Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"A Response To JED (But You Can Listen In)"

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.


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.


JED said...

Thank you, Earl. That helps me understand now. I'm probably your only reader who didn't see this distinction but it's clear to me now.

I love hearing how-it's-done stories and yours are the best!

Jim Dodd

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; I'd hazard a guess that you do sell yourself or product, just not consciously. A policy of being true to the work is what sells in a group dynamic. By being honest you did not need to sink to dishonesty or other tricks to sell it.


Zaraya said...

I think I've just restated what Earl said, and much better.


Mac said...

On the other hand, maybe Jeff watched "The Good Wife" and "ER" and thought "Maybe I was wrong...?"

Unlikely though, if he got to be President of CBS, he probably doesn't do self-doubt.

Grubber said...

Hi Earl,

I do have a question I have been meaning to ask for a while. I bought the first season of Becker a while ago and noticed your name on one of the early episodes, it was one where Becker keeps expecting things to go wrong but they keep going right and Becker keeps waiting for the world to screw him over.

I have been reading your blog since very early on and it just seemed to have all your fingerprints over it. I was wondering if you had pitched that story idea(understandable if you can't recall).

The episode just seemed to scream Earl (well the one I have come to enjoy from your blog-many thanks for that by the way)


Earl Pomerantz said...

I have no clear memory of where the "Becker" episode idea came from. But here's my best recollection The idea probably came from the show's gifted creator and show runner, Dave Hackel. But I believe the opportunity to write it was proposed to me, because Dave felt the idea resonated with my Pomerantzian sensibilities. And he was right.

Also, when you write a script and they don't change it too much, it can resonate with your creative uniqueness, not just mine, any writer's.

It's fun to put your personal stamp on an episode. You feel significanlty less invisible.