Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Sunday Memory Drawer - The Time We Got Real

Maybe today's Memory Drawer should start with the following crawl from "Star Wars."

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

It certainly seems like a long time ago.  But, at the same time, it feels like it all happened yesterday.

A new year brings new memories and a story that I have held off from telling in these virtual pages.   But now is as good a time as ever.

You see those two characters on the book jacket above?  We created them.  We, meaning my writing partner and myself.  They came out of our own minds. And we conjured them up at the request of famed journalist and TV producer Linda Ellerbee.   These memories all just came cascading like a leaky faucet last month when the news came out that Linda was going to be retiring.

The woman who gave us our first opportunity to create a television sitcom.

Yep, you read that right.  Hang on for the ride.

My writing partner and I had just teamed up and we were sitting in our NY workplaces doing what all fledgling writers do.  Using somebody else's company time to write spec scripts.   A spec script, for those not up on the lingo, is your version of an episode of an existing TV sitcom.  It's used as a calling card to show how good...or are at writing.

Well, we thought we were pretty good.   And others apparently thought so as well.  A "Wonder Years" spec script (based on my grandmother) had gotten us into a fairly prestigious Writer's Guild workshop, albeit in Manhattan.  Our learning task there was to come up with a decent spec script for the then-hot show "Murphy Brown."

Once again, we came up with something we thought was pretty good.  Except most of the "experts" running the workshop didn't like it.  Here it is over 20 years later and I hate them all over again.

But we were proud of our work and didn't hesitate from showing it to anybody among our friends and family.  And that included one of my good college friends who happened to be a producer for Ellerbee's production company, which did a lot of specials for children.   They tried to take the horrifics of today's current event headlines and turn it into something understandable for the average ten-year-old.

Well, my buddy wanted to see the "Murphy Brown" spec and we figured that, since he was in television, we shouldn't hesitate.  Hell, we'd give the damn thing to the local Zenith repair guy.  I mean, he was in television, too.

Well, my pal liked the script so much that he gave it, unbeknownst to us, to his boss.   Little did we know at that juncture that she wanted to expand her programming offerings with the kids cable network Nickelodeon.  And one of the ways she wanted to do that was through an honest-to-goodness sitcom.   Okay, we knew that Linda herself had been one of the people that Diane English had based the character of Murphy Brown on.   We just didn't know how much.

Timing can be everything.   My buddy called and invited us down to a lunch meeting with him and Linda.

WTF???  Or whatever people used to say back then.

As we boarded the #1 train down to Greenwich Village for our power lunch, it was almost like we had been summoned by Norman Lear or Garry Marshall. We felt like we had hit the mother lode.  And we weren't even in Los Angeles.

Indeed, the euphoria lasted well with our lunch with Linda, her boyfriend/business partner, and my buddy.  Because we quickly realized we were all on the same page.

She envisioned a Murphy Brown at the age of 12 working for a middle school newspaper.   It was as simple as that.  Our task was to flesh everything out around it.   The only marching order was that the other kids all had to be cut from the standard rainbow.  An African-American.  Perhaps a Hispanic.  Maybe an Asian kid.   It had to cover all the ethnic and racial bases.

Of course, that didn't mean our fertile and sometimes inappropriate minds couldn't work overtime in the development process.   My writing partner and I considered a running gag where the Asian kid is always being dropped off for school by her mom.   And it would always be accompanied with a sound of a dented fender or garbage cans being knocked over.   Okay, we never put that on paper.  But it was fun to think about.

We actually followed the Murphy Brown cast roster to a tee.   We dreamed up one kid whose parents had named him Ringo after the Beatle.  He totally marched to a different drum, though.   Our own private back story was that the kid was a little off because his parents had smoked too much weed back in the day.  

We loved the Eldin character on Murphy so we gave our little Murphy (we called her Casey) a big slacker brother who was street-smart but not book-smart.  And, in a tip to famous unseen characters like Norm's wife on "Cheers" or "Rhoda's" Carlton the Doorman, we created a faculty advisor named Carol Oppenheimer-Davis after the "I Love Lucy" writers we had gotten to know.

It all came together so easily.   But, my writing partner and I knew something was missing.   Casey needed a protagonist.   Another girl we would butt heads with at the school paper.  So, we went back to our sitcom childhood.   And thought that, since we had a Murphy Brown in middle school, maybe we could also have a Mary Richards at the same school.   Murphy vs. Mary (who we called Megan).  It was a device that made the whole concept perfect in our eyes.

Throughout all of the above, we started to enjoy the financial fruits of television development as we got checks at every level.   Treatment done.  Paid.   Character descriptions completed.  Paid.  Pilot script outline wrapped up. Paid.

Pilot script handed in....

Wait.  Not so fast.   We'll never forget the call.

"All those Nickelodeon people who liked our idea?   Well, they don't work there any more."


But, if you think that's the end of the story...

This is a Sunday Memory Drawer in two parts.   Come on back next week.

Dinner last night:  French dip panini at the Arclight.

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