Saturday, May 17, 2014

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.


Johnny Walker said...

Wow, that's an incredible story. Keeping the faith in difficult times can be hard, but you're right: We invariably end up exactly where we were before things got tough. (As Churchill once said: "If you're going through hell, keep going!")

Did you REALLY consider becoming a caricature artist? That just floors me.

Coincidentally I just watched that two-parter episode ("Never Love A Goalie", for anyone who's wondering) and I was struck at how effortless they felt. Both were really solid episodes that I enjoyed immensely.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Of course I sent my Research Team to investigate Bram & Alice, and all that came up was a wikepedia stub and an imdb article that doesn't mention you. Perhaps it was "scrubbed"?

Cleveland said...

What an entertaining and encouraging story, Ken. And, for me, incredibly timely. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Ken. I've been going through that for the past year and its really good to know that others have experienced the same thing and come through the other side alive.

Tudor Queen said...
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Tudor Queen said...

Thank you for that inspirational story. I love the way you are willing to share things that must be at some level painful to you in order to give us something wonderful. Your story could apply to any of us, really.

You worked on "Bram and Alice"? I think Alfred Molina is a brilliant, underrated actor, who also comes across as a sincerely nice and humble person. Do you have any good Alfred Molina stories?

Johnny Walker said...

I second the royal motion for Alfred Molina stories. He seems like an awesome guy.

Mike Botula said...

Thanks, coach. I needed that. Last Fall my whole life was like that. But, you and my other idol, Winston Churchill are right...just keep on truckin'. The lights will go back on.

Tracey Morgan said...

I needed to read this right now. Thank you x

Dan Ball said...
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Dan Ball said...

Good stuff. I've been going through this throughout my life. I'll get sidetracked in life by a busy period, swear to myself I just need to swear off my filmmaking dreams and writing, but then I watch one of my favorite movies and the engine automatically comes back to life at full-steam.

The Superman analogy's good. I love those great transitions from the end of Act II into Act III when the protag rallies his strength again to go after the bad guy and call it a movie.

Stormin Norman Rockwell said...

I would have gladly 'leased' you my easel for a small fee & a reasonable percentage of your sales!

Howard Hoffman said...

I just went through this myself - granted, on a much smaller scale, but one that tested my confidence and creativity.

As Ken well knows, I spent almost 18 years churning out imaging for KABC and ABC affiliates across the country. We won awards, got attention and had a lot of fun in the process. When the current owners swept me and 27 others out in 2011, I equate it to walking out of a broken time machine where I was dropped into a humorless personality-free future with no place for my sick mind.

I spent the last two years essentially in the wilderness - leaving L.A. and planting roots in eastern Washington state, cobbling together odd jobs and collecting the last of my unemployment.

Two months ago, a radio station in San Antonio gave me a call. The program director liked my stuff when I was working, and asked if I wanted to do it again for his station. I could even do it out of my own studio in Washington. I surprised myself in that I was genuinely frightened. Could I summon up the funny? Can I produce under deadlines? Can my brain function after being numbed and dormant for so long?

It turned out the answer was a resounding "yes." And all it takes is for one person with humor and vision to give you the blank canvas. I'm back in the saddle, he's loving my stuff and the sleeping inner clown has started honking his horn again.

Today, as in 1986, it can happen.

gottacook said...

"MARY, the comeback series for Mary Tyler Moore (actually comeback two of four)."

But I remember seeing one episode each of two earlier short-lived comeback series, both during the 1978-79 season and both on CBS: Mary (a variety show) and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (a show about making a variety show). So that would make sitcom Mary the third one, no?

Thanks for the inspirational advice about the persistence of one's own ability despite the events of the moment.

Howard Hoffman said...

550 KTSA, by the way.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

'way to go, Howie!

Smurch said...

Add me to the other commenters for whom this post is incredibly timely. I've spent most of the last year feeling at sea, no confidence in myself, every decision seeming to be the wrong one. Only within the last week or so have I begun to feel confident, and to feel optimistic about my choices and my future. Thank you, Ken, for this post.

Kevin B said...

I actually have a "Bram & Alice" t-shirt. Make me an offer.

Son of Minka's on Beverly. said...

Wait...there's a "gift" to this whole writing thing? You mean I can't just take all those "amazing" and "guaranteed to succeed" online webinars and courses and consultation deals offered by The Writers Store and ScreenwritingU and Screenwriters University (trust me, I could go on...and on) and sell my script to the highest bidder?
Okay, so I need this "gift" thing.
Please give me the url where I can download it a.s.a.p.

Aaron Hazouri said...

Shit.... I've already resorted to cartooning to pay the bills... What happens if THAT hits a wall?? Do I start watchin' baseball games, doing play by plays from the upper deck til they throw me over the wall?

Anonymous said...

That's a wonderful story, Ken. But you gotta spill the beans on how horrible it was to work for Mary Tyler Moore during this painful, awful period. BTW, the "Mary" show was not that bad, particularly Katey Sagal. But I have heard that Mary could be a C-word from hell on occasion.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I can relate. From 1995 to 2009, I entered the The Three Day Novel Writing Contest. I never had any trouble finding ideas to write about, but then in 2010, I took a break from the contest and never went back to it, until now in 2014. I have an idea for a satirical novel, but, I'm afraid that Bono and Geldof would kick my ass if they read it!

Unknown said...

Great story. You seem to have touched a chord with many of your readers, Ken. Me included.

I, too, would love to hear more about your experiences writing for MARY -- and why it was such a painful experience for you and David.

Thanks for this.

Marc said...

Ken has written in the past on this blog -- very sympathetically, I am sorry to say to those whose main interests are dirt, unkindness and gossip -- about Mary Tyler Moore and his and David's experience working with her.

mmryan314 said...

I have always been a student of failure. I love failure. My own husband almost failed twice before his business took off ( by the way- some of the best years of my life). Some of history's most successful people came from failure. Walt Disney- three time loser- Steven Jobs- dropping out of college. Gore Vidal- college dropout- Wayne Huizenga- married early. Never close the chapter of your life- ever. Good for you Ken. Count yourself in the best of company.

Anonymous said...

MARY was an interesting show, mostly for the charismatic Katey Sagal's portrayal of Jo Tucker. James Farentino was surprisingly nimble and John Astin was somehow touching in the character's fragile egotism. I really had high hopes for the show.

Ken Levine has written anecdotes about the experience on this blog before. I'd love to hear a detailed complete account.

The oddest thing on the show was that the Mary who was present was not the Mary characters addressed. For example, Jo Tucker asked Mary Brenner if she were the kind of person who'd keep Care Bears on her desk. This is something someone might have asked Mary Richards. But the by the time of MARY, that face had tightened, the charm had been etched away, and the voice had become brittle. Characters repeatedly treated MARY as if she were Mary Richards when the Mary in front of them was clearly hardened and bitter.
Sidebar: Writing "the Mary" made me think of greatest line from "Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion": "Everyone knows I'm the Mary and you're the Rhoda."

Pamela said...

Thank you for the story and the encouragement, Ken. I really needed it.

Kathleen said...

Thank you, Ken, along with commenters here, particularly mmryan314's reminder of the value of failure. I've been engulfed in anxiety, panic and overwhelming feelings of "hacktitude" as I attempt to expand my single act play into two acts. Does having a partner help to endure/work through it?

Famous! said...

Honestly, my immediate takeaway from your story was that the moment you removed yourself from an atmosphere where it simply wasn't working ("MARY"), you "found yourself" again.

Which means that all the time you worked on "MARY", you were likely in denial about the futility of it all. Because you wanted it to work. And this clouded the judgment you needed to suck it up, and walk away, toward a situation with more artistic integrity and the bigger likelihood of success (such as "Cheers").

I myself am currently in a situation where I am tasked to be much less than I've ever been. Far from being the cliche of a positive, humbling experience, I'm actually finding it toxic to my sense of self. Which happens, when you're punched in the head every day with the message: "THIS is who you are... not that other guy... THIS. And as you can plainly see (not in the least by the way we treat you), you are much less than you always believed you were."

I'm speculating, of course, but I think that's what you experienced on "MARY".

Anonymous said...

wasn't Lois.

Johnny Walker said...


I sometimes think I'm optimistic to a flaw. Looking back through my life, I'd stuck out many miserable experiences far longer than I should have, simply because I was trying to convince myself "it's not THAT bad - I can fix this! I can make it work!".

But every single time I've eventually accepted defeat, I realise that I should have trusted my own instincts and moved on much sooner. Every. Single. Time.

When things are right, you know they're right. You don't need to try and convince yourself. (And you shouldn't forget that you can be happy again, too. Sometimes, after a prolonged period of trying to find a sense of contentment in a shitty situation, we forget that we can be happy and so stop striving for it.)

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@howard hoffman: Congratulations!

BrettJ said...

THANK YOU so much for this particular column. I haven't been able to write much in the past few months and began to wonder if my own career was done. I wrote a story a few days ago that was very well received, but still, I wondered if my well had run dry after some 1500+ tales. Now I know that things will eventually work out. Bless you because this was the kind of column I needed to read.