The Elephant Story
by Mark Evanier
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 2/26/99
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One day, I decided I deserved an elephant.
Seven days a week, for far too many hours per day, I had been locked in a tiny, windowless cubicle at the KTLA Studios in Hollywood, wherein I was functioning (barely) as head writer on a variety show for NBC. My existence had turned into an endless cycle of rising in the morning, going to the studio, staying until well past Midnight, going home, getting not enough sleep, getting up, going to the studio, staying well past Midnight…
I was exhausted.
One of the reasons for this moebius strip of a life was that our show was having trouble procuring guest stars. What guests we did get usually signed on at the last moment. This can be difficult because you have to build your sets and order costumes well in advance of taping. All well and good if you have a jump on things.
But in this case, guests were being booked on Tuesday for a show that taped on Thursday. Or worse. One day, while we were in the studio taping, the network guys phoned up and said, "We just signed Lorne Greene to make an appearance." I asked, "When?" and they said, "He's on his way over." We had about an hour to write something for Lorne Greene and to scare up appropriate props and costumes.
Once a week, the Art Director would amble by my office and ask, for example, "What sets will we need for Show Five?" He would ask this while we were taping Show Three and trying to write Show Four.
And every time, I would tell him that I had no idea what kind of sets we would need. I wasn't even certain what we were taping later that day. "We have no guest stars booked or anything," I'd tell him —
— at which point, he would remind me that it took him a few days to design a set, then the plans had to be bid out; i.e., several construction companies had to quote prices. Then the low bidder had to make the sets and truck them in. Unless one had the funds for huge overtime payments — and we sure didn't — one had to have two weeks' notice on sets.
So I'd say, again for example, "Build a restaurant set and a jail set." He would trot off to do so and we would pray that, once guests were procured, we could write sketches for them that would play in a restaurant set and a jail set. Sometimes, we got lucky. For the week I told him to build a dais for a Friars-style roast, we wound up — sheer coincidence — getting Red Buttons as a guest. On the other hand, the week I had him build a fighter's locker room, befitting a "Rocky" parody, our producer booked Florence Henderson.
No way to run an airline, believe you me.
One day, punchy from overwork, I was sitting with the other writers. A sudden thought hit and me and I turned to them. "Do you realize how much power we have? We say, 'Build a pet store' and they build a pet store. We say, 'Build a hospital room' and they build a hospital room. You know, we could get an elephant."
The other scribes looked at me like I'd just grown antlers. Evanier, clearly, had lost it.
"Really," I said. "If we said, 'Get us an elephant,' they'd get us an elephant."
"You're working too hard, Mark," one of them said. Which was true, but it wasn't why I wanted an elephant.
"Watch," I said. I picked up the phone, called the Associate Producer and asked him to step into my office.
The Associate Producer on most shows controls things like budgets and matters financial. And I had just decided that ours, whose name was Pat, was going to be in charge of Pachyderm Acquisitions.
"Pat," I said. "We need an elephant for the show Friday."
He said, "What kind of elephant?"
I said, "A big elephant. The biggest one you can get."
He said okay and walked out.
The other writers looked at me, impressed. And why shouldn't they be impressed? I had just ordered an elephant.
A few minutes later, Pat wandered back in. "Indian or African?"
I said, "What difference does it make?"
He said, "African elephants have larger ears. Do you need large ears?"
I thought for a second. "No, any size ears will be fine. Just so long as it's an elephant."
"What about tusks?"
"Tusks are optional," I said.
"Fine," said Pat. And he walked off again.
Ten minutes later, he phoned me and announced, "An elephant with wrangler and insurance is a thousand dollars."
Whenever you bring any sort of animal on a stage, you have to have a trainer or keeper or someone and that Someone, no matter what he wrangles, is referred to as a wrangler. In Hollywood, there are Horse Wranglers and Cow Wranglers and Snake Wranglers and Moose Wranglers and I once did a show where we had to call in an Ant Wrangler. I told Pat, "That's a bargain. Book the elephant."
Twenty minutes later, the Producer barged in, having apparently just associated with the Associate Producer. He said, "Pat tells me you need an elephant. A thousand bucks is pretty steep."
By now, this had become a matter of principle. I said, "We have a terrific idea for a sketch, but it needs a live elephant." I said this, despite the fact that we had no idea whatsoever for any sketch involving an elephant, live or otherwise.
The Producer said, "The budget's kind of tight. We just put out an offer for Erik Estrada to guest."
"Erik Estrada?" I was aghast. "How can you even consider spending money on Erik Estrada when we don't have an elephant? Where are your priorities?"
"We need Erik Estrada."
"Nobody needs Erik Estrada. Tell you what. Cancel Erik. We'll have the elephant sit on a motorcycle and misread lines."
The Producer sighed and just looked at me. "Mark…do you really want this elephant?"
I said, "I have worked very hard on this show and I think I deserve an elephant."
The Producer shrugged and walked out. A little later, Pat came by and showed me the okay; I was getting my elephant.
Now, I just had to figure out what to do with it.
For several days thereafter, folks were coming up to me and asking which sketch the elephant was in. "Trust me," I said. "You'll see." The Production Assistant (the lady who makes out the schedules) kept asking me what the elephant's call time should be. I kept saying, "I'll let you know."
Two days before taping, I went into the other writers' office and said, "Men, I have an elephant coming and we have to figure out what to do with it."
No one had any ideas. One of the other writers said, "Couldn't we trade it in for two giraffes? I've got a great giraffe sketch."
"You call yourselves Comedy Writers?" I yelled. "We have an elephant — the biggest, funniest-looking animal in the world and you can't think of anything to do with it? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves."
"It's your elephant, Evanier," one of them said.
The Production Assistant poked her head in. "Mark, the elephant's manager is on the phone — "
"The elephant has a manager?"
"— and he needs to know what time you need his client."
"I don't even have a manager!"
"Which sketch is the elephant in?"
I looked over the rundown. We had a spot in which one of our cast members was playing a pitchman selling all sorts of useless debris in a cheapo commercial. I pointed to it and proclaimed, "That sketch gets the elephant." Then I told the Production Assistant, "Tell the manager that the elephant is not getting script approval."
She left to pass the call time on to the elephant's manager who would, in turn, inform the elephant's agent who would, one supposes, tell his client. The other writers looked at me and asked, "What are we going to do with an elephant in that sketch?"
I smiled. "We're going to ignore it. We'll just have our guy go ahead and do the whole shpiel, pretending it isn't there. Then, the last line of the commercial, he'll suddenly notice he's standing next to the elephant, turn and yell at somebody just off-camera, 'Hey, I didn't order an elephant.'"
Laughter abounded across the Writers' Room. A great idea, they all said. And I exhaled because I was off the hook; I'd finally figured out what to do with my elephant.
Tape day rolled around. The elephant's call was for 11:00. At 10:50, I wandered to the stage and noted several parking spots next to the dressing rooms. Each had the name of one of our guest stars on a temporary sign, all except for one with a large sign that proclaimed: ELEPHANT.
At eleven sharp, ever the trooper, the elephant arrived. People were running up to me all excited, yelling, "You did it! You got an elephant." I just blushed and said, "Told you I would." The Elephant Wrangler supervised the unloading from the truck, guiding his charge down rickety planks to the ground. Then he walked it into position in front of the cameras.
The actors took their places around the elephant. I ran up and briefed each of them. "Remember," I said. "Pay no attention to the elephant. That's the joke. That you don't even know it's here. Then at the end, you suddenly notice it and the line is, 'Hey, I didn't order an elephant.'"
The elephant's arrival had attracted no small crowd. From all over the lot now, secretaries and pages and execs were crowding into our stage to get a look at the elephant. Quite a mass of people.
It was decided to take a crack at taping without a rehearsal. The Stage Manager called for quiet, the bell went off to signal that tape was rolling and we heard, "In four…three…two…"
One second later, the Stage Manager cued the actors and they went about their business of ignoring the elephant. Which wasn't easy because the elephant suddenly gave out with a loud trumpet. Then it started to move around and it bumped into a prop. The actors couldn't help but react to it.
The director was about to call a halt when suddenly, one of the actresses let out a whoop of horrified laughter. Instantly, we all knew what it had to be.
How can I phrase this delicately? The elephant was going to the bathroom, only there was no bathroom. There. That's as delicate as I can say it.
And from the looks of things, it was the first time in months. Mountains of elephant dung began to pile up on our stage, followed by a flood. Gallons.
Through it all, the actors stayed in character. This was, after all, supposed to be a bad TV commercial. The crew and visitors laughing hysterically could clearly be heard, just off-camera. The actors ad-libbed around this disaster that was happening in their commercial and, finally, got to the end.
Someone yelled, "Cut." I turned around and the folks gathered there were falling all over one another, unable to stop laughing. I think the funniest part was that the elephant had done it as if right on cue, right at the moment that it would have maximum — shall we say — impact in the sketch.
The Stage Manager, trying to control his hysterics, came up to me and said, "That's the funniest thing you've written all season."
What could I say? I said thank you.
The Producer came up to me. "Mark," he said. "You're brilliant. That was easily worth a thousand dollars." The Associate Producer staggered over, holding his stomach. "I thought you were kidding when you said you had a great idea for an elephant." Someone from the network ran up to me and suggested that we consider making the elephant a regular on the series.
For the next few days, all anyone was talking about on the lot was the sketch with the elephant. On an adjoining stage, a Hallmark Hall of Fame was being taped with Bette Davis. The crew on that show told Ms. Davis about our elephant and suggested maybe they might work it into their special.
The footage we shot actually made it onto the air, although we had to edit judiciously. The home audience knew just what was happening, even thought they didn't actually see the flood gates open.
In the meantime, the unexpurgated tape was duped and bootlegged throughout Hollywood by technicians. It shows up on a number of outtake video cassettes that are sold with no one's permission. To this day, whenever I am on the KTLA lot, I run into some cameraperson or grip who'll tell me how much they enjoyed the elephant sketch.
That was the last variety show I ever wrote. I figured, I wasn't going to be able to top myself so what was the point?
However, one of these days no doubt, I'll find myself once again writing a variety show. And some evening, round about Midnight, the other writers and I will find ourselves sweating over a sketch, doing rewrite number ninety-nine, trying to make things funny…
When suddenly, a big grin will come over my face and I'll yell, "I've got it!" And they'll all look at me as I say, "I know what this sketch needs! It needs an elephant!"
They'll give me that look again; the one about growing antlers. But I will insist and maybe, if he's still willing to work for scale, we'll even get the same elephant. They live a long time, you know. It will save the sketch and I'll be a hero because I've learned the most basic rule of Comedy that there is…
Satire is fine. Wit is great. Slapstick, puns, insight, commentary on the human condition, ridicule, impressions and whimsy all have their places…
But trust me. Nothing beats an elephant taking a dump on cue.