experience with the military. (And the unbending specimen the military conventionally turns out.)
Comedically, that’s a lot to work with, none of which challenged the barbed wire constrictions of “Standards and Practices.” Still, I knew it wasn’t enough for, “We need this sitcom!”
What then occurred to me was a bold, attention-soliciting “wrinkle.”
Instead of the couple being already married in “Episode One” – I had the Marine propose to the liberal journalist in the pilot.
They had known each other less than a week. But, as the veteran Marine explained, concerning his crystallizing decision:
“See the hill, take the hill.”
It was a tough fight, getting the network to approve the unconventional pilot storyline. But, since the idea contradicted no standard beyond the indefensible – though highly determinative – “We’ve never done that before”, CBS reluctantly agreed.
We had a wonderful “live audience” filming – an audience of one-third Marines – and Major Dad was picked up for series. (Running for four seasons.)
The point is, it not easy to surprise an audience when your creative “Toolbox of Surprises” consists of “a ruler, a hammer and three nails.”
But somehow it got done. (A recent commenter praised Taxi for its distinguishing quality.)
So today, let us give praise to the (oft maligned) people who regularly pulled that “creation-within-limits” minor miracle off.
They had little to work with.
Yet thirty million people showed up weekly to watch.