What: NBC has decided to do a low-budget equivalent of “On the Road” but their reporter is no Charles Kuralt.
Who: Extraordinarily self-impressed and ambitious, Steve Goodman worked his way out of his dirt-water anchor existence in Scottsdale by being in the wrong place at the right time during the 1995 Mexico City earthquake where he hires a cameraman to film him crawling out of rubble; and then again and again until he gets it right, complete with tear tracks on his dust encrusted face.
Steve: Lot of dust down here. (then) My dad died when I was seventeen. He was a fireman. There was five alarm fire downtown and a woman told him her kids were still in the building so he went back in, even though the building was about to collapse. But there was nobody in there. She was mentally ill and who knows why she told him that.
Tears start streaming down his face, leaving tracks through the dust. There’s no attempt to cover them this time. Even his cameraman has a hard time keeping it together.
Steve: (cont.) At his funeral, the pastor said that you don’t get to choose how you’re going to die, you only get to choose how you’re going to live. He said, “Choose a life that’s filled with integrity, compassion and courage. Because in the end, what matters isn’t your success, but your significance.” My dad chose that life. I’m not sure I did, but I hope you’ll think I tried my best.
Steve panics as an aftershock rumbles.
Steve and his cameraman emerge from the rubble of the building quite easily. He angrily approaches two Mexican men and a young boy about seven who is covered in dust.
Steve: Look, José, I paid your kid five bucks to crawl in there and find me a safe spot that would—
Mexican Man: (interrupting) I’m Felix, he’s José.
Steve: You’re all José, okay?! (then) Do you have the video camera?
Mexican Man: Sí.
Steve: In English, José. This is American TV.
Mexican Man: Yes.
Steve: Okay. I’m going back in there. I’m going to dig myself out by hand. Make sure you get it on tape. I don’t want to have to do this twice.
As they head back towards the mountainous pile of debris…
Steve’s Cameraman: Hey, Steve, I’m really sorry about your dad.
Steve: What? Oh, that happened to a buddy of mine. My old man died in a bar fight with a dwarf. (claps his hands together) Alright José! Let’s make some magic!
From that point on, Steve’s career was strictly on an upward arc, from the covers of Time, Vanity Fair, and billboards that proclaimed: “Steve Goodman. The Most Trusted Name in News.” Until an errant mike left on after the end of a broadcast caught Steve proclaiming that
“…people in Arkansas consider fifth grade to be their senior year…they think “Deliverance” was a documentary.”
Not known as a one-trial learner, Steve’s seemingly sincere, tear-stained on-air apology to the great state of Arkansas is undermined when, again off camera,
"…Jesus! I’m apologizing to people who pronounce the word “cat” with three syllables."
By the time Steve is summoned to the office of the news division president, Wayne Julius, his newest comments, captured by a disgruntled stagehand, had already gotten 2 million hits on YouTube. Despite his numbers, his Emmy and his status as one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Fascinating People, Steve is summarily canned and blackballed.
Unable to find work anywhere, Steve gets wind of a new Sunday morning show that Wayne will be launching and convinces Wayne to give him one more chance. This ends up being one of those “be careful what you wish for” situations because Steve will now be living on a bus, going to jerk water towns, taking orders from a producer who was once his very sexually harassed intern, and anchoring a show where they “pick a name at random out of a digital phone book of the United States” presumably because everyone has a story to tell. First up, Eleanor Johnston, 90s, resident of the Walhalla, South Carolina Nursing Home. Grandmother of the racist governor, Eleanor has quite a story to tell about how she kept her family afloat during the depression. The governor is not amused but Steve has climbed one step out of the ravine, with many more to go. Next stop: Fayetteville, Arkansas.
No Meaner Place: To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports on the death of the half hour comedy have been greatly exaggerated; well, at least as far as what’s out there in script form. Bernstein’s premise and set up are exceptionally strong with an opening that grabs, surprises and amuses the audience. The staged “rescue” is straight out of Geraldo and the portrait of Steve as an anchor is everyone’s vision of the local news pretty boy. But giving the story a surprising level of depth is that Steve, though totally egocentric, oblivious and disloyal, is no Ted Baxter; he actually knows what he’s doing, he’s just too vain and arrogant to do anything but coast and believe his own press. There is originality in the premise as this is both a “fish out of water” story, as well as one of redemption, with a heavy dose of cynicism.
Bernstein’s strongest suit may be his crisp, laugh-out-loud dialogue. Upon meeting Booey Maguire, the new show’s bus driver/cook/handyman:
Steve: Hey, how’s it going?
Booey: I’m thirty five years old, I’ve got two masters degrees and I drive a bus. How do you think it’s going?
Steve: Nothing wrong with driving a bus.
Booey: Really? Wow. I feel so much better now. Like my life has purpose. Thank you. I can’t wait to tell my family.
Most of us are Booeys, wingmen for the Steves of the world.
Life Lessons for Writers: Lead with a joke; end with a joke.
"According to the New York Daily News, Geraldo said he is now carrying a gun, and he will personally shoot Osama bin Laden if he finds him. If Osama also has a gun, this could work out okay." —Jay Leno
Neely: Jack, as you know, I was a huge fan of this pilot when I read it at David E. Kelley Productions and your manager Ross was trying to get us to produce it. Unfortunately that didn’t work out. So did you take it to anyone else that year?
Jack: No. I wrote the script during the strike and when the strike was over, David was the first to see it. Then I ended up on “Monk” and was contracted to USA. I could do features, but not TV as long as I was working on “Monk.” I wouldn’t have been able to anyway because “Monk” took 100% of my time. Even if I had been able to set it up elsewhere, I was on set 65-70 hours a week. I just couldn’t have done anything else.
Neely: That’s pretty all encompassing!
Jack: So the script just kind of hung around.
Neely: What about this year?
Jack: I had a two week window of opportunity between the end of “Monk” and landing on “Royal Pains.” I didn’t know it was going to work out that way. In those two weeks it went out to the four networks.
Neely: Any bites?
Jack: They all passed.
Neely: This is so NBC or even FBC. How did they react?
Jack: I have no idea what they said about it, if anything. “No” is “no” and the reasons why don’t change that, they just annoy you. It’s just one of those things. It was sort of a “bad news, good news” situation: It didn’t get produced…and…It didn’t get produced; meaning it is still theoretically still alive. There’s the old saying, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” I can walk into a room of 10 people and point a gun at them and all 10 will have the same reaction. I can walk into a room with the same 10 people and tell what I think is the funniest joke in the world and 5 will laugh uproariously, 2 will chuckle, 2 won’t think it’s funny and I’ll have to explain it to 1 person – usually my mother. That’s comedy.
Neely: The hope is that an unproduced great pilot script could be revisited. That is always the case in features, but seemingly never the case in TV.
Jack: I once wrote a spec feature that was passed on at Gold Circle and then a few weeks later the producer got it to the head of Gold Circle who read it and loved it and we set it up there. I did two rewrites for the director and then it went into turnaround. I have it back and I’m ready to take it out again.
Neely: Well let’s talk a bit about inspiration. Was there any particular incident that occurred that inspired “What’s Your Story”? Was it something that you’d been mulling over for a while? What triggered this story?
Jack: It was a collision of a couple of ideas. This was a character I really wanted to do – someone whose incredibly successful career is based completely on a lie. He’s taken advantage of it, but then his true self comes out and he has to start all over again. The basis for the show within the show that the character is doing has its roots in “On the Road with Charles Kuralt, “Everybody Has a Story” by CBS correspondent Steve Hartman, who took his idea from a journalist in Iowa who wrote a column called “Everyone’s Got a Story.” I took it from all three of them.
I watched Charles Kuralt when I was a kid and I remember the shock I felt after he died and it came out that he’d had a mistress “on the road” all those years. That disconnect was a definite influence. But my guy is definitely not Charles Kuralt by any stretch of the imagination.
Neely: Let’s talk a bit about you and your amazing background and I’m actually not talking about “Ace Ventura Pet Detective”, which we’ll discuss later. What I’m talking about is the fact that you are a very well established 1 hour writer who has written a slam bang ½ hr. comedy. Didn’t anyone tell you that it’s only ½ hour writers who can transition the other direction?
Jack: I originally came out here to write ½ hour. My dream job would have been “Cheers.” I was writing spec ½ hours, spec “Cheers,” and spec features. One of the spec features brought me to the attention of Peter Roth who was running Stephen Cannell’s company at the time. I got my first job in TV at Cannell who was doing “light” 1 hours. The first show I did was “Sonny Spoon” starring Mario Van Peebles; Randy Wallace was running the show and he’s now one of my closest friends. We both wrote features that came out within a year of each other. He did “Braveheart” and I did “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.” You can see we have similar writing styles. A few years later, a producer I knew told me about a meeting he had with Cannell’s head of development. The producer was being pitched a bunch of writers and he responded that they were all “TV writers” and then the head of development used Randy and me to negate his argument.
Neely: I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised by your foray into comedy. You have credits in every genre – Sci/Fi with “The Dresden Files;” procedural with “NCIS”; and dramedy with “Monk.” Of course that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You’re on “Royal Pains” right now with a couple of my favorite writers – Jessica Ball who worked as a producer’s assistant and then the assistant to Scott Kaufer, the showrunning writer on “Boston Legal” the first year; and Jon Sherman (see the earlier article on Nomeanerplace about “The Compleate Pratt.”) who was a half hour guy who went into 1 hour. How is the comedy infusing the drama on that show?
Jack: I’m actually surrounded by Jessica and Jon. Jessica has the office on my left and Jon has the office on my right. When I watched “Royal Pains” before I was on the show, I thought they had a great balance between the comedy and the drama, which is the hallmark of a USA show. My goal is to not screw that up.
Neely: Any past TV experiences really stand out (for good or ill)? Can you elaborate?
Jack: I did a pilot with Steven Weber. I love working with Steven because he is so talented. It was called “The Expert.” It didn’t get picked up and is the single greatest disappointment of my professional career to not get that on the air. And of course working with Tony Shaloub and the entire cast and crew of “Monk” was as good as it gets. I guess another goal I have is to work with all the actors of “Wings.” So if you know how to get a hold of Tim Daly…
Neely: Why didn’t “The Expert” get picked up?
Jack: I think we chose the wrong network. We went to CBS and we probably should have gone to Fox, who also wanted to do it. CBS had only one slot that year for a one hour show, it was on Friday night and it went to a Glen Gordon Caron show that lasted one season. It wasn’t their type of show. Originally I had pitched it to Nina Tassler, one of the great TV execs, when she was at Warners and we sold it to CBS. I turned in the script to her and then didn’t hear back from her for a week. I was suicidal, thinking she hated it, my career was over, I’ll never work again, all those things that go through your mind. Then she called to say it was perfect and she didn’t have any notes. She sent it to CBS and they passed. I got the script back, then a year and a half later I had Steven Weber and Nina was at CBS and she said “Let’s do it.” I don’t know what goes on in a network room when they’re moving their cards around on the schedule; but what are you going to do?
Neely: Clearly the elephant in the room, and at this point it’s a teenage elephant, is “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.” You mentioned it was originally a spec script.
Jack: It got lots of attention and most people loved it. The place it had the most traction was at Paramount. I actually got a hold of their coverage – I couldn’t have written a better or more glowing coverage myself. At the top of the page it said “Fast, Fresh, Funny”; and then at the bottom it said…”Consider.” Consider?? What’s a Recommend? A lot of things have to fall into place to get a film off the ground.
David Nicksay at Paramount was a huge fan but he couldn’t get them to buy it. About 6 months to a year later he left Paramount to become President of production at Morgan Creek. “Ace” was either the first or second project he bought for Morgan Creek.
Neely: Wow! What a money maker that was for them!
Jack: Not according to their books.
Neely: I’m convinced that these guys keep 2 sets of books like the mob. One for the shareholders and another for the creatives.
Jack: There are probably more than 2 sets. They put the Mafia to shame the way they do their accounting.
Neely: What was your original conception of “Ace”?
Jack: “Ace” was a combination of me wanting to do a comedic “Sherlock Holmes” and watching “stupid pet tricks” on Letterman. My brother asked me what I was doing and I said a movie about a pet detective and he started laughing. I asked him if he was laughing at me or with me and he said “a little of both.” It was just something no one had ever explored and I happened to stumble into it.
Neely: What kind of currency did that give you?
Jack: Well, I sold a couple of features but none that got produced. I’m not all that interested in writing other people’s ideas and I’m not interested in doing rewrites.
Neely: But isn’t that TV?
Jack: Not to me. TV to me…it’s part of it. I draw different lines. With features it’s one off.
Neely: I remember David Kelley talking about why he preferred TV and it was because with a feature it was over and done, but with TV he could continue to explore the characters. You can do so much more with character in TV; you can continue to explore.
Jack: I feel the same way as David; he just says it more eloquently.
Neely: In looking at the credits on Studio System, I noticed that Jim Carrey, the star, and Tom Shadyac, the director, inserted themselves into the writing credits. How did they change your original idea?
Jack: I originally wrote it as a straight drama.
Jack: No! The great idea Tom brought to the table was changing the bad guy and his back story, making his motive personal. It was a great lesson. It’s better to have the bad guy have a personal motivation than a monetary one, which is what my original bad guy had.
Neely: How did the final credits read?
Jack: Story by Jack Bernstein; Screenplay by Jack Bernstein and Tom Shadyac & Jim Carrey.
Neely: Can you share any experiences, pratfalls, heartaches, joy from that film?
Jack: It was good and bad. I spent time on the set and Tom Shadyac, in addition to being a great director is a wonderful person. Jim Carrey was absolutely brilliant. I’ve never been on a set and seen someone do what he could do. He arrives on set and finds a piece of business to do that would enhance the scene. It was astonishing to watch.
On the other hand, Morgan Creek is the worst company in town. My bridges were all burned over there because I had the audacity to ask to be paid for the work I was doing (rewrite after rewrite). They were shocked because I was supposed to be grateful they were making my movie and why would I be entitled to be paid. The minute I filed for arbitration my relationship with them was over. I won the arbitration, by the way.
Sometime around 1999, I was coming out with a new spec at a time when you could still 'come out' with a spec and go to lots of places, etc. Anyway, Morgan Creek caught wind of it and their Senior VP of Production who was a friend and with whom I still am friends, asked me to lunch. And we had a good time and all, then as we were leaving, in the parking lot, he said, somewhat embarrassingly, 'I gotta ask, I know you've got a new spec coming out. Is there any chance we can take a look at it?' And my response was, 'Larry, if my children were starving, and you were the only company in town willing to read it or buy it, I still wouldn't send it to Morgan Creek.' The post script to that story is that the script (“Mike Margarita Must Die”) got multiple offers on day one. I sold it to United Artists and I was attached to direct (not that I have a burning desire to direct but I did have a burning desire to shave 2-3 years off the development cycle); I did one rewrite for them which they loved; we went out to actors; then UA. was collapsed into MGM. The head of UA lost her job, and the script went into turnaround.
Neely: So what’s next? Is there still life in the pilot? If it’s only timing, maybe there’s another time?
Jack: Right now I’m noodling a new spec pilot. I’m backing into the bad guy – using the lesson of making it personal instead of about money. When I drive to work I think about it. I have the bones to it, but I’m still moving some pieces around. And of course, there’s Royal Pains, which so far has been a fantastic experience and I’m looking forward to starting production in April.
Neely: I love your writing and I hope to see more. I’ll be sure to catch the next season of “Royal Pains.” And please send me your favorite unproduced feature.
I’ve posted a new article on pilot writers. Please take a look.