Wednesday, January 10, 2018

"Talking About Credit"

On a number of occasions, easily exceeding “embarrassing”, someone quotes a joke they loved from an episode for which I received sole “Written By” credit and that joke they revere and remember was not written by me.

I hate when that happens.  Not because I am receiving undue recognition.  I can live with that.  What I hate is that someone would think I had written such a terrible joke, which is invariably inferior to the joke I wrote which, during an arduous and often arbitrary “rewrite process”, the stinker they think is hilarious unjustifiably replaced.  I accept credit for suffering the insult.

It is not just amateurs that make the mistake of believing that if it says “Written By Earl Pomerantz”, Earl Pomerantz wrote every word in the screenplay.

As recently mentioned, my favorite humanitarian proclamation in show business were the three words delivered in the immortal The Muppets Take Manhattan:

“Pipples is pipples.”

Well, sir, and madam, it so happens I know the credited screenwriting team of The Muppets Take Manhattan, and when I recently met one of them socially, I enthusiastically gushed,

“You guys wrote one my favorite lines in movie history.”

“What’s that?’

“Pipples is pipples.”

To which he immediately replied, as you will have guessed, following the gist of this narrative,

We didn’t write that.”

It happens all the time.  Call it “Credit where credit isn’t due.”

An honored show biz tradition.  Which is weird, because in a world in which “Credit is King”, you would think we’d be more scrupulously assiduous about doling it out.

In our business, credit is like “Patent.”  A public acknowledgement of personal ownership.

I wrote ‘The Puck Crisis.’  So don’t tell anyone it was you.”

Plucking an example out of the air.
Like “Patent”, credit yields tangible consequences.  Money.  Recognition (both popular and peer.)  Future career opportunities.  Where you can make even more money.  And, well… it is not an outrageous “stretch” to suggest that my winning the Humanitas Prize caught the eye and interest of my future lifetime companion.  Which is even better than money.  (A lofty accolade indeed, coming from a man whose childhood idol was Uncle Scrooge.)

Now comes the “Awards Season.”  As a member of the Writers Guild, I am sent both “screeners” (DVD’s of aspiring candidates for Oscars nomination) as well as copies of nominatable screenplays. 

The question is, meaningful primarily if they win the award, though a nomination alone carries serious clout –

How do I truthfully evaluate the submitted screenwriter’s scriptorial performance?

“Greenlit” screenplays can be written by many people, not all of them publicly credited.  There are writers, like the late Nora Ephron, who we only discover posthumously – because they like to keep these things under wraps – “ghost-wrote” the most delicious moments from many a recognized “Rom-com” although the ultimate screen credit was attributed elsewhere. 

Sometimes stars demand the right to bring in their favorite screenwriter to “polish” their dialogue, or “God forbid” in the preponderance of cases, “polish” the dialogue themselves.  Robert Redford is reputed to have taken a pass at the script of All The President’s Men.  (Which won a “Best Screenplay” Oscar for William Goldman, so what exactly was Redford trying to fix?)  (Unless his “fixes” won Goldman the Oscar.)

Stars have enormous power in movies.  Then can say, “My Dad used to say ‘I got your nose.’  I want to say ‘I got your nose’ in this scene, as a tribute to my father.”

And for the rest of their lives the accredited screenwriter has people coming up to them going, “I got your nose”, which they never wrote and fought tooth and nail to keep out of the picture, and lost.  “The Star” versus “The Screenwriter”?  The “Little Bighorn” massacre?  That’s “Indians winning ‘On points’”, by comparison.

The scripts we receive for evaluation are not the screenwriters’ “Final Drafts.”  They are instead a literal transcription of the dialogue and stage directions, accumulated directly from the screen.  Therefore, when we are asked to evaluate the…

You know, I have to say this first.

Whether I liked it or not and I usually didn’t,  movies and television are a collaborative undertaking.  At least that’s was we are constantly told.  Suddenly, the “Awards Season” comes along, the slotted categories organized in terms of individualized contribution, and it’s, like, every artist for themself.

“Best Artist” – Leonardo da Vinci (although there are whispers about who really painted the eyebrows.)”   

In contrast to the final “Shooting Script” of the movie – by which the screenwriter’s efforts might be legitimately evaluated – the stenographized transcriptions we receive include unidentified (and unattributed) alterations taking place during production, most prominently, the shaping (or determinative re-shaping) of the narrative in editing, where scenes the screenwriter believed essential are summarily deleted (shouldn’t the writer be docked for faulty judgment if those deletions are truthfully justified), scenes are moved around to where they more suitably belong (ditto, the previous parenthesis), alternate endings are constructed from “spare parts” or reshot at a later date, frequently with another screenwriter finishing the job.

During the “Awards Hoopla”, none of that seems to matter.  They read from the podium,

“And the winner for ‘Best Screenplay’ is…”

And there’s a winner. 

Whether they deserve it, or not.

Bringing to mind one of one of my favorite “Acceptance Speeches” of all time.

Upon receiving some prestigious award, comedian Jack Benny (a personal hero) flounced victoriously to the podium and said,

“I don’t deserve this.  But I have a terrible case of hemorrhoids. (A BEAT)  And I don’t deserve them either.”

We all get stuff we don’t deserve.

Sometimes, it’s a screenwriting Oscar.

Sometimes, it’s something else.

And, on rare, ironic occasions,

It’s both.  

1 comment:

alisha semchuck said...

I feel your pain. As a newspaper reporter for nearly 40 years, occasionally an evil editor slashed my stories, yet the byline had my name attached. Usually the vicious editor did more damage than good. But, critical letters from readers filled my email.
I decided to contact you after speaking to my cousin Annette Fishman (nee Schachter) who lives in Hadera, Israel. She mentioned that her cousin on her father's side of the family is related to you.
Trust that this is not one of those scam emails from a foreign land requesting any kind of money. I have written several stories about that fraud.
I was born and raised in Chicago, IL. My late father Jack Tauf was the brother of Annette's mother Shirley. Through my Aunt Shirley I met her former sister-in-law and brother-in-law, attorneys named Sam and Matilda Yoelin.
I moved to Southern California in 1986, initially in the San Fernando Valley. I have been a Palmdale resident since 2002. And for nearly 14 years I worked as a staff writer for the Antelope Valley Press, which recently sold to a new owner who immediately downsized -- a polite term for cutting the staff to a skeleton crew.
By the way, my byline was Alisha Semchuck. That last name came from my ex-husband. I ditched the man, but got stuck with his name.
Now that I know every joke is not yours, I laugh no more.