Monday, June 25, 2012

"the Show Runner's Dilemma"

The interviewer reports Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner as being “…well aware of his reputation for being – as he has put it before – ‘an insane control freak.’” 

Check out that formulation.  First, Matt Weiner cops only to his reputation of being an insane control freak, rather than actually admitting he is one.  Then, not only does the interviewer avoid seeking confirmation or denial concerning this reputation, as in, “So, just so we’re clear on this – are you ‘an insane control freak?’”, the interviewer apparently only researched this information.  The awareness of Weiner’s reputation for being “an insane control freak” is not “as he acknowledged to me in our interview”, it’s, “…as he had put it before.”

In other words, the interviewer was afraid of Matthew Weiner, and had no interest in upsetting him.

The interviewer did, however, go on to mention that Weiner’s name appears on the writing credits “…for almost 50 of the show’s 65 episodes.” 

Take that, Matthew Weiner!

Then, feeling his reportorial oats, the interviewer adds, “…a high number for a show runner.” 
And how would he possibly know that?  Aaron Sorkin  (The West Wing).  David Chase (The Sopranos).  David E. Kelley (a lot of stuff).  They were notorious rewriters of their writing staffs’ scripts.  Did Matt Weiner out “shared-credit” them all?  Can you Google, “Show runners who take credit on other people’s scripts?”  That would be impressive.  That is very specific.

I know.  You look it up on Wikipedia, and you count.  But that count may not be accurate.  In my day, show runners also rewrote their writing staffs’ scripts – often extensively – but the protocol was to refrain from taking, or sharing, credit.  Back then, fixing scripts was considered part of a show runner’s job description. 

Of course, this may not be about the show runner’s desire to see numerous appearances of their names in the credits.  Concerned about the feelings of their staff members, today’s show runners may think, “Those writers would not feel right about having their scripts seriously rewritten and then having people mistakenly believe they wrote the whole thing themselves.”  Which, of course, makes sense:

“My extreme disappointment of being radically rewritten has been immeasurably reduced by the fact that the show runner, who makes about fifty times more money than I do, put his name to the script, along with my own.”

Sure, I’d feel better about that too.

I was once sent this booklet – which I can’t find anymore.  I don’t know who sent it to me, but the subject of the booklet concerned how to most successfully collaborate with the show runner.  The gist of the booklet was this:

“Give them exactly what they want.”

Which is precisely the correct approach.  Generally speaking, show runners do not hire a writing staff to keep them company.  There are a lot of scripts to get out, and they desperately – that word definitely applied when I was a show runner – need help. 

A writing staff can provide a much-needed “outside perspective.”  They can share the load, writing drafts that are “close” and pitching in on rewrites.  A writing staff can add “colors” to the show runner’s palette, contributing story insights and broadening the final product’s range and styles of comedy.  The show runner may be weak on physical comedy or insult comedy or structuring practical joke or “surprise” stories.  The writing staff can fill in the gaps.

What should be understood is that there are various types of show runners.  For example, we have the “It’s only television” type of show runner.  The “It’s Only Television” kid of show runners need their writing staff’s help getting them home as early as possible. 

Though this dismissiveness of the medium that sends their kids to private schools is hardly a prevailing perspective, I did once consult on a series whose show runners, while proceeding through the rewrite process after a table reading, kept one eye on a television which was permanently set on the “Business Channel”, sporadically interrupting our work with big cheers, when it was announced that one of their stocks had gone up. 

You could tell these people could not wait to get back to their big houses, where they could check their portfolios, minus the annoying intrusion of the show they had created.

More common were the show runners who, though conscientious and gifted, knew the series they had nurtured and cared about was not exactly their “legacy for the ages.” 

“Future generations will see this show anad know that a Sitcom God once bestrode this firmament.”

Nothing that lofty.  Hard-working but level-headed, these show runners encouraged their writing staff’s input, rejecting only what was egregiously off the mark.  Of course, the writing staff, bolstered by this positive reinforcement, appreciated the show runner’s respect and trust.  Not surprisingly, they would run through a wall for that show.

Within the same category – and this gets a tad close to home – are the show runners who have auteurish tendencies, but cannot back them up for a number of reasons. 

One, they may not be entirely certain as to what they want, though this does not stop them from shooting down every pitch, till that elusive target is finally hit. 

Two, they lack the requisite physical energy to take scripts home, and during their precious “down time”, rewrite them, often from Page One. 

(Note:  Though difficult, rewriting is easier than starting from scratch.  Hence, the show’s runner’s seemingly contradictory but actually sensible instruction, “Just give me something to hate!”  You can fix something you hate.  You can not “fix” a blank page.)    

Three, the discomfort concerning hurting people’s feelings makes it painful, verging on impossible, to take another writer’s script away from them and obliterate their efforts. 

And four, though the desire to do one’s best work is enormous – sometimes to the degree that you end up not doing your best work because of it – the job does not rise to the level of obsession.  Translation:  The show matters, but you do not want it to kill you.

And then, there’s that last group.  The show runners who have a vision, and, no matter how much effort is required, no matter how many toes have to be stepped on, no matter how crazy they drive themselves, their co-workers and their families, their single-minded objective is to execute that vision to as close as humanly possible to perfection. 

I’m not sure how their writing staffs feel about that.  They may feel they are putting in their time, apprenticing at the feet of a master.  They may feel like they’re getting a free ride, the show runner doing the work, and at the end of the season, they all get an Emmy

The closest I came to this situation was in my early days on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi.  Sometimes, I was rewritten a lot, especially on rewrite nights, when, after all the talk of “Character!  Character!  Character!” the truth of moments was suddenly sacrificed in favor of the funniest possible punch line. 

I realized I was a new guy at that time, and accepted being rewritten by my more experienced superiors.  But on a non-intellectual level, it often felt like they were merely “pulling rank”, making the script, not better, but “sideways.”  And uncomfortably – and counter-truthfully – more jokey.

If one were bold enough to confront Matthew Weiner over his reputation as “an insane control freak” – and not just Matthew Weiner, but every show runner who, as they anachronistically say, chose to “run the {completed} script through my typewriter”, I imagine their rationalizations would be uniformly the same:

“I am only doing what is best for the show.”

When the shows turn out as brilliantly as Mad Men, Boston Legal or The Sopranos who would dispute this is actually the case?

Except, perhaps, those shows’ writing staffs


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; you're describing a world most people know exists, but do not know the form it takes. These are dispatches from a foreign land, and very entertaining.

Thank you,

canda said...

Earl, you're leaving out the most dangerous show runner - the one who either hates his home life or doesn't have one. He or she will keep you there all night, starting rewrites late by talking about what's in the trades, hollywood gossip, etc. Any writer being interviewed for staff should try to find out what the show runner's home life is like. Canda

cb said...

Chuck Lorre. Chuck Lorre. Chuck Lorre.

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