Darrell Vickers – It’s Only Words: How Hollywood Made Me Thicke to My Thtomache

I became a professional scribe at the tender, pre-Tinder, age of 18. Since the halcyon days of my humble, date-free youth, words have fed my family and made it possible for me to accumulate a record collection that would sink most medium-size boats. While I have enjoyed an unreasonable amount of success through the decades, armed with only pen in hand and the dictionary in my head, in show business there is forever a micro-thin line between gainful employment and having to mug a giant-arrow-spinning condo clown for his Subway coupons. This is the harrowing, tongue-swallowing tale of how a couple of simple words almost cost me my entire Hollywood career, just as it was breaching the birth canal.

Young Hopeful Darrell and an Apparently Already Queasy Andrew Nicholls

On June the fifth, 1983, Andrew Nicholls and I set down at LAX to begin our illustrious invasion of the entertainment industry and boldly lay claim to the multitudinous riches that were due our unimaginable talent. Glamour, money and girls, girls, girls would soon be ours in numbers too splendiferous to contemplate.

A couple of factory town kids were living the hot, dry dream of almost every Canadian writer: Hollywood! The big time! An actual steady job in the shallowest city on Earth!

This was equivalent to landing a date with a Penthouse Pet and then having her insist on paying for the meal and the ride back to her place. Yowsa!

Thicke of the Night

As we made our way down the car-choked 101 on our first day of work, Alan Thicke let it be known there was one rule above-all-others that we should never break. “No surprises,” he darkly informed us. “That’ll get you on the first plane back to the North Pole.” I was crammed into the back well of his Porsche 928S, so I wasn’t actually able to feel my spine, but if I could, a cold and clammy streak of dread would have been running up and down it.

Our main sacred quest on this televisual juggernaut was to provide research to whoever needed it. Before computers, this was the equivalent of searching for tip money after a Scotsman’s dinner. But on a show of this epic magnitude, one measly arduous fulltime job wasn’t going to feed the poodle. On top of our assigned Sisyphean boulder, we were also handed the weighty rock of writing monologue jokes for the Canadian version of the show.

Sample Jokes

– They stretch everything out as much as they can on Soap Operas. One woman on General Hospital was pregnant for 18 months and then her baby was born premature.

– My mother is a terrible cook. She burnt everything. If you are what you eat, I’d be black.

And Then There Were the Editors.

“Editors” were celebrities or colorful personalities who would come on and amusingly expound their allocated area of expertise… a cheap and easy way to kill 10 minutes of screen time. We were gifted with helping Jim Stafford (Spiders and Snakes, My Girl Bill) and Eve Smith (Romancing the Stone) prepare their appearances. The latter had caught Alan’s eye because her stage act contained a number of risqué songs and stories. Eve was an old-looking 78 and as cute as a white-haired wrinkled button, belting out titillating tunes and bawdy ballads.

Andrew and I were comped to go see her at the Playboy Club in Century City. By 1983, the Bunnies had remained young but the club felt like Miss Havisham’s wedding reception, if you replaced all the moldy bowls of fruit with implausible sets of bazooms. Like its owner, this once scandalous speakeasy’s best days were long gone and its saggy jowls and wan toupee were on full display. Still… you can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. You put a honkin’ set of tatas on a pig and… what pig? I think you catch my drift.
Back to the story

Eager to please, and score one for the dear old lady, we sipped Michelobs, took voluminous notes and plotted how to sequence her guest spots. Making others look better? That’s just what we do. She was in good hands.

A few days later, Andrew and I sat down with the septuagenarian songstress and went through the list of her salacious songs and concupiscent quips. What made a lot of sense to us was to use the initial appearance to introduce her to America and then dole out the body of her dirty ditties in subsequent visits. One tune she had in her repertoire was, “Let Me Entertain You.” What could summarize all she had to offer better than that??

In our defense, we were just off the plane from Oshawa. Young and unwicked. Naïve to the “I want it all and I want it now” demands of this corrupt and jaded new land.

Eve’s premiere segment arrived. She sat on the panel, told a few jokes we’d picked out of her routine and then it was on to her big finale.

“So,” says Alan, in his poor-man’s Bill Cosby delivery, “I understand you’ve got a little song for us. Hehe.”

“I surely do, Alan.” And Eve rose up from the couch and delivered a truly cute version of Sondheim and Jule Styne’s classic. Applause.
That went pretty well, thinks us. A job well done.

After the show, we discovered that Alan’s appraisal of the spot was not quite as laudatory as we’d imagined. “What the fuck was that?” he inquired to any and all in the debriefing room. “She was supposed to sing that song about finding a penis in her sewing basket! (I’m making up the specific subject matter of her shameful shanty, but you get the picture.) Instead, I get ‘Let Me Fucking Entertain You!”

Andrew and I sat quietly during his carefully measured review and fought back the overwhelming urge to let loose with garden-hose-velocity bowel movements.

“Well, that old hag can kiss this fucking show goodbye.”

Boom! We had hacked off the kindly woman’s head and it was now being waved aloft on a bloodied pike of transgression and disgrace. Our complexions must have made

the Winter Brothers look like George Fucking Hamilton. That sweet and gentle senior was getting unceremoniously shit-canned and we were as guilty as the Rosenbergs with a patina of Whitey Bulger drizzled on top. Luckily, Alan didn’t put two and two and Andrew and I together, in his splenetic rage. Did we admit our mistake? Our faux pas? Nobly accept full responsibility and punishment for our total failure to grasp what was required of us?

Nope. We sure fucking didn’t. But we did feel really, really badly about it. That alone separated us from most of the people on that show.

Despite this setback, Eve enjoyed a marvelous TV career until she passed away in 1997, probably going to the grave wondering what the fiery fuck happened to her job on that fateful night.

But that unfortunate affair was a mere piffle compared to the incident that almost got us summarily executed in the KTTV parking lot.

God Couldn’t Help You if Alan’s Pizza Arrived Cold

Finally!

As I’ve stated, Thicke of the Night was an uncontrollably mammoth debacle. It was almost impossible to keep everything about this madly whirling Circus of the Damned in your head. Even early on, hate, incompetence, perfidy, drugs and the cowardly tossing of others onto the tumbrel to avoid one’s own date with the gallows (Eve Smith) were rampant. We were producing six 90-minute shows a week with guests, bands, comedy sketches, editors, re-looped film bits, on-location shoots and any number of other hard-to-coordinate segments.

Oh sure, Alan would occasionally roam through the hallways in his bathrobe and smash a wooden yardstick down in front of the odd startled and sleep-starved employee to buoy morale, but keeping this show successfully chugging down it’s low-rated track was a Herculean task.

One morning, a once-again be-bathrobed Alan summoned everyone to the stage. Our star and pantless leader was displeased. There was just too much shit for him to remember. In truth, there was too much shit for Nikola Tesla to remember. From now on, he wanted everything put on 5X8 cards. That way he could review, sequence and jettison at will. No exceptions. If it was something he had to deal with, he wanted it on cards.

Okay. Sure.

Alan On His Office Couch in a Bathrobe

After lunch, I received a call to hie on down to Alan’s dressing room. Hmmm. I wonder what that could be about. When I arrived, our risible host had an idea. Bruce Weitz was on the afternoon show. He played a rough and slobby, uncouth cop on Hill Street Blues but he had actually performed a lot of Shakespeare early in his career. Alan wanted to surprise him. Write up a comic version of a famous Shakespearean soliloquy and have him read it cold. I pitched, “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles. Troubles? I’ll tell you about troubles…”

Alan giggled and said that was exactly what he wanted. “Put it on cards for the beginning of the afternoon show.”

Yikes! That didn’t give us much time, but this was actually a writing assignment! (although uncredited and financially unrecompensed). I rushed back to my sub-Goodwill hallway desk and Andrew and I got to work.

One Joke:

– …sea of troubles. Troubles? I’ll tell you about trouble. I ordered a Prune Pizza for dinner and I was up all night with Pizzeria.

The thing came together quickly. We typed it up, cut the pages so they could be glued onto 5X8 cards and rushed them down to the stage. Mission accomplished. Time to go back to our shitty research job but salved with the knowledge of another task well done.

About an hour later, we received a call. Could we come to the stage, immediately? Hmmm, I wonder what that could be about.

When we got there, the show was already in progress. There seemed to be a lot of frenzied commotion going on in a small area of the backstage. We were ominously pointed to it. Upon our arrival, Jeremy Stevens (the head writer) grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. “Now, nobody’s blaming anybody here but What Did You Do?”

Right away I intuited that something was up and it wasn’t good.

I was a little confused by all the hubbub but I calmly explained the situation, “Alan wanted us to write up a spot and put it on 5X8 cards and that’s what we did.”

“Oh no. Not 5X8 cards,” Jeremy informed me, his pallid face in stark contrast to his throbbing, purple temple veins. ”CUE CARDS!!!!”

Motherfucker! The show was rolling. The cue card guys had their magic markers squeaking like an amphetamine-fueled mouse orgy. The intro began. I was Eric Roberts with his hands sticking out on the roof of the Runaway Train. The terror and the tension were palpable. Even though it was as cold as Ann Coulter’s tits backstage, hardened Hollywood professionals were projectile sweating.

“Well, hello, Bruce,” Alan insouciantly intoned.

“Hey, Alan”

Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!

“So I understand that besides playing a grimy, grouchy New York cop, you also performed a little Shakespeare.”

Squeak! Squeak!

“Why, that’s right, I did.”

“Well, we have a little surprise for you.”

Ahhhh!!!! Squeak! Squeak! Squeak! AHHHH!!!!

“We put something on cue cards that we’d like you to read.”

The first two cards were handed to the holder just as Mr. Weitz stood up to audience applause.

Bruce began reading off cue cards held by a guy who was being fed other cue cards while even more cue cards were still being feverishly finished. All in front of a live audience. It was as white-knuckled a moment in television as I have ever witnessed.

This – was the very text book definition of… “A Surprise!!!”

Luckily, (and there’s very little of that word in this story) Bruce had not read any of it before hand. Hell, it was still being scribbled onto cardboard as he was saying it. There were stops for audience laughter and for Bruce’s guffaws and to the amazement of all backstage, the last cue card was in hand as Mr. Weitz finished his silly soliloquy to huge approbation.

For some unknown reason, we weren’t fired. There wasn’t even any retribution, because it was exceedingly difficult to treat someone worse than they were already being treated on that show.

About a month hence, as Thicke of the Night flailed around wildly and it sank into a bottomless flaming, bubbling cauldron of failure and bitterness, Fred Silverman pointed to the Bruce Weitz piece as a beacon for the kind of material that the show should aspire to. Predictably, nary a jasper in the room jumped up to award us our due credit for penning that standout piece of comedy but nobody pointed out the two guys who nearly blew the entire episode up. I took that to be a rare win.

Epilogue

After six insane and backbreaking months, Andrew and I quit the show but managed through luck, guile and standing-room-only appearances at Chippendales to find other remunerative opportunities in L.A. for the next 36 years.

Andrew remains there today; authoring award winning short stories and plays.

Me? I’m semi-retired and living in Toronto. Looking back, it was an amazing ride and… it may not be over yet. You never know when someone will need a big bunch of words put in just the right order.

=DV=

Please scroll down to leave Your Comments, Kudos, and Complaints

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 “Darrell Vickers – It’s Only Words: How Hollywood Made Me Thicke to My Thtomache”

  1. Oleh Perun Says:

    WOW, that is quite a ride you were on. Keep on sailing, it ain’t over, till it’s over !!

  2. Peter Montreuil Says:

    Excellent work! Very entertaining, Darrell. Made me larf, it did.

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