The legal-size envelope that contained the memo also included a large (folded up) sheet of paper with columns that bore the name of all eight freelance writers or writing teams at the top and a list of sixteen script titles running down the side. A second sheet contained our names, along with Larry Heath's, and columnar space for the four scripts we and Larry had contracted for.
"What the fuck is that shit?" Chris wanted to know.
"I'm not sure," I said, tipping the envelope down.
A river of multi-colored stars spilled all over my desk, my lap, the floor, everything.
Chris barked laughter. "What are we supposed to fucking do, Cole?" he wondered. "Award different color stars to the writers for completing their assignments and spelling words more or less correctly."
"Maybe this explains it," I said, fishing out another sheet of paper.
If was a memo from Irwin's secretary explaining the purpose of the charts and the stars. Some were supposed to show script progress. Others, the number of fires. And the others... well, whatever the other purposes were fled my mind the moment I read them. It isn't that she didn't explain things clearly - she was a very intelligent woman - it's just that the system defied all logic.
I shoved the explanation over to Chris. He scanned it, then declared, "I'm not fucking doing this."
I didn't blame him. This was not only the lousiest system for tracking writers' assignments that I had ever encountered, it was humiliating to boot. Here we were, grown men - whiskey drinkers at that - and we were supposed to lick the backs of these little stars and stick them beside people's names.
Before I could join him in blasphemy, the phone rang. It was Irwin's secretary. "Did you get Irwin's little present?" she cooed.
"We did," I said, and it was hard to keep the piss off out of my voice.
"I know, I know, it's a bunch of baloney," she said.
"I'd call it something worse than baloney," I replied.
"I couldn't agree more," she said. "But the little stars are nothing. You should see what I have to put up with."
"Doesn't make us feel any better," I said. "We're not kindergarten teachers. We're writers."
Chris shouted to be heard: "And we've got our own little IBM Selectrics to prove it!"
Irwin's secretary said, "Tell Chris that if he wants to keep his Selectric he'd best not displease our Fearless Leader."
"Okay, okay, I'll do the damn stars," I said.
I was about to say bye bye and hang up when she said, "Wait, there's more."
"You sound like a TV pitchwoman," I said. "Do we get a free set of steak knives if we buy your miracle salad chopper?"
She was kind enough to laugh, which made me feel a little better.
Then she dropped the bomb: "Since we've been cut back to 7 p.m." she said, "our budget has been cut from a little under a million to a little over six hundred thousand."
I was shocked. "But we've just been ordered to have at least two fires a show," I said. "You can't do two fires for six hundred thousand. Hell, I'm not sure you can do two fires for a million."
"Yes, but the Studio says they won't deficit finance four hundred thousand dollars," she said. "And Irwin will never pick up the tab, no matter how rich he is."
"What do we do?" I asked, realizing just what the poor sap feels like who finds himself caught between the Devil and the deep brown shithole.
"Irwin said to make one fire small," she said. "Have a little one in the first or second act and save the big one for Act Four."
I sighed. "Okay. I got it. Wastebasket fire in Act One, LA County Dump fire in Act Four."
Then, just to give her a dig - undeserved though it might be: "What color star do we use for the wastebasket fire?" I teased.
Without a beat, she replied, "The brown ones." Then she hung up.
Chris looked at me. He hadn't heard most of the conversation, but he knew from my side of it that things were not good. In fact, they were deplorable.
I filled him in. "Aw, fuck," he said. "On the job less than two weeks and already we're in the shitter."
I had no argument. Sighing, I flattened the sheet of paper and started figuring out which colored stars went where.
Chris' estimate had been dead on. We were wading hip deep in sewer creek and the waters were steadily rising. Without warning, Code Red, the show we had contractually obligated ourselves to for twenty weeks, had been shifted from a nice 8 O'clock slot, to the clottin' Children's Hour.
Once again we were slotted at 7 p.m. Sunday night on ABC, a network we had dubbed Anything But Class long ago. Just like good old Galactica 1980, Sixty Minutes was waiting there on CBS to eat not just our lunch, but breakfast, dinner and any candy bars we might have in our pockets. Sixty Minutes regularly grabbed the Number One spot on the weekly Nielson list and Chris and I were not so foolish as to think we could match them.
I forget what show was on NBC, but the only way we could have taken it out was if it was a documentary series on skiing in downtown Poughkeepsie. Even then, with Irwin The Towering Toupee Allen at the helm, the task was hopeless, hopeless, hopeless.
To make matters worse, there were many other things conspiring against us besides our Alzheimer-out-patient boss and his nasty little stars.
There are several very good reasons that the lifespan of your average TV series is shorter than a lab-raised fruit fly.
First off, the guys who originally buy the show are never the same network crew that oversees the series when it goes into production.
Resentful of their colleagues, whom they consider fools (and who is to say they are wrong?) they immediately engage in a lot of leg lifting. They piss all over your project like it was the Great Fire Hydrant at the end of the doggy rainbow.
This had a lot to do with the reasons behind the show's demotion to the Children's Hour. And the recruitment of Adam (The Beach Ball) Rich to bedevil one and all - including really nice people like Lorne Greene and Julie Adams.
Also, as things turned out, there was more than envy at work. In short, they hated Irwin's guts - and who could blame them? He had made many enemies over the years and it seemed they had all converged on Code Red at Columbia Studios for paybacks.
Hence, the demand for two fires a week after a four-hundred-thousand dollar budget cut.
Making matters worse, our old nemesis, Susan Futterman, the VP of Censorship at ABC, was back to darken every second of our weekly 44-minutes of air time. (Yes, there really are that many ads on TV; actually, it's even more these days.)
Since our viewing audience was supposed to be composed of mostly rug rats, we were only allowed so many "violence beats" (Roughly, a beat is a scripted moment) per episode. As it turned out Susan defined fire as a violence beat, and since our show was about fires and the men and women who fight them, we were screwed Day One.
Actually, this turned out to be a not such a bad thing. At our current budget, we could set a lot of waste basket fires, which were pretty damned cheap, and not anywhere so violent.
Chris interrupted my self-propelled rail car of misery. "You know, your wastebasket idea is spot on for this sucker." He was holding up the first draft of a script that had just been turned in. "In Act Two, the Beach Ball accidentally sets his school on fire."
(The Beach Ball, as mentioned before, was the nick name our tech advisor from the fire department had given Adam Rich. And you know, when you thought about it, he really did look like a beach ball. Two beach balls, actually. A small one for his head and a larger one for his body.)
Chris continued, "The fire starts in the gym, after the Beach Ball has been chewed out for general mopery. Then spreads to the rest of the school."
He held up a finger, indicating that brilliance was on the way: "But, if we have the principal kick his fat little butt - and put the butt kicking in the principal's office - we can start the fire in the principal's wastebasket. Have it spread to the curtains, if we can afford charred curtains, then somebody rushes in to put it out and finds evidence to falsely accuse the little turd those shitheads at ABC stuck us with."
"I like it," I said. "I'll call the writers and tell them to make the change."
As I reached for the phone Chris said, "Tell them that if they do a good job with the wastebasket we'll give them a gold star."