Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"Movin' On Up"



In a recent conversation with a family member who works for a gigantic foreign- based company – though this could very likely be the case with all companies – the rule for “Upper Management”, he explained, was that if they did not move up during the scheduled review periods, they would inevitably be moved out.  This, I imagine, is meant to incentive employees to do whatever it takes to garner a promotion.

From my Major Dad investigation, trolling for story ideas, I seem to recall a similar situation in the Marine Corps, wherein, if an officer was not promoted in the course of two consecutive review periods, they had to turn in their haircuts and become a civilian.  That was too glib.  They let them keep your haircuts.

This got me got pondering if there was a paralleling situation in my own racket.  Does show business also employ an enforced “Up or Out” protocol?  The answer appears to be “Yes” and “No.”  Which leaves a lot to be desired in the “satisfying” department, but at least I have something to write about.

Using myself as an example, which is the only example I am cognizant of in depth:

I have mentioned, though I do not believe recently, that my most extended “happiest time” writing for television took place in the mid-to-late seventies, when I was working for the Mary Tyler Moore Company. 

It was my happiest time – okay, yes, because I was young – but for lots of other reasons as well – the invigorating quality of the work, the “family” feeling deliberately generated by the ownership, and the Ivy League college ambiance of the “Studio Center” lot on, which the MTM series were produced.  (And it has nothing to do with the company’s barracuda-like “Business Affairs” executives who pinched every penny on behalf of their bosses, inevitably driving the company’s prodigious writing talent to studios that were more financially forthcoming.)

The primary reason I relished the job, however – was that, after a disturbing experience as a “Story Editor” on Phyllis, where the lead actress habitually arrived hours late for the table readings and was insensitive in her remarks concerning the writing, I abandoned that job and settled in, writing eight scripts per season for MTM’s stable of comedies, including the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, Rhoda, a short-lived series called Doc, The Tony Randall Show, an even shorter-lived series called The Betty White Show, and, in its final season, The Bob Newhart Show (the one in which Newhart played a psychologist).

I was the luckiest writer in Hollywood – arguably, since there was not actually a contest.  They gave me my own office and a parking space, I wrote for quality TV shows, and I went home.  No excruciatingly late rewrite nights, no dealing with actors and, perhaps most importantly – to me, and though they were unaware of it, to the vehicles on the road around me – no driving home in the dark.

On sunny mornings – which in Los Angeles – sorry, Canada – is virtually every morning – I could be found, decked out a t-shirt, cutoff jeans shorts and sandals, sitting on the step outside the two-floor-high, Spanish-style structure housing the company’s production offices, writing on a yellow, legal pad fastened to a clipboard balancing on my knees.  Judging from the reactions of the exhausted staff writers passing me as they trudged inside, though they made considerably more money than me and ranked substantially higher on the “totem pole”, there was at least a momentary impulse to switch places with me.

It did not help that I was humming. 

After those halcyon three seasons, I reluctantly relocated to the older and grungier Paramount Pictures lot, accompanying my bosses who had been contracted to create new TV shows there, the first of them being Taxi.  My job description remained unchanged.  I wrote “multiples”, by which is meant multiple scripts, and I was never on staff.  Appended to my Paramount-era resume would be ultimately nine episodes of Taxi and four additional episodes of Cheers.

Around then is when things radically changed. 

And they never changed back.

Show business includes no official “move up or move out” dialectic.  It’s just that if you don’t move up, people – “people” meaning the studio executives, and to some degree your own agent whose commissions increase with their clients’ upgrades in salary – eventually wonder why you didn’t.

In show business, providing you’re successful, you move up not because if you don’t move up, you’re fired.  You move up because you’re expected to.  

So I did. 

I created a show – Best of the West – and I ran it.  The experience sent me directly to therapy.  Later in my career, I accepted prodigiously rewarding “overall deals”, multi-year contracts to develop new TV shows.  When two of those shows went into production – Family Man and Major Dad – I was naturally expected to run them. 

Virtually every day as “Executive Producer”, I wondered,

“What happened to that kid who wrote scripts in the sunshine?”

It now occurs to me that I had actually done this to myself.  Nobody insisted that I move up.  I was offered an opportunity, and at least a part of me, I must confess, welcomed it.   

I have frequently opined, “It is better to be a boss than to have a boss.”  I am pretty sure I said that when I wasn’t the boss.  When I was, I am uncertain I’d have agreed. 

The rewards were palpable, the opportunity dangling in front of me.  Maybe I simply succumbed to the temptation.  And the flattery – I’m the muffin and they’re slathering on the jelly. 

I mean, how do say “Stop!” to jelly?

In truth, I’m not really sure you can realistically stay in one place.  Today, the “multiples” writer has disappeared, all the scripts now written “in house” by the series’ writing staffs, or – and I cannot imagine enjoying this – “group” written around a table, writers slinging suggestions in a cacophony of testosterone.  (And lady testosterone.)

Change is inevitable.

But, also inevitably, it is not always a change for the better.

This got me got pondering if there was a paralleling situation in my own racket.  Does show business also employ an enforced “Up or Out” protocol?  The answer appears to be “Yes” and “No.”  Which leaves a lot to be desired in the “satisfying” department, but at least I have something to write about.

Using myself as an example, which is the only example I am cognizant of in depth:

I have mentioned, though I do not believe recently, that my most extended “happiest time” writing for television took place in the mid-to-late seventies, when I was working for the Mary Tyler Moore Company. 

It was my happiest time – okay, yes, because I was young – but for lots of other reasons as well – the invigorating quality of the work, the “family” feeling deliberately generated by the ownership, and the Ivy League college ambiance of the “Studio Center” lot on, which the MTM series were produced.  (And it has nothing to do with the company’s barracuda-like “Business Affairs” executives who pinched every penny on behalf of their bosses, inevitably driving the company’s prodigious writing talent to studios that were more financially forthcoming.)

The primary reason I relished the job, however – was that, after a disturbing experience as a “Story Editor” on Phyllis, where the lead actress habitually arrived hours late for the table readings and was insensitive in her remarks concerning the writing, I abandoned that job and settled in, writing eight scripts per season for MTM’s stable of comedies, including the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, Rhoda, a short-lived series called Doc, The Tony Randall Show, an even shorter-lived series called The Betty White Show, and, in its final season, The Bob Newhart Show (the one in which Newhart played a psychologist).

I was the luckiest writer in Hollywood – arguably, since there was not actually a contest.  They gave me my own office and a parking space, I wrote for quality TV shows, and I went home.  No excruciatingly late rewrite nights, no dealing with actors and, perhaps most importantly – to me, and though they were unaware of it, to the vehicles on the road around me – no driving home in the dark.

On sunny mornings – which in Los Angeles – sorry, Canada – is virtually every morning – I could be found, decked out a t-shirt, cutoff jeans shorts and sandals, sitting on the step outside the two-floor-high, Spanish-style structure housing the company’s production offices, writing on a yellow, legal pad fastened to a clipboard balancing on my knees.  Judging from the reactions of the exhausted staff writers passing me as they trudged inside, though they made considerably more money than me and ranked substantially higher on the “totem pole”, there was at least a momentary impulse to switch places with me.

It did not help that I was humming. 

After those halcyon three seasons, I reluctantly relocated to the older and grungier Paramount Pictures lot, accompanying my bosses who had been contracted to create new TV shows there, the first of them being Taxi.  My job description remained unchanged.  I wrote “multiples”, by which is meant multiple scripts, and I was never on staff.  Appended to my Paramount-era resume would be ultimately nine episodes of Taxi and four additional episodes of Cheers.

Around then is when things radically changed. 

And they never changed back.

Show business includes no official “move up or move out” dialectic.  It’s just that if you don’t move up, people – “people” meaning the studio executives, and to some degree your own agent whose commissions increase with their clients’ upgrades in salary – eventually wonder why you didn’t.

In show business, providing you’re successful, you move up not because if you don’t move up, you’re fired.  You move up because you’re expected to.  

So I did. 

I created a show – Best of the West – and I ran it.  The experience sent me directly to therapy.  Later in my career, I accepted prodigiously rewarding “overall deals”, multi-year contracts to develop new TV shows.  When two of those shows went into production – Family Man and Major Dad – I was naturally expected to run them. 

Virtually every day as “Executive Producer”, I wondered,

“What happened to that kid who wrote scripts in the sunshine?”

It now occurs to me that I had actually done this to myself.  Nobody insisted that I move up.  I was offered an opportunity, and at least a part of me, I must confess, welcomed it.   

I have frequently opined, “It is better to be a boss than to have a boss.”  I am pretty sure I said that when I wasn’t the boss.  When I was, I am uncertain I’d have agreed. 

The rewards were palpable, the opportunity dangling in front of me.  Maybe I simply succumbed to the temptation.  And the flattery – I’m the muffin and they’re slathering on the jelly. 

I mean, how do say “Stop!” to jelly?

In truth, I’m not really sure you can realistically stay in one place.  Today, the “multiples” writer has disappeared, all the scripts now written “in house” by the series’ writing staffs, or – and I cannot imagine enjoying this – “group” written around a table, writers slinging suggestions in a cacophony of testosterone.  (And lady testosterone.)

Change is inevitable.

But, also inevitably, it is not always a change for the better.
--------------------------------------------------
Answers to "My First Contest: 1-9 ; 2-6; 3-4; 4-3;  5-1; 6-10; 7-12; 8-8; 9-2; 10-7; 11-5; 12-11.

The name I made up:  Zylindra.

Which, to me, makes no less sense that any of the others.

4 comments:

Fred from Scarborough said...

Is this a test to see if we are paying attention?

Anonymous said...

During the reading of today's piece, I had an instant 're-play' experience. As did all readers, I assume.

Interesting topic, one that many of us have experienced in our careers. Now that I'm retired, we all know what the next move is.

mike schlesinger said...

Wow! You just provided your own rerun! ;-)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Reruns aside, your actual next move should have been to move your work (though not yourself) to Britain, where one or two writers still write whole (short) series before filming begins. You could have lived in LA, written in the sunshine, and just showed up in London for pre-production.

wg