Monday, March 16, 2015

"Today's Writers Are Lucky"

No matter what era you’re talking about, even one with a proliferating number of channels and delivery systems, not everybody is going to make it.  Still, I say with neither envy, anger or regret – which may not be entirely accurate; See: “I don’t mean you to hurt your feelings” and what generally comes next – in many ways today’s writers have it a lot easier than we did.

Easier and better.

Let me count the ways.

More outlets, more programming, more opportunities to get hired.

So there’s that.

More outlets – allow me to stick to my area – more comedic variations, more opportunity to connect with shows that more naturally accommodate your style.  There were always shadings of variations, but “In the Beginning…” – and the end, especially the end of a scene and of a character’s departure from a scene – there was inevitably the punchline. 

Not anymore.  You can go out on a physical reaction, an observation hopefully a more original one than “That went well” when it didn’t, but not obligatorily a joke.

There are more individualized methods of eliciting laughter today, so your personal adjustment to what is comedically demanded will be likely not as extreme.  (Note: Many of my sitcom scripts were regularly “punched up”, because, though I was adept at laying out the story and writing consistently to character, my wry, observational dialogue was often adjudged to be too “soft.” 

That is why, when somebody complimentarily quotes a joke that appeared in a show I got credit for, though I generally nod and say, “Thank you”, there is a good chance I didn’t write it.  There are shows I imagine today – Parks and Recreation, The Middle – who might think my abilities are exactly what they are looking for.  Perhaps.)

And then, there were the rules we worked under.

The inflexible limitation of time – a twenty-four minute episode could not run a second longer than twenty-four mintues.  Or a second shorter.  Today’s shows, especially hit shows, are regularly permitted to spill over.  (Meaning the actors in the following show be required to speak faster.  No it doesn’t.  I’m just messing with you in brackets.)       

“Standards and Practices” – a network censoring department assigned to anticipate viewer objections by restricting writers from saying anything virtually any segment of the audience might object to.  The result: highly flavorless cuisine.

Despite the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Jack Benny Program, writers were directed not to create series in which the characters were in show business.  Too “inside”, it was believed.  The networks’ mandate was to appeal to the masses, and very few of the “masses” were involved in, knew anything about or had any interest in knowing about the inner workings of the medium they were watching. 

That changed, didn’t it?  With modern technology, everybody has a show.  Or they could, if they wanted one.

In the dramatic arena – and this network rule continues to prevail – you can create shows about lawyers, doctors, detectives (with dark personal secrets) and police personnel.  Other jobs were deemed not to be commercially “interest worthy.” 

Once in a while, a show about social workers might in, primarily, I believe, to show writers how unpopular they are, to the audience as well as the sponsors.  Who’s going to advertise their products on a show featuring people who cannot afford to buy anything?  

Some writing limitations arrived care of our own bosses.

If I had known I would be writing a blog someday, I’d have saved a booklet I was once sent – to this day I do not know from whom – delineating exactly what the typical show runner expected from their writing staffs.  Summarized in four words, the explicit directive was:

“Do it like me!”

Quoting from an interview with Jill Soloway, creator and head-writer of Amazon’s transgender comedy Transparent which appeared in the Writers’ Guild magazine Written By, I now offer a show-running strategy Soloway picked up while working on HBO’s Six Feet Under:

“Instead of standing out in front of the writers room, crew and actors and saying, ‘This is my show, this is my vision, this is how I do it, get it right and please me, get it wrong and upset me,’ it’s this kind of reversing of the physics of the workspace.”


“We’re just here to have a good time,” Soloway says.  “We’re just here to respect and love each other.  The show lives in the magic space between our connection.  We allow the characters to rise up from the center of the writers’ room table and tell us what they want.  They respond well when we tell each other the truth about our own lives.”

No show runner I worked with ever said anything like that. 

Although the advice Soloway received was passed along by, I believe, a man – she called him Alan but today you can never be sure – this alternate approach was labeled “leading from the feminine.”

Tomorrow, I shall dip a toe into this game-changing distinction.

Me, entering the gender-comparison “Danger Zone”?

It’s risky.  But I believe it is worth examining.

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'm not sure the writers have the leeway you think to extend over their allotted 22 minutes (now, with more ads!); the networks are jiggering the time schedules; the spillover is meant to keep you from changing channels before sampling their show...and also I think to mess up recorders so people will feel they have to watch live.

Have you done a thorough survey with stop watch?