Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — Off-Script with Writer Marianne Meyer

by G. Jack Urso


Marianne Meyer had just picked up her Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming for Hot Hero Sandwich. It was sitting on the floor next to her while the producers for The Great Space Coaster told her she didn’t know how to write for a children’s show. Later, when she opened the box up, she discovered they misspelled her name on the award.

This story sums up the fickle nature of fame and fortune in the entertainment industry. As actor Walter Huston is reported to have said, “In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last picture,” and sometimes not even that. It's a hard lesson to learn at any time in life.

Marianne Meyer, at 23, was the youngest writer on staff at Hot Hero Sandwich and not that far removed in age from the target age of the teen audience. Marianne’s story is simply that she liked writing, she liked TV, she wanted to write for TV, she took chances, and she made her dreams come true, landing a network series and winning an Emmy on her first writing job right out of the gate.  

Yet, in true Hollywood form, while the industry may give you a little bite at your dreams now and then, if you want to stay in the game you have to fight for every word you want to write. In our interview below, Meyer shares with us some secrets from behind the scenes, such as an alternative title for the series (Snafu), and we get a glimpse into a rough and tumble industry where success is dependent on equal measures of dreams, talent, and luck.

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Ae13U: So, tell me about your road to Hot Hero Sandwich. What had you been up to before the show?

Marianne Meyer:  I graduated from college with . . . a dramatic literature degree from NYU. I was writing freelance articles, mostly about musicians and music and concert reviews like that. I was working living at home with my parents in Queens and working at a Sam Goody record store. I was a really big fan of the show M*A*S*H — and who wasn’t, right?

So, I read about breaking into the TV business and you need to write a spec script [a speculative screenplay], and the show that I most loved in the world was M*A*S*H.  So, I said OK. Maybe I should.

But almost in a way to give myself an out not to do it, I wrote a letter to Alan Alda and I said, “Oh, I'm a young graduate from NYU . . . I've been thinking about trying to write a spec script for M*A*S*H, and I have heard that many TV shows have what they call a bible of characters and how they interrelate and the storylines that have been covered and I before I write this, I was hoping I might get a copy of the  bible . . . and lo and behold, I got a note back from Alan Alda!

Ae13U: Really? Alan Alda himself!

Marianne Meyer: Somebody typed it up, but he did sign it, and he said, you know, thank you for your interest in the show. We don't have a bible that I can send you, but if you are a fan and you watch it so regularly you will have a good feeling how the characters are dressed.

So, I sat down and I worked on a spec script for M*A*S*H, and if you saw it, you would laugh because I did not even know how to format and I would have the names of the characters on the far left and then their dialogue would start and go all the way across the page . . . so anyway, I wrote this script and I showed it to some people. They seemed to think it was funny.

My grandmother at the time worked at William Morris [the legendary talent agency]. She was the telephone operator in the time when you used to have the switchboards. So . . . I gave her the script and asked her if she could get somebody to read it. A young agent, who I think was probably not much out of the mail room himself, got it and then sat on it for weeks and weeks, and then all of a sudden he called and said I really like this script and I signed with the William Morris Agency.

Ae13U: How did you get hired for Hot Hero Sandwich? Did you know of the Harts before this?

Marianne Meyer:  I don't remember going on a lot of conversations. I didn't know Bruce and Carol, although I mean I heard their names and that they worked on Sesame Street and such I was very impressed. And, you know, I think they had a mixed bag of veterans and I think they wanted some young, eager, cheap talent, and I was all three! [laughter]

Ae13U: That’s the thing I was interested in finding out. Because sometimes, particularly with shows aimed at younger audience, they don’t always hire writers in touch with the demographic, particularly in that era. You, Sherry Coben, and Richard Camp, were all in your twenties.

Did you work closely with the Harts on the scripts or did they just give you an idea and say, “Go with it?”

Marianne Meyer: I have unearthed some Hot Hero Sandwich, including my notebook . . . I’m sure if I went through it I would be able to refresh my memory a lot better, but we did have a writers’ room and we did sit together . . . initially, I do remember . . . and it even had an alternate title.

I do believe, if my memory serves, that we spent some time in general with the Harts talking about formats. You know, there were going there was going to be music, there was going to be the interviews, and there was going to be comedy, and how would these things all work together. So, they were very active in the room talking with us and throwing ideas around and at first I think it was more. In general about how the show would look and what would, you know, having the having a cast of kids who would be the audience surrogates and they would have adventures, or whatever you would have to choose to deal with.
Cover page of a sample script (courtesy Marianne Meyer). Here we learn the show
was also slugged as “Hot Heros” [sic] with an alternate title “Snafu.
Ae13U: Had Dr. Cottle’s interviews been completed yet?

Marianne Meyer: I think the interviews were happening first and they were getting great feedback and they were getting stories that touched on adolescent issues and so we would then try to come up with ideas that worked with those issues. You know, kids are self-conscious or, you know, dating as well. What do you think about dating and then how do you approach a girl? Or, you know, there was a drug sketch [Episodes 10’s Marijuana Sketch]. So, we would throw ideas around and come up with possibilities and then we each had an office. We each had private space to work in and do a lot of things on our own.

But we also would work together . . . I worked with Sherry [Coben] and I worked on a sketch with Richard [Camp] and I think I worked on some stuff with Andy [Breckman]. So, if you had a question I was very open and friendly and, you know, “Can you help me with this?” And again, being that it was my first time out, I was, you know, a little insecure . . . Sherry was like my big sister. She was wonderful. If I got anxious or nervous because I really didn't know how things worked, she say, “Ok . . . It’s OK.”

Ae13U: Alright, to shift gears for a moment, and I know this is a very geeky kind of question, but there some early desktop computers/word processing terminals available at the time. Were you using any at NBC?

Marianne  Meyer: [laughter] Oh, no, no, no! I'm guessing they were just, you know, basic Selectric typewriters.

From Episode 1: The first of Meyer’s signature “Phone Friends” sketches.

Ae13U: Were your offices also in Rockefeller Center near Studio 8H?

Marianne Meyer:  I’m not even sure it was in the same building . . . I was in and out of the Saturday Night Live offices once or twice and I don’t remember that being the environment I was in.

Ae13U: Were there any sketches that got shot down by the Harts?

Marianne Meyer:  We would, we would run ideas past them and they would say, “Oh that sounds interesting. Develop it,” . . .  or not.  I remember one of the first things [I pitched] . . . there was a kid filling out a form and it said sex and he went to his mother and said, well, “What am I supposed to put here,” or “Tell me about sex,” and she [the mother] gets and she gets all flustered.  They [the Harts] said “No. They [the audience] might be a little young.”

But we would, you know, throw something past them and they would, especially in writers’ room . . . if you had an idea that sounded like it had potential, somebody would say, “OK. Why don't you go work on that for a while.” I don't think . . . anything got really far along before it was scotched.

I think Sherry [Coben] had mentioned the book report about Moby Dick [a sketch idea that was not filmed] and the prudish librarian was getting all freaked out, and I don’t even think they even said the title. [The punch line was], “It’s a whale!”

From Episode 8: Miss Pinch is on the case of books whose titles we dare not speak!

Ae13U: [laughter] I think nearly every kid snickers in class when first introduced to that book. 

Marianne Meyer: I remember one [that aired] that was so, so funny. There was a sketch where Matt McCoy is sitting at the dinner table with his sister and his mother and his father, and the sister is talking about how they always talked about he's such a perfect guy and the father [who found a joint behind the couch] is saying something about, you know, don't do drugs and everything and Matt literally is just sitting there with this crazy glazed look on his face and then falls face down in the mashed potatoes. 

Episode 10 Clip: The Marijuana sketch.
Ae13U: Yes, the marijuana sketch in Episode 11! I remember watching that one. It struck home with me at the time not just because it was the late 70s and marijuana was just about everywhere, but the thing about that sketch I remember is that no matter how screwed up Matt’s character was, he could do no wrong in his parents’ eyes, much to his siblings’ dismay. I thought that was a pretty timeless teenager grip, and the larger point of the sketch, rather than marijuana. I was surprised the marijuana sketch and the N-word monologue got the go ahead.

Marianne Meyer: The episode that won the Emmy very directly dealt with the racial issue, there probably was some discussion about whether that would fly.

Ae13U: Yes, Jarett Smithwrick’s “N-Word” monologue in Episode 5. I discuss that with him [Off-Stage with Cast Member Jarett Smithwrick] and how powerful it was. He talked about how it probably took him a couple takes to nail it, but noted how everyone, including the crew, applauded at the end, and how it was just something he dealt with every day in New York. Unfortunately, it’s still a very timely topic, but I can remember watching it back in 1979 and my mind getting blown. I remember thinking, “Wow. Did I really just hear that?”

 Episode 5 Clip: On racism. The “N-Word” monologue.

Marianne Meyer: And, of course, there was the Saturday Night Live sketch with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor [the infamous Word Association sketch — Pryor also was interviewed by Dr. Tom Cottle on Hot Hero Sandwich].

Ae13U: Right! One was at 11 AM Saturday morning, the other at 11:30 PM Saturday night, but both taking on the same issue. That’s what made Hot Hero innovative, cutting edge, and still ahead of its time in some ways. I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t see that today on a Saturday morning. 

OK. Let’s shift gears back into developing the ideas . . .

Marianne Meyer: I was just actually flipping through the first script and we did. At one point Stanley Dipstyck [Paul O’Keefe with a paper bag on his head] was initially Stanley Bunghole [laughter]. And somebody said, “You know, I don’t think that will work well.”

Ae13U: Oh, if only that made it on air! [laughter]. I have great fondness for Stanley Dipstyck. I think every kid at one time just wanted to pull a paper bag over their head and just disappear. This segues into my next question how actors were selected for their parts. Jarett noted that he recalled getting assigned roles while Michael [Longfield] recalled being able to ask to play certain parts they connect to. I wonder, was there any thought to who would play the rolls when you wrote?

Marianne Meyer: I think when we wrote things we could say, “Well, I sort of have him or her in mind for it, just in terms of the demographic or something. I think it was the Bruce and Carol . . . would make a decision when we were talking about the kids in the Hot Hero Cafe and who they were, where they came from we did them a little bit of, I don’t know if you’d call it a backstory, but there would be a reason why they act as they do.

Ae13U: Right, as Michael Longfield noted his character was named “Tapedeck” [and noted so on the NBC publicity photos]. I do sort of see some continuity in Michael’s character development from the “Living in a Suitcase” sketch, where his character talks about moving around a lot, to the “Getting Together” dating sequence in Episode 10 with Nan-Lynn, where his character discuss his responsibilities for cooking for his family. It would have been interesting to see that aspect of characters developed more.

Were there recurring sketches or characters you were assigned to write?

Marianne Meyer:  A lot of what I did was the so-called “Phone Friends” [sketches] . . . I mean, I was not that far out of high school and I remembered my friends and I were constantly on the phone and you had to, like, make dates to get on the phone. You know, today's kids wouldn't understand the idea that we had to call somebody from a location where there was a phone. Denny Dillon’s character would sometimes do it from the café. 

Phone Friends segments from Episode 4. Denny Dillon’s character makes a deal with the devil, her little brother (Adam Ross). Will she regret it, or will he?

Ae13U: Times do change.

Marianne Meyer: I must say now [in reference to the Episode 4 “Phone Friends” segments] . . .  a sketch that really doesn't hold up very well, which is the one where Denny's character wants practice talking to a boy with her younger brother [Adam Ross] and makes to deal with him that in order to, and she will be his quote-unquote “Slave for a Day.” You know, I I don't think any of us ever intended it to be . . .

Ae13U: I remember having a “Slave for a Day” fundraiser at my large inner-city public high school about 1979-1980; so, I don’t think it was that unusual for the day, even in the immediate post-Civil Rights era.

Marianne Meyer: The term wasn’t as loaded. I never in a million years would write such a thing now because is so loaded and at the time it wasn't. And we did have, you know, Northern Calloway [David on Sesame Street as a creative consultant] was basically there, to tell us if we were being jerks on a racial issue . . . the young black performers (Nan-Lynn Nelson and Jarett Smithwrick] might have felt that wasn't their place to say something, but it didn't even a blip. Now I look at it and I shudder, “Oh boy, I wish I come up with a different idea there,” but the phone friends were basically my kids and so I would come up with different scenarios . . . they usually did it in a split screen because they were both on the telephone.

Ae13U: Anything else you wrote that sticks out in your mind?

Marianne Meyer: Then another thing that I was actually kind of proud of — and then in retrospect, I wasn't sure how they did it. The “I'm Only Sleeping” conceptual video where the girl [Nan-Lynn Nelson] wakes up and gets ready to go to school, and then she goes outside and realizes its Saturday and goes running back to her bed. And I don't recall there being much of an issue getting the Beatles song . . .

Ae13U: I love that piece, as well as it being one of my favorite Beatles songs. Unfortunately, out of all the music from the show I have posted — Eddie Money, Stephan Still, Little River Band, Sister Sledge — that’s the only piece that gets a total block on YouTube. It’s disappointing because it is a wonderful piece. It reminds me of L. Michael Longfield’s “Waking Up” sketch in Episode 7. No words, just a performance.

Marianne Meyer: I was always trying to come up with ways that you could take a song and make a cartoon or an animation or something that went with it.

Ae13U: Yes, it anticipates the 1980s music videos just around the corner. One piece that comes to mind is Episode 8’s segment "Stork Deliveries" with the animation done to the hit country song "Rollin' Rig" by Dave Dudley comes to mind. The artist, Jerry Lieberman’s style is so fanciful and surrealistic. It really took the show to another level.  

Marianne Meyer: Bruce [Hart], having come from Sesame Street, always had a way of using animations and short films and music that was innovative and conceptual stuff that's really interesting.

Ae13U: At what point were you aware that the show wouldn’t be going on for another season?

Marianne Meyer: Well, I do wonder whether NBC wanted the show to succeed or whether it was an idea of “Let's give them something high-quality and when nobody watches it, we can say we tried,” because the first of all there was the time slot. Yes, if you want to appeal to teenagers, let's put a show up against American Bandstand. Oh, thank you very much! That was strike one.

Strike two was during basketball season. It was constantly preempted, so you've never really developed momentum. The third strike was that the commercials were just, you know, if you were a teenager in your tweens and you were watching the show and you were enjoying it and then the commercial came on for Betsy Wetsy, you'd go, “Oh, God, I shouldn't be watching this. This is for babies.” It really wasn't handled well and I don't know if there was an ulterior motive or just really bad planning.

Ae13U: The dissonance between the show content and the type of commercials was something that Sherry Coben pointed out. Instead of commercials aimed at the tween/teen audience, they seemed more directed towards a pre-teen demographic.

Marianne Meyer:  I think there were, there was some discussions in the press about NBC was launching this innovative show that was going to, you know, really do things for children's television and I think that there were a few people who did say something about why is it constantly preempted and up against American Bandstand? So, you know, they didn't totally get away with it, but we always knew we were . . .  I don't want to say “not long for this world,” but . . . there was this sense . . . we're trying something and it feels good and It looks good and people seem to like it, but the ratings were never great and the way it was being treated as kind of on-again off-again, I don't think we had, I don't remember, having really high hope that it was coming back.

Babysitting Blues: In this Phone Friends segment, Denny and Nan-Lynn discuss every big sister’s bane of existence — their little brothers.

Ae13U: So, after the show, you get an Emmy for it. How did that impact your career?

Marianne Meyer: Like I said, this was my first job and everybody says show business is so difficult, but we won an Emmy. Now, what do I do? So anyway, this is the agent that I had at William Morris [referenced earlier]. He was a good guy, an active guy, and he was trying to send me around to other things. At one point I was I hired to do a script for another children’s show called The Great Space Coaster.

Ae13U: Yes, I know it well. I worked as a tape operator at a PBS uplink station in Albany in the late 1980s and one of my jobs was to load PBS programs up for broadcast to other stations. I saw a lot of The Great Space Coaster, Mr. Rogers, and Sesame Street, among others. [Ed. note: As noted in my article The New York Network: A Peek into Broadcasting Past]

Marianne Meyer: Well, here's your irony. I did a sketch for them . . . they were still developing it and had they had concepts and . . . I wrote the segment and literally the day I picked up my Emmy from the offices . . . and went to a meeting with these people. They told me they hated the script and then I didn't know how to write for children . . . and I was literally sitting there with the Emmy in a box at my feet . . . and I really, really wanted to take it out and just hit them with it, but I said, “No, that's OK. It's just, you know, you don't want me, I don't want you."

Ae13U: Wow. It is hard to believe that professionals would treat another professional so unprofessionally, particularly for a children's show. What was the next step?

Marianne Meyer: So, yeah. I’m still writing music articles and stuff like that and then at this point, I think I was on my own. I was living in Brooklyn, but Andy, my lovely agent, quit the business and I got another agent who I guess because, you know, I wasn't his discovery . . . he set me up to do some work in Canada.  There was a sitcom in Canada called Flappers and no one's ever heard of it unless maybe if you live in Canada. It was the early 1980s I guess [ed. note: 1979-1981]. They allowed me to work in Canada because I had an Emmy and that gave me permission because the Canadian government's very tough about the work that people from outside Canada and the Emmy was somehow that gave me permission.

Short clip from Flappers.

So, I got a job doing a couple of scripts for Flappers. The only reason I'm bothered to bring it bring it up is that the two show runners for Flappers went on to beat Johnny Carson's head writers. They came to America years later. They wrote for [fellow Canadian] Alan Thicke, but they became Johnny Carson's head writers.

Ae13U: Thicke of the Night? [1983-1984]

Marianne Meyer: Yep, but in that interim period, the agent was not really setting me up for things. I'd give him ideas. He didn't like them and I just said, you know, this probably isn't going to work out for me. So, I left William Morris and I went back to doing print journalism and things like that.

And then one day I'm living in Westchester and I get a bunch of envelopes, and I'm too busy opening up the mailers from the record companies with the free vinyl and that I'm all excited to, you know, be reviewing and stuff, and there's an envelope that says Tonight Show, and I think it's a press release, so I don't open it until later and it's these two guys [the show runners from Flappers, Andrew Nicholls and Darrell Vickers], saying “Hey, Johnny is quitting the business and we're about to develop some sitcoms and you wrote some stuff for us when we did Flappers, and we liked your style. What are you up to? Are you interested in working?”

Ae13U: Exciting! This led where?

Marianne Meyer: This started a period in the early 90s when I was living in New York and then in Virginia and I was bi-coastal for like two years where I would go out to California and work with these guys on some spec scripts. We did a wonderful show with Terry Garr and Greg Bierko, but the pilot didn't fly. We did another show that the pilot that didn't go and then we got lucky and they had two shows that were picked up by CBS. One called The Trouble with Larry with Bronson Pinchot and Courtney Cox before she became a “Friend.” Now, that's a show that one day, some people are going to say that was a wildly funny show, but it was just not meant to be on broadcast television.

And then another show with Faye Dunaway and Robert Urich called It had to Be You, so I was working was primarily on It had to Be You, but I was in touch with what they were doing with The Trouble with Larry because they were doing it simultaneously. Then both shows failed and I came back to Virginia and I worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Science on a radio show for kids called Kinetic City Super Crew and we won the Peabody Award. 

Ae13U: You were still working without an agent through this time?

Marianne Meyer: I was able to get an agent to negotiate my contract, and get their piece of the action, and then when the shows did not fly and I said I was coming back to Virginia, the agent said, “Well, if you're not going to stay in. LA I can't be of any help for you.” You know, this time frame, it was not a Zoom world . . . it was not where you can live in an on another coast. You need to be in LA and I wasn't.

Ae13U: So, what next?

Marianne Meyer: More freelance writing. I sort of moved up a little bit and I wrote a few things for Rolling Stone, in The Washington Post, the regional section of The New York Times.  So, I stayed busy writing, but not always and now I guess I'm semi-retired.

Ae13U: Looking back, what advice would you give to those looking to break into the industry?

Marianne Meyer: I personally believe that the main things you need is some talent, you need some opportunity, and then you need luck, and it's very hard to get those three things all aligned. Even though the people on the Oscars always say “Never give up on your dreams,” but sometimes you just have to also accept the fact that things don't always work out, you know, and that's OK too.  I did not want to live in LA and I did not want to raise my children in LA and I've had a fun life doing lots of music and stuff. It’s just nice to know that I have shows and books and things in my life, not hits, but they mean something to me, and I'm grateful for them and to find out that there who remember Hot Hero Sandwich so fondly is wonderful . . . and that's all we ever, ever want, is to maybe just strike lightning once and touch somebody.
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Concluding Thoughts

Meyer’s writing resume is the envy of any budding or old, jaded journalist.  In addition to work for CBS and NBC, her bylines include work for The Washington Post, Columbia Records, Elekra Records, Virgin Records, Muppet Magazine, The New York Times, Redbook, Rolling Stone, as a rock music and cable TV columnist for United Features Syndicate, and so many more. One of my favorite gigs of hers was adapting The Electric Company for foreign audiences. Oh, and not to mention a biography of Bruce Springsteen at the height of his Born in the U.S.A. fame in 1984. Nice work if you can get it!

In reviewing my notes from my interview with Marianne Meyer, while we learn a lot more about Hot Hero Sandwich, it is really her experience as a writer that strikes me. There are times when it seems analogous to the actors’ careers, dependent on luck, where you live, who you work with, who remembers you, if you have an agent, if the agent likes you, and if you have talent and really know your trade.  

Then, all those elements have to align to just get a break. As I have noted previously in other profiles of cast and crew, I sometimes wonder why they go through it all, but say Meyer herself says, “all we ever, ever want, is to maybe just strike lightning once and touch somebody.”

I think they did. 
 
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4 comments:

  1. Great interview! Just one thing, you guys. My Miss Pinch: Librarian sketch did make it to air, complete with the original “It’s about a whale!” tag line. Bruce Hart waged a ridiculous war with network censor Jane Crowley and WON!!!

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  2. I agree, Marianne Meyer's experience as a writer is revealing and interesting. I appreciate the chance to read about Marianne's work and the show HHS. Thanks for posting.

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  3. Love the phone and marijuana sketches. And Loretta Lynn. . .so moving to see and listen to her experiences as a kid.

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