Of all the things I will be held accountable for in hell, this will surprise me the least: Writing a part for an 11-year-old in my sitcom pilot. When Satan shows me the "E! True Hollywood Story" with the innocent child we helped turn into a 19-year-old in rehab, performing with a bad heavy metal band and divorced from a Playmate, I can only pray I'll have made a truckload of syndication money off him.
As I was feeling guilty, I noticed a dressing room on the set with a yellow sign that said "Schoolroom." At least our kid, Bret Loehr, was being taught. But just to make sure, I spent Tuesday in class with him.
I was pleased to find that Mrs. Schlaifer, who turned 71 this month, runs a tight ship. She's been an on-set teacher since 1965 and has instructed Jodie Foster, Elijah Wood, Helen Hunt, Sarah Jessica Parker and the entire cast of "What's Happening!" She now works with the 8-year-old girl on "Still Standing," after having taught the "Still Standing" mom, Jami Gertz, on "Square Pegs" in 1982. Hollywood is just like a small town for super-rich, good-looking people.
Bret, who goes to public school, was catching up on the three weeks he's missed since doing our show right after shooting a movie. Legally, Bret has to go to our school for three hours a day, which I thought was kind of lax until Mrs. Schlaifer explained that it was intense, one-on-one instruction. I figured if you subtracted gym, lunch, study hall and fruitlessly passing notes to find out if Kerri Holt liked me, I got about 45 minutes of actual learning.
We started with a spelling lesson involving prefixes and suffixes. About halfway in, Bret was interrupted by our costume designer to pick out a necklace for his character. Then his mom stopped in to give him his mail. Marilu Henner, who's playing his mom, dropped by to tell us a story about how her kids were on-set schooled when she was with the tour of "Annie, Get Your Gun." In Reno, they had to hold school at a cocktail bar, where the teacher taught fractions by having the first-grade kids learn drink recipes on the back of a napkin. Seriously, I am going to hell.
After Bret impressed me by calculating the ratio of degrees in a circle to percentages in a pie chart, he bolted out of his chair in the Hollywood equivalent of kids rushing to the window to see if it was snowing. "Was that Whoopi Goldberg?" he yelled. As it turned out, it was only the Hollywood equivalent of rain.
The most shocking part of the day was when Mrs. Schlaifer went over the social studies lesson Bret was missing at school that week. On the wipe-board were these questions: "What is the Bhagavad-Gita?" and "What is karma? When does rebirth cease?" I was starting to feel better. Apparently, school at a sitcom isn't worse than any other school in California.
At 2 p.m., Bret was joined at school by 13-year-old Ben Zobrist, who I realized had been dragged into this sordid affair because I wrote a joke about having a high school student barf. Yes, Ben was missing school for a barf joke. Dante didn't even envision a circle for that.
Ben told me that Mrs. Schlaifer's school was much better than the other on-set schools he'd attended. "This has been the most teaching I've ever gotten. Most of them don't teach you. It's like baby-sitting," he said. On the WB's "Jack & Bobby," he said, "one teacher just went in the other room and started reading." I was surprised that teachers on WB series know how to read.
Ben was taking a break from his schoolwork to read a book from the "Left Behind" series. He kept looking at me as if he knew where I was going after the apocalypse. I briefly considered enhancing his barf with a line.
Bret had similar on-set stories. "One movie I did, the teacher slept on the set every day," he said. Still, he told me that Ray Liotta taught him a lot about craft.
"A lot of the teachers are more interested in getting into the business," Mrs. Schlaifer, explained. Mrs. Schlaifer, a former public school teacher in Manhattan Beach, was dedicated. Not only does she have to teach, but she needs to be on set with us to make sure we don't illegally overwork Bret. And she has to make sure that Bret's mom likes her. "Being of no production value, if you disagree with the mother, she can have you fired," she said. I assured her that Bret's mom is too busy mouthing all Bret's lines as he says them to fire her.
Mrs. Schlaifer told me that she's going to retire as soon as "Still Standing" goes off the air.
"When I finally retire, I'm writing a book," she said. Then she added, "Actually, probably a screenplay." At least it took her 40 years to be corrupted.