Saturday, August 15, 2015

Writing our first script... at Fort Ord

It’s one thing to get a break, but it’s another to take advantage of it. If you’re lucky enough to get your first script assignment it really behooves you to hit it out of the park. A possible staff job could be yours if your script impresses the powers-that-be. And your agent will have a much easier time getting you more work with a killer script that’s been produced. All of a sudden you start building momentum.  So there is a certain amount of pressure attached. 

All of that was in the back of our minds when my partner David and I got our first assignment – an episode of THE JEFFERSONS.

We worked out the outline with the story editors, Gordon Mitchell & Lloyd Turner. It was early June. This was episode seven for that season and production wasn’t scheduled to begin for another two months. We figured we’d have plenty of time to really turn in a gem, polished to within an inch of its life.

And we were going to need that time. David and I were in the same Army Reserve Unit. In fact, that’s where we met. Part of our obligation was serving two weeks of active duty every summer. That year’s summer camp began the following Monday. So we wouldn’t be able to even begin the script for two weeks.

Gordon and Lloyd wished us luck, and as we were leaving Gordon casually said, “By the way, we need it in two weeks.”


“Yeah, “ Gordon said, “The producers like this story and we’re going to move it way up. So we need it in two weeks. That’s not a problem, is it?”

“No, not at all” we both said. “Piece of cake.”

With great √©lan we strolled out of their office, made it to our cars, and practically collapsed. At that point in our career we had never written a script in only two weeks. And that’s sitting in a quiet room for ten hours every day. I seriously doubted whether Fort Ord provided such amenities. And there was another problem: the way we worked back then, David took down the script in longhand and I then typed it. Where were we going to get an IBM Selectric typewriter (the script had to look professional. We couldn’t just use some beat up old army Royal typewriter from World War II)?

I made some calls to people I worked with in San Francisco when I was a disc jockey at KYA. One had a Selectric. Now all we had to do was somehow get from Fort Ord in Monterrey to San Francisco, and trickier still –  get one-day passes for a Friday. I think my conversation with our company commander went like this:

Me: We need to go up to San Francisco next Friday.
Him: Alright, well, then you’re going to have to work one of the weekend days.
Me: Oh. Well, see, we really need that time to write. We were really kind of hoping to get the whole weekend off, too.
Him: Excuse me?
Me: And maybe if we could skip a few afternoons during the week, that would be great.

In most units I would have been court martialed by then. But this was an Armed Forces Radio Reserve Unit and the company commander worked at NBC and understood our predicament. So he gave us as much leeway as he could, as long as we still performed whatever duties we were assigned.

Now came the matter of just where to write. The base commander was not about to let us use his office. Our entire unit was in one barrack. So imagine FULL METAL JACKET. Forty soldiers sitting around in their underwear, talking, yelling, listening to radios, playing cards, clipping their toenails, smoking, and two idiots sitting on a bunk trying to write the most important script of their lives while the guy in the top bunk drank beer and let his feet dangle in their faces. And then when everyone went to bed, they had to huddle in a corner with a flashlight and whisper because if they spoke in even a stage whisper fifteen guys would tell them to shut the fuck up.

During the day we’d sneak back to the barracks for a couple of what-we-thought were going to be quiet hours. Unfortunately, we were right next to a basic training parade ground. All day long troops would be marching and singing and Drill Sergeants would be screaming at them. Despite what the army may think, jokes don’t come any faster when someone is yelling, “Move your fucking ass, you pussy!”

Because we had to go to San Francisco, we didn’t even have two full weeks. Somehow we finished a draft. We rented a car (which cost us a fortune), raced up to San Francisco, typed all day, and raced back.

The unit bussed back Sunday afternoon, and on Monday morning we called Gordon Mitchell to proudly tell him the script was done. He was pleased.

Him: Great. When can I get it?
Me:Well, it’s 10:00 now. We have to go the Writers Guild to register it, so I guess about noon or 1:00. Him: Schmuck! You don’t have to register it. You’re protecting yourself against me. I BOUGHT the script.

Oops. Our naiveté was showing. He had the draft in a half hour.

So how was the script? We were heavily rewritten by THE JEFFERSONS although in fairness, we were told they did that routinely.

However, it was our draft, that we wrote in Fort Ord that got us our first MASH assignment. So how bad could it have been?

And yes, I see the irony.

And no, we didn’t go back to Fort Ord to write our next assignment even though the first one worked out so well.

This is a re-post from almost five years ago. 


Ron Rettig said...

As I recall the unit was quartered on the second floor of the WW II barracks and adding to the ambiance of the location there was a busy snack bar just across the street.

Bill Avena said...

OK nobody's around so here's my Saturday question: did you ever meet the "Richard Hooker" who wrote the original novel?

Andrew said...

Possible Friday Questions: Have you consciously altered your comedy style over the years? Do you mainly think in single-cam joke form now instead of multi-cam? Apologies if you've already answered these questions before.

blinky said...

Four Doored??

Mike said...

From the picture: the USMC learns to count by improvising an abacus: one, two; one, two; one, two...

Denny said...

What was your JEFFERSONS script about, and how much of what you guys wrote actually made into the final product?

I don't remember THE JEFFERSONS very well. It was one of those shows my folks watched every week that I never paid much attention to. I remember it ran for a long time.

Anonymous said...

One of my golfing partners was Ned Wertimer who played Ralph the doorman. Hope you wrote some good lines for him and they stayed in the shooting script and the final cut. Ned passed away two years ago.

Tom Parker said...

Ken - Is this where you guys coined the phrase "Where humor is our Forte"?

Mike said...

@Denny: All the Bar Mitzvah jokes were taken out.

Hickok said...

"I wanna slip my tubesteak in your sister." What does that mean? The sister is nowhere near boot camp, so I assume it's a reference to gay sex? Some people on the internet say it's just teasing, banter or male soldierly bonding, but the lines are delivered too seriously and straight faced for me to buy that. Other factions say they're seriously talking about a real female sister, and then the remainder follow what I believe and think they are arranging gay sex.

I guess the top just wants a release, doesn't care, it has nothing to do with being straight/gay, and the bottom is simply making a profit off his available assets. Besides, they're on an island, and I guess they may get bored, especially with just their hands?

Cap'n Bob said...

You combat happy dog faces in the Armed Forces Radio Reserves went through hell. Slow hand salute, heroes.

Cap'n Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

I hope one day we see a book about your career in Hollywood, Ken!

Mike said...

It's a little known fact that the Armed Forces Radio Reserve Unit were the beginning of Psych-Ops, who brought democracy to Central America by playing loud pop music at Noriega in Panama. A crack unit of combat DJs were trained to drop behind enemy lines, armed with a mobile transmitter and a box of Top 40 records, to demotivate the enemy with incessant & inane prattle between songs.

Dan Wolfe said...

Great story! And I had the good fortune to work with your unit commander from NBC, and later to command that very unit for about 3 years or so. Hard to believe, but that unit now has a couple of combat tours behind it. Was one of my best assignment and made a ton of lifelong friends there.

By Ken Levine said...

The Fighting 222nd was called to active duty? Yikes. When?

Dan Wolfe said...

The Fighting 222 sent three rotations to Bosnia in 1996 -1998 to man AFN Balkans radio and TV. I left the unit in the spring of '98 to take a job in their higher HQ. At the start of Iraq II, the 222 was one of the first Reserve PA det's to operate AFN Iraq. I was long out of the unit by then and working at the Pentagon, but I stayed in touch with the gang while they were there. They may have been back after that, but I'm not sure since I retired in 2007. When "Saving Private Ryan" was up for the Oscar, the LA PAO folks set up the 222 Soldiers with dress clues and we put 'em on the red carpet to get liners for AFRTS and AFN, as well as grab some interviews. We were trying hard to give them something to do in peacetime besides walk around the reserve center. They still do the red carpet thing, last I heard. They're pretty active in production nowadays as well. I see something they've produced every once in a while on the web.

Dan Wolfe said...

Shoot, dress BLUES. I was typing far too quickly.

Mea culpa and all that rot. :)

Dan Wolfe said...

The 222 DID deploy again to Iraq in 2009.

Andrew said...

Ken, for a Friday question, what did you think of the Jeffersons as a show? How did it compare (in your view) with All in the Family? What's the inside scoop?

You mentioned how you're trying to come up with new ideas for this blog. I would love for you to review shows like that, and give your insights into the writing, directing, etc. What worked, what didn't work, who was a pleasure to write for, etc.

Andrew said...

Just to clarify, I don't mean that you'd only review shows you worked on. But in the same way that you do movie reviews, could you do TV show reviews from the past, or perhaps seasonal reviews? What's your favorite episode of All in the Family, season 3? What do you like about the original Law and Order? Etc. I think that would be a hit.