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Friday, September 2, 2011

MEATBALLS IN SPACE: THE LARSON - FUTTERMAN WARS


Watch Thy Airspeed, Lest The Ground
Rise Up And Meet Thee

We were munching rare steak sandwiches - with scotch and water backs - when the little Cessna came into view. 

Her wings were wobbling and she was heading for the tarmac too fast, so we knew the guy flying it was at least 39-1/2 hours short of the 40 required for a pilot's license.

The three of us watched in awful fascination as the plane came down and down and down, the instructor probably freezing his student's stick and pulling back like a son of a bitch on his own. The Cessna bounced once, then twice - skidded to the right a little - then straightened out and powered up, up and away and out sight.

"Shit," Chris said. "Guy flies like Glen Larson writes. Fast, bad and not a fucking clue where he's going."

Al Godfrey - our producer/mentor - just grunted and called for more drinks. He was there to give us badly needed job advice on Galactica 1980, so lunch was our treat. No problem, since as story editors we were making a shitload of money - which did little to alleviate our misery for being stuck on such an awful show, much less our fear of being indentured to Universal Studios for seven soul-killing years.

94th Aero Squadron
Lunch was at the 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant, situated on the back runway of Burbank Airport in Van Nuys. It had a World War One décor and although we normally avoided theme restaurants like the Bubonic, we had to admit that Godfrey hadn't steered us wrong. The food was good. The drinks strong. The prices moderate. 

Plus, the restaurant sat right on the edge of the runway, offering widow seats to everything from rookies practicing touch-and-goes, to Air National Guard cargo behemoths, to the colorful Lindbergh-era biplanes flown by the stunt pilot members of the Confederate Air Force.

Godfrey said, "I heard Larson was doing pay backs like a son of a bitch. Calling everybody he knows and owes and making them producers on Galactica." He collected his drink from the waiter, then grinned at us, "Any of them actually show up to work?"

"Not one swinging dick," Chris said. "Every damned day Dolly (our life-saving secretary, Dolly Brown) gives us a new GL-80 staff list, and there's always at least one other name under the producer's column. But we've never actually seen any of them."

Godfrey chuckled. "Don't blame him. If I were running the most expensive show in television history I'd be calling in everybody who'd ever done me a favor." He finished his sandwich and pushed the plate away. "Sort of like a Mob bust out, but legal," he said. "Get a building contract down at the harbor. Put everybody and his cousin and his cousin's cousin on the payroll. But only two or three actually show up to swing a hammer."

"The thing I get a laugh out of," I said, "is that our names keep getting shoved down further and further on the list. Larson's name is at the top. Then Freilich and Lupo, who actually do the production work. Followed by many, many producers. Followed by the cast and crew. Then the secretaries. Then the janitors. Then, at the very bottom are the writers - me, Chris and Bob McCullough." (As you'll soon see, McCullough's script - Space Croppers - was the only non-Larson script to make it on the air.)

Godfrey said, "So, you're learning firsthand what I've been telling you all along. In this town, writers are like a chick you meet at a bar when you are half in the bag and horny." He lit a cigarette. Blew two perfect smoke rings, then said. "At first they seem terribly important to you. You need their words in the worst way. But then after you collect the script and wake up the next morning, you wonder what the fuck you were ever thinking of and kick them out of bed."

Chris and I laughed, but now that I think back on it there was too much truth in what Godfrey said for it to be funny.

Then Godfrey said, "Here's the bottom line, boys. You are in the middle of a big fucking tug of war. So are the writers, actors and directors on every other show in This Town. You guys actually care about getting something decent on the air. But the guys who run things firmly believe that the public will watch whatever garbage they put in front of them. And the only thing they give a shit about is winning their own personal war."

He lifted a hand and began ticking off each finger. "First, there's the Network Veep who bought the show. He's already won his fight because he got one over on those other sons of bitches who are trying to elbow him out of the way. But, after that, he has no dog in the fight and he's off the show."

Vice President
Of Screwups
Godfrey ticked off another finger. "Second, there's the Production Veep and his crew. They think they guy who bought the show was a brainless idiot, but they're stuck with his stupid mistake. It's their job to get ratings, and they'll do anything legal to get them. Max out the T&A. Max out the violence. Car chases up the wazoo. Shove any nonsense they can down the throats of the writers, because what the fuck does the writer know about stories?

He bent over a third finger. "But, hold on. The production Veep has got a deadly enemy from his own network. That's the Program Practices Vice President. Susan Futterman, in your case. And the way she gets to look good to her boss is to squelch anything vaguely controversial. To her the perfect story would start with a nice clean problem about Billy doing his homework, and in the end Billy's best friend, Sally, would make him see the error of his ways without ever flashing her cotton undies."

"Shit," I said. "They're all light years apart. In fact, they're running at cross purposes to one another."

"And that's not the end of it," Godfrey said, displaying a fourth finger. "Now you have the Studio. Their only concern is the money. The Network is putting up a set fee. Maybe $750,000 an episode for Galactica. But the only reason they bought the show, is because the Studio agreed to deficit finance the show to the tune of three, four hundred thousand an episode. They won't make that back until they sell the show into syndication. But you need at least three years worth of episodes before the syndicators are interested. So, the Studio Veep - in your case, Peter Thompson - has to keep all those opposing forces sweet. It's his job to kiss every shitty ass in sight, or else he'll get the blame for blowing all that money without a chance of getting a return."

Chris said, "Fuck a bunch of writing. I should have gone to work with daddy at the pump flange factory. At least it's honest labor." (A joke: his "daddy" was head of the tech writing department at Hughes Aircraft.)

Godfrey said, "Look, boys - I know you're frustrated. But, just sit tight. Things will work themselves out. Trust in your talent and you'll get through it. And remember, in This Town it's the assholes who rule. Get used to it."

Chris sighed."We keep waiting for Larson to make one big fat fucking mistake. One so bad the backblast will blow the whole fucking shebang off the lot."

Godfrey grimaced. "Boys, the other thing you have to understand about The Business, is that the guy who fucks up last wins."

Chris and I eyed him suspiciously. Was he pulling our leg? Chris gave me the look: your turn in the barrel, Cole.

So, I sighed, stubbed out my smoke, and said, "Okay, Al, I'll bite. How come the last fuck up wins? In chess - as in most things - it's the other way around. The guy who makes second to the last mistake wins."

Godfrey shook his head, "Uh, uh," he said, sounding a bit like the racetrack tout who bedeviled Jack Benny. "That's your problem. You're playing chess. The rest of these assholes are playing television."

"I still don't get it," I admitted. "Explain, please."

Godfrey said, "The guy who fucks up last is the guy who gets the last word. And the last word is what gets on the fucking air."

The conversation came to a halt when we saw the student pilot come back around. Still too fast. Still out of position. Bump, fucking bump. Skitter, skitter. Then off he went again. We all sighed in relief.

Chris said, "I know there's a lesson in there someplace, but for the life of me I don't fucking see it."

Godfrey said, "Not to worry. It'll kick you in the ass by and by."

QUICK CUT TO:

That was a Friday. On the following Monday, the ass kicking commenced.

In short, Susan Futterman showed up at our door.

"Fuck," Chris said, when Dolly buzzed to announce her surprise visit.

I said, "Watch the 'fucks,' for Chrissakes. She's the censor."

Chris put both hands on the desk. Looked up at the ceiling. And said, fast as he could: "Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck."

Then he sighed, and said, "There, I got it out of my fucking system."

Sister Scary - Third Grade
The only thing I remember about Ms Futterman is that she immediately reminded me of my Third Grade nun. Everything about that nun was severe. She had a severe face, set with severe eyes and her lips were always pursed in a severe manner and she had this look about her that said she knew every sin residing in your nasty little boy's soul and if you crossed her one bit she'd whack your hands with her yardstick until you couldn't get a grip on a spitball for the rest of the afternoon, and so were at the mercy of your nasty little boy enemies.

Futterman sat, knees tight together, skirt pulled well down over them and tried to force a smile of collegial greeting. It was like watching the scum part on a fish pond. She accepted a cup of herbal tea from Dolly with muttered thanks and gave Chris a warning look when he nervously reached for a cigarette. He snatched back his hand as if it had been burned.

Looking satisfied about something, she pulled a legal pad from her oversized purse and started flipping pages.

"I wanted to discuss some problems that I have with the scripts I have been receiving, " she said.

I said, "We have seen your notes, Ms Futterman, and-"

She snapped. "Call me, Susan," she ordered.

I stuttered, "Oh. Okay. Uh, Ms - I mean, Susan… We have seen your notes and addressed all the issues that are within our authority. If there's anything else - well, have you talked to Jeff, or Frank? Or, Mr. Larson? All the scripts were written by him."

She said, "It's my understanding that you two have been writing the required educational beats. And those are your responsibility."

PAUSE SCENE FOR A VERY BORING EXPLAINATION

Unfortunately, Futterman had me there. The only writing we were allowed to do up to this point was to insert what Program Practices called "Educational Beats." Since our show fell into the Children's Hour - 7 p.m. Sunday - there were so many "educational beats" required for each episode. And they had to be spread out - so many in the first act, so many in the second act, and so forth.

By necessity, these were deadly dull teaching moments. Any attempt at making them entertaining were immediately squelched by Futterman, who insisted that kids had to KNOW when they were being taught.

Galactica was already a boring show that made no sense, and the educational beats just made things worse. Futterman would make insertion marks at the worst possible moments. In the middle of a (hopefully) exciting car chase, for example, the principals would have to stop and one would ask the other what strange, barbaric power made these Earth vehicles go. And the other would explain in painful details, the workings of a combustion engine.

Oh, and because it was a kid's show, only so many violence beats were allowed. This might make sense, except for Futterman's definition of violence. For example, in one episode a school bus is about to crash through the railing of a bridge into the river. One of our heroes blasts a tree with his laser gun, and it falls over to block the path of the bus - saving all the kids. In Futterman's world, shooting that tree was a naughty - an act of violence.

Got it? Good, then explain it to me.

Give up? Also good, because it is way past time to:

RESUME AGONIZING ENCOUNTER WITH FUTTERMAN

As it happened, one of the first things she hit us with was the above-mentioned combustion engine business.

She said, "This information here about the workings of the combustion engine?"

We said, Yes, ma'am. What about it?

She said, "On what sources did you rely?"

Chris said, "We relied on me. I used to write and edit magazines on the subject."

This drew an actual sneer. "I suppose you wrote for Car And Driver," she said, no doubt thinking such a publication - which must be classy if she knew of it - would never hire the likes of Christopher Renshaw Bunch.

"As a matter of fact," Chris said, "I was a regular contributor."

Futterman's eyebrows rose. "Oh," she said. Then - "Oh."

Back to the notes. Flip, flip. Found another quibble.

"This business here at the Planetarium," she said. "Where you have the children address the issue of how many stars there are in the night sky."

She was speaking of an episode where the Galactica kids mingle unnoticed with a group of Earthling kids at the planetarium. Some Earthling kid asks the teacher how many stars there are in the sky. He replies. But, one of the Galactica kids rolls his eyes at his companion and whispers another number - presumably the correct one because these are Space kids and must know, right? Giggle. Giggle. Another educational beat. Check.

"What about it?" I asked.

"Where did you get the number?" she asked, no doubt thinking we plucked the number from thin air. "What's your source?"

I said, "the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica," pointing proudly at the set that Chris and I had purchased to use on the show.

"That's not good enough," Futterman snapped.

This pissed us off to no end. Only a few months before Chris and I had been journalists - he in magazines, me in newspapers - and we weren't accustomed to this kind of treatment.

Chris picked up the phone and buzzed Dolly. "Dolly," he said, "Could you get us name and  phone number of the head of public relations at Encyclopedia Britannica. We need it right away, please."

He put the phone down and told Susan, "Shouldn't take more than a minute."

Futterman looked alarmed. "What - what - what do you need that for?"

Chris said, "Well, I thought while we had you here we'd let you explain why an executive at ABC's Program Practices has determined that information in the latest Encyclopedia Britannica… quote: 'Isn't good enough'… end quote."

Futterman sputtered. (Been waiting years to put those two words together.) "I… I… Well, I didn't mean that. I mean, I was only raising… uh, the uh, issue-"

I broke in. "We really need to get this settled, Susan," I said. "Is the Encyclopedia Britannica a satisfactory source for ABC, or isn't it?"

"It is," she said quickly. Flipped pages. "Let's move on."

We moved on, feeling a little better about things. That's how young and dumb we were. Because now we'd made the censor mad. As it turned out, she was already mad. And we'd just made things worse.

She hit a page, pretended to study her notes, then looked up at us - Tongue darting out in a manner that made me think of a snake.

Jabbing a finger at some obviously offending passage, Futterman said, "This script here. The one with the unseemly joke about meatballs."

Chris and I looked at each other. Puzzled. I don't remember now which script had the meatball joke in it, but I do remember that although the joke was unfunny to the extreme, that there was nothing unseemly about it.

"What's wrong with it?" I asked.

Futterman's eyebrows rose. She said, "Come now. Meatballs? What's Glen trying to get past me?"

Chris and I dug out the script. Ran over the scene. And came up empty.

"It's just an eating scene," I said. "A good Samaritan has rescued our guys and is dishing them up some meatball sandwiches. And our guys have never heard of meatballs, much less tasted any."

"Oh, you can't fool me," Futterman said. "I know he's up to something."

Chris said, "Hey, Susan. Cole and I have dirtiest minds in town. Ask anybody. But, honest to God, Glen's just talking about meatballs."

"Regular meatballs," I said. "Definitely not of the testicular variety."

"Well, I don't care what you say," Futterman said. "Take it out."

I said, "Uh, Susan. We can't just take it out. It's a stupid joke, but Glen Larson thought well of it enough to write it. And he's our boss. If you want to delete the reference, you'll have to speak to Jeff, or Frank - or even Glen."

"Glen won't discuss it with me," she said.

Then Chris and I got it. She'd already raised the meatball issue with our superiors and was trying to do an end run on them. With meatballs, for crying out loud.

I said, "Well, that's nothing to do with us, Susan. We're sorry you feel this way. All we can do is assure you that there are no hidden meanings."

"Sometimes," Chris said - with maybe a little too much enjoyment - "a meatball is just a meatball."

"We'll just see about that," Susan said, abruptly coming to her feet and shoving the legal pad back into the oversize purse.

And then she stalked out. A minute later Dolly poked her head in. "What was she so mad about?" Dolly asked. "You guys didn't let an Eff-bomb drop, or anything, did you?"

"No, Dolly," I said. "Nothing to do with us. She's mad Glen Larson's meatballs."

Dolly wisely withdrew while Chris and I mixed a couple of drinks, then called the bosses to kick the meatball problem up the line.

Later in the day, Frank Lupo called us back. "Guys," he said, "the shit's hitting the fan."

"About the meatballs?" I said.

"Yeah, yeah," Frank said. "Susan's going to war over it."

"What can we do?" I asked.

"Nothing," Frank said. "Stay the fuck out of it. Keep your heads down and if anybody calls you about fucking meatballs refer them to me."

We said, okay, boss. And then gave Dolly careful instructions to beware of anything that involved meatballs.

Space Croppers
And it was during this whole mess - which only got worse - that Fate intervened to allow Bob McCullough's Space Croppers story earn the dubious honor of being the only non-Glen Larson written script to make it on the air.

Not because it was brilliant. No one who saw the episode will ever accuse it of brilliance. This was not Bob’s fault. Like we told Godfrey, generally speaking, we were all under strict orders to take out all the comedy, action, drama and common sense in a script before it was shot.

How Bob’s script got on the air will illustrate pretty much everything that was wrong about GL-80.

Glen Larson would write a script like this: He’d put a piece of paper in his typewriter and type: Fade In. Scratch his head (or, whatever) then start making up stuff, typing away madly as it came to him.

Along about page 60 he’d realized he’d just run out of time. (Very roughly speaking the running time of a script is one page a minute and GL-80 was an hour-long show). So at the bottom of the script, he’d type: TO BE CONTINUED.

Now, sometimes he would actually continue as promised, and sometimes he’d get a little - you, know - blocked. Then we’d have to start stretching deadlines and manfully inoculate ourselves against panic and general hysteria via applications of carefully measured quantities of writerly inducements.

Once or twice he blocked so badly he jumped on another script, reached the TO BE CONTINUED, point and stopped. Shipped it. Then moved back to the first unfinished mess. Once we had Part One of a story appear. The following week, Part One of another story. Then the following week Part Two of the first. And so on.

It was during one of those To Be Continued Vacuums that the meatballs hit the fan. I don't know how or why Larson came up with his meatball joke. Maybe Glen had meatballs for dinner. Maybe his sister married a meatball. Who knows?

Futterman refused to believe that Glen was not up to something filthy. She insisted there was some hidden meaning. Although she couldn’t explain to anyone what nastiness she thought Larson was trying to slip past her.

Eventually, she made Larson so mad that he took the script back and inserted meatball references willy-nilly everywhere. (Stop what you're thinking! That's not a naughty, either!)

Then Larson called his actors and crew together and shot the damned script.

One million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars just like that! According to my handy dandy cost of living calculator, that’d be $3,023,361.65 in today’s money. And that's a lot of meatballs in any day and age.

Even so, Futterman said that shot or not - no way, Jose, was that perversion-glorifying episode going on the air. Over her dead body and so on and so forth.

Panic city.

What to do?

Ah, ha. Here’s Bob McCullough’s fine script, Space Croppers. To placate Futterman, Bob told her that the major influence for the story was the kid's book (actually a very original novel-in-verse) "Harvest Home," by Jane Yolen. In the privacy of our trailer offices we all called it Space Crappers, and wondered if Futterman would ever realize that Bob, with our help, had gotten one over on her.

And so, while the meatballs argument raged, they slipped in Bob's episode and they shot it and it actually got on the air.

Damn!

Believe it or not, after that the Meatball War intensified.

Another week passed. Futterman and Larson were still at loggerheads. Except this time Larson said screw all of you and refused to shoot another episode. (Chris and I had an approved script titled Earthquake waiting in the wings. And there it languished.)

As far as Larson was concerned, either his meatball story would go on, or ABC would be forced to broadcast blank air time, or reruns of one of those exciting documentaries about the plight of urban minority males that networks have to show every now and again to get the FCC off their backs about Eff-word goofs, costume malfunctions and other lies.

Larson dug in his heels. Had them load up the episode to get ready to satellite to New York for national airing.

Futterman said she would never give permission.

Never, ever, ever.

The clocked ticked.

And ticked.

And ticked some more.

Finally...

... Futterman blinked.

Sometime A Meatball
Is Just A Meatball
At the very last possible second the show, meatballs and all, was beamed into space. And history... or something vaguely similar to history... was made.

It was a rotten episode - a bullet to the heart of our already wounded ratings. But, screwup though it might have been, Larson was victorious.

Proving Godfrey's point that in the business of television, he who fucks up last, wins.

NEXT: WE BURN THE SCHOOLSHIP 


THE COMPLETE MISADVENTURES: IT'S A BOOK!


THE VITAL LINKS:
The MisAdventures began humbly enough - with about 2,000 readers. When it rose to over 50,000 (we're now knocking at the door of 110,000) I started listening to those of you who urged me to collect the stories into a book. Starting at the beginning, I went back and rewrote the essays, adding new detail and events as they came to mind. This book is the result of that effort. However, I'm mindful of the fact, Gentle Reader, that you also enjoy having these little offerings posted every Friday to put a smile on your face for the weekend. So I'll continue running them until it reaches the final Fade Out. Meanwhile, it would please the heart of this ink-stained wretch - as well as tickle whatever that hard black thing is in my banker's chest - if you bought the book. It will make a great gift, don't you think? And if you'd like a personally autographed copy you can get it directly through my (ahem) Merchant's Link at Amazon.com. Click here. Buy the book and I will sign it and ship it to you. Break a leg!

THE STEN COOKBOOK & KILGOUR JOKEBOOK





Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held  cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.    




EMPIRE DAY 2012 - A COMMEMORATIVE EDITION

Relive the fabulous four-day Stregg-laced celebration.  Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. New recipes from the Eternal Emperor's kitchen. Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever. Sten's thrill-packed exploits at the Emp's castle. How to make your own Stregg. And, did I mention, Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever?




3 comments:

  1. Always enjoy these. Good stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  2. As always, Allan, I enjoy your work.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks guys! The kind words are much appreciated. I enjoy writing these MisAdventures and when I look back I realize even more that the only way to deal with Hollywood is to have a partner you can whine too. >g<

    ReplyDelete