Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"The Greatest Job I (Almost) Never Had"

I had it, for a short period, at the beginning of my career. 

For three years, I wrote scripts for various series produced by The Mary Tyler Moore Company.  That’s basically all I did; scriptwriter, and that’s it. 

For me, that was the greatest job of all. 

For me. 

For others, “scriptwriter” is an introductory steppingstone to greater power, opportunity and cash, “scriptwriter” traditionally being the bottom of the ladder, the lowest rung, up from which you were expected to climb.  (Nifty “prepositional” work there, huh?  Thank you, Miss McFadden, Grade Six English.)

If I’d been smart, I’d have remained there, writing scripts for my entire career.  But I did not do that.  (There’s a sigh in that sentence.  Can you sense it?) 

It wasn’t just that my agent was encouraging me to move up.  He was, but I could have ignored him.  And it wasn’t simply the “Siren Song of Show Biz Success.”  That was there too.  And I confess I was not entirely immune to its call. 

It’s not easy saying “No” to “Big”, or at least to that possibility.  Also, realistically, there’s the element of “How long can you keep doing the same thing?”   Nature – or something – seems to demand advancement.

But there’s another reason I could not remain permanently where I was, one not involving weak will or closet ambition so it’s not my fault, making it my favorite explanation of all, plus it has the added advantage of also being true, so I’m substantially off the hook.  Yay.

At some point relatively early in my career, the job of “outside scriptwriter” (“outside” of the writing staff) – freelance writer, if you will – went totally away.

I am not entirely sure why that happened.  But there came a time when writing staffs got larger, and all the scripts began being written “in-house”, meaning by the writing staff itself, the result being that the job of “outside scriptwriter” completely disappeared.  Poof!

Way back when, (meaning before my time although, to more recent writers, I’m way back when), when there were smaller writing staffs (maybe the show runner and two story editors), and more episodes produced – series were once required to make 39 episodes per year – it made sense to hire outside writers to help carry the scriptwriting load. 

But with larger staffs – a dozen writers or more – and fewer produced episodes required (on cable, a full order may be 13 episodes, or less), “in-house” writing became the way to go. 

The Writers Guild tried to protect the freelance business by mandating that a script or two per season be reserved for “non-staff” writers, but the show could easily get around such restrictions, by, say, giving a not-technically-on-the-staff Writer’s Assistant with writerly aspirations one of the mandated “non-staff” assignments.

This brings me to the one disclaimer in favor of all the scripts being “staff written.”  Staff writers – and Writer’s Assistants as well – are in the show’s Writers’ Room the whole time, making them privy to the ongoing discussions concerning the series – what works and what doesn’t, “pitches” that have already been suggested and rejected, determinations as to what a series character would do and what they would not, the taste and sensibilities of the show runner(s), the series actors’ strengths and weaknesses,, what the studio audience responded to and what they did not, etc, meaning I’m tired of this list and I want to move on.

As a consequence of this “Insider’s Edge”, personnel attached to the show had advantages of various shapes and sizes that were unavailable to the freelance writer.  When I worked on shows, I can attest to the fact that considerably more work was required when revising a freelance-written episode, as compared with the “in-house” variety. 

End of disclaimer.  And end, too, of the freelance scriptwriting business. 

The greatest job I ever had had been ignominiously consigned to the dustbin of “We don’t do that anymore.”

Leaving my only available option moving up the ladder to jobs I was temperamentally and experientially less suited for (I had barely ever worked on a writing staff, so I had little idea how a show is actually run), leading me to rise, as The Peter Principle unkindly describes it, to my universally visible “level of incompetence.”

I envied the writers who had gone before me, writers would could flourish just writing, never being required to ascend to levels for which they were unfit, and possibly even uninterested. 

I recall meeting – through Dr. M, who, before she became a psychologist, had earned a Master’s in Film and Television Production – one of her teachers, named Joe, whose impressive list of writing credits included some of my favorite shows, such as Naked City, one of the top police series of its day. 

Joe, who was about to retire when I met him, was clearly proud of the fact that he had spent his entire (film and television) career “just being a writer.”

You can’t do that anymore.  Certainty not in television.

There was also this other guy I was aware of, who, before making his name as a playwright, had created two (like them or not) hit series – The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family. 

It appeared to me, from a distance – I had only one brief encounter with the man – that he worked for a company, in which his entire job description involved,

Creating television series.

And then, rather than running them, sitting full-time in his office, creating other ones.

This makes sense to me, meaning that’s what I wanted to do – make up shows and not work on them.  And it also, I think, really does make sense.  A person invents a new product – they don’t require them to then go down to the shop floor and work on the assembly line making that product, or even manage the assembly line.  That person is too valuable for that.  They invent exciting and successful new products.  Why the heck have them doing anything else!

(Rebuttal:  You have a great chef in the kitchen.  When people come to that restaurant, they expect their meal to be prepared by that chef.  If the show creator does not stay with the show, you’re getting dishes devised by one chef, but prepared by another, perhaps inferior one.  So there’s that.)

But still.  I could imagine myself writing scripts, and later, when I was ready, writing pilot scripts.  The only problem with that plan is that that’s not the way it works.  And, though I am not involved anymore and my knowledge of the current arrangement is just a whisper in the wind, I believe that’s still not the way it works. 

They continue to make the show creators run the shows.

Whether they’re good at it or not.  

1 comment:

Canda said...

This is why you should write novels, or plays.