Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"It Was Different Back Then"

Mentioning David Lloyd, as I did in yesterday’s posting, reminds me of the way television writing used to be and, I’m pretty certain, no longer is.

When I started writing half hour comedies, shows’ writing staffs were extremely small. On Phyllis, which was the first writing staff I was a member of, and as it turned out, the last, the entire staff consisted of two people, a producer – a wonderful writer named Michael – and a story editor. Me.

Also involved were Phyllis’s creators, Ed. and Stan. But they were concurrently heavily involved with two other shows – The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Doc.

Michael and I were responsible for writing scripts for Phyllis, and also for rewriting scripts written by outside writers. (More on them later.) When the episodes were being produced, we additionally assisted on rewrite nights.

That was a lot of work.

How much work depended on what shape the scripts were in. When a David Lloyd script came in, there was very little rewriting required. David was roaringly funny, and was an expert storyteller. David Lloyd constructed a storyline like an engineer assembling a bridge. You never had to worry about an unexpected collapse.

David and I (after I quit being Phyllis’s story editor), though technically not on any writing staff, were subsidiary adjuncts to the inside team. (David, enthusiastically, and later me, reluctantly, also helped out on rewrite nights, David on a weekly basis, me, only on the scripts I had written.)

It’s helpful to be a part of the team, actually, or as a subsidiary adjunct. Participating in these positions gave you an intimate knowledge of the workings of the show – the ideas they had tried and rejected, the story areas they steered clear of, the actors’ strengths and weaknesses, the comedic and personal tastes of the show runners.

A shorthand would develop that accelerated the writer’s decision-making process, a shorthand unavailable to writers who were less intimately involved.

But with a tiny staff, and, you know, as sensational as we were, David Lloyd and I could only provide so many scripts, additional writing help was inevitably required. This led to a market that I believe no longer exists. The market of the freelance scriptwriter.

Almost every week, outside writers would come in, armed with story ideas, which they would dutifully pitch. In the end, they were either sent away without an assignment (because their story pitches weren’t right), one of their ideas was accepted, or they were given an idea, and sent off to write the script.

Outside writers’ scripts were, more often than not, disappointing. This is not surprising. First, as I mentioned, outside writers, though they’d seen the show on TV, did not have the intimate understanding of it, that writers connected to the show were privy too. Plus, though a few freelance writers wanted to be freelance writers, the majority of them were writers who had not procured jobs on writing staffs, meaning they were generally not the most sought after members of the Guild.

We now enter “chicken-or-egg” country. Either show runners got so tired of rewriting outside writers’ scripts that they expanded their writing staffs so that all the scripts could be written “in house”, or the writing staffs became so big, outside writing assistance became no longer necessary. I really don’t know which led to what. All I know is, at some point, writing staffs on comedies ballooned to a dozen or more writers.

When that happened, the job of outside writer completely disappeared. So did the job David and I did – no more “subsidiary adjunct” writers either. Now, you were either on the writing staff, or you didn’t have a job.

The next evolution was “gang” or “room” writing. In this process, even staff writers don’t go off to write scripts. Instead, every script is written with the show runner and the entire staff working together in the same room. Afterwards, somebody’s name gets slapped on the script, maybe in rotation, so that everyone gets their turn (there is substantial “residual” money involved), but nobody actually writes the script themselves. It is written by “The Room.”

You can see the consequences of this approach. Yes, a script can be cranked out faster – in a day, maybe two, as compared to maybe a week when a writer is sent off alone – but what kind of writing is that? Where’s the care? Where’s the craftsmanship? Where’s the distinctive, personal stamp that allows the viewer to say, “Oh. David Lloyd wrote this script? He’s the best. I have to watch this.”


What you have, instead, are a lot of, often, very funny jokes – that’s what a “room” does best, a dozen writers pitching jokes, with the funniest joke – or at least the joke the show runner considers the funniest (invariably his own) – going into the script. What’s missing is, well, maybe this is exaggerating, but a resonating human voice.

David Lloyd passed away last November. That was sad. But the passing of the writing process he excelled at, where, despite the homogenizing demands of a television series, the writer’s uniqueness could still be powerfully felt, is, arguably, even sadder.
Something weird happened. AOL cancelled my password and won't give me another one. If you want to email me, try talktoearl@gmail.com. I cannot currently access my AOL e-mail, including the "Noreplays", which are really "No replies", that automatically get transferred from the "comments" section of my blog. Sorry for the inconvenience. I'm at the mercy of technology. Amongst other things.


bbot said...

This may be a helpful reminder from AOL to its users that it is, in fact, 2010; and only illiterates still use AOL.

Anonymous said...

My experiences writing around a table were always frustrating... To me, silence is golden when it comes to zoning in on well thought out, believably funny give and take between human characters. For me, the loudness of the room and egos colliding was a breeding ground for frustration over magic. And although I may be generalizing, I think the end result of room writing speaks for itself: Jokiness over humanity and depth that makes you care more about the characters; makes you more invested in the comedy part of the equation.