Friday, March 23, 2007

How to park your secretary

First off, thanks to everyone who responded to the Sitcom Room (and you're welcome to still respond). When we have more details I will let you all know.

Many thanks to fellow writer Rob Long for his way-too-kind piece on this blog in his radio commentary, MARTINI SHOTS on NPR’s KCRW in Santa Monica. I’m still blushing. In addition to producing CHEERS when he was like nine, Rob has become one of the top sitcom writers in town (along with his partner, Dan Staley) and has also carved out a nice niche for himself as a pundit and author. His book on television, CONVERSATIONS WITH MY AGENT, is must reading.

In his feature on me he brought up an anecdote I had completely forgotten but was true and worth sharing here. So if I may paraphrase his story paraphrasing me:

Back in 1993 my partner and I had created a summer show for CBS called BIG WAVE DAVE’S. Rob and Dan were our producers. I think Rob was eleven then. We did the show for Paramount (and I can tell this story since no one involved is remotely still associated with the studio. In fact, this was probably four full regimes ago.)

Our line producer informed me that the studio refused to pay our secretary’s parking. The budget for each episode was over a million dollars. Weekly parking was $13. Above-the-line people (writers, directors, producers, actors) got to park on the lot for free. Below-the-line peons had to park in a structure across the street.

And don’t let the Hollywood address fool you. This was not a great neighborhood. I used to call the lot “Fort Paramount”. While working at WINGS on rewrite night we often watched drug deals go down across the street at the parking structure. An ice cream truck would arrive every night about 11 and we would say, “Cracky, the clown is here. Looks like he’s got some great shit tonight for the kiddies!”

So I was pissed. No one works harder and more hours than the writers’ secretary. It’s bad enough they had to park in a war zone. The least the studio could do was pay for their parking. (Note: we also made sure one of us walked them out to their cars, another little safety service the studio felt no obligation to perform).

I called the studio bean counter and raised hell. But it was studio policy. There was nothing he could do. I then asked what would constitute a legitimate production expense? He said research. “You mean like a book?” I said. He said, yes. “Fine,” I continued, “I just bought a book this week. It’s called HOW TO PARK YOUR SECRETARY and it cost thirteen bucks.”

That he approved.

So every week I would call with another essential research book I bought. Titles like THE IN’S AND OUT’S OF BUYING YOUR PA’S PIZZA and Rob’s favorite, A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR THE WEIRD GUY IN PROPS.

I should mention that none of the other major studios were any different. But that was then. Things have since changed.

Writers now have to park across the street.

28 comments:

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Your recommendation of Rob Long's book carried me over to Amazon.com where I read a few sample pages and immediately headed over to the County of Los Angeles Public Library website and put it on hold. Of course, I hate the waiting time until the book actually gets to the Valencia library, and it's one of the injustices of the system. 700+ (ballpark figure) copies of John Grisham novels and yet only one copy of Rob's book and not even at my library.

But you're getting a little better attention than Rob in that library system. Two copies of your book on your sportscasting career, though neither are checked out. I expect that to change once more people get wind of your blog.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

And you know, I just read Rob's Martini Shots commentary and it's frighteningly accurate, not only that I actually have worked for free for many years (God bless understanding parents who tolerate so much, especially in my case, in continually telling them, "Don't worry, one day this will all pay off." Bit by bit of course, freelance job by freelance job), but also in sheer laziness. Such as this:

"And writers are so lazy and easily distracted -- if they're anything like me -- that without even the most threadbare financial reward system in place -- in my case, my English editor paid me 50£ per column -- we simply wouldn't get out of our bathrobes. We wouldn't stop watching all 12 episodes of season four of The Wire. We wouldn't stop surfing the web. We wouldn't not go out for pie. Or so I used to think."

That's all true, especially since there was pie on my birthday yesterday and there'll be pie on my sister's birthday tomorrow. And yesterday, I polished off half the second season of Entourage. That was my entire day.

I'm actually very comforted to know that I'm not the only lazy writer out there. Haven't written a single review in at least a week and a half. Been thinking about the books I want to write in the coming years, but they've only been thoughts for now. What a wonderful man to make me feel better.

Ken Levine said...

I've had this blog for a year and a half so if both copies of my book have not been checked out chances are they won't be anytime soon.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Well then, count me as the guy who comes very late to a party and assumes that your soon-to-be-broken china plate set is brand new. ;)

la guy said...

I had to work on the Paramount lot last year and parking was free. Parking across the street is kind of pain in the ass and that is one of the more unusual exercises in parking architecture that I have ever seen. At first glance it looks like an apartment building until you realize all of the tenants are cars.

The only thing worse than parking at Paramount is driving on the back lot. I've had to maneuver a 22 foot truck on the lot a few times and it not difficult to get stuck on a side street from which there is no way out other than carefully backing up for a few blocks.

Evidently the back lot was layed out before the invention of automobiles. That would also explain why there isn't enough parking on the premises.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

And don't forget Rob's follow up book Set Up, Joke Set Up, Joke.

As a writer from abroad who has always been interested in the way American sitcoms have been written and produced, I applaud your efforts to bring more knowledge about the room process to your readers. As you say, it is the one part that is not written about a lot and whenever I met an American writer I pestered him with questions about it. So if you are organizing weekend and I am around, I'll certainly apply.

And I hope there will be a secretary.

Adding a secretary to our group on my last sitcom was the major factor in making it all work. Over here in Holland only 13 episodes of every comedy are made every year. So the tendency is for writer's to work on their own, or (in my case) with one partner only. You take all year to write all 13 thirteen and that's enough to live on. Whenever we tried to set up a system working with other writers it didn't work, because in the end it would always be easier to write everything ourselves.

Until we got the assignment to do a daily comedy. Now we had to set up a team, which we did. We had to have a room. And because I had seen it on one of those E! Behind The Scenes documentaries, we asked for a secretary, who would keep notes on her computer, which were projected to the wall.

What a difference that made! Finally we were able to just shoot the breeze, while looking at each other. No longer one of us was always saying: "slow down, I'm still writing down the last to jokes". It allowed us to enliven the dialogue and to find much more honest jokes even when doing the treatment. We we also fortunate to find a very good secretary, trained in theatre arts, but to shy to be a writer herself. Her contributions continue to be essential to our succes. I don't know if you can train anyone to do it, but I wouldn't have anyone else.

D. McEwan said...

Dear Rory,

As the author of one published book, with another coming out later this year, I can tell you that authors don't get a penny from people checking theirr books out of libraries. Public libraries are Evil Places that give people free access to our work.

Unload your wallet and BUY your books! Rob Long's bills don't get paid by your checking his books out.

Used books and library books are crawling with deadly germs. They will kill you in painful and degrading ways. Get nice, clean, sterile, new books, and NEVER LEND THEM TO ANYONE ELSE either. Make them buy theirs too.

I for one, have cats to feed.

VP19 said...

D. McEwan said...
Dear Rory,

As the author of one published book, with another coming out later this year, I can tell you that authors don't get a penny from people checking theirr books out of libraries. Public libraries are Evil Places that give people free access to our work.


You mean public libraries are the print version of Internet radio?

Mary Stella said...

As the author of one published book, with another coming out later this year, I can tell you that authors don't get a penny from people checking theirr books out of libraries. Public libraries are Evil Places that give people free access to our work.

Hey, John Grisham probably makes several thousand bucks in royalties from the multiple copies the library bought for their shelves.

There are some libraries who stock my two paperbacks, so I probably made enough to buy a couple of hot chai lattes at Borders.

I think book exposure via a library is a good thing. Let someone take out my books, hopefully fall in love with them, and then be so eager for the next one that they rush out to buy it when it's released.

That's my theory and I'm sticking to it. *vbg*

Ian said...

Your column brought back memories of my one month working for a nutbag lady lawyer on the Paramount lot. Yes, I only lasted a month. This was when Wings was in production on one end of the lot, and Star Trek: The Next Generation was shooting on the other. The Two Jakes and Days of Thunder were in production and in trouble. I remember how much I enjoyed being on the lot on a daily basis, but the rest of the experience was so horrible that I've blotted it out.

Abby said...

Ken, please, it's "Writers' ASSISTANT." I was one ten years ago when I was starting out -- and it was always the old guys who still used the word "secretery." You don't want to seem old, now, do ya?

Tom said...

I saw a stage adaptation of Rob's book at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998. It was very funny.

Emily Blake said...

I live not far from Paramount and drive by it every day on my way back from the gym. Just yesterday I was thinking about how nice it would be to work there, but now I know if I ever do get a job on that tiny ghetto lot I'm probably better off riding a bike to work.

Paul Duca said...

I find it hard to believe Doug McEwan worries about germs...I would think spending any amount of time around Tallulah Moorhead conferred immunity to anything up to and including the bubonic plague.:)

Ken Levine said...

Abby,

No disrespect meant. Back in those ancient days they were called secretaries. Writers' Assistants were P.A.'s.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

"I think book exposure via a library is a good thing. Let someone take out my books, hopefully fall in love with them, and then be so eager for the next one that they rush out to buy it when it's released."

That's the way I've done it, especially lately with a book of short stories called The Music of Your Life by John Rowell. Checked it out once, forgot the title later, remembered certain parts of it and wanted to read it again, put into Google everything I could remember about the book, found Rowell's name, checked it out of the library again and then decided I wanted to buy it.

So rest assured, Doug; Rob Long could possibly benefit from the same method, though it's unlikely I'd forget his name like that.

Speaking of which, your book in the library system has three copies though ironically, none at the Hollywood branches. But I'm still curious.

barfly said...

...and don't forget Nickodell's just down Melrose...

D. McEwan said...

Paul darling,

I'm not worried about germs. I'm worried for other people who don't read books they bought, as it's a slow-lingering death, and very painful, and you look awful while going through it. It's called Public Book Sepsis. Also library cards are virulent things too. I have one of course, but I boil it between uses.

As for Tallulah, she's actually toxic TO germs. They die and fall right off of her. With that much alcohol in her system, she's a walking sterilzation swab. If I'm concerned something is crawling with bacteria, I just rub it on her, and you could perform surgery on it afterwards.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

"I'm not worried about germs. I'm worried for other people who don't read books they bought, as it's a slow-lingering death, and very painful, and you look awful while going through it. It's called Public Book Sepsis. Also library cards are virulent things too. I have one of course, but I boil it between uses."

Guilty on the top thought. I buy books nearly every weekend from the library and most of them, while interesting me at the time, are as yet unread.

I have one of those plastic card holder things where one card can be slipped into the top slot and another below and so on, and my Mastercard debit card rests above my library card. And with the heat the Mastercard emits from its continuous use, I think I've managed to eliminate any germs from my library card.

And as for Tallulah, I'm excited about reading about her days in Hollywood especially after reading the blog.

la guy said...

D. McEwan said:
"Paul darling,
I'm not worried about germs. I'm worried for other people who don't read books they bought..."


You're suppose to read read them?

No wonder my book collection has brought me so little joy.

D. McEwan said...

I buy books constantly also. They of course, fall into four catagories, ones I read over and over. Ones I read once only. Ones I read only part of (The largest category these days.), and of course, the ones that never get read at all. And I've yet to figure out a way to tell ahead of time which category any given book will fall into.

The reason I turned off of public libraries is they don't let me check out a book and then leave it on my nightstand for 18 months before reading it.

Tallulah never reads any book. She has books read for her, summarized, and then she throws the summary out. In her chapter on 1939, she dictated: "There was no question that 'Gone with the Wind' was THE novel of the decade. Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood was having someone read it for them."

Rory L. Aronsky said...

"The reason I turned off of public libraries is they don't let me check out a book and then leave it on my nightstand for 18 months before reading it."

Big problem for me. There are books in my current stack that I've checked out at least three times but still have not read. And I want to, but there's either a certain book that's I've had on request for years that's finally come in (Case in point: The Glass Castle) or other things to do.

Recently, the only reason I've sat down to read any book is for a review for a publication in the San Fernando Valley.

Gail Renard said...

Just to let you know that in Britain writers do get royalties for their books taken out from libraries. It's called PLR (Public Lending Right) and you can earn a maximum of £6,600 per year... if you're JK Rowling. I was proud to show my parents my last statement: 5 pence. And they worried about me becoming a writer! Thankfully my TV shows do better. This enlightened royalty isn't only for Brits, but also applies to EC members' states, plus Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland... as if you need another good reason for moving there!

D. McEwan said...

Can we repeal the Declaration of Independance? The Brits have the best comedy too. I could use a good five pence. I'll bet their library books are sterile too.

I once received a royalty check for "Book Club Sales" that was for $12.37

Gail Renard said...

Ooh I'd kill for $12.37. Yes we Brits are lucky right now in comedy, thanks to our patron saints, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Have a look at Peter Kaye and his Phoenix Nights too. But we can't touch America right now for dramas, aside from our own immortal Dr. Who. What we'd give for intelligent, original, continually excellent series like House, West Wing, Boston Legal and I'm welling up just thinking about it. By the way, I'll have you know that the five pence was the total for all four of my books! Credit where credit's due.

Dante Kleinberg said...

It was so funny hearing that story in my car. I turned to my girlfriend and said, "Hey, I read that guy's blog!"

A great story with a great punchline. Someone should steal it for a sitcom.

D, McEwan said...

Don't forget your wonderful series "Little Britain", to which I am utterly addicted, as well as adoring Ricky Gervais. (One of my closest friends just did a movie with Ricky) And you're getting a new Dame Edna series right now. And yes, the new Doctor Who shows have been fantastic. I bought both Rose Tyler seasons on DVD.

Meanwhile, over here in the colonies, we have a Godawful new "Comedy" series with the great Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver playing American southern white trash con artists. The only funny things about it are their accents.

Gail Renard said...

Ah but Hugh Laurie more than makes up for it with his brilliant American accent. Which reminds me... have a look at the telly shows which Hugh wrote and performed for many years with his comedy partner, Stephen Fry. Their BBC sketch show, "A Bit of Fry and Laurie" ran for years; as did their exquisite "Jeeves And Wooster." And I believe that Hugh's stint in House, great though it is, has kept Fry and Laurie from giving us their Holmes and Watson... you should pardon the expression.