Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirty-One"

After I left Paramount – which occurred after Kristin came and went – I didn’t work for a year.

Having been tagged by a Paramount executive (not entirely incorrectly) as being “Out of sync with the marketplace”, there was no chance of my securing another “Development Deal.” “Development Deals” are for people hired to come up with ideas for new shows. Writers who are “Out of sync with the marketplace” are deemed only capable of coming up with ideas for old shows.

The only jobs now available to me were series’ staff positions, either as a full time participant (which I’d avoided my entire career), or as a part-time consultant. There were only two times a year you could get those jobs. They called them “staffing seasons.” You could get hired for a show that started in the fall; or barring that, you could get work on a mid-season replacement show starting in January.

Not working for a year means not getting hired during either of those “staffing seasons.”

It also means not working for a year.

Although marketplace resistance to my employment ultimately proved insurmountable, my agent continued trying to find me work. To my relief, he had abandoned his attempts to get me to alter my writing style – “You have to write more edgy” was his repeated-to-death admonition.

Though I hated hearing that, my agent was dispensing practical advice. He was telling me he would not be able to get me back in the game, unless I helped him by producing a writing sample, showing I could write in the style of somebody they were willing to hire.

The trouble is I can only write like me.

There was one final avenue of employment, though you couldn’t actually call it employment, because the job didn’t pay anything. They did, however, give you dinner.

I had officially entered “hobo mode.” I’d perform some chores that needed doing, and in return, I would get me some hot eats.

The “chore” in question was consulting on pilots. Earlier in my career, consulting on pilots – made during the between-season “hiatus” periods – had been a welcome supplement to my regular income – writing scripts for shows already on the air.

Back then, consultants on pilots were generously paid for their services. For some reason, these payouts were often hidden, delivered in the form of wads of cash deposited in a paper bag, and logged in the budget under “Miscellaneous.” I don’t know why they did that. You’d have to consult an accountant’s blog for the answer.

Consulting on pilots was lucrative, and relatively easy. Once, while receiving a substantial sum for two days work, I wound up doing nothing.

Former M*A*S*H co-star, Loretta Swit, was set to star in an hour-long police drama, playing a socialite-detective (I don’t how many of these there are on actual police forces), partnered with a street-smart wiseass. Humorous banter would be interjected between the mayhem and car chases, stemming from the irreconcilable contrast in the partners’ backgrounds.

The problem was that the humorous banter penned by the series’ creator, a respected writer of television drama, was noticeably not humorous.

Enter Mr. Funny Pants Consultant. Not just any Mr. Funny Pants Consultant, a Mr. Funny Pants Consultant who was comfortable writing smart and subtle character comedy. In other words, me. Or a hundred writers like me, but I got the job.

In preparation for my consulting assignment, I did what I always do. I pored over the script, looking for ways to make it better. This being a police drama, and the original writer being fully capable in that department, I would not be focusing on the story, as I do when I’m consulting on comedies. For this job, I had a single, specific assignment:

“Funny up” the banter.

Which I tried my best to do. When the “Meeting Day” arrived, I came to work, bearing a script sprouting with Post-its, stuck to the pages where I’d rewritten the dialogue. After some peremptory banter – “I like your work.” “I like yours too.” – we sat down, and we started on “Page One.”

As I read him my suggestions, I very quickly became aware that, though polite, and appreciative of my efforts – he even chuckled a few times – the writer was unwilling to change a word of his script. It was clear that bringing in a “‘funny’ consultant” had not been his idea. He was simply going along with it, so as not to be considered “difficult.”

It was clear he was simply going through the motions. He’d say,

“That’s good. But let’s go with what’s already there.”

“I like that. But I like what I had better.”

“Hilarious. Let’s do what I wrote.”

After two days of work – the second of which ended after an extended lunch – not one of my suggestions was included in the script.

My “take” for my efforts was a substantial check, and two lunches. Oh, and Loretta Swit, who’d dropped by to see how things were going, surprised me with a departing, startlingly friendly smack on the lips.

So there was that.

Flip the calendar a decade or so

And consultants on pilots are no longer being paid. There was no need to pay them. The number of comedy-writing jobs was shrinking, leaving experienced comedy writers scrambling for work. Instead of a lucrative source of income, consulting on pilots now served as an audition, one night to show off your wares, in hopes that if the pilot goes to series, you’ll have impressed the show runners enough for them to consider you for a job.

It was a far cry from a big paycheck, free lunches and a startlingly friendly smack on the lips.

It turned out, my agent had a client writing-team, who’d created a series for Jim Belushi. He urged his clients to let me consult on their pilot. They said yes. I appreciated the opportunity, but, in truth, the risk of including me was minimal. I might be able to help them. And if I didn’t, the cost to the production was zero.

So off I went – an unpaid consultant on According To Jim.

I was genuinely excited.

I had something to work on.

(To be continued)

1 comment:

growingupartists said...

You're edgy, honest, and more!