A one-time TV comedy writer must clean up classrooms as well as his career. 1,249 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Decades ago, I made an impressive living as a writer and producer of network sitcoms, shows such as Full House and Growing Pains, that were aimed at a kid audience. They were frothy, bouncy entertainments that portrayed family life in the late twentieth century United States through decidedly rose-colored glasses. But even then I had a darker vision of America, one that acknowledges life’s limitless complexities, that embraces the tragic elements of existence as well as the comic. So the original half-hour series I pitched were directed at adults – a Vietnam War comedy, a lesbian laugher, etc.
And because I was pigeonholed as a “children’s sitcom writer,” I was unable to sell any of those ideas. Upon leaving more than one executive’s office, I was certain I could hear, through the slammed door, unrestrained derisive laughter.
In my eighteen years as an elementary school janitor I’ve had abundant opportunity to contemplate my comedy life. So much time squandered on bitterness at an industry I deeply felt had wronged me! But recently, other setbacks – a second divorce, the refusal of my beloved daughter Isabel to answer my phone calls, a minor concussion from a fall in the second-floor girls’ bathroom – have motivated me to take responsibility for my life, to look inward, to ruminate on what choices I might have made to avoid my current professional circumstances.
Pondering my situation yesterday morning while plunging a clogged toilet in that same bathroom, I recalled a quotation from William James: “Invent some manner of realizing your own ideals which will also satisfy the alien demands – that and that only is the path of peace.”
A light went off in my head.
The realization struck me like a thunderbolt: in conceiving those comedy series so many years ago, I, in my youthful arrogance, had refused to compromise my vision whatsoever, to in any way consider those “alien demands”!
It’s impossible to overstate the relief I felt. This insight changed everything for me, not necessarily with my ex-wives or estranged child or the throbbing in my skull, but as a writer-producer of TV comedy. If the networks insisted that a “children’s sitcom writer” create only a children’s sitcom, that’s what I would do – or rather, appear to do.
I would create an adult series disguised as a children’s series! A sunny, optimistic show for kids imbued with the type of darker, more adult sensibility I’ve always considered an ineluctable part of my worldview.
But what series?
I’ve long held that to be a hit, a situation comedy must capture the national spirit, must catch and ride that terrifying but thrilling 40-foot wave of contemporary American culture. So I asked myself: What’s everyone talking about? I must admit that at first I found myself stumped, as over these past couple of decades I’ve inclined toward, as Voltaire wrote, “cultivating my own garden.” But then I realized: with whom was I brushing shoulders five days a week during those moments when I wasn’t cleaning their stomach-turning messes?
My new target audience.
I raced out of the bathroom, exhilarated with anticipation of the impending barrage of pre-adolescent chatter. And, finally, luck was with me – it was lunchtime and the hallway was crowded with fifth grade students in addition to the teachers who stood in the doorways and seemed to enjoy ogling a professional comedy writer.
I saw that many of the students gripped cell phones. I was electrified – but not by their conversations.
I discerned immediately that a hearty proportion of these soon-to-blossom children were using their phones not to talk or text, but to take photographs and videos and then examine them, send them and examine others. I recalled what I’d gleaned about Facebook, Twitter and other what I believe are referred to generically as “Social Media.” We now live in a world where everything is recorded. Today’s kids post pictures online of their clothes, their pets, their genitals, even their food.
I grasped it at once: today’s children are voyeurs. Our kids live to watch.
And not only kids but adults – the real target of my prospective series! – who sit glued to television screens seven, eight, nine hours a day and cell phones or tablets or personal computers the rest of their waking hours.
My mandate was clear. I would create a “children’s” show about watching. About voyeurs. And I knew instantly how I’d do it. In one of my favorite films, I had the perfect model on which to base my series.
That evening, I sat down to write my pilot. The words – and jokes! – flowed like never before. Although disappointed that my daughter Isabel had ignored my twelfth call of the day – my daily allotment, to which I strictly confine myself to ensure that I won’t become a nuisance – I was on the writing roll of a lifetime.
Eighteen minutes before I had to leave for my early morning round of cleaning out my school, I wrote “THE END” in my tiny tidy cursive –- impossible for anyone spying on me to decipher!
You’ll read what this series is and say, No way can this has-been whose main claim to fame is writing the colonoscopy episode of Mr. Belvedere pull this off.
A network sitcom for kids based on a nearly sixty-year-old movie? That features a photographer whose psychologist father filmed him as a subject for studies of fear? And becomes so scarred emotionally that he splits his nights between shooting pornographic photos and searching for women to murder? As he films their terrified reactions?
A film that permanently ruined a major director’s career? That one contemporary critic wrote “should be disposed of, thrown into a sewer, but even then the stench would remain”? And another claimed “is more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta”?
But open yourself to the possibility that I’ve performed an astonishing act of Hollywood jujitsu, using the very elements that so discomfited the audiences of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. It’s a film finally considered widely to be a masterpiece – Thank you, Mr. Scorsese! — to draw both children and adult viewers into a mainstream show that’s inspiring, poignant, disturbing and, of course, laugh-out-loud funny.
A show about the electronic temptations of today’s kids and the teachers and janitors who struggle to help them (and each other!) be wary and clean in restrooms, classrooms and other public spaces, and to realize their exciting potential in this harrowing but hilarious world of ours. A show that features a schoolhouse family that jokes, hurts, and loves – just like the Tanners of Full House did, and the Seavers of Growing Pains.
As some of Hollywood’s top agents returned my previous eleven spec pilots unopened, I offer to industry decision-makers, exclusively here on HollywoodDementia.com (Nikki, I was kidding about the ransom thing), this teaser which is just a taste of my game-changing new comedy series.
Want the juicy details about our cast of characters? Want the inspirational story arcs for our first season? Want to read my pilot script?
As I’m between apartments, contact me at Randall Cunningham Elementary School in Escondido, California at 714-555-7304. If I’m not there, speak slowly to Ramon and make sure he takes a message. And, Isabel, if you read this, please call me. Your Daddy loves you.
This story first posted here on July 25, 2016. Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season