LB: Some Musings on the Silver Surfer (the greatest muser of all time)

Glad You Asked Dept. 1/16/14

That's Jack Kirby's version on the left, with Earl Norem's variation on the right.
That’s Jack Kirby’s version on the left, with Earl Norem’s variation on the right.

About a year ago I started what I intended to be a weekly column answering your questions about TV writing and the TV biz in general. I would’ve gladly answered questions about a ton of other things, but TV writing and TV biz aren’t just areas I know a lot about, they’re probably the only areas I know anything about.

The weekliness of said column didn’t last long because I didn’t get enough questions. Which, btw, was very disappointing. Recently, however, I’ve received a couple of inquiries that I think might be of interest to others, so here we go with the latest Glad You Asked.

Today’s question is about one of my favorite topics, the animated SILVER SURFER series that I ran back in the waning days of the 20th Century. It’s from JB (writing from France, which of course proves the wonderfulness of the interwebs when it comes to expanding our communication horizons). Where was I? Oh, right. JB’s question:

I am currently watching the Silver Surfer TV series and rarely have I been so delighted and surprised by a show, I am in complete admiration…. The show remains completely pertinent and it will probably be so for years and years.

I am studying Theology and am constantly finding themes linking the show to mythology, theology, ethics etc. I was wondering if you had any background in any of those domains, maybe did it come from your University formation?

The questions raised are so precise (scenes where a choice has to be made, the romantic quest, sacrifice, guilt, the appearance of different types of societies with different values, different resignations…), I came to wonder if it’s because writers are naturally inclined to include those existential questions in their work or because creative writing is the conscious choice to make an homage to classic and well-liked myths or formulas or because writers use those well-known/liked myths and formulas as a tool to critique the world they live in.

Did you want to include those questions/problematics/themes (they make the serie so fun to analyse!) or did it just surface naturally and became obvious after the writing?

Also, how much did you study the comic books? How much did you read and how much time did you give to the reading in order to be confident taking back the character?

I mostly speak French so I can’t quite find the words to formulate all the questions and exclamations that came to mind while watching, so I’ll just say; thank you for your amazing, insightful, poetic work!

To which I can only answer:

Yes.

Well, that’s it, kids. All I have time for. Tune in next time and I’ll get to Question Two. No, wait. I do have a bit more to say on this subject, so:

Dear JB,

I love your questions, but it would take far more space than I have in this blog to answer them fully. The bottom line is that you can rest assured that every single thing on the show was deliberate. (Except for mistakes made on the visual side by the various animators.)

The original network, Fox Family, and I worked very closely to be as adult and, yes, mythical/theological/ethical as possible for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, because we wanted to make the show as much like the original Stan Lee-Jack Kirby version of the comic book as we could.

Secondly, because we wanted to show that even though we were making what was “only” a Saturday morning cartoon show we could use the TV animation medium to go even further in the direction of philosophy and self-realization than the comics ever did.

I have a fairly extensive background (“fairly extensive?” what does that mean?) in philosophy, and an obsession with existentialism, and for many years one of my hobbies was theology. I’m pretty sure that I have every book on the history (and therefore the meaning) of Christianity written between the mid-1950s and the year 2000. And, to top it all off, it was mythology – Greek, Roman, Hindu, you-name-it – that first fired up my imagination and made me want to be a writer back when I was still in elementary school. (We called it grammar school then; I’m that fucking old.)

When the Silver Surfer first got his own comic book back in 1968 he was as Christlike as a comic book character can get. Nonviolent. Questioning the inhumanity of human beings, that kind of thing. The Fox Family executive in charge of bringing our show to the screen, Sidney Iwanter, wanted to emphasize that, which is why he came to me. I hadn’t done much animation previously but my “live-action” shows all had a fundamental concern for ethics and ambiguities, and I’d been a Marvel Maniac since Fantastic Four #1, so I was a good fit.

Sitting down with Stan Lee and Avi Arad, who were both executive producing, we worked out a format in which the Surfer was a modern Odysseus with the personality of an alien Jesus, trying to find his lost home world and his great love, Shalla Bal. The idea was to be as humanistic as possible even though it meant stretching all previous superhero cartoon boundaries.

Sidney and I were absolutely trying to create a new paradigm, one in which characters thought about their actions and worried about the consequences, and in which they actually had conversations. Up to that time, the standard scene in Saturday morning animation consisted of three one-sentence bits of dialog and then a fight. The Silver Surfer, however, does a lot of talking, mostly to himself in the form of musing about the state of the universe and how intellectual and emotional strengths and weaknesses and implacable forces of nature affect the viability of his hopes and dreams.

Because those were pretty much the concerns that influenced every moment of my life, and Sidney’s too. I know that what I just wrote sounds esoteric, but it was designed to make the show more relate-able than any other comic book-based property had ever been.

Our main difficulty was keeping things visual. We solved the problem by letting the Surfer yak to himself (in his patented archaic speech pattern) in voiceover over shots of impending danger, using this technique to generate suspense. We would build these scenes so that the musing and the danger would come together in explosive action that combined both CGI and hand-drawn animation, satisfying – we hoped – viewers of all ages.

Creatively, I think we succeeded pretty well. Common wisdom, however, says that the show was a failure with audiences. The truth is that its ratings were more than good enough to earn renewal, but Marvel was going through a corporate meltdown that resulted in it being unable to continue meeting its financial requirements, per the Fox Family-Marvel deal on the show. In fact, Marvel filed for bankruptcy during that time.

So, sadly, that was the end. I’d outlined the entire second season and written 1/3 of the scripts when cancellation became official. I’d still like to do the second season for the world to see, but the state of the universe and human intellectual and emotional strengths and weaknesses long ago successfully combined to destroy the viability of that hope and dream.

Bottom line: I’m really glad you’ve been enjoying the show because I sure as hell enjoyed making it.

Best wishes,

LB

That’s it, gang. I love addressing these issues, but I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LB: And My Favorite of All the Shows I’ve Worked On Is…

Glad You Asked Department 5/27/13

question_ditkoTime now to once again play Answer Man. Today’s question is on a  topic near and dear to me. Yep, that’s right, it’s about  me. Well, my career anyway. (Which isn’t me, but once upon a time I sure thought it was.)

Sam T. has expressed his curiosity this way:

I saw your IMDB page the other day and was amazed by the size of your output.  Writing credits on fifty different series? Producer on ten? Story editor on ten more? That looks to me like an amazing output. Which of all those shows was your favorite? Which was your least favorite? And I have to ask one more question too. How in the world did you do it?

Thanks in advance,

Sam T.

Yours truly, LB replies:

Gee, Sam, when you put it all out there like that I’m kind of flabbergasted myself. That’s a lot of writing. And editing. And deciding (because that’s what producing really is, deciding which way everything should go.)

If it’s all right with you (yeah, even if it’s not), I’ll go with your last question first.

I did all this because I was nuts. Batfuck crazy. Obsessive. Driven. I pretty much sucked at the things most people do, like interacting socially, expressing love, being able to dress myself, all the things everyone else takes for granted. So I did a lot of  hiding, and learned at an early age that if I hid at a keyboard and wrote people not only left me alone, they held what I was doing in high esteem.

So from the time I was about 20 until I hit 45, almost all of my waking time was spent researching or writing or protecting what I’d written by being as “in charge” of its production as I possibly could. In other words, I was an addict. And an addict can do a hell of a lot of his or her favorite drug if allowed to indulge. And I wasn’t just allowed to indulge, I was encouraged, because all that effort earned me a lot of respect and even more money, which in turn got me even more respect.

Does this sound like heaven to you? Or hell? To me, it was both. Which is why, in middle-age (45ish), I went cold turkey and forced myself to learn how to live. Now I divide my time pretty equally between the writing thing and the living thing, and heaven has just about totally replaced hell.

Not the answer you were expecting, I bet. I’ll try to answer your other questions more simply:

When I think of my favorite show I think of two different series. In terms of quality, it would have to be GIBBSVILLE, a short-lived 1976 series on which I was Executive Story Consultant. And when I say short-lived, man, do I mean it. The series was based on short stories by John O’Hara, one of the great American short story writers of the 20th Century, and starred Gig Young and John Savage. Critics loved it. The network, NBC, didn’t. We were cancelled after only 3 episodes. A few more appeared on the air in the U.S., I think, and a total of 13 episodes appeared in various European markets. Then it was gone. Forever. No reruns. No DVD release. I’m going to stop talking about it now because if I go on I’ll start crying.

In terms of fun, however, my favorite show was MIKE HAMMER. I was “Supervising Producer,” which in 1984 was the same thing as being “showrunner,” and I truly loved everyone I worked with, especially Stacy Keach who is, quite simply, the most intelligent, sensitive actor I’ve ever known. Watching him work, hanging with him on the set…the memories still make me feel like I’m shining.

On the least favorite front, in terms of both quality and fun the same series is the “winner.” The show sucked and so did every single moment I worked on it. The only good thing that came out of this gig – and, no, I’m not going to tell you the name because it’s too humiliating in too many ways – was that it made me rethink my life and get out into the real world at last. And, as I’ve already said, that worked out very, very well.

I’ve got to say that for the most part I’m very proud of my career. And my life. Everything I’ve done I’ve done with as much intensity as I could muster, and I like to think that I still am. Oh, before I go, a word about that IMDB listing. It’s not as accurate as it could be. Lists me as being involved in some shows I had nothing to do with, and omits an equal number of shows that I worked hard on. It’s close enough for jazz, though, and I’ve always loved jazz.

Thanks for asking,

LB

My purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. But I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LB: “Why Should We Settle for This Newbie? We Want an A-List Writer!”

Glad You Asked Department 5/20/13

question_ditkoTime now to once again play Answer Man. Today’s question is on a  topic that’s broken many a writer’s heart…including, yes, my own.

Thanks to Edye P. for having the special kind of courage it took to bring this up:

I’ve been writing for a couple of years now, long enough to have an agent and specs she’s proud to send out.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been on pins and needles about a proposal the agent sent to a major studio. A week  ago, everything was rainbows because negotiations had begun and the network had accepted, “in principle,” our terms: WGAW minimum for the pilot script and a staff writing position if the show got on the air.

Yesterday, however, my agent got a call from the person whose career the series would be based on, with the woman saying, “Who is Edye P anyway? Why do we need her? Aaron Sorkin would love to write this?”

The woman wants me to write the script first to prove I’m “worthy” before she’ll okay the deal. I know all too well that I’m nobody and should be happy for the chance to play the game. But I’m crushed. I know there’s nothing you can do about making this deal, but I need some consolation. Help!

To which yours truly, LB replies:

I feel your pain. To be precise, I’ve felt it. Many times.

People not directly involved in the TV/film biz (even those in other branches of showbiz) always think they can “do better” when put together with a new writer/producer/director, or even one who simply isn’t what they think of as A List. They may not be A List themselves, but they’re certain they deserve “the best.”

The last time this happened with me was with a certain Outlaw Country Star and all-round insult king. (In person, as opposed to onstage, he makes Don Rickles look like not merely a saint but an angel.)

A few years ago, when I was living in the South, Outlaw Country Star’s Acting Manager/pal brought me in to write and produce a biopic based on a not-exactly- best-selling book on OCS’s life.

AM/P flew with me to the West Coast to meet with OCS. We didn’t exactly get off to a great start. OCS looked me up and down as he entered the meeting room (mostly up because he’s very short) and said, “Are you Jewish? Jews have destroyed the music business, you know.”

It got a little better after that, and at the end of the day I went home with the AM/Pal’s assurance that we’d be making a deal soon and I should get started working out all the production details, especially the budget.

I didn’t have much else to do out in the country, so I enlisted the participation of a terrific line producer and wrote the creative proposal-business plan the AM/P wanted. During the process OCS and I talked on the phone a few times, and I even arranged for a director buddy of mine and his crew to accompany him on what he then thought would be his “Final Tour” and shoot the hell out of it.

During the tour, the AM/P told me how well people were reacting to the proposal. In fact, he said, he had all the right people lined up with the right money.

After the tour, the AM/P called me again. OCS, he said, had been thinking. If there was that much interest in an OCS biopic, it certainly couldn’t be because of me, an ordinary mortal who also was “some semi-retired TV guy.”

Nope, it had to be because of OCS. Which meant that OCS and his pal were sure to get more money if the film had an Oscar winning writer-producer instead…and several of those types were, AM/P said, champing at the bit to be in.

So off the project went without me, and…well, you haven’t seen it, have you? Or heard about it being prepped or shot or in post? The film was never made. As far as I know it never got written…and no real money ever got put on the table.

Based on my experience, regardless of what happens here, your agent still has something to negotiate: Payment and possible credit for you for what you’ve done if the project goes on without you. (Call the WGAW. they may have some advice about that.)

And take consolation in the fact that if the subject of your series decides to look for someone else to build on the foundation you’ve built, odds are that will be the end of the project. Things just always seem to work out that way.

Odds also are that not working with her in any way will be much better for your life than doing the gig. Personally, at the very least, and probably career-wise as well…even if the project goes ahead. Because at this point, if you continue to participate there’s a very good chance that you’ll end up the lightning rod for every bit of criticism the subject ever has, and that’s one of the most stressful situations you can be in.

Of course, if you do end up with the deal, forget I said anything. You’ll have created a series. You’ll be working on it. You’ll be banking sizable $$$. Enjoy!

In other words, if you squint just a bit, this is far from a disaster. It’s actually a win-win situation. It’s all just a matter of perception.

Good Luck!

LB

My purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. But I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LB: My Foray into Teaching College Screenwriting Part 2

Glad You Asked Department 5/13/13

question_ditkoTwo weeks ago I answered the question, “Should I go to grad school or to L.A. as the next step to getting into the TV writing biz?”

And I followed that last week with the first part of the answer to a related query, “Why do you hate television writing programs so much?”

I said then that “my personal experience so far is that only about 20% of the programs meet my criteria” and went on and on about my one positive experience in the college TV writing arena, when I taught TV and film writing at The College of Santa Fe twenty – yikes! – years ago.

So now it’s time to talk about my four other experiences. For everyone who comes to this site, especially (because s/he asked) the visitor who signed her/his post “Bewildered College Teacher Who Really Wants to Know:”

Having enjoyed myself at The College of Santa Fe and becoming increasingly bored with my latest attempt at retirement in the early 2000s, I followed up a suggestion from a writer friend of mine who thought I’d be a great teaching fit at a Big 10 university where she taught part-time.

Big 10 was looking for someone to teach TV writing specifically, and when, aided and abetted my my friend, I e-mailed the Department Head about my interest, he jumped on it immediately and flew me out to talk further.

I got the campus tour from a student who was moving to L.A., hoping to get into the biz because, she said, “I’ve used up everybody at this place.”

Then I sat down with the Department Head, who said he was thrilled that a writer with my experience and reputation wanted to work there but couldn’t for the life of him understand why I would.

“The weather here stinks,” he said. “And we’re all underpaid. And you’re, well, you’re you. You don’t need this kind of thing.”

He also let me know that if I did need it I’d have to be ready to move to campus in, literally, “one week. We need you to commit now and come immediately.”

I said, “That’s impossible. I have a wife. And dogs and cats and horses and chickens. It’ll take months to work everything out.” Gwen the Beautiful, my wife, used to work in HR at UCLA. She knows how places like that recruit and hire. Which means I know it too. I stared at the D.H. “Don’t you guys usually hire people at least a semester or so in advance?”

“Yeah, we’re late on this thing. So you can’t do it, right?”

And, as he said that, I realized what was going on. They already had what businesses call their “preferred candidate.” But HR was on them to make it look, on paper, as though they were conducting a genuine search.

And, sure enough, a couple of weeks later my friend the part-time teacher told me that’s exactly what’d happened. They’d brought in a friend of the D.H.’s who had written and sold less than half a dozen TV scripts.

I’d written and sold hundreds. And produced ten times more.

A few years later, another friend, who taught on the East Coast, sounded me out about replacing a retiring professor at his illustrious institution. That sounded pretty cool, so I said yes, and they too flew me out.

And asked me to audition by teaching a mock class.

No big deal. I love teaching/talking to bright, eager, young people who love the same things I love – TV, films, and writing. I gave ’em my best hour and had a great time. I was pretty sure the students did too.

Afterward, I met with the Dean. “Wow,” he said. “That was something. You’re inspirational as hell.”

I started to thank him. He cut me off. “But we don’t need to inspire our students. They’re already so jazzed up that we can’t keep up with them. We get application from so many already inspired students that we’re turning them away.”

I flew back home shrugging. A couple of weeks later my friend there told me that they’d decided not to hire anybody, and instead retire the chair for awhile.

Fast forward another couple of years. A friend teaching at a Southern university calls and asks if I’d like to teach there because they’re adding a new TV writing track.

The Program Head is all excited when I say yes, and we exchange a series of e-mails and phone calls, all very casual and friendly and, “There are a number of ways we can set this up. We want to make sure everything works just right for you.”

Sounded pretty good.

Finally, since we’re such good buds, the Program Head says she doesn’t want to inconvenience me by flying me out and they do what I now know is the pro forma  interview as a conference call. Four faculty members and me.

As soon as we’re all on the phone, I relay a message from another friend of mine who I’ve just learned is the President of the University Alumni Association. A simple, “Alumni Honcho says hi.”

Silence. Then, in a voice that would freeze the Human Torch, the Program says, “I didn’t know that you knew Honcho.”

And doesn’t speak again for the rest of the call except for a curt goodbye when the other three teachers are finished shooting the shit with me.

The next day I get an official HR e-mail saying the University is talking to lots of applicants and will get back to me as soon as a decision has been made…and that may not be for quite awhile.

I never hear from my no-longer buddy the Program Head or the University again.

Let’s move on to the last time I expressed interest in teaching in a college TV and/or film program. This one worked out a little differently. A retired, non-writing, non-teaching friend who for reasons known only to the retired spent a lot of time checking job listings online e-mailed me with something he thought I’d be perfect for: A TV writing gig at a Major Southwestern State University.

I went through their online process without any “in,” got the e-mail that said I was among those being considered, and then, months later, got another e-mail telling me I hadn’t been chosen.

But that wasn’t the end. A few days afterward I got a call from a young woman who said she’d just been hired for that very same gig and “Would you consider taking me on as a coaching client and teaching me all about writing for TV?”

“You don’t know about television writing? You’ve never done it?”

“Oh no. I just graduated from Major Southwestern State University. All my teachers there thought I’d be a great addition to the faculty, so they arranged a new job just for me. I read your Television Writing from the Inside Out book in one of my classes, so I knew you were the best one to help me do the job.”

Which brings us to what we in TV call the Tag. Contrary to the impression I may have given, I don’t hate college television writing programs.

But considering how the schools I’m familiar with hire those who teach these programs, and who they do hire, I sure as hell am not impressed.

I absolutely guarantee that any new TV writer will learn more in one hour as a gofer on TV series…or, what the hell, as a food server in a restaurant close to a TV/film studio or TV network office building than in an entire post-graduate course of study.

Go to L.A.

Test yourself.

Learn.

LB

Coming next week: A new question. About a new topic. I swear!

Remember, my purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. But I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LB: My Foray into Teaching College Screenwriting

Glad You Asked Department 5/06/13

question_ditko

Last week I answered the not-so-musical question, “Should I go to grad school or to L.A.?”

And, yes, if you’re considering either of those two options in terms of a career in television writing I do think you should read that post.

My reply caused a lot of stir behind the scenes here, so I’m manning up and answering the most frequent follow-up question I’ve gotten.

In other words, man, did I piss a lot of people off.

From Bewildered College Teacher Who Really Wants to Know:

Good Morning, Larry,

Your article about studying television writing in grad school versus plunging into the showbiz maelstrom in L.A. really shocked me.

I thought you were all for education, but apparently I was way wrong. Just between us, Why do you hate television writing programs so much?

To which sweet, kindly LB replies:

Hi Bewildered College Teacher Who Really Wants to Know

Um, because the teachers seem so defensive of their turf and therefore inclined to be overly critical about working professionals in the field they teach and they (the teachers) also oversimplify what they (the me) have said?

Or, to put it another way:

I have nothing against television (and film) writing programs per se provided that their aims are clearly stated and understood by all concerned and their teachers are qualified to achieve those aims. Unfortunately, my personal experience so far is that only about 20% of the programs meet my criteria.

Five personal examples. (Because that’s all I’ve got.)

First, the good:

In 1991-1992, I retired from showbiz, fat, tired, and, yes, I admit it, rich, and moved to Santa Fe, NM. Loving the biz, especially TV, as much as I do, instead of staying totally retired I got a job teaching TV and Film writing and production classes at The College of Santa Fe.

The head of the Moving Image Arts program, Joseph Dispenza, was – and still is – a hell of a guy. Smart, wise even, experienced, funny, and, especially, brave.

Smart and wise because he knew the purpose of what he was teaching.

“Traditionally,” Joseph told me when we first met, “higher education has presented literature class after literature class to enable its students to become the most perceptive readers and critics they can be. If, along the way, they also pick up the urge and ability to create literature that’s been considered a wonderful bonus.

“The handwriting’s on the wall,” added my esteemed soon-to-be colleague, “books are dying. The moving image is the new book. Our job is this department is to give students a similar education in the ins and outs of communicating via film and TV. To enable them to become the most perceptive viewers they can be. And if this also enables them to create work of their own, then that becomes a bonus we can all be proud of.”

Brave because he took a chance on one of the most rebellious, anti-social individuals on the planet (that would be me), gave me some courses to teach and said, “Go.”

And go I did. I invited many of my friends to come in as guest speakers and, Santa Fe being a very hip and trendy spot – even more in those days than now – most of them were delighted to fly in and talk about what it was really like to be in the business as writers, directors, producers, even agents, and since one of the things being in showbiz teaches us is how to be entertaining and personable “in the room” my buddies charmed the crap out of the students, which means that one hell of a lot of information not only was given but actually assimilated. My students learned.

Of course, most of what they learned wasn’t general appreciation stuff but hardcore trade school material. I hadn’t started out intending to do that, but I’m a pro and I’m ambitious, and without even realizing it I took the most professional and ambitious route as a teacher.

Joseph caught onto this, but he didn’t stop me. “Instilling insight into how an art really works is the most valuable thing a teacher can do,” he said when I came in one day to apologize for my teaching style. “Don’t worry about it, Bro.”

I was in heaven. And so, I think, were at least a few of my students. A couple of them, sitcom writer-producer Joe Wiseman (1600 PENN, NEW GIRL) and producer Kent Kubena (PROJECT GREENLIGHT, AKEELA AND THE BEE), stand out in my memory. I wasn’t surprised when they both became world class pros.

As we all know, nothing lasts forever, not even (especially?) heaven on earth, and my College of Santa Fe Teaching Career came to a halt after a year for three reasons.

The first reason was that Joseph Dispenza left the program to become head of Greer Garson Studios, a pet project he’d been putting together for years with actress Greer Garson, who had retired to the Santa Fe area. Without Joseph and his fearless support (and good humor), teaching there just wasn’t the same.

The second reason was that I was learning the hard way that living in Santa Fe on a budget didn’t work very well. The cost of living there was at least as high as in L.A.

Combined with that was the third reason, which had been giving me a bigger and bigger itch to scratch. I was a writer, dammit. I loved to write. I needed to write. Why the hell wasn’t I writing?

So both my semi-retirement ended another way. I needed to go back to my real work.

Back to L.A.

Uh-oh, I’ve run out of space and time. (Does that ever happen to Inspector Spacetime? I wonder.) Why don’t we all catch our breaths and I’ll come back next week and finish this article?

LB

That’s it for this week.

I think it’s good to leave on the “good” side anyway. And now everyone’s got time to prepare themselves to face – OMG!!! – the upcoming Not-So-Good.

(Bet you thought I was gonna say “Bad.” Didn’t know I was such a positive guy, didja?)

My purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. Please remember, I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!