Abu: Our problems are over!
Musab: (hopefully) Haseb choked to death on a rib at Ditka’s?
Abu: No, I have here in my hand a diskette full of top secret information from the Chicago branch of the U.S. Justice Department.
Abu proudly holds up a computer disk.
Ahmed: How’d you get it?
Abu: My temp agency sometimes does government work. I pulled a few strings and they sent me over there. I hacked in and downloaded everything they got.
Musab: We’re saved! This calls for cinnamon buns.
Musab happily pads into the kitchen.
Ahmed: You think this is enough to satisfy Haseb?
Abu: He just has to bring something back to his superiors. You know how it is – the big guy threatens the next guy, he threatens the guy below him, he threatens Haseb, who threatens us –
Musab: Well, who do we get to threaten?
Abu: Oh, you want everything.
Salar: So, does this mean I can make my class tonight?
Ahmed: I don’t see why not. And it also means Abu’s free on Wednesday to go bowling.
Abu: (delighted) Oh, now my team is assured victory in the Tri-City semi-finals. We will dance in the blood of the losers from Hal’s Body and Paint Shop.
Ahmed: Abu, a thousand congratulations. Once again, your computer skills have saved us.
Salar: Thanks to you we get AOL for free, Earthlink, I-Tunes – I haven’t paid for one song on my I-Pod.
Salar hugs Abu.
Abu: Please. We’re a team. I have my computer skills, Ahmed is great with people, Salar, you are book smart and Musab –
Musab returns from the kitchenette wearing oven mitts, holding a pan.
Musab: (sing-song) Hot cinnamon buns fresh out of the microwave!
More Life Lessons for Writers: Since you can’t please everyone, sometimes you just have to please yourself.
Neely: When we left off last week, we were just getting into the personal journeys each of you has traveled. What would you say was one of the main things you learned by writing “The Cell”?
ML: I think the main thing I learned from all of this was that we didn’t listen to or ask anybody about this. I asked my agent at the time what he would have done if I’d told him I was going to write a half hour sitcom about a terrorist cell and he said he would have told me I was out of my mind and not to do it; he would have tried to talk me out of it. But then he admitted it was one of the greatest things he’d ever read, so there’s a lot to be said for not listening to all of the guidelines that are given out every TV season – “we don’t want this; we’re not looking at this; none of this; we don’t want this either.” And I think that that’s what’s really hurt broadcast television – they should just have an open door policy. “Just come on in. What’s an idea that you’re incredibly passionate about?” They’ll hear a hundred horrible medical type pitches anyway, so why not shake it up with some really bizarre stuff in between.
Neely: I think that really good writing frightens them. Something truly original is very scary because they won’t know what to do with it.
ML: Funny you should say that because I’m a big fan of that movie Jake Kasden made called “The TV Set.”
Neely: I show that film in the class I teach at USC.
ML: I’m so glad you do. I have all these relatives who live in Ohio and Virginia and other places outside of Hollywood who will ask what the business is like and I tell them to rent that movie. I think that film is so damn accurate. I know he based a lot of it on his “Freaks and Geeks” experience. There’s this great line that Sigourney Weaver (playing the network president) says about a pitch – “That sounds original and original scares me.”
Neely: The film is practically a documentary.
ML: You’re absolutely right. What we well know, most of the time, even if you do something original “they” will mold it and mush it and mash it to look like seven other things that they think are working. And then it doesn’t work; it’s a Frankenstein monster, especially in comedy. When you’re trying to please 10 people, forget it; it’s death. People forget that Larry David of “Seinfeld” was ready to quit at any moment when they started to say – “couldn’t they be a little more likable; can they learn something?” And he said “no hugs, no knowledge, they don’t learn anything.” It changed television. Again, when something is different and it pops; I wish the people who make the final decisions would learn that what made it work was that it was different. Don’t copy it – keep trying different stuff.
Neely: So much of the Legan Wilding collaborations have been predicated on bad taste. You two are in good company because there’s a long history of comedy predicated on bad taste.
ML: When Ernst Lubitsch did “To Be or Not to Be” (about a troupe of actors in Warsaw during the War performing for Nazis) people were so offended and it wasn’t that big of a hit. He made that when World War II was still going on.
Neely: Yes, that was made right before Carole Lombard, one of the stars, died and was released in 1942, just after we entered the war.
ML: It is so brilliant. I’m a huge Mel Brooks fan, but I hate the remake he did of it. But the original was almost perfect; it was amazing. And speaking of Brooks, he was still a young writer when the screenplay of “The Producers” went around. It was actually still called “Springtime for Hitler” and he enjoyed the reaction – all these Jewish executives getting a script called “Springtime for Hitler” on their desks. This was 20 years after WWII and people still said, “Are you out of your mind?” That film is so funny…
Neely: And you know it wasn’t a hit.
ML: The musical was a smash hit and funny in its own way. Now it’s kitschy – there’s Hitler and people are laughing. I really believe, though, you definitely have to do satire while the stuff is going on. There’s no doubt about it.
Neely: There was another Lubitsch film I loved - "Ninotchka" - which involved 3 apparatchiks who had been sent to Paris to watch over Ninotchka and instead became so enamored of life in Paris that they no longer wanted to return to Russia. Sound familiar? I’m also a big fan of Preston Sturges. All of his films are based on a totally tasteless premise – whether it’s about a pregnant good time girl (“Miracle at Morgan’s Creek”), or a corrupt big city Mayor (“The Great McGinty”), or a fake war hero (“Hail the Conquering Hero”). And the Marx Brothers weren’t what you could really call wholesome. One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen is “A Night at the Opera.”
ML: I remember dragging some friends to it and one friend loved it and the other friend was like “What?” and I didn’t stay friends with that guy.
Neely: When I was dating my husband, I knew he was the one for me after our first date when we saw “A Night at the Opera” at the student union. Any doubts I may have harbored were erased when we went to see “The Producers” with my family and he fell off the seat laughing (and it didn’t hurt that he embarrassed my mother). Comedy is a great litmus test.
What are some of the things that came your way after “The Cell?”
MW: At meetings, people would ask what other ideas we had. We had a couple of movie ideas over the last couple of years and one of them was called “Party Boys” and it was about a couple of guys who get out of prison. One of the ex-cons has a sister who runs a birthday party business where she would send adults to kids parties dressed as Batman or Cinderella or Snow White, or whatever the theme happened to be. She gets in a bind one day and has to send her brother the convict and his ex-con buddy to a birthday party dressed as dinosaurs. This party is in Beverly Hills and the two guys realize that it’s a great way to case rich people’s houses and then come back later and rob them. We sold that to Universal. And another one was a comedy called “Family Time” about a family that ends up going back in time together. They’d go back and they’d see Vincent Van Gogh, knowing that he was about to cut his ear off, so the Mom would want to give him antidepressants. The teenage daughter ends up running away to a different time period and they have to bring her back because she’s a handful. These were some of the things that came out of “The Cell.”
Neely: What other pilots have you and Mark worked on together?
ML: “The Cell” was the first thing Mark and I had ever written together and we continued to write solo but we also sold another comedy pilot that did to the healthcare system in this country what “The Cell” did with terrorism. It was a really funny dark pilot about the worst hospital in America; we set it in South Philly and our pitch was – “What if Ricky Gervais didn’t run a paper company, what if he ran a hospital?” We have a lead character who’s a total bullshitter, he’s just treading water but he’s running a major hospital in the city.
MW: This was an idea I had that we sold to Regency. They thought it had some of the same possibilities as “The Cell.” We wanted to make it like a “Fawlty Towers” but in a hospital. We did it at Regency for Fox and we really liked it, but they didn’t make it. Written 4 years ago, we called it “Mercy” and of course now there’s a real series about a hospital called “Mercy.” Not quite the same thing.
Neely: What are some of the other projects that each of you have written?
ML: I really like writing with someone, but I also still like writing my own stuff. I like going back and forth. Phoef Sutton and I did a pilot for Carsey Werner called “Earth Scum” which was themed on racism. It took place on another planet. You know they’re always bringing the aliens to our planet, well Phoef and I brought Earth people to a new planet. This was well into the future and Earth was a toxic waste dump; the Earthlings were so sickly from the bad air and bad water that the other planet came and conquered us in an afternoon and so now we’re all being transported to them. We’re new to this planet facing all the thinly veiled racism – this could be black people, this could be Asian people, this could be any minority that comes into America and is treated badly but with a kind of condescending tone. The main alien marries an Earth girl, so at one point someone snarls at him “Earthling lover!” and he replies, “I’m not going to lie… that hurts.” His family was aghast that he had married an Earth person. Mark Addy was in it, Katey Sagal, Tim DeKay (now in “White Collar”); it was an amazing cast. Since we were at Carsey Werner and of course they let us do what we wanted and then of course ABC went “this is weird.” And guess what - it tested badly.
The famous story about “Seinfeld” was that it got the lowest score you could get when they tested it; people said “too Jewish,” “too New York,” “I hate these people.” Luckily some executive at NBC said “you know what, I like it” and then it got a “famous” order for 4, I think that that was the lowest order in the history of show business. So they let them do 4, then a little more, and it limped along until its 3rd season – it wasn’t a hit until its 3rd season. That would never happen nowadays. Today they would have made their 4, the ratings would have sucked and they would have yanked it. So anyway, our thing was weird and it tested badly. Of course there’s the flip side. There are these horrible sitcoms that test through the roof because it’s 30 housewives in Vegas going “ooh I like Tony Danza.” But they’re not watching the show – or “I like Emeril” and they let him do a very bad sitcom. So it’s a weird little system.
Phoef and I also co-created and co-wrote a weird little Pilgrim show called “Thanks,” which we are so proud of. I came to Phoef and said “I think Pilgrims are funny.” I had just watched a terrible remake of “The Scarlet Letter” with Demi Moore that came out in the 90s. It was so unintentionally funny. She has this gorgeous body and she’s under a waterfall washing herself as a Puritan. I thought, “Man, we could satirize the roots of this country.” We’re both huge history buffs and we already knew a lot about the reality of what it was like. We wrote it just to write it. We never wrote it to say “Hey, Mondays, 8:30 on CBS.” I find that so many good things happen when you do that and that’s exactly what also happened with “The Cell.” We only got to make 6 – our British lead went “Yay! A full series!” Like, no, you idiot, a full series is when you do 22. But we got to work with Cloris Leachman and got to do what we wanted to do. It was very much an American version of “Black Adder” which is such a brilliant British sitcom that Phoef and I are huge fans of.
And then from that we got a development deal at Sony. I don’t want to misquote them, but I think Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who are really great “Simpsons” writers, got a development deal and said “a development deal is a really great way to get really well paid to completely sidetrack your career.” Because you do; you go away and you’re in a studio’s cocoon and you go to them and say “Hey what about this? Hey what about that?” They’ll let you write it and every once in a while they’ll let you film it. But then… After the Sony deal, I sold a lot of pilots. I wrote them and sold them, but they were weird. I’m kind of that guy that thinks outside the box. They claim they want that, but, of course, they don’t. I should know better and I should learn that lesson, but I don’t. One that I sold I knew was too out there for them. This was the pitch: the four horsemen of the Apocalypse come down to earth and they’re 10 years too early. Someone misread the memo so War, Death, Famine and Pestilence have to live in Los Angeles for 10 years in human form. I thought it was a great idea; it was called “The Four Next Door.” It was like “Third Rock from the Sun” only with the Apocalypse guys. War gets a job with the Mayor’s office and keeps telling him to crush his enemies and the Mayor starts doing better. Famine is a David Hyde Pierce-type snippy guy who becomes a health inspector who closes down restaurants one by one because that’s his version of starvation. Death is a good looking 20 year old slacker who just goes from job to job; and Pestilence gets a job in the sanitation department. It was certainly different. I actually got this note without a shred of irony: “We’re worried that Death isn’t likable enough.” I actually said to that executive “You’re a New Yorker cartoon.” And he goes, “What?” “Never mind.” That was one for the ages.
Neely: I think that’s the kind of thing you put on your tombstone.
ML: “Death is not likable enough.” Thank you.
Neely: What brought you out here in the first place?
MW: I came out because I wanted to write for television and the movies. That was back in 1984. It took me 7 years to break in, but I’ve now been out here for 26 years.
Neely: What did you do before you broke in?
MW: I worked in journalism for a couple of years. I was the sports’ editor for a couple of papers in Atlanta; then I moved out here where I worked as an assistant buyer for department stores – the Broadway and Robinsons. And then I was a business consultant to small businesses as well, so I was on the road a lot. I was always writing on the side. I wrote several bad movie scripts. I didn’t know anybody when I got out here; I had no connections whatsoever.
Then I wrote a play back in 1991; it was based on the Union Carbide gas leak in India which killed 3,000 people. I wrote a comedy about it. It was about the executives’ reaction to what had happened. In real life there was actually an arrest warrant issued in India for Warren Anderson, the executive at Union Carbide. But of course the last thing he was going to do was go to India. Anyway, I wrote this black comedy about the Bhopal incident called “The Company Man” and it won a playwriting festival up in Northern California, Santa Rosa, and they put on the play up there and then at a theater down here as well (Actor’s Alley). Some people from Disney saw the play and wanted to know if I wanted to write for television. There are a thousand roads to Mecca, as it turns out.
Neely: So you just kept writing when you were doing all these other jobs that paid your bills?
MW: Yes, exactly. I was always going to write whether or not I made a living at it. I felt I had to. And now I’ve made a living at it for the last 20 years or so.
Neely: Where did you go to school?
MW: University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I was an economics major.
Neely: So where did this writing thing come from?
MW: I had always hoped that I’d be a journalist who wrote about business in an entertaining way. Maybe like a Malcolm Gladwell, although I don’t think I have quite his talent. I shouldn’t have been an economics major because I was terrible at calculus, bad at statistics, and I was much better at English. My only piece of advice to people going to college is to do something you want to do; don’t worry about a career so much.
Neely: I completely agree. College is the time to explore. Very rarely does an undergraduate major lead to your lifetime career.
MW: Right, exactly. It’s much more zigzag than that. I’ve got two boys and that’s one thing that I tell them. I also tell them “no good deed goes unpunished.” That’s the advice I give to my kids.
Neely: What about you Legan?
ML: I grew up in those nice suburbs outside of Washington D.C. and I just loved cartoons and comic books and then really got into old time comedy. When I first saw “Coconuts” I couldn’t believe there was someone as funny as Harpo Marx. I couldn’t believe it. I loved all that stuff. I was always drawing and writing; I just started to write all the time. I was one of those weird 8 year olds who had written a play and was always putting my stuff down on paper. I was an actor too. I wrote a play, a comedy, in high school and they put it on. The woman who ran drama read it and liked it and we actually did it as a full production. That was amazing for me and I thought I would love to be able to do this. I met Phoef Sutton in college, James Madison University, a somewhat small school in Virginia – Barbara Hall also went there. It had a great theater department. I was acting and did like 30 plays in 4 years and continued to write plays. I did some one acts there and moved to New York after school to try to be an actor and a writer. I did well. I’ve been cut out of some of the greatest movies ever made. Well, maybe not some of the greatest movies ever made, but what you learn in the business is that you get cast in a film and then you get cut out – of course this is way before DVDs with Director’s Cuts.
I got into Stand-up because of where I lived. I lived on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and couldn’t help but walk by The Comic Strip and all those places like Catch a Rising Star. I went into The Comic Strip and auditioned and got cast – the guy who cast me is now the head writer for Conan O’Brien, Mike Sweeney. It was just this amazing pool of people and I made my living for 6 years as a stand-up. That, of course, really helped me in joke writing. That’s one of my strengths in a room – jokes. Everyday I would sit down and write some jokes and then go up on stage and try them out. This was in the 80s, so standup was booming and you could go to 5 different clubs in one night and work them all.
I wrote a play that was my calling card in LA. It got done out here at the Hudson Theater. It was called “Nickel and Dime” about petty thieves. It did quite well and got a rave in the “LA Times” (which my mom had laminated). I got my agent by doing this gritty little play with Gordon Clapp, way before he was Medavoy on “NYPD Blue.” And we had another great character actor named Don Harvey. We actually cast M. Emmett Walsh as the lead thief, but he got a movie and couldn’t do it – but he did the backers’ audition and that was a dream-come-true because he’s one of my favorite character actors – “Blood Simple” is one of the greatest sleazy performances of all time. Being able to have him read my stuff was amazing.
With an agent, my half hour spec got sent around and someone gave me a break on “Dave’s World.” It had just started and I think they were looking for a joke person and I got my shot. I learned a lot and stayed there all four years. I was lucky. I never took it for granted but I literally worked non-stop for 12 years in half hour comedy. From “Dave’s World” I went to Carsey Werner where I was on “Grace Under Fire.” I really got along with Marcy and Tom and loved them so much. They had me on retainer and I helped punch up stuff for them.
Like a lot of writers, I don’t want to get pigeon-holed. Mark went into one hour and I’ve done some one hours also. I’ve sold a one hour pilot and next week I’m pitching some one hours to USA. I’m also developing a one hour with Fox TV Studios. You know, Jack of all trades, master of none. I was also on radio for 4 years. I had my own weekly show on NPR called “Summary Judgment.” That was really successful; it was on “Day to Day,” a program that just got axed when NPR had to cut back on all their budgets because of the economy. It didn’t have any corporate sponsorship. The segment was so popular that I went to Slate.com. I work for them now and they do a video version of “Summary Judgment.” I film it for them every Friday and it’s just me giving an overview of the reviews for the big movies that weekend. I start with a couple of jokes, give the overview of the movies and it’s a very popular segment. I also write for Slate and do other videos for them on strange bizarre cinema (of which I am a huge fan); kind of what Tarrantino and Robert Rodriguez are into – kitchy 70s stuff. I just did a video focusing on three of the worst “kids come to Hollywood and get their dreams crushed” films. Most people do “Valley of the Dolls” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” but we do really obscure stuff . I covered a film called “Angel Angel Down We Go” from the late 60s; Academy Award winner Jennifer Jones is in it. She was an old broad trying to do what Bette Davis and Joan Crawford did. She has a line in it – “I made over 30 stag films and never faked an orgasm.”
Neely: She must have been so proud.
ML Another film we focused on was called “The Grasshopper” made in 1970, starring Jackie Bisset; it was her first lead role. She was so young, so beautiful and she plays a Canadian farm girl who comes out West to make it big in Hollywood and of course she ends up a prostitute. Guess who wrote it? Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson. Can you believe that? If I ever meet Garry Marshall I want to say to him, “Hey, I loved ‘The Grasshopper.’”.
Neely: Here’s a tricky question. What do you think were some of the mistakes you made along the way?
MW: Man, that’s a really good question. I made so many. To tell you the truth, I think my biggest mistakes, apart from being an economics major, was that I put off my goal of writing in Hollywood for 5 years. I wish I’d gotten out here a little bit earlier. When you know you want to do something, you should just come out and do it. You can always come up with excuses after.
ML: Hmmm. Well, using that cliché that hindsight is 20/20, I can look back at two situations in my career when I should have gone the other way; just in the sense that I listened to my agent and my lawyer about a deal when there were two offers. Phoef and I wanted to go one place but because there was more money at the other place we went there. Then the woman who brought us there was gone in 6 months. So we were at the place for two years without the person who got us, loved us and wanted us there. The people at the other place were there for the whole time. I wish we’d followed my gut. I do think you have to follow your gut. Then just the other night I sold a project and there were two places that wanted to buy it. The agent and lawyer recommended the place where the money was better – of course they’re going to choose the place with more money because they get more commission. Bad Robot (JJ Abrams’ company) was the other place and I didn’t go with them. I’m an idiot.
Neely: No, you pay your agents to listen to them. You always have to remember the conflict. Go back to “The TV Set.”
ML: It’s my own fault – I make my own decisions. If anyone ever tells you that they haven’t made mistakes, don’t believe them. Remember, it’s show business and it’s a weird combination – very creative, wild damaged people trying to write and come up with these worlds but in the end, it’s still a business.
Neely: And the most fortunate thing to happen to you?
MW: There have been a couple of things. One of them was getting an agent. Several years before I met my wife I was in a grocery store and there was a pretty girl in front of me and I tried to pick her up. We ended up going out and becoming friends. She was Canadian (I was born in Canada) and through her I met several Canadians, one of whom introduced me to an agent, my agent – Matt Solo. So a girl I met in a grocery store introduced me to a bunch of ex-pat Canadians, one of whom introduced me to my agent. I’ve been with him for 20 years. The other fortunate thing was getting hired on my first job by Neal Marlens and Carol Black on “These Friends of Mine.” It was my first paying job in television. I went in to meet with them while I was still working as a business consultant. I was wearing a suit and tie and they were walking around their offices in shorts and flipflops. They were just as nice as could be. That was my second interview for a show and they hired me. That really started things off. A week later I quit my job and I was a Hollywood writer.
Neely: You’re the second person that I’ve profiled whose career was started by Marlens and Black. David Stern’s first job was on “The Wonder Years.”
MW: I like Neal and Carol a lot. They’ve moved to Telluride but when they’re in town, I still play golf with Neal. They gave me my first job and were fun to work with.
ML: Just being able to make my living doing this is the most fortunate thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m not trying to be Mr. Zen here, but whenever I’m working on a show and I’m in that room – and make no mistake, I’ve been in some toxic rooms – but mostly I’ve been in really good rooms with really good people and you just look around and you’re just making each other laugh and you’re getting paid handsomely to do it. I never try to take it for granted.
Neely: So what’s next?
ML: Like I said, I’m developing an hour pilot for Fox TV Studios and we’re going out to pitch. I’m doing a lot of one hours. I have one project called “Beltway” which is about my experiences growing up in Northern Virginia. I lived in this cul de sac that was full of spies and killers and Watergate lawyers. It’s kind of a “Sopranos” meets “West Wing.” John Cassar is attached – he’s a huge Emmy-winning hour director; I think he’s directed over 80 episodes of “24.” I have another big hour director attached to another project I have about a private eye. I’m just out there pitching my ideas and doing that. My big news is that I was just hired to write for the new Craig Kilborn show – “The Kilborn Files” airing on Fox this summer.
Neely: I’ll definitely take a look and I’m definitely looking forward to more Mark Legan and more Mark Wilding, and who knows, maybe another script from the team?
Neely will be on vacation for the next 10 days. Watch for a new posting on June 2nd or 3rd. Happy reading.