How TV writers get that way
The next time you’re chuckling or groaning over any TV comedy star’s "ad libs,” save a little praise or blame for the authors behind the scenes. They may be the two bright young Canadians named
and John Aylesworth
Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth, two sombre clean-cut young men from Toronto, specialize in an odd and self-effacing new twentiethcentury trade. It is so recent a specialty that it hasn't yet a satisfactory label. At this stage, what Peppiatt and Aylesworth do is called "writing for television.” Like the convention of describing three years' skull-cramming at Oxford as "reading history,” this is a laconic understatement.
In the first place this writing is nothing like the traditional lonely vigil at the typewriter. Their creation is done in brainstorming sessions with anywhere up to seven other writers; putting the results on paper is mere stenography. In the second place, this is writing that requires no outstanding dictionary skills, and no particular grasp of grammar, syntax or punctuation. Almost a third of each script on which they may work consists simply of instructions to various people such as performers, director, choreographer, set designer, band leader and cameramen.
In the third place, the measure of their success with the rest of the script is how little it can be detected as their work.
For Peppiatt and Aylesworth labor, under contract, for various U. S. and Canadian shows
in the variety, or light entertainment, division of TV. This division embraces almost one third of North America’s TV fare — all the quizzes, musical shows, giveaways, comedy shows, parlor games and conversation pieces that daily jostle each other along the chartered air. It has become the pretense of this class of diversion that, except for the house rules, and a few notes on the back of an old envelope, the host and whatever performers surround him arc making it up as they go along. Since television leaves nothing to chance, this conceit has spawned a group of craftsmen with a talent for putting words in other people's mouths that sound like the other people's words.
That Peppiatt and Aylesworth are among this chameleon brood is, in a way, ironical, since they first entered TV as professional show-offs. They made their debut on TV, more than six years ago, as a comedy team, and they not only used their own material but ad libbed much of it.
Nevertheless they are now such dab hands at ghosting dialogue for others that this June they signed a writers’ contract with the CBC for one of the largest sums the corporation has ever paid for talent. They will not disclose the figure, but it obviously forms a major part of the one hundred thousand dollars they count on splitting in the coming year.
Their reputation spread to New York last year. Peppiatt has since put in a season on the
Steve Lawrcnce-Eydie Gorme show' and half a season on the Steve Allen show, Aylesworth worked on last winter’s Hit Parade for CBS, and both spent this summer writing for the Andy Williams show — the widely acclaimed summer replacement for Garry Moore. The Williams show marked the first time they’d written together since they broke up as a performing team in 1955, but already their agent, Elliot Wax of the William Morris agency, is saying, “The boys are even stronger as a team.”
By this July the team had two of its four feet so firmly planted in U. S. television that, while they were still considering an offer to write some projected spectaculars starring Mitch Miller, the pop-music impresario, his agent turned up on Sunday to beg at least for an oral half-promise: he figured even that much w'ould help sell the sponsor.
Their success seems to surprise neither. “A lot of writers still just do dialogue,” says Aylesworth, who is a pleasant, fresh-faced, crewcut young man of thirty-one. “We can do practically anything that has to do with putting a show together.” Peppiatt, who is a year younger than Aylesworth. explains, “After all, we grew' up with television.” Peppiatt is big and loose-limbed with a sallow, handsome face and heavy-lidded eyes.
Their joint TV aptitudes include inventing the show itself: Aylesworth is the originator of Front Page Challenge, CBC-TV’s most popular quiz,
and Peppiatt worked out the show now called Music Makers.
Their aptitudes also include straight gag-writing. Last fall Peppiatt was even picked to join the wits Steve Allen keeps about him, now that he’s stopped writing his own material. He stayed with the show for seventeen weeks before deciding that wintertime commuting between New York and Toronto, where he continued to write Music Makers, was too strenuous. Though the system of community writing makes it hard to claim ownership of even a single complete joke, Peppiatt does recall at least two of his contributions to an Allen routine called The Question Man. in which, in a parody reversal of radio information shows, a straight man read out answers to which Allen continued on page 59
continued on page 59
How TV writers get that way
Continued from page 21
supplied questions. Peppiatt's entries:
A. TOMATO PASTE.
Q. HOW DO YOU KEEP TOMATOES FROM FALLING APART?
Q. HOW DO YOU KEEP IGGS FROM FALLING APART?
Allen told him. "You're the most promising young writer I've seen in a long time."
Although there are more than tw'o hundred and fifty jokesmiths making a living in North American TV centres. Peppiatt and Aylesworth are considered particularly useful because they also have production ideas. "They're double - threat boys." says Wax. their agent, proudly. On many shows, production ideas are left to the producer and the designer.
Aylesworth. for example, came up with a memorable gimmick when the CBS Hit Parade decided last year to honor the late George Gershwin. After days of detective work he located an ancient piano roll of Gershwin playing his Rhapsody in Blue: then he found a player piano in a gleaming concert-grand frame. On the show Dorothy Collins, the hostess, announced that the rhapsody would be performed by Gershwin himself: the studio orchestra played the opening bars; the first piano notes sounded. Following Aylcsworth's script, the cameras moved in:
CLOSE-UP OF EMPTY BENCH AND PIANO WITH KEYS MOVING UNDER INVISIBLE FINGERS.
Both Peppiatt and Aylesworth are willing to work hard to get a show just right. In an effort to corral an off-beat Yuletidc challenger for Front Page Challenge, two winters ago. Aylesworth spent days, ransacked newspaper morgues, made longdistance phone calls, tracked down relatives and finally located the original Virginia of the famous Yes-there-is-aSanta-Claus editorial. Then he arranged for a CPR train to be held up after the show so she could catch it back home in time for Christmas — the only condition on which she'd appear.
Peppiatt has helped solve at least one problem that was even tougher. It was presented by Margaret O'Brien, the former child actress, who was booked as a guest on the Steve Lawrence-Eydic Gorme show' last year. The material the writers had prepared for her in advance consisted of a song and a sketch with Jackie Cooper, another guest star; a song with Miss Gorme, and some singing, dancing and finger-snapping in the jazz finale. At rehearsal the first day she proved unmusical and non-rhythmic. At rehearsal the second day the writers exchanged decisive glances and cut out the song with Cooper: at rehearsals the third day they felt forced to cut the song with Miss Gorme; they also cut her out of active participation in the finale. Then they sat up all night concocting her a non-lyric substitute for the excised ma-
terial. It had to fit into an all-musical show. What they came up with was an impassioned spiel in which Miss O'Brien described the production number she'd planned to do if they'd allowed her time:
MISS O'BRIEN: . . . AND IT ENDS WITH FIFTY MICKEY HARGITAYS WITH FLAGS TATTOOED ON THEIR CHESTS RIPPLING THEIR MUSCLES IN TIME TO THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER.
It is the nightmare of every writer that
in sue i a crisis he may fail to come up with an idea. That show's got to go on every week.-’ says Aylesworth with a shudder. “That's the frightening thing." Aylesworth. who is relaxed and lowvoiced. admits that he lias blocked on occasion but has learned to break his train of thought until he’s ready to come back to the problem. Peppiatt. who bites his fingernails, says something always comes to him when he needs it.
Neither know's exactly how he hatches an idea. Both say. however — now that they've tried it again for a summer—that
ideas come more freely when they work together. "We build on each other easily, because we each know how the other thinks." said Peppiatt recently. His example was the quick genesis of a gimmick for the Andy Williams show :
"We were planning to do a continuing feature. The Wonderful World of I.P's. We were batting around the titles of some off-beat albums when John happened to mention Co-Star, the album where a star like Tallulah Bankhead reads the leading role in a famous play and you play opposite her by reading
your lines from the script that comes with the album. I immediately remembered an idea I’d already had, that you could have a lot of fun by ad libbing instead of reading from the script."
By the time the writers had finished building on each other the gag was ready for the opening show. Comedian Johnny Carson, who does an imitation of Ed Murrow, w'as a guest. He w'as supplied with the Co-Star recording of George Raft playing a fruit-trucker in the drama, They Drive By Night. He was also supplied with a doctored script in the form of typical Ed Murrow interview questions. The hybrid dialogue now went approximately:
CARSON AS MURROW: Ah. George, you’ve made more than a hundred pictures. What do you think of them? RAFT’S VOICE: A loada lemons. CARSON AS MURROW: Tell me,
what’s your next picture going to be? RAFT’S VOICE: I Can Tell Good Fruit When I See It.
Carson, w'ho usually writes his own, told the writers appreciatively, "Good material.”
Aylesworth’s explanation of the successful partnership goes: “We have confidence in each other and each other’s judgment.” He and his partner also have confidence in themselves. “We know when we write it that something’s funny, or an idea w'ill work,” Aylesworth says.
How do they keep sane
Like any good TV writer he makes no attempt to explain why audiences sometimes fail to laugh, since total self-belief is the commodity that keeps a TV writer sane. As Nat Hiken. one of the top U. S. TV writers, once said, “I think I’m the best, and every other professional comedy writer who’s any good thinks he’s the best. He’s gotta. It’s that kinda business.” (Hiken also added, “Don’t let them kid you. I’m really the best.“)
Peppiatt and Aylesworth both had full survival kits of confidence and ideas when they first started out in television. They were Canada's first TV comedians, and their only previous experience was as office cut-ups. “We tried it because we didn’t know any better," says Peppiatt now.
Peppiatt, the lonely, only son of a Toronto rent-a-car employee, had written a playlet for puppets when he was eight, hut had thereafter abandoned showbusiness for football, a college degree and a job at the Macharen Advertising Company. Aylesworth, the youngest son of a Toronto eye surgeon, had gone straight from high school into a reporting job with Canadian High News, then into radio announcing and a bit of script writing, He joined MacLaren’s six months after Peppiatt. The two immediately discovered a mutual passion for the late Fred Allen, for radio, for obscure Hollywood character actors and for comic cross-talk.
They formed the habit of casting themselves in various roles when talking to each other, being, for example. Frankenstein and his monster one day, and a pair of Texans the next. Both were bachelors at the time, though both have since married pretty blondes from Vancouver. The Peppiatts now have three little girls and the Aylesworths a two-year-old daughter and a son horn this summer.
Peppiatt and Aylesworth’s impromptu verbal fantasies led Peter Macfarlane, who had left MacLaren’s to become one of the first CBC-TV producers, to urge their recruitment for a new one-hour Variety show called After Hours. They
made their debut on January 2. 1953, at one hundred dollars apiece a show. TV snobs around Toronto are still apt to recall After Hours as farther-out foolery than any since offered on Canadian TV.
It was an untrammeled mixture of sublime confidence and teeming ideas. There were one-line jokes, sight gags, full-length sketches and ad-lib scraps of satire, often tossed in without buildup or explanation:
AYLESWORTH (interrupting a standard show’ sign-off): Eriends, don’t forget, our amazing free offer still continues. We still have some styles, some sizes, and some colors left. If you want yours, then just drop a line to After Hours, CBLT. Toronto.
PEPPIATT (picking up the gag): That’s After Hours. CBLT. Toronto. And don't forget — KEEP THOSE FACSIMILES REASONABLE!
In between. Peppiatt and Aylesworth. along with a girl Friday named Jill Foster, dressed up as the Marx Brothers, as Superman, as cowboys, as knights in armor, as space cadets; they threw ketchup and mud; they rode horseback on each other; they drew water pistols on the announcer. (PEPPIATT TO AYLESWORTH: You hold him and I’ll shrink him to death.)
A Hop and a break-up
After Hours was such a hit that the CBC scrapped it and promoted Peppiatt and Aylesworth to The Big Revue, a weekly hour-long musical show that already had an emcee, two featured singers, a six-member dance troupe, a sixmember vocal group, a twenty-eight-piece orchestra, a choreographer, a vocal coach, a dialogue director and assorted guests. Peppiatt and Aylesworth compliantly wrote themselves into songdance-and-gag men to match the show. They were miscast; however they did begin to learn about scripting songs, dances and sketches. The miscasting was even more obvious the following year when The Big Revue was condensed into a half-hour called On Stage. On Stage was a flop. Peppiatt and Aylesworth broke up amid partisan confidences to each from his particular friends that the other w'asn’t good enough for him. Each then went off to write songs, dances and sketches for other people.
Peppiatt joined the Jackie Rae show; Aylesworth joined Cross - Canada Hit Parade; both say now that their confidence in themselves as writers w'as temporarily undermined by their failure as performers; both now' blame that failure on allowing themselves to be touted off the kind of comedy material their instincts said was right. "The turning point wasn't till the summer of 1957," recalls
Peppiatt. That summer their respective self - confidences were apparently confirmed by the creation of an awardwinning showapiece—Front Page Challenge and Music Makers.
Since that time they’ve scarcely looked back.
Peppiatt and Aylesworth are not quite sure whose idea is was to hire them as tw'o of four writers on the Andy Williams show this summer, but they were both happy about it. Among other things, it gave them a chance to stage some of the old-time private performances again. All
summer they shared a cab to w'ork each morning from their sublet apartments in adjacent blocks on the east side of New' York.
As Aylesworth joined Peppiatt in the tonneau. Peppiatt would give the cue:
PEPP1 AIT. AS GESTAPO OFFICER: Quick, driver, to the headquarters on F i f t y - se v e n t h stra sse.
AYLESWORTH AS HIS ADJUTANT : Ja. We have thirty-fife for the gas chambers today.
CAB DRIVER AS CAB DRIVER:
Where’d ’ya say you wanna go. Mac?
The performances were mostly for fun, but also, perhaps, partly by way of rehearsal: writing for TV may pay well, but its peculiar anonymity is sometimes hard on young men of confidence and ideas. "We'd like to try a show or two again," says Aylesworth. “Just to prove we know what’s right for us as performers." he adds hastily.
Peppiatt, too. has his rationalization all ready: "As performers we’re really writers writing out loud, anyhow." he says. +