Thursday, October 6, 2016

Chapter Thirty-Three.


     My girlfriend and I took our relationship to the next level. My favorite horse in all the world, whom I rode in nearly every Medieval Times show for a year, died suddenly, throwing me into a brief but intense period of depression. I have a teenage daughter. I started a new job. And in less than a month I will be fifty goddam years old.

     I've had shit going on.

     Also, I'm getting near the end of the book. I'm not a fan of endings. So, in addition to all the aforementioned, I've been dragging my heels. I've started to ponder if I'll still have anything to say after the last chapter goes out, and whether anybody will still care to visit this space. But I'm not quite finished, and this is me getting off my metaphorical ass. Here you go:

Chapter Thirty-Three
My Life as a Dog (Part II)

A couple of mutts, circa 1998

  In the twenty years since Wishbone debuted on PBS, I’ve been asked several questions about working on the show. There have been the typical questions (Q: What was it like working with kids AND animals? A: Awesome), and there have been the slightly naughty and left-field questions (Q: Did the dog ever take a dump during a shot? A: No, but I think maybe I did, once). But the question I’ve had to tackle the most in the two decades since our little show was winning Emmys and Peabodys , and the accolades of kids and parents across the country, goes something like this:
     Dude. What the fuck HAPPENED?
     Let me back up a bit. Wishbone began filming in 1994, and debuted on PBS stations across the country in 1995, running sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, until 2002 or thereabouts. And the common misconception is that we were filming the show during the entire length of its broadcast run. But the truth is, there were only 50 episodes of Wishbone ever made. That’s it. The first season we filmed 40 episodes, but the second season we filmed only ten. And we were done. Every episode of the show that aired from 1998 forward was a rerun. (We also shot a Wishbone movie for Showtime that aired in 1998, called Dog Days of the West. Sante Fe, New Mexico is awesome, by the way.) By the time we started filming the abbreviated second season in 1997, the show was a bona fide hit with critics and the audience. So why only ten episodes? And why did we never shoot another season of a show that was critically acclaimed, and loved by kids, parents, college students, and even the elderly?
     The explanation that follows is my opinion alone, okay? And yes, it’s just like my asshole (and yours, dear reader), in that I (and we) have one. Other people may take a very different view of why the show cancelled production and left the airwaves. If you want their opinions, go buy their fucking books. This one is mine.
     Reason #1: The show was fucking expensive. I’m using very round numbers here, but they’re pretty in the ballpark. To give you an idea of just how pricy our little show was to create, I’ll compare the production numbers to another little show that Lyrick Studios owned the rights to, called Barney and Friends. That show was produced each week on a sound stage, using only one or two sets that were occasionally redecorated to look like different locations. The show sported a small cast of mostly young children, and was shot on three of those big, mobile video cameras, the kind you used to see moving around the anchorman on your local evening news. Barney and Friends was a half hour show, just like ours, and when all was said and done cost about $150,000 or so dollars to produce from start to finish.
     Wishbone was shot on 16mm film. Like a movie. Every episode featured a regular contemporary cast, but half the show took place in a literary world, where the cast could be small (as when we did the story of Don Quixote), or fucking huge (like when we literally hired an army of extras for a battle scene in Joan of Arc). And because we lived half the show in a literary world, that world had to change – every week. On Monday we’d be shooting in Medieval London, but the following Monday we’d be filming down on the banks of the Mississippi, in the 1800s. Which should give you some idea of the size (and talent) of our set designers and art department.
     Then there were the special effects. Almost every single episode of Wishbone had either principal photography effects (effects that are produced during the shooting of an episode, like bullet hits, or explosions, or rain, or stunts, etc.) or post-production effects (computer-generated effects like wire-framing a landscape, or green-screen action. You don’t think we really went to fucking London, do you?).  The costs of those assets definitely upped the price of our little show. So did the original music score that was written and recorded for every episode.
     In short, filming an episode of Wishbone was essentially like shooting (and editing, and scoring) a movie – every single week. And so the cost of each episode was almost movie-like: up to $500,000 per half-hour episode. (Think about this: Kevin Smith made Clerks in 1994 for $27,500, a movie that helped launch indie film into the mainstream. Shit, I wish I had Kevin Smith money.)
     Reason #2: All 50 episodes were mainly bankrolled by one guy. Richard ”Dick” Leach was a larger-than-life American Success Story. Born and raised in the vicinity of Chicago, Illinois, Dick Leach inherited a successful family printing business from his father, and parlayed that into one of the first honest-to-goodness multi-media empires. In 1987 his daughter-in-law, Sheryl Leach, came to him with an idea for a series of videos designed entertain and educate (really?) a pre-school audience. Dick smelled something he liked, and Barney and Friends was born. By the time we started production on Wishbone in 1995, Lyrick Studios (parent company of both The Lyons Group and Big Feats! Entertainment) had become known as The House That Barney Built.
     Now, it’s important for me to say this on record: the financial success of Barney made our show possible. When Dick Leach’s son-in-law, Rick Duffield (a man to whom I owe a great deal, professionally and personally) came to him with a concept about a talking dog who makes himself the hero in literature classics, one of the reasons Dick was able to green-light it was because of the gobs of money that the dancing dino was raking in through licensing and merchandising (a conservative estimate would be about $100 million per year in its heyday). So I acknowledge the fact that, if it weren’t for His Royal Purpleness (not Prince, I’m talking about Barney), our show likely would never have gotten off the ground. Certainly not on PBS, anyway.
     Yes, like every other show on PBS, we got some funding from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting. But in the end, that money was next to negligible. Dick Leach was the guy who’s green we mostly spent in an effort to raise the story-telling bar in terms of production value, and Dick was a very smart cat. He smelled something he liked, and I truly believe he thought our show could be just as commercially successful as the dancing dino. There was, however, an unforeseen problem:
     Reason #3: The people whose job it was to actually make money from our show didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. The marketing department at Lyrick Studios, in 1995, had been primarily concerned with making Barney and Friends a profitable enterprise. And they were good at it. When you have a very narrow target audience (preschoolers, and the parents who love them), you can really focus your licensing and merchandising. Plush dolls, board books, teething toys, bathtub toys, backpacks, shoes, pajamas, linens, lunch boxes, play sets, playground toys, music CDs (parents loved the shit out of that, I’m sure) – The Purple One graced practically every consumable surface there was to buy. I imagine that, after a few years of success at marketing the same brand to the same audience (which added new audience members every year, because people were still cranking out babies), you’d get a little confident that the way you’re doing it is THE way it should be done.
     But in the spring of 1996, after our show had been on the air only a few months, it became abundantly clear to those of us who actually produced the show that our potential audience was WAY beyond the demographic we initially set out to reach (9-13 year olds). How did we know this? Because the dog and I went on the road, to meet the people who were actually watching the show. It was a fairly genius (and tested) idea: a grassroots meet and greet campaign in all the major PBS markets, to let people know about the show. Initially Rick Duffield (creator) and Betty Buckley (producer) wanted to put just the dog and his trainer on the road. But when Jackie Kaptan (Wishbone’s head trainer) learned that she would have to conduct interviews – and, for that matter, talk to actual people – she balked. There’s a reason people make a living working with animals. Often one of the main reasons is that they find the company of animals preferable to that of their fellow human beings. Jackie was by no means a misanthrope, but she wasn’t Suzy Sunshine, either.  (At least, until she got to know you, and I’m proud to say I cracked the code, and we were good friends during our years working together.) So Rick and Betty decided to bring me out from behind the curtain, as it were, and send me on the road as well. My job was to inform and entertain, two things I always had a natural aptitude for, so the media-relations folks at Lyrick set us up to do a series of television and radio interviews all over the country. Additionally, we had a partnership with The Store of Knowledge, which in the 90s was like Brookstone for nerds. (It’s okay for me to say that; I am a nerd.) So, not only would we travel to major markets like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. and do TV and radio, we’d also appear live at your local Store of Knowledge. And it was those appearances where I started to get a real grasp of who was actually watching our little show.
     By the time we got to Boston, we had a pretty good routine going for our public appearances. Our handlers would get us to the location an hour or two before the event. They’d have the Big Red Chair (Wishbone’s favorite chair, which appeared in almost every episode) set up near the front of the store, behind the ever-present velvet ropes. At the appointed hour, Jackie would come out with Soccer in her arms (usually dressed in one of his signature costumes, which she then immediately removed), sit in the chair, and people would start filing by to take pictures and say hello to dog and trainer. My task was to work the line outside the store, introducing myself as “the voice of Wishbone,” and sign autographs and do photo ops with folks who were waiting to get inside the store to see the dog. When I was working the line in Boston, I ran across something I’d never seen before: a sizeable group of young adults was waiting to get in. They had no children that I could see; hell, they were barely not children themselves.
     As I approached, you would have thought they’d spotted Eddie Vedder: there was a commotion, some actual squealing, and pointing – at me. Then a very cute Asian girl jumped out of the line, and asked, “Can we take a picture with you?” When I inquired which of them would like to be in the photo, she replied, “All of us, of course!”  There were maybe thirty of them. I discovered that they were all college students in the Boston area: Boston College, UMass, Harvard and Emerson were all represented in the line.
     Then we did an appearance in Baltimore, and I met some lovely folks from a “senior living” community. Again, they did not have children (or grandchildren) with them; they had come to meet Wishbone, because they watched and loved the show. I started noting this phenomenon every place we visited. True, we had a ton of kids and parents, who were squarely in our target demographic, coming to see us. But we were also gathering audiences (large ones) who didn’t fit so easily into one demographic box. At some point early in its first season, Wishbone had started to cross over into audiences we’d never set out to reach. To be honest, I don’t think we were ever trying to reach a specific audience. We were just trying to tell a good story, and to introduce some really good stories in a new way.
     Now, I know I’ve strayed a little off-topic here, but I had to tell you all that to tell you this: every time we’d come off the road, I’d run into Rick Duffield’s office and tell him who I was meeting. And then he’d tell me to send an “e-mail” (a relatively new concept in the mid-90s) to the marketing folks at Lyrick, because that information (he believed) would be very useful to them. So I’d dash off what I hoped was an informative (and entertaining) electronic correspondence about my adventures on the road, and whom I was meeting, and the kinds of things those folks hoped to be able to buy that were related to Wishbone. And by way of response I got… nothing.
     That’s not exactly true. Nobody at Lyrick would have just not answered my emails, because that was not the corporate-polite thing to do. Instead I’d get responses like, “Hey! Thanks for sending this!!!,” or, “Appreciate it!” But nobody ever called me to ask more questions. Nobody wanted to sit down with me to hear all the stories I’d been collecting on the road, from people who really loved the show, and really wanted to support it any way they could. I was on the road in support of my show for the better part of 1996. Somewhere out in the ether, or in scrapbooks across this great nation, are scores of pictures of me, posing with fans of Wishbone. But at Lyrick they sat in their cubicles, with their statistics and demographics and marketing degrees, and didn’t want to hear from the “guy who does the voice.”
     And what was the first Wishbone product ever offered on store shelves? Home. Video. Cassettes. I guess it never occurred to anybody that, in 1996, over 80 percent of households had a VCR – and Wishbone ran COMMERCIAL FREE on PBS. Home video sales were predictably shitty, because people who wanted to keep our show forever had only to pop in a blank cassette and push the Record button, to get it FOR FREE. Then there were the obligatory plush dolls (Wishbone as SHERLOCK HOLMES! Wishbone as ROBIN HOOD!), and even a talking plush. All very predictable. But what about those college kids? What about those seniors? What about the parents who were watching our show with their kids, and enjoying it just as much (albeit for different reasons)? What kind of cool, relevant-to-them merchandise were we putting out there for those guys?
     In a word, jack-shit. (Technically, that’s a phrase. I know.) I have no idea what the marketing folks at Lyrick were thinking, but it seemed they were following their tried-and-true model for Barney: take any cheap plastic piece of shit manufactured in China, and slap a logo on it. It frustrated the hell out of me, but I was just “the guy who does the voice,” after all. What the fuck did I know? I made a little more noise that fell on deaf ears, and by 1997 we were in pre-production on our short but eventful second season. I began consulting on the scripts (I had some cred now, because a lot of my ad-libs and on-the-fly script adjustment had made it into the final cut of many episodes in the first season), and eventually I forgot all about marketing and merchandising, and making money from the show. It wasn’t my fucking job to make money from the show; it was my fucking job to make the show. So I focused my attention in areas where I knew I had skills and chops, even if I didn’t have a fucking college degree. I was back to doing what I was best at: making shit up. And I believed that was the end of my adventures with the marketing folk at Lyrick Studios.
     Until they came a-calling.
     I was so happy we’d been green-lit for a second season (albeit a very short one), that I threw myself into the work. And filming a television series is a shit-ton of work, kids. Even though I was merely the voice of the main character, I was still required to show up on set every day for principal photography. I worked off-camera, and fed Wishbone’s lines to the other actors, via a mic-and-speaker system devised by my friend (and the show’s sound maestro), Michael Haines. (Side note: Michael Haines introduced me to the music of Keb’ Mo’, The Subdudes, and Charlie Musselwhite, to name a few. That is why we are friends to this day.) We shot Monday thru Friday, usually from very early in the morning until we lost the last possible light of day (unless we were shooting indoors, in which case we’d often shoot longer). My day typically started on set at 6 or 6:30AM, and would routinely go twelve hours or longer. Then I’d tack on another 8-10 hours on Saturday, going into the recording studio to lay down a clean vocal track of an episode we’d filmed weeks earlier, an episode that was most of the way through the editing process. On studio shooting days, Rick Duffield, Betty Buckley, and the respective heads of all the departments needed to make the show every week would have to find time in between shots to run upstairs to the conference room, and have meetings. These were mostly about upcoming episodes we were going to shoot, and it always amazed me how they found time to actually accomplish this during the middle of a shooting day.
     One day we’d just finished a scene, and camera was setting up for the next shot. I was in my makeshift recording booth that everyone affectionately called the “Dog House,” when I answered a knock on the door to find Rick’s assistant, DJ, outside my little sanctum sanctorum. “Rick wants you in this meeting,” she said.
     “What meeting is that?” I asked.
     “I don’t know. Let’s go.” DJ was a very pretty and very capable executive administrator, who spoke plainly and brooked no argument, especially from a punk like me. I followed her up the stairs to the conference room, and as we were walking, she said simply, “It’d be a big help to Rick if you didn’t talk. At all. Unless somebody specifically asks you a question.” This didn’t offend me in the least. I was self-aware enough to know that my lack of any kind of filter could be a detriment in meetings.
     DJ ushered me into the conference room, where I saw Rick – and most of the marketing department from Lyrick Studios. My first thought was that they were there to murder me, especially when they all looked up at my arrival and smiled. There was an empty seat next to Rick, which he offered, and I parked my ass, but did not relax. I’d seen The Godfather, and I knew the old Sicilian trick of making someone comfortable right before you capped ‘em in the head, or slit their throat, or otherwise put them to sleep with the fishes.
     I wasn’t murdered. What happened in that meeting was that the marketing folks at Lyrick decided they wanted to “partner” with us at Big Feats! Entertainment, for the purpose of generating “synergy” around the “brand development” of our show, that would subsequently “move the needle” in terms of the profitability of our program. And further, that we, as the creators of the show, were “best positioned” to “think outside the box.”  The meeting lasted twenty minutes. To what I hope is my everlasting credit, I did something that day that was nearly impossible for me back then: I kept my mouth shut. I stood up as the Lyrick folks departed, and when they were gone, sat back down beside Rick, and asked, “What in holy fuck did any of that mean?”
     I have always admired Rick Duffield’s use of the English language. As a writer and creator, he can paint pictures with words that you can see so clearly, you’d swear you could reach out and touch them. But he can also speak with great brevity. “It means,” he said, “they’re out of ideas, and they want us to think of something.”
     It was at that moment I knew we’d never get past a second season. The corporate folks who had ignored us for a year, who politely pat me on my head every time I told them who was out there, watching and enjoying our show, the folks who had come up with the bold and innovative idea to release home video cassettes of an already commercial-free program, and plush dolls, were now looking to us to fix it. Never mind that we were already consumed with actually making the show. Never mind that we were storytellers, not marketers or licensing managers, and certainly not fucking toy-makers. I instinctively knew that, by having this little get-together, the marketing folks at Lyrick had effectively passed the problem of profitability to us, even though that was never our responsibility. And I knew instinctively that, as a creative bunch of people, we’d try anyway, and that we’d fail. And I knew in my gut that, after we did try – and fail - that the folks at corporate would shrug their shoulders, and shake their heads – and blame us. I didn’t realize at the time of that meeting what I was witnessing: a brilliant corporate tactical maneuver of hanging your own albatross around somebody else’s fucking neck.
     We did try. In the middle of cranking out the show, we managed to create (from scratch) a board game (very succinctly titled Wishbone: the Game) that was published by University Games. Our cinematographer, Bert Guthrie, was way ahead of any of us when it came to PC-based computer interactive games. (Bert once spent 30 minutes of his very valuable time in 1997, patiently trying to explain to me the concept of Wi-Fi. At the end of it, I think I asked him, “Dude, are evil robots taking over the world, or what?” Amazingly, we’re still friends.) He was the impetus for the Wishbone Activity Zone, a CD Rom (remember those, kids?) created with help from Palladium Interactive in Austin. In fact, we actually did two CD-Roms, the second being Wishbone and the Amazing Odyssey.

Hanging out on the set of "Dog Days of the West."
     But, as I said, we were filmmakers and storytellers, not gamers. Our efforts at creating ancillary product failed, in part because we didn’t really know what we were doing, and in part because those efforts were never fully supported by the people whose jobs we were now trying to do for them. The last good thing that happened for our show was when Showtime approached us in 1998 about doing a made-for-cable movie with our little dog. Wishbone’s Dog Days of the West was our riff on the classic Western tales of O. Henry, and I got to spend a few glorious weeks in New Mexico, playing cowboy. I even got to hang out with real cowboys, including one very old coot who called himself Rowdy (swear to God), who would regale me with tales of other Western films he’d shot in his youth. He kept referring to “Marion.” It was all, “Marion used to say” this, and “Marion used to do” that. It took me a full week of being on set and listening to his stories before I realized he was talking about his old friend, Marion Mitchell Morrison. Marion’s stage name was John Wayne.
     The last day of shooting on Dog Days was one of the saddest of my life. The producers had quite deliberately made the last day of shooting a contemporary scene, in our imaginary town of Oakdale, where a street fair was taking place. There were dozens of extras, and everybody was crazy-busy the entire day, getting all the shots we needed for what was to actually be the opening scene of the movie. We ended at the beginning. After most of the extras had wrapped, Rick said a few words to the main cast and crew. God bless him, he always wore his heart on his sleeve. He choked back tears, which caused all of us to lose our shit to different degrees, and told us all that we had been a part of, not just something special, but something important. Even though we’d only gotten to shoot fifty episodes and a movie, he said, this was a show that people would still be talking about years later. It was, he said, a legacy.
     And he was fucking right.

1 comment:

  1. Larry. Thanks so much for taking the time to write Making Sh*t Up. I've had a wonderful time reading it and a great many laughs as well. Hell, I even dropped $100 coins in your hat.I really enjoyed my life as a dog part II. I am a big fan of your work on Wishbone. This is just my opinion but you were the show. They picked the right guy for the role. Thanks once again. I would like to get your autograph if I can ever find a picture of you and Soccer together. Still searching. Thanks. Dan Clancy