Darrell Vickers – George Carlin Part Two

Life isn’t fair. No siree. It’s a savage, pitiless, relentless beating and every year on your birthday, the world gets a bigger fist. During the enervating eons we have spent dawdling in and around show business, Andrew and I have suffered every sling and arrow that was ever slung or flung from the Precambrian era to modern day (and God only knows what the fucking future holds). We’ve been lied to and lied about. We’ve been called pigs by a prominent Hollywood lawyer. We were fired twice from a job and didn’t leave for another five-and-a-half years. We’ve had studios steal from us. We’ve had our agency betray us. We once had our material thrown into a furnace by a disgruntled exec. In short, we’ve been accused of every sleazy, slimy act of perfidy short of impregnating Octomom and installing the smoke alarms at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

But occasionally, and I do mean very, very, very, very, very occasionally, the fairness pendulum swings every so slightly in the antipodal direction. And one such ever-so-rare change in its swingy course had plonked us right down at the epicenter of George Carlin’s HBO pilot. Having a comedy icon select us – out of a town replete with diamond-encrusted scribes – to help put together his sitcom project boggled the mind and confused the ankles.

What the fuck was he thinking?

By the early, dewy morning days of 1985, Nicholls & Vickers had sold precisely one-and-a-half comedy scripts and punched up half a season of an amateurish series that nobody in Canada watched. We’d not only never staffed a sitcom; we hadn’t even watched one being shot. Truth be told, up to that point, I had far more experience licking Karen Valentine’s soft, buttery cheek through the console television glass that so cruelly divided us. But all that radiation and head-snapping static was more than worth it,

Karen! And the doctors were wrong, my sense of taste did eventually return – at least until that “Room 222” marathon on Nick at Night in ‘86. But I digress.

 Luckily, George looked at what we’d written and not our Twiggy-slim resume.

A Little Back Story:  

Mr. Carlin had indulged in a rather tumultuous, verging on injudicious, lifestyle from the mid-‘70s through the early ‘80s. He’d coked and drunk himself into three Richard Pryor heart attacks and financial ruin. When George finally decided to end his romance with chest paddles and debtor’s prison, he straightened right up.

Jerry Hamza, his Buffaloneon (from Buffalo – Buffalogian?) manager, turned Carlin’s finances around in the blink of a fiduciary eye and convinced him to purchase this very cool office building on the outskirts of oh-so-swanky Brentwood.

And that is where Andrew and I met up with the recently healthy and laser-focused George Carlin. Everyone who worked for him was a sweetheart and our host and new boss couldn’t have been nicer, more accommodating and humble. He handed us the script, told us what he needed done and we scurried off back to not-nearly-so-swanky Van Nuys to enthusiastically dig in. A couple of intense-and-excited typing days later, Andrew and I were back, sitting around George’s meeting-room table and telling this living legend just how we felt his pilot needed to be adjusted as we pitched jokes back and forth across that oaken expanse.

Looking back on it, I can’t believe we weren’t catatonic with reverence in that room. Don’t forget, Andrew and I were only 26 and basically just off a plane from Oshawa. We’d gone from being picked last for our high school basketball team to playing starting center for the Lakers and Kareem Abdul Jabbar was asking us how we thought he should dribble the ball.

I think we buffed and polished the script for a couple of weeks. Andrew and I would toddle into the office, we’d pitch jokes and act like it was perfectly reasonable for the two of us to be hobnobbing with an entertainment giant. One afternoon, an assistant poked her head into the room and said, “Just to let you know, we passed the fire inspection.”

I blurted out, “Great. Now we can have a fire.”

The whole room exploded in laughter. I had made The George Carlin guffaw. Pretty unbelievable times.

     It’s Showtime on HBO!

The would-be series was entitled “Apartment 2C.Its name was derived from Mr. Carlin’s old and thriftily priced apartment in New York. There really wasn’t much of a premise. In between his own monologues performed to camera, George’s wacky friends would drop by and do a hunk of material with the star of the show mostly playing gracious straight man. When you think about it, this is pretty well the same setup as the marginally more successful Seinfeld. Hmmm.

The pilot was recorded on the A&M lot. That was its name at the time. It has also been called Charlie Chaplin Studios, Red Skelton Studios, Kling Studios and is now known as The Jim Henson Company Lot. That studio has had more last names than Rue McClanahan!

Interesting factoid: The original TV Superman and Perry Mason shows were shot there.

The Pilot:

Production week only lasted for two or three days, which is a dig-dang shame because Andrew and I were in honky tonk heaven. After a few months of being exiled to our cockroach-infested apartment in Van Nuys, we were once again back at work on a Hollywood soundstage and it was just us and George Carlin coming up with last-minute ideas and making final tweaks to the script as the production swirled around us.

Meeting so many name stand-ups was an added delight, like getting to eat candy at Ted Cruz’s funeral.

Along with Blake Clark, Pat McCormick and fellow Canadian, Lois Bromfield, we also got to hang with a young and surging Bobcat Goldthwait. Unfortunately, things were a tad frosty between Andrew and myself and Mr. McCormick (since we’d taken over his writing duties on the pilot) but I’m happy to report that over the ensuing years we developed a much warmer relationship with the infamous crazy man.

One of McCormick’s favorite party tricks was to shove a handful of ice cubes out through his fly and say, “An Eskimo cumming!”

Bobcat Goldthwait was a terrific guy and more than open to us pitching him lines. He carried around a six-pack of Coke – perhaps diet Coke? – and jaggedly chugged from it all day long.  

There were a couple of tense moments on set, however. Jeff Altman (of “Pink Lady and Jeff” fame) ad-libbed a bit where he pulled a door open, stopped it with his foot and simultaneously banged the wood with his palm to make it appear like he’d just brained himself. It was a gag he’d performed hundreds of times. Only this time, he miscalculated the distance and actually brained himself. Blood poured from his forehead as he staggered back to his dressing room, cursing like a recently truncheoned sailor.

Comedians, as a rule, aren’t the easiest people to get along with. From Jack Carter to Red Skelton to Bob Hope to Red Buttons to Bill Cosby to the regrettable Rob Schneider, these larf junkies harbor the ghosts of crushed and mutilated souls. Unloved and unwanted since birth, no amount of success, adulation or money can satiate their overwhelming desire to ruin someone else’s day. Rosanne Barr and Brett Butler functioned liked champs when standing alone on a stage, but when you put them with other people… 

Amazingly, we were completely spared any monologist ‘tude. I believe the quip-meisters in question were on their best, dressed-for-church, behavior – even Jeff, once his frontal lobe stopped throbbing – because all present realized that they were working with a true god of their profession.

After the morning’s cheery rehearsal, George, Andrew and I met with the HBO exec out in a little patio area. To the network’s credit, this was the first time we’d seen “a suit” during the entire production. The young executive, of course, had notes. Mr. Carlin was polite but firm. He wasn’t interested in any suggestions this fellow-of-few-years-but-impressive-threads had to offer. HBO had produced almost no shows of their own by that time and George’s specials were the pay channel’s highest rated original offerings by far.

“Why should I take notes from a network that hasn’t produced anything that’s any good? I’m helping you out; you’re not helping me out.”

Oh, the countless times I wished I could have used that beautifully concise and fitting response to some bonehead maniacally intent on pissing all over a script.

 The pilot was well-received by the star-studded studio audience but it came and went and so did we. Now, Nicholls & Vickers had two clear career paths ahead of them. If Apartment 2C got picked up by HBO, we’d have a dream job. A Karen Valentine but without the deadly-radioactive-glass-between-us job. If it didn’t, we were shit out of employment luck.

And Then the Phone Rang:

Our manager, Ted Ziegler, had been chatting with Stu Gillard. Stuart was a Canadian actor turned writer/director. Actually, it turned out that Stu wasn’t really much of a writer but he has gone on to quite a successful directing career in television.

A sitcom was revving up in Toronto called “Check It Out” starring Don Adams and they were interested in us for a staff writing job. Dilemma! And a dilemma that we had never encountered before. Usually nobody was interested in hiring us. This was two shows wanting us, in the same year, and the same time! It was yet another thing that boggled the mind. Our ankles were practically in tears. What to do?

Should we attempt to pick this succulent, remunerative fruit while it was hanging low and loose from the tree or should we hold out and hope that our Xanadu would blossom into a full blown series? Luckily, we realized, even at that young and tender age, that Andrew and I were no Xanadudes and nothing even remotely enjoyable in showbiz ever pans out… so we took the meeting with the Stu and the showrunner.

For those L.A. eatery historians, we donned our respective feedbags at the Tail o’ the Cock near Coldwater on Ventura Blvd. This was as “Old Hollywood” as it got. The main room had deep red-leather booths, very similar to the ones at Chasen’s.

Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Kennedy had eaten there. Heck, Robert Kennedy probably ate Elizabeth Taylor there. I’ll wager countless acts of celebrity extra-connubial concupiscence and insalubrious consumption transpired in those little cherry-colored leather booths back in the day.

You could practically hear the ghost of Richard Burton retching up his last six gimlets in the men’s room as we ordered our entrées. Yes, The Tail had been a very prestigious martini trough for over half a century but my guess is, when they were forced to serve the likes of us, they decided “Fuck it!” and threw in the Tiffany towel. The Tail o’ the Cock shuttered its stain-glassed doors soon after, erasing any memory that our ass grease had ever stained their crimson cowhide.

      Arne Sultan was to be the other executive producer of this minor bi-national entertainment. He’d worked with Don on “Get Smart”, a show called “The Partners” (which I’d seen every episode of as a kid) and had recently helmed the thuddingly unfunny “Too Close for Comfort”. Arne was a bulldog of a man and an notorious curmudgeon. He could easily have been a boxer, with a neck the width of his ugly head and an unfiltered and pugnacious way of dealing with people. Fortunately, we got along fairly well with Mr. Sultan and Stu at the Cock.Soon after, Check It Out” made us an offer and we wisely but sadly took the televisual bird in hand.

     True to form, our dream job with George was hung on a clothesline and beaten to death by Hungarian women. While the pilot was far from perfect, it was genuinely funny and would have gotten infinitely better with time. Alas, ever-wise HBO decided not to proceed with this diamond in the rough and we packed our bags and headed back to Canada to man the writer’s room of “Check It Out” – only we quickly got banned from the writer’s room and eventually from Canada. But those are stories for another day.   

Join me next week as Andrew and I travel forward in time to the 1990s when George Carlin once again comes knockin’ on our door to help him out with his next venture into television.

George pitches Apt. 2C on The Tonight Show

=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

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