They optioned Panati’s book of origins and proceeded to graft it onto another idea, a show about celebrity origins; quick biographies with video clips and sound bites about the stars of the day and describing their rise to fame. This was before cable TV and multiple channels that did entire shows about one person.
As it turned out, Charles Panati was made some sort of producer of the show. Using what ever power he had, he offered me a job (or “gig”) writing the “bumpers” on the program. The deal was this: the show was going to be several profiles of beloved performers and stars, separated by commercials (naturally). Before and after each commercial there would be a “bumper,” a short presentation of a bit of trivia about the origins of things from the book, like ice cream cones or Betty Crocker. Now here’s the thing; they had now gotten a host with a unique voice and strong personality. They had gotten Steve Allen. Add that to the fact that he wrote the well-known song “The Start of Something Big” now meant they had a title and a theme song for the show. As host, Allen would be the star of these bumpers.
I was assigned a number of items (i.e. traffic signs, naked Olympians, potato chips, ice cream cones, Betty Crocker), given the history of them, and was told to write a short, pithy script for each. There was one other writer on board but it we were freelance, working from home and faxing in pages. It was an advantage knowing who we were writing for, and I’m pretty good at mimicking voices and a big plus than I knew of Steve Allen.
Steve Allen was a TV comedy legend. Best remembered as the first host of the Tonight Show on NBC, he came of age when television was live, loose and disposable. They churned out shows back then, got them on the air then had to begin work on the next one and being excellent each time. There was no tape. No repeats. And, alas, like the other pioneers of the medium, a lot of their work was lost or forgotten and often got dropped out of the mainstream. Allen was a work horse who did numerous TV shows, wrote books, songs, scripts and kept working and creating to stay current. This I knew about him.
We wrote our bumpers for the first couple of episodes and then…nothing. We heard there were issues: trying to get a version of the song “Start of Something Big” that didn’t sound so old fashion. Re-working the celebrity/trivia ratio. And…the writing. We two writers got summoned to a little meeting up in the NYC production offices. It was the first time I saw some of these people face-to-face. Word had come down that Steve Allen wanted to bring in his own writer for the remaining episodes. Thus, we were let go. Welcome to show biz! They paid us for what we contributed and they did use it in the show. I got an on-screen credit as a “Contributing Writer.” It was my first professional TV gig.
I had a premier party when the episode aired, inviting friends and family to watch the show the night it aired, reveling in the thrill with them and bad-mouthing Allen for getting me fired. I took a picture of the screen credit. I didn’t own a VCR then (again, this is a period piece) and had to get a friend to record it for me. The show ran for one season and was cancelled (Karma!), so essentially, I was laid off about 3 months before everyone else. And that was that. Until the 50th anniversary of the Writers Guild Awards dinner.
It was 1998. The president of the Guild, East was legendary comedy writer Herb Sargent, and what he did for the dinners was corral us a host. Who was usually a friend of Herb Sargent. So we had a lot of former SNL people and comedy legends perform that duty. But for the 50th anniversary show, he called in the icon, Steve Allen. Everyone knew Steve Allen invented the Tonight Show. What a lot of people don’t know (me among them) was that Herb Sargent was beside him, as his head comedy writer, from day one. These were the giants’ shoulders that everyone else in TV was standing on. And I was determined to finally meet Steve Allen.
As mentioned elsewhere, I was on the committee at the WGA, East that oversaw the annual awards dinner. And we got to attend because we were working the night. I was the award mule, who would carry the award out to the presenter to present. And I was going to use this as a ploy to speak to Allen before the show, you know, let him know I was on stage, that I had the envelopes with the winners’ names, I would be off to the side with the awards, etc. I tracked him down. He was off in a side room with Herb Sargent going over a few bits they had worked out together (Herb, at this time made it a point to work on material with the hosts to prevent that situation where once I co-wrote material for the host). I introduced myself and stated my reason for being there and generally touched base about the show. Then I went for broke, with Herb Sargent standing there, I told Steve Allen what an honor it was to meet him (which was really weird, because after he got me fired, all I could talk about was how I wanted to punch him in the mouth—oh, well, time heals all wounds. It had been 13 years). I mentioned how one of the first writing jobs I got was writing “for him” and “The Start of Something Big.” I pulled out the page of the TV Guide I had saved from the premier, taped it to an index card, and asked him to autograph it (stupidly, I should have made a copy which would have had more white space to sign and it would all be together). He did so happily, writing “with thanks.” With thanks!! Then he asked me if I had copies of the show. I had to confess I only had a few clips that I had copied off a friends’ VHS tape. He told me he never got a copy of the show and he always wanted to get one. He had copies of all his shows. I assumed he did because of what NBC had done to the copies of his Tonight Show, most of the episode recordings are gone, trashed by NBC. I told him I was still friends with one of the producers and would ask around. Which seemed really backwards to me. But I called Charles Panati and, alas, he was out of contact with the series producers, but he would look into it. In the end, we never did get copies and less than two years later, in 2000, Steve Allen passed away.
So you gotta figure the autograph is worth something, right?
And that was one of my---BRUSHES WITH CELEBRITY!