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Sunday, August 30, 2009
Shadows on the Wall
Brenschluss: the termination of the firing of the rocket engines, whether due to intentional shutdown of the engines or exhaustion of the fuel.*
Definition courtesy of The Free Dictionary
When any show finally comes to an end (be it a feature film, episodic television drama, single-camera comedy or sit-com), a disjointed sense of free-fall inevitably follows. During the show, it really does feel as though you’ve been strapped atop a blazing rocket thrusting hard into space – but when those engines suddenly quit, the artificial gravity they provided is gone, and you’re floating free, no longer really sure which way is up. For months on end, your life has been ruled by the needs of the show: when and where to report to the stage or location, when (and for exactly how long) you’ll break for lunch, and when you can finally wrap up and go home. Weekends are spent recovering amid the detritus of ordinary life – doing laundry, re-stocking the fridge, paying the week’s accumulation of bills, and maybe (if you’re lucky), making a brief stab at a social life – and Monday morning always comes much too early, bringing another week of ceaseless toil. After a few months, this repetitive work-bot routine becomes all you really know anymore, the paper upon which your life is drawn. And then suddenly, it’s over.
Commercials, music videos, and feature film productions are finite ventures right from the start, where the task is to manufacture the “product” – an ad, video, or movie – in a predetermined number of shooting days. Once your role in that process is complete, the job is over. Television is a little different. For a new drama or comedy, the season could last a full twenty-two episodes, or be cancelled after the first broadcast. If a show survives that first crucial season delivering the requisite audience share for the network honchos, it will keep on going, season after season. Since you can never really know how long your job is going to last, you just ride the wave from season to season and hope for the best. Eight to ten years is a pretty good run for any hit show, but eventually “the numbers” begin to slide, and as the star’s demands for money escalate, the descending curve of income meets the rising curve of expenses, and the green-eyeshade boys at the network start getting nervous. At that point, the “final season” is usually announced, which typically brings an uptick of viewers coming down the stretch, often culminating in an extra-long episode to close with a lugubrious flourish.
It happens to the best of them, from “Seinfeld” and "Everybody Loves Raymond" to “West Wing.”
Although most of us never land such long-running shows, I know one juicer who worked the entire run of “Cheers,” then moved on over to a new spin-off show called “Frazier.” In those two shows, he logged something like twenty-one years. For a free-lancer, that's almost unheard of -- and truth be told, I wanted nothing to do with television during my first two decades in Hollywood. Television was too much like having a regular job, the very thing I was so desperate to avoid. It's only now as I belly-crawl towards the finish line that a good long run on a hit sit-com holds any real appeal, but these days it's hard to land any show at all, much less a network show with a chance to run the full 22 episodes. Cable has picked up the sit-com torch in the past couple of years, but even those cable shows that pay full union scale (and many don't...) only shoot ten to twelve episodes per season.
My first sit-com (”Encore! Encore!” starring Nathan Lane and Joan Plowright) was a network show that went twelve-and-out – meaning the show was dead in the water by Christmas. Denied a “back nine” pickup to complete Season One, there would be no Season Two. After working for nearly five months on the show, becoming acclimatized to this strange new world of multi-camera sit-coms (and getting to know everyone involved), seeing this group effort die a slow death over those last few weeks was painful. I always liked to watch the show-night filming from up in the green beds above the sets (green beds are rarely used anymore, unfortunately), where I could adjust a lamp or run a plate dimmer whenever needed for a given shot. (We used DC rather than AC power). As the final show wound down, I leaned against the rail looking out at our last audience, and saw my shadow against the wall, thrown by the front fill lights – and it hit me that this was an apt metaphor to sum up the situation. All of us, the crew, cast, the sets and all that equipment, were nothing but shadows on the wall, destined to disappear as soon as the lights went out.
I suppose that was a rather melodramatic take on things, but I was tired, sad, and very sorry to see this vibrant creature we’d all created together – my first sit-com -- die at the hands of an uncaring network. Losing my job just before Christmas (with no new shows gearing up) didn’t exactly thrill me either. Back then, pilot season didn’t start until March, so if your show got cancelled at Christmas, it was like being on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean, leaving the crew with a long cold swim all the way through January and February before catching sight of land.
Staring at the bleak prospect of two empty months is not a comfortable way to start off the New Year.
But this was the only one of many lessons about the sit-com world that show taught me, the second being that it’s not such a great idea to drink so much at an impromptu wrap party. After that final show, the entire cast and crew converged on a little Italian place on Melrose – at midnight, no less – where we abused the hopelessly undermanned staff for a couple of hours, eating, drinking, and making fools of ourselves. I later heard that the check totaled something over $4,000 on our star’s credit card. Never one to turn down such generous hospitality, I indulged, then had to report back to work at Paramount early the next morning with a sledgehammer pounding inside my head, facing the first of three 12 hour days wrapping all our lamps and cable from Stage 32 (the old “Star Trek” TV stage). Wrapping a show is always a dispiriting endeavor, and being December, the stage was cold, dirty, and dreary. Those three dismal days were among the longest and most depressing of my career.
It’s been more than a decade now, and I’ve had many shows shot out from under me in the meantime. You never quite get used to it, but with time and experience, the experience is no longer quite so raw. It’s the nature of the biz – to paraphrase the seminal quote from the classic film “Grand Hotel”: Shows come and shows go, but nothing ever changes.
My latest show came to an end on a recent Friday night, after shooting the last of nine scheduled episodes. Being that the stage and sets were a “fold and hold” -- the show remaining atop the precarious cosmic bubble right down to the bitter end – it was a walk-away for us, with only the most minimal wrap required. The company threw a small wrap party for the cast, crew, and a few spouses afterwards, where we all had one last chance to have a drink or three and say our sloppy goodbyes. For me, this represented the end of a long hard journey that began back in March with three weeks of rigging to get “The Bill Engvall Show” (TBS) up and running, followed by two grueling pilots that ran back-to-back, after which we pushed the rock uphill one more time on this show, then settled in for the nine episode run. That isn’t much compared to working a tough episodic or feature film, but it doesn’t take much to kick my ass these days -- and six straight months of rigging, lighting, and wrapping was quite enough to do that, thankyouverymuch...
For me, wrap parties are always bittersweet. The relief when a show is done -- this sudden release from the grueling routine – is palpable, but it also means I probably won’t be seeing this particular group of people again. When you work with the same people over several months, bonds are formed as a web of relationships take root in an unacknowledged but very real mutual support group. Work – especially this kind of all-inclusive work -- can be something of a refuge at times, and in this case, some on the crew who'd been total strangers at the start became good “show friends” by the end -- people I was really glad to see every working day. Given the transient nature of our business, it’s possible I’ll never see any them again. Several key personnel left before the last episode to take jobs on new or returning shows for the Fall television season now getting underway, and most who remained made it clear they’d be seeking “real jobs” paying full union scale rather than settle for the universally-reviled “cable rate.” So even if this show does come back, there will be many empty positions to be filled. That will bring the chance to meet new people and make new friends, of course, but it won’t be quite the same. It never is.
The grips and fellow juicers I’ll certainly see again – like all pack animals, we travel in the same circles following the beat of a distant drum – but the prop department and half the set dressers may be gone for good. They’re great people, and I hate the thought that I may never see them again. The older I get, the more I come to value such friendships, transient though they may be. But that’s the way it is in Hollywood, and in life, I suppose.
Here today, gone tomorrow -- shadows on the wall.
Then there’s the little matter of no longer having a job. If the show is destined to return, I can relax for a little while -- but if not, then it’ll be back to the same old rugby scrum around the ever-shrinking pool of work. Right now, everything's up the air.
Uncertainty is the side dish to every meal in Hollywood, where I’ve had the good fortune to meet and work with so many terrific people. So on this, my first taste of real freedom in a long while, I raise a glass of something strong to “Fish,” Terry, Brenda, Abby, and Little Eva, all of whom helped turn a situation that could have been a real pain in the ass into an experience that was a lot of fun for us all. That takes a special kind of magic.
And so once again we turn the page.
* I first encountered this word while dutifully plowing through Thomas Pynchon’s dense, voluminous tome “”Gravity’s Rainbow.” I managed to finish the book (it took a while...), but all I really remember are “brenschluss,” a few particularly lurid scenes, and the oft-repeated phrase “Ficht nicht mit der Racketmensch!” – which translates to “Don’t fuck with the Rocketman.”
And what does that mean? I have no idea. Ask Thomas Pynchon...