Friday, September 27, 2013

The Loneliness of Liz Lemon

I love 30 Rock, the series created by Tina Fey, based on her experience as a script producer on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Tina Fey’s beautifully nuanced character is called Liz Lemon, and she has a fairly ambivalent view if her job. But she is very sure about one thing. In the show she has a team of writers working for her and they all hate her. Surely this is paranoia? Why would they all hate someone who basically wants to do a good job and behave like a decent human being? The actors try to beguile her with the usual charming tricks that actors use to get what they want. But the writers’ hatred for Liz Lemon is blatant.

Liz Lemon is right about all her writers hating her.
And I know that, because I used to have her job. Okay, the show was Full Frontal and not Saturday Night Live. But my job on Full Frontal was to say ‘No.’

And that’s a terrible job. People will often do anything but say that word, because they know what it leads to. I was the script producer on Full Frontal for a couple of years, where my task was to prepare for air one hour of sketch comedy per week. And it had to be ‘heartland’ sketch comedy. That is to say, the jokes had to appeal to people who live outside the inner city. These outlers actually had to like it. Programmers arrogantly tell you, ‘We make shows for the people we fly over.’ This creates all sorts of problems. First of all, if you’re working in comedy in Melbourne, none of your close friends lives outside the inner city, unless they have farms or islands. So, it’s 1996 and every week I’m getting nagged by my many, many friend about why the show is so lame. I sort of shrug and give a goofy smile that I think is endearing but probably is as annoying as an Andy Mcdowell simper. And I remind myself that I’m being quite well paid by people who want me to deliver them a rating of around 18 per week on a regular basis. And that’s what Full Frontal used to get. So, stuff the inner city, there were obviously a lot of people in the suburbs who were watching Full Frontal week after week, and why the hell would they do that if they didn’t think it was funny?

 One year we employed the excellent New Zealand-born comedian Alan Brough as a core writer for the show. I fell in love with Alan, just like everyone does. He’s ridiculously charismatic. And yes, he’s very funny. You can also talk with him about literature if you want, because he actually reads, though my main aim was to extract from him two minutes of broadcast-quality comedy script material per week. At first I was sure it wouldn’t be hard. He was sweet, clever and funny. He also didn’t seem like other sketch writers. He bathed, he cared about how he dressed, he flossed, and he was polite.  I was staggered by the air of politeness the gentle giant brought to the scuzzy writers’ room in Dorcas Street. When Alan picked up a ringing phone, he didn’t give the usual Dave O’Neil ‘Yeah?’ He actually told the ringer which extension they had reached and asked to whom would they like to speak. At first I thought it was some sort of wind-up, but I’m now convinced it was all quite genuine. I think Alan was just born nice, like a lot of New Zealanders. I was reasonably sure I’d have no trouble talking him through a script, maybe suggesting a rewrite, or getting him to liaise with the performers, since his script would have a better chance of being filmed if a performer was particularly keen on doing it.

I’m not affable. I thought I was, but I’m not. And I discovered that Alan Brough isn’t affable either – at least not when you say ‘No’. I was so dumb, I didn’t get it at first. I asked the other writers what had happened to Alan? Why had he stopped being nice? Things not going well at home? Some relative fall into a mud spring? Pesky outbreak of ebola virus? The writers thought I was being disingenuous, or probably an easier word that means deceitful. Surely I knew why Alan Brough had started hating me. ‘Hate’ is probably too strong a … no, we’ll stick with that. Finally Anthony Watt, who is one of those sketch writers with a pretty impressive education behind him and who ended up producing ABC’s The Spicks and The Specks, explained to me that I had rejected a script from Alan. Alan hated me for the same reason that all the writers hated me. I had said no. Actually, knowing how keen I was to foster better producer/writer relations, I had probably given Alan a whole page of notes as well, maybe even grand final tickets. (We were working at Seven, after all, and there were usually good tickets to the tennis, the footy and even the Olympics – though not, oddly, The Logies, even in a year that we were nominated (it hurts, and it’s on my website, in the ‘Commercial break’ section, if you’re interested. I didn’t think so). I know I would have been polite to Alan, even though I had not used his work. Because, dammit, I wanted lovely big funny Alan to like me. I had heard reports of other script producers who had been so despised by their employees that they had been forced into a graceless retirement up north somewhere, maybe teaching the odd class in Advanced Irony at a TAFE college.  But I was determined that wasn’t going to happen to me. I’d be the ‘nice’ script producer. But unfortunately, as I was soon to learn, you’re only nice if you say ‘yes’ and if that means we spend a lot of money shooting a sketch that stiffs and that I’ve greenlighted, then everybody, not just the writers, will stop liking me.

What amazed me was the speed of Alan’s transformation. I’d only rejected a script for god's sake, I hadn’t told him that his mother had a face like a bashed crab.

I didn’t truly realise the depth of this writerly resentment until I attended Anthony Watt’s wedding and found myself listening to four speeches, all of which were delivered by members of Full Frontal’s writing staff and all of which included a cheap swipe at me about what a bastard I was.

Shaun Micallef was such a rare and wonderful find that I not only wanted him to like me, I wanted him to write an awful lot of sketch material every week. He and Gary McCaffrie were easily the best writers we had. I had been known to schedule Shaun Micallef sketches without them even existing, confident in the knowledge that Shaun would come up with something.  And Shaun was, indeed, the picture of what Alan Brough had originally been. He was courteous. He never stuck a phone receiver down the back of his shorts to scratch his arse. (Neither did Dave O’Neil, but I swear I once saw one of my writers do that.) Of course, it helped that Shaun was a strong performer and he would be the one delivering the material, so he had a vested interest in making the thing go as well as possible. Shaun Micallef will do absolutely anything for comedy. He has been shaved completely bald on a ‘live night’ for a gag, the nub of which  escapes me. He has walked through the South Melbourne Shopping Precinct stark, bollock naked except for a police cap and boots. The sketch wasn’t the best we’ve done, but you have to admire courage like that that. He has also done some of the most dangerous slapstick I have ever seen in front of a studio audience. I had to make discreet enquiries about whether Channel Seven would be liable to compensate Shaun (a lawyer, don’t forget) in the event of his damaging himself. I was more concerned about losing the show’s main engine. Without Shaun we really wouldn’t have a show. He was always nice, even when I had to drop sketches that hadn’t quite worked though they were ‘conceptually funny’. Shaun never used that expression. He’s not as pretentious as I am. No one is.

A brief detour. Producer Alan Hardy has had a brilliant career. I believe he ‘discovered’ Kylie Minogue. She was under a chair somewhere.  Though Alan was always doing great work, he was forever known as ‘the son of Frank Hardy’. It’s one of the bugbears of having a famous parent. And now that Frank is no longer the behemoth he once was, Alan is now faced with another bugbear. He is now known as the father of Marique Hardy, yet another behemoth who happens to be his daughter. I sat with Alan recently, though it can’t have been that recently because we drank a fair bit and I haven’t done that for a while. We were chatting like a couple of old luvvies about Shaun Micallef, when Alan mentioned an anecdote that Shaun had told at some conference somewhere. Someone complimented him, quite rightly, on the quality of his first ABC sketch series. Had it been hard to do? Shaun replied that it wasn’t that hard to do, since it had already been written. He had simply used all his sketches that had been rejected from Full Frontal. Alan seemed to think this was incredibly funny. (So, I gather, did the audience at the conference.)  I did not think it was incredibly funny because it was untrue and wrong, wrong, wrong. (Wow. Sorry about the font change but this hurts.) I won’t be accused of being the man who turned down plasticine ‘Myron’, a mini masterpiece that certainly would have been absorbed and, inevitably overwhelmed by Full Frontal.

That first ABC Micallef series really was a belter and I hated the notion that I had rejected that much good stuff. I’ve never told Shaun I'm upset about what he apparently said at the conference. It would be awkward, so I had to pretend that I could take it on the chin, just as all the comedy workers have to do. The loneliness of Liz Lemon. How well I understand it.

 Not long ago, Shaun did a magazine interview about how dispiriting it was to join Full Frontal, especially as he had submitted thirty scripts on his first go, and they had all been rejected – the reader inferred, quite summarily. He’s right, I did reject them, but I didn’t actually throw them into a fire while brandishing a crucifix, I rejected them courteously. I don’t know if it really was thirty scripts, though it wouldn’t surprise me, as Shaun’s annual scriptfall is huge. There were certainly a lot of scripts in his first submission. But I do remember sitting with Shaun in his first week and telling him that I thought the material he had submitted was very funny (undoubtedly most of it was) but that I was concerned it might not appeal to our show’s target audience, who might not be as familiar with the movie Greystoke  as Shaun evidently was. One of Full Frontal’s trademarks was a weekly - usually dire - TV or movie parody. If we did a movie parody it had to be something like Star Wars; any movie that was ludicrously well known, or ‘our audience wouldn’t understand.’ (I had that direct from the Seven boardroom boys. Channel Seven viewers apparently did not go to movies, perhaps in fear that they might accidentally end up seeing an Australian one.) Now, Shaun had chosen to write a parody of a movie that was not only ‘arthouse’ but that had also been made in 1984, twelve years before our meeting. There were jokes that not even the most ardent of  Christopher Lambert fans – and there must be dozens - wouldn’t have got. Most of our viewers would have been around four in 1984 and probably thrilling more to the wit and wisdom of Owly School than an elegant retelling of the Edgar Rice Burroughs tale of the mysteriously cross-eyed boy who was raised by apes and eventually brought into society. Anyway, Shaun seemed affable enough about my gentle rejection, and, thank god, he kept writing for me. Though he pointedly resisted writing show or movie parodies since he rather detested them. There was an incident … I remember casting Shaun in a live night presentation of a parody based on the Fran Drescher series, The Nanny. It turned out that cast member Kitty Flanagan could do a pretty good impersonation of Nanny Fran Fein’s laugh. Anyway, a script was produced by four of Full Frontal’s regular writers.  I tried to make it as painless as possible for Shaun by adding a few good jokes for him – though I recall it wasn’t a solid-gold script and was probably just a limp parody highlighting Australia’s ineffably stupid government. We used that same formula for nearly every parody. I wonder if anyone noticed? I thought that, in a way, casting Shaun was an act of flattery. After all, we needed a handsome performer to play the debonair Mr Sheffield, and while cast member Eric Bana was certainly handsome, he just didn’t have the ‘class’ that Shaun had. And John Walker was so small he could only play ants. Anyway, the sketch was never aired, or indeed completed. Shaun found it impossible to deliver a single line correctly and seemed to have suddenly developed Alzheimer’s. I think it was Shaun’s secret  message to me that he would be writing his own material from then on. Actually, it would have been better if he’d actually told me this to my face, since we had already spent a motzer on a set that passably resembled the set in the original  TV show, wardrobe had sourced some suitably outrageous stuff for the Fran Fein (Kitty) to wear, and make-up had spent hours trying to get our regular cast to look like the cast of the famous American sitcom highlighting the talents of Fran Drescher. Musician Yuri Worontschak had already written a soundalike of the show’s theme song. I really, really wish Shaun had said ‘No.’ But maybe he didn’t want me to get offended.

Years later, in an awkward turning of tables, Shaun asked me to submit material for his new SBS sketch program, Newstopia.  I knew that it was probably a mistake, but I did agree to submit some stuff and my name even appears on the IMDB writing credits of the show, even though nothing of mine went to air. There’s a good reason for this. I felt embarrassed about submitting to Shaun, as by now I was quite in awe of him. I did send him one sketch that examined the trope, oft favoured by reporters, that if a butterfly beats its wings in Brazil, there ends up being an earthquake in Australia, or somewhere on the other side of the world. I think it’s to do with chaos theory, because everything is. One night I saw a journalist trying to use the expression, but he became geographically confused. His butterfly was located in Paraguay and his earthquake ended up being in Bolivia. That doesn’t quite work, because Paraguay and Bolivia are too close together, they share a border, so the whole sentiment of the expression is lost. It’s almost as if there really are butterflies in Paraguay that are capable of causing earthquakes in neigbouring countries by beating their wings. So I wrote a sketch that had Shaun arguing the point with an interviewee, moving off the subject and wondering whether there should be some eradication program for these South ameican killer butterflies. Even as I type this, I blush with embarrassment. It wasn’t a good idea, I shouldn’t have turned it into a sketch and sent it to Shaun. It wasn’t used and neither of us has ever mentioned it. Shaun didn’t want to say no. He let me do it for myself.

 The loneliness of Liz Lemon.