THE WRITER’S ROOM: The Center Of Crazy

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First in a behind-the-scenes series on writing for TV.

There’s something insane at the heart of every TV show.  I’ve worked on a lot of them.  Some were commercial hits (MY WIFE AND KIDS), some were critical hits (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT), some were admired but died an early death (413 HOPE STREET) and some were not admired and survived longer than anyone thought possible (‘TIL DEATH).

I recently was talking with a fellow writer in the TV salt mines, bitching about how impossibly difficult a show was (which is something all TV writers are great at, by the way — bitching) and I realized that I’ve never worked on a show that didn’t have something loony about it.  I call it the center of crazy.

What is the center of crazy, exactly?  Well, it shifts — sometimes day to day, sometimes hour to hour.  One day, it can be the behavior of a star.  The amount of insecurity and rejection a person has to go through to become famous is astonishing.  And it’s so personal.  How you look, how you talk, rejection followed by rejection with a little bit of rejection thrown in for good measure.

Look, when my first movie came out (MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK) I got a review in a Canadian paper that said something like “this movie shouldn’t even be watched by one-celled creatures living on the bottom of the sea.”   That was a tough one.  But here’s what it didn’t say:  “Dean Lorey, an ugly little troll who shockingly thinks he can act, shouldn’t even be watched by one-celled creatures living on the bottom of the sea.”  At least, when I write, they don’t mention my baldness or my looks, but actors have to deal with that all the time.  To tell the truth, I’m a little suspicious of the ones who aren’t a bit crazy.

But it’s not just stars.  Maybe the insanity comes from someone at the network or studio, fearful of losing a job, eager to make a mark in a new one, always finding the exact right way to say the exact wrong thing to derail the project you’ve sweated blood over.  But, believe it or not, I actually have some sympathy for them as well, because they spend their entire careers trying to get in the door only to discover that it’s a revolving door and they’re almost immediately on their way back out.  As the head of a network or studio, you’re always in the process of being fired.  I can’t believe more of them aren’t insane.

Or maybe the center of crazy is the showrunner, the man or woman in charge of the whole deal.  You’d have a better chance of getting struck by lightning while handing in a winning lottery ticket than you would of getting a new show on network television.  And once you’ve got one there, it probably won’t last more than a season.  It’s lunacy.   And yet, the showrunner is the general, you’re the soldier and you have to carry out their marching orders even if you’re certain it will lead you into oblivion.

But, on every show, it’s always something.  And we writers forever bitch about how wonderful it would be if we could just, for Godsakes, write — if we didn’t have to juggle all the other psycho stuff that gets in the way of doing our job.

But what if managing all the other stuff is the job?

Sure, writing’s part of it.  I mean, the ability to write is what got you into the big top with the clowns and the elephants to begin with, right?  But what other skills do you have to bring to the writer’s room of a TV show, aside from writing?

Well, how about the ability to suffer pain?

Now, I’m not talking real, physical pain — although the hours can sometimes be crushing and you’d be surprised at the stamina it takes to sit in a room with a bunch of people and write comedy for sixteen hours.

I’m talking about mental pain.

On most sitcoms (and here I’m talking about multi-camera sitcoms) a writer goes off with an outline and writes the first draft of an episode.  Then it’s read in “the room” — filled with six or more other writers — and is promptly torn apart and rewritten while you sit there silently, trying to grin, trying to bear it.  The truth is, you get used to it after a while and often the script is improved and you get the credit for that — after all, your name is on it.  Sometimes the script isn’t improved and you get the blame — again, your name is on it.

But at least, at that point, the pain is over, right?

Nope.  Now it goes to the studio and they have thoughts.  Sometimes they’re good thoughts.  A helpful executive can see the thing with fresh eyes and might have some useful ideas (but never jokes, by the way — executives never pitch comedy).  But sometimes the executive’s notes aren’t very good and have to be dealt with, either through diplomacy or tantrums or begging.

However it works out, eventually you do some kind of rewrite to satisfy them and then it’s over, right?

Nope.  Because now it goes to the network and the exact same thing happens all over again, except this time for them.  You get notes, you rewrite.

But at least once you satisfy the studio and the network, the nightmare ends, right?

Nope.  Because now you’re going to do a table read with all the actors.  This is the first public airing of the material — the studio will be there along with the network as well as the non-writing executive producers and managers and assistants and any other warm body that can fill a seat.  The director or showrunner introduces the script to everyone and says that you wrote it and then you sit there, dying.  If it gets big laughs, you feel wonderful (even though you know you really didn’t write all of it).  If it tanks, well, everyone is filled with resignation because it means you and the room have a LONG night of rewriting ahead.  And even though everyone knows it’s not really your fault… it’s still your fault.

But at least once that rewrite is done, it’s over, right?

Nope.  Because now it goes to the stage and the director gets it ready for the run-through.  This is the first time the script is presented to everyone “on its feet” — sort of like a stage play.  Same group of people that were at the table read, by the way.  And it works or it doesn’t and then there are more notes — this time often with a great deal of input from the star.  And then another rewrite.

But then, at long last, it’s finally really over, right?

Nope.  Because eventually you have to shoot it, usually in front of an audience, and if they laugh, great.  But if they don’t — and they often don’t — that’s trouble because now you have to fix it in front of them.  You frantically rewrite while an audience sits waiting (but don’t worry about them, they’re being entertained by a warm-up comic who’s asking them where they’re from and making them dance in the aisles and throwing candy at them).  And then you try again and hope it’s better this time.  And even if the stuff does work, you’re still writing new jokes on the fly in the hopes that you strike gold.

And then, finally, you’re done.  Not really, because there’s still editing and ADR and scoring and so forth, but you’re mostly done.

And that’s the pain you suffer if it all goes right.

But what if something goes wrong (and, as Cosmo tells us in MOONSTRUCK “something always goes wrong”)?  Sometimes it goes wrong because something unforeseeable happened — we had to shut down ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT for a few weeks because Jason Bateman needed emergency throat surgery.  Sometimes it goes wrong because the craziness at the core of your show at that moment — be it network or studio or star or showrunner — says “remember me?” and throws out your script or gives you a note that changes everything.  You never know where it’s going to come from.  But if you’re on a show and you look around and can’t figure out who the crazy person is at that particular moment, well, my friend, maybe you should look in a mirror… because it’s probably you.

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