Friday, April 24, 2009

"It's Who(m) You Know"

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.

Why?

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.

It isn’t.

“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.)

5 comments:

growingupartists said...

You mean the believability scale trumps the bravery scale? Do our military men know they're fighting for our country with this logic being broadcast to all the slumping masses?

Cancer to us all, I like to say.

A. Buck Short said...

I think Lorne Michaels may have once gotten to second base with my cousin Amber. Incidentally, your opening analogies were so brilliant, I’m going to the WGA demanding story credit for the logical extreme concept I introduced, ironically, in response to your last Descartes/Inspiring Insight/Pilot Season deconstruction.

Does the “rip-off” factor refer to the staff writer actually ripping off your spec, or to a reluctance to even open it, wary that the sender might later sue the writer or show for theft of idea(s) – er, excuse me, idea(m) -- should a similar story be developed for the show completely independently? Or both?

Let me preface the rest of this by at least claiming that, if the rest of you guys would throw Earl a few more comments, I’d try to stifle myself, Edith. Mr. P, I would be interested in any thoughts you have on the following:

Is there a danger the writer you send your spec to may simply bury your submission because, who needs somebody else competing for his job?

For several years I dashed off a weekly Onion-like satirical “simulated news”-letter called Occasional News Events From Texas and Selected States (acronym intentional) – because 10,000 other people already churning out fake news for the internet weren’t nearly enough. But, in addition I would daily also come up with topical news humor that was better than much of what we were getting in the late night talk show monologues. Over several weeks, I proved to myself I could come up with a complete acceptable entire monologue with a few hours thought every day. Oddly these always seemed to come out in Letterman’s voice. I figured, why let this gold go to waste? Maybe I can at least get some of it on The Late Show – and I don’t care if they pay me or not.

All I was after was an email address I could send these gems to every day for consideration before they went rancid. An acquaintance I had once spent nearly 20 hours straight with on a road trip, who(m) I found quite nurturing, and also happened to be president of the WGA at the time, ventured I might send the inquiry and some samples to the “writers’ assistant” who could get it to the right people.

The “To whom it may concern” form letter reply from the assistant noted “I have enclosed the proper writing submission requirements to be considered for employment at The Late Show. Please note all material is written exclusively by our staff writers…. cannot read your material until you have signed a Worldwide Pants release, as we do not accept unsolicited material. Your submission should be limited to the following 3 Top Ten Lists and various other ideas. The Top Ten Lists are:
---1. Ways the world would be different if a dog were president.
---2. Signs your gym teacher is nuts.
---3. Things overheard on our first show 15 years ago. (Apparently had been using this same brush-off/litmus test for some time, since the show had already been on 21 years.)Man, it was like the final test at one o’ those comedy driving schools. Overnight, I FedEx back 3 killer top ten lists, including 43 if-a-dog-were presidents (using the lame excuse we were now into our 43rd president):
-----Cheney has heartworm attack.
-----Nearly chokes on pretzel chew toy.
-----Can lick own balls, fires intern.
-----Afghan elected prez. of Afghanistan.
-----Chief political strategist: Carl Rove
-----Invades Cuba: “Remember the mange.”
-----Postpones trip to Korea. Etc.

To make it easy on the dude, I also enclosed multiple choice reply postcard, including:
 Yes We received your Top 10 and other responses.
 Yes If they are hilarious, we will look at your other stuff and possibly get back to you.
 No Not a chance in hell.
 Yes It is possible for someone from the boondocks like you to be considered a staff writer, emailing us time sensitive topical monologue stuff.
 No. I thought we were clear on this?
 We will send a release you may use for those email submissions, as soon as we recover from having fallen down laughing at:
 ___ your material.
 ___ your brazen inquiry.
 I will contact you when I have a chance, because you seem pathetic.

In the meantime, I poured through the WGA contract, but could still never find an answer to the question, “What’s scale for a single joke or three?”

Final response: “Unfortunately we are not looking for new writers at this time. Your submission will be reviewed if a position opens."

 But, again, my question: Can there be a quasi-staff designation for WGA purposes via email?

It then occurred to me that, if a staff writing position were to open up, the person who would probably want to be first in line was the guy who had been slaving as writers’ assistant for the past 10 years.

I'm already 2 hours late for the office. Any thoughts on how to get some interest, should the bug ever bite again? Keep deluging somebody on a regular basis? Thank God I’ve discovered at least some toleration using your wonderful blog as an outlet opportunity.

diane said...

I can easily understand that writing for TV is hard. Myself and a couple of friends tried it. We'd done our homework and read everything we could get our hands on about scripts. Then we set out to write something we knew about - our daily lives in the car business. Although we could write a funny line or a funny scene, we could never string it together in a coherent way and we couldn't get a handle on our characters. We had a blast one night deciding what our ideal cast would be, but that was about the time we realized that writing for TV was not going to be our next career. We are all still in the car business and gained a much better appreciation for the effort and talent it takes to write.

Anonymous said...

The current chairman of Microsoft is still Bill Gates. The current CEO is a guy who played poker with Bill at Harvard.

Anonymous said...

So, if I understand you correctly, there were no equally-talented writers who failed to get a big break because they did not know Lorne Michaels or someone like him?