An article in the Business Section of the L.A. Times reported that some television writers had won a settlement from the ICM talent agency, concerning a lawsuit they had brought, charging that they’d been discriminated against on the basis of age.
I thought maybe I had something to say about that. Then, I decided not to bother, and I threw the newspaper in the trash. Then, I changed my mind, and I went outside to retrieve it. But I couldn’t find it. Okay, so that’s a message, I thought. I don’t need to write about this.
Then, I changed my mind again, and I went across the street to a convenience store and bought another copy of the newspaper, so I could re-read the article. Apparently, I needed to write about it after all.
And why not? I’m one of those guys – too old; no job. This wasn’t, “Grape Pickers Denied Bathroom Breaks.” They were writing about me.
So wherefrom my ambivalence towards weighing in? Well, first, it’s not my favorite thing to identify with a group of people who are doing badly.
“Yes, I’m one of those people nobody wants to hire.” It’s a bit of a “downer” as an icebreaker at parties.
But there was something pushing me the other way. As a stickler for precision – in language and in argument – I wasn’t certain the plaintiffs in this case were promoting a legitimate legal grievance. At the same time, I felt zero enthusiasm for bolstering the side that was keeping me at home.
The first step in confronting a problem is to define clearly what it is. “Clearly defining” requires a precision of language. That’s what I think. I could be wrong here, or, if not wrong, unproductively nitpicky. Maybe all you need to define this problem are eyes. You look at the writing staffs and nobody’s old. Hello, lawsuit.
The situation is painfully real. But I’m not persuaded that it’s against the law.
When you’re dealing in analogies, you have to be extremely careful. Just because two words end with ism, doesn’t automatically make them the same.
Racism is grounded in the belief by one race that another race is inferior, the consequences being that the “superior” race has no problem treating the “inferior” race abominably. “We’re better; they’re property.”
Agism involves discrimination against a group of people who are over a certain age.
In both cases, there’s provable discrimination. Does that mean the two situations are equivalent? The writers who’ve brought the twenty-three age discrimination lawsuits believe they are. And they’ve already gotten an agency settlement to back them up.
You can’t discriminate against race – You can’t discriminate against age. It’s the same thing. If the suing writers are correct. (The settlement did not require ICM to admit to any wrongdoing, so the definitive answer is still up for grabs.)
But are the two situations – racism and agism – really the same? Why are agencies and the studios and networks discriminating against older writers? Do they despise them? Are older writers perceived as being genetically inferior? That can’t be true. Their genes haven’t altered from when they were young writers, and fully employed.
What’s the reason older writers are discriminated against? Is it “Wrinkle Envy”? What?
Older writers are not hired because they are perceived as being unable to provide material that will deliver the younger audience advertisers require the networks to attract. Agencies are dropping them, because they can’t get them any work. In other words – an argument can be made – and probably has been – that that this has nothing to do with discrimination at all. It’s simply a matter of business.
It’s an argument that cannot be easily dismissed. Can you imagine a similar lawsuit being brought against Major League Baseball by a group of fifty year-old ballplayers?
“They won’t let us play. It’s agism.”
That’s not agism. They’re old.
“Writing isn’t sports, Earl.”
That’s true. You see that? I made an analogy mistake myself. An argument can be made – and I’ll make it right here – that I’m a better writer than I was when I was younger. I see the story problems sooner and can make adjustments more quickly. Though I’m not currently writing a script, I watch movies and I reflexively know how, with some minor adjustments, the storylines could have been made stronger, more consistent with the writer’s intentions.
But there’s more to writing than story structure, though, to me, that’s still the primary element, and, by the way, the element least influenced by changing times. A well-told story is a well-told story, whether it’s around a campfire in a cave or on “Must See” TV.
It must be acknowledged, however, that something in the marrow of half-hour comedy (my only area of expertise) has fundamentally changed. (It should also be acknowledged that network comedies today are less popular than they’ve ever been in the entire history of television.)
The essence of situation comedies – the structural rhythm, the sensibility of the content, the relationships and the language, the transition, primarily, from a four-camera shooting style to single camera – it’s significantly different. At least, some of that difference is the product of a subtle and, sometimes, not so subtle, generational…mutation.
In the article about the agism lawsuit, a writer named Larry Mintz was mentioned as one of the plaintiffs. Among his credits, it was reported, were Sanford and Son, The Nanny and Family Matters. These are estimable credits on successful sitcoms, but do those shows bear any resemblance to the half-hour comedies they’re making today? (This is no shot at Mr. Mintz. You can ask the same question using my credits.)
Can an older writer learn to write scripts consistent with contemporary tastes and standards? Some can, I imagine. I’m probably not be one of them. The structure’s not the problem – as I mentioned, a story’s a story – but the current sensibility, with its focus on the coarse, the blatantly sexual, the humiliating and the pain inducing…it’s not my natural terrain.
If any writer could deliver a writing sample that met the current standards for acceptable scriptwriting, the only difference being they were older, their rejection would be definitely attributable to agism. What else could it be? Perhaps the solution here could be script submissions without names on them. Maybe they could try that.
(I heard this “anonymity” system was instituted at an audition for a symphony orchestra. To combat gender discrimination, the musicians would try out playing behind a drawn curtain.)
An older writer can try to “write young”, though their efforts may prove imitative rather than generic. The option of older writers’ exploring their current experiences for the enjoyment of their contemporaries is unavailable, since advertisers aren’t interested in the older audience, making their stooges, the networks, unwilling to program for them.
This seems like a mistake, since the only audience still loyal to the network television brand is that very same older audience. Someday, perhaps, the business people will wise up and program for who’s watching – the older audience – instead of who they wish were watching – the otherwise engaged younger audience – in which case, the older writers are back in business.
On a smaller scale, a cable network targeted specifically to Boomers – who have more available cash to spend than anyone around – makes sense to me. And who better to provide that entertainment than the readily available age-appropriate writers? No forced mandates for older writer inclusion here. From a business standpoint, they’re simply the best people for the job.
It hurts to be sent home. And it’s obvious who’s being discriminated against. The question is the reason. Is it agism, or economics? If its agism, the answer’s in the courts. An economic explanation requires an economic solution.
The writer sitting at home might say it doesn’t make any difference. But if you’re looking for answers, rather than vindication, I think, maybe, it does.