This is the first part of a two-part interview with TV writer-turned-novelist Tom Straw.
Straw has had a remarkable career, making it all the more astonishing that he was emailing me to ask if I’d consider reading his book and interviewing him about it. As if I was going to turn down a chance to find out what Bill Cosby and Craig Ferguson are really like.
I mean, this is a guy who wrote for Mary Tyler Moore, Bill Cosby, and who was co-executive producer of the critically lauded Fox series Parker Lewis Can’t Lose for its first season. The latter, for that season, was one of my favorite shows in college. He went on to work on Grace Under Fire and currently writes for The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on CBS.
But, Scott, you may be saying, enough with the ego strokes for him and you. How about the book, The Trigger Episode? Well, I’m only halfway through it so I’ll answer that in part two. For now let’s get to the interview, where I asked him about this impressive resume.
Scott Butki: How did you get into writing?
Tom Straw: I was an early reader, loved books as a kid, and felt a drive to write stories too. An early childhood memory is sitting at a toy typewriter at age 10 in Weston, Massachusetts, tapping out my own neighborhood newspaper: pages, one; circulation, one; editions, one. Then in high school, I wanted to be Johnny Carson and became a radio DJ as a first step, which in hindsight was a form of comedy writing: Wisecracks and jokes in a tight form under deadline pressure. A DJ friend, Ken Levine, went on to write MASH, (and later, Cheers, Frasier, and others – crappy shows, I know, but he was a friend). Ken mentored me. I sold my first script because of him, to AfterMASH, which was basically MASH without the war or the funny characters. It was a start, though, and one for which I am very grateful. It changed my life. Immediately thereafter, Ken and his writing partner, David Isaacs, hired me for my first staff job on Mary, a series they created for Mary Tyler Moore. Book writing, a novel, remained a dream, but a dream deferred as I moved on to Night Court and my TV writing career grew.
Can you elaborate on your acknowledgements in the book: You thank “Ken Levine for opening the door to TV writing” and then thank “Bill Cosby making me glad I stayed in.”
Getting that break into TV, to get paid for my writing, was not only a thrill but a privilege I have never taken for granted once in all these years. A staggering majority of my TV experiences have been good ones — hard work and laughter with bright people — with the normal ups and downs. An exception was my job as exec producer-head writer for Grace Under Fire. How difficult was it? It was, “I-don’t-care-how-much-they-pay-me-I-don’t-think-I-can-drive-through-that-damned-gate-one-more-day” difficult. You had to be there. Be glad you weren’t. When that series ended, I was ready to be done with TV for good. Then Tom Werner, my boss on Grace, asked if I would consider taking over Cosby [note: this was the CBS series that post-dated the legendary NBC Cosby Show.]
If Grace Under Fire was hell, working with Bill Cosby was heaven. Every good thing you’ve heard about Bill is true. He astonished me with his collaborative sense and his openness to comments and new ideas. He reminded me the job can be fun and that there’s joy in storytelling. He also renewed my faith in the lost courtesies of a business that has made its peace with rudeness.
What was your role on each of these shows: Cosby, Grace Under Fire, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and Night Court? Were you writing the shows, producing or both? I ask because I realize that means I — and others — have probably seen your work without even knowing your name.
On all the shows you mention, I was a writer and a producer of one rank or other. Or maybe just a rank producer. See, in TV, the head writer is producer of the series. The vision for, and the consistency of, a show usually comes from its writing staff, led by the show runner. That’s what Rob Petrie would be called today.
I would author my own individual episodes, just as the other writers would, and then we’d gather to collaborate and polish. The show runner “holds the pencil,” which is to say, he or she is responsible for what gets shot. Conflicts arise in that process when stars exert power and I tried to dramatize that in The Trigger Episode when the druggy sitcom diva, Bonnie Quinn, killed scripts out of hand.
Which of those shows was your favorite to write for?
I was always in love with the show I was writing when I was writing it. The characters always mattered to me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to write them well. But, I have to say Night Court was a ball. Parker Lewis was a pleasure in a different way because it was single camera, shot like a movie without a studio audience, and we all just had a blast. Clyde Phillips and Lon Diamond, who made the pilot, really set the table for a sensibility that people still remark about today. I loved the smartness of Dave’s World, and Cosby was, to borrow his phrase, wonderful. Guess I’m not narrowing the list, am I?
What’s the best and worst part about writing for TV?
The best part is, when it’s working, when all the characters come alive in a story and there is plenty of discovery and a few surprises along the way and you stand there on the stage and 300 people are laughing hard at something you wrote in your bathrobe at 2AM, you get the satisfaction few writers get. You get to make a play once a week. The worst part? You have to come right back and do it again next week. And the week after that, and the week after that. The odds are quite against artistic success 22 shows a year but you try, and sometimes it works.
What makes it not work isn’t always the writing or the acting or the directing but the toxic power components that steer good shows right into the rocks. When Cosby and I first met, he asked me how we would manage to work together. I told him that as long as we both were there to serve the play and not our egos, we’d be fine. He beamed and shook my hand and it was ever thus. Can’t say the same about other experiences, but that’s life.
OK, so now at some point you went from writing for TV to writing this novel. How did that evolution occur?
The drive to write a novel never left me and it was a constant nag. Maybe it was heightened because TV seems somehow disposable. Shot, aired, and then on to the next. Lather, rinse, and repeat. I like writing TV and have had some luck at it, but I craved that longer form, with opportunities to go deeper and paint more interiors with words. I think committee work is also hard on a writer, even if you’re committee chair. When Cosby ended, I took the leap to self-employment and dove into The Trigger Episode on spec, feeling that I never wanted to look back and say “if only I had…”
Are you still doing any work for television?
Sure. In fact, Tom Werner put up the Batman signal again a while back and asked me to come in on Whoopi when it was having some troubles. That project and a pilot I sold took me out of my book for a while, but the interruption actually helped me. I came back to my novel with enough distance and perspective to crack some big story problems. Recently, I have been commuting to LA to write for The Late Late Show on CBS. I still take a swing at pilots, too. The pendulum has tilted against the sitcom so I am developing some dramas. We’ll see. In TV, it’s all good until it isn’t.
When people ask you what this book is about what do you tell them?
I tell them it’s about a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who took a big fall from grace and is now reduced to scrambling for a living shooting celebrities in LA as a paparazzo. When he gets hired by the producer of a sitcom to find their missing diva so they can tape the 100th episode, the trigger episode for syndication profits, my paparazzo gets pulled into a murder mystery that reunites him with his old lover and forces him to confront the mess he has made of his life.
One of the more intriguing characters is Quinn, the drama queen TV star. I’m reading it amid all the news stories about Paris, Lohan, Richie, etc., and I’m wondering if you’re basing Quinn on one person or on a composite?
Your Paris, your Lohan, your Richie, and your Britney had not become brand names for public meltdowns until I was in galley proofs. I do have a reference to “getting Lohanned” by the paparazzi, but that was back when she was the innocent being chased in her car and surrounded instead of allegedly doing some high-speed chasing of her own.
But I see in this crew of Paris-ites some striking similarities to some stars I have known or even worked with. Having said that, Bonnie Quinn is not based on an actual person, a fact that strikes glee into my attorneys. In spite of some dogged approaches by tabloids, I make it a point never to kiss and tell. It would only diminish me as well as the party in question.
Plus on a quite selfish basis, celebrities would probably avoid working with me for fear I might do the same to them. But there’s this wonderful thing called fiction. Make it up. And to help tell the story of my flawed paparazzo I made up Bonnie Quinn, a drugged-up sitcom actress, an abusive train wreck of a woman who is on the verge of complete self-destruction. Just like him.
We are all products of our experiences (write what you know, right?) and there’s no doubt my observation of various celebrities-gone-wild was absorbed as much as my observations about how shows are made, how the paparazzi get their shots, and how good love can go wrong. But Bonnie is a product of my imagination, an imagination, granted, that had plenty of manure to make it fertile. She is my Bonnie. Not to be claimed by any real-lifer.
Are we supposed to like Bonnie Quinn?
You’ve really gotten to the heart of it with that question. The guiding theme for me in this novel was that of redemption. Mainly for Hardwick, the paparazzo, but for Bonnie, too. His drive is to tear down PR facades to prove that things are not always as they appear. I wanted to balance the equation by applying that to so-called bad people, too. Bonnie is an extreme character with a lot to gasp at.
But when the story is told, guess what? Insight. Like her? Up to you. Understand her? That’s my job. Readers I trust are pleasantly surprised that I didn’t paint Bonnie with Cruella DeVille’s brush. She’s bad enough to be delicious; why kill that by making her a cartoon?
How are you similar and different from the main character of this novel?
Let me try to back into this answer. I chose to write The Trigger Episode in the first person because I felt it would help a reader empathize with a guy doing basically despicable work as a paparazzo. The unexpected consequence of that was writing all those I-me-mys. Of course I am not Hardwick but the voice of the book made me identify more with him, too.
So what seeped into (and out of) the writing was a sense of my own flaws. Not necessarily the same flaws as Hardwick’s but my response to them. How I rationalize them. Or deny them. Or act-out because of them. Hardwick is something, I’ll never be, the conflicted noir man of action, but I think I may have the conflicted part pretty much down
Stay tuned for part two in about two weeks