As a former Hollywood screenwriter, now a licensed psychotherapist who treats creative people, I hear jaw-dropping stories about the state of the entertainment industry every day in my practice. But I have to admit, this new anecdote gives me pause.
A patient of mine told me last week about a friend of his, another writer, who was meeting with a young TV executive. The exec was musing that there might be a great TV series in the idea of a doctor who solves crimes. The writer told her that such a series had already aired, many years ago, called Diagnosis: Murder. The exec said she'd never heard of it. The writer said, "It ran for years, and starred Dick Van Dyke." To which the exec replied, "Who's Dick Van Dyke?"
True story. What makes it even more dispiriting is that I'm sure this young exec considers herself very TV-literate. By that I mean she knows all the hot, new "Flavor of the Month" actors and actresses, loves "edgy" cable shows like Shameless and House of Lies, and trawls the Internet daily to find blogs worthy of being turned into TV series.
But, in my view, awareness of the latest trends doesn't make you TV-literate. To be knowledgeable about your field, you're required to have an understanding of what's gone before—if merely so that you don't think you've just invented the wheel, when people have been riding around on similar circular devices for decades.
In other words, even as we admire and enjoy the considerable talents of such stars as Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler, we need to remember those of ground-breaking comic actresses like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Imogene Coca. Likewise, before there was Jennifer Aniston and Zooey Deschanel, there was Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore.
Before there was Will Ferrell, there was Sid Caesar. Before there was Steve Carrell, Jim Parsons and Ricky Gervais, there was Phil Silvers, Don Adams, and—of course—Dick Van Dyke.
Just as a budding novelist needs to know the work of previous authors, if only as examples of craft and narrative to which to aspire, today's TV executive needs to understand that creativity is always built on what has gone before. That the craft, talent and personality embodied in these former stars are the foundation on which today's stars stand. As will today's stars be a similar foundation for those yet to come.
Not that TV executives are the only ones guilty of such short memories. I recall a story about the late great film director Fred Zinnemann, whose many movies included such classics as High Noon and A Nun's Story.
Toward the end of his career, he met with a young studio exec, who asked, "So, Fred, tell me, what have you done?"
To which Zinnemann replied, "You go first."