Monday, January 27, 2014

Who is allowed in the Writers Room?

The Writers Room needs to be a safe environment – especially for comedy writers. Seven or eight highly talented but bat-shit crazy people are locked in a room for hours on end and can not leave until they’ve fixed the script that’s currently in production. That could be as the rest of the world is going to work at 8 in the morning. It’s a lot of pressure and one way writers let off steam is by being hilariously cruel and politically appalling. There are no sacred cows. One time in a room the staff made merciless fun of someone for a half an hour until one person observed, “He’s only one day old.”

And those are the tasteful jokes compared to the sexual references. Personally, I go by the Carl Reiner code. He doesn’t care how dirty a joke is as long it’s really funny. And if you’re in the right room with the right group, you will laugh your ass off every night. Imagine going to the best comedy club in town and they pay you.

The thing is though, writers have to feel uninhibited. And we can’t when there are outsiders in the room. Many times I’ve had friends ask if they could just sit in on a rewrite, and I always politely tell them no. You’d be surprised how fast seven people become self conscious when someone’s cousin is in the corner.

One time on a show, one of the executive producers let one of the cast members come up and sit in on a rewrite. She was just curious and wanted to watch the process. What she saw was eight people who sat for an hour and didn’t say a word. Eventually she left and the rest of us almost killed the exec producer.

The Writers Room is the ultimate Las Vegas. “What happens in the Writers Room stays in the Writers Room.” Obviously, there’s no control when an outsider is in the room. The CIA leaks more secrets than seasoned staff writers.

And all that is not the worst. When I was on a show, one of the executive producers was friends with a highly renown drama writer who was curious as to the process with a sitcom. Could she sit in? Since this was a fellow writer we said okay. An hour into the rewrite she started shooting down ideas. The staff glared at the exec and mouthed “What the fuck?!” We said, “Let’s call it a day” and broke. Once the drama writer left we reconvened and continued the rewrite.

If for some amazing reason you are allowed access into a Writers Room, do not pitch jokes and do not call out things like, “I don’t believe he would do that.” An agent I know came into the room once and started pitching jokes. I thought his client was going to strangle him. Warm-Up guys have been notoriously guilty of this. It's a good way to lose your job. 

John Rich was a legendary TV director – from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW to ALL IN THE FAMILY and hundreds more. One day he’s on the set directing a show for ABC. The ABC president’s son walked on the set. He wanted to observe. John chased him off. The crew couldn’t believe it. Sure enough, an hour later, the president of ABC was on the phone wanting to talk to John. John picked up the phone and before the prez could speak said, “Hey, I was just about to call you. My son is 13 and wants to come to your office and sit across the desk all day and watch you work. That wouldn’t be a problem, right?” The exec got the message, laughed, and told John to have a good runthrough. And no, John Rich was not fired off that show. He directed many more episodes.

But my favorite story involves the writers of THE NEW MICKEY MOUSE CLUB. That was the series done in Orlando that featured, among others – Britney Spears. The Writers Room was on the ground floor and had a big picture window. There were no drapes, no blinds, nothing to cover them. Why? Because they were a stop on the Disney lot tour. Every fifteen minutes another tram would pull up to the window and thirty tourists would gawk at the writers for two minutes. Talk about a buzz kill.

So please don't take it personally if you're not admitted into a Writers Room.  We're just trying to do our job.  And of course the irony is: you can’t get in, but we can’t get out. And 90% of the time we envy you.


Jim S said...


I know exactly what you mean. For many years I worked in the local newspaper business. There is a "activity" suggested to local cub scout dens whereby the guys can go to a local newspaper to see how the news is put together. Since both the publishers I worked for liked the notion of positive community relations, we would "gratefully" show the kids around.

One day, I did something stupid. I took them into the dark room (yes, it was that long ago) and showed them how print a picture. I said that the paper didn't react to red light and that's how we could see.I also pointed out that when the red light was on it drowned out red colors in the darkroom, pointing out a sign that could no longer be read because the the words were printed with red ink.

The kids loved it. The den mothers loved it. My publisher loved it. My reward was that I was now the cub scout guy. Man, that routine got old fast.

As an older reporter said, rookie mistake.

Carol said...

I'm fairly sure you've touched on it before, but reading this entry made me wonder about it, and I always enjoy your take on this sort of thing.

I know there's been legal issues in the past with harrassment in the writing room. Where's the line between 'get over it' and 'the (male) writers need to stop being such asshats'?

What advice would you give to both male and female writers to keep the room the way you said in this entry it needs to be and still be comfortable for all involved?

Greg Ehrbar said...

Yes indeed, originally there were giant picture windows looking out on to the soundstages of the New Mickey Mouse Club, a Disney Channel show called "Adventures in Wonderland" (which was an amazing set), pretty much any movie that was filming -- and the post production offices.

That was quite an era. Sometimes, there was a way to block out the windows (I recall that happening when either Stallone or some other stars were shooting there).

You could also sometimes see me and my co-workers at numerous audio, film and video recording and edit sessions.

It was the oddest thing to be on the other side of the glass. Every few minutes, a group of people would appear at the window, stare for a while, then move on to the next part of the tour.

Watching us in recording and edit sessions wasn't very exciting, except that they might catch a glimpse of Regis Philbin or somebody else they recognized on the monitors.

Like so many things, after a while we got used to the people entering, watching and leaving. What I loved to do is to wait until they started to leave and then suddenly wave enthusiastically at the folks, as if it was part of the show.

They always waved back and I guess it was kind of fun. And highly surreal.

Igor said...

A (perhaps most trivial) question for some upcoming Friday:

Ken, in the Cheers outline you linked to, I noticed that Woody says there weren't any private schools in his town of Hanover (Indiana). And that the nearest one was in "Shelbyville".

Then some years later, we get the The Simpsons (in the town of Springfield, in some state that is notoriously unstated) with their own nearby town of "Shelbyville".

No, I am not asking if this means that the Springfield in The Simpsons is, in fact, Springfield, IN.

Rather - Google maps tells me that there are many towns closer to Hanover than is Shelbyville - which is about 70 miles away..

And so, perhaps "Shelbyville" was picked because it sounds funny?

Funnier than towns that are closer to Hanover, such as Madison, Nabb. Underwood, North Vernon, Butlerville, Sellersburg, La Grange, and Seymour?

Steve the Creep said...

Have you ever worked in the Writers Room of a drama? My writing partner and I always comment on when we read stories of people coming out of comedy writing rooms, they're all sorts of back stabbing and competition and neurosis, but when we read stories of people in drama writing rooms, they sound more, well, fun. Do you think it has something to do with that recent study that says most comedians have some level of psychological disorders?

Breadbaker said...

So I'm guessing Annie didn't pick her profession because of her great experience at Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

GeeRab said...

Actually the Mouse Club offices were in a one-story bungalow and the writer's room was a huge conference room, with a number of long tables, one of which I usually lied upon as we pitched ideas. The window wasn't that bad.

My office however was much closer to the tram "On the left are the offices of the New Mickey Mouse Club and on the right is the giant asparagus used in Honey I Shrunk the Kids" was my portion. The widow over the set was off high and behind and people would stand there watching run throughs where they couldn't hear anything but had to wonder why we were all wearing heavy sweaters and jackets in the middle of summer in Orlando.

On the other hand if you wanted off-color and politically and socially incorrect humor where kids 8-13 were the objects of the joke, the Mouse Club was the place to be.

Kane said...

CBS did fire John Rich off of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. When the series went into production after the pilot sold, Rich and Sherwood Schwartz were at CBS, where Rich was given a particular script and told that wad the GILLIGAN episode CBS wanted shot first. Rich refused, pointing out that the script in question was technically complex and would be better left till the early production kinks that every series has were smoothed out. He selected a different script and insisted that it was a better choice because it was a much simpler shoot and gave the show's characters much opportunity to interact, something a new cast needs. Rich got his way, but was fired by CBS after directing only three episodes of the series (including the one CBS wanted filmed first).

Trivia: Rich hated the lagoon that CBS built for the series because he thought it looked more like a small private lake than something that opened out onto the Pacific Ocean.

YEKIMI said...

Yeah, can understand about not having outsiders watching you work. Had friends that worked at a radio station in Cleveland and it had a ground level window which anyone could stop,look in and watch the DJ do their thing. Being located across from the Greyhound bus station you got a boatload of "colorful" characters stopping by [wienie waggers, drunks, idiots that would just stand there and pound on the window, etc.] Used to have a curtain but management took it down. I think it may have been where the "morning zoo" name took root because everyone felt they were in a zoo exhibit. I wasn't much help because I used to run outside and do insane stuff trying to get my friends to crack up while they were on-air. Tables were turned when I ended up working at a station that had a giant window that looked out into the lobby and people could wander in off the street [before everyone became all security crazy] and watch us. We had a curtain we could shut but the big shots wanted it left open so the public could see what went on at a radio station. That sort of ended when one of the DJs took someone that came in back to the station manager's office, opened the door and told him that the gentleman wanted to watch HIM work just like he could watch the DJ work. They let them start closing the curtain after that.

DeAnn said...

I worked on the Universal lot where the tram would come by the writers room every ten minutes or so. The people couldn't exactly see into the writers room, but we were on the part of the tour where the tour guide would say, "Tens of thousands of scripts are written every year and only .5 percent of them get made. You have a better chance of wining the lottery than selling a script." Kinda depressing for a writer t hear every ten minutes.

DeAnn said...

I worked on the Universal lot where the tram would come by the writers room every ten minutes or so. The people couldn't exactly see into the writers room, but we were on the part of the tour where the tour guide would say, "Tens of thousands of scripts are written every year and only .05 percent of them get made. You have a better chance of wining the lottery than selling a script." Kinda depressing for a writer t hear every ten minutes.

Anonymous said...

Friday Question...

Ken... You do know that Natalie Woods' sports car is up for sale soon, don't you? Are you going to try to buy it, or are you not as big a Natalie fan as you thought you were?

The Mutt said...

I was part of the team that did the rewrite of the Indiana Jones show at Disneyworld. We were behind the big window on the tour. I thought it was hysterical. It reminded me of that Star Trek episode on the overpopulated planet.

The team was six writers and three stuntmen. Funny thing, by the time it was done, we stuntmen had written 90% of the show.

thesamechris said...

I can't even browse the internet when being watched at work let alone be productive.

Carl said...

Re: the story about John Rich and "Gilligan's Island"...

It makes perfect sense to me that on a brand-new series you'd want to start production with scripts that give your new cast a great deal of opportunity to interact, get into their characters, and become comfortable with each other rather than with scripts that are going to require you to give most of your attention to special effects and technical stuff. Completely logical. Not that "logical" has ever had anything to do with how TV executives think.

It was probably one of the same scripts, but Sherwood Schwartz, the fella responsible for foisting "Gilligan" and "The Brady Bunch" on the world, told about "the last straw" between Rich and CBS was when Rich insisted on filming on location at Zuma Beach rather than at the lagoon CBS had built for the show. The script in question had to do with the castaways trying to repair their wrecked boat, and the show climaxed with a scene in which the unfortunate vessel falls to pieces. Rich had it literally flying apart, board by board, piece by piece, accompanied by cartoony sound effects, rather than simply collapsing. CBS saw no reason the script couldn't be shot on their backlot at the lagoon. Rich's argument was that, first of all, the lagoon wasn't big enough to handle a scene as big as the one he was shooting and, second, it was established in the (first season) opening credits that the ship was wrecked on a large stretch of open beach. Schwartz insisted on letting Rich film it his way, but right after filming was completed, CBS ordered Rich off the series. Rich, who had known Schwartz for many years, chose to depart rather than cause Schwartz any further trouble with the network.

And I'm pretty sure you can saw that Rich's directorial career survived losing his gig on "Gilligan's Island."

Angry Gamer said...

Friday question.

Love the Blog and it ALWAYS makes me smile. Yes it makes me smile or giggle every time.

I have noticed that your blog posts seem to follow a familiar pattern.

Something like this:
Intro (general info)
Inside Scoop (details from the trenches)
Little Joke
Middle Exposition (marking time, biz story time, setup)
Last Story or Observation
End Credit or zinger one liner

So... is this deliberate? Is this the off the cuff organization of a genius comedic writer? What gives?

Ok more than one question... :)

Wayne said...

I remember that episode of Gilligan.
S1E8 Goodbye Island. Gilligan finds tree sap that makes perfect glue. He and Skipper get glued to boat. Very funny sight gags. Filmed on real ocean beach.
Then Gilligan finds the glue is only temporary and tries to warn before they set off in ocean. They don't believe him till the boat falls apart in front of them on the beach.
Two big set pieces filmed on beach.
It was worth it for the laughs.

Brian Phillips said...

Friday question: Every so often, a TV show will run a "live" episode. "Hot in Cleveland" is kicking off this season with one and, of course, at one time, much of TV was "live".

Have you ever directed a live episode or been on set for one?

Johnny Walker said...

Great post, thanks Ken!

One question: Where's the photo from? (Isn't that Phoef Sutton sitting there?) That's a LOT of people in the writers room, isn't it?

I'd love to sit in and watch something being constructed, but I'm sure the process is long and arduous when you're trying to break stories.

I can imagine how unsettling someone coming in would be. Like a stranger sitting in on your Thanksgiving Dinner. That said, if they pitched something genuinely funny, why wouldn't that be welcome...? (What was it Carl Reiner said... ;) Or is the problem that warm-up guys pitch generally bad stuff, and break the flow of the room?

Dale said...

I imagine the situation is much like the gf in Spinal Tap.

So many bands suffer the Yoko factor.

T.J. said...

"That was the series done in Orlando that featured, among others – Britney Spears."

Geez, you might want to mention some of those "others": Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, and Keri Russell. Their casting director had a pretty good eye for talent.

Hank Gillette said...

I read “Forever Dobie” by Dwayne Hickman. Hickman was the star of the 1959 television show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”. In the late 1970s, he became a network executive for CBS, where he was given supervision over the production of various CBS shows.

Hickman writes: “I’d read a script and make some notes regarding changes that I felt would improve the overall tone of the piece… My usual notes were general and tended to deal with the overall piece as opposed to small details that didn’t matter. For example, if it was a comedy and a little flat, I’d tell the producer to try to make it funnier. If it was a drama, I’d suggest that he increase the jeopardy and the suspense.”

In other words, Hickman got paid big bucks to tell the producers of comedy shows to “be more funny” and the producers of drama shows to “be more dramatic”. Few people are up to such awesome responsibility, which I guess is why it is so hard to get a job as a network executive.