It was time to plan the annual awards dinner and, in a real change of pace, the hosts they secured for us were Eli Wallach and his wife, actor Glenda Jackson...
I got to write the Wallach/Jackson bits and introductions and I really pulled out my inner-award show geek to nail that podium banter. My co-writer, Jay Reiss, was part of a comedy troupe and they happen to have a sketch they did about the creative process, a writer dealing with his muse, so we said, “Perfect! Let’s have them do that” and he wrote up a second sketch for later in the evening. We wrote, re-wrote and ran the stuff by our Committee Director. Most of it was approved. My introduction to the special award to Arthur Miller wasn’t (“We’ve given away 18 awards, presented 3 special awards, had 7 presenters, and now it’s Miller Time.” Not respectful enough said the note). We typed up the material, faxed it out or sent it out by messenger (this was all B.E.C., Before Email, Chucklehead) to hosts and presenters, dealt with questions, then put it on over-sized index cards to hand out the night of the dinner. I got to approach Mr. Wallach and Ms. Jackson to make sure they had the material, had any questions, offering them the script on index cards or paper. Mr. Wallach was fine with everything and he asked who wrote it. I stammered out that I had written their material. He nodded and told me it was very good. I was in heaven. They seemed to be having a good time with it, hamming it up and selling the bits. And the show proceeded, but not without a speed bump or two.
Remember that comedy troupe I mentioned? Well, they got introduced by the Wallachs and began their little skit from the dance floor in the center of the room (we had a dance floor spaced out for after dinner awards dancing. It was rarely employed). Now, understand, because of my duties at the dinner, I’m standing on the stage, so I can see the audience. Especially the head table, where the guild hierarchy was seated.
As the sketch began, I saw a mortified Herb Sargent suddenly consult the program. Sargent was the long-time president of the guild. Sargent is also a comedy legend, semi-responsible for birthing the Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. Sargent then began having an animated discussion with the Executive Director of the Guild, who was seated next to him. She gets up and goes to the next table where sits the Director of the Activities Committee. They converse. Then our Director of the Activities Committee gets up and has to go to the back of the hall to catch the comedy troupe as they are coming off stage (to very strong applause) and tell them something. She makes her way back to me then informs me that the second sketch is cancelled. So now, I have to interrupt a discussion between Eli Wallach and Dustin Hoffman to update Wallach on the changes to the line-up and lose the appropriate index cards. He was very gracious about it. But I did get to say, “Excuse me, Mr. Hoffman, I need to speak to Mr. Wallace” and how many times to you get to say that sentence? And that was the last I ever saw of Eli Wallach. But a nice guy.
The follow-up to Sketch-gate was that we learned Herb Sargent felt it wasn’t right for only some writers to get to write for the show produced for the Writers Guild. We argued that if they wanted to write, they could join the committee too. It wasn’t that hard. But he was adamant about it, to the point that he stepped in each year to work out the bits with the hosts and presenters. The Executive Director didn’t quite agree with Sargent, but he was the president. She did recommend that we should use this situation to our advantage and guilt Herb Sargent, he of SNL, into looking at our material. Pretty slick, right? I told her that I hadn’t written the comedy troupe material that got cut. Her reply? “He doesn’t know that.” I attempted it, finally getting hold of Sargent at the guild and making my case that it really wasn’t fair for him to pull the plug on the sketches, and that we had worked really hard on the material and we were doing it for the good of the guild and it was really unfair, but if he wanted to make it up to us, he could look at a packet of material, maybe, for consideration for writing for SNL. His response? “Do you know how many people are submitting material to be a writer on SNL? (to my everlasting shame I did not reply “Twelve?” and try to moxie my way in). Anyway, I sent the package to him anyway, via the guild, and never heard of it again. Oh, well.
And that was another of my Brushes with Celebrity!