Darrell Vickers – Have Mercy Part 2 – There Is No Easy Way from the Earth to the Stars

Back to the Future:

As Part Two of the Have Mercy saga commences, Larry Hagman was still tethered to our plucky little pilot. The outline had been okayed and fluffy-fluffy joy-joy was falling down upon the land like the screaming Wallendas, but now we had to actually write this sucker. All things being considered, pounding out 40-odd pages of funny shouldn’t really have been that much of a biggie. Andrew and I had written other pilots. Egad, we’d cranked out about a dozen of them in the previous year but there was something disquietingly different about this pile of paper and ink. Perhaps we were just tired from a non-stop year of wearing out typewriter ribbons. Perhaps it was little Davey mouth-breathing down our necks with his inane suggestions and dicta. For some reason, the all-important first major scene was not rolling out like Gene Simmons’ tongue at a Kiss concert.

Now, as any wordsmith will tell you, writing a script or book is much like the 100 yard dash. Those first few steps are agony. They’re awkward. You’re struggling to achieve some kind of rhythm and get a feel for the race. That describes the initial pestiferous pages of a script to a torturous tee. Misery untold. Akin to sitting through a Rob Schneider film festival! But this folio bifurcated worryingly from the annoying norm. After struggling to make a dent in the pilot during the week, I puttered over to Andrew’s big house in the Hollywood Hills and we got to work.

Outside Andrew’s House

Inside Andrew’s House

Well, we tried to get to work. Every line was taking an eternity. It seemed as daunting as dragging Walter Hudson up Mt. Fuji without benefit of barrow.  At some painful point during the PM, I literally fretted that our careers were over. This was the only time in my whole life that this disconcerting notion has ever moseyed across my cerebellum. Thank the giddy monkeys of Corcovado!

If you’re going to staff or run a show – self-doubt is equivalent to Wile E. Coyote looking down a cannon barrel to figure out why it isn’t firing. Mr. Creosote indulging in that one last, wafer thin mint or offering to pick up Rudy Giuliani’s bar tab.

Side Note:

The writers’ room can be Darwinian. While people are friendly enough around that Chinese-food-stained table, they’re fiercely competing to land jokes in the episode at hand and to leave their co-workers floundering in the dirt. The youngsters are there to ingratiate themselves to the slightly older writers who are on the verge of getting their own shows. They’re also there to leapfrog over the journeymen. The levels of comedy-writing talent around that piece of pock-marked wood go from Neil Simon all the way down to Paul Simon but there is also an unfortunate performance element to table writing. Actual writers oft times find being forced to quip out loud in a highly pressurized social setting about as much fun as sharing an undersized hot tub with Wayne Newton. Not every scribe – even a super-talented one – is quick on his or her funny feet. Plus – competing against fellow litterateurs isn’t your only challenge.

There are a depressing number of standup comics in those rooms. People trained to be boisterous, spontaneously funny and more than happy to hog the proceedings. Getting used to speaking up – timorously tossing a bon mot into the hopper for consideration – requires a significant amount of backbone and belief in yourself. Especially if you drop a couple of table turds early in the process. Getting back up after having your id ransacked by a band of highly paid wise guys can test the souls of giants. Our first experience with table writing did not go well. On Check It Out we were banned from the writers’ room because we didn’t laugh at the executive producer’s jokes. We were never allowed back in.

Back to the Point:

We did eventually port our very own Walter Hudson to the top of that fabled mountain. The nettlesome scene that bedeviled us so turned out to be one of the highlights of the pilot. Go figure. In fact, the script as a whole was received very favorably by all and sundry if you don’t count Larry Hagman, who quickly dropped out. Despite this massive setback, we received a greenlight! And just like that, Andrew Nicholls and I had sold our second pilot.

Have Mercy was a much different experience than Drexell’s Class, where Phil Kellard and Tom Moore were the showrunners. This time, the heavy crown was born by our own thinning pates. As with many experiences in show business, nothing can prepare you for the next rung up that ladder.

While we had spent the last 3 ½ years running the comedy segments on The Tonight Show, this was an entirely different scuttle of skinks. We were involved in budget meetings. We were asked to pick a set designer. We got to pick the director we wanted. We interviewed writer’s assistants. Every agency in town was sending us scripts so we’d hire their authors, should the pilot get picked up to series. In other words, we had been tossed into the television deep end and were in way, way over our heads.

Casting:

I had been tangentially a part of the casting process for Drexell’s Class but now there was nobody in the room but Andrew and Me and the amazing Ellie Kanner. I know I rip the skin off a lot of people in these blogs – and deservedly so – but Ellie was fantastic. She was hard-working and indefatigably cheerful. Ms. Kanner was also a terrific actress. When you’re auditioning a prospective performer, the casting director reads with them. A lot of casting directors deliver their parts like they’d just come from an indelicate colonoscopy. The actor is left to weave gold while being tossed dust. Ellie gave the actors something substantial to work with. She knew where the jokes on the page were and fed these hopeful thespians like a champ. As I’ve said before, it’s an incredible rush to have actors you’ve admired come into a room, looking to you to hire them. But it’s also as stressful as watching your sister date a drummer. For every person who gets a part, 30 or more people don’t. Ellie made this exhilarating and heartbreaking process as painless as possible for us neophytes.

The Weeds:

The casting process goes through five stages – much like the stages of grief.

First, the script goes out to every agency in town.

Second, the casting director auditions those actors she thinks might be a fit.

Third, the casting director’s picks audition for the Executive Producers.

Fourth, the Ex Prods selections are dragged before the studio execs.

Fifth, if the studio people like any of your choices (not a given by any means), then those finalists are taken to the network.

But that’s not complicated enough.

There are four types of actors for the major roles.

Pre-Read (for Casting)

Will only Audition for Executive Producers

Offer Only

Unvailable/Not Interested

And there are variants to those four catagories!

– Meet Only

– Meet Contingent upon offer

– Will only read for network (or studio)

– Will chemistry read only (meaning they will read with their potential co-stars to see how they perform together but they have to be guaranteed the part)

– Available for project but unable to read

– Can only audition on tape

Phew!

Executive Producers and Studio Execs

Now, when you get into the room with the Studio Execs, they immediately flip to the last page. The “Unavailable/Not Interested” page. These are people who don’t want to do television or are working on something else. These supposed entertainment geniuses begin to scan the list and ask deep and thoughtful questions like, “What about Brad Pitt?”

“He doesn’t want to do television.”

(Yeah, fuckhead, that’s why he’s on the Not Interested list.)

“Well, how about Matt Damon?”

“No.”

“Can we ask him again? Has he seen the script?”

This goes on for five or six more “no way in hells” and then we wheel in the lowly actors who made the fatal mistake of being willing to audition. Our fellow Lorimarians ocular orbs darted back and forth between the performance before them and that page of forbidden fruit. “Oh, if only we could get Leonardo DiCaprio for this, it’d be a slam dunk.”

Eventually, reality takes hold and they sullenly agree to escort a few of our choices to the network, like a child being forced to eat Brussels sprouts for his dinner instead of candy.

The Big Time:

CBS held its auditions in a dingy little mini-theatre in the basement of their office complex on Beverly Boulevard. It was right next to the furnace and some large jugs of disinfectant. There we sat with Jeff Seganski, a raft of CBS execs and our Lorimar buddies as the thespian selectees trotted out their wares.

The lead actress needed to be sexy and tough. Among our comely picks were Teri Hatcher and Heather Locklear. Teri had been terrific in her audition for us and for the studio and she certainly fit the “sexy” bill. Unfortunately, she’d subsequently caught the flu and was still feeling the effects when the network tryout took place. As she emoted, in a short, short black dress that looked like it was painted on, every man jack of us sat spellbound. It was not her best performance but Jesus Christ, we were all practically dry-humping the theatre seats in front of us. After she’d sashayed her way out, the room slouched in testosterone-fueled exhaustion.

Tim Flack fanned his face with a wispy hand and effeminately proclaimed, “Phew. Even I felt it get hot in here (after a perfectly timed beat). I hope it’s just a phase.”

The entire room lost it.

Heather Locklear had really put her heart and soul into nailing this role and was very good. Surprisingly good. In the end, poor Teri’s malady cost her the part and Ms. Locklear claimed the prize. I just want to state that the camera isn’t kind to these two ladies. They were as beautiful and alluring in person as they are on television.

Our first pride of male actors was not nearly as well received. The network brass hummed and hawed after the last leading man tipped his figurative hat and exited the stage.
Tensions were high. Jeff was a very hard guy to read and even his closest employees seemed to be very tense around him. After a long, uneasy silence, Jeff sighed. “Who else is out there?”

Brains whirled. Palms sweated.

Someone quickly flipped through the casting list and tremulously spoke up. “Michael McKean?”

Jeff considered this. “That’s an interesting choice.”

Bandwagons were quickly jumped on.

“He’d be great!”

“We need to get him in here. It’s vital.”

“I think he might be on tour with Spinal Tap at the moment,” Andrew bravely interjected.

“Well, where is he? This is a big opportunity!”

Hasty phone calls were made.

“He’s in Florida, Jeff.”

“He has concerts every day ‘til Saturday.”

“Why don’t we fly him in?” Mr. Sagansky mused. “I’m available on Sunday.”

Everyone else furiously nodded their heads.

“Sunday would be great!”

“Yes, he might be just the guy.”

“He was made for this part.”

“It’s a sure-fire, out of the park, home run!”

“Of course we’d have to get him out of his Law and Order deal.”

Another moment of silence descended upon the assemblage.

Andrew once again piped up amongst all those who dare not speak its name. “I think you might be thinking of Michael Moriarty.”

Jeff’s face lit up. “Yeah, that’s the guy.” A small quizzical pause ensued. All the executives readied themselves to agree with whatever dribbled out of his mouth next. “Then who is Michael McKean?”

“That’s the guy who played Lenny on Laverne and Shirley.”

Jeff crinkled his elf-like nose. “Oh. I fucking hate Michael McKean.”

Heads were instantly shaken in disgust.

“Yeah. What an asshole!”

And that’s pretty well Hollywood in a nutshell. An actor was almost flown across country from Florida, on a Sunday, to audition for a part he would never get because the guy in charge hated him but got his name wrong.

Mr. Moriarty was in no way interested in leaving his cushy, long-running series to take a gamble on a half-hour pilot.

After one more anxiety-ridden trip to the dark little room next to the brooms and bottles of Zep, we finally had the two stars for our pilot. Daniel Hugh Kelly and Heather Locklear.

Or had we?

=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

One Response to “Darrell Vickers – Have Mercy Part 2 – There Is No Easy Way from the Earth to the Stars”

  1. Damon Hines Says:

    Can’t wait to see what’s next…even if it’s nothing, as seems likely, just not quickly or painlessly.

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