Sunday, April 08, 2018

The time I thought my career was over

Every writer has doubts. Some mild, some nagging, and for me in one case – crippling. This might surprise you since I seem fairly prolific – banging out a new post every day (a few even decent). And my list of credits is rather lengthy (more than you know -- imdb doesn’t even include our classic BRAM & ALICE). But there was one point in my career when I seriously thought I was done. The well had run dry. It was fun while it lasted. That’s all she wrote (actually “he”).

It was 1986. My partner David Isaacs and I had created and produced MARY, the comeback series for Mary Tyler Moore (actually comeback two of four). It was an exhausting, grueling experience. The specifics are for another post. But suffice it to say a typical day was writing from 10 AM to 5 AM, getting two hours of sleep, and heading back to the office to repeat the process. Yes, I’m exaggerating; there was one night we finished at 4.

But after six months of that, when we finally completed the order, we were completely fried.

I had lost 35 pounds. I couldn’t write a grocery list much less a script. David wasn’t much better.

We decided to just take time off. “How much time?” our agent wondered. We didn’t know. Maybe a few months. Maybe a year. Maybe forever. We were that burned out.

For the next few weeks I just sort wandered around in a haze, eating stuffed potatoes in malls just to get my weight back up above Nicole Richie’s. Usually ideas for pilots or movies will pop into my head when I’m just out doing something else. But now – nothing.

I seriously started contemplating what I could do besides writing to make a living? That’s what drove me to the upper deck of Dodger Stadium to try to learn baseball broadcasting. Drawing caricatures on the Redondo Pier was another option I was seriously exploring. Not a lot of money there but no pressure – just drawing big ears all day.

After about three months we got a call from the Charles Brothers. They had an idea for a CHEERS story and wondered if we’d like to write the script. We were still gun shy but our agent implored us to give it a try.

So we met with the brothers, the story fell into place rather easily. So easily that it became a two-parter. Normally when that happens you’re thrilled. Double the script, double the fee. To us it just meant extra pressure. But we forced smiles throughout the story conferences. We didn’t want them to surmise they were giving an assignment to two basket cases.

The way David and I write scripts is we dictate them to a writers’ assistant (once upon a time called a secretary). Since we weren’t working on a show we asked if we could use one of the CHEERS writers’ assistants. They said sure and we could use Les Charles’ office.

We planned to begin the script on Monday morning. Driving to Paramount I was literally sweating. Could I do this again? How embarrassing would it be if David and I just stared at each other for eight hours while a writers’ assistant sat there wondering “what the fuck?!” If that happened I was prepared to go back to the Charles Brothers and say, “You know what? We just can’t do it. But can I draw you?"

We convened at 10, our assistant Barry introduced himself and got out the steno pad.

This was it.

I was so afraid of prolonged deadly silence that I just started pitching. And somehow, amazingly, my mind began to work again. Some jokes were coming out. Same thing for David. One or two of them even keepers! Slowly we got back into a rhythm and things picked up.

I can’t begin to tell you the relief. Not to compare myself to the Man of Steel but it was like Superman when Lois got rid of the Kryptonite. I could feel my comedic powers returning. By lunch I knew – “We were BACK!”

This gift (and it is indeed a gift) was there all the time. You don’t just lose it. You may need to step away, take some time and recharge your batteries, but your ability doesn’t desert you. You may someday face a crisis like this yourself. The real lesson here is to just relax. Don’t lose your confidence. Just roll with it knowing in time you will once again be fine. Don’t be like me. Don’t make things worse by making yourself nuts. Don’t waste money on an easel.

28 comments :

VP81955 said...

Thanks for the story. Good advice to follow when your "well" runs dry (as it does from time to time for all of us).

Thomas Pinto said...

To hear that come from a seasoned scribe like yourself if helpful....

Dave said...

Thanks Ken. Great post and advice.

Creepy FQ or hoping for a funny post:

Do you writers just looking at the shows after filming, see a beautiful woman and try to find her name, like us normal viewers do... trying to search IMDB or the entire net to find the name of the beautiful extra?

You know, I always imagine you guys would say like "Hey, what's that lady's name? I just wanna know because I thought she would be good for this role I am writing..." Some corny line to know her name or contact number to ask her out....

This question flashed to me seeing this beauty @ 0:41
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qh7p5cPWP-k

Brian said...

Good advice for any profession. So that was your first Cheers episode? What was it?

Unknown said...

I had this happen to me once. I got so down on not being able to write that I considered a career with a trained ferret act. But you're right, eventually you can be funny again and you don't have to spend any money on buying a weasel.

Leilani said...

What was the first "Cheers" script you and David ever wrote?

Ken Levine said...

No, it wasn't our first CHEERS episode. We had produced the show and had written numerous episodes before. The episodes in question are "Never Love a Goalie" Part 1 & 2. Season five I believe.

suek2001 said...

Thanks Ken. I haven't written in my blog much this past year. I stopped writing for my church as I just didn't have it in me. Personal things and also fear that my best days were behind me...still, watching a Frasier rerun this morning(Lilith's first show) and realizing the talent it takes to write..makes me glad you and David didn't give up and kept at it.
A few hours later, I got an idea for an ongoing series of blog posts...whether anyone will read them, that's not my problem. All I need to know is that I tried. Thanks....

Matt in Westwood CA said...

Part 2 of that episode had one of my favorite teasers....using Sam listening to his answering machine as a device to link parts 1 & 2 was clever and very funny....

VP81955 said...

Good news for "Mom" fans -- Mimi Kennedy announced at her Facebook page the series has been renewed for season 6. (CBS, what took you so long?)

Dr Loser said...

This is completely irrelevant, but looking at that photo, Ken:
What show (or film, or other engagement) was the best you can remember for catered food?
Consider it a Friday question. I'm not sure I want to hear the worst, or even the most inappropriate, but those might be interesting, too.
The photo looks ... I'll be polite and say "on the way to congealed," btw.

Dr Loser said...

I can't believe that the networks turned down "Dracula in Wonderland," by the way.

What put them off? Was it the idea of impaling little girls? Was there a mismatch between the Tenniel line drawings and CGI?

I know, I know, it was the subtitles. Difficult to sell medieval Romanian to today's uneducated public.

Dr Loser said...

Of course, there's not much of a realistic possibility for a sequel to "Dracula in Wonderland," is there? So, a limited future payola.

I'll leave your educated readers to figure out why not.

Dr Loser said...

PS The best personal advice I have ever heard. You should consider writing one of those "I Rose From The Dead In My Spare Time, And So Can You*" books you see in airports. Although there's a non-negligible possibility that you won't sound enough like an asshole to be believable to the target audience of dorks, dupes, and potential presidents of the United States.**

* A Philip K Dick reference. Very funny, for the 1960s. Actually, just very funny. And a throwaway line, as it happens.

** My sincere apologies for making a political joke. What can I say? I'm a foreigner. We know nothing. Much like [redacted]

MattP said...

Thank you Ken for sharing this inspirational story.

Justin Piatt said...

Okay, now I have a Friday question - I looked up this "Mary" show on imdb, and Jennifer Tilly is credited as the writer of the last episode. Is that for real? It's really her only writing credit. A different Jennifer Tilly imdb just doesn't know about? A joke on your part? Or is she a good writer and just not given the opportunity for it?

Albert S. said...

Ok, Ken. You drop hints about what a horrible experience working on Mary was. How so? May she rest in peace, but how bad was it?

Andrew said...

Friday question: With such a great actress and great team around her, why did the MTM comeback shows fail? Were people just not interested in MTM anymore? Was it a typecasting problem?

VincentS said...

Thanks, Ken. What an inspiring story.

VP81955 said...

Mary Tyler Moore had already beaten the odds by being associated with not one, but two long-running, iconic TV characters, Laura Petrie and Mary Richards. To create a third would've been superhuman. (OK, you may argue, Lucille Ball technically did it, but her "The Lucy Show" and "Here's Lucy" characters essentially were variations on Lucy Ricardo. Ms. Petrie and Ms. Richards substantially differed.) There are some actors who have managed two-time iconic character success -- Melissa Joan Hart did it on a smaller scale as Clarissa Darling and Sabrina Spellman -- but they are few and far between.

And as much as I love Laura and Mary, to this fellow Type 1 diabetic MTM's greatest role was raising public awareness of the condition and helping raise millions in funds for research.

Bobaloo said...

How much was the Easel? (That's the real moral of the story, right?)

Mel Agar said...

It's so funny that I should read this today because I was just last night thinking of this potential Friday question ... are two-part episodes planned to be two-parters or do they grow organically out of a story that's just too big to be contained in 22-ish minutes?

MikeN said...

VP, Andy Griffith's mad at you right now. Then he topped it off with Lonesome Rhodes.

Mike Bloodworth said...

That story did help. I actually got out of bed and put on pants. But, I didn't write anything. I liked the Superman analogy, but I think a better one would be, like Samson on Minoxidil.
M.B.

gottacook said...

Andrew: The very first MTM comeback vehicle in September 1978, as well as the second one 6 months later, couldn't be called "typecasting"; they presented her as a singer and dancer hosting a variety show. The first of these was a straight-up variety hour, the second a weird hybrid (part variety show, part comedy about creating an episode of a variety show).

I watched the premiere episode of the first of these, Mary, but turned it off at the halfway point when the Ed Asner Dancers came out to do their number - a bunch of guys who looked and dressed like Lou Grant. That series was pulled after three episodes.

When Mary tried twice and failed to become a comedy-variety star, she went toward drama (Ordinary People; Whose Life Is It Anyway? on Broadway); a few years later came the sitcom Mary in December 1985 (I tuned in to the premiere but didn't stick with it - sorry, Ken) and the "dramedy" Annie McGuire in the fall of 1988, both of which lasted only a few months.

Every one of these four comeback attempts was on CBS; maybe that was the problem?

TimWarp said...

Since a specific question is none of my business...how, in general, would a writer (or anyone in the entertainment industry: grips, camera operators, etc.)survive between gigs? Independently wealthy? Day job as a waiter? Extremely good financial planning and willpower to sock it away when you have it? Working spouse?

Andrew said...

Thanks to VP81955 and gottacook for taking a stab at my question.

ScarletNumber said...

Did you ever get to meet Traylor Howard on Bram & Alice? Was she as lovely in person as she seems on TV?