Wednesday, November 1, 2017

"Why I Never Wrote With A Partner"

Three-word answer:

Splittin’ da money.

A glib answer. 

Proving that glib answers do not inevitably lack merit.

Come on.

Half a house? 

Five-and-a-half belts?  (I have eleven belts.)

A fifty year-old Lexus

Knowing who the real “Funny One” is,\ and still halving the paycheck?


Not for me.

Fortunately, there is another reason I never wrote with a partner where I look demonstrably less mercenary.  (Although you will find none where I look “not mercenary at all.”)

The less mercenary reason stems from the question few writers – including myself – rarely articulate this out loud.  (Unless they are drunk or stupid.  See:  “Incredibly Stupid”:  To come.)  However, working backwards, my behavior, at least, strongly reflects that motivating concern.

Let me, however, first assert this.

I know lots of magnificent writing teams.  Schiller and Weiskopf.  Levine and Isaacs.  Amos ‘n’ Andy.  They weren’t actually writers but I needed a third example.  Oh!  Gosden and Correll.  They wrote Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Let me also acknowledge this.

It is not inconceivable I’d have made more working as a team?

And finally, this.

The decision whether to “partner up” is ultimately personal and subjective.  I make no evaluative judgments on the matter in either direction.  As a venerable hotel Bellman from my past, referring to my mother and her two sons sleeping in the same bed, but it works just as well in this context:

“Some does, and some doesn’t.

Now, back to where I was.

I knew a writer, who worked on numerous highly rated, if innocuous, sitcoms of the day.  Here’s me, out of work at the time, challenging his rationale for writing “meaningless fluff.”  (Also known as, “Doing precisely what he was hired to do.”) Standing in his NBC Studios office, where I’d have been barred if he had not gotten me a “Pass”, I opined, in a voice dripping with withering condescension,  

“Why would anyone be a writer if they didn’t have anything to say?”

Real classy, huh?  I believe he even paid for my lunch. 

Three questions arise concerning that unfortunate utterance, which had eluded my mind at the time but seem indismissible today:

1.  Who ever said sitcoms – the most collaborative of undertakings – were the ideal arena for ideological pronouncements?   (Despite the Norman Lear oeuvre, it was hardly obligatory.  Do you recall “Mr. Ed” ever saying anything that got you seriously thinking about the world?  It was a horse chewing on caramels, making his mouth move.)

2.  Where did I get the idea that having something to say was the motivating prerequisite for comedy writing?  (From the Broadway play, A Thousand Clowns, but once again, that was the remarkable exception.  Most onstage comedies were, “Hide in the closet!  My husband!”)

And 3:

Who said what I had to say was so urgently and unquestioningly worth hearing?  (A looming concern, persisting to this very day.)


That’s what I believed.

People wrote because they had something to say.

How does that relate to my decision not to write with a partner?

Collaborating with a partner, wherein, from “Word One”, every inclusion into the script must be mutually acceptable?

No “Me” writing in that.

That’s, by clear definition, “Us” writing.

Which contradicted my oft-stated agenda.  And, as I mentioned, seemed incongruous to me.

Who ever chose writing to write like a team?

The answer?

People who dreamed of being in show business and believed they had a better shot at succeeding by strategically partnering up.  Not with anyone, of course.  But with a compatible consort.  Their goal was writing the funniest scripts they were capable of.  Not writing, “The Federalist Papers.”  (Which had already been written, but you know what I mean.)

Bottom Line:  The “Me Voice” mattered to me

It does not matter to everyone.

Looking back, how did my “Me Voice” prioritizing work out?

Not spectacularly.

The crushing necessity of getting things done – consistently, as funny as possible, and on schedule – became the dominating, daily objective.  You get too busy to think about anything else.  Inevitably, a little “Me Voice” flashed its uniqueness here and there, but l now honestly believe that it was just marginally more in evidence than it would have been had I collaborated on a team.  Who knows?  I could have been in an “I write the jokes; Earl writes the boring, ‘meaningful’ stuff” relationship.  Though I would have adamantly disputed the distinction.  And that I was boring.  I’m insightful and illuminating, dammit!  Not to mention cleverly comedic!

Did I, in practice, write exclusively alone?  Not at all.  I collaborated very rewardingly with a man who became a respected screenwriter.  I worked with a woman who worked successfully on Mad Men.  I co-wrote with various show runners.  They’d let me write any way I wanted.  But I was mostly focusing on writing like them.

But an “Official Writing Partner”?


I wanted to write like myself. 

Unaware I would have to finish my career to finally do so.

1 comment:

JED said...

I hope you will write some more about how it is different to write with a partner than writing with a group of writers. Is it that the group of writers is always changing and with a partner, it's always the same? Is it the fact that with a partner there are certain expectations while with a group, you are more free to be an active participant sometimes and more passive at others? I'd like to hear more about how you could be so successful in the writer's room on so many series but not want to have someone you could write with all the time. Is it like the difference between just living together and getting married?