Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Deja View

CHEERS – year three. My partner, David Isaacs and I were writing movies that season and doing a few CHEERS episodes on the side. So we were aware of the story arcs but weren’t there every day.

One Thursday night I was watching a first-run episode that I believe Sam Simon wrote. It was very good. I was laughing at the jokes, surprised by the story turns. All of a sudden a scene came on and the dialogue sounded vaguely familiar. It’s as if I had seen this scene before. But how could I? This wasn’t a rerun. And the rest of the show was unfamiliar. Still, I was almost able to predict the lines. Like everybody, I’ve experienced déjà vu, but not for four minutes at a time.

Finally it dawned on me why I seemed to recognize this scene. We wrote it.

Backstory – That was the year that Shelley Long was pregnant. The creative decision was made that Diane should not be. So how to hide it? The Charles Brothers came up with an ingenious way. Early in the season she would not be showing, and when she started to show they could hide her behind trays and that sort of slight-of-hand. And they set up the following storyline: Diane and Frasier would go off on a long vacation to Europe. All of those scenes would be written in advance and shot early on in Shelley’s pregnancy before she started showing. By the time she couldn’t hide it any longer the scenes were all in the can, ready to go. 

All of this was laid out even before the season began. We wrote an episode over the summer that contained one of these European scenes. Diane and Frasier are shown their hotel room and don’t know how much to tip the bellboy. As I recall, little or nothing was changed from our draft in that scene. The night it was filmed however, I was out of town. So I never actually saw it.

But I guess the show ran long. And they decided to swap our Europe scene with a shorter one from another show. This was not an uncommon practice. Teasers and bar runs got shuffled around all the time. But no one informed us. And Sam’s episode was scheduled to air before ours -- maybe in January.  

So there I was seeing my scene for the first time... on the air with the rest of America. Now you might be saying, “if you wrote it how could you not immediately recognize it?” I suppose the answer is that I so wasn’t expecting it. My first thought when something looks familiar is usually I must’ve seen another movie or show that did something vaguely similar, not “I must’ve written it.”  Also, it aired eight months after we had written it. 

I’m sure there have been cases where writers have seen shows or theater productions and realized that their material had been outright stolen. That obviously wasn’t the case here. I’m just glad our scene didn’t bring down Sam’s show. But it was a weird viewing experience. I imagine that’s how Paris Hilton must’ve felt after watching a sex tape for fifteen minutes and finally realizing, “Hey, that’s me.”

Again, I know you join me in sending out prayers and best wishes to Sam Simon. 

19 comments:

RockGolf said...

Closest I've ever come to that was "Stumble"ing to a page with a quiz on Sporcle and getting about halfway through before realizing I'd written the quiz myself over a year ago.

Breadbaker said...

I don't suppose seeing some bank using an intercreditor agreement form I put together years before quite compares. For one thing, they didn't pay me for it.

Sam is in my thoughts a lot.

The Curmudgeon said...

We Irish have a word for Mr. Simon. In Gaelic, he's what we'd call a mensch.

Joining you in your prayers and best wishes.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think it's very common for professional writers to forget what they've written. Maybe not novels, where you slave over them for years and then have to read copy edits and galleys and proofs, but anything where the thing you've written is quickly replaced with something else you need to write. Journalists in particular have a hard time remembering what they wrote *about* last week. I think it just seems weirder with sitcoms because they're watched and rewatched by so many people.

wg

Johnny Walker said...

It's great to see that Sam is still hosting his weekly radio show!

Eric J said...

I wrote for auto and motorcycle media for 30 years and churned out stuff for publication during the meeting where we hashed out the outline. So I've read things I KNOW I wrote and couldn't recognized them as my own. I think Wendy's right. Professional writers can sometimes create things on autopilot that the conscious mind probably never really sees.

Pete Grossman said...

I wish Mr. Simon ease and peace, and hope he's comforted, just like the animals he generously helps.

Johnny Walker said...

I've just recalled a similar moment in my own life: I was walking through a supermarket and spotted that one of my favourite games was being given away free on the front cover of a magazine. I read the quote on the front and thought, "Yes, that's absolutely right!".

Then I took a step closer and something clicked in my brain. I checked the attribution, and surely enough it was from a review I'd written. Very bizarre!

Why they didn't pick a better known publication, I don't know, but it made my day!

Frank Paradise said...

Very sorry to hear about Sam Simon but glad to know he is doing a truly great humanitarian service by donating so many 'Simpsons' millions to worthwhile charities. Saying all that I sure hope he defies all odds and beats it as he sounds a great person.

Hamid said...

As an animal lover, I admire and applaud Sam Simon for putting his wealth to good use. It's a wonderful legacy on top of his writing accomplishments.

D. McEwan said...

A friend an I once attended a showing of some student films at Cal State Northridge back in 1974. One film was a documentary about my then-boss, the LA radio personality "Sweet Dick" Whittington. At one point, as we were hearing some one talking about Dick over shots of our famous radio stunts, my friend leaned over to me and asked: "Isn't this you talking?"

Sure enough, it was my voice speaking. Not recognizing my own voice was weird enough (I worked in radio; I heard my own voice played back daily), but I had no memory of meeting these film-makers, of being interviewed for their film, or of ever saying the words I was now hearing my own voice say. And it could not have been recorded more than a few months earlier.

It was disorienting, to say the least.

Certainly there is nothing unusual about my finding old papers deep in my desk or closet boxes with comedy pieces I've written in the past, sometimes as far as 40 years in the past, and having no memory of writing it, and reading my own work as though for the first time. Of course, it's often accompanied by the pleasant discovery: "Hey, this is a good joke."

Mark said...

I remember in one of the episodes, they hid Long's pregnancy by having Diane get stuck under the floor of Cheers. She still participated in the storyline by calling out her lines when she was commenting on the other characters' actions. It was hilarious.

Jeffro said...

As a former software developer, I came across some code that I wrote years ago and didn't realize I was the author of that code, so I understand how it can happen to other types of writers. However, that code in particular that I didn't recognize as my own was generated by a decompiler from the executable code, so any comments containing my name or any other recognizable information were not included in the decompiled code. Also, the decompiler replaced any familiar naming conventions to objects and variables with its own naming convention, so this code was further obfuscated as being familiar to me.

Tom said...

A Cheers post is as good a place as any to ask . . .

CBS has scheduled The Honeymooners ("The Classic 39") for release on Blu-Ray later this year. They're reportedly working on I Love Lucy Blu-Rays for next year. Has anyone heard if they have any plans for Cheers on Blu-Ray?

Much as I love The Honeymooners, I'm afraid those shabby little sets are going to look pretty bad in hi-def.

Maybe they're prepping Almost Perfect for release on Betamax sometime soon!

D. McEwan said...

It seemed at times that Julia Duffy spent half the run of Newhart carrying stacks of towels or working the front desk as she hid pregnancy after pregnancy.

And Jane Leeves hid a pregnancy on Frasier with a "Daphnee's-stressed-out-and-getting-fat" storyline. That was a clever way to use it.

Edina to her pregnant daughter on Absolutely Fabulous: "Well, TELL PEOPLE, darling. You don't want people just thinking you're fat, do you?"

Mac said...

You should try to watch some of the current Chinese sitcoms, you'll probably recognize your writing on those too, except you won't be credited.

All the best to Sam Simon, he's leaving a wonderful legacy, not only creatively but with his animal rescue foundation.

John Mansfield said...

In the Johns Hopkins mechanical engineering department, there were weekly lectures, about half by graduate students like me presenting annual updates on our research, and the rest from visitors laying out their work and big ideas. (It was kind of a thrill to sit in a room with a couple dozen people and listen to Ed Lorenz recount his iconic discovery of fluid dynamic chaos, speaking to us as one colleague to another from the same podium that I and my classmates used.)

One morning, I walk into Latrobe Hall and check the bulletin board with abstracts of upcoming lectures. One of them stops me cold: a visitor is coming who is working on the same topic I am. I pull down the abstract and photocopy it and head upstairs to my office. This guy is working on exactly the same issues I am. Maybe my research is too late and will have to start over on something else? But maybe it’s not as bad as that. I need to talk to this guy when he comes. I outline on a sheet of paper all the problems I’m trying to work through to move my research forward. I call the faculty host to arrange some time with the visitor when he comes. As I start talking to the professor, he is confused. The upcoming guest doesn’t work on any of that stuff. I read the abstract to him. He says there is some mistake and asks me to pull down the notice from the bulletin board.

I hang up and read the abstract again, wishing there were some way I could talk with the person who wrote it, whoever he is, and then I realize that I’m the one who wrote those paragraphs. A few months earlier I had e-mailed them to the department secretary to announce one of my lectures. Somehow she had jumbled that old abstract into the new announcement. A classmate said I had learned how a baby feels when he first recognizes himself in a mirror.

David said...

I was looking at your entry at imdb. Why haven't you done any TV work in ten years? Are you retired or did they retire you? Is it one of those "Oh, Levine and Isaacs. They were the best . . . in their day" things? I was just curioud. I've heard older comedy writers complain about age-ism in the industry or about being pushed aside in favor of fresher talent.

Anonymous said...

Really, looking for hits on Google in searches for Paris Hilton sex tape?