Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Brooks on Books: "Sit, Ubu, Sit" by Gary David Goldberg

The late Gary David Goldberg's memoir, "Sit, Ubu, Sit," is a warm and engaging read,. It takes its title from the famous title card that appears at the end of his television shows, a tribute to his former Labrador. The story of Ubu alone makes this worth a look.  In Goldberg's tales of his early adulthood, Ubu is elevated to a co-star of the story, almost taking on mythical qualities. What ultimately happens to Ubu is surprising and epitomizes the tone of the book: Goldberg lays it out with honesty and emotion/

Since Goldberg is best known for creating and showrunning "Family Ties," I should tell you there isn't nearly as much about that series as you would expect.  Oh, there are some good stories, both familiar (like how he talked NBC exec Brandon Tartikoff into accepting Michael J. Fox as Alex Keaton) and unfamiliar, but it's kind of a shallow exploration of what was in its day a very successful program.

You get a funny account of the ill-fated (creatively, that is; it scored in the ratings) "trip to England" TV movie and the scoop on why the series called it quits when it did, but you get barely anything about Meredith Baxter-Birney, Michael Gross, Justine Bateman, or Tina others. Not only that, there is but a brief section on Goldberg's critically lauded CBS dramedy "Brooklyn Bridge."

What you DO get is a detailed look at his life with his longtime girlfriend and eventual wife, Diana Meehan, and an emphasis on how he got into the business. You read more about his work on "The Bob Newhart Show" and "The Tony Randall Show" than on just about any of his non-"Ties" work, including the feature films he directed and/or produced. The narrative jumps back and forth, starting with his early adventures with Diana, heading to the heady success of the 1980s, jumping back again to his childhood, and then moving more or less for a while on two tracks until we get to the 1990s and two major stories: His reuniting with Michael J. Fox to create "Spin City" and Diana's harrowing near-fatal battle with debilitating illness.

Aha, remember "Spin City"? That series was a lot more tumultuous behind the scenes than I knew. Tensions between Fox and Goldberg destroyed their long friendship, tough fortunately they reconciled well before this memoir's 2008 publication. Goldberg provides a frank and wrenching story of the emotional toll that took on him, and his telling of his wife's mysterious malady is chilling but ultimately inspirational.

It's clear how much Goldberg loved Meehan, but it's arguable that the real co-star of the book is Fox. "Sit, Ubu, Sit" is really two love stories, and one is Goldberg and the beloved star. As fascinating as the 'Spin City" section is, it's all about the deteriorating creative and personal situation with those two. I don't think anyone else in the cast, except maybe Barry Bostwick, is even named. There's not a lot of detail, either, as the root of the issue seems to be Fox's desire to play his character darker against Goldberg's instincts. But you just aren't going to get a lot of trivia and minutiae about specific episodes or creative decisions on "Ties" nor on "Spin City."

That's not a dealbreaker, though, because Goldberg tells what he does tell with a lot of humor and self-deprecation. He realizes how amazing his journey from hippie to multimillionaire producer is, and his saga is a lot of fun. I enjoyed the stories of his naïve first days working with MTM Productions as a writer, then becoming a young producer dealing with a quite seasoned Tony Randall.  His early hippie stories are entertaining, and his parallel love stories are endearing.  It's a relief to read how fully he and Fox repaired their friendship. It's admirable that Goldberg is willing to give Fox much of the benefit of the doubt, speculating that maybe he wasn't ready to completely embrace his one-time protégé as the creative and business equal he yearned to be on "Spin City."

Hardcore "Family Ties" and "Spin City" fans may be disappointed, but Michael J. Fox fans will find it a must read, and since I can't imagine any fans of either sitcom NOT being a fan of Fox, I recommend they take a look. "Sit, Ubu, Sit" is a quick read but a moving one with a pleasant combination of show business and real life.

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