Sunday, February 15, 2009

In which the Enterprise is Christened

Bill was on a roll now. Sensing that the fishy was hooked, he dropped that the putative show had a working title which was (wait for it) Monsterpiece Theatre. Like Masterpiece Theatre, only not on PBS and not with great works of British literature but with ... monster movies!

I heard the sound of crickets in my mind. This is usually about the part where Barb shoots me the "Get me out of here" look. One of us tactfully remarks on the witty pun, because that would have been the polite thing to do, given the free lunch and all. But, still, monster movies -- the hundreds, nay thousands of hours I spent watching monster movies in my misspent youth, from the classic Universal horror package endlessly rerun on the St. Louis indy station through the AIP cheapos run after school on the ABC affiliate competing with the Three Stooges, to Saturday afternoons at the no-longer Fabulous Fox and the Rio Show gorging on the Godzilla canon; monster movies are a certain cultural touchstone for certain kinds of folks and truth be told, it would be kind of cool to be part of that.

During my purgatory in Bloomington, with its two or so teevee options, I came across one Sammy Terry, broadcast out of Indianapolis (Indynoplace, Naptown ... and these were terms of endearment used by Hoosiers, what were we sophisticates from the Gateway to the West supposed to think? Sakes!) Sammy's show was about as cheap as it got -- badly painted sets (badly painted, I later learned, by slumming IU scene painters), spooky organ music under wretched puns oversold by a citizen made up in black and white housepaint who kinda looked like the screaming guy in the Munch painting -- teevee to set your teeth on edge; it had the sole beneficial effect of reminding one that time was a-wasting and making one's pile o schoolwork strangely attractive. "Ever hear of an Indiana show ... Sammy Terry or something?" I asked.

Turns out Bill did; shouldn't have been surprised. He was a hotshot teevee executive, he should know about this kind of stuff.

"We wouldn't have any interest in something like that ..." Barb shot me another look. We? Signals getting crossed here, folks ... we have an interest in getting out of here, forgetting about this and getting on with our lives.

Bill also picked up on the pronoun. "Well, we're really only interested in your wife. It's not a big deal; we just want someone to come in, do the show and leave. It'll all be ad-libbed, anyway. We aren't going to make a big deal out of this."

Then why do it? "Well, something like this doesn't need a lot of stuff. But if you don't want to make a big deal out of this ... why do it?" Barb unlaxes; discussion back on script. Wrap this up. "See, if you want improv get an improv person. Improv guys work off of scripts; they might not be written, but improv actors work out a structure that they riff on in performance. Who else are you thinking of? Who would Barb be working with?"

Well, no one. The show would be built around Barb. The show would be Barb. There wasn't anything in the budget for anyone else. Unless Barb wanted to pay for them out of her pocket. The crepes were starting to curdle.

"Is there some kind of a set ... some kind of treatment ... document ... anything that sort of ... sets the rules for the show?" Anything at all that would make Barb any kind of comfortable with this?

It was Bill's turn to hear the cricket song. The pitch was the sum total of the concept. In other words, a blank piece of paper.

I looked at Barb. "What do you think?"

Barb politely said, "It could be interesting. But I'd like to see something in writing. I don't want to get tied down into something. I want to continue acting in other shows." And we want to continue with the plan to Get Out of Lexington in a year.

It was Bill's turn to unlax a little. Of course this wasn't exclusive, or even long-term. For its part, WLEX was looking at this really as a short-term project: initially thirteen weeks, through the first ratings period. Then they'd take a look at the show's ratings: they had already bought the movies, or were going to buy the movies, or had a movie package in mind that they were going to buy, so they were committed to thirty-nine weeks of movies. If hosted movies scored better ratings than the unhosted movies currently in the time slot, then the hosted show would continue; if not, why we all can just walk away friends.

Barb allowed that thirteen weeks didn't seem like too bad an idea, but she wanted to think about it. I picked up my cue: "Well, we're visual types. Could you ... write up a page or two about what you're thinking of and expect? Then we could react to it, tell you what we'd be willing to do, and maybe we could come to some kind of agreement? Because you guys are the ones putting money into this, it's just time for us ... so wouldn't it help to have something written like a business plan?"

This seemed sort-of OK to Bill. He wasn't thrilled; he wanted a commitment and got a nibble, but that's all he was going to get today. So he promised to get us something in writing, and we promised to wait until we heard from him. Check hurriedly called for, paid, thanks and handshakes exchanged, doors scooted through.

Barb: "Do you think he's serious?"

Steve: "Nah. Let's see if he actually sends us anything. If we don't hear from him in a week, let's forget about it."


  1. What really gets me is how little you guys were paid, but honestly, being part of radio for so long, I'm shocked you were offered that much. Teevee and radio people are notoriously cheap; if my bosses thought they could get somebody sensible for fifty bucks a week, you better believe they'd go for it. I have to say, WLEX got their money's worth.

  2. The way we looked at it was $50 per show was good money compared to our frames of reference: IATSE show scale was, as I recall at that time and in that market, something like $30; and only two or three acting companies paid actors at all. I guess if we tried to prorate it out, that would probably be around $300/400 a show in pre-meltdown dollars. So, for the time it seemed decent PT money.

    But the whole epic story comes down to: we never did this as a job, never did it for money beyond the principle of getting compensated. We did it for fun: we had fun once we figured out what the show wanted to be, our studio guys had fun doing the show, the WLEX suits seemed to have fun with the outcome of our little guerilla operation -- that's why Brian Collins came on, because he was a fan -- and whoever our audience was had fun watching. We were blessed to have that opportunity.

  3. That feeling definitely shone through. It's part of the reason my brothers and I would stay up so late to watch (because, let's admit it, SNL and GLOW weren't exactly hooking committed viewers back then). Even at that young age, I was more than a Friday the 13th freak... I'd already read the Psychotronic Encyclopedia cover-to-cover, followed Famous Monsters to its end, had the first-issue-Godzilla-cover of Fangoria... I was ripe for a horror host show. The fact that we got people who understood what made it work is what made me a fanatic.

  4. In the immortal words of Porky Pig: "Shucks, folks, it wasn't hard, 'cause we're a-a-a-artists."