Decades ago I made an impressive living writing and producing network sitcoms, shows such as Full House and Growing Pains, that were aimed at a kid audience – frothy, bouncy entertainments that portrayed family life in the late-20th century United States through decidedly rose colored glasses. But even then I had a darker vision of America, a vision that acknowledges life’s limitless complexities, that embraces the tragic elements of existence as well as the comic. So the original half-hour series I pitched were directed at adults – a Vietnam war comedy, a lesbian laugher, etc. And, because I was pigeonholed as a “children’s sitcom writer,” I was unable to sell any of those ideas.
In my eighteen years as an elementary school janitor, I’ve had abundant opportunity to contemplate my comedy life. So much time squandered on bitterness at an industry I felt deeply had wronged me! But recently, other personal and professional setbacks – a corrupt judge’s restraining order precluding a reconciliation with my second ex-wife; the refusal of my beloved daughter Isabel to answer my phone calls; the breakdown of the hidden camera I was using to monitor smoking in the second-floor girls’ bathroom – have motivated me to take responsibility for my life, to look inward, to ruminate on what choices I might have made to avoid my current circumstances.
Pondering my situation yesterday morning while plunging a clogged toilet in that same bathroom, I recalled a quotation from William James: “Invent some manner of realizing your own ideals which will also satisfy the alien demands – that and that only is the path of peace.” A light went off in my head.
The realization struck me like a thunderbolt: in conceiving those comedy series so many years ago, I, in my youthful arrogance, had refused to compromise my vision whatsoever, to in any way consider those “alien demands!”
It’s impossible to overstate the relief I felt. This insight changed everything for me, not necessarily with my ex-wives, my estranged child, or the throbbing in my skull, but as a writer-producer of TV comedy. If the networks insisted that a “children’s sitcom writer” create only a children’s sitcom, that’s what I would do – or rather, appear to do. I would create an adult series disguised as a children’s series! A sunny, optimistic show for kids imbued with the type of darker, more adult sensibility I’ve always considered an ineluctable part of my worldview. But what series?
I’ve long held that to be a hit, a situation comedy must capture the national spirit, must catch and ride that terrifying but thrilling 40-foot wave of contemporary American culture. So I asked myself: What’s everyone talking about? I must admit that at first, I found myself stumped, as over these past couple of decades I’ve inclined toward, as Voltaire wrote, “cultivating my own garden.” But then I realized: with whom was I brushing shoulders five days a week during those moments when I wasn’t cleaning their stomach-turning messes or discouraging them from smoking?
My new target audience.
I raced out of the bathroom, exhilarated with anticipation of the impending barrage of pre-adolescent conversation. And finally, luck was with me – it was lunchtime and the hallway was crowded with 5th-grade students!
I saw that many of the kids gripped cell phones. And I was electrified – but not by their conversations. I discerned immediately that a hearty proportion of these soon-to-blossom children were using their telephones not to talk, not to “text,” but to take photographs and to examine those photos, to send them and to examine others. I recalled what I’d gleaned about Facebook, Twitter and what I believe are referred to as “social media.” We now, I apprehended, live in a world where everything is recorded. Today’s kids “post” pictures online, of their clothes, their pets, their genitals, even their food. I grasped it at once: today’s children are voyeurs. Our kids live to watch. And not only kids but adults – the real target of my prospective series! – who sit glued to television screens seven, eight, nine hours a day and cell phones or personal computers the rest of their waking hours.
My mandate was clear. I would create a “children’s” show about watching. About voyeurs. And I knew instantly how I’d do it. In my favorite film, I had the perfect model on which to base my series.
That evening I sat down to write my pilot. The words (and jokes!) flowed like never before. Although disappointed that my daughter Isabel had ignored my eleventh call of the day – my daily allotment, to which I strictly confine myself to ensure that I won’t become a nuisance – I was on the writing roll of a lifetime. Eighteen minutes before I had to leave for my early morning round of cleaning out my school, I wrote “THE END” in my tiny, tidy cursive – impossible for anyone spying on me to decipher.
You’ll read what this series is and say, No way can Jay Abramowitz – a has-been whose main claim to fame is writing the colonoscopy episode of Mr. Belvedere – pull this off. A network sitcom for kids based on a nearly sixty-year-old movie that features a photographer whose psychologist father filmed him as a subject for studies of fear and becomes so scarred emotionally that he splits his nights between shooting pornographic photos and searching for women to murder as he films their terrified reactions? A film that permanently ruined a major director’s career, that one contemporary critic wrote “should be disposed of, thrown into a sewer, but even then the stench would remain” and another claimed “is more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta”?
But open yourself to the possibility that I’ve performed an astonishing act of Hollywood jujitsu, using the very elements that so discomfited the audiences of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom – a film finally considered widely to be a masterpiece (Thank you, Marty Scorsese!) – to draw both children and adult viewers into a mainstream show that’s inspiring, poignant, disturbing and, of course, laugh-out-loud funny. A show about the electronic temptations of today’s kids and the teachers and janitors who struggle to help them (and each other!) be wary, healthy and clean in restrooms, classrooms and other public spaces, and to realize their sky-high potential in this harrowing but hilarious world of ours. A show that features a schoolhouse family that jokes, hurts, and loves – just like the Tanners of Full House did, and the Seavers of Growing Pains.
Here’s just a taste:
INT. JANITORIAL OFFICE – DAY
BRAD carefully studies a TV MONITOR. ON THE TV, TINA (10) and BRITTANI (11) are MAKING OUT in the GIRLS’ BATHROOM. Brad, intuiting something, leans keenly toward the monitor. After a few moments, the girls break their clinch.
I gotta pee.
Tina EXITS into a stall. Brittani pulls a CIGARETTE from her PURSE.
INT. GIRLS’ BATHROOM – DAY – MOMENTS LATER
Brittani DRAGS on the cigarette. Brad BURSTS IN.
A toilet FLUSHES. Tina EXITS the stall, BUTTONING the top button on her jeans.
Who invited you in here?!
Phillip Morris. (to Tina, re the cigarette) Toss it!
Tina rolls her eyes and DOES SO.
And remember, ladies: I see everything.*
BRAD LEAVES. The girls pause a moment, then resume MAKING OUT.
*AUTHOR’S NOTE: Brad’s “I see everything” will be the series’ famous catch-phrase. Much as they did in the 1970s with Fonzie’s “Ayyyyyy!” and the 1980s with little Michelle’s “Duh!”, live audiences will applaud, and viewers will constantly quote, their favorite sitcom character’s distinctive, idiosyncratic saying!
As some of Hollywood’s top literary agents returned my previous eleven spec pilots unopened, I now offer to industry decision-makers a sneak peek at my game-changing new comedy series.
Want the juicy details about our cast of characters? Want the inspirational story arcs for our first season? Want to read my entire pilot script? As I’m between apartments, contact me at Randall Cunningham Elementary School in Escondido, California at 714-555-7304 (if I’m not there, speak slowly to Ramon and make sure he takes a message). And Isabel, if you read this, please call that same number. Your Daddy loves you.