By Burt Prelutsky
(From TV Guide, September 20, 1969. Sent in by television historian MICHAEL J. HAYDE, author of “My Name’s Friday: The Unauthorized but True Story of Dragnet and the Films of Jack Webb”.)
When people ask me how to break into TV writing, I advise them to stay home and wait for Jack Webb to call. I can’t claim that’s the only way to do it, but it happens to be the way I did it.
I got the call one day last summer. Webb, it seems, had been reading – and enjoying – a weekly column I write for a Los Angeles newspaper supplement. He had a hunch I could write scripts for Dragnet. Frankly, I had a hunch that he had rocks in his head. For one thing, I had never written a script. For another thing, my approach to subject matter is tongue-in-cheek; hardly in the straightforward tradition of Dragnet.
Nevertheless, a couple of days later I drove out to Universal City Studios, where Webb’s Mark VII production company is located. Webb was busy but his associate, Bob Cinader, filled me in. What they had in mind was a segment in which Sgt. Joe Friday and Officer Bill Gannon would appear as panelists on a TV talk show. It was a format that would allow them ample opportunity to answer those complaints most often lodged against the Los Angeles Police Department (i.e.. bigotry, brutality, etc.).
After careful deliberation (four seconds by the clock), I agreed to give it a try. I was curious to find out if I could cut the mustard.
Once I started working on the script, I found that one of the hardest things to do was name my characters. I’d be sitting there, scribbling away, when I’d come to a new character – and invariably my mind went blank. Blanker, if you insist. I’d look around my room in desperation, seeking inspiration. Half a dozen times I had to fight off such panic-inspired solutions as Charlie Chair, Larry Linoleum and Betty Bookcase.
Aside from that, I found the writing of a TV script to be an easy and enjoyable experience. As very nearly the entire episode was devoted to the talk show itself, I didn’t have to concern myself too much with cuts, dissolves, and the setting of scenes. And, as we were basically doing a show within a show, Dragnet and the talk show broke for commercials at the same time.
Webb was happy with my script, and a couple of weeks later I was notified they were shooting it. Full of beans I went out to oversee the production. I was in for a terrific letdown. It was this: there is no one quite so useless as a writer on a TV set. All you do is keep getting in the way of people who are working. I kept wanting to explain things like motivation and character development, but no one wanted to listen. I considered getting a broom to make myself useful and help tidy up, but I knew the sweepers union would have me blackballed.
The show opened the 1968 season for Dragnet, on Sept. 19. On Sept. 20 I was awakened by a phone call. It was a friend calling to let me know that until the night before, he had been unaware that I was a fascist. I turned over and went back to sleep.
By this time Webb had offered me a second assignment. It had to do with a group called Smarteens, which is composed of teenagers dedicated to stamping out harmful drugs.
It was at this juncture that I began to set a pattern of writing 16-minute scripts. A pattern that, before it ran its depressing course, almost drove everyone at Mark VII Productions up the wall and me to an early grave.
The problem is that I can’t compose at the typewriter. I write everything longhand in stenography notebooks. Well, as almost all of my magazine articles fall into the 750-1500 word category, and, as I know that I get 150 words to the page, it has always been an easy thing for me to determine the length of my articles. However, I had no idea whatsoever how to gauge the length of a script. Sheer dumb luck had seen me through the first assignment. I can’t begin to describe the horror I felt when I got my Smarteens script back from the typist. Instead of the 40 pages, about the usual length, it was as I recall, 25.
I read it through. The way I figured, if Webb would only learn to pause in his delivery like Jack Benny, and if Harry Morgan would develop a stutter for this particular episode, we were OK.
I delivered the script. Jack picked it up in a hand that knows to the gram how much a script should weigh. “Where’s the rest of it?” he asked by way of reassurance.
Somehow we succeeded in getting it up to length. but I vowed never to go through that ordeal again. And, by gum, I didn’t. Until next time. And the time after that. And still again. It began to be a running gag. Someone suggested they pay me only half price because I was writing only half-scripts. I could understand their point of view, but I was in no mood to joke about money. Because I was beginning to think that my TV earnings would just about cover an extended holiday at a local sanitarium.
I really began to think my brain was dissolving into cornmeal mush when I had to rewrite one of my 16-minute epics about a computer fraud case. Jack had decided, after reading my first draft, that the script could be best improved (lengthened) by having a computer expert at one point explain the workings of the complicated machinery to Friday and Gannon. It seemed like a good idea to me, too.
So I made an appointment with the gentleman in charge of the computers lodged in the basement of the Universal tower. He was very kind, very patient and very thorough. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make any sense out of the ton of stuff he was throwing my way. Understand, please, that can openers confuse me, as do the principles that govern such things as skate keys, zippers and Venetian blinds. So, this guy who knows exactly how and why computers work is trying to explain it to me. I in turn am expected to turn around and explain it to you. Picture Einstein explaining his Theory of Relativity to an Eskimo. Picture Einstein explaining it to me, cornmeal mush seeping out of my ears.
Somehow, by the grace of whichever saint it is who looks out for children and idiots, I went back to my script and managed to bluff my way through five minutes of computer jargon. For all I know, I may have wound up describing the intricacies of boiling a carburetor.
When I turned in that script I had already decided it would be my last. I hadn’t counted on how powerful an incentive greed can be. Sure enough, I left Webb’s office with yet another assignment. I should note here that even in the darkest hours, my admiration for Webb never waned. It wasn’t simply his professionalism (acting, producing, directing and rewriting undernourished scripts) that impressed me, but the fact that he had taken a gamble (an expensive one, at that) on a fellow who had never written a script – and was willing to keep gambling, 16-minute script after 16-minute script – marks him as an extraordinary guy. Except where nepotism is concerned, you don’t often find that sort of kindness and charity in the world of television. Or anywhere else.
In any case, with a heart-load of dread, I sent my sixth Dragnet script off to the typist. The next day I went by to pick it up. “This is the best one yet,” she said, handing it to me. “Don’t set me up with lot of sweet talk – how long is it?”
“It’s 42 pages.”
I nearly fainted.
When I took the script out to Universal, I almost danced a jig into Webb’s office. He couldn’t believe it. “It’s too long – we’ll have to cut a minute out of it.”
Unless Mr. Anthony rings my doorbell one day to offer me a check for a million dollars, “It’s too long – we’ll have to cut a minute out of it,” may just be the sweetest dozen words I’ll ever hear.