“Ducking for apples. Change one letter and it’s the story of my life.” – Dorothy Parker

What: Jane, sexy single Mom with a winning smile and showgirl legs, earns her living as the billing manager at a Reno car dealership; that is until the new owner steps in to shake things up.

Who: Jane, an independent, smart, flawed single mom is trying to hold her own in the biggest little city in the world.

Int. Restaurant/Bar – Lunchtime

Jane is eating lunch. Late thirties, pretty, with the megawatt smile of a Las Vegas Show girl, Jane takes on life with wit and well displayed legs. A Man approaches, 42, handsome. He aims a practiced smile at her.

Man: (Holding out a drink) Lemon drop martini?

Jane: (Looking at it) Yes, it is.

She resumes eating.

Man: It’s for you.

He sets the drink in front of Jane.

Jane: Wow, booze, yum. The thing is, I’m already on a date. With this pork chop.

Man: You should set your sights higher. You’re hot enough to date lobster. (He laughs, then reflecting on his joke) … Funny.

The man sits at Jane’s table.

Jane: Okay. (Putting down her fork) You really want to do this?

Man: Always.

Jane picks up her cell phone.

Jane: Then let’s play a game. (Dialing a number) I’ll drink that lemon drop, if you’re still sitting here in… (Looking at her watch) thirty seconds.

Man: What? Wait, what?

Jane: (into phone) So, I’m having lunch and this guy just bought me a drink. …I’m pretty sure he wants sex.   …Yes, I know the rules. Hang on, he’s right here. (To the man) If you want sex with me, you gotta clear it with my daughter first.

Jane holds out her cell phone to the man. From it, we hear:

14 Year Old Girl’s Voice: Sir? Sir? Do you want sex with my mom?

Man: (Standing, spooked) What is this?

14 Year Old Girl’s Voice: ‘Cause then I get dibs on your dad.

Jane: (Shrugging to the man) Seems fair.

Man: Okay, I don’t know what this is, but…

He quickly exits the restaurant.

Jane: (Into the phone) He’s gone. (Checking her watch) …’bout twenty seconds.   …No, the record’s like, fifteen.

Jane and her best friend Kate work behind the billing window in the service area of Dewey’s Ford Dealership, but it is Jane who keeps things humming. Her skills extend to the sales department where she supplements her daughter Daisy’s college fund by stepping in and closing deals (for a percentage of the commission) when asked. And one of those who asks is Roger whose wants and needs are simple: sell cars and wrangle a date with Jane. One of those he’s good at, the other is his Kilimanjaro.

Jane: How can I help you?

Roger: Guy next to the coupe. I can’t close him.

Jane checks out the guy.

Jane: My cut’s now two percent.

Roger: Two?!

Jane: I’ve gotta build up Daisy’s college fund. Right now the only college she’s going to is one I make myself. Out of cardboard.

Roger: Why don’t you step up with the big boys? Be a salesman.

Jane: I like it in billing. Less stress. Plus, if I’m in on four sales a week, at two percent, I can actually make more—

Roger: Than me? Wow, isn’t that… castrating. (Then) Sorry, one per cent.

Jane walks off.

Roger: (Giving in) Two.

Jane veers towards the guy, 21, looking at a fully loaded Mustang.

Jane: (To guy, re: car) Sweet, huh?

Guy: Expensive.

Jane: Hey, you’re getting’ two hundred and eighty horses, K-16 turbochargers, and a 12/9 quarter mile. Plus when it idles… (close, whispering) …it vibrates like an adult toy.

As Jane head off –

Guy: (To Roger) I want this car. Sir, I want this car!

But bad news awaits Dewey’s team, his family so to speak, as Dewey announces that he has sold the dealership for big bucks to Jim Briar of “Auto World of Reno.” Jim’s son “Super Tom” will be arriving shortly to streamline the operation and decide who stays and who goes. Not good news for anyone as Tom is unimpressed with the quirks he finds, from Roger’s lucky car lapel pins to Jane’s assisting on the showroom floor. Tom is old school and his chauvinistic view of the woman’s “role” leads to a collision (or in more realistic terms – a 5 car pileup on the freeway). It doesn’t help the tension that it was Tom who tried to pick Jane up at the bar with his Lemon Drop swagger and was totally humiliated in the process. Still, determined to save her job, Jane tries the ante-feminist approach (think of this as both the actual definition and the homonym definition) and bakes him a pie.

Tom and Hugh now see Jane in the show room coming towards them carrying a pie. She’s dusted off her show girl walk. She passes Roger and Kate and arrives at Tom’s doorway, holding the pie like a model.

Tom: (Liking this) Well… Jane. Meet Hugh and Richie, my lawyer and business manager.

Jane: Hey, fellas. (Then, to Tom) So, I know we got off on the wrong foot—

Tom: In the restaurant when you blew me off, or when I became your boss?

Jane: Now here I baked you a pie and you get all sassy?

The men laugh. Jane hands Tom the pie.

Jane: Anyway… to starting over.

Tom: Well, thank you very much.

Jane: I’ll get back to work now.

Tom: Okay, off you go.

As Jane starts to leave, Tom swats her on the butt. The sound of the swat reverberates around the showroom. Jane remains frozen on the spot.

Angle on: Kate and Roger looking at Jane.

Kate: (Quietly) Come on baby, walk away.

Jane takes a breath, then slowly starts to walk. After a few steps, she makes a wide turn.

Roger: Uh-oh, she’s banking.

Jane heads towards Tom, who’s standing in the doorway with his back to her. She gains momentum on approach and lands a swat on his ass like she’s serving a racquetball.

Jane: I forgot to say, You’re welcome.

Unable to fire her, as Tom took the first shot, he suspends her until she apologizes. Without Jane there, things start to deteriorate quickly. But without a job, Jane will be unable to send her daughter to college, sooooo... Jane returns with an apology…

Jane: I’m sorry I slapped you.

Tom: Thank you. You can come back to work.

Jane: Yeah, I’m gonna need a few things first… Look I know you’re “Super Tom,” and your commercials bring people in. But, your rules are killing morale. (Softer) Really… (Pointing to a painting of his father) I mean, why isn’t your dad helping you run things?

Tom stares at her a beat, then pours himself a scotch.

Tom: He eloped with a stripper last month.

Jane: That’s a reason.

Tom: Make that a hip hop stripper. My new mom is named, “Tenacious Double D’s.” (Then) No one’s seen him since the blessed event. So I got left with this dealership.

Jane: Boy, did you get screwed.

Tom: Okay, I know how that sounds. But the fact is it’s not easy suddenly being in charge of everything. So what I really don’t need is you hammering me.

Jane: You’re right. (Then) But, maybe you could use my help?

Tom looks at her, willing to listen.

Jane: I need Daisy [Jane’s 14 year old daughter] here with me after school. She’s going through some stuff right now.

Tom: Fine. But you can’t sell cars. Dad wouldn’t like that.

Jane: I don’t think we have to worry about Dad. Unless he chokes on a tassel.

Tom (Beat) Okay. You can occasionally help close a deal. But Roger’s not wearing car pins. I freakin’ hate those things!

Jane: Even the Pope mobile? Come on, he paid the extra thirty bucks to get it blessed. (Off his look) Okay, no pins. You put your foot down. So, if there’s nothing else you need?

Tom: Nothing else? What did I get?

Jane takes Tom’s glass from his hand and has a sip.

Jane: You got me to have that drink with you.

She hands him back the glass, and goes out the door.

No Meaner Place: Ross chose Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World, as the setting for two of his pilots – this one and then “Julie Reno, Bounty Hunter.” In both cases, he centered his premises around smart, funny women trying to support themselves in a male-dominated society. Jane is that beautiful woman that other women would love to hate but can’t because she uses the brains that are hidden from sight by a showgirl’s body. Her plight is that of an Everywoman; she has her sights on a better life, if not for her, then for her daughter. Early bad choices limited her options but she chooses not to let them limit her further, nor will she allow them to limit her daughter. Ross has painted her with many colors and with depth that can be seen through the wise cracks. It would have only taken a slight amount of imagination on the part of a development executive to see not only the “character” in this comedy (which could have gone single camera or multi-cam) but also the “Sam and Diane” possibilities between Tom and Jane once Tom started to mature and see women as an intelligent form of life (and not just a bikini and fishnets). I would have liked to have seen that development.

Cars and Showgirls – a combination we’ve seen in commercials for years. This would have been a comedy to give us a closer look at those headlights.

Life Lessons for Writers:  “You can lead development execs to comedy but you can’t make ‘em laugh.

 

CONVERSATION WITH THE WRITER:

Neely: Right off the bat… What is it with Reno and you?

Michael: I was there a long long time ago when I was a backup singer and dancer for Jim Nabors in his act. (laughs)

Neely: You’re kidding?!!! …Well Gomer did have a great voice.

Michael: Yeah. This was a long long time ago. I was a kid, maybe 19 or 20. It was three weeks in Reno and I was really taken by the fact that it was a little bit “Vegasy” but also a little bit red neck. So that stuck in my head as a good setting for “Jane’s Life” when we were trying to think of a place that had a little bit of glamour… sort of… but also had a kind of a Middle America feel.

Neely: Did this pilot come before or after “Julie Reno Bounty Hunter?”

Michael: This was the first pilot I ever did.

Neely: They really missed out on this one. I have to say, even though “Julie Reno” got picked up to production, I prefer “Jane’s Life.” I think you made Jane a bit more three dimensional and relatable. Did you have an inspiration for Jane?

Michael: Yeah… it’s an interesting story. Tony Kranz had a deal at Warner Brothers. We met and he wanted to do something with me. He pitched me a couple of ideas and one of them was a version of a hot single mom – that was the thumbnail. It really struck me because my parents divorced when I was young and my mom raised me by herself. She wasn’t anyone I would want to put on TV necessarily, but an idealized version of that always appealed to me. I have a wife who’s a great mom; it’s so hard raise kids in a two parent situation so that when you see a mom on her own doing a decent job of it, I think it’s heroic. And more importantly, for comedy, if you see them as doing something that’s a little heroic, it leaves a lot of room for them to have deficits in other areas. To me, that made for an interesting multi-dimensional character – a woman who’s trying to be a really good mom, but at the same time has a weakness for bad boys. That’s what tripped her up and why she got pregnant when she was 18. Tony had interest from Jane Krakowski at the time, so this seemed like a good fit for her.

Neely: I know Jane and this would have been a good fit for her.

Michael: Tony and I went to New York to see Jane in “Nine” on Broadway. She attached to it with us, but soon after she got a deal with CBS. In those days, CBS was very much into “chunky dad, hot wife” mode (note: not a whole lot has changed). In fact, that year, the pilots that they picked up to series were John Goodman playing that kind of guy (“Center of the Universe”) and Jason Alexander (“Listen Up”) playing a sports writer – same thing… him with a hot wife. I don’t think they were in the business of doing a female-lead show.

Neely: Quite honestly, most of them still aren’t and that’s one of the problems you’re always going to run into.

I was really impressed with how you found a “home” for your characters at the car dealership. Each flawed character had obvious weaknesses, but also had hidden strengths that are revealed at a crucial moment. I especially like male characters who are anachronisms and are forced in one way or another into some kind of growth. Of course, in the case of “Jane’s Life,” that growth is stimulated by Jane, even though no one has made poorer life choices than she has. Her survival depends on them and their survival depends on her. This is actually quite a feminist  pilot. Were you aware of how feminist this was?

Michael: I don’t think I set out to do that. Still, even though I didn’t have a choice as a kid of the 70s, I did have my consciousness raised being raised by a single mom. I kinda’ had a prototype of a woman who’s making her way on her own. What I wanted to add to that is the idea of somebody who’s also very feminine and nurturing – which wasn’t the case with the model I had with my mom. So again, idealizing it, it’s somebody who is smart and strong, but also is a…

Neely: …showgirl!

Michael: Right. Showgirl!

Neely: I loved that. Give me an idea where this was headed.

Michael: Story wise?  I always looked at it like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Not from the sense that mine was that great a show, but I loved “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as a prototype because as wonderful as Mary was, she could never really find the right guys. And every guy in America looked at that and said, “I’m the right guy. I can take care of her. Nobody else is good enough for Mary.” I kinda’ saw an interesting dating life for Jane. It showed up later in the Julie Reno character where she ultimately admits she has a weakness for the mullet. That was the same kind of thing for Jane. I would see her having misadventures with guys. Then there was also the budding showroom romance with her and the Tom character. Then there’s her girlfriend whose biological clock is thumping. That work place seemed like it could be a lot of fun. Plus you had the option of all the people who walked into the work place  providing stories.

My wife, who’s an actress, worked on a show called “Night Court” that I thought used that kind of platform well.

Neely: Who’s your wife?

Michael: Markie Post.

Neely: You’re married to Markie Post?  My whole family is in love with her. My brother Mark did a couple of guest shots on the show and asked for an autographed photo to give to my son. And my husband… well it’s just too embarrassing to say how in love with her he is.  Here’s this smart neuroscientist and he turns to jelly at the mention of her name! In a weird bit of irony, she came up in conversation just this week when discussing his best and worst experiences on television. I have no idea why I asked him that question since he works in a completely different field now. He said she was an absolute dream to work with.

Michael: That’s good. She’s a really nice person. I hear that from everyone who’s ever worked with her.

I guess what I was referring to, writing-wise, was that in all those years of just observing “Night Court,” I saw a situation where all these stories could just walk in the door. I felt that in the car dealership you could get that as well, plus you might be able to get an up and running set of rotating regulars, people who come in to get their cars serviced.

Neely: We have to find a way to resurrect this!

Michael: (chuckles)

Neely: How about Daisy – mature beyond her years? What kind of ideas did you have in mind for her? And was Daisy you?

Michael: No, no.  I actually have a daughter named Daisy and while she wasn’t that girl (I have two daughters) I was just more intrigued by the age of 14. That’s a very interesting age in a girl’s life and it’s very challenging for a parent. With girls, they really still have one foot in childhood and then the rest of them is surging toward being a young woman. And you really don’t know which kid you’re talking to on any given day because they’re like two-headed monsters sometimes. I thought that was just a really interesting age for a girl. There’s so much roiling in them.

Neely: You’re right. I had a boy, and as a parent it’s an age you have to live through; you have to survive. Sometimes it’s more about you surviving it than them surviving it.

Michael: At that age, so much of the frontal lobe hasn’t even grown together, so it’s not their fault. It doesn’t make it easier for the parent, but at a certain point I was saying to my wife, “This is all about us surviving. I think the kids are going to be fine. We just shouldn’t be lying dead on the side of the road when they’re gone.”

Neely: The only mistake you made early on was not realizing that there’s a geometric progression taking place. One kid to two parents is even odds; two kids to two parents is more like 4 against 2, not 2 against 2.

Michael: Right. I also thought, from the standpoint of the show’s Daisy, it was interesting that at the time that a girl is really looking to her male role model to start to form how she behaves as a young lady, a sexual being, there’s nobody there except the ghost of a father, all of which I thought could play out funny. It sounds dramatic when I talk about it but…

Neely: No. It’s a great dynamic. What adds depth to it is that if you don’t laugh about it, then all you’re going to do is cry. The teenage years, which are constantly ridiculed in comedy as if it’s a laugh riot that these kids are going through puberty and are hormones out of control, from the standpoint of family life these years are not funny at all. Memorable, but not funny. It’s something you survive, and it looks as though you and Markie survived it.

Michael: So far.

Neely: Is Daisy the younger or older?

Michael: She’s the younger one; she’s still in college, a junior. My older daughter Kate is living in New York now and wants to be an actor. This is how ridiculous it’s become… I told her that in her fallback position, “you can always be a writer.” (lots of laughter)

Neely: Yeah… because being a writer is so much easier…

Michael: …than being an actor. So I’ve given her absolutely no practical tools to get through life.

Neely: Were we going to get any more back story on the deadbeat Dad? What is Daisy’s take on all of this?

Michael: As I recall she uses him for a scene in her drama class to act out. I could see him showing up again and maybe even Daisy “getting it.” She sees a very great looking, very charismatic guy on a motorcycle. It might even humanize her mom for her; that she gets it. At the same time, everybody needs a parent. I could see Daisy rooting around for some of the other guys on the show, maybe even the Tom character, to try to get some kind of hit of male influence.

Neely: It did feel, in some ways, that Daisy was the adult in the relationship.

Michael: That’s interesting.

Neely: So who did you take this to and what was the reaction?

Michael: Well, Jane, obviously. Like I said, she was “sort of” on board but then she got the deal at CBS which I think then made my pilot just one of a few different players that the network was looking at for a fit for her. But it was always going to be for her, so Warner Brothers was the studio and CBS was the network. They were good in the process and they seemed to like it. It was a really great learning experience because it was my first time through the chute. But I don’t think that ultimately it was fitting the profile of their brand.

Neely: I guess I can see that, although in all honesty, I think they were still developing that “brand.”

So it didn’t go to production, correct?

Michael: It did not.

Neely: So technically you own it again.

Michael: (nods in assent)

Neely: That’s always a good thing, because this is a wonderful piece. TBS is now trying to do one hour comedy (trying is perhaps an exaggeration in that their first foray was “Glory Daze”). I’m also not sure of what they’re aiming for with one hour versus half hour other than filling more space. Presumably 2 half hour shows would be more expensive to produce than a single one hour – just guessing.

Michael: I did see a little bit because the guy who directed my pilot, Lev Spiro, is directing for that show. He let me know and I have it on TiVo. I haven’t seen it yet.

Neely: You’re in for a real treat (note: for those of you who haven’t yet seen it, that was a statement dripping in irony).

Michael: I’ve heard.

Neely: I realize that it’s not my demographic, but it’s not an original idea and it’s not on the page. Good writing is good writing and a good show is a good show whether or not it’s your cup of tea. Look, I watched the first episode of “The Walking Dead” and it was excellent and I’m not anyone who wants to spend a few minutes, let alone an hour or more, with walking, oozing, purulent body parts.

Michael: There’s an awful lot of great TV right now. I think this is a golden age for one hour TV.

Neely: I agree with you. There’s a lot of great stuff, so if something isn’t to your liking, there are a million other things. But what was pointed out to me by a broadcast network exec recently is that there’s a sea change occurring. For instance, in the 18-49 demographic, a good rating for a top show in that bracket is now a “4” and that is very scary. On the other hand, if you don’t count cumulative ratings on cable (which is their norm), cable ratings would uniformly be way below a “1”, so you have to realize that a “4” today is what a “17” or “20” used to be.

Michael: Absolutely.

Neely: But back to the topic at hand. My point was that there may be a way to expand this pilot a little in terms of the character and some of the situations. As presently written, it seems as though you were unsure whether this was more of a single camera character comedy or a multi-camera joke/punchline set up. What did you see it as?

Michael:Again, it was focused for CBS and they’re multi-cam. I had just finished doing a series called “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” which was single camera and I loved doing single camera. So, maybe…

Neely: Clearly this should have been single camera.

Michael: Yeah. It could be. I just wrote it for the format they required.

Neely: As I said, oftentimes with multi-cam it’s “setup/punchline,” and sometimes that forces some of the humor.

Michael: It doesn’t matter what the delivery system is as long as you have interesting fun characters. What’s fun about single camera, and what I really enjoyed about doing “Julie Reno,” and the other one camera shows I’ve done, is that you have a whole visual arsenal to use in telling stories and setting up jokes that is so much fun.

Neely: I love that you come out of the Linda Bloodworth Thomason school of comedy. What was it like working on her shows?

Michael: I learned a lot in a very short period of time. It was great and I was very fortunate to be in such an atmosphere. I started by writing a freelance “Designing Women” episode. Being around Linda was great even though she pretty much wrote most of the episodes on her own. My first staff job was on her series called “Evening Shade” with Burt Reynolds. That was a crash course in dealing with a huge…

Neely: Dare we say ego?

Michael: Yeah… that’s a good way to put it.

Neely: (hearty laughter)

Michael: It was a great place to learn… Let me put it this way – a lot of the writers who I worked with then remain very good friends – sort of like Viet Nam vets. I don’t want to make light of anyone who’s been to war, but as a writer, this was trench warfare. I’ve become lifelong friends with people who shared the same dark experiences working for Burt Reynolds. But Linda was great and her husband Harry is too. They’re very dear friends to this day.

Neely: Was this a case where the 800 lb. canary was telling you how he wanted to sing and what the words needed to be?

Michael: He was never really that hands on. I don’t think he really worried too much about the dialogue (chuckles). That was part of the problem. He just wanted to… He loved to direct everything and everybody and it was tough. I don’t want to dwell too much on past history but it was a crash course in a lot of stuff that made me really appreciate all the shows I worked on after that. And also, when I started writing pilots, it gave me the chance to figure out how I’d want to do things and work with people.

Neely: At the time, the Thomasons had several shows on the air including “Hearts Afire.” Wasn’t Markie on “Hearts Afire?”

Michael: Yep.

Neely: Is that where you met her?

Michael: No. We met long before that. We met in acting class.

Neely: No kidding!

Michael: I asked her to do a scene with me from “Measure for Measure” and we both got creamed by the teacher, just eviscerated, strung up.

Neely: Was that here in L.A.?

Michael: Um hum. And that kind of brought us together. I mean I thought she was so beautiful and intelligent.

Neely: She was exquisite.

Michael: Yes, she was and remains so.

Neely: So you were married by the time you did “Hearts Afire.”

Michael: Yeah, yeah. That was kind of fun because we were on the same lot. I was doing “Evening Shade” and she was doing “Hearts Afire.” John Ritter, one of the stars, was wonderful.

Neely: You heard that from everyone. He did a couple of guest shots on “Ally McBeal” and he charmed everyone.

Michael: He very much was the guy you thought you knew from all his terrific acting roles and his public persona. So I would literally go visit my wife on that set and it was like coming from a dark Communist country into the Free World. I mean it was just such a lovely atmosphere there and everybody was so nice; and the actors were fantastic.

Neely: That was an incredible show that should have lasted longer.  Some of the other actors were Conchata Ferrell, so wonderful on “Two and a Half Men”, Billy Bob Thornton, and Leslie Jordan, the absolute love of my life (although this may have been in his drinking days, so who knows how that went!)

Michael: The actors were great on that show. So there was no awful… Burt Reynolds. I won’t go into the full details, but he asked me “to step outside” on my third episode of being a staff writer. We didn’t actually end up fighting or anything, but it was just a truly surreal experience.

Neely: What brought that about? Did you stand up to him?

Michael: Yeah, yeah. I was asked to… so, yeah. My writing partner and I (it was our first show) were asked by Harry and Linda to do what we could to see that the scripts didn’t get out of control. This is what triggered him asking me to “step outside.” So we were standing nose to nose, which was weird because he generally towered over everyone in his cowboy boots with giant lifts.  But in this case, he was wearing knee-high moccasins, like after-ski boots but with fringe. It was very surreal. I’ve never taken LSD but I don’t have to because I had the experience on that day.

Neely: That’s hilariously visual. I hate to interrupt the flow, but there’s still so much to talk about so we should end here and pick up again next week when I’ll lead off with the fabulous cold open of your other pilot “Julie Reno, Bounty Hunter.” More fun to come

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"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision."

- Salvador Dali

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