I always believed if I could circumvent the endless decisions-by-committee that prevent most TV projects from reaching audiences in today’s marketplace, I would have had my own shows on the air that audiences would have embraced – based on my sensibility and the iconic shows I’ve learned from and worked on. Banging My Head Against the Wall: A Comedy Writer’s Guide to Seeing Stars (with a foreword by Jay Leno) is my chance to finally let the audience, the reader, be the judge.
The entertainment world is collaborative and unpredictable and usually outside of your control. It’s important to get along with people, but sometimes it’s more dangerous to keep diplomatically playing the game than it is to burn a bridge and build a new one to your sanity. As I write in the chapter, “The Opposite of Holding Back,” if the meek inherited the earth, menus wouldn’t have lamb chops on them.
My book represents four years of writing about forty years of writing, performing and creating comedy from the ground up. Along with being the only writer collectively associated with Cheers, Seinfeld and 3rd Rock from the Sun, I’m very proud of the myriad original creative projects – stand-up, half-hour comedies, sketch, talk, web/radio shows, comedy docuseries, published single panel cartoons and comic strips that I get to share with readers. They’ll have a bird’s eye view of what it feels like to perform comedy on national television, take in industry pitching strategies and reactions back. Not to mention personal reflections from over fifty iconic celebrities I pre-interviewed during my first Hollywood job in the ’80s as a talent coordinator, writer and recurring performer on The Merv Griffin Show, including from Orson Welles’ pre-interview for his final appearance on the show, the day before he died. I structured the book to help the readers feel as if they go on the journey with me. The ups, the downs, persistence rising above daunting odds, and the uplifting message of hope I leave in the epilogue.
I had my earliest major encounter with stars in junior high when a bully on the bus broke his hand on a future comedy writer’s head. When I eyed his bandaged fingers the next day, I realized I’d won the fight! An apt metaphor for Hollywood – getting pummeled one day and triumphing the next. My father had a creative streak, wrote articles and cartoons, which genetically impacted me. I tapped into the humorous side of neuroses from my upbringing, and that helped me identify with Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, eventually Seinfeld and my own projects with a psychological bent. As a kid, I wound up using comedy to help win over some of my adversaries.
Speaking of “the opposite” of giving up, and still creatively flourishing after wandering the Southern California desert’s peaks and valleys all these years, I was happy to further drill down in my book on George Costanza’s opposite-winning method to the madness. I’d first reflected on doing everything the opposite in my own life before helping George grab onto the brass ring on Seinfeld in “The Opposite.” (Larry David, after whom George was reportedly patterned, once told me, You are George.”) To this day George’s epiphany is championed in art, economics, and politics, and “the opposite” is also a recurring theme throughout the book in terms of comedy, as well as the twists and turns of showbiz. I realized a writer’s dream in getting to work with Jason Alexander many years after Seinfeld while hosting my talk show pilot, in which we reenacted scenes from my first draft of “The Opposite,” I playing Jerry, Jason playing George. That is just one of many creative project links readers can also visit within the book. In this era of classic TV reboots, readers will also get a kick out of discovering dozens of “new” Seinfeld stories I pitched on the show that never made it to air.
Seinfeld was refreshingly devoid of the set-up, punch of so many sitcoms that continue to this day. The stories were most important. Also, the show was brilliantly cast across the board, down to the guest stars and smaller parts. They had a naturally funny and slightly off feel to them, refreshingly different from the cookie cutter casting among a lot of network shows.
The final chapter unveils the logical project my book’s over 400-page journey leads to, a new half-hour comedy/reality docuseries project I co-created with Emmy-winner Rich Ross centered around my character, now entitled Is That Normal? with Andy Cowan. It’s a unique entry into the world of therapy, emphasizing honest humor, a hint of pathos, and eking out therapy both in session and out in the 21st– century world. Comedy director and veteran David Steinberg was an early champion of the show, as mentioned in the book. Other interests of mine include vocalizing and playing hand percussion with my jazz group in Los Angeles venues, a musical mission that’s been ongoing for over thirty years. And being dragged into an Arthur Murray Dance Studio (that happens to be in my building) by a lovely female instructor who noticed me walking by and taught me a few quick Foxtrot steps. I hate dancing. I did the opposite!
As for my advice to authors everywhere: Write what’s burning inside of you to get out, the material that uniquely defines you. And the art of writing is rewriting – and dreaming about what needs rewriting and hoping you remember it the next morning!