Banging My Head Against the Wall
Black Rose Writing
Abington native Andy Cowan may lament being 66, but 40 years in Hollywood as a comedy writer has left him with stories to tell.
And he details them adroitly in his part tell-all, part memoir, Banging My Head Against the Wall.
Cowan’s book moves at a breakneck pace and often seems to be stream of consciousness musings, but he gives fascinating insight into Hollywood, how ideas develop into final products and how certain questions seem to come up time and again.
“Do you hold out for perfection or settle for good enough?” he said in a phone interview.
One of Cowan’s career highlights is an episode he helped write for Seinfeld. The memorable episode was the season five finale and is known as “The Opposite.”
Seinfeld fans will remember it as the episode where George Costanza was lamenting his lot in life and his generally bad instincts. Jerry Seinfeld convinces him that if all his instincts are wrong, the opposite must be correct. Cowan notes that the theme of opposites is one that comes up repeatedly in his life.
Anyway, George takes the idea to heart and does the opposite of what he’d normally do — and things begin to fall in place. Not only does he start dating a beautiful woman, but he lands his dream job with the New York Yankees.
Meantime, other plot lines revolve around Kramer and his coffee table book appearing on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, Seinfeld always being “even Steven” in life and Elaine Benes being the counterbalance to Costanza — as his life improves, hers declines.
Cowan, who later became a story consultant on Seinfeld, takes a chapter to explain all the steps that led to “The Opposite,” starting with him faxing story ideas to show creator Larry David.
“Larry was receptive enough to my various pitches addressing each of the four leads to keep the door open for more,” he wrote. “I came close with a story about George discovering a lost large bra in a dryer and trying to find the woman this ‘glass slipper’ fit (with reservations after Kramer and the woman’s phone voice lead George to think it could be a grandmother’s bra).”
Fans of Seinfeld will enjoy several pages where Cowan recounts ideas for “new” episodes of the show — leftover ideas that he still believes have promise.
For example, Kramer follows up his coffee table book with CliffsNotes on CliffsNotes — summaries of the book summaries lazy students regularly used. Then there was this one: “George’s new lady friend makes a crack about how goofy he looked as a little kid, prompting him to poke fun at her goofy young likeness, what turns out to be a recent picture of her young daughter.” And there was one idea where Seinfeld would be dating a woman who smiled inappropriately, leaving him unsure how to react.
There’s more to Cowan’s story than just Seinfeld, as he’ll regale you with tales about producing segments and appearing on air with The Merv Griffin Show. He also wrote a few episodes of Cheers and 3rd Rock from the Sun and even did some songwriting.
The interactions with celebrities (and their admissions) make for interesting reading, too. A sampling:
Truman Capote: “Los Angeles is the biggest dump. Your IQ drops three points for every year you spend there.”
Jim Backus: “The first time I ever saw Marilyn [Monroe], she was stark naked. She was late coming to work and asked me if I would mind if she changed right then and there. Also, what many don’t know — she copied her walk after Robert Mitchum and John Wayne.”
Helen Hayes: “I was in a silly little murder mystery on TV last month that 30 million people watched. And I stopped and realized I hadn’t been seen by that many people in my whole stage career. That’s what put the cap on my ambition to keep performing. I got angry and thought this isn’t fair.”
Gene Kelly: “I don’t think you should confuse grace with femininity. Grace can be strong and virile. Any male who looks like a sissy dancing is a lousy dancer.”
Roddy McDowell; “The original Lassie was a lot smarter than a lot of people I know. He [yes, Lassie was played by a male dog] remembered me four years later. The horses were different. … I loved Lassie, but I hated the main Flicka horse. She was mean and kept stepping on my feet!”
Vincent Price: “I’m kind of a slob. I once won a prize for being one of the best-dressed men in Hollywood, and I picked up the award with one brown sock and one blue.”
Anthony Quinn: “I’ve found it much easier to work with women I don’t get along with. The minute I work with a woman I’m likely to fall in love with, I’m horrendous. I throw all the scenes her way. Things work better when there’s a little resentment involved.”
Cowan remains active today, developing a “comedy docuseries” called The Lost Sessions with Andy Cowan and maintaining a website (andycowan.net). He also remains a keen observer of the world, offering over the phone a nonstop repartee of old bits, such as a 40-year-old gag about what Frank Sinatra would sing today — breaking into a version of the Village People’s “Macho Man” a la Old Blue Eyes.
And he can be critical of television today, including the networks, in which he has little faith.
“They’re putting out bland, by committee versions of shows,” he lamented.