Monday, December 29, 2014

"Civility In The Rewrite Room"

Regular Feedbacker Wendy M. Grossman recently asked for my experientially derived comments concerning “the rough, anything-goes culture” in the half-hour comedy rewrite rooms, with particular reference to the (verbal) harassment of women. 

Okay, first the disclaimers.

Disclaimer One – It was a long time ago, and it is now difficult to remember. 

Disclaimer Two – Although I have experienced myself responding empathically to harassed people of all varieties, I am inevitably not as sensitive to the “harassment signals” as a woman sitting in that exact same room would be, so I may easily have missed stuff.

Disclaimer Three – In my thirty years of participating in the production of half-hour comedies, I spent substantially more than half of that time out of production, either freelancing scripts or enjoying lucrative “Development Deals” where my time was primarily divided between thinking up ideas for new comedy series, extended lunches, watching televised trials of former football stars who murdered two people and was inexplicably acquitted, and naps.  Therefore – certainly compared to Ken Levine’s – my “hands on” rewrite room experience is limited. 

Disclaimer Four – My idiosyncratic experiences in these matters may not be representative of the overall climate and tendencies of half-hour comedy rewrite rooms across the spectrum.

Having said that…

Exhaustion can make you say stupid stuff.  (Maybe that should be Disclaimer Five; I don’t know; it’s borderline.)  I know I was not always at my best.  Though I shall refrain from specific examples at this juncture.  I can attest, however, that my infractions were never genderly discriminatory.  I messed up with everybody.

Now having said that…

I would have to affirm that, ninety-five percent of the time, I witnessed no behavior of the nature Wendy inquired about whatsoever.  (And by the way, I do not believe that many any of the shows I worked on less funny.)

Before I flip this in another direction, I will tell you that some very talented female writers of my acquaintance have reported being ignored in rewrite rooms, to the extent that they were required them to whisper their joke pitches into the ears of adjacent-sitting male writers in order to ultimately have their suggestions acknowledged.  If being ignored is a personal insult – and who would deny that it is – I have it on good authority those kinds of shenanigans definitely take place.  Or at least they used to.

Which is stupid, not only on a respect level, but rewriting shows is excruciatingly difficult.  Why shut out somebody who could help you get the job done and get you into your car, driving happily home to your loved ones, your welcoming outdoor cat Franky, and your bed?

Also, as a show runner, why would you create or condone an environment that would inhibit the contribution of a co-worker who’s been paid thousands of dollars to pitch in?  Are you kidding me?  Who’s going to be an enthusiastic team player when their teammates are deliberately piling on?   “It’s all in fun.”?  Look at their faces!

Okay so the short answer to Wendy’s question is back there somewhere.  Behavior of the nature alluded to?  I saw remarkably little of it.  That’s my story.  The trouble is,

It’s an uninteresting story.

Nobody wants to tell an uninteresting story.  I don’t, that’s for sure.  And I realize my story is uninteresting.  That’s why I threw in all those disclaimers.  They are not just disclaimers.  They are also excuses.

“Forgive me for boring the pants off you.  I am hoping these four or possibly five disclaimers get me, at least partially, off the hook.

There is another issue going on here as well. 

What I told you – concerning my personal experience in rewrite rooms – was the truth.

It just wasn’t colorful.

Or provocative.

Or compelling.

Or corroborative of egregious behavior, which, although entirely indefensible, remains, in its recounting, alluringly attractive, in the way car accidents are attractive, and traffic moving regularly is not.

Why, you might inquire, did I post an uninteresting story?

To demonstrate the magnetic attraction of certain stories – stories where undesirable things take place – as compared to another category of stories where they don’t, stories editors of writing have been known to call,


Except they’re not.

They’re stories, all right.  They are just not fascinating stories. 

And they are therefore invariably dismissed.
Leading to an imbalance in our perception of the way things are.  That way, according to the stories that catch and hold our attention, being… 


Who’s to blame for our Disproportionate Attraction to the Unfortunate, and its inevitable conditioning of the way we perceive human nature, the world we live in, and the possibilities for the future? 

We could blame the storytellers for their sordid selectivity.  We could – as I habitually do as I have no longer anything to lose – blame the audience, for supporting (with their money, their time and their attention) one kind of story to the exclusion of the other.

Though inanimate and therefore seemingly blameless, I, nonetheless, blame the stories themselves.  There is something in the inherent DNA of certain stories – and you know the ones I am talking about – that make them virtually irresistible.

The “bad news” stories – like the proverbial “Bad Boys” and “Bad Girls” – have, at least in our culture, a traditionally greater appeal.

And I am not sure there is anything we can do about it.

Except shine a light on it, now and then.


Canda said...

You're very Canadian today.

Also, I assume any writers room you participated in was immensely civil.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Thanks for the lengthy posting and explanation. I'm not surprised that your experience was so different. I *was* surprised to hear that the treatment Jane Espenson received (as she explained herself at the Sunday panel at Ken Levine's semminar) was so rough she switched to drama to escape from it.