THREE MONTHS ago, Nielsen was just a word I glanced over in the TV Guide. It never bothered me if ABC put a special opposite CBS's 8 o'clock time slot on Wednesday night. Who cared if a show dropped a percentage point in the ratings?
That was three months ago.
Now, my life is filled with numbers and ratings and jokes and Jimmie Walker's effect on the black American public. And television marches on . . .
I was born in Bossier City, La., a dot on the map not far from Shreveport, one of Louisiana's larger dots on the map. As a general rule, little girls who grew up around pecan trees and bayous don't end up working for one of television's most successful producers, Norman Lear. And even more unusual is that she writes scripts for his comedic filet mignon, "Good Times."
Along the gravel roads of my hometown, I'm known as "Miss Hollywood." For what reason, I have yet to decipher, but maybe it has something to do with the fact that I can answer quietly kept Hollywood secrets like, "Is Jimmie Walker really that skinny?"
Hollywood has no secrets - the fan magazines take care of that - but it is a good feeling seeing those secrets unfold in front of me. The first day of the job, I learned there was a possibility one of the show's lead characters, Esther Rolle, may not return for the season. Oh, how awful, I thought. Does that mean no more show?
Taping had already begun when the final announcement came of Rolle's departure. "What's going to happen now?" I queried innocently, "No show."
"Are you kidding?" a veteran show-business person replied. "Our ratings are good."
Suddenly, I had been whisked from my beautiful, pecan-picking world into Never-Never Land - the land of stars, contracts, time slots and the golden motto of Hollywood: "Do unto the viewing public as you wish, they'll swallow anything." It has started to rub off. When I wake up in the morning, I automatically smile and tell myself to have a nice day. Brushing my teeth is no simple matter anymore. I find myself pausing three seconds after I've finished to check for that whiter-then-white sex appeal.
Then there's the on-the-job training.
"The Elders" (anyone who has been in "the business" more than six months), immediately crowded me with the ins and outs of the television industry. I quickly learned the three C's: comedy, charisma and color television.
The latter of the three seems most in demand for anyone associated with the industry.I was perfectly content with my 12-inch black-and-white portable until a fellow writer admonished, "You don't have a color set?"
"No," I answered, "I got this one for my college graduation last May . . ."
"You must get one, Judi Ann. How are you going to know whether something is funny if it's not in color?"
Weeks later, having fulfilled that occupational necessity, I thought I was all set to settle into work. But then I was told my level of thinking must change. One perennial funnyman told me, "Look, kid, you've got to realize just who watches television. Your ordinary, run-of-the-mill college professor gets his cookies from Walter Cronkite. Think about all those folks who grew up on "Bullwinkle." Those folks are your concern . . ." (As a result, I scratched the word "hindrance" from my teleplay - I wouldn't want to confuse the American public.)
After two weeks of punchlines, I discovered "Good Times" was under attack for its "detrimental" effect on black families. That, I will never understand. Why in the world would anyone with any normal degree of common sense assume that the Evans family represents every black person who ever combed an afro? Does the Cunningham family (of Fonzie fame) represent every white family? I think not (let's say, I hope not), but what am I to say when I'm asked that classic question, "Why is "Good Times" so degrading to blacks?" To settle that point: I have no idea, America, ask Mr. Nielsen.
I shake my head in disbelief when someone lashes out at me for their dislike of the show. One Chicagoan asked me how could I work for such a prejudiced man as Norman Lear.
"What makes you think he's prejudiced?"
"He created Archie Bunker, didn't he?" That was a killer. If that was the basis for judging his prejudice, Mr. Lear hates Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, liberals, feminists and anything that has the slightest hint of being different. That doesn't leave him much room to be any nationality except Munchkin, right?
Hollywood is not without its prejudices, though. By the work of nature, I am a young, black, Southern, female playwright - an oddity in Tinsel Town. Since being black, Southern female are popular currents, I seldom have problems on those levels. But what is a 22-year-old theater person doing working in television? Don't I know that a kid writer fresh out of Grambling State University in Louisiana isn't supposed to have this kind of job? What happened to the Kid-You've-Got-To-Suffer-First prerequisite for good jobs in television? Is Hollywood changing?
After considerable amounts of put-downs ("geez, kid, what are you doing here?", "you write well for your age . . ."), I resolved myself to accept the labels. Who said I couldn't be a mild-mannered theater person in the guise of a Hollywood writer? I am determined to survive in both worlds - theater and television. I consider myself a cross between a commercial and an intermission, a closing credit and a curtain call. Is there really a difference?
Norman Lear has found the happy medium between the two. His shows used the four-camera method of taping before a live audience. There is the audience feedback, the continuous action and the flavor of realism. The only thing I have to get used to now is the funny hat Norman Lear wears on tape days.
Ah, those tape days. . .
For "Good Times," Thursday is the culminating day for a week-long rehearsal schedule and rewriting. That's when those everloving fans come out to ogle the stars. It reminds me of myself before I had the opportunity to watch Carroll O'Connor blow his nose as he walked down the hall, or see Norman think his way into a joke or for that matter, not having to look in the TV Guide to see what the show is about. Believe it or not, those are the kinds of remarks heard every Thursday night as they crowd into the studio for the tapings.
The stars are the natural resources of Southern California. Just as Louisianans take pride in their shrimp and oil, I am certain there is similar pride Southern Californians take in what their land cultivates.
The problem occurs when those natural resources meet in the same environment - it's a dangerously overabundant crop. No one travels incognito these days - those infamous dark glasses and hats worn by taciturn stars of yesteryear have converted into pastel-colored Pierre Cardins and long, wind-blown hair.
The Hollywood stars of today are extremely friendly (with a few paranoid exceptions). Most of them "are absolutely mad about their fans," which inadvertently includes you if you happen to be in the same room with one. I have learned that a star will never admit he does not remember you from some earlier meeting.
"You remember me, don't you, Star?"
A dramatic pause. "Ohhhh . . . yessss, that's right.How are you?" - another great pause. "What did you say your name was again?" If you have time to repeat the name four more times, the conversation could move along at a good pace.
The only person who should "star" but doesn't, is Norman. He floats around Tandem casually, calmly. I had always wondered why he seldom made public appearances, but what smart cookie questions the baker about his recipes? I do find it fascinating to observe his expertise in comedy development. He personally supervises each show, commenting, perfecting and if it merits, he settles back for a deep chuckle.
I have three months left before I reach Eldership and probably longer before I consider myself fully armed for the days to come. Much comedy has resulted from this experience and if I can hold tight the reigns, learn to cope with the Nielsen numbers, answer all the Jimmie Walker questions plus maintain my decency in the theater community, perhaps my teeth will muster up enough sex appeal to write a good 12-inch joke in black-and-white.
Who knows? In Hollywood, anything can happen.