Darrel Vickers:The Long and the Short of It

Darrell VickersAndrew and I have had the honor of working for three legendary geniuses during our higgledy-piggledy writing career.  One was Johnny Carson.  The second was George Carlin.  This is the story of the third.

The Beginning….

Once upon a time, two young and impoverished Canadian writers were sitting in a cramped, cockroach infested apartment in Van Nuys (The Oshawa of L.A.) with no prospects and virtually no hope.  They had bravely ventured down to this mystical land of tinsel and broken dreams a scant six months earlier and were now facing the ominous fate of having to go back to Oshawa (the Oshawa of Oshawa)…and it was all their own fault!

Roger WhittakerInvaluable back story….

            It had been our utmost dream to work in Hollywood since before we were born and trying to scrounge out a living as writers in Canada had done nothing to quell that desire.  Our home and native land at the time produced a mere two sitcoms, both run by a primordial ooze with a beard named Jack Humphrey.  (Andrew, many years later, would dance on the Variety announcement of his death in our agent’s office.)  As I recall, Jack had the appearance of Roger Whittaker but could scream like Roger Daltry when brought to a boil.  Alas, a relatively innocuous comment in his office blue peterone ill-fated afternoon brought our sitcom career in the Great White North to a screeching, screaming halt.  (Musical trivia:  Jack had a son in Blue Peter and another son in Savoy Brown. – but he was still an untalented prick)

            One dreary day, while moping around my shitty little apartment in Alan-Thicke-1Oshawa (the Oshawa of Oshawa), busily not writing for any of the two sitcoms in Canada, I got a call saying that Alan Thicke was looking for material and would we like to submit?  Amazingly, we did, and he bought some of our jokes.  In fact, he liked us so much; he brought us down to L.A. for three weeks to write for his Canadian show, “Fast Company.”

            It was everything we’d ever dreamed and more (except for the money).  There were naked girls, trips down sunset and an interview with Gary David Goldberg (Growing Pains) at his Broad Beach home.  We literally almost crashed our car into Jacoogan - uncle festusckie Coogan (Uncle Festus on The Adam’s Family) trying to make a u-turn, on the way there.  And, as if nearly killing a former child star who has an entire law named after him wasn’t pie-in-the-sky glitz-tastic enough, we were invited to bunk at Alan’s home on Mulholland Drive and at his beach house in Malibu.  But there was yet another healthy dollop of tangy hollandaise sauce being plopped atop our big steaming plate of Eggs Benedict.  The Fifth Estate was following us around for a segment they were doing on “Joke Writing”.  Hallelujah and rejoice, for all of mankind will be forever warmed by the light of our glory!

And then after three weeks, we came back to Canada and…it was everything we’d dreaded and more.  We were unemployed for about 9 straight months.  Instead of being impressed that we’d gotten the magical call to “go south” most producers seemed to be pissed off.  Petty little shits.

            Luckily, Alan called again.  Now, he had an American show “Thicke of the Night”.  He wanted us to come down to the big town and work as researchers plus write monologues for fishcakesthe version that aired in Canada on Global (all for one researcher salary, of course…split between us…at a very bad exchange rate).  Hey, I was 25 and eating fish cakes (I can still taste those fucking things) and frozen peas for calories and gnawing on my apartment’s hideous shag rug for fiber.  I really didn’t see the downside.

            We landed back in L.A. on June 5th, 1983 sporting righteous career boners and got our first taste of staffing a real live American television show.

            I will cover the depthless flailing pit of hell that was “Thicke of the Night” another time.  Let’s just say for now that the experience wasn’t all refried beans and chocolate pudding and it maybe advisable to put the children to bed and hide the womenfolk before giving it a read.

pioneer chicken (2)            We lasted 6 months (which meant we had outlived far better men than ourselves) on that black-hole-of-souls but unfortunately, we had a personal sense of honor (In show business, having a “personal sense of honor” will kill your career deader than a Pioneer Chicken.).  We were promised certain things by Alan and he didn’t keep his side of the bargain so we stupidly, stupidly, STUPIDLY quit the show.  Of course, in subsequent years, we learned that someone keeping a promise in the entertainment business is alt balloon animalabout as likely as the Queen of England getting caught having unprotected sex with a balloon animal.  The young have so much to learn.

            So there we sat with the cockroaches, watching a twenty dollar television set and hoping that some rich eccentric would cruise down Burbank Blvd. soliciting humorous one-liners from the window of his stretch limo.  It didn’t happen.  But something nearly as surreal did.

Legendary Genius Number 3….

mickey rooney            One dreary day, while moping around my shitty little apartment in Van Nuys, busily not writing for any of the 47 sitcoms in Hollywood, our ten dollar phone rang.  It was Janie – a girl we’d spoken to about twice in our lives.  She was briefly Alan’s personal assistant but now worked for legendary Hollywood crazy woman and agent Ruth Webb.  “Hi, Mickey Rooney is looking for a new writer because his old one just died.  He’ll be calling you in 20 minutes.”

            “Huh?!”

            I think we drew straws and I lost, so it was my anxiety-ridden job to answer our thriftily-priced phone.  I didn’t know what I was going to say.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about that.

            Ring Ring.  “Hello, this is Mickey Rooney.  So I hear you’re the new hot shots.  Well, I do this bit see, in Sugar Babies where I come out as a woman.  A dame.  Do you hear me, kid?  I’m a woman and I do local jokes, topical jokes.  You understand?  I’m going to be in Philadelphia.  So I need Liberty Bell, The Eagles, cheese steaks.  The Super Bowl is coming up, it’s Christmas time.  New Years Eve, hangovers and brotherly love.  Can you do me up some jokes like that?”

phone1            “Ah, sure.”

            “Where the hell are you?  You sound like you’re talking from the bottom of a toilet.”

            “It’s the phone.”

            “Doesn’t matter.  Get me the stuff and we’ll take it from there.  I need it in a week.  And make sure it’s funny.  Lots of yucks.  Do you hear me?  So what do ya want to get paid for this?  One thousand?  Two thousand?”

            “Ah, that would be fine.”

            And then he was gone.

            This was big doin’s!  Two thousand bucks in 1983 was a real chunk.  Our cockroaches george-carlin2wouldn’t have to go hungry, after all!

Now, you can write the very best George Carlin monologue ever but if you’re writing it for Red Buttons, it better have “Never had a dinner!” in the punchline.  In short (pardon the pun), you write for the customer.  Sugar Babies was pure pie-in-the-face, seltzer-down-your-pants Vaudeville.  So Andrew and I set to work writing a passel of Catskillian gems.

For the next five or six days we bashed out a Liberian tanker-full of one liners that would have made Henny Youngman blush.

            “I asked my husband what he wanted for Christmas.”

            “He said, ‘surprise me.’”

            “I said, ‘Okay, they’re not your children.’”

            You get the idea.  Oodles and oodles of jokes of that seemingly antique ilk.  We filled up the pages and we sent them off via snail mail (This was way, way before the internet was even a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye.) and we waited.  And we waited some more.  Eventually, we contacted Ruth Webb’s agency and asked what was going on.  They put us in touch with his lawyer.  His lawyer said he’d talk to Mickey.  Was our seemingly miraculous rescue from penury and ignominious deportation a mere illusion?  Turns out, when the lawyer talked to Mickey it spurred him to actually read the stuff we’d written…and he flipped for it.  We got our money and another call from the Mickster telling us how great we were.

wait till the swelling goes down - sort of            Thus began a ten year roller coaster stint as Mr. Rooney’s personal scribes.  An unpredictable period of time when the phone could ring at any moment of the day (usually very early in the morning or even earlier), depending of where in the world Mickey was calling from.  Each time he excitedly wanted something written that instant, which meant we had to call his lawyer during business hours and find out whether he had any money to pay for it.  Along with the Sugar Babies material we were commissioned to write a Broadway play called “Wait Till the Swelling Goes Down”.  He called us one afternoon from God knows where to find out how it was going.

“Well,” we informed him.

            “Has it got any jokes in it?”
“Thousands.”

            “YAAHHOOOOOOO!” came the reply.

And then there were the projects that his lawyer wisely managed to talk him out of.  Among the dozens of middle-of-the-night phone calls we didn’t get paid to write were movies like bacon woman's face“Saturday Night Dead” and a film about a women who comes to Holllywood, gets used and abused and ends up dying in a horrible fire with her illegitimate baby in her arms.  “Ya hear me kid?”   The latter idea came to him after he’d been shown some great “burn victim” makeup that involved gluing strips of bacon to the actress’s face (I’m not making this up).  We were also tantalizingly close to creating a sitcom with him called “Maple Leaf Rag” for the U.S.A. Network but he signed a huge deal to do Sugar Babies in England and w.c. fieldskilled it.

            We also have files for a one man W.C. Fields show (I don’t even recall that one – it was also going to be a musical film), The Drunkard, Maggie & Jiggs, Sugar Babies: The Movie, something called “Belly Laughs” (these were to be live shows, videos, TV interstitials and books), something else called “Winner’s Weekend” with Martha Raye, “Jowls” (a parody of Jaws with a gigantic dog, starring Nathan Lane and a one hour mystery “Professor Crime”.

 And then….

            Andrew and I got yet another call.  “Come out to Thousand Oaks.  Mickey wants to talk to you about a movie.”  It was an amazing experience getting to meet the short, tubby legend in the short, tubby flesh.  Upon arriving at his office, Andrew took out a pad to take notes.  Mickey put up his hand and said, “Stop!  Put that away.  You’re going to remember this story for the rest of your life!”  And, for the next forty-five minutes, he proceeded to act out the entire film from memory.  After announcing the credits, he said, “Now go!  And write!”  And we did.  “The Picture Nobody Should See” was a pretty good idea and has since been done (sort of).  A short, fat old guy (Mickey Rooney) decides that he’s going to quit being a milkman and write and star in his own porno film with his equally rotund and unattractive wife.

mickey and donald o'connor            It didn’t sell but it was a lot of fun to write and we did get paid for it.

            There was also a two man show with Donald O’Connor and a one man show “Mickey Rooney in Mickey Rooney” (talk about a tight fit) and numerous years of the Bob Hope Golf Classic dinner speeches.  I’m exhausted just thinking back on it all.

            Mickey made a lot of money but he spent it in equal measure and then some.  The last project we were contracted for was a series of one man shows he was going to do in Australia and New Zealand while filming “The Black Stallion.”

fosters beer            “I want Down Under, Shrimps on the Barbie, Kangaroos, Criminals, Sheilas and those big cans of fucking beer.  You hear me, kid?”

            It was in December of 1996 that we got a legal looking piece of paper in the mail.  Mickey was filing for bankruptcy.  I think he still owed us 500 bucks from the Australian tour and Andrew and I were among the crowds of people who had a legal claim on his assets.  We wrote back and thanked him for a great ride and relieved him of his remaining debt.  He’d been there for us when we needed him most and it would have been churlish in the extreme to stand in line to scrape the last bits of meat from his bones.

            Sleep well, little man.  With the crazy life you have led, I’m sure you could use the rest.

RimshotSome Jokes From Our Decade of Rimshots.

Halloween

            “When some kids came to our house trick or treating, I asked my husband what I should put on to scare the children at the door.  He said, “The porch light.”

“Down Under” when he was filming Long John Silver

            On the flight out here, my flight attendant said, “Mister Rooney, would you like to stretch your legs?”  I said, “I’d love to, but this is as far as they go.

mickey rooney ann miller            I should have come out to Australia years ago.  It’s so remote.  You have women out here I haven’t married yet.

            I worked with Ann Miller in Sugar Babies.  Ann had her legs insured with Lloyd’s of London for a million dollars.  I saw them unshaved, and all I have to say it, I sure hope is was fire insurance.

His two man show with Donald O’Connor in Vegas

            “Donald did six movies with Francis the talking mule and I did the last one.  He may have done the more famous films but I was there for the barbecue.”

            “I saw a terrible show in Vegas the other night.  David Copperfield is a great magician but his assistant was Rosanne Barr and it took him 13 hours to saw her in half.

            “I finally figured out why Mr. Rogers doesn’t have any kids.  Look how long it takes him just to get his sweater off.”

Mickey in Drag            “I was just thinking what a good thing it is that men hold women above their head in ballet and not in opera.

Mickey as a woman

            “Last night my husband and I ordered a prune pizza and were up all night with pizzeria.”

            “Christmas time makes me think of chestnuts.  And believe me, with this girdle, that’s just about where they are.”

=DV=

If you like the writing, then check out my serial novel at the link below.

There is a new chapter every Monday.

http://chateaudietrich.blogspot.com/

Darrell Vickers appears here every 4th Monday 

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.co

DBAWIS_ButtonDarrell 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 .

2 Responses to “Darrel Vickers:The Long and the Short of It”

  1. Your Mickey Rooney jokes are aces. Love to see more.

  2. pie in the face pictures

    Darrel Vickers:The Long and the Short of It | Segarini: Don’t Believe a Word I Say

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