Thursday, November 22, 2012

I Swear, As God Is My Witness, I Thought Turkeys Could Fly!

Les Nessman reports from the horrifying
and hilarious scene. "O, the humanity!"
Last year at Thanksgiving, CBS' Watch! magazine ran my interview with WKRP in Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson about that show's most beloved, and Thanksgiving-themed, episode, "Turkeys Away!", which first aired on October 30, 1978.

I've always been a big fan of Wilson's work, including his critically acclaimed but short-lived 1987 series, Frank's Place.  Now 69, this writer who got his start on The Bob Newhart Show is semi-retired and teaching a course in screenwriting and television writing at the University of Virginia.  Below, his reminiscences on perhaps THE classic Thanksgiving-themed sitcom moment.

October 30, 1978

WKRP in Cincinnati Creates a Classic out of a True Thanksgiving Tale

I had been in advertising in Atlanta, and so when I had the idea to do the pilot for WKRP, I went to observe friends there in the radio business.  At the time, the #1 rock station in Atlanta, WQXI, was run by a wonderful guy named Jerry Blum, a longtime “station doctor” who had bounced from one station to the next.  When I was just hanging around there, he told me about how he’d gotten fired from a Dallas station for throwing live turkeys out of a helicopter.  And I said, “Jerry, tell me more.  I think I just won an Emmy.”
Then, in five minutes, the story we used in our episode, “Turkeys Away!” pretty much all came from this fellow’s lips.  It’s been my experience that the real stories are the ones that lead you in great directions.  Jerry was from New York City originally, and didn’t know that turkeys can’t fly very well.  I’m sure most people don’t know that.  So when they started their promotional stunt, the turkeys just went down like bombs.  What’s worse is, when they saw their error, they landed the helicopter to release the rest of the turkeys – and the turkeys fought back, chasing people and running into traffic.  It was the perfect nightmare a comedy writer would want to hear about.
Hugh Wilson in 2008
In our episode, our reporter Les Nessman reports that one turkey went through the windshield of a car – well, I took a liberty with that.  Bill Dial wrote the first draft of the episode, and I did the rewrite.  We had the idea to make Les’ whole report sound like the famous radio broadcast of the Hindenburg tragedy, with the line “O, the humanity!”  But the rest of it had all come from Jerry.
Even now, it’s amazing.  When people find out who I am, they come right up to me, and the first thing out of their mouths is, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”  I have to take credit as the author of that line, because I’m really proud of it.
--Hugh Wilson, creator of WKRP in Cincinnati 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Chuck Lorre's Vanity on Display

Chuck Lorre
For the past decade and a half, Chuck Lorre’s sitcoms have brought viewers a little something extra – whether they noticed it or not.

“When I was growing up, record albums had liner notes, where they added stuff that made the whole thing cooler,” Lorre remembers.  And so, rather than finishing off each of his episodes with a static production company logo, Lorre decided that “each show would have something to read at the end – if you cared to.”

Now, after a full generation of Lorre’s fans has squinted to spy his words on their sometimes wobbly screens – remember VCRs? – the prolific writer/producer of Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly has compiled his nearly 400 mini-essays into a new coffee table book, What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Bitter (Simon & Schuster, $100)

In his vanity card following the November 2 episode of Big Bang Theory, Lorre referred viewers to his web site, where he could blast Mitt Romney without having to have his message approved -- or more likely rejected -- by his network's censors.  The contents of that card, #397, earned lots of press, showing that like me, people really care what Lorre has to say on these things.  That's why this past summer, during the semi-annual Television Critics Association convention in Beverly Hills, I caught up with Lorre for the following exclusive interview, to find out how it feels to see his Bitter experience turning out so sweet.

Must-Hear TV:  What has it meant to have that small amount of network airtime each week, to express what’s on your mind?
Lorre:  My vanity cards are on the air at the end of the show for maybe a second.  But it’s been a nice opportunity to experiment with writing something other than a script, these little essays about things that would never have found their way onto the page.

MHTV:   Is it therapeutic to have a way to get things off your chest?
Lorre:  The only way to call it “therapy” would be if one might say I was getting better.  It’s just a chance to write in a way that hopefully is amusing to somebody.

MHTV:   Obviously they have been.  When did you notice they were catching on?
Lorre:  About 14 or 15 years ago, when I was doing Dharma & Greg, I noticed that there started to be web sites with my name on them.  The late ‘90s on the Internet were the wild wild west.  I realized I could possibly lose control over my own writing.  So, defensively, I had to create a web site of my own in order to maintain some kind of control.

MHTV:  Proceeds from the book benefit your charity, the Dharma-Grace Foundation.  What is its focus?
Lorre:  I started the Dharma-Grace Foundation in 1999, to funnel funds into the Venice [Calif.] Family Clinic, which provides free healthcare to anyone who walks in the door.  It’s a meaningful organization to me, having been without healthcare earlier times in my life.  I know what that feels like – it’s a frightening thing.  Now the Foundation also distributes money to other organizations that seem like they are doing good work, in education as well as healthcare.

MHTV:  Some of the cards are appearing in the book for the first time, having been originally censored.  Why weren’t they originally allowed to air?
Lorre:  There are about a dozen of them, and there were different reasons each time.  Sometimes they were considered risqué, and sometimes the politics were not acceptable.  But I very rarely get political.  I try to honor the fact that CBS is not in the business of broadcasting my political opinions.  So I’ve been very careful, and I try to see the big picture and avoid any controversy.  Lots of different people like to watch Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory and Mike and Molly.  They’re coming to my house as guests, and it would be rude to use that access to offend them.

MHTV:  You started presenting the cards on Dharma & Greg and Grace Under Fire, both of which aired on ABC.  Has there been any difference in doing the vanity cards on ABC versus now on CBS?
Lorre:  No, both networks are very nervous about [the cards] in general, and they scrutinize them.  I imagine both networks would prefer that they didn’t exist at all.  But CBS has been patient and reluctantly trudged forward with these things.  There’s no upside to them.  They’re in the business of selling ad time, and making money, and vanity cards are not a profit source.  But my whole argument has always been, if they bring in just one more viewer who might be curious, that’s got to be good for CBS.

MHTV:  It is a smart investment – a random production company logo isn’t going to bring in anybody.  So why not write something funny that might grab viewers?
Lorre:  With DVRs, every second of television time is now available to you.  Literally, every second can be frozen forever.  So it’s changed the way time works in television.  It’s made every second more valuable or more problematic – your choice.

MHTV:  You have three shows on the air on CBS, bearing your name each week.  Do you still get that thrill of authorship, seeing your name on this book?
Lorre:  It’s really gratifying any time you make something up and it becomes a reality.  On Big Bang Theory, Wolowitz went into space.  To walk onto the stage, and see the Soyuz space capsule!  Made of balsa wood, but it was still there.  It was startling and immensely gratifying.  There was a guy with hammers and nails making it real.

MHTV:  And now there’s someone with a printing press making it real.  Is it the same feeling?
Lorre:  Very much so.  It’s very gratifying.  And the best news is, that it’s already written.  The best part of writing is having written.

MHTV:  Some of your more famous vanity cards over the years have mentioned conflicts with coworkers and costars.  Are those in the book?
Lorre:  They’re all there.

MHTV:  So we can relive all kinds of sitcom history by this book, whether for good or for bad?
Lorre:  That’s very wisely put.  I wrote the cards at times in my life when that was the only way I knew how to articulate my feelings, my frustrations and my fears.   My attempts at being funny sometimes fail.   But there they are.