Darrell Vickers – Shut Up Kids Part 3 – Production Everything About it is Appealing!

Every young writer’s wet dream of dreams is to get a pilot picked up and have it coroneted as a network series. A Holy Grail filled with Hebrew National Hotdogs. It’s the equivalent of finding out your rich uncle died and left you his sex cult. It’s like going to the cupboard and discovering someone has eaten all your Fiber One cereal and all that’s left is Captain Crunch. Like finding out the doctor who gave you your last colonoscopy died very slowly in a car wreck. But it’s not all candy corn sprinkled with fructose. No siree Robert. By the time we reached the conclusion of this torturous, tortuous road, Andrew Nicholls and I looked worse than Nick Nolte’s mugshot.

The Nick Nolte Mug Shot We Looked Worse Than

The Good:

David Neuman sagely engaged the services of Tom Moore and Phil Kellard to run our pilot and series. Tom and Phil are great guys and funny writers. These jocular japesters were two of the very first Hollywood scribes Andrew and I met upon our arrival in Glittertown.  Like so many of L.A.’s youngest and finest, the four of us managed to crawl out of the listing televisual garbage barge that was Thicke of the Night and breathe some life back into our befouled-but-not-beheaded careers.

Great story about Mr. Moore:

Back in the ‘70s, Tom was a staff writer on The Tonight Show and a good friend of the infamous Pat McCormick. Even when I was Co-Head Writer a decade later, Pat stories were legend. Word was that Mr. McCormick never pushed for any big raises in salary on the show because he was almost never there. Pat had a penchant for flitting off to do some movie or appearance and good-natured Tom would write two monologues to cover the large, mustachioed man’s absence. One day Tom received a surprise call from Mr. Carson, asking if he could talk to Pat. Tom informed his boss that McCormick had just stepped out. Johnny replied, “That must be true because he’s on my television right now being interviewed in Miami!”

The Meh:

You have to be cautious about hiring anyone sight unseen who is considered to be “The Hot” anything in L.A. and our director was definitely a case in point. Let’s call him Tracy. Now, Trace was a pompous little gent who liked to hold court, wearing a light green safari jacket. He had this bizarre predilection of claiming ownership over historic nomenclatures. “There are these glass things hanging from the ceiling that brighten up the sets that I like to call ‘Lights.’” “There are people who walk around on stage and repeat lines that are written for them. I like to call them ‘actors.’” (This is only a slight exaggeration)

Years later, we would lampoon our eccentric director’s odd and unnecessary forays into the didactic in an episode of Campus Cops. More on this quirky series later.

While not the world’s worst director, we could have done much, much better. Spacey Tracy went on to earn three-and-a-half fortunes toiling for the mediocrity machine known as Miller Boyett. They cruelly produced a slew of long-running and mind-crushingly banal sitcoms in the ‘80s. “I go to work and they hand me heaping piles of this green paper stuff that I like to call ‘money.’” Apparently he has an authentic New York candy store on the grounds of his Beverly Hills property. There’s a heck of a lot of jack to be amassed by being just so-so in Tinseltown.

The Bad:

Where to begin????

First off – Andrew and I are very funny writers. I think our careers speak for themselves. But, we have a style that is somewhat restrictive and unforgiving. We tend to write crisp, interwoven dialogue that requires a jauntily paced and accurate delivery to produce the desired amounts of mirth. Alas, Dabney Coleman was chemically incapable of remembering his lines as written. He could give you a Dabney version of the line. He could deliver a vague sense of what the sentence was trying to convey but that was as far as his gin-soaked walnut-of-a-brain would take you. If you needed an exact word or specific phrase to set up the next actor’s line of dialogue, then you were shit out of luck. The thespian’s burden is not an especially weighty one. It boils down to two fairly succinct and easy to comprehend sentences. “Stand here. Say this.”

Unfortunately the Tracester, in addition to wandering around the Fox lot like an emaciated Johnny Weissmuller from the Jungle Jim movies, spent a depressing amount of time explaining what Dabney wanted rather than telling Dabney what the pilot desperately needed (i.e., a hint of professionalism).

There was also the vexing issue of the President of Fox Entertainment. Let’s call him Chirpy. Now, a couple of years before arriving at Fox, he was basically a numbers cruncher – making sure people had desks in their offices and cameras on sets. For some inexplicable reason (similar to his purchase of MySpace), Rupert Murdoch thought it would be a wowzer of an idea to put him in charge of actually entertaining people. As a former numbers cruncher, the first thing the Chirpman did was give us almost no money. At least not enough to make a pilot. Shut Up Kids was to be a “Presentation.”

Unlike a pilot, a “Presentation” had to be shot on borrowed sets and wasn’t a full 22 minutes. We would only be able to tape four or five scenes from the script on the scant coinage provided… a taste of what the show would be like, if we weren’t working for malignant miserly skinflints. Akin to going on a hot date and only feeding her the appetizer and one vegetable from the entrée while wearing your older brother’s leisure suit.

This was all going to cost between $150,000 and $200,000. Yes, that seems like a lot of ooftish but our first real pilot for Lorimar came in at about 800 grand. The set cost more than the entire budget of Shut Up Kids.

Now, Chirpy Chirpy Cheap Cheap was not a stupid man but he was erratic and shallow and those two overriding personality traits rained havoc down upon all concerned during the show’s entire run.

As stated, we picked five or six scenes from the pilot. Since it was Chirpy that had opted to make this a presentation, we had all naively assumed he’d actually read the script. One of the selected scenes concerned the kids giving Drexell hell. The next scene – where the students discover keeping him at the school was in their best interests – was cut. It didn’t have Dabney in it and he was our star. The following scene shows the kids being super supportive of their teacher – much to Drexell’s shock and amazement.

After the run-through, the Chirpster threw up his hands and pointed out the flaw that only he, with his off-the-charts newly-acquired entertainment acumen, had detected. “These kids are saying the exact opposite thing in these two scenes.” Chirpy shook his head, like his brain was just so onerously massive that he could barely hold it aloft. “Sure these writers are funny, but they don’t know anything about structure.”

Of course, his royal exalted highness was absolutely fucking wrong and looked like a loudmouth, tongue-dragging poltroon but no one on set had the requisite hairy danglers to correct him. And on we trudged.

The night of the presentation had its moments. Getting to drive onto the Fox lot to view the shooting of one’s own circumcised pilot was pretty cool. These are the times that provide a temporary palliative for some of the lumps and bumps accrued in the difficult birthing process. The audience was gathered in a reception room – not on stage. Andrew and I sat with a group of VIP guests, drank cheap wine, ate suspect hors d’oeuvres and watched the remnants of our musings on a video feed. There were no fancy schmancy flatscreens in those days. Just a big ol’ TV.

The presentation procured some nice laughs and everyone left feeling pretty swell about the project. Of course, that means less than zip in the capricious crapshoot of network television but to our delight, Drexell’s Class was actually picked up for series.

Then, Fox threw out the entire script for the pilot!

Back to Square One:

Still working full-time on America’s favorite late-night treat, Andrew and I set to work on our next attempt to please the mercurial mega-minds in charge (The solving of Fermat’s Last Theorem didn’t have this thought and effort go into it.) Perhaps an utterly new approach was needed. Perhaps a premise pilot would satisfy the great unwashed. We concentrated more on Drexell’s relationship with his daughters and had him get figuratively walloped around by an IRS officer, rather than the principal. At some point, as he licks his bibulous and unprincipled wounds, he gets the idea to dust off his teacher’s certificate to save him from that durance vile (jail). How’s that for different?

But first it had to go to David, Phil and Tom. The next day, the phone rang. It was Mr. Neuman. He informed me the new pilot was fabulous. He and Phil had read it in the room together and as they went from page to page, they couldn’t see anywhere that it needed changing or improving. They loved it. Well, I can count the number of times I’ve received that kind of review from a studio exec on one finger. Oh, if only the next sentence weren’t so unalterably predictable.

Chirpy hated it with a passion. Fox would not even consider paying to produce such a revolting affront to the senses. Okay.

Meanwhile, the billboards were going up all around town. “Fox and Dabney Coleman. It had to happen!” Why, of course those edgy imps at envelope-pushing Fox would develop a no-holds-barred, skin-ripping show around TV’s most notorious nasty man. Genius!

That was in public. In private, these are literally the notes we received from one script meeting.

*character is too nasty

*give Otis’s character more genuine moments so you care about him

*he is a fundamentally decent guy and this needs to be sensed

*show how he takes the situation of anger and turns it into a positive teaching thing

*show edgier ways of showing “heart” moments that will be unique to the show

*he needs to have more levels in his character coming across (charming, funny, graceful, wisdom)

*have Otis push Billy Ray to a new level and show a breakthrough and how it has affected him

*a genuine moment is needed in the script

*show how he genuinely is a good teacher

How “It Had to Happen” does that sound to you?

Let me be perfectly clear – any moments showing Dabney Coleman being a warm-and-wise nice guy were not in any way genuine. And still we trudged on.

For multi-camera shows, there is always an initial “table reading” of the script. The actors read, the writers and producers laugh and the network and studio try to figure out how they hate all the notes they just gave you to create this hilarity, so they can make you address a whole boatload of new notes during the production week, when you have no time. This is always expected.

Sitcom Table Reading

What wasn’t expected was Chirpy flying out of his folding chair and launching into a 25-minute diatribe about how much he hated every last electron and proton of this series. Mostly, he hated Dabney’s character. Somewhere near the culmination of his splenetic soliloquy, the Chirp-man aimed a bellicose finger at our stunned star and gravely intoned, “You keep this kind of unlikable crap up, and your career will be over!”

The Dabster apparently went as white as Johnny Winter’s ghost.

Phil and Tom cobbled together what they could during a hectic week and that became the first episode. It had more heart in it than Jeffrey Dahmer’s refrigerator.

Throughout the years, I have stated this any number of times: “If you come up with a concept for a show and stick with it, you have a minute chance of success. If you veer around like Mel Gibson driving home from a prayer meeting and change everything willy-nilly every two minutes, you have zero chance of success.”

Fox chose the latter approach for this series. Five or six episodes in, Chirpy declared with the wisdom of a drunken Lao Tzu that he never wanted to see another classroom in this show. It was called “Drexell’s Class” for fuck’s sake! At his insistence! By the last couple of episodes – this once-simple concept had been transformed into a circus for the insane. “Cruisin’” guest-starred Digital Underground with Tupac Shakur, Jason Priestly and the Swedish Bikini Team. “Quiet, children. Today’s important lesson is…”

Ah, Memories:

One of our writers was standing next to Humpty Hump as he was awaiting his entrance into the concert scene. Just before his cue, Humpty donned his big hat, turned to the writer, opined, “I look redic-oo-lass but it sure pays the bills” and then he happily jived his way onto the stage.

Ah Tragedy:

Inevitably, Fox decided to cancel their Frankenstinian creation. But much like Admiral Scott’s final, fatal trek, our perilous plight would not be at an end until we’d been forced to eat all the dogs and horses.

One bright sunny day, the phone rang at the Tonight Show. It was an exec from Fox. Hmmm. I remember them. “This show of yours really cost us a lot of money and we’d like you to give us some of your salary back.”

HUH?!!!!!!

So, you put us through hell, waste our time, destroy our show, cancel it and now you want your money back? Name your price and I’ll get out my check book!

After taking a large and temper-steadying breath, I politely declined to toss our hard earned shekels into Rupert Murdoch’s begging cup and hung up the phone.

A few days later, I received another call. This time from The Writer’s Guild. They informed me that they’d received a complaint from Fox. Apparently, Andrew and I had been scandalously missing in action during the last three episodes of the series and the studio had no other choice on God’s green Earth but to withhold payment for the shows in question. By a gigantic coincidence, it just happened to tally exactly, to the nickel, with the amount that the exec had requested we pay back to them a few days earlier. Talk about weird, huh? My response was that Murdoch Manor could go fuck itself. We were audaciously demanding what was owed. I then proceeded to call Mr. Neuman to let him know what was transpiring. He was shocked. People have accused Nicholls and Vickers (well, mostly me) of many things over the years but being slackers has never been one of them.

Since no agreement could be reached between ourselves and the corporate flim-flam artists we’d been in business with, an arbitration date was set. The good news was we had all three executive producers willing to testify on our behalf. The bad news… the arbitration was 12 months hence.  This is a classic tactic of insurance companies and other corporate fuckballs. You delay for as long as you can, hoping to squeeze concessions out of your victims through financial desperation. Unfortunately for Fuckball Fox, Andrew and I had an overall at Warner Brothers and we weren’t desperate.

True to form – the phone rang a month later. “Fox would like to offer you 10 cents-on-the-dollar.”

“We’re writers. Not agents.” Slam.

Three months later: “Fox would like to offer you 30% of what they owe you.”

“Give my best to Rupert.” Slam.

Six months later: “Fox is willing to go up to 50%.”

“Well, I’m willing to father Claudia Schiffer’s next three children. I’ll let you know how it goes.” Slam.

Finally, after nine months of “staying in touch,” the Grinch-ily generous accounting department grudgingly agreed to pay us in full.

And that, in a nutshell, was Shut Up Kids/Drexell’s Class.

Epilogue:

There were a Shaquille O’Neal sock’s worth of injustices perpetrated in the making of this seldom-seen 18 episodes but there is only one I truly regret. I’m sorry that David Neuman didn’t receive a “Created By” credit on Drexell’s Class. It was his original idea. He tenaciously cradled this baby in his arms while myriad malevolent wolves circled and snapped their blood-drenched teeth. Andrew and I may have done the writing, but David was the heart and soul of this series and I still lament him not receiving his due.

=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 – Shut Up Kids Part 3 – Production Everything About it is Appealing!”

  1. Damon Hines Says:

    I really do enjoy T. F. out of this saga, not that it was overflowing with F, but I digress…ha!…I do indeed also remain immovable in my resolve to never so much as type the words “Human Centipede” ever again. Cheers, m8.

  2. Thanks for funny article. The first clue of the anti-comedy direction was when they changed the funny title “Shut Up, Kids” to the unfunny sugary “Drexell’s Class.”

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