When I was starting out in comedy writing, comedy writers came in pairs. If you were introduced to one comedy writer, you said to
him, "Where's your partner?"
Mine for a time was a clever gent from Pittsburgh named Dennis Palumbo. Later on, Dennis and I reached a point where we had
different career goals so we parted friends and have stayed that way. But for a time there, Evanier and Palumbo were the hottest new
comedy-writing team since the guys who started the day before us.
We became, as all comedy-writing teams inevitably become, "the boys." Even if you're female, you become, "the boys," as in: "The
boys are here" or "Call the boys in for a meeting" or, in our case, "Tell the boys their script stinks."
This is not new. It's such a time-honored tradition of TV writing that there are countless anecdotes about it...like the time
Alan King allegedly passed one of his writers in a hallway and said, "Hello, boys." And supposedly, a few days later, that writer introduced
his mother to King by saying, "Alan, I'd like you to meet my mother...Mrs. Boys."
So "the boys" we were. And when we went to work for one TV production company, we were given an office that was way more
insulting than being called "the boys."
The company had a whole building to itself on the ABC lot but they had two shows in production and their staffers had occupied every
available office in the building. We were assigned to a windowless cubicle in another edifice...but, they told us, the other show they were
producing was on the verge of cancellation. "Once that happens, we'll have plenty of empty offices in our building and we'll move you right
Our "temporary" office (we never got another one) was a stark, airless bunker with cinder-block walls and all the personality of Al
Gore on Prozac. The complete list of its furnishings consisted of two all-metal chairs, one metal desk, a typewriter table, an IBM Selectric
typewriter and an empty metal bookcase with a telephone on it. As an environment to inspire the writing of comedy, it ranked right up there
with an embalming salon, a mass graveyard in Jonestown...or Bangla Desh after the locusts departed.
They gave us a form to requisition office supplies and we dutifully checked off that we needed pencils, paper, typewriter ribbons,
white-out, scissors, a stapler, staples, etc. "You'll have them shortly," we were told. It's going on two decades and we're still
Instead, we filched what we needed from the main production offices where we could usually be found, trying to avoid going back to our
own quarters. More often than not, we poached in the offices of others but, on those rare occasions we were actually in our own room, we had an
extra duty to perform: Answering the phone for a man who wasn't a doctor but he played one on TV.
The soap opera, General Hospital, was then housed on this lot. One of its stars had somehow coerced the network into
giving him an office (this, in addition to his dressing room) and they gave him the one next to ours. He used it as nothing more than a
glorified phone booth; when he wasn't needed on the set, he'd scurry up to his office, make a few calls and then lock it up and leave. He had
the same meager furnishings we did and no secretary. At times, I became his secretary.
The ABC receptionist batted about .500 when it came to putting his calls through on our line — a practice we did not discourage
because his calls were infinitely more interesting and numerous than ours.
About five times a day, on those days when we actually occupied our office, our phone would ring and some elderly, female voice would
ask for him, often with a note of desperation. And not only did they constantly confuse the man with the role he played but so did we.
The actor assumed we knew who he was (we didn't) and never formally introduced himself. As a result, I was never sure if his name was Smith and
he was playing Dr. Jones...or if his name was Jones and he was playing Dr. Smith.
Some of the viewers who called thought he was a real doctor and that he could help them with their problems. Others understood
that he was an actor but knew that he must be just as wise and knowing as his character and so could alleviate their woes. A few were calling
to give him counsel on how to handle some gut-wrenching crisis that was then-current in the soap's storyline. A call might go something like
ME: Show business! (I always answered the phone, "Show business.")
CALLER: Hello? I have to speak to Dr. Jones, please.
ME: The doctor isn't in. May I give him a message?
CALLER: Oh, it's very important. Isn't there any way he could speak with me? I'm calling from St. Louis.
ME: I'm sorry...the doctor's either in make-up or surgery.
CALLER: Well, could you give him a message?
CALLER: Tell him that he has to tell Jessica that that good-for-nothing husband of hers is having a thing with Monique. Tell him
that Jessica must get out as soon as possible. I had a niece who was in a relationship like that once. Oh, I tell you, it was
awful. Her husband went out every night, telling her he was going bowling and she believed him. Imagine such a thing!
ME: I've never trusted Jessica's husband. And as for that Monique — !
CALLER: She's a tramp. May the good lord forgive me but that woman is a tramp. Don't you think she's a tramp?
ME: She should be paying royalties to Charlie Chaplin.
CALLER: Beg your pardon?
ME: Never mind. All right, I've got your message. I'll see that the doctor gets it.
CALLER: Thank you. And tell his nurse that I hope she finds the father of her child.
ME: She's standing right here...I'll tell her. Thank you.
Alas, they weren't all funny. Some were women who were experiencing life crises. In their panic, they reached out to a
strong, comforting presence on their TV sets.
Looking, as writers often do, for reasons not to write, I tried talking at length to a few of them — even called a couple of
long-distance callers back so that the network would pay for the call instead of them.
But when the problems got to the stage of requiring professional assistance, I asked Mr./Dr. Smith/Jones what to do about them.
"Tell them to call their local Red Cross," said this man whose name I never knew for sure. "The Red Cross always knows where to send
them." I did it but, at first, I wasn't sure that it wasn't just some abrupt brush-off; I later learned it was probably the best advice we
could have dispensed.
After weeks of working in the crummy office and trotting over to the main building ten times a day, the other show they were producing
(not ours) was cancelled. Dennis and I were sad for the folks who worked on that show but delighted that now there would be office space for
The newly-vacated offices were quickly occupied...all but one that we decided would be perfect for us. Alas, there was one
The moment he got word that his show was cancelled, the star of that series walked up into the production offices and asked a secretary
if there was a place he could use to make a few calls. She directed him to that room and he went in, locked the door behind him and stayed in
there for ten days. I don't mean continually...but no one ever saw him go out or in.
He would arrive every morning early, before anyone else, and lock himself in, staying until well after everyone went home. If he
left the office for a sandwich or to use the men's room, no one ever noticed this.
Each morn, Dennis and I would ask when we were getting our new office. And, each day, the head of the company would explain to
us, "Look, the guy just lost his series...I feel sorry for him. I don't want to throw him out." This went on for days.
Finally, someone paused to wonder what he was doing in there and what "making a few calls" really meant. The guy-in-charge asked
his secretary to check with the studio operator and see what kind of phone charges were being run up. She did and, when she reported back,
ceilings shattered from heads hitting them.
The star whose show had just been cancelled was an "international" kinda guy; he's played all over the world and apparently decided
this would be a good time to call everyone he'd ever known and re-establish contact. For ten days, he'd been sitting in that office for at
least twelve hours a day, phoning everyone in the world he'd ever known...calls to Japan, Australia, China, Africa, Egypt, India, England, France,
Peru, even countries that barely had phone service...
We never heard how much this all cost (there were rumors of a thousand dollars a day times ten days) but we all knew who wouldn't be
paying. The star wouldn't be paying. This was before Sprint or MCI or any of those services; back when calling long distance could
involve a small bank loan.
That day, all concerns for our show disappeared; the singular goal of the production company was to get that guy out of that office
before the phone bill added another digit. They pleaded, threatened, cajoled, bribed...everything. But the ex-star barely answered his
door and, when he did, it was always, "Okay, let me just return one call" and he'd disappear in there for three more hours. The situation was
The guy-in-charge turned to his secretary and snapped, "Call the boys! Have them get their stuff over here." We felt bad
about the poor fellow being evicted but delighted that we were finally to have a large office with a couch and a window in the main building instead
of a tiny office with no couch and no window in an auxiliary building. We ran over and gathered up our stuff. Our boss had said, "Have
the boys bring their typewriter" so I even carried the Selectric over to the main offices.
Upon our arrival, he had us hold it all as he pounded on the door, behind which the actor had barricaded himself. When it finally
opened it a crack, he pointed to us and said, "These writers need this office. They have an emergency rewrite to do and I have no other place
to put them." The performer who'd just lost his show (and was about to lose his free phone privileges) studied us standing there holding papers
and books and one typewriter, sighed and said, "Okay, I'll finish this call."
He finished the one call, made three or four others, then departed. Joyously, we ran in and began arranging our new working
quarters. We were in there about five minutes before the boss came by and said, "What do you think you're doing?"
"Setting up our new office," one of us answered.
"No, no," he said. "I need this for our new casting director. I just had you bring that stuff over to get that jerk out of
here. Go back to your old place."
I have dozens more recollections of working on that lot but I'll close with two, both of which took place at about 3:00 AM, a
not-infrequent hour for us to get off work.
One of those nights, I was making the long walk to my car alone when I suddenly ran into three highly-inebriated men — all
shabbily-dressed and probably in their thirties — who clearly had hopped a fence or otherwise gained unauthorized entrance. My first
thought was, as yours would have been, that I was about to get mugged.
Instead, one of them asked, "Hey...you know where we could find those three girls?"
"What three girls?" I asked.
"The ones on the TV," he said. "What's their names again?"
One of the others said, "I got dibs on the one with the hair." I realized they were talking about Charlie's Angels, then
the number-one show on television.
After a few more incoherent questions, the picture became clearer even if the three drunks didn't. They'd been sitting in some
bar, downing shots and pining for female companionship when one of them said, "Hey, how about those three babes on TV? They don't seem to have
any men in their lives."
The three gents did not stop to think that those were actresses (some of them, married); that they might not film at ABC and, if they
did, that they might not be there at 3 AM; even that they might not eagerly welcome three drunken stockroom clerks into their bedrooms at that
hour. Instead, the men figured out what network aired Charlie's Angels, drove to the lot and snuck in.
"They don't film here," I told them, truthfully. "That show films at Twentieth-Century Fox over on Pico."
One of the guys turned to another: "Aw, you should have thought of that." I dutifully gave them directions to the Fox studios and
they wandered off. (The following year, I met Jaclyn Smith from the Charlie's Angels cast and told her this story. Her comment
was, "Gee, and I was so lonely that night...")
The other story. Dennis and I were leaving together, trudging to our cars, as exhausted from overwork as two human beings could
possibly be. Now remember, it's around 3 AM and we're walking through a deserted TV studio lot.
At the time, a new TV show had just debuted on NBC called Grady. It was a spin-off of Sanford and Son and it
starred an actor named Whitman Mayo. Now, Mr. Mayo was a fine actor but he was not what you'd call a comedy superstar. I don't know why
this popped into my mind but I turned to Dennis and, completely out of left field, giddy for want of sleep, said the following...
"Do you realize that Jonathan Winters is unemployed...Sid Caesar is unemployed...but Whitman Mayo has a series?"
Dennis stopped and looked at me in shock. "Is that true?" I assured him that it was true.
Whereupon Dennis began screaming, as loud as he could, "There is no God! Whitman Mayo has a series! Sid Caesar can't get
arrested but Whitman Mayo has a series!" At that moment, it seemed like the greatest injustice in the history of mankind.
Within moments, ABC Security Guards converged on us. (Where were these guys when I ran into the drunks?) One of them
demanded, "What seems to be the trouble?"
Dennis and I yelled back at them, "We'll tell you what the trouble is! Whitman Mayo has a series! Jonathan Winters is doing
Hollywood Squares and Whitman Mayo has a series! You must do something about this!"
The guards looked at each other, muttered, "Writers" and walked off. Dennis and I stumbled off for the parking lot, screaming,
every step of the way, "Whitman Mayo has a series! There is no justice in the world! Whitman Mayo has a series!"