Inside the Greatest Writers Room You’ve Never Heard Of
Twenty-five years ago, millions of Americans gathered around their sets to watch the launch of a show that would transform late-night TV. This show would fuse comedy and news, offering desk pieces, taped dispatches from correspondents, and interviews with political figures. It would instruct as well as entertain. Yes, a quarter-century ago, America got its first glimpse of a program that had many similarities to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. It was called The Wilton North Report. The Wilton North Re-what? Exactly.
Still, pop culture history was made that night. I was a writer on the show and forgive me for bragging, but as a late-night programming fiasco, I believe The Wilton North Report stacks up against Thicke of the Night, The Magic Hour, and The Pat Sajak Show. Technically, it was the shortest-lived late-night network show of all time. Fox even gave The Chevy Chase Show more of a chance. And yet Wilton North is worth a moment of remembrance.
“So it’s been 25 years since the greatest writing staff made the worst show in TV history,” laughed Wilton North writer Alec Sokolow when we spoke recently. It’s easy to laugh now, since Alec went on to a long career that includes earning an Academy Award nomination for his original screenplay, Toy Story.
Time flies, especially in Los Angeles where there are no seasons to separate the years. Still, when the holidays roll around, I always think about my first Thanksgiving here.
In October 1987, I was offered a job on a new, late-night variety talk show and, without thinking twice, I relocated from New York City to Hollywood, where the sunshine and palm trees seemed cartoonish. When Thanksgiving rolled around, I wanted to head back East, but with the premiere two weeks away, we had only Thursday off. The best I could do was spend the day with two other Wilton North writers who were also New England expats. We headed to Westwood, home of UCLA, saw a movie, and looked for a restaurant. Most places were closed or too fancy, so we landed at a bar patterned after an English pub. It was dark, smelly, noisy — everything the Pilgrims had tried to get away from when they came to the New World. The hostess directed us to the one open table on the second floor. We trudged up the steep steps and plopped down. The evening could have been depressing. In fact, it should have been depressing. But it wasn’t. I got to spend Thanksgiving with Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels.
That night, Conan introduced me to “Spooneye the Pirate,” who magically appeared when Conan placed a spoon over his eye and growled, “Arrrr. I’m Spooneye, the pirate. Why do they call me Spooneye? ‘Cause I’ve got a spoon over me eye!” I’m sure Abe Lincoln came up, too, because back then when you hung out with Conan and Greg, he always did. (Civil War photographer Mathew Brady was also mentioned frequently.) As a team, Greg and Conan would go on to write for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons before splitting off amicably in different but equally successful directions. Greg co-created King of the Hill, the Emmy Award-winning American version of The Office, and the brilliant Parks and Recreation. Conan went on to be Conan. Actually, Conan was always Conan. But his audience has expanded beyond that second-floor table.
Preproduction, Fall 1987
The Wilton North Report was named after the two cross streets that housed the studio and offices where we worked. The title was designed to sound a little newsy, like The Colbert Report years later. It was also supposed to sound a little mysterious — Who is Wilton North? But I think it came across as mostly vague which turned out to be appropriate. The program marked the Fox network’s second attempt into the lucrative late-night market. Its first attempt, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, had never taken off, and by the fall of 1987, Rivers had been replaced by an interim host. One of my first weeks on the job, I went down to watch the temporary host of this already-canceled show. I stood in the back as the audience whipped their fists around, enthusiastically shouting, “Whoop whoop!” The host made his dramatic entrance, in silhouette, head down, arms crossed in front of his crotch. Then, on the beat, Arsenio Hall sprang to life, jerking his head up and flashing a million-dollar smile. He raised his arm, pointed at the audience and then joined the whooping, instantly connecting. I knew nothing about television programming, but I knew this show felt like a party and soon after, Hall made a deal to star in his own syndicated late-night show, which ran for five years. As for Fox, it bet on The Wilton North Report to become the network’s signature show, shelling out big money to Barry Sand, a producer with impeccable credentials that included the brilliant SCTV Network and Late Night With David Letterman.
At the time, NBC had a lock on the post-11 o’clock news audience thanks to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night With David Letterman. In 1987, Johnny was in the last five years of his 30-year run, and Dave was in the first five years of his 30-year run. At 11:30, the older generation could watch Johnny for the orchestra, golf swings, and jokes about alcoholism. Then at 12:30, the younger generation could watch Dave for his wacky deconstruction of the same genre. Today, viewers may regard Dave as a curmudgeon, reading a never-ending Top 10 List and rarely venturing from behind the desk. But back in the 80s, he was a master of remotes, audience interactions, and zany stunts. Head writer Merrill Markoe recently wrote me, “We set it up that we could use every part of the world if we could figure out how to get Dave to say yes to it. So the show took place in the studio, and in the hall outside, and in the rest of the building as needed, and the streets around the building and the rest of NYC as needed and even at home.” It was controlled chaos as Dave would don a Velcro suit and trampoline onto a Velcro wall. Monkeys and Chris Elliot were allowed to roam all over the set. The writers won Emmy after Emmy.
Still, Fox saw the opportunity to go head-to-head with Johnny, in part with the hope that the younger demographic would watch its network and then switch over to Late Night. Barry’s pitch was to make a more topical, more political show. Dave did a monologue, but it wasn’t particularly political and would often veer into discussions about the mole men living in the subway tunnels. Wilton North would be closer in tone to SNL’s Weekend Update and the monologue would include video. The rest of the hourlong show would be filled with reports from field correspondents, in-studio sketches, an interview by journalist Nancy Collins, and performances by musical acts like Squeeze.
The concept was ambitious. Bold. Insane. Think about it: SNL aired once a week for an hour-and-a-half with a writing staff of about twenty. Wilton North would air every night…for an hour…with a writing staff of about ten. It wasn’t until decades later that Jon Stewart and his fifteen or so writers figured out how to execute a similar formula to great success. And even then, The Daily Show is only half-an-hour long, airs four times a week, and takes a hiatus once a month. Also, today every laptop can double as an editing suite. Wilton North was operating with pre-digital technology and our search engine was a guy named Keith.
Late-night TV is typically host-driven, but Barry decided to build the format first and worry about the frontman later. He pulled together a writing staff that mixed print writers with more experienced TV-types from HBO’s Not Necessarily the News. “I remember when Barry announced to the affiliates all the writers he had hired and their backgrounds,” Greg wrote in a recent email. “He mentioned ‘Nell Scovell from Spy magazine’ and ‘Paul Krassner from The Realist,’ and everybody had a specific mention, and when he came to Conan and me, he blanked and crushed our names together and announced us as one writer named ‘Crogan’ like some kind of monster cyclops. I believe it was the first time we started thinking that maybe we should be two individual writers and not a team.”
The writers were an eclectic group but not necessarily in sync. Barry would gather us for meetings in his huge corner office and ask, “So what is this show?” We would debate it for hours and then end up agreeing that, like obscenity, we couldn’t define it, but we would know it when we saw it. Then we’d head back to our offices and generate ideas. Alec remembers the older writers found inspiration by lighting up, often rolling up towels and placing them at the bottom of their office doors. The youngsters were more corporate, more hungry — but without the munchies.
I churned out pitches on a typewriter — yes, a typewriter — on premade forms that had at the top: “Repeatable,” “Non-Repeatable,” “Approved,” and “Not Approved.” One of my ideas that was both “Approved” and “Repeatable” was to send a consumer reporter to examine high-end luxury goods. The idea was to walk into a Ferrari dealership, look over the models, and make comments like, “Not really a family car, is it?” Another pitch of mine that made it on the show was “Hypochondriac’s Corner,” which featured an actual Los Angeles pharmacist who discussed how that cough was probably just a tickle in your throat…or it could be the first sign of larynx cancer. Then we flashed gross photos of huge tumors on the screen.
Conan, Greg, and I collaborated on several pieces including “The Random Report,” which started with a hard news story and then descended into useless, tangential facts. The first script began with a classic narration over news footage:
Always by the president’s side, a faithful companion and, some say, a major voice in policy-making decisions, but how much is really known about…Rex Reagan?
Graphics froze the tape and zoomed in on President and Nancy Reagan’s dog. The Random Report meandered for several pages, dropping names like William F. Buckley, Pharaoh Ramses I, Cromwell, Jesus Christ, Nixon and Star Wars — both the movie and the defense system. It concluded with this observation:
One thing Nancy’s spokesman will admit is that Rex lives on the second floor of the White House. The ghost of Abraham Lincoln also frequents the second floor. It is unknown which of the two is responsible for a small stain on the hall carpet.
See? Lincoln always popped up with those guys.
While the writers searched for a tone, Barry searched for a host. Ellen DeGeneres auditioned…nailed it…and was rejected. Writer Paul Slansky swears he pitched Conan as a host way back then. With the clock running out, Barry landed on two drive-time Sacramento deejays named Phil Cowan and Paul Robins. Turning to radio made sense since Howard Stern had reinvigorated the medium. The show even hired former Stern intern Danny Zuker as a researcher. Finding a way to make late night a little edgier and a little raunchier was a fine idea. Unfortunately, these deejays were the opposite of Stern — bland, good-looking white guys with affable demeanors. A rumor spread that one was a Republican. That did not sit well with some of the writers.
A week before the premiere, the network wanted to see a trial show, and the writers were asked to help fill out segments. I came up with a riff about a dating service for magazine ads — like matching up a female model who was wearing only a t-shirt with a male model who was wearing only pants. One of the gags included holding up the page of Kelly LeBrock and her famous “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful” ad and stating, “No, Kelly, we don’t hate you because you’re beautiful — we hate you because you can’t act.” Then I matched Kelly’s ad up with a Ralph Lauren polo player ad and made some remark about how she kept her lips so full by using a polo mallet. The end of the bit was to invite all the models to the Calvin Klein Obsession ad while offering the advice, “Hang out near the obelisk — that’s where the action is.”
Clearly, a visual gag loses something in retelling 25 years later, and while it doesn’t sound that funny now, after the run-through, I got called into Barry’s office. He said the executives had been amused by my bit and wanted me to repeat it on the show. I nodded nervously. “When?” “On the premiere.”
Now the last time I had appeared on camera was…never. There were no handheld video cameras or cellphones to mess around with in the ’80s. I had done some theater in high school, but the closest I got to actual moving pictures was when I was 12 and made it to the last round of auditions for the original cast of Zoom. In that final audition, I sang “Children of the Lord” and did a little dance. But I fell short. The coveted striped Rugby shirt was not awarded to me. (“Come on, give it a try…but not you, Nell.”)
When Barry delivered the news that I’d appear on camera, he was smiling broadly. I think he saw it as a vote of confidence. I saw it as a sign of desperation. Oh, and did I mention, the show would be filmed live, and because it was the premiere, my performance would be reviewed?
Premiere Night, December 11, 1987
Looking back, I find it astonishing that the producers allowed someone with zero experience and no training to appear on TV. I don’t believe that would happen today. No one prepped me or coached me on where to look or how to pause for laughs…which was fine since I figured I wouldn’t get any. I went to a holiday party the weekend before and a woman who wanted to be a stand-up heard about my gig and approached me to declare that she was jealous. I told her I was dreading it. She was confused. How could I not be thrilled to have this amazing opportunity? She asked if I could get her a ticket to the show. I agreed and thought, “Oh, great. More pressure.”
The day of the show, Conan, Greg, and I watched a cut of the Rex Reagan Random Report. It came out weird and funny. You didn’t know where it was going, which was exactly the point. It was exciting to have helped write something that would actually air on TV, and I would have enjoyed the day if I hadn’t been so nervous about performing. Phil and Paul seemed loose and eager. Years of being on radio clearly set them at ease while I spent the day biting my nails. I was pretty much on my own. I made my props and chose my outfit. Someone styled my hair and did my makeup, but no one thought to get me a manicure. (There’d be a close-up of my hands showing the ads to camera, and later my mother remarked on their chewed-up condition.)
As the show kicked off, the audience reacted with enthusiasm. One of the writers had devised a simple mnemonic on how to tell Phil apart from Paul that went: “My name is Phil. I have a (points to his nose) big bill.” Then Paul said, “My name is Paul and…” I don’t remember the rest — only a half-good mnemonic.
I stood in the wings, watching and waiting. My mouth was dry but I also needed to pee. I weighed the benefits of drinking some water to fix the first problem against the effect it would have on the second. Soon Debbie, the stage manager, told me it was time and led me to a stool onstage. Phil and Paul threw the show over to me.
My voice was wobbly as I launched into my routine, clutching the ads in my shaking hands. People in the audience seemed to be laughing, but I didn’t pause. I barreled through to the finish. I heard applause as Phil and Paul joined me at the stool. One of them grabbed my shoulders and said, “Good job.” They seemed genuinely happy for me, as well as for themselves. I hadn’t stopped the show cold. I had disguised my nervousness and delivered the bit. It was over.
After the show wrapped, we gathered for a small party onstage. Alec recalls Fox Chairman Barry Diller walked around, shaking everyone’s hand and declaring we would be a hit. The fact was the show had a certain energy and offered a lot of variety. It’s possible that we were onto something. The woman who’d been jealous of me at the party stopped to chat. Wasn’t it fun to be on camera? Didn’t I want to do it again? I thought a moment and then said…no. I felt no rush. Only relief. Finally, I could relax. Maybe even celebrate. Nothing more would happen until the next morning when the reviews came out.
The next morning. December 12, 1987
Years later, Shakespeare in Love would charmingly describe how the “natural condition” of show business “is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent danger.” And yet, the same character (a producer) concludes, “Strangely enough, it all turns out well.”
The Wilton North Report was born from a ragtag group of liberal writers thrown together with two conservative radio hosts by a seasoned producer and his increasingly powerful dental hygienist girlfriend. We faced insurmountable obstacles and imminent danger, and in the movie version of The Wilton North Report, it would all turn out well. Real life was not so kind.
Reviews were mixed, if you can call mostly awful reviews and a single good one “mixed.” I saved that one good review from the San Francisco Chronicle, which included my magazine ad bit in a list of the show’s highlights. And in case you don’t believe me, here are the final three paragraphs:
So my nervousness was not “undisguised.” Most other reviews ignored me and focused on the show’s bigger problems. Phil and Paul had not made a favorable impression, and critics were happy to point out that our search for a tone had never actually resulted in finding one.
The reviews were hard to read but not the most depressing thing that came up that second day. It was more depressing that we had to do another show that night. And the next night. And the next. We had prepared pieces from preproduction, but Barry (rightfully) didn’t want any segment lasting longer than three minutes. This meant we burned through material at an alarming rate. And now that we were writing material for a daily opening, there was little time to conceive, let alone shoot, a produced piece.
I did get to make one fun remote with my fellow Spy staff writer, Lynn Snowden, whom I cast as the high-end consumer reporter. Lynn was a former model and, unlike me, incredibly poised. She sauntered into a Beverly Hills Ferrari dealership and asked probing questions like “Where’s the back seat?” and “Does this car have ‘pizzazz’?” There was a bit where she asked about the Testarossa’s options. The salesman rattled off a bunch, including air conditioning. Then she asked how much she would save if she decided not to splurge on the AC. The dealer said that they all came with AC, and Lynn turned to the camera and said, “Well, then it’s not really an option, is it?”
It was a decidedly male staff, so it was nice to have Lynn around for a few days. One of my favorite moments occurred when Lynn was in my office and Conan was heading to his. He could hear us talking down the hallway and before we could see him, he launched into a jazzy, Sinatra-like ditty, snapping his fingers as he approached:
(singing) Oh, I’m the greatest
Lover in the world.
All the ladies
Love to love me…
Then he stopped short at my door and feigned surprise. “Sorry, ladies. Didn’t know you were in there. I hope I didn’t disturb you with my song.”
By Week 2, production was scrambling. The network brought in another producer and some more writers, but you can’t fix a moving train. Or maybe you can. I actually don’t know anything about trains, but if they’re anything like a TV show, then they’re hard to fix while in motion. The show got weirder. Greg and Conan convinced the producers to hire Iron Eyes Cody — the native American who shed a tear over pollution in the “Keep America Beautiful” ads — to review movies. Thanks to Conan and Greg, footage exists of Iron Eyes Cody walking out of a theater, pausing under a marquee for Barbra Streisand’s Nuts, then turning to the camera…and letting a tear trickle down his cheek.
An upside of having to fill an hour each night was that it gave the writers ample opportunity to perform. I believe Conan made his network debut playing a pretentious documentary filmmaker wearing a director’s loupe around his neck. Phil and Paul asked him about his greatest influences and Conan responded, “I have to say…myself. I influence myself a lot.” Greg filmed a segment with French actress and Chanel perfume spokeswoman Carole Bouquet. It began with him interviewing her about perfume, until he finds himself so mesmerized by her beauty that he starts to wonder, on camera, if she would ever go out with a guy like him. The result is an incredibly awkward, sweet, and funny exchange.
Even I ended up on camera one more time. We were having trouble booking guests, and while holiday shopping, I saw a talking Pee-wee Herman doll and thought, “Well, that’s the closest we’ll get to the real thing.” So I “interviewed” the doll on the show, fashioning the dialogue around his six canned responses.
Me: How would you respond to the charge that the Pee-wee Herman character is a bit immature?
Doll: I know you are but what am I?
It was cute every time the stage manager’s hand reached up to pull Pee-wee’s string. Plus, playing opposite a doll made my performance seem less stiff. The pressure was off and I had fun this time probably because by now, no one was watching the show. Our ratings had taken a huge dive. I was pretty much sitting in a deck chair on the Titanic interviewing a Pee-wee Herman doll.
For all the opportunity, I’m sad to report that Conan never did get to make his pet pitch, “Stop the Man With the Bat.” It was a simple concept: A large, blindfolded man is placed in a room full of celebrities, then given a bat and told to start swinging. The bit was never approved, and I doubt it would have been repeatable.
When I first moved to L.A., I rented a cheap car on a month-to-month basis and saw no reason to make a deeper commitment. We knew the show couldn’t go on, but had no idea when it would end. The network had invested a lot of money into the franchise, could they pull the plug after only two weeks? Would they cancel us right before Christmas? We didn’t even have enough information to make a guess. Also, by now, the writers were spending as much time discussing the show’s demise as possible segments. During one of these endless discussions when we were wondering if we would ever work again, Conan grabbed a piece of paper and a marker and said, “Here’s how the executives will decide our futures.” Then he handed me this drawing:
Christmas approached and Greg and I wrote a piece called “The Presidential Gift List,” which now reads like text from a time capsule. It was a straight-forward desk piece, offering gift suggestions for Reagan aides like Mike Deaver, George Schultz, and Ed Meese. I barely remember those names, but this guy’s still around:
Phil: Now, for the president’s good friend, conservative Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, we suggest a lump of coal… (PAUL GIVES HIM A QUIZZICAL LOOK; PHIL SHRUGS) It’s what he wanted.
For all our worrying, we were not canceled before Christmas. Barry gave the staff gifts, and Danny recalls going to thank him. “I walked into Barry’s office and found him sitting on the floor with tears in his eyes,” Danny said. “That was the end.”
Conan’s tossed coin was still spinning in the air, but we all knew gravity would pull it down soon enough. The Christmas miracle would not last.
New Year’s Eve, 1987/1988
We returned to do another week of shows and even aired on New Year’s Eve. Barry approved a dumb sketch I wrote called “New Year’s Smack,” which offered our viewers a “state-of-the-art interactive TV” experience. Next Paul invited all the women at home, alone, to get close to their sets and then…we cut to a extreme close-up of Conan.
Conan: C’mon baby and start the new year off with a big wet one from a guy who really likes you. (PUCKERS UP FOR A BIG SMOOCH. IT ENDS.) Hey, let’s get a glass of champagne, uh, uh, what did you say your name was?
Conan was the obvious choice for the kiss. After all, I’d heard he was the greatest lover in the world.
January 8, 1988
The last Wilton North aired on January 8, after a grand total of 21 episodes. The format itself turned out to be “Non-Repeatable” and “Not Approved.” I haven’t seen a frame of it since. I have tapes of a third of the episodes in my garage but the format — 3M 3/4 inch — is no longer in use. (If you want them, Paley Center for Media, call me.)
There were no sentimental goodbyes. No cries of “Unfair! If you had just given us more time, we would have developed into something great!” A typewriter might have been trashed in frustration — I’m not saying it was or who might have trashed it — and then we all slunk away. Phil and Paul went back to radio, and I imagine they were happy to return to what they did well. The transition to TV rarely works. Rick Dees was a much bigger radio star, yet his ABC talk show, Into the Night With Rick Dees, didn’t last long, either.
A month later, the Los Angeles Times ran an article dissecting the show’s failure, but I don’t think anyone in the New York media gave it another thought. Having a vague title, two boring hosts, and a muddled format meant there was nothing to hold onto and nothing to miss.
It was hard for me to process it all. I knew there was enormous talent on the staff, but it was pulling in different directions. I knew that without a strong leader, we would never find the right tone…or really any tone. I also knew that I loved writing as a team sport. I laughed more in those two months than I’d ever laughed before. And I got paid more than I’d ever been paid before. That seemed like an incredible deal. Still, the overwhelming emotion I felt at the end of my first job as a TV writer was…confusion. I had nothing to compare The Wilton North Report to, so I had no idea if the past three months had been a typical experience or not. Was all TV like that?
Twenty-five years later, I can finally answer the question: Yes. All TV is like that. And the confusion I felt after my first three months has never gone away. I have more experience but no greater clarity. Each job has its joys and frustrations; each staff has its strong and weak links. I still marvel at all the wasted talent and thoughtless producers. The only difference now, as Danny pointed out, is: “You get used to it. I’m less surprised when someone says something stupid. It’s still frustrating but less surprising.”
Fox never did crack the late-night genre. As for coming up with an edgy, smart signature show, the network hit that sweet spot a couple of years later when sitcom veteran James L. Brooks teamed up with Matt Groening and Sam Simon to create The Simpsons. I was thrilled to write an episode in the second season (One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish) and Greg and Conan contributed many more when they joined the staff years later.
For the younger Wilton North writers, the concern that our careers would go down with the ship proved unfounded. Alec, Greg, and Conan all flourished. Danny is now an executive producer at Modern Family and has been with that Emmy-winning show since it began. I returned to New York to work on magazines, but headed back in Los Angeles a few months later to write for the Smothers Brothers’ second stint in prime-time variety. (In 1988, the duo had a hit with a 20th anniversary special, and CBS hired them to do six more.) I had no place to live, so Tommy Smothers invited me to stay in the maid’s room of the huge apartment CBS had rented for him in Colonial House, a legendary West Hollywood apartment building. It was a nifty comeback to go from being on a canceled show to bumping into Bette Davis at the elevator.
Since then, I have worked steadily. I imagine when I die, the lede of my Variety obit will be that I created and ran ABC’s Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. I’ve also written for hits like Murphy Brown, Monk, and NCIS as well as for shows that didn’t make it like The Critic and The War Next Door, a hilarious USA network single-camera sitcom. I will never understand why those two series didn’t catch on. Like I said, TV confuses me.
As first experiences go, I could have done a lot worse than Wilton North. It wasn’t gentle, but it set realistic expectations. When I spoke to Danny last month, he summed up the experience perfectly: “I met a lot of funny people, and it made me feel like a TV career was possible.”
During that same conversation, I told Danny about my Thanksgiving memory at the pub with Conan and Greg and he responded, “I was alone, too, so first of all, fuck you.” Then he recalled that same Thanksgiving, he drove up to Malibu where he met a girl. They hit it off immediately and ended up having a relationship that lasted four entire weeks. “That girl was so fucking crazy,” he recalled with a hint of lingering fondness.
To me, The Wilton North Report was a lot like that girl.
Nell Scovell is most recently a Co-Executive Producer of Syfy’s Warehouse 13. She lives in Santa Monica with her husband and two kids.