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?

Starting Again

Let us consider this the first official post of the rebooted Elephant Bucks Blog.  This will be Elephant Bucks Blog 2.0.  I lost one post and took down a couple of others, so let’s remember this post as the first of the second era.

I never dreamed when I started this blog seven years ago that I would still be writing it today. I enjoy writing this blog, and for the ten or twelve people out there who read it, I am happy to keep writing.

I didn’t start using a computer until I was in my thirties.  That is my excuse for my fear of computers and my resistance to using new software  That is my excuse for why my blog got all screwed up over the last few weeks.  I didn’t even know my blog was screwed up until a former student and current blog reader alerted me.  Thank you, Gabe.

Amanda, the bright young woman who designed this site for me seven years ago, was able to contact GoDaddy and find a new way for me to write my blog.  Last night, my daughter was able to customize this page in about five minutes.  I had worked on it for a couple of hours and completely screwed it up.  Through the whole experience I sat fanning myself in a hyperventilated state like Blanche DuBois.

Many people my age work their computers very well.  My wife, for instance, has largely mastered her computer.  She works with what seem to me to be hopelessly complicated programs like ArchiCad and Revit.  I don’t know how she ever learned either one of these programs since I am still baffled by the Mac version of Final Draft.  I finally had Final Draft down on my PC, but now that I have switched to Mac I can’t figure out how to write anything on Final Draft anymore.  I’m embarrassed to go to Sam, our extremely talented and patient writers assistant on MOM, and ask him for the ten thousandth time to show me how to write again on Final Draft.  (Sam, if you read this, it is not meant as a manipulative way of getting another tutorial out of you, but I suppose, if I’m honest, this is a passive/aggressive request for more help.)

One can overcome obstacles if one asks for help.

One can also overcome obstacles by calming down and trying a little harder.  I am better at the first than at the second.

My entire life seems to have been one continuous lesson in patience and tenacity.  I am emotional.  I get frustrated easily and temperamental in an instant.  But life keeps giving me new opportunities to grow.

Now that I am back working on a sitcom staff I have worked mightily to be patient, positive, and humble. These are virtues I seldom utilized in the past.  I don’t claim to have mastered any of these three virtues, but I am much better than I once was.

Life has given me opportunities to start again and try harder.  Every day I find another reason to be grateful for new opportunities.  I am discovering daily that I can now accomplish things that I couldn’t or wouldn’t have accomplished in the past.

Losing my blog for a short time was another opportunity at growth.  I would feel better if I had solved this issue on my own.  I think if I had stuck with it a little longer I could have solved it, but I was smart enough to ask for help before I threw a hissy fit.

Now that the blog is up and running again I can go back to my struggle with Final Draft.  Maybe I ought to start by actually reading the tutorial that comes with the software.  With Final Draft, as with this blog and with so many other issues in my life, it’s time to start again.