The Good, the Bad and the Emmy
"And the winner is . . "
What a thrill to rush onstage to receive my Emmy for "Best Children's
Program." The applause. The cheers. All the long hours and hard work put
into writing and producing Jim Henson's Muppet Babies had paid off in a big
A lofty time like this is even more thrilling when compared to your low times.
Times when you're certain a high like this isn't even possible. I'm talking
crash, boom, thud times! Like that bottom-of-the- barrel time I had back in
college . . .
Long before I was an Emmy winner, I was a drama student at San Diego
State University. Every senior in the department is required to direct and
produce a one-act play. It's a senior's biggest project - the crowning
achievement of his or her college career. I was eager for my turn, determined
to write and direct my own play. After all, if Woody Allen could write and direct
his own material, so could I.
The drama department, however, felt differently. They had a strict rule that
no student could direct a one-act play that he or she had written. It was a
rule I disagreed with then and still disagree with today. Despite my
arguments, the department heads wouldn't budge. So, clever lad that I am, I
submitted a one-act play I had written under a pseudonym, George Spelvin.
My clever plan worked.
My play, I mean George's play, The Life of the Party, was a farce. I chose
my cast carefully, and we had a ball rehearsing. We were positive we had a
collegiate hit on our hands. Eventually, our play was ready for its technical
The "tech-dress" took place the day before the performance and was the
only opportunity the director and cast had to add sound effects, lighting,
props and costumes - feats all performed by student technicians. It was the
techies' first exposure to the play and my cast's first exposure to an audience,
albeit a small one.
We launched into our tech-dress rehearsal with excitement and
enthusiasm, and the techies performed their jobs admirably. My actors, on
the other hand, were having a tough time. Somehow, with the addition of
costumes and a set and under hot lights, this farce didn't play very funny. It
creaked and groaned. My actors expected to hear laughs from the techies,
but the laughs never came. Were the techies too busy? Didn't they have a
sense of humor? My actors' confidence was shaken, and so was mine.
Afterward the head technician approached me and said, "You know the old
saying: A bad dress rehearsal makes for a great opening!" I tried to smile
back. This wasn't just a bad rehearsal; it felt like a ride on the Hindenburg. I
put on my bravest face for my cast, gave a few notes and assured them
they'd be terrific for the next day's performance. Tired, weary and skeptical,
my actors retreated to their dorms.
The next day, the most anticipated day of my college career, I watched as
the theater filled with students and faculty. I crossed my fingers as the lights
went down and the music came up. To put the audience in the mood for a
farce, I chose Carl Stalling's musical theme from The Bugs Bunny Show. Just
hearing the music, the audience roared with laughter. I relaxed and
uncrossed my fingers. What was there to worry about?
Plenty! My actors made their entrances, and, in the beginning, there was a
smattering of laughter. The audience was rooting for them. They wanted to
be entertained. As the show progressed, however, the laughs became fewer
and fewer . . . before they disappeared altogether. Soon, my actors were
sweating - and it wasn't because of the hot lights. There were long stretches
of inappropriate silence. Nothing was working. The play was dreadful, too
painful to watch. I watched the audience instead. Watched them glance at
their watches, watched them cough, roll their eyes. The second the play was
over, they bolted for the nearest exit. Yes, it stank, but they behaved as if
they actually required fresh air.
Once the theater cleared, directing class began. It didn't feel like a class,
though; it felt more like a funeral. Classmates extended their condolences.
The professor, a gruff German who was short on stature and charm, looked
at me and said, "How did this happen?"
At that moment, I yearned for a black hole in the universe to swallow me
whole. How did this happen? How did my comedy become a tragedy? I had
always pictured this day, my college career peak, as bright and sunny . . . not
a dark and brooding thunderstorm.
I went back to my dorm and crashed. I mustered the strength to call my
parents long-distance and report the awful events. I sobbed. My mother,
wanting to comfort me but not sure how, said simply, "Honey, isn't it better to
fail now than later in your professional career?" I hung up on her.
What career? Couldn't she see my professional dreams going up in
smoke? How could she have uttered such a ridiculous statement? Leave it
to a mother to think a little bandage could cure all!
Time passed. Life trudged on. And as I began to heal, I started to see the
smallest, tiniest kernel of wisdom in my mother's statement. Yes, from my
failure came an opportunity. An opportunity to examine my mistakes. An
opportunity to study Woody Allen's films over and over again. I researched
comedy in a deadly serious manner. I dedicated myself to understanding
what was funny and why it was funny. Studied it like a student possessed. If
only I could be given a second chance!
That chance came shortly after college. I was hired as a performer at a
professional dinner theater, and after several months, I convinced the
producer to let me direct a comedy I had written. This was a golden
opportunity to put my newfound observations to the test. My cast and I
worked diligently. The lights went up, and once again I crossed my fingers -
and this time I kept them crossed. The laughs came. They continued. They
built. The comedy was a hit, and my career was launched. I had learned well
from my collegiate mistakes.
Today - with over 150 programs to my credit - I've experienced both
successes and failures. I continue to learn from my failures but don't take
them as seriously. Nor do I take my successes too seriously, either. I enjoy
them, learn from them, too, and move on. What's important is that we keep
improving. Keep honing our skills. Keep striving to be our best.
I urge you to do the same. Don't let the low times keep you down. Learn
from them and reach for the high times. Who knows, maybe the future holds
an Emmy with your name on it, too!
The Good, The Bad, and the Emmy