The Magic Hour Part Two – Part Two: A Change is Gonna Come

Those nascent days on The Magic Hour were like being airlifted into a room awash in eggshells while wearing size 26 snow boots. Every attempted micro-step caused annoyed and bitter heads to swing in our unintentionally crunchy direction. Needless to say, our relationship with the head writer, Pete, was tense at best. We were about as popular as having Matt Gaetz attend your high school prom.

The panicky act of Fox dragooning us onto the show had basically taken a Weed Whacker to his nether parts. Severely truncheoned his pink and tenders. Wantonly augered his… well, you get the idea.

The Two 5-foot-10-inch Reminders

Being a head writer is Hunger Games stressful without having two 5-foot-10-inch reminders of your failure-to-impress hanging about. Alas, his main problem was incurable; he just wasn’t that good a writer. Pete probably had no problem producing enough snickers and giggles to please Jay Leno, who had a staff of about 20 comedy elves. You only need to cobble together a couple of reasonable bon mots a day to pull your weight with those kind of numbers but as head writer on a show with only five scribes it became imperative to manufacture mountains of quotidian pee-inducing wisecracks. Plus, it’s an infinitely cushier job being a staff writer, where your raison d’etre is essentially to submit anything and everything risible that occurs to you and see what sticks. But when it is you that wears the comedy crown that freewheeling approach disappears like the squirrels at a redneck barbecue. Now every joke you write or pick is you personally and professionally declaring, “This is the best I have.” I found that particular step up the career ladder to be astronomically daunting and I was taking over a television institution hosted by a revered comedic genius. Pete made the jump on a show that wasn’t even on the air yet and starring a guy who was learning how to be funny on the fly.

Andrew and I had toiled on The Tonight Show for 2½ years before we took over the reigns so we had a pretty good idea of what to expect and what was expected of us. I can remember gleefully counting down the days before two plucky Canadian galoots would usher in a new golden age on the legendary show. I never had a scintilla of doubt about our ability to belly up to that bar and shit diamonds. And then came the glorious, hallowed day of our ascension and boom! We’d only been head writers for two weeks when we broke for Christmas. I retreated back to Canada and spent every last second of that downtime dreading having to go back to work. It was like I’d been struck in the forehead by John Bonham’s drum pedal. This was a job I’d coveted for my entire adult life but the unrelenting pressure of that adjustment was like nothing I’d experienced. It was the difference between imagining the untold concupiscent delights of siring Scarlett Johanson and standing naked in front of her in a room full of people and having her yawn, “Okay, get it up and impress me.”

A Cavernous Carafe of Concerns:

– “Is that the best wording?”

– “Is this good enough?”

– “Will the Johnny Carson like it?”

– Having the phone ring every morning at 10:15 and knowing Johnny was on the other end of that line wanting to know what the spot for the day was.

– Wondering whether I was going to need to buy a larger car to help transport my antacids. 

It took ‘til at least March before I felt truly comfortable in the job and my nervous tick stopped vibrating the hat off my head.

Back to Pete:

Andrew and I and Pete had very different approaches to comedy. In one spot Pete ran by us, he had a joke about George Michael who’d just been arrested for seeking the comfort of strangers in a Santa Monica men’s room. Pete’s joke just basically said, I walked into a bathroom and in one of the stalls I saw George Michael giving a guy a hand job. The gag was something like that. And about as crude as that. When we questioned the single-entendre nature of his quip, he looked at us quizzically and smiled. “Oh, so you think it’s funnier to allude to something rather than to just say it straight out.”

…and don’t forget to wash your hands and brush your teeth after every meal.

Well, yes we did. That to us was the absolute bedrock of wit and humor. Pretty well anyone off the street could say that George Michael liked to have sex with strange men in public toilets. You just needed to copy it out of the newspapers. Our theory was; people were paying us large amounts of cash to craft that sentiment with enough stylish spin and grace to raise it above what you’d hear farted out at a local saloon.

I felt sorry for him. He wasn’t a prick, he just wasn’t up to the job and that employment was on life support and breathing through a hole in its neck.

Andrew and I weren’t there for more than a couple of days before Jeff (one of the executive producers) asked us about possible replacements. Wow! I didn’t want to cut Pete off at the knees but I was just answering a question, right? That’s what highly paid consultants are supposed to do. Who did Andrew and I think could take over, should Fox decide to make the move?

I immediately replied, Tony DeSena. Tony had worked with us on The Tonight Show for about five years. He’d also worked on “Letterman”, Saturday Night Live and was the head writer on Later with Greg Kinnear. Tony had just finished a season on Funniest Home Videos so I didn’t know if he’d be interested in jumping ship.

L to R – Bob Keane (monologue writer) Bob Smith Andrew Nicholls Art Fern Patric Verrone Me Tony DeSena

Jeff asked us to give him a call.

Meanwhile, Pete’s standing on the show continued to slide downhill like Sonny Bono. Andrew and I had had a hard time dealing with the maddeningly capricious nature of the executive producers and network sophisticates on the pilot. Nothing was ever set.

Spots got tossed out before we’d even finished writing them. It was like trying to type jokes inside an industrial clothes dryer. We definitely felt his pain but, alas, there was only so much we could do to help. We weren’t the head writers and soon, neither would he be.

Before the big premiere, The Magic Hour shot a couple of practice episodes a week, just to get everyone  – especially Mr. Johnson – up to speed. They were complete shows with rehearsals, comedy spots and a studio audience. We’d just finished a run-through of a comedy spot for one of these trial balloons when I received a summons from a cabal of huddled execs. Nary a one of them seemed especially pleased with the humorous divertissement they’d just witnessed. To be fair, it wasn’t very good and it contained a couple of Pete’s un-nuanced jests. I smiled, even though I had a feeling I was about to be invited to join the Julius Caesar welcoming committee, “What’s up?”

“The bit isn’t funny and we think we should pull it and go with your piece.”

I looked to the other side of the stage where Pete was going over the some of the lines with the co-host. Yikes!

“Listen, I don’t like the spot either,” I tried to reason with them, “but he’s the head writer. You can’t just yank it at the last second, it’ll humiliate him. This is just a rehearsal show. As long as he remains head writer, I think we need to give it a shot.”

The powers that be were sorely vexed but they let it go on. Predictably, it was received about as well as taking a dump at a pancake breakfast. Fox made Tony an offer the very next day.

Mr. Desena has stated that every single decision they made on The Magic Hour was wrong. Including hiring him.

I just want to state for the record that I am sooooooooooooooooooo sorry that Andrew and I ever mentioned Tony’s name for this job in the first place. I have personally apologized to Mr. Desena numerous times over the years for dragging him down into that festering, bottomless stink pit. He’s a really, really good guy and a consummate professional and he deserved to be treated way, way better by two assholes claiming to be his friends. Unhappiness bred like Tribbles on The Magic Hour until it eventually starved it of all hope and light. Unpleasantness, incompetence and backstabbing were the meat of every meal.

I’m sure that Pete felt that Andrew and I had secretly plotted and cackled as we sipped absinthe in darkened corners and pulled the perfidious strings of his demise. But this was simply not true. It’s like blaming the guy in charge of presidential haircuts for the Kennedy assassination. The bullet was going to go right in anyway.

On the upside, Pete went back to Jay Leno and made a lot more money there than he would have on a show that had a paltry 8-week run.

The Punchline:

A year or so after The Magic Hour’s reign of televisual terror had finally come to an ignominious end, Tony and Andrew and I convened for lunch at the Daily Grille on Laurel Canyon. It’s in a shittily built corner plaza, just across the road from Radford Studios. It is semi-famous because Burt Reynolds got mugged in the underground parking structure there. He had a broken arm at the time and clubbed one of his attackers with his cast before they ran off.

So after our noontime refection, Tony, Andrew and I ventured down the escalator to claim our cars from the valet. Upon alighting in the basement, who should we run into but Pete! He glowered at the three of us with an acrid smile and said, “So I see you guys are still working together.” And then he walked on, thinking that his being shit-canned off The Magic Hour was part some evil scheme we three conniving bastards had cooked up with voodoo dolls and The Book of Shadows.

We were just having lunch, Pete. Honest!

=DV=

DBAWIS_Button

Darrell 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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: