Darrell Vickers – Thicke of the Night Part III – Dark Fantasy

darrell-vickers-1

Very few enterprises begin their days with as much jocundity and hubris as Thicke of the Night at its inchoation. Fred Silverman’s latest blockbuster proclaimed itself to be a new and bold spring morning that would lead moribund late-night entertainment out of its dark and dreary winter. The talk show format had become stale and uninteresting. A pallid and tiresome visitor in the sexless bedrooms of America.

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Johnny Carson had been fine in his day but that era had long since faded from memory. It was high time for a vibrant young buck, dripping in virility and hairspray to sweep down from the northlands and reinvent television as we knew it.

gilttervilleWhen Andrew and I arrived in Glitterville, there were but three scant months remaining before the unveiling of glory. Young, pretty people gamboled about the office complex with an ebullient bounce to their step and a Moonie-sparkle in their eye. Not that there weren’t daunting days to ahead of us. Far from it.  There was much work yet to be done on this staggeringly ambitious, but righteous endeavor.

beethovenEverything was to be behemoth in scale. What a small and poopy set Johnny had! A simple desk with a cheap-looking backdrop and a band of geriatric fucks turning their faces purple, blowing into instruments that had been around since Beethoven went deaf. Pathetic!

Thicke’s stage/throne-room was a mammoth structure of iron girders, glitz and fairy dust with a scorching hot band of top notch, world class, ball-swingin’ session dudes. They were loaded to the rafters with synthesizers, electric guitars and bad-ass singers. The drummer had a kit the size of the entire Tonight Show set. These guys were going to blow the fucking roof off.

alan-thicke- with great hairJohnny merely had a monologue, a desk spot and guests who were popular before television sets switched over to color. Alan had a troupe of young comic talent doing sketches, an army of celebrity “editors” who would inform and amuse the audience on their assigned topic of expertise, stand-up spots from the cast, Alan performing with the musical guests, video sketches, band spots featuring the three singers, a regular Richard Belzer bit where he adlibbed being a phone-in therapist, The Star Wagon (which would drive out on location to interview celebrities), What’s-Up-Tiger Lilly-style video re-dubbings, funny home videos (long before it was a twinkle in Vin Di Bona’s eye), the “Find Alan an American Hometown” competition, Freddie’s Girls (a bouncy procession of big busted bombshells that had some paper-thin reason for being on the show) and on Fridays they had Tony Rolleti’s Banana (an uber-unhip club the cast would supposedly frequent).

the great white north

There were even separate comedic pieces and interviews being shot for a Canadian version of the show. Thicke of the Night was too, too big for just one measly country to contain. Epic, ground-breaking, envelope-pushing, edge-cutting, out-of-the-box-being divertissement would pour back over the world’s longest undefended border and flood every nook and cranny of Alan’s oh-so-proud homeland. We’d show those Yanks a thing or two about television!

gilda radnerIt was going to be a 90-minute, 3-ring circus that shocked and dazzled, leaving the audience gasping for breath by the closing credits and asking, “What could they possibly do tomorrow night to top this!!?”

We toiled amain by day and two nights a week (Tuesday and Thursday?) we auditioned almost every comic actor in California for their chance to be the next Chevy Chase or Gilda Radner.

A young Jim Carrey attended almost every session and besides being amazingly jim carreytalented, he was unfailingly pleasant and cheerful. Alas, he was offered the starring role in Duck Factory soon after and turned down his chance at dubious immortality.

Other than that minor hiccup though, things were coming together fabulously.

The crack writing staff was a blur of lucubrationary activity (we were not included in their number, though a number of our jokes did end up in the monologue). Interestingly enough, many of these satirical crackers-of-wise had also scribbled their side-splitters for the old-fashioned-and-woefully-out-IBM Selectricof-date Tonight Show. For three long and hot months they pounded away on their Olivettis and IBM Selectrics (yes, it was that long ago). Countless amassings of chortle-worthy words and phrases were committed to paper and handed in to our impressively-haired host for his appraisal.

Dedicated bookers worked the phones from dawn till dusk and beyond, attempting to secure the brightest stars in the Hollywood heavens. We had huge jointRichard Belzer, Gilbert Gottfried, Charlie Fleischer (the voice of Roger Rabbit) and the brilliant Chloe Webb in the cast. We also had drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. I was aware that a vast amount of pot was being put to flame (My drug of choice is red wine, so I did not cocainepartake in this Herculean inhalation of the magical herb) but I wasn’t privy to the big, snow-colored berms of blow being gleefully hoovered up into delighted nostrils. One of our troupe also had a standing order ice-cold vodkafor a bottle of ice-cold vodka be at the ready at all times.

So, with unprecedented preparation, talent, a silo of fresh ideas, youth, high-octane intoxicants and “Freddie’s Girls” we mounted our stalwart steeds and charged full-speed towards the resplendent shores of Tir Na Nog.

tir na nog

And then we actually produced the show.

The ratings for the first episode were lukewarm at best and the second installment was so horrifying that it never aired. It was chopped up like a moldy hog and the least-green-and-furry bits were fed to the public in subsequent joyfests.

It Stinks

The reviews bordered on death threats.  One critic quipped that kinder things had been said about child molesters.

apache sweat lodgeThe bonhomie and room-wide smiles turned to bitterness, paranoia and finger-pointing quicker than Lot’s wife turned to salt. Truth, trust and loyalty (never an abundant commodity at the best of times in showbiz) evaporated like liquid helium in an Apache sweat lodge.

If any request, message or piece of information fell through the cracks anywhere (and garbage-scows of paper were being flung back and forth every Thicke of the night paper distributiontwo seconds) the individual involved would categorically deny they had ever seen it. We, the humble research department, had to hand-deliver our requested findings to about 50 (literally) different people.  Each one of them, a potential Ramon Mercader, poised to ice-pick us out of a job. It got so bad, everyone was made to sign for every scrap of paper they were handed. Andrew drew up a dissemination and flow chart for all materials emanating from of our department. It looked like a schematic diagram for the somatic nervous system. Our executive producer saw it one day and declared it completely stupid and unworkable. And then Andrew informed him that it was the system we already had in place. Alas, Scott (the executive producer in question) was not awarded the time to fix it.

finding out about it in the trades

With guests cancelling in droves and ratings approaching absolute zero, he was promptly shit-canned. But in the classiest way possible. He read about it in the trades on his way to work.

leslie uggams peter marshallHe was replaced by Ernani DiMassa Jr. A giant of a man but a reasonably cool dude. Problem! “Ernie” had just come from a deservedly cancelled game show called Fantasy, and he really liked the people he’d worked with. (Fantasy was an incredibly cloying daytime treacle-fest starring Peter Marshall and Leslie Uggums.)

Real Example:

A young child really likes licorice. She’s taken to a long, long line of her favorite candy that she’s allowed to gather up and keep. When she gets to the end of this tasty trail, the little cherub discovers her long lost father holding licoricethe last piece.

It’s the kind of entertainment that makes you want to go out and punch an armless hobo.

The Tumbrel Rolls In:

The tubrel carts away its victims

The next thing we knew, our director was gone and Fantasy’s director was now calling the shots. Soon, all sorts of staff members started disappearing, invasion-of-the-body-snatchers-photos-1only to be replaced with other people wearing Fantasy show jackets. It was beginning to feel like “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” There was one Fantasy woman hired who had no job description at all. She was just wandered around looking for people who seemed to need help and for this invaluable assistance she was being paid about 4 times as much as the poor slobs who had been dragging this shit ship up the mountain for months.

cartoon vulturesThe musical director disappeared. Our gofers and assistants were dropping like Purina-fed malamutes. The atmosphere was so toxic, that if someone went home sick, people thought they’d been fired. Day after day, the ever-dwindling survivors marched across the burning sands of ignominy to the beating wings of the circling vultures.

The writing staff was hugely unhappy (not that comedy writers are ordinarily a bunch of peppy galoots) and it began to have a deleterious effect on their mongolian death wormoutput.  The main problem was the floor had disappeared from beneath them. The show was flailing around like a mortally wounded Mongolian Death Worm. Wheelbarrows of material that they’d spent months developing were being summarily jettisoned in the mindless panic to right the turd boat.

ScreenHunter_02 Mar. 02 15.56

I recall arriving backstage one night, just as a Marx Brothers sketch was finishing. Belzer, Gottfried and Fleischer could hardly breathe, it had gone so badly. “Holy fucking shit!” Fleischer gasped as they bid a hearty farewell to the prolonged and deafening silence. This sort of reception to Chloe_Webbproffered comedic material was not an uncommon phenomenon.

There were cutbacks everywhere. Gilbert was fired. Chloe Webb was let go and more and more Fantasy jackets roamed the sullen halls of failure.

The uncertainty was suffocating. The ravenous night dogs had descended upon what was left of us to gnaw at the last meaty scraps of employment on our bones.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I turned to Todd Thicke at one point (a genuinely nice guy and still a good friend) and asked him to let us know, should the already blood-drenched knives of duplicity begin to turn in our direction. And one day he said just that. Luckily, we had been working alongside a talent booker named Bill withered plantWalker for a few weeks. He was also a Fantasy alum and the license plate on his car read, “Uh Next.” Billy Boy was such a dick and made things so unpleasant that it gave us the courage to demand what had been promised to us before the gardens of hope had withered and perished in poisoned soil.

So, with the sword of Damocles already poking us in the ribs, Andrew and I requested a meeting at Alan’s house and informed him that we no longer wished to be lowly shat-upon researchers; we wanted to be made lowly shat-upon writers instead. He graciously gave us two weeks to produce audition material (at our current pauper’s wages, naturally) and then he’d make a decision. We gave it our best shot and…he said no and we left.

The Ex. Mrs. Gloria ThickeOver the next 6 months the show slowly bled to death, one musician, comic actor, writer and staff member at a time. Finally, Thicke of the Night was cancelled on the same day that Alan’s wife (Gloria Loring) filed for divorce.

 

announcement of thicke cancelation

Johnny Carson went on to spend another 8 successful years at the helm of the Tonight Show and Andrew and I had the honor of being his head writers for the last three and a half.

johnny with ed

So, I’ve had the pleasure of working on the very best talk show in the history of television and one of the very, very worst. Well, possibly two of the very worst – Andrew and I were also on the Magic Johnson talk show – but that is a disaster for another day.

the magic hour

=DV=

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 .

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