Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirty-One B"

Having studied the script, I arrived at the rewrite session for the According To Jim pilot, armed with my usual flurry of suggestions – “fixes” meant to streamline and clarify the story, but also proposed dialogue I thought would help nail down the characters, while simultaneously drawing laughs.

The rewrite room offered a wide range of volunteers. (All of us were unpaid.) There were young writers, looking for a break. There were friends of the show running duo, boasting comedy backgrounds, though little sitcom-writing experience. And there were veteran writers – like me – hoping to stay in the game just a little bit longer.

Some members of the older contingent looked, and acted, desperate – their “pitches” seemed forced, and they laughed at their own jokes, often alone. I didn’t feel desperate. I was simply there to work. But I did sense, even at my advanced age, an energizing excitement.

The work went slowly. Around midnight, with the job barely half done, the show runners dismissed the room, saying they’d finish the rewrite themselves. Before I left, I handed them my script, containing suggestions for improving the scenes we had not gotten to.

A few weeks later, ABC picked up According To Jim for its fall schedule. I was not invited to consult on the show.

However, for its second season, I was. I don’t know exactly how that happened, though I have a feeling my agent twisted some arms. The show runners were his clients as well, and I’m thinking he kept badgering them until they took me on, which they finally did, most likely, just to make him stop.

After months on the sidelines, I was once again employed. There would be no car to drive me to and from the studio, as there’d been in the past. My fee was half of what I was used to being paid. I had to share an office with “Rewrite Man” who came in on a different day. Still, I was delighted to be there.

The job was not entirely without its perks. We got free flu shots.

The According To Jim rewrite process was different from any I had previously experienced. After deciding how we would proceed, the writing staff would be broken into two groups, each group rewriting one act of the two-act script. Later we would re-convene, to smooth out the discrepancies that inevitably arose.

According To Jim’s show runners had an extensive background in improvisational comedy. Others on the writing staff did too. Their improv training made them fearless “pitchers.”

Having faced an audience “unarmed”, meaning with no prepared material, they felt no inhibition pitching jokes to a room full of writers.

The difference was that many improv-inspired jokes, though dazzling in the moment, on deeper scrutiny, melt away like snowmen in the sun. My training required the jokes to be sturdier.

Despite our differences in approach, during my first season there, at least, I felt valued for my contribution. A writer’s assistant once confided to me that, the next day, when my suggestions were on display at the run-through, he and the other writer’s assistants would play a game called, “Was Earl right?” I was told I regularly scored an impressive number of “Yeses.”

Unfortunately, I was not always at my best. One week, to make up for a day I had missed, I worked on the show two days in a row. On the second day, which should have been a run-through day but wasn’t due to the star’s unavailability, a second rewrite was ordered, even though, without the benefit of a run-through, we had no way of determining what, if anything, we had rewritten the day before needed to be changed.

In a moment of frustration, I complained, “We’re not making this better. We’re just making it different.” Overhearing this, the “staff snitch”, whose name was Jeffrey, immediately raced to the show runners and ratted me out, and I was called in and (gently) reprimanded. This unfortunateness was entirely my fault. I had inappropriately run off at the mouth.

I chalk it up to exhaustion. I was used to working only one day a week.

After two seasons consulting on the show, I was not invited back. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be. As the season wore on, my suggestions had been meeting with diminishing enthusiasm. There was even mention of eyes rolling when I opened my mouth.

Walking out of the production office after completing that year’s final rewrite, riding down on the elevator, and heading for my assigned parking space, I instinctively knew it was over.

Not my job on According To Jim. My career writing for television.

My one disappointment concerning my According To Jim experience was not introducing myself to Brad Paisley, a wonderful country singer, who was dating and ultimately married an actress on the show, and often hung around our production offices. I admired Paisley’s work, especially “The Fishin’ Song.” I later learned that at the time, he was living two blocks from my house. If I’d opened my mouth, we could have hung out.

Oh, well. You always have regrets.

I’m sure memories of my work life will continue to float into my consciousness. But in terms of a “roadmap” summary – “I went there, and then I went there” – after thirty-one chapters, some of them multi-parters, the “Story of a Writer” saga has officially come to an end.


A. Buck Short said...

Just to let you know, these are appreciated.

growingupartists said...

What a stressful existance!! I can't see how there's anything to regret, you did your best in extreme conditions. That you even survived to tell the tales amazes me.

growingupartists said...

P.S. Time to start the book.

Corinne said...

I thought this series was informative, thoughtful, thought provoking, entertaining, captivating, well done and thoroughly enjoyable.

No eye rolling here! I'm just glad you have more of other things to write about.

Greg Morrow said...

Great series, Earl. Thank you for writing it. (Although I'd love to have it in an eBook compilation.)

Max Clarke said...

Thanks for 31 chapters, Earl. And for a couple of Cheers episodes that are among my favorite.

I recall when you started this blog, and seemed intimidated by the technology. You had doubts about it, but what you've written since then is the length of a book.

Pretty good for a guy who acted in "Cannibal Girls."

Rick Whelan said...


Your Story of a Writer has humour and wisdom ... an unbeatable combination!

Curious how the age thing for writers is such a big deal in L.A. I understand that in the U.K., writers well into their 60s and 70s regularly create hit shows.

Keep blogging!

(Word verification: fattion ... clothes for plus sizes)

Anonymous said...

Pearls before swine, Earl. People will be watching the shows you wrote a hundred years from now, unlike According to Jim.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Knowing you, I guess you will now be obsessing if anyone will return after this series has ended.

So what have you planned for an encore?