Darrell Vickers: Mr. John We Hardly Knew Ye

Most people have the misguided, almost laughable-if-it-weren’t-so-cryable, perception that being a TV comedy writer is a glamorous occupation.  Admittedly, if your definition of epic razzmatazz is living out your days staring at a computer screen and despising the entire universe then yes, by all means, we are up to our naughty parts in tinsel and glitter.

Oh sure, there have been a few fleeting nanoseconds that have come close to some sort of spellbinding glitz.  I’ve been nominated for four Emmys.  Lost each and every time.  I guess that makes me the Buffalo Bills of comedy.  There’s this marvelous moment when you get out of the stretch limo in front of the Shrine Auditorium.  At first, there’s an electrical surge of excitement that goes through the crowd which quickly turns to crestfallen bitterness when they realize that it’s only you.  In that instant, you become the turd in the entertainment world’s punchbowl.

Alas, different types of talent are not rewarded equally.  Even a rock band as stultifyingly ordinary as R.E.O. Speedwagon gets laid every night when they’re on tour.  (You can imagine how well the guys from Black Oak Arkansas do!)  The very, very top comedy writers on Earth sit in dingy rooms with other unhappy social misfits and eat bad Chinese food ’til three in the morning.  Yay for us!  My partner and I had two sitcoms airing on CBS at the same time.  Someone we worked with was puzzled.  With all our success, why did we look so miserable?  Andrew turned to our mystified inquisitor and deadpanned, “Because, right now, those actresses are down on the stage blowing our lines instead of us.”

But do not weep for me, kind reader.  I did come really, really close to rock ‘n’ roll nirvana once upon a time and that is where this story opens up its gossamer wings and takes flight into the stars.

The period of time when my career was most replete with showbiz fairy sparkles directly followed the rock bottom, bar none, please-somebody-just-shoot-me-and-feed-me-in-strips-to-Dobermans, worst.  Dante should have created 13 levels of hell, instead of nine.  (One for each episode of the unendurable joy vacuum that we had to write and produce before we were set at last free.)  Characters in Dickens novels had more laughs.

Andrew and I were on an overall deal at one of the major studios.  An “Overall Deal” means that said studio is obliged to pay you every week no matter whether you’re working or not.  Not legendary for their jaw-dropping largesse, these Happy Factories prefer that you to earn each and every molecule of your meager crust.  So the beneficent execs in charge got together over Crantinis at Bastide and whipped us up something just to make sure that we weren’t enjoying ourselves.  This shiny bucket of fun was to star a semi-disgraced and infamously troublesome actor. They assured us that he had learned his lesson.  Not only hadn’t he learned his lesson, he hadn’t learned how to act or be funny either.  Producing those episodes made Fitzcaraldo pulling that boat up a mountain look as easy as strangling a duck.  Seven thankless months we spent, trying to squeeze the tiniest droplets of humor out of the bone-dry pebble that was our nanocephalic star.  As we neared the merciful finale of our comedy crucible, I received a call from our agent.  There was a producer in town who had a project involving several of the fellows from Monty Python and he needed writers.  Were we interested?  Were we?  At this point I would have been interested in donning a cardboard beak and pecking the ass-grubs out of a rhino’s patoot.  Anything other than doing a second season with Dante’s elevator operator.   But a chance to work with the Pythons!?  This could be our karma finally evening out for all our years of having to write puerile nonsense for unpleasant no-talents!

So we “lunched” with George A. and Ray C at a trendy little deli up in the hills.  Right from the get go things became even more intoxicatingly groovy because Ray C. is Elton John’s percussionist.  When Elton did his two man show, it was Elton and Ray!  The first tiny sequin floated down from the heavens and landed on our dowdy lapels.  Plus Ray had played with Eric Clapton and had acted in a bunch of Terry Gilliam movies.  That one small sequin had turned into a very light drizzle of tinsel.  Dream on young scribe!

Then the dazzling downpour stopped for a long, long time while we returned to our computer screens to give birth to reams and reams of risibility on spec.

The project is moving forward.  It stalls.  It looks good.  All hope is lost.  It’s basically like every show I’ve ever developed.  But…

The phone rings one morning and George and Andrew and I are off to England.  The England.  The one in all the papers!  We were flown business class to London and it became a veritable deluge of the shiny stuff.  We met with Charles McKeown (He wrote “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” with Terry Gilliam).  We had expensive Indian food with Terry himself.  We consumed numerous exotic libations with the other Terry (Jones) at The Groucho ClubThen it was off for tours of Eeling and Pinewood Studios.  It was like I’d suddenly been transported to the Happiest Place on Earth and Snow White was offering me free coitus in the gift shop.  I knew that if I could just be allowed to do this one show, in England (yes The England) with the Pythons (well, most of them), I could die a happy man.

Of course, the project crashed and burned like a ‘74 Pinto.  I knew it would.  The second I start to like three words in a row that we’ve written, it’s time to start banging nails into a pauper’s coffin for the script.  ‘Cause that fucker is as good as dead.  But at least this one was worth it.  And there was one more jewel-encrusted cloudburst yet to come.

A few months later, as I’m still getting over my jetlag and disappointment, I see that Elton John in playing the Hollywood Bowl.  Say!!!  I think we might just be acquainted with that dude’s percussionist.  I make a couple of calls and Ray is incredibly gracious.  He not only gets us a free box at the Bowl, but back-stage passes.  We’re going to get to meet Elton at a real-live after-the-show party!!

Now, in the halcyon days of my youth, I had been in rock bands and even gotten airplay in Toronto on the legendary CFNY out of Brampon.  But, unlike R.E.O. Speedwagon, I didn’t get laid every night.  (Or any night as I recall.)  I didn’t get to meet a bunch of fellow rock gods and compare songwriting techniques and recording studios we liked.  Mike Shulga, owner of the Star Club in Oshawa, bought us a 2-4 of Ex after our gig there.  That was as big as the perks got.

But fuck all that.  Now!  Now was our moment.  Our big opportunity to bask in the glow of one of rock and roll’s brightest stars.

The blessed day was finally upon us and we scurried on down to the Bowl to get our gratis tickets and these huge plastic tags that said, “BackstagePass.”  Giddiness abounded.  We felt like Rosie O’Donnell finding a Pop Tart under her pillow.  I almost couldn’t wait for the concert to be over; the whole thing was just way too totally bitchin’.  To make this celebrity soup even more savory, there was a chance meeting with some TV execs we knew after the fabulous show.  Andrew and I exchanged laudatory impressions of the evening’s entertainment and then apologized and
told our fellow music fans that we had to excuse ourselves.  Insouciantly waving our big laminated tags about in the air, we ever-so casually informed them that we had to go to and meet Elton at the big after-the-show party.  Oh glorious rapture.  You could have filled a dump truck with the envy on their faces as we skipped along towards our transcendent destinies.

Now, I should say here for the record, that Ray is a somewhat eccentric individual.  He beats dead animal skins with his meaty fists for a living.  It’s bound to have some deleterious effects.

Back to the story.  We do our little peacock strut up to one of the security guards, who is making sure no “ordinary people” find their way back to the mega-celebrity festivities.  We don our jauntiest smiles and hold up our stop-sign sized tags.  “Which way to the big doin’s, my good man?” we smirkily enquired.

“Sorry, but the party was held before the show.  Everyone is gone.”

Presto!  The big steel-toed boot of reality shot up out of the ground and savagely ripped into the tender ball-sack of our expectations.  It had not occurred to good old eccentric Ray to inform us that the traditional after-the-show party was actually being held, before the concert.  The torturous, acrid tears of “what could have been” still flow freely, undiminished by passage of time.

Since our brutal Hollywood Bowl bollocking, there have been no other great celebrity parties.  No comparing chord progressions with Mr. John.  No lyric swapping with Mr. Taupin.  No being accidentally fellated by short-sighted but enthusiastic groupies.   Not even close.  And I am back here in my lonely, poorly furnished office with a cantankerous computer screen demanding to be filled up with words.  Sigh.

I do have story about Roger Daltry playing me in a pay cable sitcom, but that’s a tale for another day.

Darrell Vickers is now a Friday Contributor to DBAWIS

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Darrell Vickers started out as one half of Toronto area band, Nobby Clegg.  CFNY fans may remember the cheery song “Me Dad” which still gets airplay.  From there, he valiantly ventured to L.A. and eventually became head writer for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  Since then, he’s created numerous sitcoms and animation shows in Canada and the U.S.  He still writes music and has an internet band called Death of the Author Brigade (members in Croatia, Canada and the U.S.)   Mr. Vickers also had a private music mailing-list where he features new and pre-loved music.  Anyone who would like to be added to his daily mailing list, just write him at Radiovickers1@gmail.com .

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