Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The laugh that almost cost me my career

It was our first staff job. My partner, David Isaacs and I had been hired on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW as “term writers.” That’s the lowest rung on the ladder. Term writers didn’t even get a credit. I don’t think there are term writers today. Anyway, we didn’t care. We were thrilled. Not only were we on an actual show but it was an MTM show. This was the mid ‘70’s and MTM back then was Camelot. The best shows (MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, BOB NEWHART) and the best writers with the ultimate mensch, Grant Tinker serving as King Arthur. We felt special and honored just driving on the lot.

We were hired by showrunners Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. They are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met. The rest of the staff was Gary David Goldberg (who created FAMILY TIES) and Hugh Wilson (who created WKRP IN CINCINNATI and directed FIRST WIVES CLUB). We were very green and understood that our main function the first few weeks was to just hang back and learn.

THE TONY RANDALL SHOW was a multi-camera sitcom, shot before a live studio audience. So the process was the actors would rehearse all day, the writers would come down to the stage at about 4:00, watch a runthrough, scribble notes, and return to the office to rewrite.

I found the first few runthroughs somewhat daunting. I was dutifully marking up my script, trying to size up what worked and what didn’t on the fly – a skill I had never needed before.

After a couple of runthroughs Tom took me aside and gently suggested I should laugh during the actors’ performances. It helps the cast know what’s funny. I had been concentrating on the script so intently I never even thought about that. I thanked him and assured him I would laugh in the future.

Tony Randall played a judge in the show and the next week’s script was about a convict he had sentenced to prison who was now released. There was reason to believe he might want to take revenge on Tony. It was a funny script written by Earl Pomerantz.

Side bar: Among the many things I learned from Earl over the years was sprinkling funny things in the stage direction from time to time. I had never seen that before. In this script there was a scene in his home and to be safe he had beefed up security. This is what Earl wrote: “You wanna see locks? Look at that door.” Readers tend to skip over stage direction, but if you reward them with a joke or two they’re more likely to stay with it. The great Billy Wilder was once asked, “should directors also be writers?” to which he said, “No. They should be readers.” End of side bar.

We went down for the runthrough. For the first few scenes I laughed along with the other writers, getting into the swing of it. But then came that scene in his house. Zane Lasky, who played uber earnest law clerk Mario Lanza took it upon himself to be Tony’s bodyguard. There was a noise and overzealous Zane was supposed to pull out a gun. The gun he produced was a cannon. Larger than Dirty Harry’s.

Well, that just slayed me. I didn’t just laugh; I was in hysterics. You know how something strikes you so funny that you just can’t stop laughing? That was me over this one small sight gag. The actors stopped acting, everyone on the set was looking at me quizzically. I was terribly embarrassed and yet I still could not stop laughing. Tom and Jay were glaring at me. There were tears rolling down my face and my sides hurt. Eventually I calmed down and the scene resumed. Now I was afraid to laugh at anything for fear that it would set me off again. So picture this funny scene, all the writers are laughing and enjoying and I’m sitting there like a statue biting my lip. And you know how infectious laughter is. I was sweating trying to hold it in.

As we walked back to the office (in silence) I decided I better kick ass during the rewrite. After that display I was on very thin ice. So I became a joke machine that night, pitching lines left and right. A lot of them actually made it into the script and I redeemed myself (for another week). When people ask what motivates writers and where does the humor come from – the answer is often FEAR.

The night that episode was filmed the gun gag got a huge laugh from the audience. I wanted to turn to Tom Patchett and say, “See?” but decided I really liked this job.

The moral here to all young writers: When going to runthroughs laugh unless you find something really funny.


Larry said...

Great story, but did you ever feel the opposite? It can be depressing to be at a table read and have everyone laughing like crazy at a script you know isn't really that good. It's like they're trying to convince themselves it'll work anyway.

By the way, when I watch those old Mary Tyler Moore shows, it's fascinating to hear James L. Brooks laughing it up.

The Mutt said...

One of the funniest gags I ever saw on TV came from The Tony Randall Show:

Mario: "I'm Mario Lanza."
Tony: "Any relation?"
Mario: "To who?"
Tony: "Mario Lanza."
mario: "I AM Mario Lanza."

thesamechris said...

From what I learned from this blog, nobody laughs in the writers room. If something is funny, you just say it's funny. If you really laugh at something in the writer's room, it's definitely not going into the script, unless your writing a play to perform in a stripclub.

But, this is one of your great posts! Thank you Mr. Levine! Kenneth...Ken..

Boss.Goss said...

People laugh in the writing room. I laugh all the time. I love to laugh. I'll even laugh at my own jokes and very quickly I'll be made fun of by the rest of the team for laughing at my own jokes. When I was first starting at Miller/Boyett there were many show runners and high level producers who refused to laugh during the writing which I found ridiculous. I vowed that I would laugh at anything that was funny for the rest of my life and I do. I don't care who tells the joke, the P.A. the pizza delivery guy or the Executive Producer if it's funny enjoy. I also like to laugh at jokes I've already heard before. I take joy in watching another person tell an old joke. Like singing everyone tells jokes differently and the nuances that people put into the wording and timing always entertain me. BTW, many people laugh in a comedy writing room or I'll tell you it's not a good comedy. It's the best job in the world... when you can get it.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Interesting. I would have thought the writers would be discouraged from laughing on the basis that it might damage your judgment about what works or not.


Sir Laughsalot said...

Nobody laughs? How silly is that? Boss has got it. Laugh you bastards, LAUGH! How can anyone be involved in comedy and not laugh? If you're lucky enough to be doing that for a living but not laughing, it has to be time to get out. I too am Mario Lanza. And that cracks me up!

Anonymous said...

Hilarious post. I've done that. And you frantically try to think of something sad, which never helps. Julie, Burlington, Iowa

Ane said...

Friday question: I recently watched an episode of a series and noticed that an actress name was shown in the beginning of the episode, announcing she would be in it. This was not a regular of that series, but someone who had been in the show maybe 5 times all together in 6 seasons. I only noticed the name because she is the daughter of one of the regular cast members. But then she wasn't actually in that episode. Simply a mistake, or can actors get credited for more episodes than they're really appearing in? Say they're signed up for 3 episodes that season and only needed in two?

Unknown said...

I was exec on a comedy that wasn't going well. One week the ExecProd insisted on keeping a joke that didn't work in Tues read-through, Wed camera or Friday during the first audience run-through. The only people who laughed at the joke were the writers. It was the button on the act break, so I thought it was important to change the joke. The final taping Friday night you could hear crickets. I turned to the ExecProd in the booth in a silent plea, but she glared at me agrily, "It will be funny in sweetening!"... she was gone Monday morning.

Mitchell McLean said...


I'm not sure if you're familiar with Canadian sitcom Corner Gas. I've been watching episodes on YouTube, and I really enjoy it.

My question: As a seasoned comedy writer, how do you think Corner Gas holds up when compared with US sitcoms? Am I correct in believing that it's better than most? Or am I slowly turning Canadian? I'd like to know, eh? :-)

D. McEwan said...

Tony Randall was an odd but great guy. I met him when he guested on Dick Whittington's radio show, which I produced. As he was the star of 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, one of my top favorite movies (As the 7-foot-tall poster for it on my kitchen wall makes plain to all visitors), I made a point of sitting and chatting with him.

Now everyone knew how virulently anti-smoking Tony was. I was still a smoker in those days, though I did not smoke around Tony. In his on-air interview, he talked quite a bit about wine. I do not drink alcohol. (Does anybody think my Tallulah's immense amount drinking expresses my love of alcohol rather than my disgust with it?)

While we spoke about Doctor Lao and our mutual adoration of George Pal, Tony of course noticed the ever-present pack of ciggies in my breast pocket, and told me I should quit smoking as it would kill me. I replied: "You know, Mr. Randall, I don't drink, so tell you what; when I'm in the hospital dying of lung cancer, I'll say "Hi" to you in the next bed with Cirrhosis of the liver." This was risky; as if Tony had been insulted, I would be in trouble at work, but Tony roared with laughter, grabbed my hand and shook it hard as he said: "DEAL!"

PS. It's now just shy of 23 years since my last cigarette, and Tony hasn't had a drink in quite a long while either.

And I think that giant gun gag would have sent me into conniptions also. Hyperbole can be enormously funny.

Craig said...

Two stage direction gags I've seen in copies of scripts: one, from I LOVE LUCY, describes one of the show's set like this: "its luxurious appearance belies its incredibly cheap construction." The other, from a late episode of BEWITCHED, describes Endora, during one scene, as "the old bitch." Presumably, that wasn't a typo.

Johnny Walker said...

I've often idly worried that the writer's room is just filled with people who need to be successful, no matter what the cost, no matter what it takes, no matter who they tread on. A highly competitive environment, where people will not think twice about clawing someone's idea to pieces, especially if might make them look good.

I spent four years running a company with people like that (I wish I'd listened to my instincts and left) and it nearly broke me.

It's heartening to hear people like Herb and Ken describe it as the greatest job in the world... Although I do wonder if there's rooms where it's like that: Devisive instead of inclusive. And what the ratio of good to bad rooms might be.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I think they looked down on you for laughing so loudly because you were clearly inauthentic to them, in that you were kissing ass, but doing it clumsily.

It's like you weren't sure whose ass to kiss, but you knew you had to kiss somebody's, so you spontaneously chose to kiss everybody's at once. And everyone looked at you like, "will you please just pick one ass and kiss it, you asshole?"

Besides, how the hell can you laugh spontaneously, if you honestly feel that laughing at the right or wrong time could END your career?

What the fuck brand of hell is that? You really wish us to believe that you were in any way functional?

You should rewrite this essay, only this time, be dead honest about yourself, and your need to please a bunch of nervous fucking assholes.

It would be a lot more rewarding for you, and your readers.


Norah said...

Stu, WTF? Haven't you ever got a laughing fit where you couldn't stop laughing no matter how hard you try? That's what it sounds like happened to Ken. I'm sure his nervousness at being new didn't help either, but it doesn't sound at all like he was trying to kiss anyone's ass. He just couldn't stop laughing. If his laughter had been fake, he'd have stopped when he saw people were looking at him oddly.

D. McEwan said...

Stu, were you there? The difference between a true laughing jag and a forced one is always obvious.

Breadbaker said...

Fwiw, I've been watching Corner Gas on DVD and it stands up to any comedy. There are a few jokes that require some knowledge of Canada, but not many. The main thing is that it's about a small town that isn't ashamed to be a small town and people who live there who aren't ashamed to live there, and what happens to them. It doesn't rely on big sets or big guest stars and it's humor is character based and gentle. I adore it.

Michael said...

Friday question:

Do you think being a team made it easier or harder for you and David to get hired for your first staff jobs? Did you get paid less than if you were solo?

gottacook said...

With respect to 7 Faces of Dr. Lao: Although I count myself both a Pal fan and a Randall fan (enough of one to have watched The Tony Randall Show semi-regularly), I have tried repeatedly to get into that movie but just can't get on its wavelength. This may have to do with my long acquaintance with Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao, the 1930s novel whose peculiar charm wasn't transferable to film. Not George Pal's fault. In my opinion The Brass Bottle was the better 1964 Tony Randall movie.

D. McEwan said...

I read The Circus of Dr. Lao for the first time about 4 months before 7 Faces of Dr. Lao first came out, in anticipation of the forthcoming movie. Yes, no question, the book is better than the movie. I love the book, and a lovely facsimile-of-the-first-edition reprint sits on a bookshelf in my living room next to three of Charles G. Finney's other books. (One of them, The Holy City, an actual first edition.)

The movie is a different animal. It has more in common with Mary Poppins than anything else. (Magical person arrives from Who-Knows-Where, solves everyone's problems, disappears back to Who-Knows-Where) than with its source novel, though here and there scenes are lifted directly from the novel, and do capture the novel's peculiar flavor. (Best example being Lee Patrick's scene with the fortune teller. The dialogue all comes straight out of the novel.) It also lifts Barbara Eden's character and plotline right out of The Music Man, while the villains-knows-the-railroad-is-coming-and-tries-cheat-everyone plotline was so old that both Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers parodied it.

But if you put the book from your mind for 90 minutes, the movie is Pal's best. It's a charming fantasy film, written by the masterful Charles Beaumont, a great, though tragically short-lived, short story writer, and with Serling and Matheson, one of the best Twilight Zone writers. Randall plays six roles superbly. (The movie CLAIMS that Randall played all 7 roles, but actually the Abominable Snowman is George Pal's son Peter Pal.) It won a special Oscar for make-up back before it became a regular category. It has a delightful musical score, and a WONDERFUL cast. It can be enjoyed for the acting alone.

I also do not agree that the peculiar charm of the novel can not be transferred to film. No one's really tried. Pal did not trust the book enough, and gave it a conventional plotline, changed the time period (The movie takes place around 1910, the book is set deep in the depression, with Abolone a transparent version of Tuscon, so the towns people were suffering hard times, and some, but far from all, respond to the wonders displayed to them for a few pennies), and shaved down what is a already very short book. (It's really only a novella.)

A movie that sticks closely to the book, doesn't impose a plot onto it, and uses an actual Chinese actor to play Dr. Lao, could theoretically capture it's peculiar charms. (And I don't think I made it all the way through The Brass bottle, and have never made a second attempt to do so.)

gottacook said...

D.: Thanks for the added detail. I will have to look for a copy of that facsimile edition. I know Beaumont from TZ and from Zicree's Twilight Zone Companion primarily.

What I consider untranslatable is the presentation of the story; for example, the Catalogue at the end "which must be read to be appreciated" is my favorite part and can only work on paper. Also, as much as I admire Randall, I guess I was annoyed that there was no real story reason for him to play all those roles.

D. McEwan said...

There's a paperback of Beaumont's superb short stores, titled The Howling Man. The titular story was, of course, adapted into a Twilight Zone episode with John Carradine in the title role. The book contains 30 stories, and most of them come with introductions by a variety of writers, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison (Who introduces the title story), Richard Matheson, Dennis Etchison, George Clayton Johnson (Ken has a funny tale of G.C. Johnson beng a total douchebag at a WGA meeting once. If you ask him, maybe he'll retell it again), Ray Russell, Robert Bloch, Roger Corman (For whom Beaumont also wrote films), and others. The book is available from Amazon, but for about $30, as it is 20 years out of print, and you can't have my copy.

The trade paperback fascimile edition of The Circus of Dr. Lao is put out by Bison Frontiers of Imagination, and is readily available from Amazon for about $15. The original illustrations are not literal illustrations but are fabulous works of fantastic art. For that matter, you can get an actual first edition for about $80.

No, there is no story reason for all the characters to be Dr.Lao. It was an idea for a further mystery - was there only one man in this circus? - that doesn't quite work. And no, I can think of no way the catalogue, which is a terrific part of the book, could be filmed. I always encourage people when recommending the book (And it is a book I've recommended to many): "Don't skip the catalogue at the end."

The book and the film are two different animals, but I have great love for both.

Storm said...

D. McEwan said: "...Ken has a funny tale of G.C. Johnson beng a total douchebag at a WGA meeting once. If you ask him, maybe he'll retell it again..."

Huh? Wuh? Zuh? OK, if no one else asks, I'm asking. Not to sound defensive or anything, I know he can be stubbornly opinionated (I find it endearing), but I simply cannot imagine George being a douchebag to anyone about anything, much less to fellow writers. I've always known him to be one of the calmest, most easy-going people I've ever met (his notoriously prodigious consumption of cannabis may have a bit to do with that), as well as someone who chooses his words carefully, so the thought of him douching out is stunning to me. At least it's a *funny* tale; the man is nothing if not entertaining, whether he means to be or not. No shade, no read, no flamewar, I'm merely shocked; please, elaborate?

And I love Dr. Lao just for the Loch Ness Monster, if nothing else.

Cheers, thanks a lot,


PolyWogg said...

Please don't confuse Corner Gas with comedy or being Canadian. It is an insult to both terms.

psyMrc 10707 said...

Re: the number of roles Tony Randall actually played in 7 FACES OF DR. LAO: I need convincing that he actually played the Great Serpent. For those who have not seen the film, this is a stop-motion animated character, whose voice is supposedly supplied by Randall. However, it sounds to me very much like Dallas McKinnon, a veteran character actor probably best known for playing the shopkeeper Cincinnatus on the TV series DANIEL BOONE. McKinnon did a lot of cartoon voice work (he was the voice of Gumby), and he actually has an on-screen role in LAO (he is one of the old codgers who argue about whether Dr. Lao is Japanese or Chinese), so it seems plausible that he would be picked for this job.

In counting Randall's roles, one should remember that he also appears as one of the spectators at the circus.

D. McEwan said...

That's not Dal as the serpent's voice. It's Tony. Of course, Dal's voice is perhaps best known to many of the post-Gumby generation for saying stuff like "This here is the wildest ride in the wilderness" on Disneyland's Big Thunder Railway ride.

(Also, only a couple shots of the Serpant are stop-motion. Most of it is merely a hand puppet. Watching the film, the hand-puppet shots are easily differentiated from the stop-motion shots.)

Along with Dal, the other two codgers are Douglas Fowley (Unrecognizable to those who know him as the movie director in Singing in the Rain. In his later years, my brother was his podiatrist), and Chubby Johnson, a name so filthy I don't know how he got away with using it in movie credits.

Yes, Tony has his spectator in-joke shot (in which he wears a "Tony Randall wig" since his head was shaved for the film), but he is not credited with that role. He is credited for playing the Abominable Snowman, and it's not him. Imagine asking your own son to do a role anonymously so a big movie star can be credited with a performance he did not give. (Admittedly, the Abominable Snowman is a role not much larger than Randall's role as himself was.)

Tony has one role in the film which is purely a vocal role, the serpant, and one role that is purely visual, Medusa, as that is not Tony doing Medusa's laughs. (It's not Dal either. It's a woman. Have not been able to find out who.)