Sunday, May 17, 2009

In which the Coming of Bob Comes

Tell ya what. Reality does not respect one's writing schedule. Ah, well ...

Gumby's in. What else ya got?

Around this time we drop the kazoo theme and go straight to the cold open. Our sense is that the kazoos trigger an expectation that MT is going to be thus-and-such a kind of show, a zany or wacky show if you will ; it cues the viewer into expecting certain things, which we will have to deliver -- the catchphrase to catchphrase effect of SNL. We're not snobbish about it (well, probly we are) -- we like to think that we are far more pragmatic than theoretical -- but we want to do Something Else, which will keep the show interesting to create and presumably interesting to watch.

We also are weary of the adverbs "zany" and "wacky" turning up constantly in WLEX' publicity. To put things in 80s avatar context: Fozzie Bear is Zany. We aren't. Whenever I see those words used to describe MT, I immediately remember a little indica from an ancient Mad magazine parody of a TV Guide listing: "Funny Cannibal: Jerry Van Dyke." Henceforth, we shall use said adverbs only as on-air synonyms for "contemptuous".

Keith pushes back on dropping the kazoos. He thinks we're heading into too disorienting territory; at some point, the audience has to know what to expect. We're thinking that the overall tone will provide the necessary orientation. Keith points out that for copyright purposes we do have to identify each show somehow with a consistent brand -- that's the point of the consistent opening titles. Oh, yeah ... the law ... FCC stuff ... right ...

Say, btw, about that copyright bug -- what the heck is "Ghastly Things & Avatar Productions", anyway? Turns out "Ghastly Things" is Barb and me, "Avatar Productions" is Keith; and, according to Copyright Law 101 whatever entity is identified by the copyright bug is the legal owner of the work. So WLEX doesn't legally own MT. Which would probly be news to them if anybody was watching the end credits all the way through, and would certainly give the Legal Department a Righteous Conniption, but what's Done is Done. O that scamp Keith!

So we compromise: no kazoos, yes animated title (Keith worked hard on the title, so he's happy), yes cold open. The cold open forces us to put something interesting on immediately as the show opens; that's our rationale and we're sticking to it.

What else we got? By this point, we're barely acknowledging the movie other than as a springboard for the night's concept. Performance-wise, the show runs better as a barely-connected riff. Barb is concerned about this, because she likes a clearly defined throughline; so we spend more time on Writing Nights talking about how Position 1 connects not only to Position 2 but to Position 5 and 7. We read each night's drafts out loud to check pace and flow; that also quickly shows what's not hanging together, so we're doing more fixes on the fly.

Millie's voice starts to change to the definitive Millie as a result of this. If we're going to speed things up, we give Millie more words and less open vowels. Shifting to riffing puts Millie in control of the performance, because the show becomes whatever she shifts it to. Millie's lines become long run-ons where the rhythm and flow become dominant. Millie speeches become long jazz saxophone credenzas, rolling along, punctuated by ... well, there's the problem.

Barb's evolving Millie voice and Keith's voice are pitched sort-of harmoniously; but Keith's job is to direct the show, which is becoming a fairly complicated piece of work for a live-to-tape shoot except that we're still live-to-live. Teevee direction has to stop when he's reading lines; he's got to use one hand to push the talkback button, the other to flip script pages, and he's got to take his eyes off the monitors to read. We can't get into extended Millie/Keith exchanges; we learn that we've got to limit the call-and-response to no more than three volleys for any given segment, and we really need to limit the exchanges to the Open, Mail and Close segments: we're on adrenaline for the Open, Mail is a run-on/locked-down camera segment anyway, and the adrenaline comes back up for the Close. So meta takes a back seat to practicality, as it always must. And we're still stuck where we were all those weeks ago: Millie needs a straight man.

In classic funny man/straight man duos, the straight man is actually the harder working performer. The straight man sets up the funny man, controls the pace of the gags, and feeds the toppers. Interestingly, in vaudeville the straight man was the higher paid of the duo: in some circles it was considered a sign of the apocalypse when Lou Costello demanded a 50/50 cut with Bud Abbott. If, as many dying actors are alleged to have observed on their deathbeds, dying is easy but comedy is hard then finding a funny man is a piece of cake (especially if you're married to her) compared to finding a straight man when the Artistes are still Boycotting the Lowbrow. So thought I until I happened to listen to Bob n Barb after makeup and wardrobe one night.

Since we got our show rhythm going, I hadn't had much to do with Bob on show nights; my focus was in the studio. Paying a bit more attention now, I noticed that Bob was warming up Barb, feeding her snarky little zingers that she would top with a wave of the cigarette holder. He wasn't a linear thinker; he'd wander all over the board in talking about stuff. His voice was pitched about an octave higher than Barb's Millie voice; and it fit into the same harmonic triad that Barb and Keith were in. He had a kind of offbeat rhythm; in setting Barb up he could look innocent but. And he favored a sort-of Rat Pack/Fat Jack E. Leonard fashion that fit the found-object aesthetique we were ransacking (see Gumby above).

Plus, his name was Bob. In my particular Universal Theory of Funny, "Bob" is the funniest name in English. It's hard, flat (if delivered properly Midwesternly), punchy, and ridiculous if coupled with a pretentious professional, governmental or social title (e.g., "Count Bob, Vampire").

So one night I asked Bob if he wouldn't mind having lines on the show on a regular basis.

Well, obviously he didn't mind at all. But we soon discovered that Bob didn't read lines anywhere near as well as his impromptu warmups. Like anybody else, put a script in his hands and he wanted to Act. But I didn't want him to Act; I wanted him to Be Bob. So the early experiments with Bob the Straight Man did not go as I hoped -- which were my fault, because I had forgotten the lesson I had learned in writing for Keith. Keith's dialog was what Keith would have said in the situation, only amped up. I had to do more listening to Bob's riffs with Barb, so that I got a feel for Bob's own rhythms; then adapt his rhythms and words to the character "Bob".

About this time, I came across an interview with Letterman's writers talking about life with Letterman (a very demanding editor, who threw out 80 to 90% of the pitches right up to air time -- writing four or five MTs every day for years! Sakes, the mind boggles!) and the perils of writing for Calvert de Forest, a/k/a Larry "Bud" Melman. It seemed that the sight of de Forest would send Dave into near-hysterics, which is why they used him; but de Forest was so nearsighted that he couldn't read the cue cards. If they gave him the script ahead of time, he'd memorize his lines and push through them no matter what happened; but he apparently didn't understand many of the things he was given to say, and so he'd make up his own pronunciation for the words he didn't know. Since Letterman was a control freak of the first water, this would send him over the edge as often as it would amuse him to tears; the writers soon learned that de Forest's inherent unpredictability was more anxiety-producing for The Boss than was healthy for career maintenance. So the writers hit on the idea of walking de Forest generally through his sequences, and then springing his cue-card only script on him only for broadcast. This prevented de Forest from coming up with his own ideas for interpreting the script (usually looking for a place to throw in his guffawing laugh), and opened the door for an unending series of spoonerisms and idiosyncratic line-readings that reduced Letterman to wheezing laughter. Well, if it worked for Letterman's guys and won them a bushel basket of Emmys, it would work for us.

So Barb and I worked out Da Rules for Bob (comedy must always operate within its own rules of engagement). Bob would not get run-on sentences; Bob would become the sort-of Ed McMahon enabler of Millie (who could turn on her without warning); Bob's through line had to be straight-ahead, veering off only on occasion; and Bob would not get his script until just before the segment aired. We'd run through the segment with him as fast as possible so that he got the flow, and then go live almost as soon as we finished the runthrough. We hoped to get a little of that idiosyncratic unpredictability into the show at the expense of a polished delivery. Bob was quite fine with all this machiavellian stuff, as far as we knew; he only pushed back once, which happens to be one of the YouTube sequences (look for Bob in his Queen's Hat).

Things were coming together. Now we've got Keith, Dougie and Bob as semi-regular talent (not Talent); we've got a handle on production that seems to be working; we've got some recurring elements of the strange courtesy of Gumby; we've got some walk-ons from time to time.

But we don't have enough obnoxiosity. We need some obnoxious regulars, that grate on the ears, to make sure that people aren't going to fall asleep during these still-wretched movies.

Friday, May 15, 2009

In which we Get All Eisensteinian (or is it Pudovkinian) or Something

It occurred to nous that nous haven't really experienced the MT experience in its entirety, as our audience did. Watching our sequences only and ffwding through the movie was alas an experience denied humanity in those dank bygone pre-Tivo days. As we explain to our beloved kinder, "when you wanted to watch a teevee program, you actually had to Make an Appointment With Your Teevee." "No way!" exclaim the Teenagers, jaws agape. "The horror! the horror!" "Yes, but we survived with our witz intact," we blushingly admit, all gawrshlike n such. But, since we were actually performing the show when it was on, and hadn't as yet mastered the art of bilocation, we had to rely on State of the Art 80s Technology to quality-check our little endeavours. So one night, we put on a tape that covered the entire SNL-to-MT timeslot, started it at 0dark00, and sat up to watch all night teevee all night.

First thing we noticed was that it was hard to stay awake through the entirety of SNL. There were high points, but unless you were a fan of the Band o the Week, there were far fewer highs than lows. We also noted that the show had descended into caricature performances that relied on catchphrases (this was the season of "You rook mahvelous!" and Tommy Flanagan the Pathological Liar), with the skits basically collections of setup lines that led to the catchphrases, which were wildly cheered by the Live Studio Audience. So, if you were listening to the show, there were basically only words that bridged catchphrase to catchphrase; if you were were watching the show, it was caricature to caricature; and if you were sitting there om-ing through the show, sooner or later you'd doze off. Plus, the structure of the show was to wind down the last half-hour; the tempo noticeably slackened, the Band o the Week played its downtempo offering, and finally the show closed with a slow blooze vamp -- in waltz time. Soporific wasn't in it; WLEX might as well have been handing out lettuces to the flopsy viewing bunnies.

Then came three or four Local Commercials, then us. And we were too tentative. Barb's neo-Tallulah delivery, which was amusing to us in the studio and called for lots of draaawn oouutt voooowellls just ground our attention to a halt. We needed to pick up the show's pace. We needed to ramp up the WTF factor; we needed to perform pieces that the viewer couldn't believe we just said, did or showed what we just said, did or showed. We needed every second of our broadcast to engage the viewer, just to keep them awake. We needed to have multiple show inputs going , as often as possible.

And we needed to fight the movie. The movie was Not Our Friend. It may be that no one intentionally gets up in the morning and says to his or her own self, "What a great day for baseball! Let's make mediocrity!" But these movies were Mediocre with a capital M; just not engaging in any way, shape or form. And at 2AM, they were killing the show.

We kicked around some ideas. The obvious solution was to engage Millie more interactively with the movie; but Keith, Barb and I had some serious reservations about our ability to pull that off. We were much better at doing whatever it was that we were doing; but it was taking almost all of the downtime between pieces to set up for the next piece. So we thought about another approach. It seemed to me that since there was so much Stuff stuffed into the odd nooks and crannies of that campus, it was likely that there was a box or two of source material for the old local kids' shows that WLEX surely ran, back in the day. And this source material would likely include those staples of independent teevee programming, 30s B&W cartoons and the Three Stooges. If we could find such a box, we could ... introduce clips into the movie proper. Randomly. If the audience didn't know what clip would come up next ... well, maybe they'd stay awake. And talk about this goofy show. Which would get people curious, because this kind of stuff just wasn't done on local Lexington teevee. That was the plan, and Keith set off to chat with his rabbi in the station about where such a box, if it existed, might be. If it existed. Hypothetically. Because we were ... interested in this kind of stuff.

The next week, Keith was all smiles. Turns out that such a box did exist. And he found it. And it was packed -- packed, I tell you! -- with many many three- to seven-minute reels.

Of old Gumby adventures.

Well, I had been hoping that we'd find -- you know -- old Looney Tunes, or some Max Fleischer pre-Popeye cartoons, or some bizarre Charles Mintz cartoons; toons from the days when the animators just cranked out straight-ahead tomfoolery with no regard for continuity or matching cuts or staying on model(or making sense, as far as that goes). Gumby didn't quite fit the profile. But, hey! we haven't come this far patching the show together with found objects to quibble now. So we come up with a new plan: Keith will inventory the Gumbies and give us a master list of possible inserts. I'll find sections of the movie where we might plug a Gumby into. When Keith is formatting the movie, he'll ... use his judgment and maybe make an interesting insert or two. And we'll see how it plays.

So we anxiously watch the next show, to see how the Great Experiment works. Keith hasn't told us where he may or may not have inserted a Gumby. He's chuckling away over in the control room, while we're getting a little testy about playing Where's Gumby when up he pops. It's certainly inappropriate, mucks completely with the flow of the alleged story ... well sir, not what we had in mind but it does seem to work. So, wotthehell, Gumby's a keeper.

But we need something else. Barb picks up the pace when she's got someone to act against. But Keith has to, you know, direct, so we can't use Keith more than once or twice a show, and never when we're doing something televisionary. Dougie's been willing, but he's now been promoted to audio and moved into the control room. We've got Little Jeff on camera now, and he's quite willing to go on air; and he's also quite willing to advise Keith on how best to direct the show. So we are not going to fuel that little fire; Keith will have to handle his crew.

Yessir, we need to find some new stooges for Ms. G. But where oh where will we find such and so forth?

"Ahem," said Bob.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

In which we take Advantage of Technology

A. Keith was grousing. All the new eagerly-awaited control room stuff was sitting in unopened boxes. The installation was proceeding fitfully at best. The only thing that had been installed, which was really pretty useless for a television station, was a piece of audio equipment that allowed incoming telephone calls to be assigned straight to a sound console input.

Huh. So you could call in from any old outside line and it could be patched straight to audio?

Even more useless, Keith pointed out, was that it was an extension off the station's PBX, so you could call from the house phone in the studio if you wanted to. What was the point of that?

B. We were comparing who was taping the broadcasts. Turns out that our studio guys might not be well paid, might not have upgraded from college kid apartments, but mostly had VCRs (Dougie had a Betamax, nanny nanny boo boo) and were mostly all taping the shows, too. Also turns out that house policy was that every broadcast was taped and archived. 'Twas ever Thus; who knew what happened to the archive tapes? probably eventually stored in a warehouse somewhere, hopefully not too close to the Lost Ark or the eldritch radiations thereof might degrade the video quality over time (that or melt the tapes into unusuable melmac goo, one). But yeah, every show occupied its own cassette of crisp Ampex goodness, marked and tagged in the film room.

C. Barb and I were wearing down a little. The family was Not Happy that we were going to excuse ourselves from attending the Required Thanksgiving Dinner -- again -- and this year's excuse was that we had to stay in Lex to do MT. Tell us again why exactly that's more important than enjoying your sister's cooking? While we weren't prepared to debate the relative merits of my sister's cooking v. exchanging witty patter with Keith, the reality was that every other spare minute since mid-August had been dedicated to MT. And while we still didn't know whether the show was Successful (whatever that meant) (although the well-informed interest of WLEX suits from Larry on down plus the attempted coup by Production should have been a pretty good indicator), we did know that we had this other personal agenda of Getting Out of Dodge, which had not yet been attended to -- and apparently we were now doing a pretty good job of rooting ourselves in Dodge for the forseeable future.

So we did the math: A+B+C = Time for a break. We need to take time for ourselves now.

In the snippy patois of the local thee-atyre folks at the time, one of the bigger hurled insults was to accuse an actor of phoning his or her role in. There were one or two known miscreants who signed on to a show, did nothing during the rehearsal process beyond getting lines down (usually a week or two after everybody else), and pulled out some Actor Tricks on opening night that fooled their friends and amazed their enemies enough to get by. Said miscreants were casually despised by the True Artistes, but were brand-name actors and directors who were good for some pre-show publicity in the Herald-Leader; and while whether such publicity actually translated to extra cash at the box office was debatable, it was vitally important enough to be a stumbling block for many people who apparently had too much time on their Hands.

So it seemed to me that we had the opportunity for another Meta-Joke: we could phone Millie in one night. It seemed to all of us that each individual show started strong but ran out of gas between Mail and the Close: we hadn't yet figured out how to sustain a show all the way through, and in truth all of us started running out of personal gas during the live shows -- the start/stop was wearing. If we built a show around the strongest bits, it might give us a clue to how to fix that particular problem. Besides, the Meta-Joke shows were proving to be the strong shows, so any opportunity for a Meta-Joke show would be eagerly seized.

Keith pointed out another true fact that had been staring everybody in the phiz all along: given the high resolution of US broadcast standard, there was no obvious visual dfference between a show on tape and a live show. Other than our occasional statements that we were live, a viewer could never tell just by watching the broadcast. So there was no technical reason why we couldn't record a show in advance. A taped show might actually be more cost-effective, because it wouldn't require keeping a full studio crew on till 3:30 Sunday morning; and more to the point, said full studio crew had to come right back in at 9 Sunday morning to do the live Public Interest show broadcasts. Which were starting to drag a little, because everybody was whacked from the MT broadcast. (And some intrepid post-show partying on their part that we poophead marrieds were not privy to nor supposed to know about. As if.) Plus the forced one-week layoff had revealed that the guys missed their Saturday nights a little, and Thanksgiving's imminence was fueling unnecessary new Grumbling in the Ranks.

A phoned-in show also wouldn't require makeup. Nothing against Bob, enjoyed his company and his contribution, but all in all there were many compelling reasons for Doing Something Different. Besides, what Keith said about not being able to tell the difference between live and live-to-tape was causing me to think very hard that this might solve a lot of problems. If I could sell it to Bill. Who was apparently basking in the glow of our putative success, uninterested in fixing what appeared to be unbroken as far as he was concerned, and not inclined to be sympathetic to the needs and desires of the male members of the contingent. But was interested in the care and feeding of His Star.

So after conspiring with Barb, we both came down one Monday to chat with Bill. By this point, I had learned to keep my mouth shut, so Barb did the talking: she reminded him that the deal was that she would be free to pursue her other interests, we had delivered what appeared to be successful n profitable for WLEX, an R&R break would be a Good Thing to take a step back and figure out the Next Steps for everybody, by Bill's own admission the Thanksgiving weekend would likely be a blow-off weekend for viewer numbers anyway -- what if we tried a live-to-tape show built around a highlight reel? If the numbers were building, then viewers might not have seen some of the stuff anyway.

Surprisingly, Bill was not opposed, much. He was concerned about Barb -- was she OK? Did she need a break? Was one week enough (but he didn't want to go too deep into December, he wanted to keep momentum for the February ratings period). We didn't play the crew card too much, other than to ask how the public interest shows were holding up given the late nights -- and Bill made it clear that broadcast quality of the public interest shows was a non-issue, these shows were wholly content-driven through the quality of the interviewer (hmmm). He was skeptical about the long-term implications: "I suppose if this works, you'll want to do the whole show live-to-tape." Didn't expect him to tumble to that right away, so I figured since that shot was directed at me I might as well respond: "I'd rather have that conversation later. I can't say that it hasn't occured to me, and I can't deny that we might want to do it that way, but we'd only want to do it that way if we got a better show out of it. And a better show would be a more popular show, which is what you want and WLEX wants, right? But that's a different conversation. Right now we're talking about one show."

Barb turns on both the charm and the Millie voice: "Please, Billy-willy? Daaaaarling?" Not even Bill can keep a straight face at that one, and okays the show. For a one-time shot, no segment retakes -- "Not even if the scenery falls down. It has to be just like the live show." That's fine by us, and we agree to tape the show Sunday night. Bill's figuring that if we're burning out this will really toast us; guess we forgot to tell him that we were going to be taping a telephone for thirty minutes.

So Keith, Barb and I pull our lists together of our favorite bits: we're pretty much in sync, negotiate one or two, but this was really a five-minute exercise at best. The hook for the framing sequences is that Millie is calling in sick; so Barb comes up with a new Millie voice, pouty and whiny, which definitely has some future possibilities. We kick around whether we could do the sequences right after the regular broadcast -- survey sez that camera guys are fading fast, so let's come back and do it fresh. We come back in Sunday night; we have the studio from 7:30 PM, must be clear by 9 PM (okay, 9:15) to do the Headline News cut-in at 9:30 PM. Keith has set up a corner of the set, put the phone on the trunk, and wants to do the open as a slow zoom in; someone has to pick up the ringing phone, that would be me. Big Jeff has by now moved on to Bigger and Better Things that don't include the Dreaded A-Shift, so Dougie has moved over to audio: he's finding all manner of sound effects that he delights in inappropriately inserting into the broadcast, so he handles the phone rings. Barb is sitting in the Sacred News Set, which has a phone built into it; we figure that the prohibition is that we can't see the Sacred News Set, not use it. We note for the record that the chair for the female anchor is labeled Big Butt on its backrest, and contemplate whether this is a term of endearment by the Crew for the Talent, or by the Distinguished Male Anchor for his Apparently Less Distinguished Cohort.

Keith explains Da Rules: we won't see the actual sequences we're introducing, we'll just do our intros and bumps. We'll have to hold at the ends of each sequence, including the bumps, while he rolls some black screen leader in and out of each sequence -- so no movee no talkee until the floor manager calls clear. We're only using the one camera tonight. They've taken extra pains to light the phone with beauty lighting, because he's going to use this as an in-house demo to show that our crew can do commercial shoots too (hithertofore the sole province of the Dreaded A-Shift, because commercials are shot in the afternoons after the Noon News at Noon breaks), so we all need to not cast shadows on the phone.

The shoot goes pretty fast, and we're mostly done by 8:30; we're sitting around for a few minutes after concluding that this went pretty well and would probably work for the regular show when Mike the Weekend News Guy comes in. He'd heard that we were doing the show now instead of Saturday night (apparently they were watching the in-house feed down in the news bullpen), and wanted to say hi. He thought it was pretty clever, and wanted to know where Barb was sitting when she used the phone. Barb doesn't want to admit that we had Trespassed onto the Sacred News Set, but Doug has no shame: "She's auditioning. She's the new Big Butt." Mike keeps it rolling, tells us he'll be sure to let Mindy know and that we can expect a call from her by the time we get home. Then he asks if we're planning to do all of the shows like this. I allow as to how we're thinking about it, it depends how this one comes off, we do have some internal obstacles to overcome ...

Mike snorts. "Bill?" Well, that tells us how the chickens are aligned in the barnyard this week. I never could take the hint and finish my thought, which is that we were trying to tie our argument to a falloff in production quality for the public interest shows; seems to us that these would be the shows that management would want to take care of, but the counterargument is that the shows stand on the quality of the interviewer. Which by a remarkable coincidence happens to be Mike. Who assures us that if we need him to make the case that a fresh wakeful crew is far far better than a half-asleep crew, we just need to say the word. I assure him that we'll take him up on that, we want to see how the next couple of weeks go, and that we might need his help around mid-December and he assures me any time, just catch him on the way off the set. And with that, the Phone-In Show is officially wrapped for the night.

We all set our VCRs as usual, and watch our tapes. Keith's right: I can't tell the difference between the taped show and the live shows.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

In which we meet the A-Team. Twice.

So here come Barb, Steve n Bob to do the show one Saturday night, pressing our phizzes against the studio door window to break up Mike Mindy n Keith, aaaand it's not Keith in the control room.

No Keiths. No Jeffs (big or little). No Dougies, Traceys, Howies, Richies, or any other familiar phiz. A noticeable lack of Keiths et alia. Instead, we have ... other persons. Who are not amused by our ritual hijinks.

The Alpha Male Director explains: It Has Been Decided that we shall be favored by the A-Team studio crew this week. To straighten out some of the shabbiness of the production. Which hasn't met WLEX's particular snuff of late. And since this so-called show does seem to be attracting some note out there in teevee land, we can't have product going out that's not, so to speak, up to WLEX Snuff.

Hmm. Well, we were kinda of the opinion that the so-called shabbiness of the production was not only part of its endearing n winsome charm, but was also kind of the point of the enterprise. But hey ho as Barb n Bob go off to makeup and wardrobe, we am nothing if not flexible. So I start running down the script with our alpha male putative director

Who will have none of it. We are dealing with a precision unit. They need no stinking scripts.

Au contraire, I point out, they will need stinking scripts because there is a particular bluescreen gag that has to coordinate with Barb's speech in Position 1 --

AMD cuts me off right there, because there isn't going to be a bluescreen shot tonight. The raggedy mattes are not acceptable; the costume was not designed for bluescreen, and we are not going to put shabby bluescreen on the air.

All righty, then. Well, they will still need the stinking script, and the AMD's name, because the Millie/Keith exchange in Position 2 --

AMD cuts me off right there again, because there isn't going to be any of this Acting foolishness done by the crew. It will affect their concentration in doing their real job. Which is producing the show. Which is one of the reasons why the show's production needs help. This talking to the crew stuff is Out. It distracts the Crew. Crew is not Talent.

This is the point in the discussion where you could swing a 2x4 across the back of my neck and shatter said 2x4 into toothpicks. This is the point in the discussion where I should go nuclear and have a good ol' cathartic Rant. Which would accomplish less than nothing, not even purge the gorge rising in my throat, and would result most likely in dead air where the Insert Mille Here sequences should be. Instead, I turn and stride forth purposely down the corridor to have a conversation with the Real Talent.

Barb does not have a diva bone in her body (still doesn't); but an actor's makeup time is the actor's private time and is not to be interrupted. It is the Time Honored Tradition of the Service. So for me to interrupt is a signal that something much like the apocalypse is upon us. And while the gutting of a live teevee show with less than an hour to air is not on a par with, say, Nicolas Cage's utter failure to prevent a solar flare from destroying all life on the planet even unto incinerating a CGI moose, it does introduce unnecessary stress that is not included in the $50/week show fee.

We're not going to pull the Not Coming Out of My Trailer stunt. The Show Must Go On, we guess. We figure out a couple of ways to work around, but hearts are not in it. We kick around putting me in the control room and using the talkback, figure that will get shot down anyway (I have no desire to spend one minute in what is now clearly hostile territory) and reassign the Keith dialogue to me on an off-camera VOG mic; it won't be the same, but it's the best we can come up with. I hate it a lot, I do not have a reverberant VOG voice, but we got nothing else -- it's me or Bob, and ... We pare some other dialogue down; it will be OK, we guess. We go into the studio -- a cold, dead room -- and do a cold, dead show.

Aaaand of course there's no tape for next week. I can come in Monday and pick it up.

We thank everyone for their effort (it's called acting), and get home as fast as possible. Don't even look at the playback; still haven't, to this day.

When I come in Monday to pick up the tape, who should want to see me but the formerly invisible Bill. Who wastes no pleasantries in telling me how Disappointed he was in Saturday's show; it wasn't up to the standards we have set, and he hopes this isn't the direction that we planned to take such a Promising Show. It was especially disappointing because of all the liberties we had taken with the Approved Script. What was the point of submitting a script for approval if we weren't going to do it? especially when we were the ones so adamant about a scripted show in the first place?

This is too much. I point out to Bill that this was His New Crew's decision, not ours; and that he didn't have the courtesy of telling us in advance that we were getting a New Crew, or that we were going to have to conform the show to the New Crew's standards. I told him that it seemed rather shabby treatment, and that if it was his intent to 86 us off the show then he could at least have had us turned away at the door Saturday night instead of putting us through foolishness that would be unacceptable for a high school production.

Bill stops me right there. What New Crew?

I told him that our regular crew had been replaced by the day shift, and the show had to be repurposed to suit the day shift's production requirements -- and that we had thirty minutes before air to do that repurposing -- which he would have known if he had been there with us, as our producer. As far as we knew or assumed, this was done either at his direction or with his blessing; what else were we to assume?

Bill's face changes. We are not shouting at each other, but we haven't minced words, either; even so, this is New Information and it's not computing. He tells me that he needs to check something, and asks -- ! -- if I wouldn't mind waiting for a few minutes. Then he heads, if my understanding of the internal geography is correct, towards the Production offices. Voices are soon raised, and I figure that there's very likely a pot of coffee and an unused coffee cup at the other end of the corridor.

Heading down that way, I meet a short, courtly man in a natty suit, who introduces himself as Larry. He seems familiar with me, Barb and MT. I ask if we've met before, and he chuckles no; he doesn't come down to the station when we do, and he's a little surprised to see me during office hours. He asks how things are going with the show, I make pleasant enough noises, and ask what his interest is.

"Oh, I own the station. I just want to know if we're treating you folks all right."

All righty, then. "Well, gee, thanks for asking. Things have been going pretty well the last couple of months. Had a couple of glitches this weekend, I think they're being taken care of ..."

Larry stops me there. He's a Southern Gentleman, and he knows a stinking fetid pile of polite crap when he hears it. "You had some troubles with your show Saturday night. Anything you want to tell me about?"

All righty, then. "I've just spoken with Bill about it. I think he's handling it. That's why I'm down on this end of the hall."

Larry nods. "Good. If that doesn't work out" he writes something on a card and hands it to me "this is my private number. You call me."

All righty, then. "Well ... thanks."

Larry looks me in the eye. "You call me about anything you think I might need to know about."

All righty, then. And as long as we're on the subject, "You know, sir ..."


" ... Larry, I know that the show is not exactly what people here thought it would be, and I'm sure that some of the stuff we're doing on the show probably upsets some folks a little ..."

Larry smiles. "You don't see every letter about that show. I do."

All righty, then. "Well, if we're doing anything that upsets you, please tell me. It's just a show. Sometimes we get a little too wrapped up in our selves, and we don't see how we're coming across ..."

Larry continues to smile. "You've got people talking about us. Some people will complain no matter what you do. I'm not bothered by that. If you ever do anything that I think is a little too far, I'll let you know. But I know you won't do that."

Well, I might not be the most perceptive pickle in the barrel, but I know when I have been given a Clear Directive. So I thank Larry for his advice and his help, and he smiles a little broader and tells me I must bring my charming wife around, and reminds me that I am to call if I need anything, and then disappears into one of the offices.

Bill calls from down the hall. It would appear that there was a little ... confusion ... in the Production Department's scheduling last weekend. Which will not be repeated again. Ever. And he gives me a piece of paper with his home number on it and tells me that if I ever run into a studio problem like that again, which would be highly unlikely, I should not hesitate to call him at home and he will straighten them out. Immediately. I note to self the use of the pronoun "them," not "it". Bill by the ways why did I come down today anyway? I had forgotten; it was to pick up the tape of the movie; we had already lost a day in planning out this week's show, and I didn't want to lose any more.

Bill disappears into the Mail Room, comes out with a cassette that has a Post-It note with my name on it stuck on the label. "Is this it?" The label sez that it is in fact this week's movie, so I thank him for it and head for home before things get any weirder.

When I walk through the door, Barb observes that this took longer than she thought, and asks "Did anything interesting happen?"

"You would not believe ..."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

In which we're Back after an exciting Commercial Break

Now then, where was I before life so rudely interrupted me? Oh, yes ... the Pirate Show.

So here we are waiting for the Watings Word, or Ratings Rood, or whatever, elaborately pretending that we don't care a fig for such mundane things but really hoping for some external validation here folks, because playing to the camera is fun n all and it's amusing to try to get the guys to break up but otherwise there's not much indication that anybody's watching beyond the fan mail from the flounders. Production has settled into a routine, which is:

  • Get dub of next week's movie from Keith as we finish the debrief of the current show
  • Watch home tape of the show Sunday afternoon (speed through movie, on account of it probably stunk); watch dub of next week's movie, talk back at it a lot; watch dub a second time, talk back at it a lot, time and take notes of movie and back-sassing
  • Walk around Ruckus Arenus and the so-called Hermitage Hall during Monday lunch, look at the movie notes and cull them into Promising Leads and Dead-End Bores; take the long way home and try to break a theme for the week's show
  • Try the theme out on Barb during Monday dinner -- if she laughs it's a go and we talk the overall show through, if not it's Plan B which is lots of "Darlings" and sassing Keith
  • Break the consensual theme and related notes into the Intro, Outro, and assigned commercial breaks
  • Write the first half of the show (through Mail) Tuesday night;
  • Write the second half of the show (through close) Wednesday night;
  • Read through with Barb, polish script, and deliver the script to Keith Thursday night;
  • Get a life Friday night
  • Prop and music shop Saturday afternoon; final readthrough and polish Saturday evening; pick up Bob at Joe B's
  • Arrive at station Saturday around 11:30; make faces at Mike n Mindy through the door, try to get them to break up on camera
  • Makeup and wardrobe for Barb; set goes in and crew goes to lunch; review final script with Keith before he goes to lunch; Keith sets up graphics and whatever bluescreen we're doing
  • Make cue cards, pace, wait for people to come in; ignore the No Smoking signs and stink up the joint with the vile cigars I was smoking at the time; SNL network feed is playing in the studio and I'm trying to decide which will be less funny -- tonight's SNL or tonight's MT (usually giving the prize to SNL, although this was the first year of the Church Lady, the Pathological Liar, Master Thespian and Fernando)
  • Barb, Bob, Keith, Doug, Jeff are usually the first back, around 12:30 or so; Barb gets plugged in, Bob gets his sides, Doug and Jeff get cameras lined up; Keith runs down the show with his crew, crew runs down Keith for whatever mischievous reason they have that week; elaborately ignore the children's quarrels as well as the "Who's been smoking in here?" questions -- "I didn't see anybody come in here smoking," which was true enough as far as it went
  • About the time the Musical Guests play their second set, rehearse the open once or twice; suggestions and comments are proffered, considered, accepted or rejected; Keith starts the countdown clock when the SNL house band starts vamping the waltz outro theme, everybody gets into position
  • Do show
  • Repeat until cancelled.

This routine works well until the dreaded week in November when Keith allows as to how there's a problem with next week's movie.

See, the movies were 16mm films that arrived from the distributor usually on Wednesday or Thursday. Keith's Friday afternoon task was to take the reels of film, screen them to make sure that a) we had the right movie b) we had all of the right movie iii) remove any black leader that had been spliced into the movie by the previous renter and 4) retime and recut the movie into MT's commercial segments, cleverly inserting black leader as necessary. He would then dub the movie onto VHS cassettes, one each for himself, us and audio (first Jeff1, then Doug). During broadcast, the actual movie its own bad self was still in 16mm format and run through a film chain. Yes, children, and all the audio cues were reel-to-reel or cassettes, many of which were made by Jeff1, Doug or me on our home tape decks. Amazing, but true. The highest of high tech was that the final show was written on a C64 (is that a real C64 or a Sears C64? the latter I fear, bought on sale at Fayette Mall).

So a problem with the movie usually was either a remarkably crummy color print that needed hellacious electronic tweaking to try to rebalance the color, or a remarkably crummy black n white print with all of the pristine clarity of a third carbon copy, occasionally a remarkably crummy print that had been run through a projector that had a 6d nail inexplicably stuck in the film gate.

Not this week. The problem with the movie was that it hadn't arrived from the distributor yet.

Normally, this would not be a big deal, because we had The List of Movies. This was a typed list prepared by Bill Back in the Day, that listed (wait for it) the air date and the movie title. That's it -- no other information available. Now a quick scan of IMDB (or, back then, our by-now well-thumbed copies of The Golden Turkey Awards, Maltin's Movie Directory and the Psychotronic Encyclopedia) tells us that there aren't a lot of movies out there with titles like Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things or The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave; but the movie in question was Bluebeard, and there are rather a few movies out there with Bluebeard in the title, and three of them could have been the one we were programmed to show: a Richard Burton paycheck vehicle featuring Raquel Welch, a French pirate movie, or an Edgar Ulmer PRC oddity featuring John Carradine and singing puppets.

Keith and I summoned our vaunted powers of deduction (we had, after all, recently put up a Hard Boiled Dick show so we were experts at this sort of stuff) and reasoned:

  • A color Richard Burton movie with Raquel Welch in it was too expensive for the drek package we were slogging through
  • A PRC oddity would fit in with the other PRC classics we were slogging through, but not even Bill would stick us with singing puppets
  • Therefore it must be the French pirate movie.

So we decided to program around the French pirate movie for starters. Although Monday was Keith's day off, he would check in with the station: undoubtedly the package was delayed in the mail, would have been delivered Saturday except that the station picked its mail up from a post office box and the post office box pickup guy (who had the only key to the post office box) didn't work Saturdays, so of course it would come in on Monday. Keith would get his counterpart to check the first few feet of movie to identify the studio and star, we'd know what movie we really were showing, and Monday was early enough to shift writing gears if necessary.

A sound plan, worthy of praise. Except that when Keith called us Monday night, the movie still wasn't in.

Didn't come in Tuesday, either.

So now we've got Wednesday to write, no matter what. And of course the movie didn't come in on Wednesday. Barb and I decide to cast our lot with the pirates. This is in the innocent days before National Talk Like a Pirate Day; occasionally the Opry House and Ruckus Arenus riggers would decide to Talk Like Pirates, because it was Amusing. Typically, pirate-speak was employed either because the Opry House show was full of teeny tiny dance school kids (we particularly favored talking like pirates during Miss Jane's School o Dance, because it highly amused Miss Jane, who quivered approvingly when she laughed) or during the wretched hives of scum n villainy that traveled with such arena rock dinosaurs as AC/DC or Mr. Osbourne (this year was the Year of Alleged Bat-Biting).

So up we stay half the night, making pirate jokes and scattering them across the various positions. The deliverable script is all over the place, with Arrrs instead of Darlings, and the Line That Shall Live On Forever: "Shiver me timbers. That means 'My Lumber is Cold'." We read it through Thursday night, punchy as can be, and roister off to WLEX. Keith is chewing away on his moustache when we arrive, because we're two days to air and the thing still hasn't come in, and neither has next week's movie. We opine that maybe we should leave a note for Bill to call the distributor and see what's up; it might be nice if Bill actually did some Producing for a change. So we scribble an Oh By the Way on our Invoice for Services Rendered, slip it under his door, and motor off into the night trailing titters n sniggers all the way.

I guess Bill made the call, because both movies were rush-shipped and delivered (!) to WLEX on Saturday. It made Elmer's day; he had to sign for a delivery. We arrive, make the requisite faces at Mike n Mindy, and Keith comes out of the control room.

To tell us that it's the singing puppet movie.

Well, all righty then. Barb pales, I'm speechless; we decide that no matter what she's still got to get into makeup and wardrobe, so off go Barb n Bob while Keith and I put our heads back together to figure out this Fine Mess.

Didn't take long; it's not like we had a lot of options. We decide we're going with the pirate show as planned, and whatever happened would happen. As would be said in the future, It Was what It Was. I go tell Barb that we'll go with what we planned. She's dubious, and if that's the case then she'd really rather not have the movie program run in the studio while we're on the air; she's afraid that the disconnect will throw her performance off. Seems reasonable to me, Keith's fine with it (because all that's involved is to turn the floor monitors off), and we're off. The only change we decide to make is to give Keith a line correcting Millie about the movie, which Millie immediately blows off and continues with her spiel as written.

During the second position, we hear hoots from the control room while we're running the scene. Turns out they're watching the movie in the control room, and the movie (ridiculous enough to start with) is so out of sync with our show that it's a continuous WTF experience. We turn the floor monitors on, and they're right: this is a Dada night if ever there was one. By now everybody is laughing so hard we're having a hard time getting back in place for the next sequence. Barb compensates by slowing her delivery down, and it comes out as Millie is Never Wrong, Even When She's Wrong. This gives everybody ideas for the rest of the show, and we start writing in more Keith/Millie banter to heighten the disconnect. It's getting harder and harder to keep from laughing in the studio during the on-air sequences; the disconnect is too silly for words.

By the time we're done, if somebody hadn't been Bwah-ha-ha-ha'ing they should have been. We were pretty dizzy from the performance. Even Keith is laughing, and he never laughs. Keith apologizes, hasn't had time to dub next week's movie but he'll get to it later today (it is Sunday, after all). We'll stop by around dinner and pick it up.

When we get home, we can't wait: we rewind our tape of the broadcast and watch the first half hour or so. It is ridiculous; we can't believe we actually went ahead and did this. It's just so -- so -- oh, Bwah-ha-ha-ha!