Without a Union, Who Am I?

Throughout my nearly forty years in (and out of) the TV and motion picture business, I have regularly heard writers complain about their labor union, the WGA.  I, too, have complained at various times.  I’ve complained about the health insurance, the issues argued at contract renewal time, the clumsy way that the union sometimes deals with members, the embarrassing magazine, Written By, that we all throw away without reading.

I’m also a member of the Directors Guild.  As a member of both unions, I can tell you that DGA membership feels like belonging to The Jonathan Club.  WGA membership feels like belonging to the YMCA.  The DGA has a magnificent headquarters on Sunset Boulevard with lovely screening rooms, a beautiful lobby for receptions and events, and a crack staff upstairs.  DGA health insurance is the Rolls Royce of the industry.  I’ve never even been to WGA headquarters. It’s too far away from where I live, and few Hollywood luminaries show up there to screen their movies.  The WGA events I have attended, infrequently over the years, always felt like amateur night.  DGA and SAG are made up of the beautiful people of Hollywood.  Both unions are powerful because they can shut the town down tomorrow.  The WGA is the red-headed step-child.

The complaint I have heard most often from other writers about the WGA is that our strikes accomplish nothing.  We end up worse off than we were before we went on strike.  Our feckless union leaders do a poor job of negotiating with the giant media conglomerates that own the town.  I’ve also heard writers complain that the arbitration process is unfair.  The health insurance isn’t what it ought to be.  The WGA doesn’t do a good enough job of making our case to the town.

Every writers room I have ever worked in has rung with hollow threats about “going financial core.”  Most writers don’t even know what that phrase means, but somehow “financial core” suggests that a writer could still belong to WGA and enjoy all the benefits of membership but not have to go out of strike.

“Who are these writers who want to strike, anyway?” I hear working writers ask in rhetorical dismay.  “It’s the loser writers who can’t find work!  They’re to blame!”  “It’s the retired writers who are crazy old socialists!”  “It’s fools and dreamers.”

Most of the complaints that I hear about the WGA come from writers who, like myself, have barely lifted a finger to help the WGA.  I’ve never served on a WGA committee.  I’ve never run for the board.  I have never gotten involved with the union for two reasons:  One, I live in Pasadena.  The WGA headquarters is a million miles away at the Farmer’s Market.  It would take me forever to drive there and drive back in terrible traffic.  Two, I have no patience for committees.  I get in a bad mood very quickly when I feel my time is being wasted.  I do not have the temperament to sit in a room for hours while other people drone on and on.

But here’s the thing: Without the WGA, who am I?

If there were no WGA, I would not have enjoyed reliable health insurance over the past four decades.  I try not to forget that WGA members before me went on strike and lost huge amounts of money in order to win health insurance for me.  I try not to forget that my health insurance has saved me tens of thousands of dollars.

If not for the WGA, I wouldn’t be paid residuals.  I try not to forget that WGA members before me went out on long strikes to win my right to residuals.  Without those writers of the past, and without the union of today, I would be paid nothing when a series episode with my name on it is rerun on TV.  I still get checks for MASH.  Writers in the 1950’s and 60’s went out on strike and risked their homes and their futures to get me those residual checks.  I am grateful to them.

If not for the WGA, there would be no minimum pay scales for work in movies and TV.  I currently work for guild minimum in my pay class.  It’s a generous number, and a fee that I am pleased to accept at my age.  Writers before me, and I, went out on long strikes to win those minimums.  It was worth it, and I am grateful to my fellow members for their sacrifice and courage.

When you make it in this business, it’s very easy to start believing that you did it all yourself. Some writers have achieved enormous success, and that success is due largely to their own talent and effort.  I applaud my highly successful colleagues.  I understand the frustration that some of them feel when the guild goes out on strike and their income temporarily stops.  At the same time, when I look back at my own career, I have also been pretty successful.  I have never won any awards, and I won’t be in anyone’s hall of fame, but I have had a pretty good run.  I’ve been more successful than I ever dreamed.  I’m more grateful than I can ever say to be working again.  I would hate to have to go out on strike right now, and I’m very grateful that the WGA was able to negotiate a new MBA.

After nearly forty years, I feel strongly that without my union, I’m nobody.  I would be alone against a cartel of gigantic multinational corporations who couldn’t care less whether I live or die.  Those corporations don’t value my talent or my effort.  Those corporations would be delighted to replace me tomorrow with someone who would work for less money and demand no benefits. Those corporations know that they could easily find people who would work for less money and no benefits.  The only reason I have any rights at all as a writer, the only reason there are any rules of fairness in my workplace, any minimum compensation, any protection for my intellectual rights or my health, is because of my union.

The WGA has many flaws and shortcomings.  But without the WGA, I’m nobody.  I’m probably not even working in Hollywood.

We stand together or we fall apart.  I stand with all the writers who came before me, those who were blacklisted and those who went out on strike to win the rights and benefits that I enjoy.  I will never go financial core.  I will never turn on my brethren.  And if I can’t lend a hand to make things better for writers, then I’ll shut the fuck up.

The Best Picture of 2014

A number of years ago a friend told me of a conversation he had with two screenwriters.  The screenwriters had just attended a meeting at one of the studios.  The screenwriters had gone to the meeting to hear an idea for a new feature film.  According to the story that I heard, the pitch from the studio executives consisted of one word.  That word was “Lego.”

The screenwriters left confused.  “Lego?”  That was it?  What were they supposed to do with that?

I don’t know if the story is entirely true.  I don’t know if the two screenwriters ever went back to the studio with an idea.  I do remember that when I heard the story, I thought, “typical screenwriter nightmare.”  The studio had bought the rights to a toy.  Now they wanted to make a movie about the toy.  This wasn’t surprising or even new.  Studios were making movies about theme park rides, comic books, old TV series, anything perceived to have a built-in audience. When The Lego Movie came out, I had no intention of seeing it.  My one child is grown, and she never played with Legos.  There was no reason to bother with it.

Then I started hearing from some of the writers I work with who have small children that The Lego Movie was really good.  One day over the holidays I started watching it on TV.  I was immediately sucked in.  I called my wife and suggested she watch it with me.  “You’re kidding?” she said.  “I know it sounds silly,” I said, “but this movie is fascinating.”  I started the movie over. We watched it together.  We loved it.

Since then I have watched nearly all of the screeners I was sent.  Birdman was innovative in the way it was shot, but as for the story and the characters, I felt I had seen it before.  American Sniper is gripping and exciting, but ultimately panders to our worst instincts.  I very much liked The Imitation Game.  (Of the movies nominated for Best Picture, I would vote for The Imitation Game.)   Selma was heartbreaking, but felt more like a movie of the week than a feature film.  A Most Violent Year had its moments, but ultimately was slow and derivative.  Boyhood I found to be pretentious, self-indulgent, cliched, and achingly dull.  The Grand Budapest Hotel was the best Wes Anderson movie in a while, but that’s about all you can say about it.  I loved The Theory of Everything, but figure it wasn’t ambitious enough to win.

For me, the Best Picture of 2014, hands down, was The Lego Movie.  It was visually stunning.  It was packed with more action than all of the other movies of the year put together.  The characters were compelling.  The story was fascinating.  And it was perhaps the most political film of the year.

So why didn’t The Lego Movie even get nominated for Best Animated Film, much less Best Picture?  I don’t know why it was ignored in the animation category.  As for Best Picture, based on the last few years, the Academy seems determined to recognize only movies that are dark and hopeless or about “serious” subjects.  If you enjoyed a movie, it must not be any good.  If watching a movie is an ordeal, then it gets nominated.  Based on the “ordeal factor,” I figure Boyhood should win.  It was certainly the biggest “emperor’s new clothes” movie since The Tree of Life.

When The Lego Movie came out, I figured it was going to be a two-hour advertisement for a toy. Instead, it was charming, exciting, and invigorating.  It’s the one movie of 2014 that  you don’t want to miss.

On the Death of an Old Friend

In 1977, when I was but a fledgling in show biz, I had the great privilege to work briefly with two British writer/producers, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd.  I helped write a pilot script based on their iconic British series, Are You Being Served?  The pilot was not picked up, but I enjoyed a wonderful few months with David and Jeremy at Paramount Studios under the guidance of Garry Marshall.

I read with sadness this morning of Jeremy’s passing at the age of 84.  (NY Times – 12/27/14)

Jeremy, as I briefly knew him, was a rake, a rogue, and a hell of a lot of fun to be with.  He took me to lunch one day at The Daisy, which in the late ’70’s was a private club on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.  I remember we lunched at a small table on the sidewalk.  A beautiful and shapely girl in plastic, transparent jeans sashayed by and Jeremy had great fun chatting her up.  (Young women had to be very selective about their under garments when wearing see-through jeans.) That same afternoon, Jeremy introduced me to O.J. Simpson, who at the time was a very popular figure, famous not only for his football heroics with the Buffalo Bills, but also for his TV commercials for the Hertz car rental company.

I remember Jeremy inviting me to a dinner party at his apartment on Doheny Drive in West Hollywood.  The female guests were Jane Seymour and Barbara Carrera (both Bond girls at the time) and Irene Miracle who had appeared in the movie, Midnight Express.  I confess I lacked the sophistication or self confidence to make much of that experience.  I mostly sat on the floor with my mouth hanging open, as if I were Raj from The Big Bang Theory.

David Croft claimed that Jeremy could pick up any beautiful woman anywhere.  David once described to me how Jeremy would meet a beautiful woman in an airport, ask her where she was going, and then buy a first-class ticket on the same flight so he could continue to romance her.

Jeremy was a wonderful raconteur.  My favorite Jeremy story was about how Sir Lew Grade, a famous British producer, wanted to hire Jeremy to write a script for him.  Instead of negotiating a fee, Jeremy insisted that he be paid with a white Rolls Royce Corniche.  Upon taking delivery of the Rolls, Jeremy, accompanied as always by a beautiful young woman, drove the car to St. Tropez.  He pulled up in front of his favorite hotel, handed the keys to the doorman, and said, “Sell the car and send the money to my room.”  As Jeremy told it, “I didn’t give a damn about the car.  I just wanted the experience of driving up to that hotel in it.”

Jeremy had style, and it was a style very much planted in the sixties and seventies.  He was part 007 and part Monty Python.  He was a great dresser, tall and lean with pale skin and a full head of sandy blonde hair.  He was the kind of Brit who could wear an ascot or a monocle and pull it off with no sense of irony.

He told me once that he had been sickly in his youth and spent much of his childhood in bed.  I think he was determined to make up for it by living his adult life to the fullest.  He enjoyed wine, women, and song at a time when there was nothing wrong with that.  I’m sure he broke more than a few hearts, but I also suspect that most of the women he romanced were on to him, and hopefully had as much fun with him as he had with them.

Then was a gentility to Jeremy that I greatly admired.  He was soft spoken, scrupulously well educated, gentlemanly, and always gracious.  You just don’t see that in men anymore.

Why was he so nice to me?  We couldn’t have had less in common.  He was worldly and sophisticated and twenty years my senior.  I was neurotic, insecure, and woefully inexperienced.  But his kindness toward me is something I have treasured all of my life.

We talked on the telephone occasionally in the years after our short work experience.  But the time difference between Los Angeles and London, and the distance, made those calls more infrequent until they finally stopped.

You work with so many people in this business.  You lose contact with most of them.  But there are a few you remember with deep affection for the remainder of your days.

Jeremy, thank you for being so kind to me.  Thank you for the stories.  Thank you for the meals shared.  Thanks for the memories.

Jeremy Lloyd (1930-2014)

Intimidation and Taste

No one knows who hacked Sony’s computers.  Maybe it was the North Korean government, as some in the media and apparently some government sources have suggested.  Maybe it was hackers working on behalf of North Korea.  Maybe it was someone else.  Regardless of who the hackers were, they did something wrong.  They illegally broke into a data base just as “the plumbers” of the Nixon Administration broke into the offices of a psychiatrist and into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee a generation ago.

People have long understood that no property is safe from someone who is determined to take it.  If one is to believe some news reports, our own government illegally breaks into data bases every second of every day.

The media chatter machine was alive this week with opinions of whether Sony should or should not have pulled the new Seth Rogen movie.  President Obama and Aaron Sorkin, among others, say Sony should have released the movie so as not to give in to intimidation.  Theater owners and many in the public were worried about having an American multiplex turn into a scene of carnage on Christmas.  Let’s put aside the terrible truth that a multiplex can become a scene of carnage any day of the year and already has, and that Congress works overtime to make sure that a multiplex can turn into a scene of carnage every day.  We’re concerned about some forms of public safety and utterly unconcerned about others.

Big corporations make bad decisions every day.  The decision to not release this movie will cost Sony around $70 million.  I’m sure we all feel very sorry for Sony.

What may be included in all of the e-mails from Sony that were hacked, or may not be, is the discussion that was held inside the company over whether or not it was a good idea to make a satirical movie about the assassination of a living world leader who is still in office.  Would it have been a good idea to make a satire about assassinating the leader of China, or the leader of Iran, or Vladimir Putin?  I mean, unless you’re a Republican you probably don’t like Putin, and right now he is a much bigger threat to our security that the guy in North Korea.  So should a Hollywood studio make a satirical movie about the CIA using two bumbling reporters to try to kill Putin?  Oh, and succeeding?

How happy would we self-congratulatory Americans be if a foreign country made a satirical movie about assassinating President Obama?  And to Republicans, who would no doubt cheer a movie like that, I ask, okay, once you get one of your guys back in The White House, would you welcome a movie from Iran about assassinating Jeb Bush or Rand Paul or Ted Cruz?

I’m just curious to know what the conversation was inside Sony between their executives and the artists who wanted to make a satire about assassinating a sitting world leader.  Was there a single person present who suggested that maybe that wasn’t a great premise for a movie?

I wonder if there was a single person present in any of those discussions who might have suggested that this story idea was in bad taste.  Not because it might upset terrorists or the North Koreans, and not because it wasn’t going to make enough money to justify the budget, but simply because the entire notion was a crude, punkish, immature idea?

And yes, bad taste is subjective.   Little in life is more subjective that taste.  Hollywood has made millions of dollars off of gross-out comedies.  The R-rated comedy that is almost exclusively about how far can one go within the widest bounds of taste has become a staple, and Mr. Rogen has appeared in several such comedies.

Your idea of bad taste may be completely different from mine.  That’s okay.  There’s room for disagreement.  But when you have to keep pushing and pushing the boundaries of whatever taste is in order to get young males to step away from their X-boxes long enough to pay for a movie ticket, then eventually all of that boundary pushing is going to make you lose your way, and it’s going to bite you in the ass.

Sony could have saved themselves $70 million dollars by simply saying to Seth Rogen, “You know, dude, I’m sure you’ll write a really funny script based on this premise, but this just isn’t the kind of movie that we at Sony want to put our name on.”  And then Seth might have taken his idea to another studio.  And probably someone else would have made some version of it.  But the executives at Sony could have gone home that weekend saying to themselves, “There is a line we won’t cross.”  And maybe Seth Rogen might have thought to himself, “Do I really want to base my entire career on being a jackass?”

Maybe we can’t always agree on what taste is.  But when you abandon even the consideration of taste, then it may end up costing you your career, your dignity, an election, or, worst case scenario, a lot of money.

Invisible Means of Support

I posted something yesterday but then I took it down.  I felt it was too flip and unfocused.  I wrote an earlier draft that I felt was too dry and preachy.  Now that I’ve had a night to think about it, I’m going to try to be more concise.

I wanted to talk about what Joseph Campbell called “the invisible means of support.”  Campbell was referring, I think, to what some might describe as cosmic forces that shape our destiny when we “follow our bliss.”  Others might call this divine guidance or assistance, while others, like me, would simply say that if you’re doing what you love to do, chances are pretty good that a door will open somewhere.  It might not be the door you wanted, but something is going to open up.

As I was writing these posts over the past seven or eight years, I could only imagine who might be reading.  When I taught at UCLA and later at UNLV, I met some aspiring writers in person.  A few of them are still in contact with me, and one is writing for sitcom.  Since I’ve been working on MOM the imagined readership has grown even more personal.  Someone I met years ago because of my book is now writing on staff upstairs at Two and a Half Men.  I had nothing to do with this writer’s success except to talk to him once, but the fact that I met him before he made it, and now he has made it, helps to personalize for me the quest that many of you are on.

More immediately, I work with several young people on our production staff who are trying to advance their careers.  Because I’ve gotten to know these people – Sam, Britte, Brian, Ashley, Chase, Travis, David, I’m talking about you – and have grown extremely fond of all of them, their struggle has for me gotten personal and real.  I’m not writing these posts any longer for some anonymous audience in my imagination, or for the few who might occasionally post a comment.  I’m writing these posts now for the people I see every day and for whom I strongly want success and recognition.

You’re all going to make it somehow.  All of you who have the talent, the drive, the determination, the tenacity, the persistence, the patience are going to find success.  I know a door will open.  You work so hard every day.  You are all smart and capable.  You are going to get to a place that gives you a sense of accomplishment.

Though you may feel alone from time to time, there is an invisible means of support.  It includes your friends, your family, your co-workers, and perhaps those still unmet.  But mostly your invisible means of support is you.  You decided you wanted to be part of this business. You left your family far away to pursue your dreams.  You came to a strange and impersonal city.  You carved out a life for yourself here.  You got through the studio gate.  That’s a gigantic accomplishment in itself.  The courage that got you here will keep you here, if staying here is what you want.

Corny as it sounds, but here are words I have lived by my entire life: “If your heart is in your dreams, no request is too extreme.”  And, “Like a bolt out of the blue, fate steps in and sees you through.”  For me, these words came true.

The “request” is often simply what we ask of ourselves.  I need to reach for success at the risk of failure.  I need to go after something that seems unattainable.  And by simply trying for what we want we often get it.

“Fate” stepping in “out of the blue” is often the culmination of a thousand single steps that we ourselves have taken to bring us to a place where someone or something is waiting.

I set up this blog to offer advice and encouragement to some of you.  And let’s be honest, to sell books.  I don’t really care much about selling the books anymore.  What I have received in return, much to my surprise, is inspiration, wisdom, and boundless encouragement from those around me.

You are my invisible means of support.


Below you’ll find a column written by my colleague and friend, Susan McMartin, who works with me on MOM.  This is a good read for all you wannabes out there:

To say it’s been a long ride to get here is an understatement. I wrote the screenplay,Cook, when my daughter was just a little over 2 years old.

She’s going to be 13 in a month.

That is how long it takes sometimes to get a movie made. IF you get a movie made. The chances are so slim and yet it is a dream so many have.

When I first wrote Cook it immediately was optioned and Samuel Jackson was attached to star. Seemed like a sure thing, right? Five years later the option ran out and Cook sat on a shelf for two years. And then my manager, who always believed in my script, handed it to two producers who believed in it too. They have worked tirelessly to get my movie made. We had Samuel Jackson again! We didn’t have Samuel Jackson. We had a director! We didn’t have a director. We had financing! We didn’t have financing.

On and on, triumphs and tears, start dates and cancellations. But through it all my amazing producers, my incredible manager, my daughter, friends, family, fiance (ha ha, never thought I’d use that word again)  and, well, even I never lost hope.

We got a new director, a new star, new financing, new start date and lo and behold it all stuck! Production offices opened and each day I have gotten to witness art departments, costume departments, location scouts, casting, props, music and my director and producers make my screenplay beautifully come to life.

Clothing in my head is now being fitted for Eddie Murphy. Sets I envisioned are being built. Every detail that came pouring from my imagination to my fingertips and onto the page is suddenly and expertly being made into a reality.

It is jump for joy, dance and scream, pinch, pinch, pinch myself fantastic!

In seven days I will be standing on the set of my movie, Cook. Daughter by my side. Waiting to hear that word, that one amazing word spoken…


A Year on MOM

My God.  It’s been a year.  I’ve been here for a year.  Weird.  Where did the time go?  I was out of this for over a decade.  Am I really back?  They just let me through the gate at Warner Brothers again this morning, so I guess I am.

It’s Friday.  Hiatus week.  We’ve shot ten episodes already.  Seems like it was June yesterday. Productive week.  We got the drafts for Episodes 11 and 12 to table.  We’re okay for the next block of two.  Did those sides go to casting?  We’ve been writing 13 as a group.  The script changes as we write.  We veer off the outline.  Are we going to find our way back?  It’s okay.  It always works out somehow.

Hey, we’re going up to TWO AND A HALF MEN.  It’s Halloween.  The writers assistants have written a sketch that they want to perform for us.

I’ve been here for twelve months, but I’ve never been upstairs to the TWO AND A HALF MEN offices.  Wow, their writers room is so much bigger than ours.  The sketch is very funny.  And these are the assistants.  Shit, they’re as funny was we are.  Everyone is laughing.  This is great. I’ve never hung out with these guys.  The conference table is cool.  Oh, that’s the famous FRIENDS table.  I’ve heard about that.  Adam Chase finds his name carved in the table top from when he worked on FRIENDS.  They start spinning a golf ball on the table top.  It’s a game called Tiny Dancer.  You bet whether the golf ball will spin the right way and knock over some golf tees.  Jesus, these guys are serious about this.  People are tossing hundred dollar bills on the table.  We all make too much money.  God is going to punish us for this.  I don’t bet.  I don’t carry that kind of cash.  This is really funny.

We walk back to the MOM offices downstairs.  Lunch will be here soon.  What did I get today? Another salad?  There’s so much food here, it’s hard not to gain weight.

I think about how weird it still is to have this job.  I understand better than ever how competitive the business is.  I understand that there are a hundred other writers who could take my place tomorrow and probably do as good a job, if not better.  I understand that when I eventually leave I will be quickly forgotten.

I know not to fall in love with my own ideas because they will undoubtedly be changed.  I know not to get attached to stories, scenes, or jokes that I pitched because they will inevitably be rewritten.  It’s all about getting the best possible show in front of the audience on Friday night.  If your joke or scene survives from table to stage, good for you.  If it doesn’t, you let it go and move on to the next joke or scene.  The idea is to leave on Friday night with the best show in the can that we could possibly produce in five days.  If the other writers came up with better jokes that knocked out your jokes, well, that’s show biz.

Insecurity can breed innovation.  The nervous writer may try harder than the writer who is foolishly complacent.  But fear can paralyze you.  You have to walk a line between getting too relaxed and losing your edge, and being too intimidated and losing your voice. You keep pitching no matter what.  You keep getting knocked down or topped by the other writers.  You pick yourself up and pitch again.

Sitcom can become too much about the jokes.  Story ideas can be pat or treacly.  A sitcom can never be truly real because real people don’t talk to each other in set-ups and punch lines.  On the other hand, the characters have to sound like believable people.  You walk a line.  It has to be funny.  It has to be real.  Where does one stop and the other start?  You ask yourself that all day, every day.

I haven’t written a blog in a while.  Do I have anything new to say to them?  Don’t pay too much attention to what is already on TV.  Look at the weird stuff on You Tube.  Look at actual life. Look at Key and Peele.  Try to find your own voice.  One of the best ways to find your voice is to find the voice of another writer than you love.  Start writing like that other writer.  Keep at it.  Eventually, as your experience and confidence grows, your voice will begin to emerge.

A year on MOM.  Surreal.  Still feels as if it isn’t’ really happening.  I thought my career in TV was over ten years ago.  It should have been.  Why did this happen?  How long will it last?  How do I keep from getting attached to what I”m doing, knowing it has to end?  What if the show gets cancelled?  What if they don’t want me next year?

I leave here on a Friday night and then it’s Monday again in five minutes.  We’re at the production meeting, the table read.  A sound stage.  Actors.  Am I really doing this again?  We’re back in the office writing blue pages.  I’m driving home in traffic.  It’s Tuesday.  Run-through.  More new pages.  Stories for the coming weeks.  Always the need for another story. Next week’s script needs to go to table.  Did you guys break that second act yet?  When’s Chuck coming?  Another run-through.  More rewrites.  Pre-shoots.  That joke didn’t land.  Are we working in the green room while we shoot today?  Friday camera run-through.  Rewrite on the stage.  The audience is watching an episode before the cast intros.  Did you eat?  What’s at craft services?  We’re on a bell.  He wants a new joke on page six.  We’re moving on.  Is this a wardrobe change?  Do I have time to go to the bathroom?  Curtain call.  Good night. Ride back to the offices on the golf cart.  What time is it?  Nine-thirty?  Get in the car.  No traffic.  Great. Friday night.  Whew.  Do I need to take that script home?  I’ve got the whole weekend ahead…

To worry.



Are You Prepared for Show Business?

I read an op-ed in The New York Times this morning entitled, “Is Your Student Prepared for Life?” The article was written by Ben Carpenter, who is credited as “vice chairman of CRT Capital Group and the author of ‘The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals.’”  This op-ed piece infuriated me, but there was no opportunity to post a comment so I’m writing this blog instead.

I have tried, over the years that I have been writing this blog, to share with readers some of the “secrets” of getting into show business.  The first “secret” is that there are no secrets.  All of the information you need is readily available on the internet and in publications.  The second “secret” is that there is no tried and true path to success as a writer, actor, director, producer or any other job in Hollywood.  Each person must find his or her own way.

I wrote my book, Elephant Bucks, to try to demystify the structure of a half-hour sitcom script. I offered a step-by-step guide on how to write a spec episode of a current TV sitcom.  When I wrote the book, a spec episode was acceptable as a way of proving your ability to producers, agents, and executives.  In the years since the book was published, the spec episode has gone out of fashion as a calling card.  Now a spec pilot or two is required.  One can still read my book, learn from the suggestions, and use those suggestions to write a spec pilot.  I am not going to write a book about spec pilots because at this point I have neither the time nor the inclination to do so.

In his New York Times op-ed, Mr. Carpenter bemoans the fact that his daughter graduated from college with no idea what she wanted to do with her life.  He suggests that colleges offer prep courses for students in how to find a job after graduation.  This might be useful for some students.  On the other hand, Mr. Carpenter, a wealthy financier and author with friends at The New York Times, could have maybe talked to his daughter for twenty minutes about what she was going to do after graduation, and then, I don’t know, perhaps offered his own advice on finding a career to pursue.  I think that’s called being a parent.  I think that’s called not being so wrapped up in yourself that you let your kid go through four years of college in a coma!  But I digress…

My daughter graduated from college last year.  She did know what career she wanted to pursue.  It had occurred to my daughter while she was attending college – in part because her step mother and I kept harping on this with her over and over and over again – that she was going to graduate some day and she ought to think about what she wanted to do with the next forty or fifty years of her adult life.  While still an undergraduate, my daughter decided on the field she wanted to enter, researched it, consulted with her college advisor, applied to grad school, and got accepted.  How hard is this to figure out, Mr, Carpenter?!  My daughter is now in grad school prepping for her career, working part-time on campus to pay her rent, and interning many hours each week in a facility associated with her career goals.  Some of my daughter’s college classmates who never thought for two seconds about what they wanted to do after graduation, and whose parents are apparently as self-absorbed and unconscious as Mr. Carpenter, are now getting pregnant, flailing around in jobs that they hate, or living back home with their parents.

I decided when I was in college that I wanted to be a TV sitcom writer.  Age 20 is pretty good time in life to decide you want a career in show biz.  Age 43, not such a great time.  Ship has sailed.  Train has left the station.  Rocket has already blasted off.  Better to gracefully accept the fact that you let opportunity slip away and stay with the gig at the escrow office.  Get it?

While still an undergrad, I found out as much as I could about becoming a TV sitcom writer. There weren’t any books in those days like Elephant Bucks, or Ellen Sandler’s TV Writers Work Book.  There was no internet.  Hell, there were no personal computers!  I had a manual typewriter, a copy store two miles away, and stamps.  But I was attending UCLA, one of the top film schools in the country.  Some of my professors were Hollywood writers.  I went to my professors for help and guidance – and got both.  I used my own initiative. I wrote dozens of scripts and gave them to anyone who would read them.

I work every day with eight other professional writers.  One wrote a spec sitcom episode while still in college and miraculously sold it.  Then he had to go back to being a waiter for a while until he could sell something else.  But he finally made it.  One writer started out as an actor, began writing sketches and jokes in the earliest days of cable TV, and eventually became a full-time TV writer.  Another came to LA to be an actress, worked for years in clerical jobs while performing with The Groundlings at night, and eventually was discovered in a showcase by her current employer.  One writer started her career writing soap operas in NY.  Another started out as a stand-up comic, made friends and connections in the comedy clubs of LA, worked as a stand-in on a sitcom, began writing spec movie scripts, and eventually became a successful movie director.  One writer started out sweeping the floor in a radio station in Boston while in college. He wrote jokes for free for the disc jockeys, and eventually earned a radio program of his own. Another writer started out as an unpaid intern.  That turned into a paying job as a writers assistant.  After years as an assistant she got the chance to pitch some jokes and eventually was hired as a staff writer.  One writer came to LA to be a musician.  He never found traction in the music world so he took a low-paying job writing for comic books. This eventually led to a job writing for Saturday morning cartoon shows, which eventually led to writing for prime time TV, which eventually led to him becoming one of the most successful TV producers of all time and being inducted into the television academy hall of fame.

What every writer with whom I currently work has in common is that each had the chutzpah to come to LA or go to New York and take the gigantic risk of trying to break into show business. None of them stayed home in Buffalo or Providence or Kansas City or Long Island or Detroit or Connecticut hoping for some secret short cut to fame and fortune.  All of them moved far from home, lived in crappy apartments, worked at low paying jobs for years, and went through dozens of setbacks and disappointments until they finally started making a living as a TV writer.

It is difficult for me to understand how anyone can go through four years of college and graduate without a clue about how to earn a living, especially if you have a wealthy and successful father who writes books and op-eds for The New York Times.  There’s a breathtaking disconnect there that was left out of the published article.  You have every opportunity in the world at your fingertips and you don’t make use of them?  Come on!  And then your dad whines about it in the newspaper?!

It is also baffling and saddening to me that people can claim to want a career in show business yet fail to understand how competitive the business is, and that in order to be in show business one must move to where show business is done.  It’s like some kid standing in the school yard shooting free throws, moaning that he wants to be in the NBA, and claiming he has no idea how to pursue his dream.  If you can’t figure out even the basic steps toward success how do you ever expect to achieve it?  I guess if you’re too dumb to know how to succeed you’re too dumb to succeed.

Those who can’t figure out how to make it in Hollywood will continue to write e-mails to me expressing their frustration.  Most of those who are going to make it in Hollywood will never write to me or read my book. They’ll figure out for themselves what they need to do, likely by trial and error.  They will risk everything and move to LA or NY.  If they aren’t making it as an actor they will switch to writing, or vice versa.  They may end up as an editor or a production manager or a location scout or a line producer or a camera operator or a property master or an agent or an executive or as somebody’s assistant.  If they don’t achieve the success they desire, they can always leave and go do something else.  But they’ll never know anything until they come here and try.

Are you prepared for show business?  If you are, you will try everything until something works. If you aren’t prepared, you’ll be as lost as Ben Carpenter’s daughter, wandering around with no clue what do with your life.

The people who make it are not the ones who sleep walk through four years of college or who sit at home in Pennsylvania writing e-mails to me demanding easy answers.  The people who make it are the ones with the imagination and audacity to dream big dreams, and then the courage, tenacity, and drive to pursue those dreams.

What Happens Next?

When I wrote my book, ELEPHANT BUCKS, back in 2006, I was trying to do for aspiring sitcom writers what I felt Blake Snyder had done for aspiring screenwriters with his book, SAVE THE CAT.  I wanted to show a simple, logical, basic structure for telling a story using the half-hour format.  I introduced The Seven Plot Elements – my version of The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.  I hoped these guidelines might help aspiring writers to understand traditional sitcom structure.

If you read the book and then watch half-hour comedies on TV today, you might be confused. Where are The Seven Plot Elements in sitcoms that are on right now?  The plot elements are still found in some episodes of some series.  I was able to give lectures in Toronto just a few years ago on The Seven Plot Elements in episodes of The Big Bang Theory and New Girl.

As I’ve worked on MOM, I haven’t even tried to look for The Seven Plot Elements in our stories. The Seven Plot Elements aren’t used on MOM.  And I didn’t see them on Silicon Valley.  I’m not as up to date as I could be on the other half-hour comedies on the air, but since I no longer recommend that you write a spec episode of an existing series as a sample of your talent, and instead advise you to focus on writing spec pilots, it’s time to offer some additional guidance on how to structure a half-hour story.

When Chuck is in the room with us on MOM and we’re beating out a story, a question that he asks frequently is, “What happens next?”  If we’ve outlined a scene where Christy just found out that her daughter is pregnant, what happens next?  What would Christy do?  Where would she go?  Who would she talk to?  What action would she take in response?  What would happen in real life based on who Christy is as a character?

It is easier to ask “What happens next?” if you are familiar with traditional sitcom structure already.  Experienced half-hour writers, like the ones I work with every day, know that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The main character is going to be striving for a goal or reacting to a problem.

How the main character proceeds in pursuing a goal or solving to a problem is based on who that character is.  I said this in ELEPHANT BUCKS.  Stories for half-hour comedy series spring from the premise of the series and the personality of the main character.  On MOM, I’ve seen that hold true.  Our stories spring from the premise: A newly sober single woman tries to raise her two children while attempting to repair a difficult relationship with her newly sober mother.  Christy is good-hearted, strong, and resourceful, but she is also impulsive, insecure, poorly educated, and prone to lying and looking for the easy way out.  Bonnie is tough, street smart, and brassy, but also selfish, self-absorbed, and morally flexible.  Stories on MOM spring from these two complex and highly flawed characters and the simple but compelling premise about recovery from addiction.

One of my favorite stories from Season One of MOM was the story in which Christy meets her father.  The back story is that Bonnie had always told Christy that she had no idea who Christy’s father was.  This back story had been established in previous episodes.  Also established in previous episodes, Bonnie had lost her apartment and her job and was sleeping on Christy’s couch.  When Bonnie’s cell phone slips between the sofa cushions, Bonnie discovers that the couch is a fold-out bed.  Bonnie had been sleeping for weeks on the uncomfortable sofa when she could have slept on a comfortable bed.  Christy confesses that she kept the fold-out bed a secret in the hope that Bonnie would move.  An argument ensues.

We had this much story, and it felt like a rich area, but we didn’t know what happened next? We tried a number of plots.  Finally, with Chuck’s help, we outlined a scene in which Christy and Bonnie admit they have been lying to each other all of their lives.  They agree they need to change their relationship.  They start revealing secrets.  Bonnie confesses that she knows the identity of Christy’s real father.

What happens next?  Christy drives to Chico to meet her real father.  In a coffee shop across the street from her father’s business, Christy learns the real story of her birth from Bonnie.  It was one of the most powerful scenes of the first season.  Christy goes across the street to her father’s body shop on the pretense of getting her car repaired.  She learns that he has a wife and two grown children.  She decides not to tell him who she is.  The episode ends with Christy and Bonnie feeling closer to each other than they ever have.

This episode turned out to be one of our best, but the story was a challenge to break.  We spent days on it.  Looking back on it, what we really did to break this story was to keep asking “What happens next?”  We followed a logical course of action based on the personalities of our two main characters.  We started with the notion that Christy hadn’t told Bonnie about the fold-out couch.  We had no idea the story would end up with Christy meeting her real father.  We just kept asking, “What happens next?”

How Much Do You Want It?

I was on Stage 20 at Warner Brothers Studios yesterday.  We were doing pre-shoots for the season premiere of MOM.  During a break, I found myself sitting next to my colleague, Adam Chase.  Adam has a long and impressive resume as a television writer and producer, including several years on FRIENDS.  Since we had a few minutes to chat, I told Adam about this blog.  I asked him what advice he gives to aspiring TV writers.  Adam offered two pieces of advice immediately:

1)  Don’t show your first draft to anyone in Hollywood.  Adam said that when he was trying to break into TV he saw too many aspiring writers show first drafts of their work to agents or other people who might possibly help them.  Adam said, and I agree, that almost all first drafts are terrible.  Show your first draft to your friends or to a teacher, but don’t show it to anyone who might be in a position to help you get a job.  Adam said that people in Hollywood should only see your twelfth draft.  You write “First Draft” on the title page, but it’s a draft you’ve been rewriting for a long time.  This seems like obvious advice, but Adam reminded me that too many writers are impatient and blow perhaps their one and only opportunity for a break by offering a script that still needs lots of work.

2)  Write something original.  As I’ve stated many times before on this blog, a spec episode of an existing series is no longer useful in getting a job.  You have to write a spec pilot.  Adam said that he broke into TV over twenty years ago with a spec episode of THE SIMPSONS.  But he confirmed what I have been telling you.  Spec episodes are no longer accepted as an example of your work.  Adam said he regretted this change because he feels the spec episode is often the best way to show you have the talent to be a TV writer.  But the business has changed, and spec episodes are out of fashion.

Adam shared with me the story of how he broke into the business.  He was a student at Northwestern University majoring in theater.  He gave up acting while still in college and turned his energies to writing and directing.  After college, he and a friend packed up all their belongings and moved to Los Angeles,  Some other Northwestern alumni were already here. Through friends Adam found an employment agency that placed people in temp jobs in the entertainment business.  He got a job at a small but prestigious Hollywood talent agency as an office boy. He started reading any and every script that came into the agency and learned from what he read.  While at the agency he heard about an opening as a personal assistant to a Hollywood producer and director.  Though dozens of people had applied for the same job, Adam delivered his resume in person.  He ended up getting the job.  Adam told me he decided he would become the best personal assistant he could possibly be.  Adam said that when the director would ask for a beverage he would run to get it and run back.  He worked extra hours and did everything he could think of to impress his employer.  At night he worked on his spec scripts.  After over a year working for the director he was able to get someone to read one of his scripts.  Even after the director read his script and liked it, Adam had to wait another year before the director gave him a writing assignment.  But the assignment finally came, and Adam’s career was launched.  In the eight weeks that I have been working with Adam I have been impressed with how hard he works, even now that he has made it big.

Which brings me to the question that I posed as the top of this post: How much do you want it?

Adam Chase worked his ass off for years to get his lucky break.  He moved to LA.  He took whatever job he could find.  He used his imagination and all of his energy to get himself noticed.  He was patient and tenacious, talented and resourceful.

Adam wanted success and he got it because he knocked himself out to get it.

How much do you want it?