Thursday, April 21, 2016
It’s such a crapshoot. You could get on a network show that is cancelled after three episodes or be on a cable show that goes for three years. Or vice versa.
Happily, I was on the other side for most of my career. I was the showrunner hiring the staff. And that’s not a piece of cake either because there are so many factors involved that you won’t know until you’re in the foxhole. You really have to take a flyer on these people.
So what do I look for? Well, first of all it depends on my needs and my budget. Ideally you look for writers who can give you good drafts and also are helpful in the room with jokes and story fixes. But the truth is there aren’t that many. Yes, there are a thousand writers out there but only a select few who can deliver the goods. So if I hear of one, or a team, I snatch them up immediately.
For the most part you’re offered writers who excel in one of area but are weak in another (e.g. good drafts but quiet in the room). So you have to decide your need. Do you have good room people already and need script help? Or are you covered with scripts but lack strong joke support?
What is the sensibility of your show? If it's about the dating life of Millennials you should probably have some Millennials. If it's about a family you should have a few staff members who have families. I'd be an idiot to write a show about diverse characters without a lot of diversity in the room.
Personally, I always like to have several women on the staff -- regardless of the subject matter. I like their perspective and they keep me honest when writing women characters.
And again, all of this is within the parameters of my budget.
Another HUGE factor is their personality. How well do they play with others? How much of a team player are they? Do they bathe?
You spend way more time in the room with your writing staff than your family. You better all get along. And it’s not easy. Writers tend to be neurotic. They tend to be competitive. They tend to have big egos. And they tend to be insecure. Add to this constant deadline pressure and you have a recipe for TWELVE ANGRY MEN on a daily basis for ten months. So you do your best to find people who might (if you’re lucky) get along.
The truth is, when you have a good room it’s a fantastic place to be. Imagine spending twelve hours a day with bright interesting people who make you laugh constantly. There are worse ways of making a living and having top-flight actors perform your words for an audience of millions (or at least several thousands).
But there are sour apples who can take down a room. And in time they are weeded out. I think over the years I’ve worked with all of them. (And I say that fully aware that there are showrunners who are absolute nightmares too – in some cases far worse than any staff writer with an annoying idiosyncrasy.)
Here are a few staff writer quirks that piss me off. And buyers beware. Showrunners should do their due diligence – talk to previous employers and read current first drafts (before the staff got ahold of them).
There’s always the writer that is constantly on their iPhone texting. Their eyes are never on the monitor displaying the script you’re working on. I'm not above saying put the fucking phone away.
Similarly, there’s the writer who gets fifty phone calls a day and is out of the room more than he's in.
There’s the grammar police. He or she has nothing to offer so they try to make themselves useful by picking at the grammar. “That should be a semi-colon.” Who gives a shit? That’s for proofing. For now I’m concentrating on the lines, not punctuation.
You have the person who wants to go back four pages. I usually want to kill this person. If you had a problem on page 16 and didn’t say anything and we’re now on page 30 we are not going back. I worked with an excellent writer who got fired off a first-class show because of that bad habit.
And then there’s the person who sulks. Writing rule number one: Pitch something ONCE. If the showrunner says no, drop it. Do not pitch it again five minutes later. And do not SULK. I worked with a hilarious writer, one of the best room guys I’ve ever seen, but after a couple of years he was usually not asked back. It just wasn’t worth the sulking.
More than anything else, you need your staffers to project a positive outlook (even if they don’t believe it – which none of them do). There are enough negatives – temperamental actors, idiotic notes, network politics, production restrictions, working weekends, the Red Vines are all gone – that you have to fight to urge to give into that. Because if you do you’re buried.
So that’s the landscape. No one from either side knows what they’re getting into. And from that somehow great television is made. Again, best of luck to all concerned. May you wind up in the ideal situation for you.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM