Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Is 'The Writers' Room' A Contradiction In Terms?"

The short answer to that question is no.

Which does not stop me from thinking about it.

At a restaurant dinner with a couple we enjoy and appreciate, a (recently retired) woman who wrote promos for television observed,

“No one grows up dreaming of writing promos for television.”

Her understandable point being,

It is a writing job – of sorts – so you do it.  Contentedly, because it’s “in the ballpark.”  The problem is, you are not on the field; you are assembling the program.

I was IMDB-ably on the field.  But, as with not fully examined dreams of all kinds, I was unaware of what that entirely involved. 

Great chefs’ hands and bodies are inevitably carved up.  But unless they are obsessive self-mutilators, the prospect of stitches was unlikely what drew them to culinary endeavors.  I never lost fingers writing for television.  But the experience undeniably left its mark.

Writing for TV is a collaborative undertaking.  It has to be.  There is too much material for one writer to crank out entirely by themselves.  (Exception:  If the series order is relatively short, allowing one writer or a two-person partnership to self-write the scripts before entering production.  Enviable Example:  Fawlty Towers.)

Movie scripts are generally “serially” written.  One writer breaks the proverbial ice,
then subsequent writers are retained sequentially, in hopes that their cumulated efforts will deliver the scriptorial train to its ultimate “Green lit” destination.  

Sometimes, the participating screenwriters are specialists, recruited to upgrade one failing deficiency in the script.  For example, uncredited women writers are frequently brought in to make the screenplay’s “female component” more genderly believable. 

“Women generally pee sitting down.”

“So ‘Brent and Kathleen stand side by side at adjacent urinals’ is wrong?”    

“Thanks for the money.”

Book writers traditionally work alone.   To my knowledge, novelists rarely reach out for specified assistance.

“I’m terrible at adjectives.”

“What about adverbs?”

“I called them already.”

That doesn’t happen.  Though it was enjoyable to imagine.

In series television, you write the scripts’ preliminary drafts by yourself – although some shows, notably the Chuck Lorre-produced series are entirely “room written.”  During “Production Week” – and I am referring to shows filmed before a live studio audience – the subsequent writing responsibilities are then appropriated by “The Room”, improving the story and/or the jokes that fell flat during the runthroughs in late-night, ”gang written” rewrites.

I can’t imagine too many writers being passionate “Team Dreamers.”

“When I grow up, I want the script I put my heart and soul into to be ‘punched up’ by strangers, replacing stuff I think is good with stuff they think is better.”

It seems to me – and who else have I got to go by? – on the “Dream-Nightmare” continuum that unenviable happenstance veers maddeningly proximuous to the latter.

“Change what you want.  I love it.”  Is that a credible reaction?   

Over time, however, I believed I had made peace with that unsatisfying M.O.  But a story that came to mind during today’s effort reveals, “Not so fast.” 

I had written a script for – I no longer am sure what but it could have been Rhoda.  The episode turned out pretty well, though my original rendering had been vigorously rewritten. 

Sometime later, I encountered Allan Burns, co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show who kept an eye on its subsequent spinoff series Rhoda, and one of the nicest people I have ever met. 

Allan congratulated me on the episode.  I appreciatively said, “Thank you.”  Not just being polite; I was also viscerally delighted to be complimented by an acknowledged “giant” in the industry.  Then, as a gesture of enthusiastic encouragement, Allan advised:

“You ought to submit that script for an Emmy.

Hearing his suggestion, a sudden volcano erupted within me.  I could barely control the explosion, its outward manifestation making me louder and angrier than was appropriate addressing a man who could instantly end my career when I said,


Why the voluble response to such a flattering suggestion?

They had rewritten the heck of that script.  How could I possibly submit it for Emmy consideration as my own?  

I wanted to be recognized for my writing, not as some weasly, glory-grabbing imposter.  Yes, I had gotten the ball rolling.  But then it was, “Thanks a lot, Pomerantz.  We’ll take it from here.”

Is that other thing really writing at all, or just a raucous “joke-fest” with free dinner?

I was reminded of everything I hated about “The System.”  You get into this wacky enterprise to communicate directly with the audience.  The collaborative process undermines your original “raison de write.”

I mean, is that other thing even writing at all, or merely a raucous "joke-fest" with free dinner?

You are thinking, “Am I sensing ‘ingratitude’ here?”

You mean because the conditions weren’t entirely as I’d expected?  Perhaps.  (My face, retroactively red at that acknowledgment.)

Cooler Head Conclusion:

Writing in a room is unquestionably writing.

But it’s not writing writers imagined when they imagined being writers.

To which I tell Younger Earlo:  “Get over it.”

And apologize belatedly to Allan Burns.


Why I Can't Look at Styrofoam To this Day said...

Totally connect with the horrors of that room writing system. I never liked it. To assume that group-think is always better than the original artist alone with his carefully contemplated thoughts and not bombarded by others' thoughts, to me, does a disservice to the ultimate audience. Not that those final Marys, etc., weren't wonderful. But the Lorre joke machine is something to which I have a visceral negative reaction, to the point I race for the remote even when a commercial for a show of his comes on.

Your acceptance speech for that episode of yours, had you put it up: "I couldn't have done this without all the other writers who rewrote me. Oh, wait... I've just been given a rewrite of this speech from the other writers... Wow, this is a first! They didn't change one word!"

JED said...

In some ways, writing computer programs is similar to what you describe here for writing for TV. One big difference, though, is that software is never really done. Because it's "soft", it keeps getting changes. Both to fix problems (bugs) in the orginal but also to extend it with new features or keep up with changing technology. Rarely does one person work on these projects and even more rarely does anyone stay on the project for very long. New people come in to fix the bugs you left in the program (of course you say, "that's not a bug, it's a feature.") or to add the new feature that the new head of the department wants.

But every new programmer wants to add their own distinctive design so there is a ritual "trashing of the previous programmers" (as Dilbert once put it) to point out how anitquated the design is and how it could be improved by using the new Blue Squeegee Framework of program design (I made that name up). So, the new guy gets to rewrite everything and cram it into their design method and, of course, introduce a huge number of new bugs, er, features.

Some programmers try to make their programs so intricate and hard to understand (to display their own brilliance with no comments of why they did things that way to guide the next programmer) that there is no other choice than to rewrite the whole thing. But a lot of the same ego is involved as with writing for TV. Or at least it seems like that from what I read from your blog.