LOS ANGELES, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- One day a few years ago I went for a walk along the Venice beach with sitcom writer Rob Long and his dog, Cohiba, so-named because of Long's fondness for cigars. Long had just been fielding a barrage of phone calls about the fate of his then soon-to-be-cancelled show, the Bob Newhart-Judd Hirsch vehicle "George & Leo."
"Hey! Don't waste your prayers on me," Long had said cheerfully into the phone to one caller about his meeting with the network heads at CBS. "But ... I think it went very well. The show's not dead. I'd say at this point it's 50 to 60 percent alive."
He seemed unfazed by the probability that "George & Leo" was, by his own logic, therefore at least 40 percent dead. The following year he and his writing partner, Dan Staley, had another CBS show on the air, "Love & Money," which was also quickly cancelled. No matter.
Staley-Long Productions have enjoyed lucrative studio deals ever since the team became head writers for "Cheers" while still in their 20s. A string of cancellations is just life as usual in the TV business, especially for those who've reached show-runner status.
Anyway, we talked more about dogs that day than about TV. "Unfortunately, here we have the West Side Dog Experts," Long observed of the locale. "People who come up to you in the park and announce, 'Is that your dog? He's got leukemia.'"
Long tossed a ball, the dog jumped happily to catch it, and he continued his riff.
"And at this point they'd say, 'You're gonna give him hip dysplasia!'"
As it turned out, however, we actually were talking about TV while we were talking about dogs that day, because Staley-Long's new sitcom, which premiered this month on the WB, is called "Men, Women & Dogs." And that's exactly what it's about: Men with dogs, who talk to women, while in the dog park by the beach.
As one of the quartet of young bachelors in the show tells another about the usefulness of dogs as handy ice-breakers, "When your dog starts sniffing some girl's dog's butt, you GOT to talk."
Staley doesn't own a dog - he's allergic - but Long spends practically every free minute in the dog park with Cohiba, a sort of lab/shepherd mix.
"I'd been told by certain people that I had a more deep and affectionate and spontaneous relationship with my dog than I did with women in my life," Long said at the WB press conference. "I have a lot of friends who live in my neighborhood, and we walk our dogs together. I ripped off a lot, put it that way."
"Men, Women & Dogs" features a playboy chef with a golden retriever; a surf bum who with a French bulldog he dotes on more than his girlfriend; a shy, sensitive guy with a girl-magnet puppy; and a dogless opportunist who hangs out at the dog park hoping to meet women.
The scene-stealer of the cast, naturally, is the so-ugly-he's-cute French bulldog, who's called Betsy on the show but in real life is named Linus.
"Lassie was a boy some seasons," Long noted. "Really good actors like Linus can play anything. He's like DeNiro."
At the audition, Linus immediately blew his canine competitors out of the water. "The minute we saw him we thought, oh, it's got to be this dog, no matter what," Long recalled. "In fact, the head of the studio drove up in his little cart and said, 'That dog. That dog is a breakout. I love that dog.'"
The show's production studio, Paramount, happens to be particularly rich in dog talent.
"We have a great animal training consortium there that brought the world Eddie on 'Frasier'" Long said. "They brought us a whole bunch of dogs, we looked at them, played with them in a little park on the lot. And it was pretty obvious at a certain point which ones we'd pick."
The advantage of TV dogs is that they don't all need to be slim, young and attractive, unlike TV humans. A few years ago Rob wrote "Conversations With My Agent," which is both a satire and dead-on accurate guide to life in the TV business, written in the style of a TV script.
At one point Long's all-knowing agent, who'd just gotten off the phone with the network, berates him about a casting session for Staley-Long's first post-"Cheers" series:
"MY AGENT: They think you're going too ... characterish ... with your casting. They think you're casting ugly people."
"ME: We are trying to cast funny actors."
"MY AGENT: Could you please tell me what's so funny about six guys who look like the Elephant Man? Maybe you don't understand the power structure here. The network likes young, good-looking people. America likes young, good-looking people. That's how you get on the air. That's how you stay on the air. If you've got some sicko thing for circus freaks, fine. But not on network television. My God, not after dinner."
I could use a little of these young, good-looking people in my own local dog park, though, which, unlike Rob Long's glamorous beach enclave, is on the grittier, east side of Los Angeles.
How I wish this were more like the TV version, I found myself thinking glumly as my own dog and I stood in line the other day for low-cost vaccinations. The scent of urine wafted up rankly from our neighborhood patch of fenced-off, municipally sanctioned dirt.
Far from being "Men, Women & Dogs"-style yuppie mixers, dog parks tend to be quite popular with eccentric loners. Devotees often avoid contact with fellow humans, but greet each dog by chummy nickname. "Here come the Slimers!" one man shouts jovially at my dog park, whenever he spies a familiar pair of drooling Great Danes.
Sometimes these people are chatty, though. One day a fat lady minding two bug-eyed, sweater-wearing dogs began a conversation.
"I promised them a treat after I finished vacuuming," she said. "I wanted to bring my little girl, but she didn't want to come ...."
I was about to say, "My daughter loves the dog park," when she finished her sentence.
"... So I left her on the couch and just brought the boys."
Oh, God, her 'little girl' is a dog! Now, I love my own dog, a whippety Terrier X (as they labeled her at the pound) named Linda. But there is just something so triste about people who equate dogs with children, like the poor old couple in "Ship of Fools" whose bulldog gets thrown overboard.
If the guys on "Men, Women & Dog" don't watch it, in a few years this will be them.