An inquiry from seandelville asks:
Question for you Earl: do you think you could still “make it” with your TV writing talents in this day and age? What steps would you take as a young writer trying to break in?
First of all, with my “TV writing talents”, I could unquestionably not make it in this day and age. My “TV writing talents” are from another day and age. I could make it with those talents in that day and age, because the talents I embodied were the talents they were looking for. If I could make it with those same “TV writing talents” today, I would still be making it. And, judging from the paychecks I am no longer receiving, I’m not.
One disclaimer, however. Wait! Before that, perhaps we should delineate exactly what “TV writing talents” we are talking about. It is unhelpfully vague of me to proclaim that my talents are temporally inappropriate without clearly specifying what those talents involve.
Some elements of “talent” are a matter of learned skills. Those talents, I still retain and could easily put into action. I can still type. I can still write a script. I can still hand it in on time. I can still hear what needs adjusting and go back and make the appropriate changes. What I am missing is an essential, and perhaps primary, ingredient in the process. Which I will get to in due course.
Now back to the disclaimer. Though comedy has changed, storytelling has not. Could I help other writers to sharpen, focus and clarify their storytelling intentions, suggesting appropriate lines of dialogue that would accurately capsulize the moment? I could. My intuitive gift, combined with my experience, would allow me to do that, I think, successfully. That element of “talent” never gets dated. It never goes away.
Now, moving on. Wow. No “Mr. Linear Straight Line Writer” today. I’m just jumping around like a monkey. Hey, you know what? To answer the second part of seandelville’s question – because I’m uncomfortable giving advice, in case you try it and it doesn’t work, and you come gunning for me, believing the advice I gave you ruined your life – I‘m going to hand things over at this point to “Spider, The Success Monkey”, and go find myself a gluten-free cookie. Spider, Man, - not to be confused with Spider-Man, or Doctor Jerome Spiderman, an optometrist from Poughkeepsie – the floor is yours.
Thanks, Earl. Hi, folks. I’m “Spider, the Success Monkey”. As that iconic chimp Cheetah used to say at the end of every Tarzan picture – “CHEE-CHEE-CHEE-CHEE-CHEE!!! And I just turned a backflip while I was doing that.
Okay. So much for the endearing monkeyshines. Now…
Who wants to be a success like “Spider, the Success Monkey”? Whoa, there’s a lot of you out there. Great! Now listen carefully:
If you want to be a success like me, all you have to do is grow a long tail and learn to swing rapidly from tree to tree.
That’s all there is to it!
You say, “That’s silly, Spider; we’re not monkeys”? True enough. The thing is, all I can tell you is how I became successful, “successful”, in my case, being defined as “not eaten by a lion.”
Everyone’s pathway to success is different. If you asked Earl, he’d say, “First of all, have Lorne Michaels be your brother’s partner, and when Lorne moves to Hollywood and he hooks up with Lily Tomlin, have him show her a short film you wrote, and get her to bring you down to write for her television special.”
You see what I mean? Telling you that is no more useful than telling you to grow a tail and swing from tree to tree. It is simply another primate’s story.
A therapist I once went to – yes, I saw a shrink; she helped me come to terms with the fact that I’d be ascending no further up the evolutionary flagpole; I would forever be “one from the top” – this therapist assembled a cluster of attributes necessary to make it. This list, I believe, is especially helpful in gauging your chances of making it in the exceedingly competitive universe of big-time show business.
(Offering, I would suggest, an illuminating list of what it takes to make it, before venturing into the specifics of how to go about trying.)
And I have first-hand evidence that this list has definite validity. A friend of mine once introduced me to “Cheetah’s” step-granddaughter, and Lila confirmed to me that her step-grandpappy embodied all of these characteristics, and that’s why he made it, while other monkeys remained back in the jungle, picking gnats out of their scalps.
Here’s what you need to make it in show biz, most, if not all, of the following, in, in aggregate, greater than average amounts:
An unstinting work ethic.
Adaptability (or flexibility; it could be one, it could be the other
.) I personally know two writers who could not get a foothold in comedy who wound up kicking butt writing drama.
You need a thick skin, for when people tell you you stink – and they will, either because they’re jealous, or because they’re right, or both.
You need talent, of course, to be successful but I put it seventh to help foster humility. Talent is a necessary but in no way sufficient element in making it.
You also need luck, which includes timing.
You need a way to support yourself until you make it. (This one is debatable. Some people need the security; others need to burn all their bridges, so there’s no turning back. If you have a family to support, it is no longer debatable.)
And it wouldn’t hurt if you knew someone who could get you in the door, though you better come packing the rest of the above, or you will, in short order, be booted out of the door.
Now. I’ve been thinking about this, trying to figure out what the most important ingredient is in “making it”, and especially in “making it big”, ‘cause if you’re in it, you know, why not? This, I think, was the point of Earl’s post yesterday about Seth MacFarlane and Family Guy, which, had he been more skillful in his execution, he would not have to reiterate through the hapless contrivance of a fictional monkey.
In my view, the primary element in “making it big” is having, not just talent, but the precise right kind of talent for the times you are living in. Being “in sync” with the marketplace means resonating like a matchless timepiece with contemporary sensibilities.
This is not something you can develop. Or fake. You either embody that element – you are the times, and the times are you – or you don’t. See: Seth MacFarlane, Judd Apatow, Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Tina Fey, to name four (a team counts as one.)
Now, on the off-chance that seandelville was asking for more specific – Read: practical – directions about “breaking into the business”, I am not sure I can help you with that. I’m a monkey.
(Perhaps seandelville can redirect his query to bykenlevine.com; Ken is far better handling these matters. Earl.)
What I do know is this. No matter what the specific requirements of “breaking in the business” are, you will not go far without the foregoing components, especially the “hard work”. I’m telling ya, I swung from trees till my tail grew blisters. For a writer, that means writing. Not thinking about it, or thinking how good it would feel when you finished – actually sitting down and doing it. Imagine I just thought about swinging from tree to tree. A lion attacks, and it’s like, “I really should have practiced!”
Well, I hope that was useful, even if it wasn’t exactly what you wanted to know. If I missed the mark on that account, chalk it up to my imperfect monkey brain. Man, there I go again, wallowing in my evolutionary inadequacies.
I wonder if I kept Doctor Scheinbaum’s business card.