Friday, July 6, 2018

"TV Or Not TV"

It occurred to me “after the fact” that there was another reason that, though I received a “Burning Bush”-like, “Call” to participate in theater, I didn’t.

That excluded reason was cultural.

By the time my “Career-Choice Moment” arrived in the early seventies, the cultural dominance of theater had substantially receded, displaced in hierarchical relevance, if not artistic loftiness, by movies and television.  

It’s like Toy Story, where Buzz knocked Woody onto the periphery. Theater was still happening.  But for the majority of my contemporaries, our youthful hopes and enthusiasms lay elsewhere.  

Not Broadway, but Hollywood.

Then, rummaging through the unsorted debris of my ”Personal History”, the question belatedly occurred to me,

“Why television and not movies?”

A lot of my co-participants saw writing for television as a strategic steppingstone to writing for movies. There were laudable precedents for that idea – Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, later, Jim Brooks, and numerous others.  

Television was “school.” You learned story structure in television.  You learned discipline.  You learned “writing under pressure.”  And, if successful, you developed a reputation in television that made screenwriting consideration more readily available.

Some of my contemporaries successfully made the switch.  (Michael Leeson, a talented TV writer, and my occasional collaborator, wrote the commendable War of the Roses.  More frequently, however, writers dipped their tentative toe into movies but eventually stayed put.  

One explanation for that phenomenon was provided by a mentor of mine, Ed. Weinberger, who said,

“I’d go into movies if I can have a career in movies.”

Good point, Ed.

The film business, top to bottom, is essentially a freelance operation.  You go from project to project, your career longevity dependent your most recent project’s commercial success.  Film writers have written one hit movie, and, after some failed subsequent assignments, fallen entirely off the radar.

TV writers, even the less gifted of them, can hang on for decades.  Why?  Because, due to the medium’s collaborative nature, it is easier for television writers to avoid blame.

I never thought about the heightened career jeopardy in movies.  Why would I think about failing in something I had no substantial interest in doing?  I’m a worrier, but that takes things to unreasonable extremes.

“You can get hurt skiing. Oh, wait!  I don’t ski.”

The following compilation explains my personal preference for working in television, which itselfis no easy aspiration to achieve, and, though arguably safer than movies, was such a “Worrier’s Nightmare” my sensible spouse became a “backup provider” as a psychologist due to my repeated lament, “This is not going to last.”

And, by the way, folks, it didn’t.


Reasons (Besides The Original One About Career Longevity) I Worked In Television and Not Movies. (For My Own Interest And Curiosity And Hopefully Others’ As Well):

Growing up, I attended hundreds of movies but watched thousands of television shows.  Ipso facto, television had a greater influence on me than movies.  Including an “osmosis-educational” influence.

My natural proclivity is life-sized stories grounded in personal experience.  I recently watched the film Armageddon.  None of that ever happened to me.  How am I supposed to write about it?

I thought I wrote naturalistic dialogue.  It turns out I write naturalistic “joke-driven” dialogue, more suitable for sitcoms than for movies.

I have no idea how to hold an audience’s attention for longer than 24 minutes, plus commercials. 

Movies are visual.  I see with my ears.

And most significantly, I think, is the question of taste.

Once, there was an extremely strict movie code that decreed, “You can’t say that.”  By the time I came around, the code was gone and you could say pretty much whatever you wanted in movies.  

The thing is, there are things I don’t like to say.  (Complete list “On Request”, though those familiar with this venue can comfortably infer what they are.)

In television – in myday, and to some degree still in sponsore-sensitivenetworktelevision – there remain things you can’t say.  Since many – though not all – of those things are in sync with things I don’t like to say, the medium most consistent with my innate “Comfort Zone” is television.  

What else?  Oh, yeah.

For my career to last thirty-plus years, audiences had to like what I did.  The question was,

“Would they have liked what I did if they were required to pay for it?”  

I was apparently worth “free.”  But was I worth the price of a movie ticket, parking, expensive popcorn and a babysitter? 

I was not willing to put that “hypothetical” to the test.

That’s why I remained in television.

It seemed like the right idea at the time.

And looking back, and feeling minimal regrets in that regard,

Its still does.

Although you never know what you would have done if you didn’t do what you did instead.

(You didn’t think I’d go out on a “positive”, did you?)

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