In the third part of my trilogy examining who goes into show business and who, for reasons of choice (Simon opted for the world of mattresses) or exigent circumstances (“Life Happened”) does not, I finished up by taking an inventory of myself, a lab rat prototype, representing “a person who did.”
One of the generally assumed prerequisites appearing on the “I don’t have it” side of my ledger was an almost total deficiency in the area of “persuading tools of salesmanship.”
This prompted a, perhaps, perplexed JED to respond (in part):
“I think it would be an interesting article if you could explain how you could have a hard time with persuasion and yet get people to accept your ideas when there is a team of writers all thinking they know the best way to write a funny line. How did you get them to use your words? Or did they?”
This is a good and thoughtful question, which I will return to momentarily. What I was referring to when I confessed my deficiency concerning the “persuading tools of salesmanship” is that, if being an effective salesperson were an essential component for a career in show business, I would never have been in it. Because I am not persuasive. I, apparently, could not even persuade JED about that.
I used, as an example, the fact that on Gray Cup weekend – the weekend hosting Canadian football’s Super Bowl – when I was hired to sell satin ribbons with the competing teams’ colors on them to, primarily, intoxicated people, many of whom had shelled out hundred, maybe, thousands of dollars, traveling across the country to attend the game – that’s how passionately devoted they were – to this crowd of insanely rabid inebriates screaming themselves hoarse, going,
“Oskee-wee-wee, Oskee-wa-wa, ‘Tiger Cats’ – Eat ‘em raw!”
I could still not sell a single ribbon.
This deficiency later reared its unhelpful head when I tried to sell TV series ideas that I’d created to the networks. I believe my most commonly used selling tools in this regard were whining and begging.
“Let’s make a show!”
I remember myself wailing.
They did not make that show.
To me, a sure sign that you’re a terrible salesperson is that, something’s indisputably terrific, and you still can’t get people to buy it. (This is the opposite of the crackerjack salesman who can sell refrigerators to Eskimos. I couldn’t sell blubber to Eskimos.)
Casting a pilot I created for CBS, I brought in, as was required, three actresses, as candidates for the leading role. After all of them had auditioned, the president of CBS, named Jeff, proclaimed,
“I will not have any of these women on my network.”
One of the actresses went on to a successful if not spectacular career in situation comedy. The other two were Sherry Stringfield, who co-starred for years on the mega-hit ER, and Julianna Margulies who also co-starred on ER, and went on to even greater acclaim as The Good Wife.
But Jeff didn’t want them on his network. And I had no success in persuading him that he might be missing something.
Julie Hagerty, whom I once pitched for another series, a woman who convulsed audiences in, among other classics, the Airplane movies, and Albert Brooks’s Lost In America – I believe it was the same Jeff who pronounced her, “Not funny.” And once again, my persuasive powers were in absentia. Inhibited, though only partially, by an incredulously dropped jaw.
With this, whatever the opposite of “salesmanship ability” is, I would also, of course, never have been able to persuade anyone, during the early stages of my career, to hire me. My strongest sales pitch would most likely have been,
“Aw, come on!”
And I’d have spent my adult years in Canada, doing something else.
And now, after perhaps too lengthy a side trip, to JED’s question.
JED wants to know, if my persuasive skills are so recessive, how then would it have been possible for me to win a roomful of sure-they’re-right writers over to my point of view.
Working backwards, from a career standpoint:
When you’re the show runner, no persuasion to your point of view is necessary. You’re right, because you’re the show runner. When you’re in charge, your perspective prevails, which is, generally speaking, as it should be, because the show runner (almost always, in my day) created the show, and would understandably have the best “feel” for what’s appropriate.
It doesn’t always have to be your word that prevails – and if you’re a smart show runner who’s assembled a gifted writing staff, you will go with the best idea, whether it’s your idea, or not – but yours will always be the last word. Rewrite rooms are not a democracy. Though it’s best to be a benevolent despot.
So, no persuasion required in that situation.
When you’re on the writing staff – or, as I often was, an outside script consultant – again, no persuasion is required. The final arbiter in that case is,
“Did it get a laugh?”
A simple determinate: If it got a laugh, it’s in the script. If it didn’t, it’s out.
The same goes for clarifying a story point. If the pitch, by general consensus, improved things, it was accepted; and if didn’t, it wasn’t. And again, no persuasion was involved. Or even desirable, as these fruitless rationalizations merely keep people from getting home at a reasonable time. As the iconic, (joke) “punch-up man” Bob Ellison once observed, during an agonizingly late rewrite session:
ONE WRITER: It’s too broad.
ANOTHER WRITER: It’s too out of character.
BOB ELLISON: (POINTING TO HIS WATCH) It’s two-thirty.
To me, the goods, when they’re right, sell themselves, be it a series idea, a casting suggestion, a story point, or a joke. That’s why persuasion is not a prerequisite, if you’re aspirating to be a writer. This is not the case, however, if you aspire to a career as a (non-writing) producer, or an agent. Those guys are selling air.
And when you’re selling air, persuasion is all you’ve got.
I hope that satisfactorily responds to JED’s question. And I thank him for asking it.
I would be equally happy to respond to other questions, should you have them.