Screenwriter Ron Osborn has been filling our lives with good times for decades via TV comedies like “Mork and Mindy,” “Night Court," “Moonlighting” and “Duckman,” as well as dramas like "The West Wing" and "Meet Joe Black." Incredibly, he was offered a staff writing gig on "Cheers" and turned it down. He has been nominated for Emmy, Humanitas, Cable Ace and Writer’s Guild Awards and teaches screenwriting at Art Center College of Design. He welcomes writer inquiries at his consulting site NoBSscreenwriting.com. Ron took time out to chat with us and share some anecdotes and insights from his 35-year-plus career.
By Jim Cirile
Jim Cirile: What? Dude, you seriously turned down “Cheers”?
Ron Osborn: (laughs) Yeah. What had happened was my writing partner Jeff Reno and I had written a spec “Cheers” and we couldn’t get them to read it; and then a friend of ours got the script to them. But then “Moonlighting” came knocking right about the same time. And the "Cheers"people said, “Don’t make any decisions until you talk to us.” We were huge fans of the show, and it was a case of embarrassment of riches. There was something enticing about getting an hour-long (show) after years of writing half-hour sitcoms, and so we made the leap. Whether it was the right one to this day, I don’t know.
JC: That’s big balls.
|Whoa, Bruce has hair?|
RO: I do believe it was the excitement of the new. “Moonlighting” had six summer replacement episodes on the air at this point, and it sure looked imaginative -- characters I’d never seen before in television. I was getting married too at the time. So it was a real confluence of events.
JC: How did you hook up with Jeff?
RO: We met in a sitcom writing class. I had an agent at the time. I was writing features. My agent suggested I had a sense of humor and said I should be writing sitcoms. There was a school called Sherwood Oaks Experimental College back in the 70s. I got into a class there. They allowed 12 students in based on writing samples. It was the teacher who basically came to us after class one night and (complimented us,) suggesting that producers will hire a team over an individual writer because you usually don’t pay twice as much and you get two writers.
Many times on Moonlighting -- the production was so poorly run – Jeff and I couldn’t afford, timewise, to work on the same script together. We would be writing parts of other scripts or starting separate scripts and then rewriting each other. So they were definitely getting two writers out of us for the price of one. So this teacher suggested we partner up. We wrote a spec “M.A.S.H” (spec) script together.
|Osborn and Reno|
RO: We knew each other from class. And we’d go out drinking after classes and stuff.
We knew each other’s style a bit. I can’t say there wasn’t a learning curve once we got hired on a show.
JC: How did you get your first agent?
RO: I lied. A producer came to Art Center (where Osborn now teaches), and I went to hear him speak. I had already graduated and I kind of pigeonholed him after class and said, “Look, I’m a struggling writer..." and I gave him an elevator pitch. He said, “That sounds interesting,” and gave me 4 agents' names.
I contacted each of them and said, “This producer read my script and really liked it and thought you’d be ideal for it.” One of them didn’t get back to me, and one of them said, “Nah, he wouldn’t do that.” The other two read it and both were interested. I went with one and it didn’t work out some months later. So some months later I called the other one and said, “If you’re still interested…” and I went with her. That was my first agent.
That approach backfired on me, though. Later, when I was at Paramount, I got a call from a guy named Al Aidekman who worked on a Garry Marshall show. He said, “How could you recommend this piece of shit?” I said, “What piece of shit?” Turns out someone I had run into (had asked me,) “Hey, who do I contact over at “Laverne and Shirley”? I said, “Call this guy Al; he’s a nice guy.” Apparently (the writer) told Al, “Ron Osborn read my script and highly recommends you read this.” So karma got back at me.
JC: Let’s hit some highlights. “West Wing.” What was that experience like?
RO: Well, it was so bad that we left the show, and Aaron Sorkin, on his next show “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” named two slimy characters after me and my partner.
|Sadly, not really representative of actual government.|
When he then got “West Wing” on, they got back to us. John Wells said, “(Aaron Sorkin) can’t run two shows.” Turns out, he had every intention of trying. And on top of that, Aaron had no intention of sharing control. The stories I could go into. We left mid-season. We walked out to develop a half-hour with John Cleese. And by the way, (Sorkin is) really a terrific writer. He’s an awesome writer. But he’s not a very nice human being.
JC: What was the John Cleese project?
RO: That is also back in play right now. We’re actually in talks with BBC America. It was an idea of his called “Whetfish,” wherein almost all legal firms in the country were working directly for the devil in trying to hasten the end of days through frivolous and class action litigation. So all lawyers were basically demons working for the devil. Cleese wanted largely to produce it. He might show up from time to time as the Devil. He himself didn’t want to get into weekly production. Ironically, he had read the drafts of our West Wing script. We did write a West Wing script before we left. And our draft, not Aaron’s, was nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award. (Cleese) read that and asked us if we would work on this idea with him. He’s just one of my gods, and so we got to go up to Santa Barbara and sit on his patio overlooking the ocean and get him to do the French waiter (from "Meaning of Life") and other bits. And at the same time he can be talking about Immanuel Kant and string theory, which he did. It was just one of the high points in my career. He was very pleased with the script, and as he was giving us notes, he goes page by page and just stops and laughs uncontrollably at a joke that I had written, and that was it.
Anyway, ABC, who we wrote it for, passed. (Recently) we decided to pull the script out of mothballs and update it and send it out. We got a hold of (Cleese, who is now) living in Monte Carlo for tax purposes. He’s a great listener and loves to laugh. So we (got his blessing.)
JC: And BBC America is interested?
RO: We have been talking with them. That’s actually the first place we sent it. We haven’t really explored anywhere else yet. We’re in talks right now. So far they’ve been very engaging. We shall see.
|Brad Pitt, age 14.|
RO: (Jeff and I) were approached by Martin Brest, who asked if we were interested in doing an update of “Death Takes a Holiday,” and I remember that film very fondly. We kind of jumped at it. But even more to the point, Marty wanted to do it as a screwball comedy. Kind of like “My Man Godfrey” -- the stranger who comes in and disrupts the house. So we wrote the first draft. And then Marty said, you know, I think the themes are too big and important here to do so glibly. We should ground it more. So we did another pass where we grounded it more. And at this point it was about 12 months into the process. He works very deliberately. Very very carefully. So we kind of went through our contract on it and moved on. And he brought in Kevin Wade. We had a different take on Susan, the female lead. He made her probably a bit more audience-friendly. I still like our idea better. And then Marty brought in Bo Goldman to just kind of do a dialogue pass. Bo disappears for 10 months. Comes back with an entirely new script. And Marty has an aneurism and goes, “No, you don’t understand. I liked the story we have.” It was a very pleasurable experience working with Marty. We had a great time. We got to go to the set. It was just everything you want as a writer. He’s very respectful. He’s a writer himself. He would kind of ask questions that would lead us to the right places, I guess.
JC: What are you up to today? No BS Screenwriting, your workshops -- are you still working with Jeff?
RO: Yes, we’re going out with the Cleese project. We’re also out with an hour-long horror pilot that just went out last week to a number of networks. It’s an ensemble horror series called Heartland. And then also we just wrote a spec, a big adventure, a kind of “Romancing the Stone” kind of thing. We're also pitching a big hour-long romantic comedy that we wrote on spec. So there's that, and then of course I'm still teaching one night a week at Art Center. I have a student who has a wonderful dark love story that I have set up with a producer and am working with her on.
As for nobullshit screenwriting.com,
that's my script consulting service. During the writer’s strike it was like, well, I’ve got nothing to do. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. I'm asked to read scripts all the time anyway. I had some of my former students help me set up the website, and I brought in a web designer. (It started with) one script I read which was just so all over the place in so many ways. I gave my notes and the general comments began with, “To call this script a train wreck gives a bad name to train wrecks”. And that person sent me another script. He appreciated the honesty. Timewiose though, that's getting harder to do.
JC: And you do workshops?
RO: I sure don’t, except for every year at Big Island Film Festival. Leo (Sears, founder of BIFF) gets me out there to the island. I have a condo on the big island, and we were put in touch with each other by a mutual friend. It’s a great excuse to go over there. There is at least one vacation a year built around the film festival. This year I did two seminars -- "What's So Funny?" and "Ripped from the Headlines."
I also went to Perth in Australia for 10 days to consult on a number of features subsidized by the Western Australian Film Commission. But mostly I focus on my classes I teach at the Art Center College of Design. I’ve been there for over 25 years now. I do that one night a week. Depending on the students, sometimes it’s magic and sometimes it’s like going to a bone marrow transplant. It’s an advanced class. I quit twice. Because the first time I spent too much time teaching the basics and just wanted to teach advanced. So now I do.It's limited to six students max, and it's a much more pleasurable experience for them and me.
JC: That must be a pretty amazing class. Ron, thanks so much for taking the time, and we're looking forward to Whetfish and everything else you have in store for us.