Sunday, February 24, 2013

Writing the Academy Awards

I’ve never written for the Oscars. I would very much like to, just for the experience. But from what I understand it’s a horrible thankless job.

I did have the chance once, but had to turn it down. My partner and I were showrunning ALMOST PERFECT in 1996. We got a call from Quincy Jones (who was producing the show that year). He had first asked Larry Gelbart who passed. Quincy asked if he could recommend someone else and bless him, Larry mentioned us. I can’t tell you how many writing offers we received thanks to Larry Gelbart. He got us way more work than our agent. But we had to turn it down because we were already working 90 hour weeks.

All of the following information is second and third hand, but from what writers of award shows have told me, this is pretty much the assignment.  You might find it somewhat less than idyllic.  

The hosts generally have their own people. But they may want you to assist. And of course, the host’s people are in charge. Depending on who that is, you may serve at the pleasure of some asshole you wouldn’t hire to write a laundry list.   Or someone you've fired. 

You write the banter between presenters. Then it has to be approved by each presenter, their manager, agent, publicist, dog walker, and psychic. Also the producers, network, and standards-and-practices. When revisions come back you don’t know if they’re from the star himself and must be followed or his pool man in which case they’re just suggestions. And more often than not these revisions are way worse than what you wrote.

Still, when they bomb you’ll be blamed for it.

There’s also the issue of writing for some actors who couldn’t be funny if it meant world peace. They will take your genuinely funny lines and trample them into the ground.

You’ll be blamed.

Or worse, they will ad lib. We’ve all seen excruciating examples of that.

It’ll be your fault.

Sometimes presenters come in with their own schtick. So when Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller do a bit that bombs you’re the one who takes the heat.

From what I hear the weekend of the show (i.e. now) the rehearsals are insane. Presenters jockey for position, things get changed, stars are in, stars are out, your lines get cut, you’re scrambling to write new ones then don’t know who to give them to for approval.

The night of the show you’re on call to feed ad libs to the host so that he looks good. And if he doesn’t pull them off you-know-who is held responsible.

Meanwhile, some presenters can’t read off the teleprompter so they inadvertently kill a few of your jokes that have worked every rehearsal. Pin those on you, too.

Still, it’s gotta be a trip to at least experience this once. Even if Dustin Hoffman muffs your joke, hey, you can say you wrote for Dustin Hoffman. For two days you rub elbows with Hollywood royalty. Perhaps Penelope Cruz or George Clooney will say hello.  I don’t know if you’re invited to any post-Oscars parties. Or whether you get any swag. I doubt it but maybe you do.  Like I said, it would sure be worth doing once. 

Of course if I wrote the show I couldn’t review it. Hmmm. That’s probably reason alone to hire me.

But since they didn’t this year I will be reviewing tonight’s Academy Awards. My bitchy recap will appear in this space early Monday morning.  And if you don't like it, blame the Oscar writers. 


Barry Traylor said...

I'm looking forward to reading your review of the Oscars much more than am to watching it.

Pat Reeder said...

I usually just watch the opening, then let it roll in the background while working, so I can look up about every 35 minutes when something interesting happens ("And now, to perform our next nominee for Best Song, Mister Russell Crowe!") and write a topical one-liner about it.

But this year, a friend of my wife's invited her to an official VIP Oscar-watching party at a theater, through the USA Film Festival. The friend canceled at the last minute, so now, I'm reluctantly going. The only thing that could get me to agree to sit through the Oscars and actually look at the screen for the whole 15 hours are those seven magical words: "Ticket includes open bar and free buffet."

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Sure, writing for the Oscars, or any award shows, is probably a thankless the job, but the people I feel sorry for the most are those poor unfortunate souls who have to coordinate those shows... the people who actually have to put them all together, the stage managers, the stage hands, etc. I've done that kind of work before, and it is not fun, especially when you can't even take a freakin' bathroom break because it's considered slacking off your duties. And the thing of it is, they have to put together a completely different show like every other week during January and February, which makes me wonder: WHY can't we just have ONE award show that covers EVERYTHING (movies, TV, writing, directing, acting, cinematography, etc.) and cut EVERYBODY some slack? It'd benefit viewers too; I keep losing track of which show's when because there's so many of them in a two month period (and speaking of which, why does country music alone have like FOUR award shows in a year?).

normadesmond said...

i'll surely be back for the bitchy part.

BigTed said...

Why is it that some celebrity presenters seem never to have seen the words they're speaking before? It's not that they're just trying to evade responsibility for bad jokes -- they appear completely mystified by the lines that appear on the Teleprompter.

RCP said...

"My bitchy recap will appear in this space early Monday morning."

Can't wait!

Christodoulos said...

That was quite illuminating, Ken. I used to wonder, they have all those great writers, how come they can't make a great show? Now I understand.

But, still, I'm gonna enjoy it. So, there will be boring parts, stupid gags. Eh. I love movies and tv. They made my loneliness less lonely, my hanging-out-with friends time more fun, they helped my dates with girls. I'm gonna say, "Thank you, Hollywood". (And I'll add, "But please, less crap this year, if you can".)

Hollywoodaholic said...

Which all doesn't explain why Bruce Vilanch loves the gig and has done it off and on for more than two decades. You hang out with A-list celebs, become their best friend when you throw them a good line, then get paid shovel-loads to punch up their next feature, and you don't take it all that seriously. It's only as big a pain in the ass as you make it.

DrBOP said...

Ken, if you haven't done so, go check out Evanier's blog today. Story about his mom's cable bill is a CLASSIC.....a story you could build a half-hour sitcom script around.....hell, there's almost a "Who's On First" routine right on the page.....sadly HILARIOUS!

mdv1959 said...

As someone who has worked on hundreds of award shows, and in close quarters with the writers, I'd say that your information is pretty accurate.

One thing not mentioned-- aside from the most prestigious shows (Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys) virtually none of the presenters come to rehearsals, even the full dress rehearsal prior to the show. Typically they read through their lines back stage off a teleprompter a little while before going on stage. A writer is present to do rewrites if the talent requests them and a producer may be within ear shot to make sure the talent doesn't make a crazy change. (I recall an Emmy Award show when a producer spent the better part of a half hour talking a presenter out of using the occasion to berate the children of a recently deceased honoree.)

By the way Joseph S.-- the reason there isn't just one award show is because these shows (for the most part) aren't really about the awards. The awards are a pretense to create a two or three hour show around. Networks need content and it's even better if it's something they can brand and control. Hence we have Nickelodeons' Kids Choice Awards (an incredibly hard ticket to get BTW), The MTV VMA and Movie Awards, Spike TV's "Guys Choice" Awards, etc.

DBenson said...

I used to aspire to be a writer. Now I'm aspire to being one of the guys who persecutes writers. It seems there's more power and probably more money in that.

Anonymous said...

All spot on, and you didn't even mention the most tasteless ending ever -- the song parody "Here's to the Losers!"

Steve Gorelick

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