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Peter Tolan on rewriting a legend, his first cancelation, and more

Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firsties, we talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.

Although Peter Tolan started his career as a performer, he quickly found more of a calling as a comedy writer, cutting his teeth on Murphy Brown, raising his coolness quotient by working on The Larry Sanders Show, and subsequently securing small-screen immortality by teaming with Denis Leary to create the short-lived ABC sitcom The Job and the much longer-lasting FX series, Rescue Me. While Tolan has also written screenplays, including Analyze This, Bedazzled, and America’s Sweethearts, he still spends most of his time in the world of TV, where he is currently serving as executive producer on Fox’s Rake.

The first comedy that really made an impression on him
Peter Tolan: If it can be in either TV or film, then I know this, because it was very defining for me. It was The Dick Van Dyke Show. I remember being maybe 5 years old and watching The Dick Van Dyke Show and thinking that that would be a great life, because you got to go and be funny at work, you know? I could tell that my father, who did leave every day and go to work, wasn’t coming back laughing. So I thought maybe there was something to that. That seemed like a good job, to be funny. And then you got to see Mary Tyler Moore naked, too, so that seemed like a really positive thing. [Laughs.]

The first time he realized life as a TV writer wasn’t actually like The Dick Van Dyke Show
PT: I’m going to go way back with this and say that it was the very first thing I ever did in TV. It was very odd. I lived in New York at the time, and it was quite a while ago, because Pan Am still existed. I met with some people doing a CBS summer replacement series, and it was called Wish You Were Here. The pilot was shooting in Hungary, probably about two hours outside of Budapest, and they said, “Can you be on a plane tonight?” This was a meeting at, like, 10 or 11 in the morning, and they were asking, “Can you be on a plane tonight?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I guess so…” I had to get my passport, and it was very complicated, but I ended up going there, ending up in a little tourist village, and I just remember sitting and shooting, with chickens sort of wandering around me, and thinking, “Boy, this is not the life of glamour that I had expected.”

They called it a tourist village because it wasn’t really an authentic village. You went and you saw sort of how life used to be in Hungary. So it was a very small village, and the women who lived there would get up and put a rake over their shoulder and disappear off into the fields. And the woman I stayed with… Of course, I spoke not a word of Hungarian, which has apparently no root in any other known language, so my years of French didn’t help me. But she would leave for me a very tiny cup—a thimble, really—of the strongest coffee known to man, and a piece of pork. And when I say “a piece of pork,” I mean it was a cross-section of some part of a pig. Like, if I had stayed there long enough, I could’ve reassembled all the pieces and actually built my own pig. Sure, it’d be dead, but I’d still be able to say, “Look, that’s the pig I got doing television!” So, uh, yeah, that was not the life of the TV writer that I’d seen on TV.

The first time he decided that he wanted to be a performer
PT: I was in junior high school, and I was what would be traditionally called a class clown. My homeroom teacher, who was this very—I mean, we thought she was very sexy. [Laughs.] This was coastal Massachusetts, in a very small town, but she was very sexy, and she had a red sports car. I forget her name, but she was the best friend of the woman who was in charge of the drama club in junior high school. And her friend comes to her and says, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do. The show’s in two or three weeks, and the kid who was playing the lead just dropped out!” And my homeroom teacher goes, “Well, there’s a kid in my class who thinks he’s really funny!” And she in effect came to me and said, “You’re doing this.” It wasn’t a question of, “Would you like to do this?” She really said, “You’re doing this.”

The play was called Toby Helps Out. [Laughs.] Hey, it was a junior high school play! But it was Toby Helps Out, and I was Toby. I think there was cross-dressing involved. Who knows? But look, I’m sure this is a tale as old as time: I probably was a little nervous, but there was enough of a ham in me that I was like, “Ah, this is going to be okay.” And I remember standing in the wings before my first entrance, and I was nervous then, and I probably squeaked out that first line, whatever it was. But I’ll tell you: When I got that first laugh, that was it. So it was on the stage of my junior high school in Scituate, Massachusetts. When I got that first laugh, I said, “I want to do it again!” That did it.

The first time he decided that he might make a better writer than a performer
PT: I’ve actually written about this before, when the Writers Guild put together a book about 10 years ago called The First Time I Got Paid For It, and it’s a bit of a shaggy-dog story, but it’s at least partially true. [Laughs.] Okay, now you’re going to see the stories I’ve told you start to come together. So I’ve kept at the theater thing, and now I’m in high school—I think I was either a junior or senior—and I’m the lead in Bye Bye Birdie, playing the part that Dick Van Dyke played in the original production! You see how I’m bringing it all together? And I killed it. I fucking killed it. I had to improvise, like, a four-minute dance at one point. I improvised it! Who has the balls to do that? So I really thought I was King Shit.

Usually, after I was in a production, I’d go to the cast party with my high school friends, who were singing John Denver or whatever—it was that kind of crowd—and after that, I’d go home, and normally my parents would take the program from the play, and my mother would write on it, “You were great!” or “We’re so proud of you!” or “Great job!” Whatever. But this time, I knew that I had killed it. And I went home, and my mother was actually still up. She hadn’t gone to bed yet—that should give you some indication of how wild that party was—and I said, “Well? What did you think?” Because I know she’s going to say, “This is a performance for the ages!” And she said, “I think you’re going to be a writer.” [Laughs.] And that’s a true story. “I think you’re going to be a writer.” And I was really fucking offended. I was really offended. And I’m even more offended now that she was right! It’s shocking.

The first time he met an actual, honest-to-God celebrity
PT: When I was a kid, I had friends I’d go with to New York and see shows, and one of my friends would just chase people down in the street. He was fanatical about celebrities and just wanted to interact with them, whereas I think even at that age I had realized that celebrities—the thing that you want to meet them for, they’ve already given you. It’s the thing you saw them in or the thing you loved them for. It’s usually not going to be more than that. So I never really wanted to meet anybody. I’m trying to think who the first celebrity was that I met, because I’m sure there’s somebody…

Oh, I know who it was. I know exactly who it was. Oh, my God, it’s all come back to me! [Laughs.] This is fucking shocking! When I was kid—okay, once again, this was Scituate, Massachusetts, and not many famous people came from Scituate, Massachusetts, but… Now, you have to remember: I’m 55, so we’re looking at when I was a kid. I was watching The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1962 or 1963 as a 5-year-old, because I was born in ’58. At the height of the popularity of the show Lost In Space, there was a guy named Mark Goddard who played Major Don West, and, you know, looking back… [Laughs.] I’m not sure he was a great actor or anything, but he was a good-looking young guy, and his brother owned and ran the five-and-dime store in Scituate, Mass. Our five-and-dime store was called Goddard’s, because his brother ran it. His cousins lived there, too, and when they had a baby, my mother somehow—I think these cousins, who were a married couple, were going on a holiday or something, and they asked my mother, “Would you look after our very young child?” And she said, “Yes.” It was for a week or something like that.

When they came to collect the child, Mark Goddard was in town, and he came with them! So you can imagine me, being that age, and having Major Don West coming into my house. I still remember that I asked him—and, again, this will give you some indication of how old I was—“Are the monsters on that show real?” [Laughs.] I’m sure he thought I was partially retarded, but that’s really what I wanted to know! So, yeah, my first brush with celebrity—and, of course, I’ve had many more since—was with Major Don West from Lost In Space.

The first person to give him a big break in his career
PT: See, this is a hard one. It’s not that I can’t tell you who it was, but it’s that there have been many people. In fact, I’m going to answer this with two people, because it’s really both of them in their own way. First of all, I flunked out of college at UMass, but there was this fellow I had been doing shows with on campus, these musical topical revues, and this fellow—who was sort of a Falstaffian figure and was the backstage manager at this 2,000-seat fine arts center at UMass—said, “I know where you should go! There’s a theater in Minneapolis that I worked at when I was young, in the early ’60s.” And he took me backstage and he got the guy on the phone, whose name was Dudley Riggs, and told him, “Look, I’m here with this young man, he’s going to flunk out, he’s got nowhere to go, do you think you could give him a job?” And Dudley said, “Yes.” I thought, “Oh, my God, the real world is fantastic! Why did I wait so long? Why did I stay in school? People will just offer you a job over the phone!”

So the summer came to an end, and I got driven by a friend to Ann Arbor, where I got on a train and… [Starts to laugh.] Believe it or not, and I can’t believe I had the chutzpah to do this, but I stopped in Chicago, went to Second City, and announced that I was there for my audition. And they all said, “Who are you?” And I said, “Peter Tolan! I’ve come all the way from Boston!” And they panicked, I think because they thought, “Oh, my God, this kid has come all the way from Boston, and we’ve forgotten his audition,” so they did audition me. But that’s a side story.

Anyway, I end up in Minneapolis, and it’s just like a movie: It’s raining, I have two suitcases, and I tell the taxi, “Take me to Dudley Riggs!” They took me to the wrong theater, but that’s actually where he happened to be at the time, and he said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll give you a job.” And I was the janitor at the theater. [Laughs.] See, I never asked what the job was. I thought I was going to go right onstage! But, no, I was the janitor there. And yet, within about two months, I became the music director of their touring company and then jumped from that all the way to being an actor on the main stage, and from that I went back to the theater where I’d been dropped off and ended up writing a series of musical topic revues and plays and musicals and you name it. And it proved to be an amazing learning experience for me, because I could make money, I could make a living, I had a theater at my disposal. It was unbelievable.

And then the other guy who gave me a big break and was just as important: That came when I moved to New York. There was a theater there then—this was probably in the mid-’80s—called the Manhattan Punch Line, and they had an annual festival of one-act comedies. I don’t know where I got the idea or where I saw the notice, but I ended up writing a one-act that got accepted, and those plays were reviewed by The New York Times. So my whole television career came from people taking an interest in my writing from those plays, and the guy who headed up that theater was a guy named Steve Kaplan, who I think still teaches a comedy writing course to this day.

The first time he got a bad review
PT: Oh, boy, the first time? [Laughs.] Look, life’s nothing but bad reviews. The Internet is like one big bad review chopped up into thousands and thousands of tiny even worse reviews. So it’s hard to now say what my first bad review was. But I can tell you the one I remember most.

In the ’80s, after Minneapolis, I met a woman named Linda Wallem. Linda has gone on to be the executive producer of Nurse Jackie and a couple of other things, but we were a comedy team in the ’80s, and we eventually did a show off-Broadway in ’89. That’s around the time I left New York and came to California to do television. But when we did our show off-Broadway, I remember—I can still quote to this day—the “review,” if you will, that appeared in The New Yorker. It said, “This comedy revue by the team of Wallem and Tolan is so consistently unfunny as to be offensive.” First of all, I think what hurts most is the brevity. You know, we weren’t even worth discussing at length. So I still remember that one. [Laughs.] That was a pretty horrible one.

And then because we were a man-woman comedy team, people would say, “Well, they’re sort of a bush-league Nichols and May,” but then you think to yourself, “Well, I’m still being compared to Nichols and May!” I mean, if you forget the adjective, it’s actually not bad! But somebody once called us “a bush-league Monteith and Rand.” Now, that hurt.

The A.V. Club: Clearly that’s not a good thing, but I don’t even get the reference, which is really saying something.

PT: Yeah, you look it up. You’ll see why it hurt. [Laughs.] Monteith and Rand got a summer series on CBS one year, and they were primarily known for doing an act in which they were robots. I’ll just leave it at that. Look, they were fucking mimes, okay? And we’re a bush-league mime act? Jesus Christ. I was lucky I was able to walk away from that one.

The first time he pitched a TV series
PT: I remember this because I hadn’t been in California too long, but I had an opportunity to pitch something to [former chairman and CEO of NBC] Grant Tinker. That was my first pitch. Of all people. I couldn’t have started lower than that. I started with Grant Tinker! I don’t remember what the show was, and I don’t even remember the idea, but what I do remember is that it’s the only time in my life—you know how sometimes a fiction writer will say, “The hair on the back of his neck stood up”? That was certifiably the only time I felt the hair on the back go up on the back of my neck. As I was talking, I think I realized, “I don’t have anything here!” [Laughs.] “I should’ve thought about this a little bit more!” ’Cause here I am with Grant Tinker, and… I really felt just droplets of sweat forming on my neck hair as it rose. I got through it alive, but, man, it was tough. I saw Grant probably five years later, during The Larry Sanders Show, and he did not—thank God—remember me pitching!

The first time he got nominated for an award for his work
PT: I’m going to say it was my fake Emmy. [Laughs.] I have two Emmys, and one is a fake, because one of them I frankly don’t deserve… and it’s for Murphy Brown. I had wanted to work on Murphy Brown and was supposed to be hired for the third season. And in the end, Diane English had a contract dispute and could not hire me, because she was sort of saying, “I’m leaving!” and it wouldn’t look good to actually hire someone, which would sort of be indicating that you weren’t leaving. From her own standpoint, it wouldn’t exactly help her negotiation, you know? So I had to take another job—I ended up at Disney, first working with Carol Burnett [Carol & Company]—but I also managed to write a couple episodes of Murphy Brown during the third season. How I was able to do that, I have no idea. And those two episodes I wrote helped to secure my position. I think Diane English said, “Well, I was right to want to hire this guy. He’s actually pretty good!”

But in order to leave Disney, I had to do the pilot and, I think, the first six episodes of Home Improvement, and they made me a co-producer on the series. So my agents called Diane and they said, “Look, he’s coming to Murphy Brown, but you can’t bring him on as a story editor. He’s getting a co-producer credit now.” And Diane was very careful about credit—you know, you really had to earn it—and I think it probably rankled, but she brought me onto Murphy Brown as a co-producer in the fourth season. And that year, the show won Best Comedy. So I was given an Emmy for, really, not doing the work. [Laughs.] But that was my first Emmy experience, so I was still very excited. It’s very exciting when you first go. You know, the Emmys are the longest night of your life if you lose and the greatest night if you win. So I loved it. But I was keenly aware, even in the moment, that it was maybe not the most deserved award.

The first time he realized his name was attached to something that wasn’t actually very good
PT: Oh, golly. Well, I’m going to say an obvious one, because… well, it’s an obvious one to me, and it’s one that I don’t think anyone in the world would say, “What are you talking about? That was good!” [Laughs.] I think we’re all in agreement on this one. But in 1996, because I was actually trying to mend a fence, I went back to [writer] Matt Williams, who was doing a show for Disney called Buddies, for Dave Chappelle. This was the first show that Dave Chappelle got on the air, and… it’s really bad. It’s really bad. Buddies was based on the idea that—now, wait for it: This is 1996, okay?—it’s based on the wild idea that a black guy and a white guy can be friends.

AVC: The hell you say.

PT: That’s it. That’s all I got. A black guy and a white guy can be friends. [Laughs.] Which, believe me, even in 1996 was sort of an outdated idea. So it had sort of a faulty premise, but I did work on it. I think, as I put it, my comic sensibility did not necessarily mesh with what was being done on the show, and I quit. But not before—as I look through my IMDB listing—my name was associated with five episodes. It was, uh, pretty bad. I mean, Dave and I worked together several times trying to do a better pilot for him. Ultimately, his talents were best served by the Comedy Central show. But Buddies was a show that I have heard him refer to in his act as “a major embarrassment.”

The first time he said, “Wait, that’s not what I wrote!”
PT: Oh, boy. That could be any time! [Laughs.] I know that Billy Crystal and I, after Analyze This, we wrote a movie called America’s Sweethearts, and we noticed one day, “Hey, wait, that’s not what I wrote!” And it turned out that the producer had secured the services of another writer to punch us up but failed to tell us. And we made a bit of a stink at that point. Billy isn’t chopped liver—although he certainly enjoys it—and we said, “Hey, hey, hey! You can’t do that! The Writers Guild would frown upon that. You can’t do that!” And they explained that they were very sorry and it wouldn’t happen again, and it didn’t… until about two weeks after that, when it happened again. And they didn’t tell us, again. So that’s the one I remember. I’m sure that wasn’t the first, but that’s the one I remember, so that’s the one I’m going with.

The first time he said, “Well, I guess that’s just how it is in Hollywood.”
PT: Oh, have I got stories… [Laughs.] I’m sure I’ve blocked some of them out, which is good, because I don’t want to cry on the phone, but I worked on a show early on that was not good. Some friends of mine begged me to come and make this thing work. It starred someone who had been quite famous in a half-hour television series and now was coming back in this particular show, and it also starred a man who had a film career and who, for some reason, was talked into doing this half-hour show. And it was not good. And I was only there because I was trying to help out my friends, because they were saying, “Oh, we’re having a really hard time, can you come over and help us or at least laugh at us or something?”

And I remember one day the male actor—who, like I said, gave up his film career or was at least putting it on hold to do this show—asked for something to be rewritten, a joke or something. I went to his trailer, I opened the door, and… I thought he’d told me to come in, so I went in, and he was sitting on the couch in the trailer, weeping. And he looked at me with the tears in his eyes, and he said, “I gave up my film career for this shit!” And I thought, “Well, I guess this is Hollywood.” And that wasn’t the first time that sort of thing has happened, and I’m sure it’s not the last. Hollywood, she is a cruel mistress.

[Tolan made a point of not mentioning the title of the series or the names of anyone involved, so we won’t, either. We will, however, say that it won’t take much searching through the credits on his IMDB page to work it out. —Ed.]

The first time he met Denis Leary
PT: Denis wanted to do a show about a cop, because he had done The Thomas Crown Affair, and they had assigned to him a New York City detective as a technical advisor. This detective’s life was crazy. He was divorced from his wife, but he lived across the street. But Denis had never done television, and they needed to hook him up with a writer. Well, he had watched Sanders, and he noticed that the episodes he really liked, I had written. So he wrote my name down on a pad of paper. I was in New York, and I had to go out to Connecticut to his house to meet him. And I remember it for two reasons. It was a good indicator of two things, one being that a large dog will always go for your crotch, because as soon as I got out of the car in his driveway in Connecticut, his Irish wolfhound—who’s passed on now—went straight for my balls. [Laughs.] So that was my entry into the meeting. That was the welcome.

And I found Denis to be… interesting. It was definitely the first time I’d been in a meeting with somebody who knew I was good, but… there’s a mistrust sometimes that happens with talent, because they know you’re good, but you haven’t been good for them yet. So there’s this slight looking down the nose at you. “Uh-huh. We’ll see how this works out.” And that was very much in evidence with Denis. He was very much like, “I think I want this guy, but… I dunno, I haven’t seen it yet.” Luckily, we were both from Massachusetts, so we had things to talk about, and it was actually from that meeting that we ended up writing together, and we wrote together on everything we ever wrote for The Job and for Rescue Me. But that was the first time I met him.

The first time he used his clout to get a guest star he wanted
PT: That was probably Carol Burnett on Larry Sanders. Which was a turning point, I think, for that show, because we had terrible trouble getting any celebrity to, because they would find out that they had to play themselves, and many of them, that’s the thing they fear the most: the moment of self-reflection. [Laughs.] I had worked with Carol on her last show, Carol & Company, so I called her up, and she said she’d do it. But when I gave her the script, I was a little concerned, because there was some semi-dirty stuff for her to do, and I thought, “Oh, my God, Carol’s never going to do this.” Well, not only did she do it, but she did it with a great relish. I said to her afterward, “Why would you ever do this?” She said, “Honey…”—she called everybody “honey”—“Honey, I’d never do it on my show. But this is your sandbox, and I’ve come to play.” I just loved that. She knew her audience.

The first time he had to deal with a series being canceled
PT: The first time I had to deal with a series that I’d actually helped create being canceled? That would be The George Wendt Show. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the NPR show Car Talk—you know, with Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers? —but I really loved that show. I don’t know if it was those particular two brothers or if it was the charm that you couldn’t see them, because you kind of fill in the blanks when all you can do is hear them, but, anyway, I wrote a script about these two brothers. The show got on the air, George Wendt was the star of it and Pat Finn played his brother. It was a good cast, but it just never really worked. It didn’t have good bones, which is my fault, and it got canceled, but I remember not being, like, sad. Because it was sort of a struggle. Sometimes when they’re not right, they’re more of a struggle. So I was ready for that one to go. I sort of breathed a little sight of relief when it went off.

The first time he found himself in awe of someone he was working with
PT: I dunno, I’m pretty hard to awe. [Laughs.] I think it would have to be early on in my career; now it’s much harder to have that effect on me. There are people I’ve worked with that I’ve been afraid of. I think everybody is cowed a little bit by [Robert] De Niro, so when I met him on Analyze This, I was respectful but I think a little fearful. But the first person I was in awe of? I guess I’ll go all the way back to Murphy Brown and say Candice Bergen.

By the time I came on the series, as I said, it was already in the third season, but I stayed for the fourth season, and Candice was really at the top of the television game at that time. She was constantly nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress and all that. But she’d also come from this long history in show business, and her father was Edgar Bergen, so she was one of the rare people I’ve met and worked with who was Hollywood royalty, so I probably found myself a little tongue-tied around Candice.

But I quickly realized that she was a weird mix of all that royalty as well as a bit of a broad. She liked practical jokes, she liked to laugh—she had a big, raucous laugh—and I actually found my niche with her through awards shows. We went to many awards shows back then, of course, but I was the tallest writer on Murphy Brown, so when it was time for her to leave, if she was not with her husband [Louis Malle], I would escort her out. Really, though, I would act as a block. [Laughs.] She would be behind me, and I walk her out as the block, and then once we got to the car, she’d duck in and off she’d go. So even more than the writing, I think my real benefit to Murphy Brown was as a large piece of flesh.

The first time he adapted an existing property
PT: I guess that would be—and talk about timing—Bedazzled, which I co-wrote with Harold Ramis. It was always going to be a tough assignment, because you’re working with something that was written by two total comedy legends, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I think it’s a pretty good film. It’s not bad. It’s a film of set pieces, where the audience is going, “What’s going to happen now? What’s he doing to do next?” But what happened is that we actually ended up doing a rewrite of a script that was done by the legendary comedy genius Larry Gelbart.

A few years later, someone at the Pasadena Playhouse decided to send an invitation out to everyone I’d ever worked with in Hollywood—and I mean everyone—for an evening at the Playhouse honoring my wife and I for our work supporting the Playhouse over the years. Even though we declined being honored, someone there thought they should do some investigation and see how many people would actually show up! I was horrified. My wife and I severed our association with the Playhouse immediately and I sent out a letter to everyone explaining that the Playhouse letter was sent without our consent or knowledge. I apologized and said if anyone had actually sent in a check, we’d be sure that it would be returned. Since most of the initial letters went to publicists, I’m sure most of them ended up in the trash, but I got a few responses. One of them was from Harold, who of course wrote something funny. Another one, oddly enough, was from Greg Kinnear, who I’m working with now on Rake. But then I also got one from… Larry Gelbart. I was hesitant to open it at first, because Larry was kind of notoriously cranky in his later years, and I was like, “Oh, God…” But I’m so glad I did, because it said, “I was going to write a check, but I was afraid it’d be rewritten by Harold Ramis and Peter Tolan.”

The first day on the set of Rake
PT: I’ve done so many TV episodes that I’m not sure I can necessarily tell you anything specific about it. But what I can tell you with some certainty is that there was a sense of hope. There generally tends to be a sense of hope on the first day of any project, because, you know, everyone’s fresh, they’re excited, they’re ready to go, and they’ve got the whole world in front of them. And certainly on that one, you know, we had a good cast, we had Greg Kinnear as the star, we had a good script. But, of course, eventually that sense of hope you’ve come in with is completely beaten out of you. And that usually happens by… oh, I’d say the second day. [Laughs.]