TALES FROM THE SCRIPT: THE BEHIND-THE-CAMERA ADVENTURES OF A TV COMEDY WRITER

BOOK: TALES FROM THE SCRIPT: THE BEHIND-THE-CAMERA ADVENTURES OF A TV COMEDY WRITER
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Tales
from the Script
The Behind-the-Camera Adventures of a
TV Comedy Writer
by Gene Perret
Tales from the Script
© 2010 Gene Perret All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America by:
Bear Manor Media
PO Box 71426
Albany, Georgia 31708
www.bearmanormedia.com

iSBn 1-59393-529-3
no part of this book may be reproduced in any way or by any means, including electronic, mechanical,
photocopying or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Book & cover design by Darlene Swanson of Van-garde imagery, inc. • www.van-garde.com
For Ed Hercer, who helped tremendously
in getting these adventures started
Contents
Foreword
vii
1. The Moment of Conception
1
2. The Switchgear Friars
3
3. The Early Years
17
4. Slappy White and Phyllis Diller
35
5. The Break
47
6. Television Writing Protocol
53
7. Engineer in Hollywood
61
8. The Jim nabors Hour
65
9. Bob Hope Calls
75
10. Laugh-in
81
11. The new Bill Cosby Show
99
12. On Strike
113
v
vi
Tales
from the Script
13. The Carol Burnett Show
119
14. The Emmy Awards
137
15. Writing Sitcom Episodes
145
16. Welcome Back, Kotter
151
17. Three’s Company
161
18. The Tim Conway Show
173
19. Mama’s Family
183
20. Summer Replacements
193
21. The Bob Hope Experience
197
22. Traveling with Bob Hope
211
23. Going to War with Bob Hope
229
24. Stars
253
index
269
Foreword

Television seems to be an incredibly visible craft. The performers
step onto a brilliantly lighted stage with the cameras focused on them.
They sing, dance, act, tell jokes, and do it all not only for you, but right
in your home. The celebrities are there for you to see and enjoy each
week, sometimes even each night.

Yet the entertainment you see on your television screen is only the
proverbial tip of the iceberg. That’s the part of the production that is
in front of the camera. Behind the camera are countless talented, devoted, dedicated people supporting both the show and the performer.
There are set designers, who make the scenery colorful and attractive
to the eye. There are makeup people, who try their darndest to make
the celebrities look attractive to the eye. There are costume designers, lighting professionals, sound experts, electrical authorities, and
technical wizards, who know which cables to connect and which buttons to push to magically transfer that stage action to your home TV.
There are gifted musicians, choreographers, sound effects people, and
a veritable army of others that i’m forgetting.

One group of behind-the-camera workers that no performer can
dare to forget is the writers. These creative folks are the only ones
who are greeted when they show up for work by a completely blank

vii
viii
Tales
from the Script
page. Their challenging chore is to fill that page with sparkling, inventive entertainment.

Gene Perret, began his television writing career on the staff of my
variety show,
The Jim Nabors Hour.
He went on from there to work
as a writer, head-writer, and producer for various television shows for
the next three decades.

in this book,
Tales from the Script
, Gene paints a delightful picture
of that part of television which is not so visible. it’s the world of television, especially from the writing point of view, that happens out of
range of the camera’s lens.

in this book, you’ll learn of the executive decisions that created
some of the shows you’ve watched and enjoyed over the years. You’ll
discover how some of the comedy sketches you laughed at were born.
in all frankness, the book also reveals how some of the comedy bits
you never would have laughed at were mercifully cut from the shows
before broadcast.

in these pages, you’ll enjoy some of the camaraderie that made
working on a television production so exciting. You’ll also learn of
some of the feuds that often made working on a television production
almost unbearable.

normally, all of us view television head-on. We face the screen
and accept whatever the producers and directors of the various shows
offer us. Gene’s book is a more panoramic view of television production. it does include many of the on-screen shenanigans, but it also
turns the camera to focus on the action behind it.

This book gives a much fuller picture of television production and
entertainment.
it begins with the blank pages, tells how the scripts
Foreword
ix

were developed, rehearsed, and staged. it continues on through the
broadcast and even to the eventual rave reviews or pans from the critics.
This is an invitation to sit in on the writers meetings and to be in
the room as the jokes and sketches are being written. it’s a ViP pass
to stand on the stage, out of camera range, as the shows are rehearsed
and taped.

i’m personally going to enjoy reading it because i’m eager to find
out exactly what was going on around the studio while i was busy in
wardrobe fittings and makeup.

Enjoy it.
Jim nabors
July 13, 2009
Chapter One
The Moment of Conception

i was conceived in a public restroom. not me, the person—me, the
humorist. it happened in a restaurant in South Philadelphia when i
was around six or seven years old.

i was combing my hair when two young sailors came into the
men’s room. One of them noticed the prominent cowlick on the back
of my head. He touched it and said, “What’s this?”

Talking to his image in the mirror, i said, “Oh, that’s my personality.”
They both laughed, but they did not just laugh; they got hysterical. What i said didn’t seem that funny to me. Cute, i’ll admit, but
funny? They thought it was, though. it struck them just the right way
and they couldn’t stop laughing.
i liked that sound. Making people laugh like that thrilled me. A
surge of power rushed through my innards. i felt like a genius at that
moment, a comedy savant.
Deep inside my spirit, some comic spermatozoa penetrated an
egg of humor and a gag writer was conceived.

Chapter Two
The Switchgear Friars

Some comedian once commented that a person goes into a life of
comedy the same way that a woman might go into a life of sin. First
they try it for the fun of it, then they start entertaining a few friends,
and then they say, “What the hell, i might as well make a buck at it.”

That’s the way it happened for me.
Comedy had always intrigued me, so for the fun of it, i turned it
into a hobby. During lunchtime chatter at work, i did little semi-rehearsed routines to get laughs from my colleagues. i cut pictures out
of magazines, put captions on them, and pasted them in books to pass
around to friends. i did cartoons about my family. i tried anything
that would get laughs.
i wasn’t the class clown. George Carlin gave the best explanation
for that. He said he didn’t have the courage to be the class clown, but
he told the class clown what to do. That’s the way i was—too shy to
get up and perform comedy, but i loved writing it for others . . . until
i went to work at General Electric’s Switchgear Plant in southwest
Philadelphia.
GE was hiring drafting apprentices—both mechanical and electrical, and i needed work. Since i was only eighteen-years old and
knew nothing about electricity i applied for the position of mechanical drafting apprentice. However, GE administered a whole series of
tests before hiring apprentices. My scores were high in all the exams
except one—the interest test.
That dumb test posed questions like: if you were near a piano,
would you

a)
play it?
b)
tune it?
c)
try to fix it?
i didn’t understand the rationale for most of the questions, so i simply wrote down whatever response occurred to me.

When the test results came in, the apprentice supervisor said, “You
got magnificent scores in all your tests. Your mechanical interest, though,
was rated a pitiable 10. Why don’t you apply for electrical drafting?”

i said, “i don’t know anything about electricity.”
He said, “You’re not very interested in mechanics.”
i said, “But i don’t know anything about electricity.”
He said, “You’ll either be hired as an electrical apprentice or you

won’t be hired at all.”
i said, “i don’t know anything about electricity, but i would like to
be an electrical drafting apprentice.”
i got the job and became an electrical drafting apprentice, albeit
one who knew nothing about electricity. Later, GE promoted me to
an electrical draftsman, then an electrical designer, then an electrical
engineer, and eventually, an electrical drafting supervisor. i still knew
nothing about electricity.
That supervisor who forced me into electrical work later unwittingly became a major factor in launching my career in an area that i
did know something about.
He retired.
it was a tradition at that plant to throw a party for people retiring or celebrating twenty-five years with the company. Co-workers
would organize the event and we’d all pay to attend. Part of the ticket
price would go towards buying the guest of honor a gift from all of us.
When that gentleman retired, people, knowing my comedic passion, asked me to “do a little something” at the banquet.
He was the Supervisor of Apprentices, and all of his employees
attended Drexel institute of Technology. in the apprentice program,
we worked a full forty-hour week and attended classes three evenings
a week. So i wrote a little sketch about that man being the oldest
student in Drexel.
it went over very well with the audience. People complimented
me on the presentation and also suggested that i do something for
Harry in Manufacturing, who was shortly to celebrate twenty-five
years, or Charlie in the Sales Department, who was to retire in about
a month, or Sylvia the Manager’s secretary, who was to celebrate an
anniversary. i did them all.
i quickly became the “Toastmaster General of General Electric,” but
only at that one plant and i gained a reputation as a witty emcee. i was
like the Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, or Jay Leno of the Switchgear Plant.
My gags were always topical and usually about the guest of honor.
if i didn’t know the guest of honor well, i’d interview some of the
people who did in order to gather research about him or her. When i
had enough material to work with, i’d write about thirty to thirty-five
gags about that person and that would become my eight to ten min
ute stint as the master of ceremonies. Here are a few samples:
There were two gentlemen in the drafting department, who
worked on most projects as a team. Frank prided himself on his
handyman capabilities. He was always refinishing a room or remodeling his house. Mike had a crew cut.
Frank was the guest of honor at one banquet, and i said, “Frank’s
a handyman with a hammer and a saw. You didn’t think Mike went to
a barber for those haircuts, did you?”
Another man celebrating a twenty-fifth anniversary with GE was
a large man, noted for his loud, booming voice. i said about talking to
him on the telephone, “He’s the only man in the plant you can hang
up on without losing volume.”
Another gentleman had eight children and he always smoked a pipe.
He was never without it and constantly fidgeting with it. i said at his
banquet, “i spoke to his wife before the dinner and asked if it bothered
her that her husband was always fiddling with that pipe. She said, “not
at all. After eight children, i’m for anything that keeps his hands busy.”
Then, we had a gentleman who attended most of these affairs and
always boasted of his drinking prowess. He didn’t have a drinking
problem (or i wouldn’t have kidded him); he just liked to pretend he
did. i went along with it by making him the butt of many of my jokes,
such as these:
“Some people like Charlie’s beard and others don’t. i’ve got news
for you. That’s not really a beard. it’s his breath running down his
chin. Charlie visits Cavanaugh’s (the local tavern across the street
from the plant) so much that on his retirement Mr. Cavanaugh lit a
perpetual flame in his honor. He set fire to Charlie’s breath. in fact,
Charlie and his friends stop at a lot of watering holes on their way
home from work. You may call it the Baltimore Pike, but to them it’s
known as 'Chug-a-lug Trail.'”
That gentleman wore glasses constantly, but we all knew that at
those parties, after his second drink, he’d take his glasses off and put
them in his pocket. So i used that as fodder for one of my gags at his
twenty-fifth anniversary party. i said, “We all know that after Charlie’s had one or two drinks he takes his glasses off and puts them in his
pocket. i spoke to his wife and said, ‘i guess after nineteen years of
marriage you always know when Charlie’s been drinking whenever he
comes home without his glass on.’ She said, ‘What glasses?’”
My comedy career had not yet hatched, but the following gag was
particularly influential. i later reworked it and sold it as one of my first
sales to Phyllis Diller. A very well-liked gentleman in the plant retired.
He was a big man, weighing over 300 pounds. He didn’t mind being
kidded about his weight (i always checked on that because i never
wanted any of the guests of honor to be offended by the comedy). So
at his party, i said, “You know, i generally do these banquets for free,
but tonight, Bill’s going to give me the shirt he wore on his last day
at work. i plan to have it starched and made into a summer home.”
From the time i did that comedy skit for my first supervisor, all of
the GE parties became “roasts.” We kidded the guest of honor just as
the show business Friars did when they honored one of their members.
i and a few of the others who were willing to stand at the microphone
and make presentations became known as “The Switchgear Friars.”

BOOK: TALES FROM THE SCRIPT: THE BEHIND-THE-CAMERA ADVENTURES OF A TV COMEDY WRITER
6.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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