Thursday, December 15, 2011

"A Response To Johnny Walker (The Person)"

I generally answer every question I’m asked here. It’s fun for me. Ask more. And I’ll do my best to craft a worthwhile reply.

Commenting on “A Response To Mac” (December 12), Johnny Walker inquires,

Given what you’ve just said, would you tell young writers to shy away from television?


Foist of all, it is not my place to offer career advice to anyone. When I was younger, I was constantly the recipient of career advice, including my high school Guidance Counselor advising me to become and accountant, and my mother, who just cried. Neither came close to helping me in my time of confusion.

In my view, you have two choices: You either do something, or you don’t. That decision involves an emotional calculation: Will you feel worse not trying? Or will you feel worse trying, and not making it? Answer that question, and you know what to do.

That’s not exactly advice. But if it is, I encourage you to reject it, and think for yourself.

I make one exception in the advice-giving department. Although I would never advise young writers to shy away from television, I would strongly advise new writers over sixty to shy away from television. And maybe old writers as well.

In my experience, what flings you to the sidelines is, primarily, not some difference in opinion you have with some current clack of executives (a point Mr. Walker made concerning Joss Whedon) – you think you’re good; they think you suck. The real problem is an older writer’s glaring lack of congruence with the current sensibility, the older writer being irredeemably “behind the times.”

(This plague eventually strikes every comedy writer. It will happen to Matt and Trey; it will happen to Seth MacFarlane. It already happened to Mike Judge.)

This “Sensibility Gap”, I believe, is less a factor in drama (where Mr. Whedon primarily toils.) But in comedy – you just have to revisit last month’s “tweets” – “what’s funny” gets as old and odiferous and an unrefrigerated quart of milk.

You can’t fight “sensibility.” Tone, taste, touch, subject matter, the approach to the subject matter. This collective sensibility resides naturally in the young writer’s DNA. The old writer has old DNA. And, wishful thinking notwithstanding, there is no way they’re the same.

In an Earl Pomerantz-controlled universe, I, Earl Pomerantz, would decree that comedy show runners and feature film screenwriters hire Earl Pomerantz to suggest ways to edit, enhance, focus and consistify their scripts, to help maximize their comedic possibilities.

These skills do not lose their potency over time; they may even get sharper. And they virtually always make scripts better. Earl Pomerantz, unfortunately, does not control the universe. The universe caught a break on that one.

There is nothing new about veteran television writers disparaging the medium in which they once flourished. In the past, it involved putting TV down as exclusively a source for enhancing your bank account. Long-time TV writer Jerry Belson (The Odd Couple, The Dick Van Dyke Show) once observed,

“Television is good, if you want to buy a couch.”

A contemporary of Belson’s, Harvey Miller (The Odd Couple, Gomer Pyle, USMC) put it pretty much this way in a film called New Years Day (1989), directed by Henry Jaglom:

“I got out of television, because I hated it. Then, when I saw how much money they were making, I wanted to get back into it, so I could get rich, and get out again.”

When you get down to it, it is not really about money. Not even back then. And, to be truthful, it’s not about still wanting to be in it.

What it’s really about is hating like heck to be out of it.

It’s good that I’ve got this.

Keep those questions comin’.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; have you ever considered shifting gears back to something like your summer camp days? That is writing and producing a live comedy sketch show. I would think that between LA and San Diego you could find a space to put on a show. Cast it with folks that want to break in (it seems all the theatre in SD exists to get actors their break in LA).

You get to put on the shows you want, hopefully they self fianance, and you get willing labour - those wanting to break in.

Or too much like a hobby?


Johnny Walker said...

Wow, thanks for that thought-provoking answer, Earl. It's much appreciated. I know what I want, and I know what I believe I'm capable of (in other words, I've got just the right amount of ignorance and self-delusion), so I would never shy away from something just because someone told me to.

Also, thanks for putting such anti-TV remarks into a context.

Have no fear: My question was more about wanting to learn about where such a path can lead, and wanting to dispel illusions. I've had terrible careers advice in my life, too.

Anyways, thanks again. I feel very honoured to have my question given such regal treatment on your blog.

If you're looking for more questions, I'd personally love to hear more about your time on The Larry Sanders Show. It's possibly my favourite comedy of all time, and the fact that you worked on it sends me giddy.

I've already read your wonderful recollection of how Garry was both the creative driving force behind, and real life inspiration for, Larry Sanders. I've also read that Judd Apatow was probably struggling a bit, back then (he's since found his feet, it seems).

I'd love to know more about Miss Doucett -- her "personal visit" with Shandling on the Larry Sanders DVD was highly emotionally charged at best, and incredibly painful to watch at worst. (And, to my mind, it made Shandling look a little cruel... but I don't know the whole story.)

I'd also love to know more about the battle between Shandling and Grey, but maybe I'm just getting into the dirt now (and things that would have been outside your experience).

The other thing that's fascinating about the show is the blurring between reality and fiction. Not just between the celebs, not just between the real-life Shandling, Tambor, and Torn, but also between that trio and Carson, McMahon, and deCordova.

Any more you can share (if there is any more) about your time there is pure gold to me :) Thanks.