Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The night I lifted a Buick

HOW DO YOU KNOW is very disappointing, especially considering it was written and directed by James L. Brooks. And I worry that younger readers only know of his work from his last two pictures – this and SPANGLISH. I will certainly concede that creatively he appears to be in a deep slump, but remember, this is a guy who has three Oscars, and probably more Emmys than I have credits. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, TAXI, THE SIMPSONS, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, BROADCAST NEWS – all his. He’d have to write thirty bombs just to break even.

I’ve been extremely blessed in my career to have had some great mentors. One was Jim Brooks. He really taught me that comedy comes out of character and truth. He taught me to dig deeper, get to the heart of a moment or character. Always strive to be fresh, unexpected, meaningful.

When I think of Jim’s influence I think of this one story.

I did punch-up one night a week on a show for Jim in the 80s called SIBS. Rewrite nights included Jim, Sam Simon, and Heide Perlman. Why they even needed me I do not know. But it was amazing watching Jim work. He was so fast and had so many ideas. Just a force of nature. On several occasions I saw him just pitch out entire scenes. I just sat there in awe. This can’t be done.

Around the same time I was also doing punch-up one night a week on WINGS. One night we were struggling over a scene, and suddenly I got a flash of inspiration. I stood up (which I NEVER do, and recommend you never do) and just pitched out the whole scene, jokes and everything. We went back and refined it, but I’d say 85% of the scene is exactly as I pitched it out whole cloth.

You hear stories about people who get a rush of adrenaline and can lift Buicks? That was me that night. I sat back down and thought to myself, “I was channeling Jim Brooks”. That’s the only time in my career I was ever able to do that. I've never come close before or since.

And he did it routinely. So when you think of Jim Brooks, please think HOW DID HE DO THAT not HOW DO YOU KNOW.

Here’s that scene I pitched for WINGS. Thanks to Suzanne Welke for knowing which episode it was in. Her encyclopedic knowledge of WINGS is even more impressive than the ability to pitch out a scene.

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