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Friday, September 9, 2011

WE BURN THE SCHOOLSHIP


"An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools." 
Ernest Hemingway

"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me." 
Hunter S. Thompson 
* * *

Okay, Who Stole
The French Fries?
Chris gave me the elbow and stage whispered, "Did you fucking see that, Cole?"

Eyes cut toward us and I ducked my head, hissing, "Shut the fuck up! Everybody can hear you!"

Chris shrugged, then attempted to lower his voice. "Yeah, but did you fucking see it?"

I had. And it was disturbing.

We were sitting at the Galactica table in the Universal commissary. I was having the Jack Klugman sandwich - A Philly Cheese Steak, natch; while Chris was finishing up the Telly Savalas Greek Grinder.
  
Who Loves Ya, Baby?
Sandwiches at the commissary were named for Studio stars. Klugman was the coroner lead of Quincy M.E. And Telly Savalas was the Forever "Who loves ya, baby" who had Universal over a contract barrel that could only be concocted by a wily Greek accountant whose ancestors, no doubt, designed the Trojan Horse.

Of course, if your show was cancelled and they were tearing up your contract, your sandwich would vanish from the Big Menu Board that graced one wall of the commissary. More often than not, the chef would be told before you or your agent, so you'd first learned that your ass was fired when you looked up on the Menu Board and your sandwich was gone.

As much as we longed for such an honor, there was no Bunch & Cole sandwich. And if there were, we'd want it cancelled in the worst way. Because at this point in time we were five weeks into our threatened seven-year indenture to MCA/Universal and everybody on the Glen Larson created disaster was slowly coming apart at the seams. To cope, they were developing bad new habits, or relapsing into old ones.

Witness the "did you fucking see that, Cole" incident that Chris was referring to. One of the handsome young Galactica stars - who normally spent hours in the weight room and the treadmill to keep camera fit, and who denied himself all but the healthiest and least caloric foodstuffs - had suffered a minor breakdown when he left our table.

As he passed by a plate a busboy was clearing away, he made a quick snatch for a handful of leftover fries. The commissary made outstanding fries. Thick and sizzled crispy on the outside and moist on the inside in hot vats of pure white Crisco lard, they probably weighed in at a zillion calories a fry.

And the minute our young star thought he wasn't being watched, he stuffed the whole handful in his mouth. Chewing surreptitiously, he ducked out of the commissary before anyone could notice his mushmouth.

"Yeah, I saw," I told Chris. "One of the busboys told me half the regulars are sneaking things off plates. They've had to dodge forks, or risk having their fingers chomped by pearly whites. Apparently busing dishes for the Galactica table is not a job for the faint of heart."

Chris chuckled, then said, "A Teamster told me his old man owns one of those We Care And We Bail limo services that contracts to the studios. I guess Saturday night bar hopping has gone through the roof. And he has no idea how they make it for the Monday morning call."

(TV people work incredible hours, especially the actresses who have to get to work at least two hours early for makeup and hair. And on a science fiction show aliens and other critters have to get there even earlier than the actresses. A typical shoot is Monday through Saturday. You get Sunday off, but that's usually when the script is delivered for the shoot the following morning. While we're all watching 60 Minutes, they're memorizing their lines.)

Chris raised his empty beer glass and across the room our waitress caught the signal, nodded and hustled off to fetch us two more. Then he said, "Let's make this our last round. For now, anyway. Our booze level has started to creep up, in case you haven't noticed."

"Creep up?' I said, incredulous. "It grabbed us and ran off about week two of this bullshit show."

"When you're right, you're right, Cole," Chris said. "What we need to do is impose some fucking discipline before our livers call it quits."

The waitress arrived with our beer and Chris took a thirsty gulp, put the glass down and pulled over a placemat. Fished out a ballpoint and clicked it into action.

"Let's lay down some rules," he said. "Then stick with them."

"Agreed," I said, taking a honk off my own beer.

Chris said, "First thing I noticed is that we're starting to put Drambuie in our coffee when we get to work in the morning." He wrote on the placemat, saying, "Rule Number One - No more morning Drambuie."

I started to agree then thought of something. "What if it's a Futterman Morning."

"Shit," Chris said. "That's a tough call."

A Futterman morning was when we had to deal with the ABC censor, one Susan Futterman. The lady you met in last week's episode, Meatballs In Space - The Larson-Futterman Wars.

Chris scratched out Rule Number One. Then rewrote it. "No more Drambuie in the coffee," he labored, "except on Futterman Mornings." He raised his head, then said, "And if she's really shitty, we get a consolation hit after we get off the phone."

"Good," I said. "Except let's make it Remy (the cognac) instead of Drambuie.

"You got it," Chris said, making the correction. "And if she really pisses us off we get doubles."

No quibbles were heard from my side of the table.

The list went on from there. I thought I had a copy of the original. I distinctly remember folding the placemat up and tucking it aside to go with other memorabilia that will someday be on display in the Bunch & Cole Wing of the Library Of Congress. My searches have failed to turn it up thus far, but I'm pretty sure I can reconstruct the list.

It went something like this:

Rule Number One: The above mentioned ban on starting work with Drambuie-laced coffee - except on Futterman Mornings.

Rule Number Two: No more than four beers each were permitted at lunch. Except for the day of the list-making, that is, since we'd already passed that point. In addition, we would no longer order four beers at a time (two each) to save the waitress the walk. This way we could spread the beer out and even the score with the waitress by upping the tip.

Rule Three: We'd stick to coffee as best we could, then in the afternoon we'd switch to extremely strong pots of tea. To encourage that switch, we permitted ourselves one cup of Earl Grey laced with Tia Maria liqueur after lunch and another at 5 p.m.

Rule Four: In the Evening we were allowed as much scotch and soda as seemed fit. (We always had to work late because of Jeff (The EatAnter) Freilich’s insistence on stupid meetings. Chris, if you recall, dubbed Jeff The EatAnter after the whiny character in the B.C. comic strip. Once he made us wait a couple of hours in his back yard on a Saturday morning, while he and his wife got their weekly massage. Afterward, Chris gave him a Wedgie and he never did it again.)

Rule Five: No drinking on the drive home, unless The EatAnter had been particularly whiny, then we were allowed a nip or three from the hip-flask of Drambuie we always kept handy for traffic emergencies.

There were other inducements and inducement-bearing people - as well as firm rules governing same - but they shall remain unremarked upon to protect the astonishingly guilty.

I'm mentioning the above to illustrate the tremendous pressure everyone was under. Five weeks felt like five centuries. Unlike us, most people feared for their jobs. Here they were working on the most expensive TV show in history and it was quickly going down the tubes. My God, there might not be a pickup! No second season!

In short, the ratings were as abysmal as Glen Larson’s scripts.

Of course, what made a loser show in those days would make a winning program today. There were basically only three networks – meaning three channels – and somewhere between 75% to 90% of the public watched one of those three networks from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night. (And everybody, but everybody watched Johnny Carson at 11:30 on NBC five nights a week.)

A top ten show, like Quincy, would usually get over 30 Nielsen Ratings points. (Simply put, a rating point is a little over a million viewers, so a rating point of 30 would mean an audience of over 30 million.) A number one show like Sixty Minutes – which was opposite us on Sunday nights – would garner 40 rating points or even more. Today, a top show draws somewhere between 15 and 19 rating points. If an episode of the late, unlamented "Survivor" had captured 10 ratings points the producers would have been thrilled.

What was the doomsday number for Galactica 1980?

"Thirteen," our producer/mentor Al Godfrey told us over lunch one day.

"If the show weren't so expensive and Larson wasn't such a pain in the ass it might hang on a little longer at that number," he said. "But I double-damn guarantee you that the day the Nielsen's hit 13, the Network will cut Larson off at the knees."

After lunch, Chris made up a big sign and posted it on our office door. Very simply it read:

COME ON 13!

Freilich had just come in and he peered at the sign, puzzled. Finally, the EatAnter asked: "What's that mean?"

"That's our lucky number," I said.

"Since when is thirteen lucky?" he said. "For most people it's in the toilet time."

I jumped in before Chris could say, "That's where we were hoping the show will go - down the fucking toilet."

I delivered the answer we'd planned all along: "We're resurrecting the old Thirteen Club," I said.

"Yeah," Chris said. "If it was good enough for Chester A. Arthur, it's good enough for me and Cole."

"The Thirteen Club?" Freilich scoffed. "There's no such thing."

"Wanna bet?" Chris said.

Freilich laughed nervously and shook his head. "You guys!" he said, backing out the door to avoid another Wedgie attack. 

He also didn't bet and later Dolly came in laughing, saying his lovely red-headed assistant just reported that the EatAnter had made her call Studio Research about The Thirteen Club.

"And you know what?" Dolly said. "It really did exist. They used to enter the meetings by walking under ladders, and the dining room floor was covered with spilled salt. A lot of very important people belonged to it."

The Man:
Chester A. Arthur
"Including Chester A. Arthur," Chris said. (And it's true. We looked it up before we posted the sign.)

Dolly gave him a look. "What're you boys really up to?"

"No good," Chris said.

After that we made it a point to have a different answer when anybody asked us what "Come On 13" meant. Meanwhile, week by week as each episode aired, the ratings dropped lower and lower. Steadily sinking toward that mark of the mortally wounded 13.

"Makes you believe maybe there really is a fucking God," Chris said, reviewing the Nielsen's one bright - for us - Monday morning.

He lowered his issue of Variety. "Makes me feel kind of guilty, though," he said. "We want out of here the worst way. But to do that a lot of nice people will have to lose their jobs."

I sighed my agreement. "Not our fault," I said. "Larson's the one who's making this such a shitty show. Hell, if it were any good, I might not mind working here so much."

Then we consoled one another by letting up a tad on the Drambuie in the coffee rule. The fact of the matter is that a lot of people’s livelihoods are involved in any television series and I'm not talking about rich people. There are far more working stiffs than stars; guys and gals and who lay carpet, knock the sets together, paint, wire, set up lights, fix cars – you name the trade and it is represented in any Hollywood production.

Even so, we felt like slaves under that Peter Thompson mandated Universal Studios contract. Which said, in short, that we were their virtual bondsmen for a period of seven years – unless they decided not to pick up our contracts, in which case our asses were fired and free.

We wanted fired and free. Back to freelancing TV shows, writing our books and living healthier lives that required fewer inducements to get through the day.

Besides the "Come On 13" - we wanted to post another sign aimed at our youthful audience (Ha!) that said: WHY AREN'T YOU LITTLE BUG SNIPES WATCHING 60 MINUTES, but feared that would tip our hand.

Meanwhile, Management, was desperately trying to turn the tide away from 13 toward a more desirable number that equaled a pickup for a second, and then hopefully a third season. Because three seasons - 66 episodes - is where the Syndication Bucks cut in to the tune of many millions of dollars an episode.

And so a Big Meeting Of The Suits was decreed. Yachting vacations were cut short. Mistresses were left to paint their nails in fancy suites. Company jets were commandeered to fly from New York to the Left Coast. An entire floor of the Universal City Hotel was roped off. (Except for Telly Savalas' suite, of course, where he and his family, along with his aged mother, lived free - courtesy of the afore mentioned Trojan Horse contract.)

And the Dawn To Martini Hour meetings at the Black Tower commenced. Gloom was parsed. Doom was dissected. And unbeknownst to them, all the actors and actresses came under the baleful gaze of various Big Telephone Guys, who wondered aloud if the fault was theirs.

The funny thing is, nobody questioned the writing. Nobody observed that the scripts were so bad that as Lorne Greene had complained when he visited our office: "Lord Lawrence, himself, couldn't rescue (the scripts) from the lavatory."

Glen Larson
At this point, Glen Larson, the man who was truly to blame, went into high meeting gear. A consummate salesman - albeit a lousy writer and committed borrower of better men's ideas - Larson, we were told, was at his most eloquent. He promised this. He promised that. He promised all the other things in the world. In short, he said he was going to film the most spectacular episode - no, two episodes - that have ever been created for television. No expense would be spared.

The senior vice president at Universal assured the network that they were putting their money where… well, I’ll skip this comment out entirely. Where Hollywood is concerned it could be considered XXX rated. Suffice it to say, they swore that if required, they would swallow.

Larson promised them a thrilling, two-part episode in which the evil Cylons gave it everything they had. The bad guys would ambush the heroic Galactica fleet in such numbers that many a human hero would meet his or her fate.

Moreover, if only they would promise to bar the dreaded Susan Futterman from the set, Larson said, the finale would be an all out attack on the school ship. The huge space ship that carried the hopes and dreams of Galactica, and therefore Humankind.

And get this, he said. The Cylons will succeed! They’ll blow the be-jesus out of the school ship while our cast of handsome heroes and comely heroines race to save the children.

In short, in the last scene of Episode One we will see the whole damned school ship ablaze while innocent little rug rats in spacesuits shrieked and wailed for their mommies.

Hot Damn! Was the reaction of one and all. Fan-fucking-tastic!

But then the ABC Biz Affairs Veep became suspicious and asked," What’s the estimated cost of these episodes?"

Larson nodded at the Universal Studios rep, who spoke up: "We have budgeted $3.2 million for both episodes..." (According to my handy-dandy cost-of living calculator that would be $8,310,679.61 in today's money.)

The ABC Biz guy lifted an eyebrow. (Or so I was told) "That’s well above our license fee," he pointed out with a wolfish grin. The license fee, was about $750,000. The studio ate the difference for every episode, which I said before was well over a million bucks. (For a lesson in TV deficit financing and the benefits of same, you’ll have to wait for future episodes of these Misadventures.)

Everybody was convinced. The show would go on. At least for the next two-part episode.

Unsaid was that if the show did not rise in the ratings, burning schoolships be damned, it was going to be All Over Now, Baby Blue.

NEXT: WE BURN THE SCHOOLSHIP PART: DEUX

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?




1 comment:

  1. Wayne A. "Tony" ConawaySeptember 9, 2011 at 6:37 PM

    The Thirteen Club, huh? I KNEW there was a reason I liked Chester Alan Arthur (his side-whiskers notwithstanding).

    ReplyDelete