My reasons for checking out of network TV and checking back in six years later were based on … something. When your mind is a mid-level executive in your own life, you go with gut instincts despite knowing that guts, whatever they are, don’t really have instincts.
To the untrained stomach, everything seemed to move along so well: A sitcom idea brushed by me like a pickpocket, and I made some calls. The 12,000th time someone’s assistant said, “I don’t have him right now,” a super pesky spot of blue dabbed my thoughts, but I ignored it.
When the calls were returned, the one-line description of the pilot excited people. So much so, a studio bought the idea without hearing what it was.
In no time, managers, executives, accountants, lawyers and assistants swooped back in my orbit. I shook off a totally annoying analogy about a slew of junkies welcoming back their old pusher and showed up early for the first of 23,000 meetings.
Over the next few weeks, the road to the networks was smooth enough to make life back in TV seem livable. I dismissed a cynical, cynical thought that the right chamber of commerce could make Kandahar look livable and prepared my network pitch.
Then there was a phone call from one of the orbiters: “When you pitch the networks, don’t sit on the arm of the couch.”
OK, let’s back up in time a moment. All of my previous 12 million network pitches featured me on the arm of a couch because (a) pitching is stand-up comedy, and comedians work on stages; and (b) network couches are upholstered sinkholes: lower and lower you go until nap thoughts drown out such thoughts as character, conflict and likability. (Likability deserves drowning but that’s another story.)
“Why can’t I sit on the arm of the couch?”
“Because it can be interpreted as some kind of power play. Times have changed.”
A spit of fight-or-flight adrenaline buzzed me as I hung up. (Estimate: four parts flight, one part fight.) That whole repressed memory lane where network TV slept for six years woke up screaming:
"You were leading such a nice life. You’ve taken out a subprime mortgage on your happiness. You should have ripped up that big, fat contract. When the line’s been signed, you’re someone else."
All those italics sent me out the door. A parking spot too good to pass up left me walking around Santa Monica. As I walked down the California Incline, cars raced by on PCH. It was like NASCAR, only entertaining. And instead of mind-dispersing noise, there was just enough hum to think.
That’s when it hit me: In this re-entry into network TV, where “times have changed,” the potential for joy was nowhere to be seen. No matter where I looked — ESE, WSW NNE, SSW — the future was clouded with frigid conference calls, coded notes, oppressive tact, annihilating compromise and congestive collaboration.
“Sorry,” I said aloud as the 14,000th BMW with USC-related personalized plates roared by below. “I need some hope of joy.”
See, here’s the thing: When your past includes seven years of writing on a show for which you couldn’t wait to show up every day, experiencing joy in your work evolves from a luxury to a requirement. I know this because I went home from the California Incline and called people who’d been on similar shows.
They all used sentences like, “At this stage in your life, if it won’t be fun, what’s the point?” They all used words like pleasure and meaningful and relevance and joy.
Joy — just to define our terms here — means having the opportunity to do something different, the freedom to tweak the sitcom form and maybe revolutionize it altogether. It means writing something that could find a place on the cultural landscape of the United States. It means taking a step or two toward finding your own level of greatness.
You know, paltry doo-doo like that.
One day a couple of months after the network “passed” on my pilot, the phone rang. It was an editor from Little, Brown saying that a line from “The Yada Yada” would be included the next edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.