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May 01, 2013

A Senior Citizen Comedy Writer in Cyberspace Observes: It Used to be Who You Know - Now, It's Who Knows You.


I have this fantastic idea for a television series.
But, the only one I have to tell it to is you.
However, nowadays that’s a good thing. Because, despite what your family says, you are worthy, you can make a difference.    

However, it wasn’t always this way...

Once upon a lazy Sunday afternoon, the doorbell rings at my apartment in Marina Del Rey. Standing there is a bushy-haired stranger in his late twenties who introduces himself as Garry Shandling. At the time, I’m in my first year as the Head Writer on Sanford and Son and Garry has somehow found out where I live - and would I mind reading his spec script?

Are you kidding me?!

However, Garry is in the right place at the right time because I’ve also struggled to get where I am. I felt if he could get up the nerve to knock on my door, least I could do was take a quick look at his script.  

It didn’t take long to see that Garry had written some exceptional jokes and had tremendous potential. That spec script eventually led to him co-writing a Sanford and Son with me. It turned out to be the one that debuted Pat Morita, and I like to think it jump started both Pat and Garry’s careers.

Pat2.jpg  - Not Garry Shandling.

Back then, Garry knew what we all knew: If you wanted to break into TV writing, you had to know someone. 

I knew Auntie Lee.
Auntie Lee was one of those forever friends of your parents that you call aunt or uncle. For as long as I can remember she’d been an executive secretary for some of the biggest producers in movies and television. Auntie Lee was a small, leathery woman with a two pack a day Kool cigarette habit and breath that could give you whiplash.
But, I adored her.
My senior year at UCLA, she was working at Universal Studios and brought me the pilot script for a bizarre, new sitcom called,The Munsters. I don’t care what age you are, if you haven’t heard of The Munsters, its time to move out of Pakistan.
To me, who had never seen a television script, it was a treasure. I read it countless times, took it apart, tried to analyze the structure, the jokes, the characters.
Eventually, I got an idea for a story, and just to see if I could do it, started writing. Without realizing it, I was writing a “Spec Script.” That is, an unassigned piece of material for no guaranteed money, totally on speculation.
As a favor to Auntie Lee, the Munster producers read my gem. They didn’t like my story, but apparently saw potential because they called and invited me in to pitch other story ideas, with the possibility of a script assignment.


One episode = $1,200. Residuals to Date = 28k

A few days later I’m waved through the gate at Universal. My mother wanted to dress me in coat and tie, but come on, I’m supposed to be a comedy writer, not a Bar Mitzvah Boy. Never mind that I have absolutely no idea of how to pitch a story. However, a full tank of chutzpah allows me to appear marginally competent. If you don’t know what Chutzpah is, another reason to get out of Pakistan.  
Anyway, not only did I manage to pull off the charade, the Munster producers liked one of my story ideas and I got my first ever script assignment!

Less than two years later, I am waiting for the elevator at CBS Television City. When the doors open, there are only two people inside; Carol Burnett and Groucho Marx. I manage to gushingly introduce myself as a brand new writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Carol politely congratulates me, and then Groucho shakes my hand, says, “Nice to meet you, Ted. You know, you’re much shorter in person.”
The elevator only goes up two floors, but I’m already in heaven.


                                     However, both were in color.

After Smothers, The Jonathan Winters Show and two seasons as head writer for Sanford and Son, I’m suddenly perceived as a comedy writing genius - and I’m getting invitations from all the TV networks to come in and pitch ideas for new shows.


Over the next decade I will write over a dozen sitcom pilots.
Unfortunately, none will make it to series. Ah, but then there’s a lot of great quarterbacks who never made it to the Super Bowl.
So I say...
Here’s an example of (sometimes) how easy it was. It is also a pretty good argument as to why I never got this, or any other pilot to go to series.

In the office of the Head of Comedy Development, I set an old Life Magazine down on the table. Its from 1943 and on the cover is a pretty girl sitting on the tail of a WW II fighter plane.                                           


I explain she's a WASP: A Women's Air Force Service Pilot.  During the war there were thousands of them and they basically performed non combat flying duties to free up the male pilots to fight overseas. Training was at a dusty little airfield near the small town of Sweetwater, Texas, deep in the heart of male chauvinism country. 

This is Mash with women.

It's the easiest sale I ever made. 

However, before I can start scripting The Wasps, the network guy has to approve my story outline. He likes it, but has just one teeny weeny comment: He thinks the story needs more danger, more jeopardy and suggests the women fly in combat.
This is such an outrageously stupid idea, that in writing this, I spent some time trying to find a more politically correct word for stupid. But, no. Stupid is Stupid is Stupid.

Anyway, for a moment I think he’s got to be kidding. So, I respond warily, “Ah, what do you mean by combat?”
“You know, like in dogfights against the Germans.”
He’s not kidding...
Struggling to stay in neutral, I slowly say, “Well...yes, we could have them in dogfights. But, then we couldn’t call them the WASPS because the WASPS never fought overseas. In fact, during World War Two, it was our policy that no woman was ever deliberately sent into combat.”
He says, “Yeah, but why can’t we get a little creative here? I love the idea of women fighting. It’s sexy!”  
Suddenly this thing starts to come out of my mouth - and I really do know better, but I can’t seem to stop it.
I say, “Well, okay, how about this for creative? We make them into a squadron of enemy pilots, you know, like Nazis or Japanese. Then we can change the title of the show to Boobs Over Berlin, or even better, Tits Over Tokyo.”

Over the years, I’ve evolved into an Almost TV Comedy Writer: Almost won an Emmy. Almost got my own show on the air. My credits range from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to The Hollywood Squares, All in the Family, Sanford and Son, What's Happening, Gimme a Break, It's Garry Shandling's Show and way too many unsold pilots like, Who Needs Friends? and The Al Qaeda Comedy Hour.
Now, I have a chance to erase the Almost.

Like I said, I have this incredible idea for a new television show that will undoubtedly become a beloved, world wide, bank breaking franchise, negate all my previous shortcomings and give me a reason for living.
Problem is, I don’t know anyone in television anymore. I’m also over sixty, which is perceived by most network executives as brain dead. Those of us in the industry have always known that there is a prejudice against older writers in television, especially in comedy. My guess is that they think we can’t write for today’s audiences; that were out of touch, not contemporary. Come on, if John McCain, a man in his seventies, could be trusted to possibly be President of the United States, why can’t I be trusted to write a joke? And no, I don’t have Alzheimer’s and I’m going to forget you ever said that. (I’ll wait...)

Once it became clear that I could no longer support my family in television, we took the opportunity to leave Los Angeles and look for a place to live where we could take a deep breath and make a left turn. We’ve settled in the Russian River area of Sonoma County, in the heart of the Northern California wine country.
However, I still haven’t been able to make my sense of humor or the desire to make people laugh, go away.
So, let me tell you my idea for this can’t miss TV show: It’s a Celebrity Hosted, Dog And Cat Comedy TV Show - With Real Dogs and Real Cats and Real People - And, it is also structured to raise a ton of money for dog and cat related charities. 

Win. Win.
But, like I said, I don’t know anyone in the television industry anymore.

The good news is, today with the internet, me and my TV Show Presentation are just a mouse click away from everyone on the planet with a computer. Now, its not as much Who You Know, but Who Knows You. 

See, we’ve come full circle. You are important.  

Kindly click on the cartoon below to view the TV Presentation. Then, If you are so inclined, please share it on Facebook, Stumble Upon It, Bing it, Fling it, Tweet it, Pin it to your office bulletin board, slap a copy on your neighbor's... refrigerator....

Sooner or later, somebody will take notice. That's because somebody always knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody...

Know Somebody?