Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why write with a partner?

Pictured: writing team Alan Burns & James Brooks, creators of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.
Here’s the Friday question-of-the-week. If comes from a number of you. And it’s one I can answer with some authority having been in this situation since the Hoover administration (I saw on a blog someone referred to me as an “old warhorse”).

Why write with a partner?

It’s a big decision, especially when you’re starting out. There are many pluses to being in a partnership. And then there’s that little negative that you’re giving up half the money.

Comedy writers find the arrangement more beneficial generally than drama writers but that’s not always the case. Richard Levinson & William Link (pictured right) wrote hundreds of mysteries, dramas, and westerns and created (among other shows) COLUMBO. The award winning stage play INHERIT THE WIND was penned by the team of Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee. But by and large, comedy writers benefit most from having someone else to bounce their material off of. You’ll know at least if one person thought your joke was funny.

Often times when you start out you are stronger in one area and weaker in another. You may be a joke machine but clueless when you have to construct a story. Or you’re great with structure but struggle writing funny dialogue. Or, you’re a fabulous writer in every way but have absolutely zero social skills.

The truth is, especially in your early stages, you may NEED a partner because you’re just not good enough yet on your own. The competition is very tough out there and your script has to really rise above. And as for the money, isn’t it better to have half of something than all of nothing?

There’s also the social aspect of writing in a team. Sitting alone at a computer staring at a blank screen listening to your pulse race is usually not the best way to create a carnival atmosphere. Much more fun hanging out with someone who makes you laugh. And if your car ever has to be serviced, you know you always have a ride. Trust me, it’s worth half the money just for that.

And in a town where networking is so important, you double your chances of glomming on to some unsuspecting soul who can help you.

The bottom line is this: (with apologies to Neil Sedaka) Breaking in is hard to do. The more support systems you can have in place the better. I once received a letter from a guy named Ken Levine asking my advice for getting into the business. I said find a guy named David Isaacs and team up. Getting a partner could be the best thing you ever do. On Monday I’ll offer some suggestions on what to look for and avoid in selecting that partner. Preview: Andy Dick. Avoid people like him.

And as always, best of luck. Someone has to make it. Why not YOU?


D. McEwan said...

I wrote with a partner named John Fugiel for eight years, until his untimely death at the age of 35. The social aspect was great. I always enjoyed spending time in a room with him. And he'd do the typing. He could make me laugh so hard I could not breathe, and I was always able to return the favor.

(The day his father died, I found him in tears, and left him laughing. He told me later, "You are the only person on earth who could have made me laugh that day." Best compliment I've ever received.)

We balanced each other nicely: I always wanted to push the envelope and get edgier, and he was the more conservative, reign-me-in guy.

But why did we write together? I looked at your listed reasons:

"You may be a joke machine but clueless when you have to construct a story."

No. I was good at both. John wasn't so hot at structure, but he was indeed a joke machine.

"Or you’re great with structure but struggle writing funny dialogue."

I belive I am strong at both skills.

"Or, you’re a fabulous writer in every way but have absolutely zero social skills."

BINGO! I can offend people without even waking up. I can't walk into a room without pissing people off. How many fights have I started in these comments pages without ever meaning to? John was a born diplomat. When we took meetings, I sat there and shut the hell up, and just let John work his soothing verbal magic. He could have charmed roaches out of a dump. He could have seduced Mother Theresa. He could have brought peace to the Middle East.

21 years he's been dead, and I still miss him every day.

Writing alone in this room isn't nearly as much fun, but I've never met another John Fugiel, and I can not settle for less. He watches me write from a picture on the wall, but he no longer pitches the jokes that turn my milk into cream.

I'd write a bit more about John, but the FRASIER repeat that just starting running on Lifetime says it was directed by someone named Levine (The giant schnoze episode with Kevin Kilner), so I'm going to watch some TV.

D. McEwan said...

PS. Lawrence & Lee did both drama and comedy. There's a script for one of their biggest Broadway hits on a shelf in this room. It's titled AUNTIE MAME.

It's awfully damn good, and turning Patrick Dennis's brilliant collection of related short stories into a cohesive two-act play was not easy at all.

I understand it did every bit as well as INHERIT THE WIND.

Paul Duca said...

So, Ken....david has all the social skills?

JohnE said...


Is there ever a danger of the two partners becoming so in sync with each other that each loses his/her ability to laugh objectively? In other words, is there ever a point where Partner B laughs at Partner A's gag simply because he/she has been conditioned to do so by their shared sense of humor?

Emily Blake said...

Oh man I wouldn't write with a partner again if you paid me a billion dollars.

Okay that's not true. I'd probably do it for a billion dollars.

Partnering frustrated the hell out of me. I felt like I was constantly compromising and although the work got done faster, I didn't think it was better than what I could have done on my own.

And then when that person turned out to be an utter piece of carrion I was really in trouble.

I like another person around to bounce ideas off of, but I doubt I'll ever actually write with someone again.

Anonymous said...

My Norton's 360 just tried to block you as a malicious phishing web page. First time it has happened in months of reading your blog.

Any ideas?


notanonymous said...

Nowadays it's more feasible to write with an online partner anywhere in the world, of course, though that brings its own issues. Breaking up is a lot easier when you find that all you're doing is giving them notes...

Hank Hollyweird said...

I just broke up with my writing partner this week--we're good friends, but suck at the meshing of how we see a script shaping together.

And I discovered something really important about myself in the process (it took about 6 months for us to figure out we shouldn't write together): I see myself as an independent film writer. Small films, geared toward a certain type of film goer, the so-called "art house" crowd. My partner is more or a big picture guy--he's worked with Scorsese, Julia Roberts, and a host of other "names." I've worked actors and directors who are now among the missing. He's building a giant house high on a property which would be listed as a small country by most people's standards. I live in a tiny home, which would be best described as shabby sheik, if only the word "sheik" were left off the description.
He's never had a year where he didn't sell a script or have work. I've done nothing but struggle. He has a full cadre of agents, managers, and lawyers. I'm still waiting to find out if my agent is dead or just ignoring me.

Partnerships work great...when they work. and when they don't it's pure Hell. And I'd rather stand outside the gates to Hades with my friend talking about our careers and the films we do, then be together inside suffocating with him as we slowly burn our friendship to death.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I like the misuse of sheik for chic.

Hank Hollyweird said...

Bob, it wasn't a misuse, it was deliberate, I live in a tent, just like an Arab sheik.

Dwacon® said...

I foresee Ken's next career move as writing partner pimp.

Miles said...

Though you didn't ask, two of the best comedy partners were Stan Burns & Mike Marmer (Steve Allen, Carol Burnett, Get Smart, and on and on). Just sayin'.

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

Preview: Andy Dick. Avoid people like him.

... and then there are the answers that seem to fit just about every question.

Paul said...

You kind of have to wonder why SOME creative arts seem to lend themselves towards partnering, and some don't.

For example... are there any great painters that worked in a partnership? Oh, there's painters (and sculpters and glass artists and so forth in the visual arts) who work with a team of people, but it's usually more like the team is working FOR the artist.

So visual arts- doesn't work with a partner.

But then you look at music- aural arts, if you will- and some of the modern greats DO work in partnership. Mozart, Beethoven, those classical guys- worked alone.

Quick, though- name a song by Keith Richards or Mick Jagger that's NOT part of their Stones work. Partnership.

And of course you have the greatest partnership of all songwriting time, Lennon and McCartney. While we might be able to think of a few songs they did individually, nothing compares to the work they did together.

Heck, Lennon was dead for 14 years and when they worked up "Free As A Bird" off an old demo tape he left behind, I thought it was better than a ton of stuff that they'd done alone.

So apparently when it comes to a band, partnering works. Or how about calling a ballgame? There's guys who work individually, but there's plenty who work as a pair.

Writing fiction, mostly singles. Writing newspaper articles, often done in teams.

Just food for thought...