On a scale of 1 to 10, how believable is the answer to the following question:
“How did you get to fly jumbo jets?”
“My sister’s dating the president of the airlines.”
Let’s try another one:
“How did you become a brain surgeon?”
“My college roommate sells scalpels to the hospital.”
Maybe one more:
“How’d you get to be the chairman of Microsoft?”
“I happened to find Bill Gates’s lost puppy.”
Did we hit “1” on any of those answers? Did the needle move at all? Or did it stay firmly planted on the goose egg? Or below.
People generally understand that gaining employment in highly specialized lines of work requires considerably more than “good connections.” You need training. You need experience. An aptitude in the field is also a plus.
It’s not enough to simply want to do it.
As a result, the above explanations for employment register not at all on the “believability” scale.
On the other hand…
“How did you get the writing job on that television series?”
“My accountant does the producer’s taxes.”
“The director’s niece goes to school with my stepson.”
“I ran into the show runner at Costco.”
For a substantial number of people, these answers do not seem nearly as unbelievable.
Because of the show business myth of, “It’s who(m) you know.”
Why behind that “why”?
In contrast to the earlier examples, people believe that writing for TV can be done by anyone. “Anyone” may be an exaggeration, but there’s this perception that writing for television is not all that difficult. (Maybe you yourself have opined, “There's no way I couldn't write better than that crap!”)
I’m not saying everyone feels this way, but there’s a stubborn belief that many more people could write for television than those few “lucky ones” who are actually toiling at the task. As if writers were interchangeable.
What, then, is the explanation for why “them” and not them? It can’t be talent. There is very little of it in evidence. The obvious alternative?
“It’s who(m) you know.”
It’s goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that this explanation is insulting to the people writing for television. More importantly, it’s inaccurate. No, more importantly, it’s insulting.
And also it’s inaccurate. How do people really break into the highly competitive “writing for television”? In my experience, the following is a far more typically traveled path.
A writer, living…somewhere is inspired to write for television. They sit down, and they write a sample (known as a “spec”) script of their favorite show. Having researched the addresses, they submit the script to a talent agency, or a number of talent agencies.
(An alternate route, though more risky, due to the “rip-off” factor, is that the writer sends their “spec” script to one of the staff writers listed on the credits of the show.)
The next step? The writer receives encouragement. (They’re signed by the agency, or the staff writer sends back a supportive letter, promising to pass their “spec” script up the chain of command.)
Who did this happen to? The Charles Brothers, for one, or two, if you count them individually. (The Charles Brothers produced Taxi, created Cheers, which was later spun off into Frasier.) When I first met them on Phyllis, they told me that they’d written spec scripts for everything, including – and this really impressed me – Gunsmoke. Their supportive letter came from a staff writer on Mary Tyler Moore.
This is hardly an isolated example. I’ve heard this story, or one pretty similar, on a numerous number of occasions.
What about me? Yes, I knew Lorne Michaels. He was my brother’s writing partner, (before they broke up). But that’s not why he gave me a job. It wasn’t – I haven’t checked with him on this, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t – because I bore a resemblance to my brother, and Lorne felt better having someone who looked like that somewhere in the vicinity – a good luck charm with a prominent nose.
Like all businesses, show business is about survival. This is serious stuff. You can’t risk your future by handing a job to an acquaintance who’s not going to help.
“Our ball team has such good fielders, I can afford to put my cousin at second base.”
It doesn’t work that way. With so much on the line – and so much to do – everyone needs to pull their own weight. There’s nobody thinking,
“I think I’ll endanger my show’s chances of succeeding by hiring my former writing partner’s brother who himself is not very good.”
And yet there’s the powerful contingent out there that that’s actually the way it works.
“Connections” may get you a meeting, or maybe some entry-level opportunity. But only ability, demonstrated on a consistent basis, will get you a career.
(By the way. Writing for television is a lot harder than it looks.)