Darrell Vickers – Magic Johnson Part One of Part One – Every Little Thing We Did For Magic

 

For all the excitement and laugh-a-minute hijinks that ultimately end up on the small-but-getting-larger-every-day screen, animation is a fairly dull medium to write for but you sure can’t beat the commute. You lucubrate in the bosom of your own homestead, tenaciously hack your way through the occasional set of nettlesome network notes and when it’s all done and dusted, you press a couple of keys on your computer and send it off to anywhere in the world. A life of toiling in animation is totally absent the non-stop madcap Joy Circus that you get sucked into when manning the helm of a Hollywood set. It does not require dealing with studios and networks both asking you to do the impossible as a million unforeseen crises swirl around you like pissed-off bees. It is blissfully free of discontented actors unable to remember the simplest sequence of dialogue. You are spared having to wait endless hunger-filled hours for that intern to bring back food from Jerry’s Deli while you “amp the stakes” at the end of Act One.

Just ONE Angry Bee

All that hubbub and ulcer-bursting perturbation is real show business. Animation is about writing. Not fun writing, for the most part, but it’s entirely devoid of the dazzle and pageantry that draws so many poor souls towards the perilous, pitiless showbiz flame.

Andrew and I were just putting the second, deliciously boring season of Ned’s Newt to bed when the phone rang.

Apparently, Magic Johnson was doing a talk show and the executive producers wanted to have a little chat with us.

Sure.

Drawn Towards the Flame

Jeff and Geo

So we trekked down to NBC studios to meet with Jeff and Geo. Things were well underway with the production but there was something disquietingly askew. Jeff and Geo seemed overly anxious to meet us and pick our brains. There was just a lost and searching look in their eyes that should have set off Chicago Fire-sized alarm bells. We had a very friendly chin-wag about how variety shows work and told a few old war stories and happily headed home.

A day or so later, we got an offer to be the head writers for the pilot (actually it was four pilots – they were going to shoot four of the suckers over a week and then scythe it down into a single pound cake of an episode). It wasn’t a ton of money but we were just finishing up “Ned” and it was only a four-week gig.
Sure.

Ever Closer

This was the first time I’d driven to NBC Studios for work in 5 years. It was a skosh nostalgic and surreal to be motoring down the 101 towards Burbank again. Not only that, the pilots were going to be shot on the old Tonight Show stage! The omens seemed to be all heading in a very positive direction.

Fuck Omens.

The writers all seemed like nice enough fellows but they had almost no experience in variety. This kind of writing is a fairly specialized discipline. Coming up with hard jokes out of thin air is not something a lot of comedy writers are capable of. Most television humor relies on context. Characters and situations. In variety you say, “Did you hear about…” and then you have 2 or 3 sentences to be ridiculously funny in front of a live audience. And you need to produce pages of these risible nuggets each and every single day. Stand-up comics typically spend years creating, polishing and refining their routines before performing them on television. The late-night writer has 24 hours.

While I liked this young group of writers personally, who the hell hired these people? Where was Tom Finnegan? Patric Verrone? Monty Aidem? Wayne Kline? Bob Smith? Gene Perret? When you’re doing a pilot, it’s imperative you put your best, shiniest foot forward and you need the most qualified, hardened soldiers manning your front line. All this project had were unproven rookies.

And it didn’t really occur to us at the time but we weren’t replacing a recently fired head writer. Before us, unbelievably, there wasn’t one!

This was a major production. Real money had been spent. Big stars, a big band, a big set and… no head writer?

I have a feeling that Jeff and Geo decided, early on, that they would function as executive producers and head writers and then quite sensibly pooped their panties. The main problem with Jeff and Geo (and again, I liked them personally) is they had about as much experience in late-night television as I had in Uzbekistani shashlyk skewering. They were reality show producers. The other executive producer, who basically had the final say, had no television experience at all. Zip. Lon was a sports agent!

Besides being run by people with no experience or know-how, the pilot had other problems.

The co-host was Barry Sobel.

Quick Side Note

I was sipping wine backstage one evening while Barry was performing his comedic chunk at the desk on the Tonight Show. It was going over a treat. Two old guys in suits were huddled and conversing in whispers within my earshot. Jim McCauley, who booked almost all of the Tonight Show’s stand-ups, ambled over, turned to them and smiled, “Cute,” and then continued to pace. One of the elderly be-suited jaspers intoned to the other alter kocker, “That was a very important cute. A very important cute!”

Such was the power of an appearance on America’s No. 1 late-night powerhouse.

Back to a Substantially Lesser Late-Night Powerhouse

 

Barry was the designated sidekick/comedian for the show but from the moment we arrived, there were worrisome grumblings about him. Apparently his personal hygiene habits were not cutting-edge and oft times his personage would be a tad rank. There were also disgruntled gripings concerning him showing up on set with various tall, blond, male companions. Whether it was actually because Barry was gay or the fact that people didn’t like him personally, I have no idea. It was rather odd. I’d been in showbiz for over 20 years at that point and while everyone’s sexual predilections and adventures were ripe for lampooning, I don’t ever remember anyone mentioning someone being gay in a disapproving manner.

Another serious problem was the decision-making process for the material. On the Tonight Show, Johnny decided. We gave him the jokes and if he liked them, they were on. Word for word. This was also how Letterman and Jay did it. It’s the way these things have to work. A daily show requires reams of jokes and decisions have to be made very quickly and with certainty. Every extra second you spend on today’s show takes away precious time from writing tomorrow’s. Alas, Magic wasn’t Johnny. Irvin was an athlete, not a performer. He was a team player, not a decision maker. In our first meeting with him, he parked his massive physique in a chair, peered down at us and said, “What do you want me to do, guys?”

In his mind, we were the coach and it was his job to do what we told him to as best he could. We went through some of the material and had him repeat it. We gave him the odd line reading and asked if there was a word that he’d be more comfortable with if we sensed he was struggling with a particular sentence. Throughout the pilot and beyond, Magic was a dream to work with. A genuinely nice and humble guy.

The problem was that Jeff and Geo were choosing the material. Or trying to. They had zero experience in comedy and very little backbone. We’d hand in comedy spots and I’d see Geo reading the jokes to the secretaries and deliverymen and if one of them failed to chortle, that particular bon mot was as dead as a Pioneer Chicken drumstick. Andrew checked the cue cards at one of the rehearsals and found they contained jokes that the show’s typist had written! This major breach of protocol was not only incredibly discourteous and disrespectful to Andrew and myself, it was totally against Writers Guild rules.

Again, our executive producers didn’t seem to have the slightest inkling of how variety shows were run.

While this insane comedic vetting process was infuriating and insulting – on a pilot – at least we had a couple of weeks to prepare the necessary material and everything stopped once it got shot. If this show was ever picked up, there wouldn’t be enough hours in a day or maybe even a week to produce sufficient jokes and spots to satisfy Jeff, Geo, the network, the secretarial pool and the odd opinionated straggler on the NBC tour.

We had a third problem. Andrew and I are not black. In fact, we are two of the whitest writers in Hollywood. John Cooper Clarke is our favorite rap artist, for crying out loud. Luckily, we did have two African American scribes on the show. We trusted them to write jokes that satirized the urban culture because we were about as urban as L.L. Bean. Unluckily, every time we’d add their material to the proposed spot, Geo (who was also black) would strike it out because it was racist.

So we had two “urban” writers who, anytime they wrote “urban material,” it got axed for being offensive.

And the train kept a-rollin’.

Part Two has sample jokes, surprises galore and a story about wee wee.

Stay Tuned!

Magic Johnson being Magic

=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

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