Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Writing room etiquette


There was a lot of controversy surrounding my post of last Thursday – what was really going on behind closed doors in writers rooms with reference to Charlie Sheen. Some thought it was offensive and I was insensitive for posting it. Others understood that I was merely showing what actually happens. A few just liked the jokes. I’m sure others didn’t have problems with any of that, just didn’t like my writing.

But as I said at the time, writing rooms can get pretty ribald. All subjects and body parts are fair game. The only real requirement is that it be funny. Remember a few years ago a FRIENDS writing assistant tried to sue the staff for sexual harassment? The court ruled in favor of the show and the unique environment that comedy writers work in.

And it should be pointed out, we make these horrible blue jokes not so much because we’re awful human beings, but because we’re under tremendous pressure. Scripts have to be fixed overnight. You are expected to be funny on demand, which is not easy to do. Try it.

I’ve probably spent half my life in writers rooms (although it seems more like 80%) and have quite a few stories. Almost none I can repeat here. But there is one that I want to share. And don’t worry, I’ll clean it up. But it speaks to this issue.

The showrunner on one particular series I worked on had maybe the filthiest mouth in Hollywood. Sailors and bikers would blush. But he was screamingly funny.

For late night rewrites we would have a writers assistant in the room taking down what was pitched. One night our normal assistant was sick so they got a temp to replace her. This new assistant (we’ll call her Prudy) didn’t know what hit her. After about an hour she finally spoke up. She said to the showrunner in a stern tone, “Can we just confine our comments to the script?”

There was a hush in the room. No one talks back to a showrunner like that . We braced ourselves for the explosion.

But it never came.

The showrunner took it in stride and good spirit. He said, “Alright, fine. Take this down”, and he began dictating.

“Fade in. Interior apartment – day. Fred enters. Fred says…”

At which point he let fly the raunchiest, filthiest, c-bomb laden, XXX, perverse stream-of-conscious monologue ever uttered. Needless to say, we were all dying.

When he was finished, careful not to leave out any depraved act or euphemism for sexual organ (he must've gone on for five minutes), he leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his neck, took a beat, and said to the temp:

“Okay, now read that back to me.”

Poor Prudy had to recite the entire offensive speech. By now we were on the floor, holding our sides.

I felt bad for Prudy because obviously she didn’t know what she was getting into. And clearly, she had the wrong sensibility for that position. But damn, it was funny.

And by the way, the showrunner did hold it down somewhat the rest of the evening, I’m sure that was in deference to her. He had made his point, but for all his colorful language and vivid imagery he really was a good guy. I wish he had asked her to type it up, though. God, would I have loved a copy of that.

65 comments:

Sean French said...

Sounds like there's a fine line between writing room etiquette and office bullying.

MikeNJD said...

"So what's your act's name?"

"The Aristocrats!"

And a legend was born...

Joe said...

This pleases me immensely.

Anonymous said...

That was hilarious.

SisterZip

danrydell said...

I always figured that in a comedy writer's room you had to allow people to go to extremes, not limit yourself, in order to dial it back and find the appropriate level of funny. Seems much easier to do it that way then to try and nose up to the level of comedy you're looking for by being shy.

Michael said...

I read a story about a CBS News producer who, in the middle of the newsroom, told about his actions the night before: getting high, having oral sex, and listening on headphones to "Ode to Joy." A prim young assistant got up and stormed out. The producer asked, "What's wrong with her?" Another producer said, "I don't know. Maybe she doesn't like Beethoven."

Rafferty said...

I am always amazed how people, who have no idea what it takes to do your job, come into your environment and think they can tell you how to do it.

Harry said...

After reading this story they're probably going to reopen that FRIENDS case.

Carlos M Hernandez said...

I would imagine that anyone that finds this post insensitive to the assistant has probably never worked in a close knit company before or never cared to.

In an office where people are mostly encouraged to remain in their cubicles and refrain from idle chit chat to get their work done (no one of course really follows that mandate), this type of conversation would be blown to pieces with law suits.

In an environment where everyone is supposed to work like a family of friends, where interaction is not only encouraged but demanded, this type of conversation should be more than expected.

Honestly, I don't know what anyone looking to get into this field is expecting if not to be surrounded by some of the most obnoxious people in the world. It's that attitude that makes them able to spit out what everyone wants to say but doesn't for fear of being exiled by humanity.

It's writing.

Phillip B said...

Part of the charm and outside interest comes from the mystery of the writing room.

Do any of the fictional portrayals of the writing rooms ring true with you, Ken?

Someone will have the bright idea of simply putting a camera in the room 24/7 - editing the results down to 30 minutes a week - and you won't actually have to do a show....

Mac said...

Funny story - I feel sorry for Prudy but she was in the wrong job. I read an interview with a
(classic era) Simpsons writer who said they used to start the day with pitching the most obscene suggestions involving all the characters, and some of the domestic pets. Then, when they felt they'd got it out of their systems, they'd be much more productive.

Lori Kirkland Baker said...

@Sean French -- Bullying means one person is picked on. Writers' rooms are equal opportunity for slams against your co-writers -- gay jokes, sex jokes, fat jokes, it's a free for all. I'm a woman writer and am impossible to offend. I think that quality has helped keep me working.

I miss a really "ribald" room. Etiquette says if you can't do room jokes, you aren't *really* funny. It shows spontaneity; something necessary for show night joke rewrites. Etiquette also says if you can do nothing BUT room jokes, you aren't really a writer.

Women of Cinematic Arts said...

One word: AWESOME.

Trevor said...

So let me get this right... Extreme pressure (well paid and much sought-after pressure at that) is a green light to throw decency out the window, and belittle and demean others -- all to justify being funny?

I know the point you're making, Ken. But there's no excuse for inexcusable behavior.

And you spent half of your life in company like this? Kinda sad, really.

tb said...

reminds me of your other funny story where you had the one woman read the entire list of offensive euphemisms over the speaker phone, that was a great one, too!

Emmett Flatus said...

I was not aware Rahm Emanuel was ever a showrunner.

Charles H. Bryan said...

That was hilarious.

Billy Joel got one lyric right: "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints."

wv: hyphero -- the name by which I fight my one-man war against crime, when I'm not using the name Charlie Sheen

Oh, hey, Ken -- my Kindle iPhone app is now warm and happy with your book in its tummy.

SebiMeyer said...

Beware of imminent f-bomb. You have been warned.

I used to work in a newsroom that had the same "problem." We worked long hours for virtually no money, so hey, we at least wanted to have fun while being there.

One day the advertising reps apparently had enough of it and send over their overly correct (read: stick up her ass) supervisor and complained to our very tired editor in chief in front of a full newsroom.

His response: "Sorry, we work so fucking hard we don't even hear that shit anymore." She stared at him a moment, then walked away.

All of burst out laughing. Then we realized he had made an honest mistake and had no idea why we were laughing. We explained, watched him run over to the ad department, and literally collapsed with laughter.

Anonymous said...

if you haven't worked in a writers room environment, watch a few episodes of the Larry Sanders Show or The Comeback. Those shows will give you a good idea of what it's like.

Ajjjj said...

Hey Ken,

I'm a big fan of your blog, and listened to your teleseminar, and the first one you did a while back, but I can't find the link for the middle one (I thought you did three.) All the links on your blog from 2009 point to the one you just did.

I'd really like to hear it, but can't find it anywhere.

Thanks!

jimfallis said...

And a happy International Women's Day to you too.

Ref said...

It would seem to me that the very nature of a writers' room involves NO inhibitions if it's going to work at all. Yes, sometimes it will be offensive and sometimes it will be intentionally offensive but without that freedom it won't work.

You have other people to cull out which jokes are over the line.

D. McEwan said...

What kind of idiot temp goes into an established work environment for one day's temping and then tries to lay down HER laws to the Big Boss? A temp who wants that day, and all other days, off, that's who.

And to "Sean French" and "Trevor": Get over yourselves. You'll find sitting down a lot more comfortable once you remove those huge sticks from up your butts.

[Whining] "Why can't comedy be nice and polite?"

Because Comedy is best when rudest.

Casey Reynolds said...

Let's face it. Writers today can't construct anything funny without resorting to vulgarities.

This is just an excuse for grown men to act like high school sophomores and pretend that doing so makes them cool. Also a great way to act out on all of those mysogynistic fantasies they've always had.

It's sort of pathetic, really.

MikeBo said...

To be honest, Ken I didn't read all of today's comments. But, I read enough to get the gist. You work in an environment where some of the outsiders just won't ever get it. I worked in news for more than 25 years. After I read your Sheen piece, I thought, “it’s the same kind of work shop." I worked on a short lived comedy show back in the 70's and for 13 weeks was part of the process you were talking about. My conclusion -comedy writing and journalism are like making sausage. To paraphrase Otto von Bismarck, “it’s like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
Mike Botula

Carlos M Hernandez said...

Casey,

I'm not sure if the women in writers rooms would like it very much that they are referred to as men with mysogynistic fantasies.

Tim W. said...

People who get offended offend me.

Carson said...

Firstly, Ken - I bought your book yesterday and then read half in one sitting. I would have read more, but I was told that if was going to keep laughing aloud like that, I'd have to leave the room.

Second, @Casey Reynolds I think there is a time and place for all words. As George Carlin famously said, "[there are] no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions - and words."

The writers room is a place for all words. It needs to be free and open for creativity to flourish. As Ken has said before - if stuff like this bothers some people, perhaps those people shouldn't try get a job as a writer on a sitcom.

Anonymous said...

Casey, there are a lot of women writers in that shop I think. I find it hard to believe that guy writers would have Ross and Chandler behave the way they did.

iain said...

Casey Reynolds: Wow, stereotype all men much? & today's writers are vulgar? Ever take a crack at reading "The Canterbury Tales?

Not to compare "Two & A Half Men" to Chaucer, but ol' Geoff also knew how to write a good fart joke.

Lori Kirkland Baker said...

Some of the trashiest bile came of out my mouth, Casey, and I'm far from being a man.

This is NOT the stuff the gets anywhere near the script. This is the unwind, joke around process that it takes to get ten people to settle in to write funny for mainstream. If it's not your bag, don't become a comedy writer. I used that same rule when deciding not to be a gynecologist.

Sir Funnybone said...

Gracious. In my day, comedy was a gentleman's endeavor, invariably written during proper hours with plenty of tea and finger sandwiches at the ready. That no one found our efforts humorous is entirely beside the point.

Kevin B said...

Prudy is now a network executive.

Dan O'Day said...

<@Ajjjj: You can download the teleseminar from http://danoday.com/writingsitcoms. (A modest fee is involved.)

Anonymous said...

Mmmm.. sounds like the big and powerful bullying the weak and hourly waged for no really good reason. He probably called her
"honey" too.

Tom Quigley said...

OK, show of hands: How many thought that watching Rob, Buddy and Sally in the writing room for THE ALAN BRADY SHOW was a realistic depiction of what it was like?....

I thought so...

Anonymous said...

Ken says the showrunner was a good guy, despite the lewd and colorful language.

But being crude and cracking disgusting jokes doesn't make someone a "bad guy". Being a cruel bully, however, does. At least in this instance.

Was Prudy out of line to come into someone else's job and tell them how to conduct themselves? Undoubtedly (though you have to sympathize with her, certainly she must have felt overwhelmed, to say the least.)

It would have been far more honest and respectable had the showrunner just tore into her and told her to shut up and do her job.

Instead, he went out of his way to humiliate and bully her.

No one is saying writers can't "be themselves" in the writers room and let fly with all kinds of nasty, disgusting jokes. Have at it. As the Courts agreed in the "Friends" case.

But that's not what happened here.

The showrunner's behavior actually does sound like it could be actionable in today's world. And rightly so.

TJ Hooker said...

Trevor...if this bothers you, then you're reading the wrong blog. Go someplace else.

Miguel Rios said...

To Casey R...Go back to watching the Fox News channel. This blog is for people with a sense of humor.

Mac said...

It's worth reading the actual judge's decision in the 'Friends' case.

To quote:

"..the creative process must be unfettered, especially because it can often take strange turns, as many bizarre and potentially offensive ideas are suggested, tried, and, in the end, either discarded or used.

We must not permit juries to dissect the creative process in order to determine what was necessary to achieve the final product and what was not, and to impose liability . . . for that portion deemed unnecessary. Creativity is, by its nature, creative. It is unpredictable. Much that is not obvious can be necessary to the creative process.


The full details are here:

http://bit.ly/g2FwcN

Cap'n Bob said...

I worked for the US Air Force for 32 years. The women I worked with were as profane and foul-mouthed as any man I've known. You don't have to be a comedy writer to hear such language.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

I always wondered who watched the old ABC Friday night line up in the 90s, with that Bob Saget show and Urkel and the like. Now I know: Trevor and Sean French.

Dave Creek said...

Cap'n Bob: same for the women I work with in a newsroom. In the last 30 years, I've gone from nearly an all-male environment to a mostly female one.

And the jokes and the attitudes are pretty much the same, no matter the gender. The important thing is that we work in a medium with tight deadlines, we have to trust one another, and that brings a closeness even among people who wouldn't necessarily be friends outside the work environment. Anything that superficially sounds like bullying is actually a form of bonding, of giving someone a "hard time."

Anyone believed to mean what they say in such an environment would be instantly shunned.

Dave said...

Perfect timing. I just read Sarah Silverman's Interview in Playboy magazine yesterday. Here's a relevant exceprt...

WARNING: adult language ahead

SILVERMAN: When we were working on the show, we noticed [Sarah Silverman Program co-creator] Rob Schrab would always get cranky toward the end of the day. We found out it was because he had to take a shit and needed to do it in the privacy of his home. Then we moved into office space, and one office had a private bathroom, so we gave it to Rob. Comedy writers can be so lazy, but when they’re motivated by something, they can do amazing things. The writers Chris Romano and Eric Falconer came in extra early the first morning and took a huge shit in Rob’s toilet, and then Chris put a toothpick with a homemade flag in the shit and wrote on the flag, “I know what you did last summer.” [laughs to the point of tears] It’s just so absurd and stupid. Why would you put “I know what you did last summer” on the flag? What does that horror movie from eight years ago have to do with their shit?

PLAYBOY: The work environment for your writing staff sounds like a fraternity party.

SILVERMAN: It can be, yeah. But [head writer and executive producer] Dan Sterling keeps us pretty focused. He made a rule that nobody can take out his dick until five o’clock.

PLAYBOY: Your writers have to be told not to expose themselves?

SILVERMAN: They do, because otherwise it would happen all the time. And the guys interpreted Dan’s rule as “Take your dick out at five.” It would be like [glances at watch], “Forty-five more minutes.”

PLAYBOY: What’s the context in which somebody might take out his penis?

SILVERMAN: Oh, there are so many! Chris started it. He takes his dick out all the time. And then Harris Wittels, the young one who is normally a very shy and nervous guy, started taking his dick out. It usually happens when we’re stuck on an outline or something. One of them will just stand up and pull down his pants and underwear and sit back down. It gets us out of the moment. It’s a safe room, where you can just do anything. [bold and italic mine] One time Chris came out of the bathroom and his dick was sticking through a napkin, out of his fly. I told him, “Chris, it isn’t five yet!” And he said, “I can’t help it. My dick just ate lobster.” [laughs] I know these are not clever jokes, but I love them.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Sir Funnybone, I think I've fallen in love with you. Pip, pip, and all that rot.

YEKIMI said...

Speaking of writers: Rachel Sweet, who used to be a pop singer from Akron, is now a writer/exec-producer on the TV show "Hot In Cleveland". In an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal's TV writer she claims in the interview: Sweet, in her late 40s, is in the same age bracket as the characters. ”as are all my fellow writers. I think our youngest writer is maybe late 30s. But you know, Rich, out here that’s kind of how it’s going. Writing staffs are getting smaller, just because of the economy, so show-runners want people who know how to write. They’re not necessarily in bringing people up and bringing people along. . . . It’s not there are more older writers working. I just think that, because there are a lot fewer jobs, jobs are going to people with a lot of experience first.”

I might be wrong, but I think you [and Earl Pomerantz] have stated that most shows now want writers who are way younger than what she states. So is she right or are you and Earl or is it a combination of the two?

If you want to read the whole interview: http://the330.com/on-screen/hot-in-cleveland-has-rachel-sweets-stamp/

(By the way, the Beacon Journal has a reputation of claiming "famous" people are from Akron even if they stopped here one day just to break wind maybe 20-30-40 years ago.)

analee said...

Reading the story was made me laugh but in other side i felt pity on Prudy.

Jennifer said...

As a script coordinator on numerous shows, I know the later the hour gets the raunchier the room gets. It's part of the turf. Doesn't matter if it's an hour-long or comedy, there's always dark, raunchy talk. It can be funny or serious, but it's never hurtful and always lets you get to know the people you're working with a little better.

I have no sympathy for Purdy. If you're a writer's assistant or script coordinator, you should know what you're getting into.

Thanks for sharing the story, just wish I could've read the monologue.

VP81955 said...

Reminds me of a joke in which two Army men were talking, and one was telling the other about what he did the previous night, using the f-word as an adjective with everything, right up to the point where he and his ladyfriend got into bed. His buddy asks what happened next, and he responded, "We had sexual intercourse!"

BTW, I used to work with someone named Prudy. Don't think it's her, though; the last I saw of her, she was now a more respectable "Prudence," reporting business news on TV.

wv: "consp" -- new slang for a certain problem with your stomach.

Sir Funnybone said...

Thank you, Tallulah. Praise from you is an honor indeed.

Matt Patton said...

OK, add me to the list of killjoys. Frankly, someone should have warned this poor woman what goes on in the writer's room at a sitcom before they threw her into the chaos. (If not the temp agency, then how about the showrunner or another member of the office staff?) And once she made the mistake she did (if it WAS a mistake), there were better ways of handling it than subjecting her to that kind of humiliation. This was NOT another member of the writing staff, nor was it the regular, battle-hardened secretary who knew what went on in the writing sessions. And when the boss did that to her, he crossed a line and became a bully. It would have taken less time to explain that this is how scripts get written than it did to make a fool of her and satisfy one of the grubbier corners of his ego. The fact that he kept his language under more control AFTER that suggests that he knew that he had gone too far. Creative Type he may have been, but that doesn't completely excuse him from the rules of basic decency. This isn't a matter sexual harassment or someone's right of Free Expression being trampled. It's a matter of behaving like a grown-up. Even if you are writing a sit-com.

te said...

Someone will have the bright idea of simply putting a camera in the room 24/7 - editing the results down to 30 minutes a week - and you won't actually have to do a show....

They've done a TV show, a movie and a play, all based on the same writers room: "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "My Favorite Year," and "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."

Rory L. Aronsky said...

It's a matter of behaving like a grown-up. Even if you are writing a sit-com.

Those are two incongruous sentences. Grown-up? Sitcom? You can't possibly hope to be a grown-up if you're writing a sitcom. Otherwise, your sitcom is shit. Which makes me believe that besides the very flawed concept, the writers' room of "Shit My Dad Says" (I refuse to use the pansy-ass censored title) must have a lot of leather chairs and pipes.

They've done a TV show, a movie and a play, all based on the same writers room: "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "My Favorite Year," and "Laughter on the 23rd Floor."

"Then why don't you be head writer, Alice?" - Sy
"I can't take that chance."
"On what?"
"That I'd become like you."

[I pulled this next one from IMDB, to get it exact]
Sy: We're discussing morals. We're talkin' generations to come here.
Alice Miller: [for Herb] You're not qualified to discuss morals, Sy.
Sy: Up your hole with a Mello Roll, Alice! You too, Herb!

My people! And I don't even work in sitcoms.

jbryant said...

I think the showrunner naturally assumed that anyone assigned to the assistant gig, even on a temp basis, would have some idea of what the job entailed. So if anything, blame the temp agency for not giving Prudy a heads up. But in that situation, you're supposed to be quiet and do your job, not moralize to your boss of the moment. I'm sure the situation was uncomfortable for Prudy, but ultimately the showrunner did her a favor -- I'll bet if she truly couldn't stand that kind of heat, she got out of the kitchen and took the next bus back to Pleasantville.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

One of my other favorite exchanges in "My Favorite Year":

"He's plastered!" - Sy
"So are some of the finest erections in Europe." - Alan Swann

ajjjj said...

Dan O'Day, I thought that was the teleseminar from a few weeks ago. Can you put up a link to all three, so I can figure out which one I've heard. Or maybe I'm wrong and that one is the one from a couple years ago.

Thanks!

Dan O'Day said...

@ajjjj: It's the one from a couple of years ago.

ajjjj said...

@Dan O'Day - Thanks for your help. I really appreciate you and Ken putting these on, and your quick and helpful responses are fantastic. Keep on rockin', guys.

HopFox said...

Ken:

Anyone who is upset about this post and the post about Charlie Sheen should stay far far away from the entertainment field....this is nothing compared to the days that top level executives would throw phones and on an hourly (or maybe by the minute depending on the day)multi- expletive rant! There's no biz like show biz!!!

selection7 said...

I agree with the minority here. Don't confuse the necessity of being ribald in a writier's room with some imagined necessity to be cruel to someone who didn't understand. Being a bully because you can is not the point the showrunner needed to make, while the point that really needed to be made was barely communicated. That doesn't mean if I had been there that I wouldn't have laughed!, but I would have had the sense not to be proud of it later.

Part of being an adult is actually learning HOW to be immature. When you're a kid, you only do it completely thoughtlessly because you have no perspective and few cares. As an adult that would be a very bad quality (ask Charlie Sheen, who also works in comdedy).

Trevor said...

"And it should be pointed out, we make these horrible blue jokes not so much because we’re awful human beings, but because we’re under tremendous pressure."

Nicely said, selection7. I suppose comedy writers are now hunkered down thinking should be making jokes about tsunamis wiping out thousands simply because we're "under pressure".

Being a comedy writer doesn't negate your responsibility for being human.

Anonymous said...

I found your story to be very dated. When I looked again at the picture you'd posted (from the 50's), it confirmed my belief.

Anonymous said...

How I long for intelligent humor. This story is a good example of why it is in such short supply...

-C.

droszel said...

What, no I'm so stressed that I have to make jokes about the situation in Japan post

A Cunning Stunt said...

Your favorite show is made by staggeringly brilliant and creative people who are just barely hiding a colorful rainbow of semi-diagnosed psychiatric issues. I guarantee it.

If you can't handle that reality then I suggest that some of you stick with the studio-approved press packages showing all the shiny, happy behind the scenes moments (hey, look, there's even a wacky blooper reel!), you are clearly not ready to know how the sausages are made.