A great sitcom writer has disappeared. Who or what caused it? And why? 2,449 words. Part Two. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Was that a backfire or a punch thrown by an animated super hero? Perhaps I was in an Adam West Batman episode. I had no idea what was real and what was a cult classic.
Of course it could have been both a backfire and a punch happening simultaneously, a contrived scenario much like the moment a sitcom character alludes to “the one thing that would never happen,” and much to the surprise of the viewer – wait for it – it does. You never see it coming, that is, unless you’ve ever seen any film or television show.
No, that was definitely a backfire. I have got to find some mechanic I can trust.
Christ. I’m staked out in front of the mega-mansion owned by Larry David, the celebrated star/creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm and co-creator of Seinfeld, just hoping I might be able to snag that long-awaited magazine interview we’d arranged. Now I’m stinking up the driveway with explosions produced by a running internal combustion engine that occurs in the air intake or exhaust system rather than inside the combustion chamber. Wikipedia is such a great source for car repair information.
I turned off the engine and jumped out of my car. My heady prudence came coincidentally from my friend Prudence who once revealed to me the secret that had prevented me from putting courage ahead of safety: “The only thing worse than an unemployed writer? An ignored unemployed writer.”
I cautiously snuck around to the back of Larry’s house where the tallest penguin I’d ever seen raced out and climbed into a waiting car. Stumbled more than climbed. I soon realized it wasn’t a penguin at all, but a tuxedoed Michael Richards, whose Seinfeld character’s signature was some variation of a back or forward fall through Jerry’s door. He was sweating so much that the charcoal covering his face dripped off leaving an ebony trail running up to the skid marks left by the getaway Fiat that roared off into the dark.
I moved to the window and what I saw sent a shock through my entire body. In the middle of a large opulent bedroom sat an enormous netted divan. Almost swallowed up by a bevy of large, fluffy and vibrant colored pillows lay Larry David. Wait. It wasn’t Larry David. It was only his clothes, from shirt down to his soft leopard slippers, as if he had been sucked out of them.
But next to where his head should have been appeared to be a puddle of deep red goo.
I couldn’t help thinking that something was wrong.
A few days before, I had garnered an interview with the one writer/producer who had inspired me to go into writing in the first place … Larry David. My work for Writing Words That Talk, a TV/film industry magazine, didn’t pay all that well but did present me with the opportunity to meet many of the most prolific scribes in film and television. In 24 hours, Larry and I would be getting together to do the interview.
I had always wondered how someone so seemingly unsophisticated in the ways of networking, so absolutely contrary to what I had thought was needed to become a success, had fashioned a killer career. He was, in short, my hero.
As for me, I’ve had a modicum of success as a comedy writer. Modicum is the type of success that forces you to remortgage your home, if you still have a home to remortgage, and utilize the two most important words in a writer’s survival jargon: balance transfer. Even then, there can be obstacles.
I’ve written for primetime television constructing a lackluster career on the back of any friends who were in a position to hire me to write a script or, God willing, get me on staff. Getting on staff brings about a hefty salary, healthy health benefits and calls returned from your agent. Dreams of long term employment, a lifetime of residuals and syndication after five years of airing replays of shows that in many instances are not based on any reasonable audience thought processes, are dashed immediately coinciding with the first network notes of the season.
If I was going to write about Larry David, I’d first have to study him, his every move, his diet, his lack of dieting, his clothing and how in the world his shirts became all the rage. I’d have to know his likes and dislikes, crawl inside his skin and feel what he feels, think what he thinks.
For instance, have you ever wondered how or why network television continues to produce so much mindless crap?
There are exceptions. Only kidding. There aren’t. They are more what the industry refers technically to as “flukes.” Quality sometimes squeaks through, but only when a network makes a deal with a producer icon and the network honchos figure they can ride some sort of The Producer Who Brought You Our Last Hit marketing cachet. This sets up a small window where the showrunner gets the opportunity to actually take a risk in the form of content original and clever, probably pretty damn good. Truth be known, or at least leaked, risk is something the network bigwigs would never risk. Too much of a risk. It’s the cover-your-ass hypothesis and their asses are much too valuable to them to gamble on someone else’s courage.
There are plenty of stated reasons for bad shows. Some say it’s because there is no imagination in network management. That’s not true. Kidding again. It is true. The last time these people used their imagination was when they imagined they could be writers. They’re much more interested in what they think will work. And they fail miserably at that. The math proves it. About a day after a network decides what will go on the new schedule, programs that the powers-to-be will proudly promote as potential hits at the annual TV critics’ conclave, they begin the search for the next season’s shows to replace almost all of the shows they have promoted proudly to be this season’s hits.
Here’s how it doesn’t work. A producer/writer pitches an idea to the network. About three hundred of these ideas are deemed brilliant enough by the network to give it a go or what is known as putting it into development. This is also known as development hell. They’re interchangeable. Still, at this point, the writer’s concept is allowed to be imaginative, even, heart be still, smart.
Money is given to the writer to expand the idea into a pilot script. The writer goes home and excuses his wife and kids, if he’s old enough to have them, from his life. Then there are a few hundred, give or take, drafts. He gets feedback from friends he trusts. These are people in close proximity who pray that the writer/producer’s script gets made so that they might get hired on his staff. If the show does not get picked up, these friends will stop reading the writer’s scripts, unless he picks up their checks at Art’s Deli.
Finally, he turns it in to the network. At this point, about one hundred producers get their pilots ordered and shot.
Without going through the entire process in which the hell part of development hell is permanently affixed, some fifty new shows get named to the new fall (or as Fox puts it, anytime) schedule.
Are you following me? So far fifty of the three hundred concepts, which the smart guys and gals at the network get beaucoup bucks to say will or won’t work, already have about an 84% failure rate or what the network likes to call, “a 100% success of what didn’t fail.”
Here’s where it really becomes fun. Of those fifty shows that make it on to the schedule, about twenty will not be canceled and make it to the following year’s schedule. Of those, maybe five, if that, will stay on and perhaps be considered hits. So, the original three hundred, deemed brilliant enough by the network to give it a go, are now five. That’s a 98.4% failure rate or what the network heads like to call … Well, they don’t call it anything because the ones in charge of calling it anything have long since been let go to use their failure experience to form their own production companies or leave the industry altogether to get back into used car sales where they feel they can really do something beneficial for humankind.
You can do the numbers yourself. It’s really quite titillating. Point is, they do this over and over and never seem to learn.
Or is it that they don’t want to?
Larry David’s story really began in 1989 when he and comedian Jerry Seinfeld conceived the show Seinfeld at NBC. People referred to it as “a series about lot of stuff but nothing you could put your finger on” which, in reality, was about vague indifference. The show was not an immediate success. Speculation from those in the know was that this was due to audiences’ unfamiliarity with clever writing. Cultural researchers likened it to the shock a digestive system accustomed to eating a daily ration of McDonald’s burgers feels the moment it is introduced to filet mignon.
When the audiences and their inflamed colons became accustomed to the smart writing along with the unique story lines, Seinfeld became the hit it deserved to be.
The series provided Larry and Jerry with more money than needed to choke a horse, the horse Kramer stuffed with flatulent-inducing baked beans, before baked beans were found to be healthy. The type of success that Seinfeld begot is one or two of those exceptional feats that seem to slip by network programmers every ten years.
In the 80’s it was The Simpsons and Cheers. In the 70’s, All In The Family and M*A*S*H*. Before that, television was still in its infancy, so everything was a risk and that in itself set up the condition necessary to create some pretty special shows. Then again, bad press was essentially nonexistent in the ’50s: Liberace wasn’t gay and Gale Storm was sober. On and on the early sitcoms made the funny. The Honeymooners and Dobie Gillis, Car 54, Where Are You, McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes offered the obvious, but still funny side of uniformed work, World War II and the POW camps of the Third Reich.
The Dick Van Dyke Show should have shut down the sitcom industry forever due to the “You Can’t Do Any Better So Why Try” rule. The last thirty or forty years, one great sitcom every decade was acceptable; for the stars and producers, it meant no more than one great show a lifetime.
But Larry couldn’t help himself. He thought he could stay under the radar. Forget network. He would try out a new cable thingy. Larry took his creative genius and hard-to-conceal leading man good looks to HBO. Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry’s homage to Larry now just announced for a ninth season, broke all the rules. While Larry thought he was only creating a new show, what he didn’t understand was that he was also establishing a ripple that would quickly swell into a menacing tsunami leading to a tidal wave of defiance, climaxing with a mountainous valley of inappropriate metaphor.
So let me tell you what happened before I found Larry’s empty clothes, I had my interview scheduled and all was right with the world. Then the phone rang.
It was Larry.
“I can’t do the interview.”
“I can’t do it,” Larry repeated, though with less resolve.
I wanted to explode. At the very least, call my sponsor. But I realized times like this were why I struggled to get sober. I knew from reading so many self-improvement books smeared with pounds of highlighted sentences that instructed me to take actions, I had to stop and have a wee bit of a conversation with myself.
Hold on. Relax. I’m sure you’ll work it out. It’s just another one of those little life bumps. He must have a good reason. Ask him. It could change your entire perspective.
“Larry. Why can’t you do it?”
“I just can’t.”
“But we had this planned for five months.”
“You’re sorry? That’s all you have to say? You’re sorry. For crissakes, Larry. You make $50 million a year and I’ll be lucky to make $500 on this interview. It’s not like I can’t use the money. I’ve been pitching ideas for shows and movies for almost ten years and made a pittance. You fart and HBO pays you a million to develop the smell. C’mon, I need this gig.”
”Steve, if I would do an interview with anyone it would be you.”
“And what bank is going to take that deposit?”
“I gotta go.”
“Wait. How about bringing me on staff? At least as a fluffer. I could really do a … Hello?”
Son of a bitch.
How could he decide to pass on something that had already been planned for so long? He promised. Don’t promises mean anything in Hollywood anymore? Promises in Hollywood, have always been the backbone of the business. Keeping them has been more the coccyx (the human tail bone that serves no purpose and is slowly vanishing). What would one lousy hour out of his precious life hurt?
Shit. Look at me. I love what the guy represents. And here I am ripping into him just to feel better about myself. Jealousy, the one motivating factor keeping me from drowning in a pool of my own self-pity. I’ve got to find out why he’s ducking me. I’m not important enough to be ducked. I’ve got to talk to Larry and find out.
Maybe I could turn that into a column. I’d have to get my editor to buy it. He knows how I felt about the unfairness of the writing business. I’ve joked to him that if only Larry David, Matt Groening, Ricky Gervais, Seth MacFarlane, Chuck Lorre and James Brooks along with a few thousand writers under the age of thirty disappeared, maybe then some show would hire me.
I meant it as a joke. It wasn’t a very good joke. A little long-winded. As Leno told the silly-writing doctorate class I taught at Temple University, “Use the least amount of words to a punchline.” I’ll try it out Monday at The Comedy Store, if Andrew Dice Clay doesn’t come in and bump me into Tuesday morning with the same shit he’s been doing for thirty years.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season