Thursday, July 9, 2015

What on earth happened?

The brilliant Tina Fay, in her comic element as unloved script producer Liz Lemon on the greatly missed American sitcom, 30 Rock.

In an earlier post, The Loneliness of Liz Lemon, I wrote about how upsetting it was being the script producer or head writer of a TV sketch show, and therefore being the one who has the unenviable task of rejecting scripts that writers have prepared, because you don’t think they’re good enough to be filmed and put on television. You are immediately disliked, no matter how politely you reject their work. Even if you give them money. And a car.

I now know what it feels like to be one of the rejected ones. Back in March, I received a phone call from producer Rick McKenna. He’s married to Gina Riley, who is a good pal, but I knew Rick long before I knew Gina. He ran The Last Laugh theatre restaurant for a time, so every comedy person in Melbourne knew him. I always found him affable, though I knew some comedians complained that he could be tough. That is, he wouldn’t let them perform because they weren’t funny enough on stage, in his opinion. It was his call to make and, frankly, he was usually right.
The not-funny-enough-on-stage category is one in which I undoubtedly fall, but fortunately most of my visits to The Last Laugh were more about coming to see people do material that I had written for them, than getting up on stage and trying to be funny. Rick’s phone call came first thing in the morning. We’re both early risers. His excuse is that he’s got a family. Mine is that I am suffering so badly from insomnia that I tend to get up at five and try to get some work done, when St Kilda is relatively quiet. I might as well take advantage of my sleeplessness. So I’d already been up for four hours when Rick called. Had I been less weary, I would probably have handled the call a little better. Rick told me he had got some money from Foxtel and had a sketch comedy project he thought I might like to work on. Normally I would have given an immediate but polite ‘No, thank you.’ Rick is nice, sketch comedy is tough. But this sketch comedy show that Rick pitched involved new and old, tried and tested talent. He wanted me to write some material for it. I really should have said no, but Rick is a good businessman and knows how to get the answer he wants. He said very persuasively that I’d be working with a lot of old colleagues whom I liked, in particular Gina Riley and Glenn Robbins, that I only had to produce about a minute of broadcast material per episode and that I could pretty much make my own hours. I was guaranteed a first series of ten episodes and then, most likely, a second series of a further ten episodes.
It was beginning to sound appealing, even though I had sworn I would never again do sketch comedy, the most depressing form of television to produce. The head writers of the show were two guys from advertising. They were Phil and a guy whose name I forget. We’ll call him Not-phil. They were nice guys. I first met them in a production meeting weeks before the series went to air and I told them what they could expect during the ensuing weeks. Somehow, I didn’t manage to dissuade them. I sat there telling them all these nightmare stories, about how they were about to lose all their friends and that they would carry the can if the show was deemed unfunny, because it’s usually the writers who get blamed, and it’s very hard to blame the performers when you’ve got veterans like Jane Turner, Michael Veitch, Magda Szubanski, Gina Riley, Glenn Robbins and Marg Downey, who all have the comedy runs on the board.

I bumped into Comedy Company mate Glenn Robbins, who was also keen to have me aboard. My agent did a deal and I was suddenly a contributing writer on a show that had only just been christened Open Slather. So I had said yes. Sort of. And I really shouldn’t have.
Before the show went to air on Sunday evenings on Foxtel, I wrote some stuff with Glenn Robbins. That was my single, solitary good experience during the time the first season went to air. I wanted to write with some of the other old hands, because it’s pretty miserable writing comedy on your own, but everyone was too busy. I did spend an afternoon writing with Magda, but I screwed that up because I was away from home and somehow convinced myself that I had left the iron on. Given that I so rarely use the thing, it was a fairly irrational fear.

Some of the alumni of Open Slather

The show would be around fifty minutes a week – which was a massive undertaking and everyone worked so hard that I never got a chance to work with any writers. I just submitted stuff week after week in the time leading up to the show. Some weeks there would be as many as ten sketches that I dutifully fired off to Phil and Not-phil, Then I watched the show going to air. It was the first time I have ever worked on a sketch show and been so far down the food chain that the only way I could see the show was to watch it on TV. There was to be no live night, because the style of the show precluded that. Not everything was funny, but it all looked fantastic, like a movie. I was used to sketch comedy shows where the sets were obviously just sets and the microphone boom shadows were ever present. Everything in the old live-audience shows was overlit.

It wasn’t a laugh riot, but Open Slather looked fantastic. The first episode seemed promising, though the stand-out parts were nearly all performed by the alumni, mainly Gina. The new and upcoming kids didn’t get much of a chance to shine. There was nothing of mine in the show, but I got a writing credit at the end, which I thought was odd. I’d been paid far too much money to get nothing on the show, so I rang up in concern, but the producers reassured me that the system was a bit gridlocked so they were shooting the stuff that had arrived earliest and was therefore prepped, or words to that effect. I didn’t want to seem anxious, with my grand track record in comedy, though of course I was. With a sheaf of new sketches I paid a visit to Phil and Not-phil. I didn’t ask them point blank if they disliked the last avalanche of sketches I had submitted, since nothing had been used. Instead I talked about their vision for the show. What sort of sketches did they want? I never really got an answer to that, but I wasn’t going to let it go. I actually pitched my latest bunch of sketches. I acted them out and got laughs. There was one sketch they really liked because they could shoot it on a location that had already been organized, so it seemed a ‘no-brainer’. One of them actually used that word. Like I said, they’re from advertising, but like I also said, they’re nice guys. My sketch was a takeoff of those really annoying Jeep ads where the revelation that someone has bought a jeep is somehow meant to generate overwhelming joy or envy or disbelief.
I actually wasn’t happy with that sketch, because it seemed a return to parody comedy. Shows that I had previously helmed had well and truly mined this seam. But because the production standards on Open Slather were so much better, the parodies were encouraged. One of the joys of the Fast Forward ad parodies was that they were only nearly lookalike. Director Ted Emery took great pleasure in recreating impossibly difficult locations, props, etc, and making them look deliberately amateurish, even though he made them seem filmic. It’s sort of like being shithouse, but pretending you’re not.

I thought that getting some new regular characters up would be the best way to give the show a brand of its own. To this end I spent a very short afternoon writing with Magda Szubanski. Magda had other people to see, I had steam irons to worry about, but I really needed to have Magda with me if I was going to try to invent new characters for her. She was obsessed about a woman  called Suzy Menkes. Check her out and you’ll see why. Magda launched in to an hilarious impersonation and I quickly wrote three sketches involving the character. It didn’t seem to matter that Suzy Menkes wasn’t widely known in popular media, since Magda was making the character funny in her own right. You didn’t need the recognition factor.
I explained this to Phil and Not-phil when I submitted the sketches, along with the usual fistful of accompanying material. We checked out Suzy Menkes on Youtube and yes, it certainly seemed good fodder for Magda. The next episode came and went. One of the supporting cast, Ben Gerrard, had a character he called Johann. I recognised Ben from the excellent ABC sitcom, Outland, in which he was very good. But Johann, his new character, was disappointing. He was far too much like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno (even down to the camp teutonic accent) and there really weren’t enough jokes. But this character seemed to be doing the same stuff as Magda’s proposed ‘Suzy Menkes’ character, thus the material that Magda and I had written no longer had a place in the show, since Johann was covering the whole fashionista world in his own weird way. So, the stuff that Magda andI had written could never saw the light of day.

The stuff that I had written with Glenn was hilarious, I was certain. They were mainly Glenn’s ideas. He’s very good at noticing the little, annoying and quirky aspects of life then riffing on them neatly till they morph into sketch material. And since Glenn was a main player in the cast, I figured he would be able to fight for our sketches.

Glenn Robbins, in non-fighting mode. One of the funniest guys out there, and a decent paramedic (see previous post about how I owe Glenn my life.)

But I watched the show week after week and didn’t see any of my stuff. Oddly, I still got a credit at the end of each episode. I rang my agent Kate and asked if she knew anything about the show. What were its prospects? Was it doing okay? Popular opinion suggested it wasn’t. More importantly, had Kate heard anything about me?  Was my stuff okay, yet somehow overlooked for one reason or another? Was it too long? Or, dare I say it, too not-very-funny? I could never get through to Rick Mckenna to ask him. He was apparently too busy fighting legal battles with Gina Reinhart about some supposed slight that Open Slather had made against her much envied reputation and sylph-like appearance. When I rang the head writers yet again to see if I could somehow help them with material that was more to their taste, they told me they had been sacked. But I was so overconfident about my own abilities as a comedy writer that I felt my position was still secure or would somehow be enhanced. Kate rang and told me that series one of the show still had two more episodes to go. Producer Rick McKenna would be travelling overseas, but according to my agent, I should continue submitting as I had been doing from the start of my contract. Kate emailed me that Rick wanted to come back to me with a ‘variation’ on last season’s offer. I’d been head writer on so many sketch shows, most of which went okay, I felt pretty sure Rick wanted to offer me the same gig on Open Slather. Thus, I worked very hard during those last precious weeks. I thought I should set out to be brilliantly comic, so Rick would have no choice but to give me the head writer gig. (Working on your own also makes you delusional.) Oddly enough, ‘head writer’ was a position I would not have considered accepting for a moment during the show’s preproduction, but now I had to make a point. I could fix this show. Even the nice critics were starting to write mean things about us, though some had been kind to us early on. Our ratings were apparently not great. And there was I thinking that working on a cable show might be more fun than working for normal TV, because there would be hardly any crits. I know we're meant to shrug off bad reviews, but if I ever bump into Bruce Elder from the SMH it will be very hard to prevent myself from throwing something heavy and metallic at his head. Apparently I'll have to join a queue.
After submitting a mountain of solid gold material I waited for Rick McKenna to return from Los Angeles and call. I wondered what tone I should take. Should I leave it to my agent, or should I make Rick beg me to come and fix his show? I was in the shower when he finally rang, but I wanted to take the call, since he was always so impossible to reach, so I kept him waiting as I dried myself off – it takes longer now I’m fat - and put on low-rent St Kilda winter wear. (That is, a black tracksuit. Usually not one’s own.) I waited patiently for Rick’s ‘variation’ on my commitment to series one, as promised by my agent. I was staggered when Rick told me, nicely, that I wasn’t to do further work on the show and that he had nothing to offer me. Why did this upset me so much? Not a thing of mine had been used, despite the weekly credit. I was clearly of no use to the show, such as it was. Open Slather was not exactly an ornament on my resume. It was just that I knew the show could have been better if only they’d used my stuff, or maybe paid me to edit some of the other contributions. Which is what dismissed writers always say or feel when they get the shove. I was in the same position I had gleefully put so many other writers in. (Okay, I was never gleeful about sacking people, it just seemed that way to them. Although there was one. Never mind.) And it does feel terrible. So, I won’t be watching the show anymore. Apparently I’m not in a minority.
I want to close by saying that the show was okay, and people were courteous. There are some good, funny sketches there, and George H. Xanthis, one of the new kids on the block, really stands out. (And that’s hard in a cast where so many of the men look alike. Let’s put it this way. George is the seriously handsome one. Sorry, Ben, but it's definitely George, so put your clothes back on.) I hate seeing comedy shows fail because I know how bloody hard they are. I hope things look up.           
Gina Riley and Magda Szubanski, still funny on Open Slather.

The new kids on Open Slather. (I didn't write this sketch).

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