Monday, May 19, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Thirteen"

A page in my career was about to turn.

I had written something like thirty-five half-hour comedy scripts for the MTM shows and for Taxi, and another show by the Taxi creators, The Associates. I had won an Emmy Award (and been nominated for two others), the Humanitas Prize, and a Writers’ Guild Award. People thought I was pretty good.

I was ready to try for a show of my own.

Or was I?

Creatively, yes. I was capable of writing a reliable half-hour comedy script, and I knew how to invent characters. I had contributed a successful, continuing character to Phyllis, an “I’m ninety – I can say anything!” old lady, named "Mother Dexter". I knew how to do that stuff. I was ready to create my own series.

The problem?

I’ve already told you how I refused to work on writing staffs. I preferred to write scripts, and go home. I’m a writer. A writer writes. As Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” I’m Earl, the Writer Man.

I’m a writer. That’s all what I yam.

The problem was my success as a writer was pushing me into uncharted territory.

There was a contract I was offered at Paramount called the “over-all deal.” When you had an “over-all deal”, you received, in exchange for developing new series ideas, an agreed-upon annual sum for usually a minimum of two years, which was then divided into weekly paychecks.

Up to that point, I’d only been paid for piecework; I received the Writers’ Guild minimum for every script I wrote. As John Lovitz observed in A League of Their Own, compared with what I was currently making, an “over-all deal” would be more.

I turned down the “over-all deal.”


When you take an “over-all deal”, what you’re saying is, “I can come up with great ideas for new television series.” That felt like too much pressure to me. Promising something, when you have no idea whether or not you can deliver? What if I didn’t come up with anything? Wouldn’t they be mad?

I was comfortable with what I was doing. When you’re paid for a script, you give them a script. No problem. But when you’re paid to come up with great series ideas and you come up with nothing, or unacceptable series ideas…

You see what I’m saying?

I could promise them a script, because I’d done it before. I couldn’t promise them winning series ideas, because I hadn’t.

I know, it’s stupid. Other people had deals, I had deals later in my career, sometimes I came through, sometimes, I didn’t. That’s how it works. It’s a gamble. But at that point, I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t say “Sure!” about what the deal expected of me when what I was feeling was, “Who knows?”

The other issue in “over-all deals”, is that if you don’t fulfill your obligation, you could be asked to work off the money they were paying you by lending your services to one of the studio’s shows that’s currently on the air, possibly, one you don’t care for. An “over-all deal” carries with it the implicit nightmare of,

“We’d like you to work on I Married an Orangutan.”

If you’ve struck out in the “development” arena, how can you say no?

“You’re failing and you’re refusing to work off the money?”

I never wanted to be put in the position – while depositing their paychecks into my bank account – of saying,

“That’s correct.”

There was no certainty I’d be put in that position, but I prefer things clearer, more concrete. Consider this.

After two years at MTM, I determined that my work deserved more than the minimum payment per script, or “scale” as they call it. My scripts were better, I wanted to be paid more for writing them. That seemed fair to me.

Not to MTM.

A hard-to-deal-with executive named Mel announced that MTM had always paid “scale” for scripts, and they didn’t want to set a precedent by paying me more. He did, however, agree to this. For every script I wrote, the company would pay me an additional “consulting fee”, thus making my per-script payment about fifteen per cent higher than “scale.”

Did I have to do more work for the extra payment? No. Though the company was calling it a "consulting fee", I was not required to consult on anything.

I know, it’s stupid. I already wrote about the strangeness of the negotiating process. (“Story of a Writer – Part One”, in February) Mel wouldn’t increase my scriptwriting fee, but he’d give me more money, if we called it a “consulting fee.” And I didn’t have to consult.

It exhausts me just writing about this.

Why am I bothering? So I can tell you this. After we agreed to the “consulting fee” – and with nobody requiring me to – I began showing up on “rewrite nights”, to consult on each of the episodes I had written. Even though it was strictly a bookkeeping strategy, I didn’t want to be vulnerable to the charge of getting a “consulting fee” without actually consulting. So I consulted.

It’s just the way I am.

A writer who was not capable of playing the game.

Summing up:

I had the ability to create a television series. My track record had earned me the opportunity. But, because of the requirements of the position, if my idea turned into a television series, I would not be able to write and go home anymore.

Instead, Earl, the Writer Man, would be in charge of the entire show, required to do everything that being in charge of a show demands.

The thing was, because of the jobs I’d refused to do along the way, and because I’m me, I came this exciting moment in my career lacking the experience and the character attributes to carry it off.

And here comes the offer.

Next on "Story of a Writer" – “Best of the West”


Rusty James said...

Hello Earl,

just wanted to drop a note stating that I'm enjoying your stories... and that I'm still reading your previous entries.

Happy Victoria Day! Or where I come from - Schumacher, ON; the home of Frank Mahovlich - Happy May Run.

Sally Roll said...

Hooray! I am now humming the "Best of the West" theme, and will continue to do so until you write part fourteen. At which point I'll begin singing it. Looking forward to your next installment!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I am enjoying these biography bits' a lot. I wouldn't mind some memories of The Associates, though. Was it as good as everyone remembers it? Which performers stood out for you?

Johnny Walker said...

I can totally relate to all of this. I really don't know how I'd cope as a writer in Hollywood today, when everyone works in the room. I work better when I'm away from that pressure, I think.