They say (whoever “they” are) that somewhere out there is your double. What are the odds you’ll meet him? About the same as being struck twice by lightning.
What: Dick Blubaugh meets his physical double, Richard Amundsen, in a low life roadside bar in New Mexico; and that is where the resemblance ends.
Who: Pulling into a biker bar in Bumf**k, New Mexico, Dick Blubaugh parks “his” Prius with the “My Child is an Honor Student at Jimmie Rodgers High School” bumper sticker and ambles in for a piss and a drink (in that order). It is the bartender who is the first to notice the strange similarity between Dick and the guy standing next to him – they are identical (and, yes, as a boy Dick was struck twice by lightning).
Dick: So, they say that somewhere in the world there is an exact double of the every person. Chalk one up for them.
Discovering that they have different birthdays, Dick remarks that they are not identical, but then Dick is also not a genius.
Other Guy: No. We just look exactly the same.
Dick: Well, not exactly.
Other Guy: No?
Dick: That mole on your cheek. I got mine on the other side.
Other Guy: You’re used to looking at yourself in a mirror, friend. It’s on the same side.
Dick touches his face.
Darned if it isn’t. Compounding the coincidence, the Other Guy, also driving a Prius, is named Richard, Richard Amundsen. And it is here that the resemblance ends, as Richard is a college professor returning to his University from a year’s sabbatical; Dick is a petty criminal on the lam from something or someone.
Richard: My life, it seems perfect. I get up, I teach stuff I already know, I can’t get fired ‘cause I have tenure.
Dick: What’s that?
Richard: It means I can’t get fired. I go to parties, I go to functions, I have students who worship me. But I’m all empty inside.
Dick: I got the opposite problem. I got nothing. Do you know where I’m going tomorrow?
Dick: Neither do I. I got no roots, I got no job. I’m a blank slate.
Richard: You know something? I envy you.
Dick: Envy is the sixth deadly sin. Or the second, depending on how you Google it. Trust me, I lead a lonely life.
Richard: You can be in the middle of a crowd and still be lonely. Take it from me.
And so a deal with the Devil is made and Richard and Dick exchange lives after a few preliminary instructions on what to expect on the other end; and they go their separate ways – Richard down the road in a stolen Prius, seemingly without a care in the world; and Dick in Richard’s pristine Prius, off to a teaching job in Illinois where he will give new meaning to the Socratic method.
But of course there are unexpected consequences, which for Dick involve complicated love triangles and a dead body in the freezer of his new campus home; and for Richard it involves a bounty hunter and a pair of handcuffs. As Richard so aptly put it:
I thought by trading Richard Amundsen in for a new name, I’d get a fresh start. All my troubles would be over…What I didn’t count on was that every name carries its own troubles right along with it.
No Meaner Place: Although this pilot has made the rounds of the various studios and networks and brought deserved attention to the writer, no one has had enough vision to attempt a production. Though clearly not a broadcast network project, surely it fits within the brand of one of the more progressive cable channels – Showtime, HBO, even USA and F/X come to mind. The premise is smart, complex, ironic and hilarious. Certainly in the past network execs were reluctant to mount a show with a seemingly unsympathetic character (and here we have two, even if they are the same – although Dick, at least, has a caddish, almost innocent charm, for someone with such a long rap sheet), but this is no longer true. At the very least, Sutton has all the elements in place for farce – as each man’s attempt to remove himself from difficulties will, no doubt, result in fresh difficulties. In its own way, this potential series is a down and dirty successor to “Frasier.” This is fish-out-of-water to a new extreme and gives special meaning to the old adage “be careful what you wish for, it may come true.”
Life Lessons for Writers: If they read the pilot and want you, you’ve won half the battle. After all, half a battle is better than none (or is that a loaf?) or maybe it isn't.
Neely: Phoef, I know before you began your television career you were a playwright. How did you get started and what brought you into TV?
Phoef: I got started writing plays and acting in them in college. I really liked the process of writing them and then seeing my work performed in front of people. One of my plays was published by the Theater Communities Group in their “Plays in Progress” series. My play “Burial Customs” was mounted several times, including at the University of Michigan. When I moved to LA, my play “Thin Walls” was presented at the Back Alley Theater.
Neely: To digress a few minutes, this belongs to one of those “the world is small” moments because last Spring you and your wife Dawn came to dinner at our house and our other guests, Laura Zucker and Alan Miller, unbeknownst to me, were two of your oldest friends in LA. Laura and Alan who ran the Back Alley, gave you your debut in LA. As I recall, Dawn was their accountant and you worked as stage manager. Laura is now the Executive Director of the LA County Arts Commission and Alan continues to act. You and I got to know each other on “Boston Legal,” but I was aware of you long before that as you had a rather famous career arc on “Cheers” going rapidly from Staff Writer to Showrunner in an 8 year span. How did you land the original writing job?
Phoef: So I was a very happy stage manager at the Back Alley Theater making $100 a week when Dawn got pregnant and I realized that I needed to make more money, and fast. Interestingly, I had written a spec “Newhart” script three years before and had sent it to Barbara Hall who I knew from college, but shortly after she and most of the rest of the staff left the show, so no one had read my script. Now, here it was, almost three years later and I got a call from someone on “Newhart” that they had found my script and liked it. So I thought maybe I could start the process again and sent it to Elliot Webb who looked at it again and liked it; he sent it to Heide Perlman at “Cheers,” who also liked it and asked to meet with me. They didn’t have any staff jobs available but invited me to pitch some ideas. After a couple of tries, they liked one of them and gave me a freelance script. Then I got a couple of freelance assignments for a show called “All is Forgiven,” another Charles/Burrows/Charles production, followed by an assignment for “Mary,” the Mary Tyler Moore follow-up show. I had made about $30,000 doing these scripts and I thought we were rich! Well at least I thought so until I got a staff writer position on “Cheers” in the third or fourth year of the show (ed. Note: staff writers are paid very little their first year and any scripts they write that year are usually credited against their salaries). I stayed for eight years and ran it the last four years.
Neely: Wasn’t the transition from theater to television difficult? You were actually quite young when you started on “Cheers.”
Phoef: I may have been young when I started, but I had already been writing plays for five years before I got my job on “Cheers” so I actually had a great leg up. Half hour multi-camera sitcom is essentially a play. “Cheers” was a 2 act play with entrances, exits, stage directions; it was people talking and behaving and getting it across to the audience.
Neely: I’m sure there were lots of special moments on that show, but what immediately comes to mind?
Phoef: Working on that show was wonderful beyond belief; the whole experience.
Neely: Since that was the start of your successful writing career, who were some of the most important influences on you, both on and off that show. Did you have a mentor?
Phoef: Les Charles, David Lee, Bob Ellison, Jerry Belson, David Isaacs, Ken Levine, David Angell, Peter Casey, Cheri and Bill Steinkellner – everyone had an Emmy. Bill Steinkellner was an improv teacher and taught us in the writing room to just keep spouting ideas. As for a mentor…it’s always been difficult to be my…I never really…well if anyone was my mentor it was David Lloyd.
Neely: David Lloyd died about 2 weeks ago; I know you were just at his memorial service. Please tell us something about him.
Phoef: Learning from David was like going to college at MTM. David was a weekly consultant on “Cheers.” He had a razor-like wit which was great as long as it wasn’t directed at you; he didn’t suffer fools. He was like someone who would have been comfortable at the Algonquin Round Table. He always worked on a typewriter and he never took notes when he was pitched ideas for the stories he would write. He’d just listen and then go off and two hours later he’d have the outline. If you were unlucky enough to have to rewrite his stuff, he made your life a living hell, although he never held a grudge; but most of his scripts didn't have to be touched -- they were just that good. And when you were in trouble on somebody else's script he could fix it. He'd just pitch out a whole act and you'd sit there and marvel at it and try to get it down verbatim. David never had an agent; he always did his own negotiating – in the third person. He’d come in and say “David Lloyd needs this” or “I’ll discuss it with David Lloyd.” Later on in the run he decided that he wouldn’t work past sundown…and he didn’t; he’d go home. He was unique and amazing.
Neely: Of course you’ve done a lot of other things; including but not limited to (that pesky Business Affairs background keeps getting in my way) developing the British show “Coupling” for American T.V., writing a series for Bob Newhart, and are credited with several screenplays, most notably “The Fan.” Which projects in your post-“Cheers” career stand out to you, and why?
Phoef: My absolute favorite was a show I created called “Thanks.” It was a period piece involving Pilgrims who’ve just arrived in the New World and starred Tim Dutton, Jim Rash and Cloris Leachman, among others. I got to do anything I wanted because the network execs couldn’t figure out what to say or what notes to give. When people have said to me that they couldn’t believe that the network cancelled it after 6 episodes, I say I was amazed that they actually ran 6 episodes. It was truly a joy to go in and work on that show.
Neely: Just as a side note, Tim was hired on “Ally McBeal” based on his work on “Thanks.”
Phoef: Sarah Vowell has championed that show in her book on the Pilgrims, THE WORDY SHIPMATES. And she talks about it all the time on NPR – she’s kind of a one-woman cult, and I really appreciate it.
Neely: What about your features – “Mrs. Winterbourne,” “The Fan” and “Analyze This?”
Phoef: I am credited on “Mrs. Winterbourne” and “The Fan,” but I don’t think I got screen credit on “Analyze This;” I also worked but didn’t get credit on “Men in Black” and “High Fidelity.” In screenwriting you just never meet the other collaborators. It’s a very solitary life and you often don’t get credit on the things you write. They just keep passing the script from person to person and sometimes it ends up being passed back to you again.
Neely: Let’s talk about “Two Dicks.” When I mentioned to you that I wanted to write about your unproduced pilot called “The Impastors,” (which, by the way, I still love and reserve my right [again with the Business Affairs] to write about it at some future date) you mentioned this pilot. Intriguingly you said that it had gotten you lots of work but that the project itself was always declined. Any thoughts?
Phoef: With “Two Dicks” I woke up one morning with the idea and wrote it in a week; the first time that ever happened to me. I sent it to my agent and he loved it; he sent it out and everyone loved it but no one would make it. I see it as a Film Noir sitcom. Maybe one of the problems is that it is serialized. We almost had it set up at Fox. The exec said “This is great! Let me think about it over the weekend.” We were sure we had it sold until the next Monday morning. It’s made the cable rounds without luck. It’s a huge disappointment. The show doesn’t have a defined path which is wonderful in the execution but scary as hell for a network executive. I saw it sort of as a parody of a “Lost” or “Flash Forward” type show. There would be a new revelation behind every door. I’ve always been a fan of the Raymond Chandler quote: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” I think of that whenever I’m stuck in the story.
Neely: Could there still be a cable home for this show?
Phoef: Well, unencumbered by any trace of success, it may still have hope.
Neely: Are you more Richard or more Dick?
Phoef: Definitely Dick. Richard is darker and I don’t trust him.
Neely: In 2005 you made the jump to one hour drama with “Boston Legal.” How big a leap was that and what were the challenges?
Phoef: Well I’d already done some features and I’d written several one hour pilots. I didn’t find it to be that different. The legal stuff took a lot of research and I needed to learn to write in David Kelley’s voice. I loved writing the balcony scenes
Neely: After “Boston Legal” you worked on a show called “Valentine” that had a very interesting business model – one that ultimately failed, but interesting none the less. The show was produced by Media Rights Capital which, simplistically put, basically bought out Sunday night from the CW in exchange for the bulk of the advertising revenue. I thought the strategy was brilliant, but I think they failed because they didn’t have the proper financial controls in place. The two shows produced under this system were way too expensive to allow for break-even, let alone profit. Did you feel any difference in working for a show under this new model?
Phoef: Well it did sound like a great idea. But by the time we had written and produced 6 episodes and were ready to premiere, MRC had run through all of their money so there was no marketing and there was no way to even find out that we were on TV. They ran out of money and that was the end.
Neely: What are you working on now? Got any new pilots?
Phoef: I’m working on “Terriers” for F/X. It’s the show that Ted Griffin ("Oceans Eleven") wrote for Shawn Ryan’s company. Shawn is a really good showrunner. I’m in the outline phase of my episode (and I should get back to it). I’m also doing a half hour pilot for ABC with Rob Long. I was Rob’s first boss when he started as a staff writer on “Cheers.” Rosie Perez is attached to the pilot and everything’s going well so far.
Neely: You’ve been at this for some time. Has anything changed?
Phoef: When I started, I knew it would be hard to break in; I didn’t realize that I’d have to continue to break in. You can’t coast. In Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he explains that to be really good at something you have to work 10,000 hours at it and he gave many examples of people who had done that like Bill Gates. In television comedy they don’t want that experience. They think that someone who has written a script can run a show. They think young and inexperienced is better. Networks now have to approve everyone on the writing staff and they make sure that there isn’t more than one “old” guy. I’m not sure they would ever have approved me.
Neely: Over the years, have you continued to write plays?
Phoef: No. The average person doesn’t go to plays and I’m not interested in writing for the intellectuals. When I was in the theater and a young actor, everyone was always talking about the Theater with a capital T and hating TV. I always thought about Chuckles the Clown (a character on the original Mary Tyler Moore Show) and reaching a wider audience. In “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” one of David Lloyd’s Emmy-winning episodes for the series, David wrote the best eulogy ever – “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.” I like writing for television.