Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"Staffing Season"

“Staffing Season”

I was going to write about something else today but I decided to write about this instead. 

Not long ago, I read a post by Ken Levine (bykenlevine.com) about “Staffing Season” – the time of the year when TV show runners who have made pilots begin assembling a writing staff, anticipating that their pilots will be picked up for series and they will consequently need one.  Show runners cannot write all of the scripts themselves.
And don’t think they’re not angry about that. 


It is essential to round up your writing staff before your pilot is picked up for series, because if you start looking for writers after it’s picked up, there will still be some – there are always more available writers than jobs to fill – but the most coveted writers will already be taken. 

Gifted writers are at a premium, the chance of landing one made exponentially harder because “Pilot Season” is an unfortunate method of doing business.  For “unfortunate”, read stupid.  For “stupid”, read highly inefficient. 

“Pilot Season” is the Oklahoma Land Rush.  The gun goes off, and show runners race off madly to collect talent.  (Because, due to the “Pilot Season” business model, everyone needs the same commodity at the same time.  He appended, without perhaps needing to.)

Today’s story is about “Staffing Season”.  It continues Ken’s conversation; plus, it also needs to come out. 

It’s been gnawing at me for twenty-seven years.

Major Dad was the last completed pilot of the season, which meant we were already behind the shows that “delivered” earlier.  Having already submitted their pilots, my competitors had a head start on investigating the writing pool. 

What exactly is involved in that process?  You read a huge stack of agent-submitted material.  And you meet personally with the writers whose submissions piqued your enthusiasm. 

And what are you looking for?

In his post, Ken Levine listed his criteria.  The following, not entirely dissimilar, are my own:

Questions To Consider When Assembling A Writing Staff:

– Can they write consistently, effectively, and no minor consideration, comedically?

– Do you want to have them around?

And three – which to me is the primary concern and not always included in the litany…

– Do they write like me?

Episodic television series involve repeated variations on a conceptual theme, every episode, different in its specifics but stylistically the same.  It’s like Time magazine.  The articles come from various sources but the entirety of the magazine sounds recognizably like Time.

There are reasons for this consistency, other than the impossibility of “Re-Inventing the Wheel” on a weekly basis. 

I wrote the pilot.  The pilot sold to the network due to my creative predilections.  Therefore not only do I want the subsequent, staff-written episodes to sound like me – so I will not have to rewrite them too much – but so does the network.  Not surprisingly, they want the series they bought.

The viewing audience expects the show they liked last week and came back to watch again.  Imagine an identifiable apple tree from which you randomly pluck a piece of fruit, and it tastes like a persimmon.  No good.  You want the whole tree to taste “appley.”

So that’s what I look for.  Writers with a compatible sensibility.  They do not have to write like me.  But they do have to write close.

Fortunately, I found some. 

After some maniacal scrambling, I corralled a low level “Baby Writer”, an experienced producer and a dynamite, two day-a-week “Creative Consultant”.  I needed one more writer to round out the complement.

And that appeared to be Rob.

Rob was intelligent, congenial, his writing approach, funny and not infrequently surprising.  Rob had been recommended by my friend Dennis, a highly regarded writer, with credits on such groundbreaking comedies as Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and The Larry Sanders Show, whom I had previously worked with on Best of the West,  

Dennis was a hugely original comedy writer whose writing style – as reflected in his credits – tended demonstrably towards the “non-traditional”.  Rob absolutely worshipped Dennis, and believed implicitly in his approach.  You could readily detect Dennis’s influence in Rob’s writing.  (You could also detect it in the Best of the West script Dennis wrote, which was so stylistically “out there” it was ultimately unusable.)

I liked Rob, instructing the studio’s “Business Affairs” department to begin negotiations to get him onboard.  I breathed an enormous sigh of relief.  Two days before the scheduled beginning of production (Major Dad having been picked up for series), the staffing issue was finally behind me.

And then I met Lisa.

I don’t know how it happened.  Maybe she had not been available for a meeting earlier, I don’t remember the specifics.  But I had really liked her submission, and now, at the proverbial “Eleventh Hour”, we would finally connect.

And “connect” we definitely did.

Lisa was absolutely sensational.  Irresistibly charming, with as quick a mind as I had ever run into.  And her own distinctive brand of funny.  Not exactly like mine, but there’s nothing wrong with expanding the franchise.   

I immediately called “Business Affairs”, telling them to abandon the “Rob” negotiations and instead make an immediate deal for Lisa.

And that’s what happened.  We got Lisa instead of Rob.  (Postscript Not Quite At the End:  My assessment of her abilities was later vindicated when Lisa went on to become a reliable stalwart on Mad Men.)

I felt terrible for Rob.  With this added disquieting wrinkle.

Rob was African-American.

I would like to believe there were no racial implications in my staffing decision, although studies on unconscious racism foster troubling concerns.

I believe I picked Lisa over Rob because Lisa wrote like me… and Rob wrote like Dennis.  In fact, too much like Dennis.  The pressure to produce was enormous.  There was no leeway for “unusable” material.


That’s what happened one “Staffing Season.”

And it has never entirely left my mind.  


Wendy M. Grossman said...

It's very hard for any of us to identify our unconscious biases. "Like me" is definitely a bias in all hiring, I think. In this case, I'd note, though, that the number of women in comedy writers' rooms still remains, even today, notably a minority. Which do you see first: gender or skin color? My suspicion is that it's gender, but I have no data to support this other than Katharine Hepburn's statement in the movie DESK SET.


Jes said...

I think Earl's colorblind, he was so focused on the writing, everything else just faded away.

Ken Levine said...

There's another piece to this. There's a lot riding on these shows. As a showrunner (the person responsible for the show) you have an obligation to hire the best people in all departments. If all things are equal and you can hire someone of diversity that's a win/win. But there are millions of dollars riding on these programs and the immense pressure that accompanies that. Hire the best people. If Earl thought Lisa was better than Rob for his purposes then he was right to hire Lisa, and it's nothing personal or gender or racially motivated. It's survival.

Plus, if Rob were good (which I assume he was) he probably landed at a show that was more in line with his writing sensibilities. Again, a win/win.