When new or unusual ideas are presented they can often be met with jaw-dropping disbelief. Today’s pilot is such a case.
What: Settling into his favorite stall in the men’s room and opening the plumbing access panel where he keeps his crossword puzzle book, Avery Pratt jumps five feet off his seat when a squirrel leaps out at him. Not even someone as lacking in ambition and curiosity as Avery could resist crawling through the passage to see where the squirrel could have come from. Moments later Avery finds himself naked, on the ground in the English Countryside, having fallen out of a large hole at the base of a giant oak tree. Taking cover behind the tree when he hears the approach of horses, he witnesses a beautiful woman being pursued by a nobleman and his two lackeys. All four look very familiar to him, except they are outfitted in 16th century regalia.
Who: Pratt soon finds himself recounting his dilemma to two disbelieving traveling thespians – Peter Carbunkle and Claudius Hollyband, the former as dirty and scruffy as the latter is meticulous. Soon they have clothed him and taken him under their wing, primarily for their own theatrical use. Pratt finds himself on his way to Bristol, England via the village of Swansdork (I kid thee not) where Carbunkle and Hollyband try to pass Pratt off to the local innkeeper as the King of Sweden in order to obtain free food, drink, wenches and lodging. It is here that they again encounter the Nobleman, Baron MacBlackman, and his young ward, Olivia, and meet Roger the Foul-Mouthed Fool, a traveling minstrel whose gift for limerick is unsurpassed, at least outside Nantucket (“I wish I were a seaman…Whose ship had hit a rock…For as I drowned, Was sinking down, A mermaid could suck my—“).
Pratt explains that he has seen (as have we) all of these people before under different circumstances – in his 21st century life as a low level sales associate at Amalgamated Adhesives in New Bristol, Connecticut. Manfred MacBlackman, president of Amalgamated Adhesives, has him trapped in a thankless sales position and has also recently thwarted his attempt to invite Olivia, MacBlackman’s assistant, on a date. Disappointed that he was unable to escort Olivia, he instead invited his best friend Roger…to the local Renaissance Faire; Roger, appalled to discover that Avery actually owns his own costume, assured him that he was lucky Olivia was otherwise engaged. It was at the Faire that he first encountered Claudius and Peter, actors performing “the entire works of William Shakespeare…except for the sonnets. With but two persons…in under seven minutes!” Plucking Avery from the audience, Claudius and Peter attempted to make him part of their act. Horrified at the prospect of acting in front of strangers, Avery fled the scene and found himself in the fortune-telling tent of a short, pushy old crone with frizzy hair and an eye patch – uncannily resembling his mother in too many ways. Something in this final encounter is responsible for his foray into not-so-jolly Olde England and the 16th century. Peter and Claudius must help Avery find a way back home without any of them dying at the end of Baron MacBlackman’s sword or at the end of a rope swung by an angry mob.
No Meaner Place: Sherman, whose impressive credits include a long stint on “Frasier,” among many others, knows his way around comedy. Asked by a network development executive to “think outside the box,” he came up with this idea. But let me quote Jon about the results of this pitch session:
“After devising the idea, I returned and pitched it to the executive. He looked at me as though I’d not only thought outside the box, but had jumped up and down on it, set fire to it, peed on it, and thrown it in the river. I had destroyed the box, and he was horrified. This was network television, after all, and so while thinking outside the box was okay, eliminating it entirely was not. Somewhere, there still had to be a box.”
This was not the first time anyone in television suffered from a lack of vision, and certainly won’t be the last.
Formatted as a one hour, it could easily be made into a single camera half hour instead; Sherman’s reluctance to do so stems from the lack of success in half hour comedy for “period” pieces. Although not an expert in production costs, this would certainly be a great deal less expensive than the new network shows that are orchestrated to helicopter crashes and CGI metropolitan demolition.
“The Compleat Pratt” has its roots in “Black Adder,” the British television series, “The Visitors,” the French film (and not the American remake), and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And lying beneath this 16th Century farce is a hilarious and subversive indictment of corporate structure as a feudal society. Surely someone, somewhere, if not on network (highly unlikely) then on cable, understands this premise, sees the humor and understands how to deconstruct a box. We can only hope. I WANT TO SEE THIS SHOW!
Life Lessons for Writers: Keep thinking outside the box. Ultimately it will keep you sane, although probably not rich.
Neely: Before we get started, can you give me a bit of your background – where you grew up, family, interests, college…you know, “Jon Sherman the Early Years.”
Jon: I grew up in Riverside, though I had very little Southern California influence. My dad’s originally a New Yorker and my mom is English. He was a biology professor at the UC campus, while she started as a biologist, then went to law school about the time I was in 7th grade, became a D.A. and eventually a judge – so no show business connections to help me get started. My younger sister’s a magazine writer and the author of “Frenemies”, a series of tween novels. In high school I was pretty geeky (a “Dungeons and Dragons” kid) and then in college I was in the Stanford Marching Band playing trumpet and mellophone; eventually I was in charge of the band. After college, I started as an assistant on the Paramount lot, which is how I met Ann Blanchard. At the time she was an agent’s assistant, but when she eventually became an agent, I was her first client. My parents, though really worried about the instability of my chosen profession, were always incredibly supportive -- and by ‘incredibly’ I mean I never totally believed them.
Neely: But you had enormous talent.
Jon: I’ve always felt that you can’t have talent without luck and you can’t have luck without talent.
Neely: You were one of the first present era television writers I became aware of, not because of your amazing skill or talent (neither of which is in question) but because when I was a temp assistant in Fox television Business Affairs I had to process a “blind script” contract that had your name on it. This was pretty early in your career (“The Preston Episodes” years, or should I say half year) and I had never heard of a “blind script.” Investigating, I discovered that it meant you were being given money to write a pilot script, essentially of your own choosing. Wow, I thought, this guy must be really good; and I looked for your name in the credits ever after. Of course ever after took a while because I can’t honestly say I watched “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.” But when you landed screen credit on “The Naked Truth,” I instantly perked up. So what was that 1995/96 blind script about?
Jon: Honestly, it’s pretty fuzzy. I think 20th might have been trying to hedge their bets with me and the next job I might take. I might not have actually written a script, though I did kick some ideas around with David Babcock, who’d been a co-exec on “The Preston Episodes."
Neely: You created MTV’s first scripted series, “Dead at 21” – how did that happen?
Jon: Ann told me to go pitch them ideas for game shows and action adventures. So I did, only they didn’t like the ideas because they weren’t “MTV” enough. I had no idea what that meant, so they explained it to me and told me to go away and come back when I had something that fit their brand. Now, as most people know, that was just short hand for “go away.” But I was new and didn’t understand the subtleties so I came up with some ideas I thought would fit and eventually devised “Dead at 21.” I ended up being a staff writer without any say whatsoever on the show I created and I can’t say it was a very positive experience. Nevertheless, I did work with some great writers, notably Manny Coto who went on to run “Enterprise” and exec produce “24,” and P.K. Simonds, who worked on “Doogie Howser,” “Party of Five” and now is showrunner on “Ghost Whisperer.”
Neely: I find some irony in the fact that you are a great comedy writer and yet you started in drama (“Dead at 21”) and are back on a one hour drama (“Royal Pains”).
Jon: Comedy has always been my primary love.
Neely: Great comedy writers are quite rare and you have some great credits (for the record, I truly believe what I tell my students, and that is to never sneer at a gig, and that would probably be what “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” falls under). Tell us a bit about the experience of working on “Sabrina.”
Jon: Actually this never fell into the category of “a gig is a gig.” I loved working on this show. Nell Scovell was one of the writers on “The Preston Episodes” and she became my mentor. After “Preston” went down, Nell got me an interview with Steve Levitan who had a 6 episode order for a show called “Just Shoot Me” and he offered me a job as an Executive Story Editor (the logical next step from where I had been on “The Preston Episodes”). But then Nell ended up getting a job running “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” because the guy who originally created it and was set to run it was unable to get out of the show he was on and she asked me to come on board. In the end it was loyalty to Nell and a leap frog to Co-Producer that convinced me to do “Sabrina.”
Neely: Moving on to “The Naked Truth,” any experiences jump to mind?
Jon: “The Naked Truth” was really hard; one of the hardest years I ever had. The people involved were interesting and very talented but it was a show that never found a footing or could figure out what it was supposed to be. The hours were horrendous, I had no life, and there was a lot of conflict in the Writers’ Room. This was my only experience where hostile factions erupted. It was like bailing water on a ship that was sinking. This show really burned me out and for the first time I wondered if I had chosen the wrong profession. It made me question my ability and undermined my confidence.
Neely: “Encore, Encore” was seen by so few and had some of the best writing on television at the time; Ernie Sabella who played Leo the vineyard manager is a personal friend and he loved doing the show. And who knew that the fabulous Joan Plowright, Olivier’s widow, had such fabulous comedic timing! I was blown away by James Patrick Stewart’s fake French accent and was totally smitten to learn that he was the son of Chad Stewart, of Chad and Jeremy fame. (What a clash of the demographic groups, especially since I always have to explain that Chad and Jeremy were part of the “British Invasion” singing groups, contemporaneous to the Beatles…and I’ve now targeted myself as a no longer viable demographic group.) Well, whatever went wrong with that show, it wasn’t the writing. It also appears to have been the most influential of your career as it brought you to the attention of David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee.
Jon: Well I think everyone was trying too hard to fit “Encore, Encore” into the “Frasier” mold. I wasn’t sure a sitcom about opera and wine was what America was craving, but the mentoring on this show put me back in the groove; and, honestly in the back of my head I thought if it didn’t work out, maybe it could lead to a job on “Frasier.” One outgrowth for me was that I fell in love with wine. Paramount flew us all on the corporate jet to Napa. When we got there, I asked Peter Casey who I’d be sharing a room with and he raised an eyebrow, saying “No one. You’re in the big leagues now.” I guess I was still that Stanford band geek who was used to sharing a room with 4 other guys. After “Encore, Encore,” David, Peter and David told me they’d like to put me on “Frasier.” And then Steve Levitan called and offered me a position on “Stark Raving Mad” and I had to turn him down again. I would still really like to work with him.
Neely: “Frasier” is probably in my all time favorite top 10 of comedy. How did that work in the room?
Jon: I was hired by David, Peter and David, but they weren’t in the room on a regular basis; Chris Lloyd and Joe Keenan were running it, so I felt a bit like a redheaded step child. I had to prove myself to them. I started in Season 6 and continued to the end of the run in Season 11, eventually moving up to Executive Producer.
Neely: The pressure to write a farce every week must have been enormous pressure.
Jon: It wasn’t all farce. Joe Keenan’s particular strength was writing farce. A particular favorite of mine was called “The Ski Lodge” where there are misunderstandings, misinterpretations and lots of slamming doors. Mostly, though, I think “Frasier” was a character-based comedy with really strong characters and performers.
Neely: Who were your most important comedy influences, both from the standpoint of people you’ve worked with and those whose style or careers you admired as you were coming up?
Jon: Definitely Nell Scovell, as I mentioned earlier. Also the Grub Street guys, David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee, both from the standpoint of comedy and support. Also Chris Lloyd who was always asking the hard questions – “What makes this funny? Why are we doing this?” As to early influences I’d cite Peter Tolan who not only wrote on what I consider to be one of the best comedies of all time, “The Larry Sanders Show,” but also wrote some terrific one act plays. My favorite show growing up was probably “Monty Python.” I got a healthy dose of British comedy from my English mother. As a kid I watched everything and loved period piece shows like “When Things Were Rotten.” In college I was a hard core “Simpsons” fan. I also liked “Taxi” and “Cheers.”
Neely: It should be noted that when we tried to talk last time, you were a world away; on a train from China to Nepal, about to lose all cell phone and internet contact. What were you doing there?
Jon: Let me give a little in the way of back story. The first sitcom I ever worked on was the Margaret Cho comedy called “All American Girl.” One of the other writers who worked on it, Rita Hsiao, went on to write on a number of Disney projects like “Mulan” and “Toy Story 2.” She was contacted by an independent Chinese production company to write an animated feature based on a Chinese comic entitled Tibetan Rockdog and we’re working together on it. The Chinese production company wants to do it totally independently and control distribution. They wanted us to come to China and Tibet to get a feel for the area culturally and visually. Our job on that trip was to enjoy the landscape. We’re in the outline stage at this point. I’m going to Rita’s place to work on it later this morning.
Neely: Like many of your colleagues, you’ve jumped to one hour drama with “Royal Pains” on USA. Is the writing process different? What are the similarities?
Jon: The writing process is very different. Comedy is easier to break and harder to write. Drama is harder to break and easier to write. There are only so many things in the moment that can happen in drama. A comedy writer I once worked with said, “if a kid gets kidnapped in the first 5 minutes everyone agrees it’s dramatic. But nobody agrees what’s funny.”
Neely: This gives me the perfect opportunity to repeat a quote variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Edmund Gwen, Donald Wolfit or Edmund Kean when asked about imminent death – “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Now not to ignore the elephant in the room, but let’s talk a bit about “The Compleat Pratt.” Does anyone get it?
Jon: Yes, some people have gotten it. But mostly I’ve found that people either love it or don’t get it.
Neely: I have to tell you that whenever I taught coverage to any of our PAs or assistants, I would use “The Compleat Pratt” as my successful comedy example. It worked well until one day when a particularly bright PA who had recently graduated from UCLA in playwrighting handed the script back to me indicating that it had disappointed him. Surprised and perplexed, I asked him why and he responded that he “would have liked to have seen what Tom Stoppard would have done with the material.” Dumbfounded, my only response to him was that there were two words I didn’t want to hear when discussing situation comedy – “Tom” and “Stoppard.”
Jon: Well, actually I would love to see what Stoppard would do with the material. His writing has been a big influence. Do you think maybe I could get him to do a polish on it?
Neely: What are you working on now?
Jon: Besides the movie, I’ll be going back full time on “Royal Pains.” I have a very full plate right now and don’t want to spread myself too thin.
Neely: Talking to you was an enormous pleasure and exceeded my already very high expectations. Thank you so much for taking the time.