love the work: In Living Color

Many screenwriting books tell you that writing a screenplay is just a blueprint for the movie that is going to be made. To a degree that’s true.

Writing for TV and Film is also a recipe for a simmering bouillabaisse of emotions that come from standing behind the camera, watching as your words are tossed away and just grateful that a few beats survived…

Oh, and in the case of In Living Color, add extreme gratitude that those beats are being adorned by the amazingly improvised words and actions of Jim Carrey or Jamie Foxx or Damon Wayons.

(Note: The exception to the rule is the above “Men On Film Film Festival” segment. It’s pretty much as I wrote it.)

In Living Color’s creator, Keenen Ivory Wayans was a visionary. His ability to savage show business conventions around African-Americans are on display in “Hollywood Shuffle” and “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.” He always goes for the hard, gut laugh. The In Living Color brand of comedy stood in stark contrast to the nuanced, brainy work that SNL was doing in the 80s. Many of the ideas he brought to the show came directly from the things that made the Wayans kids laugh as they were growing up. The sketch work on the show really did feel like they came from a bunch of insanely funny friends, imitating the people in their lives: Homeboy Shopping Network. Hey Mon!, Fire Marshall Bill, etc.

His real ace-in-the-hole was casting. He spotted Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, Rosie Perez and Jennifer Lopez, in addition to the talent in his own family.

In Living Color was part of the Sunday night lineup that made the first years of the Fox Network so distinct from the other nets. Everything about the show, from its cast to its set to its music to its point of view, shouted “URBAN! EDGY!”

The lessons I learned from In Living Color mostly have to do with how to survive as a cog in a creative machine. I was hired, along with a lot of other writers, to feed the vehicle that Keenen Ivory Wayans had built.

I’m always amazed when I run into people (even today) who say that In Living Color was their favorite show on TV. Mainly because it was one of my favorites too, but I barely recognized the show that aired from the one we wrote. Between pitching an idea, writing a script, going through a table read and then rehearsals and, finally, being taped in front of a live audience, I was lucky to see a few of my lines survive. The idea, yes. The beats, yes. But only the Men On Film (Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier) performed the words as I wrote them.

I’d just come off of years with Letterman and Norman Lear. I had a “the writer is king” thing working. But at ILC, the performer was king. Writers took dictation from Jim Carrey. We’d see our scripts laying on the ground while the actors worked out their own take on our sketches.

I learned to keep my head down, churn out the work and wait for a graceful exit. The writing staff worked extremely long hours, extended by the tendency of the executive producers to be hours late for most of our meetings. (One afternoon, a meeting was called for 2PM. I announced to the rest of the writers that at 2PM I was going to go and get a massage at the Beverly Hot Springs, and that I was certain that I’d be back in time for the meeting to start. I returned hours later, massaged and relaxed, just as the writers were filing into the meeting room.)

Fortunately, I had lived in a kind of “Lord of the Flies” world at the Lampoon, so the backbiting and politics that are the natural residue of long hours in windowless offices wasn’t new to me. That said, many of us behaved badly and turned on each other. (One writer spent a month or so in a kind of psychotic obsession with what was contained in the odors that wafted through the offices. “We’re smelling each other’s assholes!” he’d rant.)

I just kept working, burrowed in my office, writing as best I could. One day, while I was having a little pity party for myself, I thought, “Wow, this is a long way from Rob Petrie and the Alan Brady Show.” (LOOK IT UP!) Then I started thinking, “What if Rob and Buddy and Sally were writing for Keenen,” and then I thought, “That’d make a funny spec script.”

I wrote that spec script in the “waiting for the meeting to happen” hours at In Living Color. Spec scripts are written to prove that you know how to color within the lines. I thought it’d be funny to use new crayons in a very old coloring book. In my script, the Dick Van Dyke show had never gone off the air. Rob, Sally and Buddy were bitter writers, still living in New York when all of their peers had gone on to success in L.A. They worked for a young host they didn’t understand in the least. I poured a lot of bitterness into that script.

My script made its way to Rob Long, Executive Producer at Cheers. He liked it. He wanted to hire me for Cheers next season.

Remember what I said above about “graceful exit?” Well, I had a contract at In Living Color. My agent and one of the executive producers started working on getting me out. It all came down to one conversation with Keenen.

Just as the EP was talking to Keenen, he muttered something exasperated and angry and hung up the phone. It wasn’t about me. The Rodney King verdict had just come in. I waited out the riots, wondering what life would be like if I returned to In Living Color… wondering if I was going to get to work on Cheers. Watching L.A. burn.

It was a humbling experience. We’d spent a lot of time at In Living Color talking about race. (See “THE SHERIFF IS A N___”) I had some insight into the rage behind these riots. I felt a deep sense of irony in the fact that I was trying to move from one of the blackest shows on TV to one of the whitest. It was really one of those moments where you just say “okay, god, whatever!”

In the end, Keenen let me out of my contract. I’m extremely grateful that he hired me in the first place, and grateful to have watched my ideas performed by the actors on that show. And also grateful to have lived as a humble cog in a very successful and powerful machine.

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