On my last network writing job, now more than four years ago, I was consulting on a show whose staff was comprised of writers who were considerably younger than I was. Two in particular, John and Ron, took advantage of my “Elder Statesman” status to question me about my experiences during television’s “dinosaur days.” I felt like a caveman being grilled by members of a succeeding generation.
“What was is like before fire?”
That, in fact, was the precise formulation of one of Ron’s inquiries.
“What was it like doing shows before computers?”
It was a legitimate and interesting question, one for which I could supply a definitive, “I was there”-type of answer. From the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, computers in show offices were not yet in regular use. Actually, they were in the mid-eighties, but the owners of the show I worked on were too cheap to pay for them.
We were still using typewriters.
The typewriters themselves had greatly improved. No more messy ribbons. The letters on individual hammers had been replaced by an all-encompassing, silver “letter ball”. And, now electric, the keys were much easier to press down. (Let a kid press down on a typewriter key today, and they’ll wonder why nothing’s happening.)
The typewriter’s last hurrah was the IBM Selectric II, which offered an exciting new advancement called, “Correct-Type.”
“Correct-Type” was this “letter-width”-sized strip of white tape, attached to the typewriter between the “letter ball” and the paper you were typing on. The tape had this, I don’t know, white powder sprinkled on it. When you made a mistake, you would backspace to the mistake, “Correct-Type” the mistake – meaning you retyped the mistake while pressing the “Correct-Type” button – and poof! – the white powder covered that bad boy” boo-boo right up! You then typed in the corrected version, and off you went.
When the page was later printed, on a Xerox machine, only the corrected version was visible. The mistake had completely disappeared. At the time, we thought it was magic.
Before “Correct-Type”, there was “White-Out”, which you applied to the mistake with a tiny little brush, like you’re putting on nail polish. You had to blow the spot dry, before typing the correction. This took a considerably longer time than “Correct-Type.”
You also needed a delicate touch, or the liquid would run all over the page. Some of us were more adept at “White-Outing” than others. (Dammit! I’m a writer, not a manicurist.)
Before “White-Out”, there was the eraser. Erasing took longer than “White-Outing”, was rarely entirely effective, and was invariably messier, often leading to scrunching, or, with excessive “over-erasing”, the tearing of a hole through the paper.
Before the eraser – we are now before my time – there was the “x-ing out” method, which doesn’t work with scripts, because it interferes with the flow when you’re reading them. For us, the only legitimate “pre-eraser” option was ripping the paper out of the machine and typing the whole page over again.
That took forever.
As a freelancer, I remember finding “typos” in scripts I was about to hand in, and actually saying to myself, because there was nobody else in the room,
“I don’t care.”
At some point, you just have to stop. Otherwise, you start retyping the page, and in the process, ideas for improvements come to mind, so retype the page again, and then there’s typos in the improvements, so you retype the page again, and ideas for other improvements come to mind, and before you know it:
“Writer Dies Retyping Page Eight For the Fifteenth Time.”
Sometimes, when I was feeling sorry for myself, I thought about writers from the past whose work situations were even more burdensome than my own. Imagine scribes, recording things on tablets with a hammer and a chisel. One mistake, and they had to find another stone.
When you got into production, the pre-computer rewrite process was exponentially more tedious and time-consuming than it is today. To my writer colleague Ron, it was unfathomable how we actually did it. My answer to, “What was it like doing shows before computers?”, accurate though of questionable political correctness, was this:
“We had women.”
And so we did. Two secretaries, as we called them – as there was no other name for them at the time – always female, participated in a rewrite process involving a constant and, when successfully executed, fluid rotation.
It worked like this.
We’re rewriting Scene A. “Secretary One” sits in the room, pen and spiral notepad in hand, recording – either by writing really fast, or in a method that ultimately disappeared called “shorthand” – all the writers’ joke pitches, delivered in a cacophony of chaos and confusion. The “show runner” selects which “pitch” they want inserted in the script, and the process proceeds in such fashion until Scene A is successfully revised.
“Secretary One” then returns to her desk and retypes Scene A in its entirety. In the meantime, “Secretary Two” comes in and repeats the process with Scene B.
When she’s finished, “Secretary One” returns with the Scene A “rewrite”, which the “show runner” proofreads, double-checking the secretary, and deciding if they’re satisfied with the revisions. If additional changes are required, “Secretary One” records them, the returns to her desk and retypes Scene A, which could run six or more pages, yet again.
While “Secretary Two” is out retyping Scene B, “Secretary One” returns for Scene C. “Secretary Two” then returns for Scene D, and off you go until “Fade Out.”
There’s a final “proof-read” at the end, with some inevitable further retyping, and then you’re done. Until tomorrow’s rewrite, when you do it all again.
That’s what it was like doing shows before computers. Any changes, large or small – there was no “backspacing” out a word or “deleting” chunks of material, no “Spell-check” no “Cutting and Inserting” – every revision required an exhausting, labor-intensive effort.
By the secretaries.
You know, I just thought of something. In the post-typewriter era, despite the technological advancements where every process became faster and more efficient, somehow, we never got out of there any earlier.
I wonder why that was.
Followup on a comment:
Dr. M is a psychologist. It is apparently not good for her or for her patients' progress to have too much known about her life. If this weren't the case, she'd be mentioned far more often in this blog. As for the proposal, I proposed in a spontaneous gesture of euphoria, and she, I am life-longedly grateful to say, accepted.