Saturday, September 19, 2009

Horrible ways to lose an award

Helping you to get in the mood for yet another awards show, here’s another of my old war stories.

My partner David and I were head writers of MASH. We had a very small staff so quite a few scripts were assigned to freelance writers. Some, like Everett Greenbaum & Jim Fritzell and Tom Reeder did terrific work and most of their first drafts are what you see on the screen. But others didn’t pan out as well. In those cases, David and I would rewrite their scripts (often 100%). Since the plotting of MASH was somewhat intricate, it was always easier for me and David to break the story and write the outline ourselves. The freelancer would come in, we would hand him the story and talk him through it.

Never did we try to share credit. We figured that was part of our staff responsibilities. Most shows operate that way, or at least they did.

Anyway, we get a very disappointing draft and do a page one rewrite. It’s now award season. We get nominated for writing (not the Emmys). And this freelancer gets nominated for that script.

And we lose.

To him.

Essentially we lost to ourselves. Ouch!!

So good luck to all the nominees. I hope you win, and if not, I hope you at least lose to someone else.

I’ll be doing my annual jaunty Emmys review. It’ll be posted early Monday morning.


D. McEwan said...

That'll teach you to write better than yourself!

Look at it this way: It took you to beat you.

Lesser men would have had sense enough to write less well when their work was going to go out under someone else's name. Damn your valuing doing a first-rate show over your own egos! What the hell are you doing in Hollywood?

Great story.

The closest I can come is that once a playwright friend based a character in a play he wrote on me. I auditioned for the role based on me, and the director cast someone else, and I HAD to agree. The guy they cast actually played me better than I could.

So did the guy thank you in his acceptance speech? "I must thank David Isaacs and Ken Levine, who slightly tweaked the first 22 pages."

And remember, Kenneth Branaugh was nominated for an Oscar for writing the screenplay of HAMLET, whose selling point was that they were doing the entire play, exactly as written, cutting nothing. In other words, he was nominated for an Oscar for writing "Fade-in" and "Fade out."

And then it lost to SLINGBLADE, which is so superior to HAMLET.

D. McEwan said...

PS. You do realize that now I'll be checking the online Emmy records to find the year you were nominated but the Emmy went to a MASH script by someone else. I;m guessing it won't be Everett Greenbaum.

D. McEwan said...

Was this TV award something other than an Emmy? Because the only year I find you nominated for an Emmy and losing to someone else's M*A*S*H episode - well let's just say I found the name VERY surprising.

Mike Barer said...

Funny story!

KEN LEVINE said...

It was not an Emmy. Alan Alda was not the other writer. (Besides, he's hardly what I would call freelance on MASH).

BC in OC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Quigley said...

There's got to be something very-backwoods-inbreeding-Ozark-Mountain-lifestyle to that whole situation. It paints a picture of a reverend in an old country church presiding over a wedding ceremony with rifle-toting relatives on both sides of the aisle, and the reverend concluding the service with the remarks "And so friends, on this joyful day of peace and harmony -- and no one getting winged by a stray bullet or two -- by the power vested in me by the municipal authorities of this here Skunk Holler, Arkansaw... I hereby pronounce you Husband and Wife... You may now kiss your sister..." And then a the sound of approval from the congregation as relatives on both sides all whistle through the space where their front teeth are missing...

Former Story Editor said...

The days when showrunners (or other staff writers) completely rewrite freelance scripts and take no credit seem to be long gone.

For one thing, there are hardly any freelance scripts written anymore.

For another, table-written shows often seem to assign credit at random, "proportioning" credit according to staff title.

[For example: "The Big Bang Theory" seems to have 4 different names on just about every writing credit - 2 for story, 2 for teleplay. Of course, the lion's share of these "quarters" go to Chuck Lorre.]

I once had the displeasure of being on the wrong end of the "take no credit" transition twice in one season.

As a Story Editor, I completely re-wrote a freelance script from page 1. I received no credit. And none was expected. This was the norm at the time, because taking credit - i.e., money - away from a freelancer was considered a no-no.

However, a few scripts later, I was shocked to see that the showrunner had taken shared "Story by" credit on my own script, one that I had pitched and written. This showrunner had lost a writing Emmy the season before to another writer on staff, and apparently had decided to skew the odds as much as possible in his favor to make sure this never happened again. So he began taking a story credit on nearly every script...

...and became despised (amongst other reasons) by every writer on staff.

This show lost its entire writing staff - the one that had just had multiple Emmy nominations the year before - in less than one season...

...and never regained its prior form, the show being cancelled in less than 2 years.

A show I loved.

Which is why I was the last of that group to go.

Former Story Editor

P.S. Thanks for the chance to vent, Ken.

Michael said...

I wrote a chapter for a book. Another author submitted a poorly-written chapter, and I rewrote it for the editors. One of the editors had a graduate assistant helping with the proofreading. The GA commented that the chapter by the rewritten author was great. For fun, the editor asked what she thought of the chapter with my name on it. She said, "That one isn't as good."

Ken, ah feel yo pain.

Kirk Jusko said...

There are some sitcom episodes--I'm talking shows like MASH or Mary Tyler Moore--that are as good as any short story that's ever appeared in The New Yorker, but if you can't be sure who actually wrote the thing, that certainly makes it hard for such episodes to ever be regarded as anything more than a "product".

But I'm willing to bet that MASH will beat the odds.

Dave Creek said...

Kirk Jusko, I'm with you -- much of the best television is certainly as good as what you see in the New Yorker or any other "literary" mag.

Every once in awhile I think, because I'm a writer myself, that I should check out what's happening in contemporary fiction. But after reading boring stories of guys in suburbs who are usually teachers or students, where nothing ever happens, I retreat back to genre -- science fiction, mysteries, anything but so-called "literary" fiction.

I'm not talking about the classics here -- Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway are among my favorites. And some contemporary writers such as Bobby Ann Mason and Cormac McCarthy haven't forgotten about story.

But compared to most contemporary stuff, give me a classic MASH or the latest episode of LOST any day.

Rob said...

Worst Emmy Ever -- Bruce Gowers for directing American Idol. I can't wait to see your skewering of him tomorrow.

david russell said...

Since you've been to the Emmy's...

Watching a show like (spoiler alert!) "The Daily Show" win for writing and seeing 62 writers storm the stage I'm wondering: does every one of them get an actual statue or does the team get one they place in the room to stare at for inspiration?

Rory L. Aronsky said...

does every one of them get an actual statue or does the team get one they place in the room to stare at for inspiration?

They don't need inspiration. The statue is inspired by them. ;)

D. McEwan said...

"david russell said...
Watching a show like (spoiler alert!) "The Daily Show" win for writing and seeing 62 writers storm the stage I'm wondering: does every one of them get an actual statue"

They all get Emmys.

Anonymous said...

Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum are my writing heroes.

Mark said...

My 13 year old son is an avid fan of MASH. He has most of the DVDs and has a lot of the episodes nearly memorized word for word.

What drives him crazy, though, is the inconsistency in details between episodes. For instance, early on (in one one of the Dear Dad episodes) Hawkeye tells his Dad to give his love to his Mom and sister. In most other episodes he was an only child and his father a widower, and even went so far as to detail his father's treatment of him as his mother was dying. That I suppose could be chalked up to need in the plot line and distance between episodes as far as why the writers contradicted an earlier episode.

Another example is Harry Morgan's character who mentions variously being from Nebraska as well as (more consistently) Missouri. There was not much time difference between these episodes, and there was no significant plot detail that hinged on one versus the other.

My question is how often do glaring inconsistencies such as these make it into shows, and is there any conscious effort to weed out such items in the script approval process? It seems if nothing else that the actors would remember representing something completely different in an earlier episode (even if the writers who may be new do not), but perhaps they don't have the ability to suggest changes, or maybe they just don't care.

My guess is such inconsistencies are more noticeable when running through DVD episodes in rapid succession versus when the show was originally aired. That being said, I do recall noticing the Hawkeye inconsistency above when the show was on the air and not in re-runs or on DVD.