Saturday, April 21, 2012

Humor me, Pops

There's no doubt about it, and I've said it before: I have the coolest dad.

I've cited his love for musical theater, his emotional sensibilities, his intelligence and his silliness among my reasons for this superlative statement. But a few days ago in conversation with a couple of friends about my dad, I was reminded of yet another thing that genuinely sets him apart from anyone else.

My dad has always permitted (and sometimes encouraged) me to be ridiculous.

Complete Savages, no longer airing on ABC on Friday nights.
I was 12 and I loved to watch the ABC TGIF line-up. One night, after my favorite show 8 Simple Rules there was a new show airing called Complete Savages. I decided to stay up an extra 30 minutes to try the show out. There were several cute boys in it, so I thought 'why not?'

Why not, indeed.

Within a few viewings, Complete Savages had become my favorite show of the moment. I taped the last half of the 19 episodes that aired. I used to re-watch the episodes over and over. I developed a crush on the youngest character, T.J., who ended up becoming a relatively famous child/teen celebrity (His name is Jason Dolley and he's now on Disney Channel's Good Luck Charlie).

Around winter 2004, I went to Universal Studios to meet the cast of Complete Savages. I wore a terrible outfit and my hair was a mess. I was a sight that no one should ever (or will ever) see. Those pictures are very carefully guarded.

But it isn't the pictures that interest me about this event. It's the fact that, though I'd only been a fan for a short time (maybe less than a month), my dad was already willing to drive me for an hour to get to Universal City in the early morning and meet a bunch of no-names from an ABC Friday night sitcom. Granted, Erik von Detten played the scummy Josh Bryant in The Princess Diaries, one of my favorite childhood films, so they weren't all no-names to me, but the condition still stands.

A few months later, I'd continued with my fandom to the extent of joining a message board (you remember those, don't you?) that was a part of Jason Dolley's official website. He and his mother both had accounts on the site and acted as participants and moderators. I became friendly with his mother (I have no recollection of how that happened) and snagged an invitation to a taping of Complete Savages.

I had already been to one taping. At the time I was only 12, as I've mentioned, but the age requirement to see the show was 16. Clearly they didn't enforce these restrictions, but I had already conspired with my dad to make a fake high school I.D. in the event that they did ask me to prove I was the proper age to attend.

This second taping was infinitely more awesome than the first for the little starstruck me. We arranged with my new celebrity crush's mom to meet Jason in the Universal Studios backlot. My dad and I arrived early, then walked around where we'd ridden before on a theme park tram (one of my favorite rides at any theme park is the studio tour - it goes through the Back to the Future town set!). We met the youngest boy from Complete Savages. I couldn't say a word out of sheer nervousness, but before I knew it I was rushed away from Jason and to the soundstage where my dad and I listened to a warm-up comic, ate free pizza and watched my new favorite show being performed live right in front of us.

It was an amazing experience in my life and it's all thanks to my father.

I guess I could credit Jason Dolley's mother for the experience as well, but that would be a tremendous oversight of the man who has constantly stood by me from weird obsession to weird obsession, happy enough to sit in a studio audience for three hours to watch a performance of a sitcom of which he was only moderately fond.

But here's where my dad goes from great to "the coolest."

Within a few months of my seeing a taping of Complete Savages, the show was already being pulled from the air. The last four episodes aired four months after the first 15, and by then the show was already on a permanent hiatus.

Even with Betty White as a guest star, this sitcom couldn't hold its weight. But I was determined to keep it afloat and my dad was right there next to me ready to offer any help he could.

I signed petitions. I wrote on message boards. I called phone numbers.

I wrote a script for the next season.

This is where my dad comes in. One day while re-watching an episode of Complete Savages for the umpteenth time, I decided to try and write out the script word for word. I guess it was for entertainment's sake, though I don't understand now how that could have been any fun at all.

I watched the entire episode with a remote next to my enormous Gateway PC, pressing pause and play every few seconds to type out another couple of lines.

Then I started ruminating on the idea of scripts and television writing. I've watched these episodes over and over, I know the plot points backwards and forwards, I understand the way the jokes are constructed, etc. Why can't I write my own episode?

So I did. I enlisted my dad's help, and within a couple of days we'd constructed a full TV sitcom script. It was a sample of a potential opener for a second season of Complete Savages. I'm not sure where the draft has gone to - it probably died along with the Gateway - but I do remember that it involved the youngest brother - as I've mentioned, T.J. - entering high school and being tutored by his older brother Sam (the brainiac brother).

My dad taught me a ton about script writing during that experience. He showed me how to explain setting and direction within a script. He described what a teaser and a tag were. I didn't know my dad was such a virtuoso in screenwriting. I mean, I knew very well he was a genius (call me naive, but I still think so to this day), but I had no idea he could write for TV.

That's when I learned that my dad had a life before me. Whereas he has lived all of my life and many years before I was conceived as a piano teacher, several decades ago he tried his hand at being a screenwriter. Along with a friend of his, my dad managed to get the attention of a Hollywood agent and sent out scripts like mad.

When I heard about my dad's entertainment industry exploits, I couldn't help but want to slap him across the face for not pursuing them further. He has such a great life as it is: a great job that he loves with relative stability. But he's such an intelligent person and he has such potential for comedic greatness that the world has lost one of its best talents by not ever seeing his work come to life on the screen.

My dad ended up giving up the dream of being a Hollywood writer. His friend was unreliable and eventually the relationship with his agent petered out.

Decades down the road, though, he was giving me a little taste of the hope of burgeoning writing talent. Throughout the process of becoming obsessed with Complete Savages, I could tell my dad was taking pleasure in seeing the industry work firsthand just as much as I was. During this time we used to talk about the origins of the show - including crew members like Mel Gibson (cringe) and Mike Scully who is probably best known for his work on The Simpsons.

My dad and I commiserated on the fate of television, the high barriers of entry to the industry. And he let me take over where he left off by showing me how to write my own script. We became a comedy writing team, all our ideas co-meditated and co-written.

I can't imagine how life might have played out differently had my dad not encouraged me to be insane when I was 12. What if he hadn't let me go to those TV show tapings? What if he had laughed and told me I was silly for typing up a whole television script? What if he scoffed when I asked him to help me write a script? Would I not have grown to love television and other media like I do? Would I have chosen not to be a writer?

The luckiest part of my life is that I've never had to ask those questions - because they have never been an issue. Nothing ridiculous is an issue with my dad.

Nothing is ridiculous at all with my dad, actually. Sometimes he just humors me, and that makes him the coolest.

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