While looking for a candy bar recently, I unearthed an unfinished e-mail draft for a kids' programming pitch. Why I thought I could find a sugar rush on my hard drive I can’t rightly remember; but several weeks earlier I had discovered week-old warm pizza behind my stove, so perhaps that was the motivation. I’m very lucky in that regard: I’ve located edible snacks in the strangest places in my apartment.
The “whos and whys” and “how comes?” of this particular idea are really not important any longer. I’ve typed up millions of thought bubbles over the last 150 years I’ve been in the business. After a while, each concept bleeds into the next. With so much flowing blood, I should have the Red Cross on speed dial.
Thanks to the good Lord of Turnover, the executives meant to read this e-mail have long since departed the business of children’s programming. One trundled off to get a degree in animal grooming and is still plying his handiwork in Duluth, Minnesota. The other became a professional gay rights advocate who occasionally pops up around the country during various marches and demonstrations holding up signs that read “Look at me!”
Glancing over the e-mail after so many years made me wonder whether I was pitching a program idea or laying more pipe as evidence of my schizophrenia towards the business. Had the concept been taken seriously, it would, no doubt, have increased my Fitzcarraldo factor 10-fold among my peers while simultaneously being quarantined as a malware virus immediately upon its release into civilized company.
TV Land is an interesting world. We spend a third of our lives trying to get into this business, a third of our lives trying to get out of this business, and the final third writing tell-all books about the perverseness of this business. Hey! It beats doing anything legal for a living.
Pitching show ideas is a humbling and humiliating experience. Much like going home for Thanksgiving and being singled out by your loved ones as total career failure, minus the great food. I’ve done more pitching than Roger Clemens and struck out more often than Reggie Jackson. Were I a Christian in the Coliseum, I would have made it no farther than the outdoor concession stands before being torn apart by both the lions and the crowds. Television is such a cutthroat business that most seasoned professionals retain their own MASH units. All of us would be in bankruptcy court were we to purchase our sutures and needles retail.
Most of us on the writing side pitch what we believe are fantastic and visionary concepts to those on the production or network side, who prefer looking at us the way the Donner Party looked at each other.
I work in children’s programming, so most of my ideas do not involve humans as much as things that bark, meow, crawl, fly, squawk, slither, or growl, or do strange things to themselves like parthenogenesis. I’ve pitched out every phylum mentioned in Genesis, the Origin of Species, and the kettle bell-weighted, Eldra P, Solomon Biology Text Book.
The point of an initial pitch session is to survive the first round of glares, stares, and boorish activity. The speech must be passionate, provocative, yet non-threatening. Like the Blake character from "Glengarry Glen Ross," sans the salty language and the threat of personal doom. I am, after all, in kids' programming and my animated show is about the adventures of two wacky badger buddies and their wolverine friends, not fraudulent real estate deals.
Usually standing in front of you is some glassy-eyed, bottled water-swigging Amory Blaine type: An Ivy League Humanities major whose entitlement spoon is shoved so far up the rectum as to give the kid a perpetual tongue depressor. This is one angry individual, the low person on the totem pole, taking all the pitches no one else wants or can be bothered with. This executive would much rather be writing his or her own screenplay or giving notes on a multi-million dollar production. Instead, the graduate sits or stands or paces waiting for the meeting to end wondering, “WTF have I done in a previous life to warrant listening to some pot bellied has-been who probably never was pitch me a show about badgers and wolverines?”
We creative types realize that’s what the executive is thinking, but one soldiers on, always talking and forever smiling. Stand stalwart and unbowed like Gunga Din before he was shot. Your heart might want to exit your chest and rush to PINKS, but you’ve initiated the long march by walking through the door. Man up and take the verbal bullets to all of your vital organs. Hell, they’ll grow back after a case of Black Label.
Speak past the loud yawning and ball scratching (males only) the perpetual fingering of the Blackberry; the playing of YouTube video; the doodling; the room exits for coffee, bathroom, or nooky; the sound of a breast pump playing somewhere in the background. It is all about moving up the development mountain to the next level and beyond, avoiding the rock slides of “Nos," “Not interested,” “We have the same idea in development,” and the ever popular, “Get Out of Here before I Call Security.” The audience might be a crowd of one, but one paid quite handsomely to watch a fellow human defecate in one’s Dockers.
The pitch is over when the phone suddenly rings and the executive slaps himself awake explaining he has to take this very important call from the coast. The phone call is always from the coast. It could be the coast of Nova Scotia, but it is always “from the coast.” Usually an assistant generates the call, no doubt using egg timers to calculate the exact length in seconds a pitch artist should remain in the boss’s office. The security guard at the front gate tells you that, "They'll get back to you."
No one ever knows what will sell, so those of us who are required by a chronic desire for self-immolation to load up our scatter guns full of ideas, concepts, proposals, and napkin writings and shoot them out from the hip, the lip, and any place else that feels good. I’ve fired off so many shotgun rounds, I could have been part of the Earp Vendetta Ride. That’s why I never quit my night job as Floyd, the best wheel man in West Los Angeles.
THE UNSENT E-MAIL
Dear S- and G-:
Yes, it’s me again. This time instead of coming in and spilling drinks and vomiting over your faux IKEA furniture, I thought I would save us the time and clean up by e-mailing my idea instead. The fact that you don’t pay for valet parking was also a consideration.
I was recently told by agent W- that your network was once again in search of programming to break the stranglehold that N--- and D--- have on both the Saturday morning time period, as well as the early evening prime time hours. I believe I have just the idea for you. It can be done either in animation or live action. The concept is that versatile and unique.
It goes without mentioning (so why then am I reminding you) that several of my last projects directed towards you guys, had they been pursued with a little more imagination and ingenuity, might have secured for your network ratings above the three shut-ins and a blind mule Nielsen says currently watch your programming.
Come on boys, give me a break. You thought that crap iteration of RUNWAY MODELS SUPERHEROES where the girls were so top heavy they crushed their opponents by tipping onto them, or that weird bisexual ant detective series, KETTLEDRUM AND HORNED TOAD, were weird enough for the viewers to pull you out of the mess you found yourselves in? I heard from viewers that both shows were so deadening, they were using nail guns on each other to see whether any of them were still breathing. Those winners certainly got the advertisers to bang down your doors…but only to ask for their money back.
You should have taken me up on my ideas DANCING NINJA FIREFLIES and that intergalactic musical series where all the ETs were shaped like twisted paper clips. You remember the name: THE TWISTED PAPER CLIPS SHOW?
Both proposals are sailing along the development road, thank you very much, rather smoothly at your competitors, and should soon be into production. Pity I gave both ideas up in the heat of passion to two scum-sucking ex-girlfriends now conjoined (finally they want to be in the same room together) as that writing team whose names will never be mentioned by me again, either very slowly or very quickly.
So let’s cut to the chase. Our main character, BUTCH, is a time-traveling dog that’s also a nondenominational angel. Yes, you read me right. Call it something like TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL…YOU DOG! I was thinking of making him a mastiff because I’ve always loved dogs larger than a split level. Anyway, who ain’t going to listen to spiritual advice coming from a dog that size? Like QUANTUM LEAP, except for canines, BUTCH jumps through time, his regular doghouse being located to the right of the Pearly Gates. Location. Location. Location. BUTCH is in good with THE MAN.
Butch is sent down whenever a human calls out for help during an emotional or spiritual crisis. With a premise like that, we’re talking more episodes than Scooby Doo. You know stuff like ‘Should I abandon my kids for the women next door?” or “Should I rob this bank to pay for cosmetic surgery?” or “Should I go into teaching or make real money on Wall Street?” I know these topics don’t sound much like kids programming storylines, but that’s what development is for, right? Anyway, we always open with him roaming around heaven, non-tethered and unfettered. Since he’s in heaven, he doesn’t poop so there is never a need for anyone cleaning up after him.
We’ll have him receive his marching orders straight from THE MAN through his dog collar (great licensing opportunity). Then, faster than a jump cut he’s floating down to Earth reading his new client’s crib sheet. He won’t burst onto the scene in ablaze of celestial light because that would be far too corny and probably scare everyone into fatal coronaries. So let’s have him singing a catchy pop tune (yet another revenue stream) as he enters into Act I. At the end of his mission, he sing something else, perhaps a love song.
BUTCH has no idea where he’s going until he gets there. That’s the fun of it. Confuse a giant mastiff. The only information BUTCH has is some stiff is in trouble and the trouble is big. We’ll have him four legging into such hot zones as The Alamo, The Little Big Horn, Pompeii, and the deck of the Titanic. I don’t know quite yet what a dog, even a big dog, can do in situations like these, but that’s what development is for, right?
BUTCH marks the human he’ll help by reflexively lifting his leg as an introduction. I’m not sure yet whether pee will come out. Checking the Theological Works of Emanuel Swedenborg certainly does not supply the answer, but that’s what development is for, right? Anyway, upon the raising of the leg, our human in need will immediately here the thoughts of BUTCH causing much hijinks to abound…
And then the draft e-mail stops. I don’t remember why I ceased working on it. Perhaps I sobered up or Monica came over demanding more money for the kid, or there was another ATF raid on my building. Or maybe I just got tired of the concept, believing that in such a secular world, a telepathic angel dog with a communicator collar straight to THE MAN just would not get confirmed. Also if you're not cool on a mastiff, we can always work in a schnauzer or a Lhasa Apso. After all, a dog is a dog.
And then it ends.
I do remember that the next concepts I began working on were Shoe Flies Don’t Bother Me, where flies inhabit various types of shoes and go on adventures, and Buffalo Mozzarella Girls that Come Out at Night in which slabs of vampiric cheese shaped as a girl band battle evil stuff by the light of the moon. Both remain somewhere in development.