Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The pros and cons of networking

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post when I drifted off and started talking about something else.

It’s from Jim S:

Networking. I've noticed that many writers often work on each other's projects. Do you ask Mr. X after seeing his show for job?  I recall reading about a showrunner who would give one assignment a year to his old mentor who had aged out of the business so that the mentor could keep his health insurance from the writer's guild.

Is that kind of loyalty common?

I don’t know if it’s common, but we gave our mentor an assignment in his later years. We were thrilled to do it. And we were rewarded with a great script. It’s not like athletes. Talent doesn’t fade with age.

Showrunners will often hire writers they’ve worked with and trust. It only makes sense. That said, openings do come up that require showrunners to hire people they have no history with. Lots of time these positions will be lower level thus allowing the showrunner to groom and mentor the new scribes.

One way that new writers can “audition” is to offer their services free to showrunners when they have a pilot in production and are looking to put together a temporary staff to help rewrite and punch up.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this practice. First of all, I feel the young writers are being taken advantage of. It’s one thing to ask a friend to help. We have a relationship, and I also feel I can reciprocate by helping out on his pilot somewhere down the road. But to ask someone I don’t know to come in for eight hours, help out, with no guarantees at all seems unfair. I would feel too guilty. I’m getting paid a lot of money; he's getting nothing but a lovely parting gift and cold Chinese food. It doesn’t seem right.

Yes, if you’re a young writer and you’re offered a chance to participate in a rewrite for a showrunner you don’t know I would say jump at it. You never know. You might impress him and ultimately get a job out of it. I will just say this tough: the odds are against it. Lots of things have to fall in place. But it does happen.  And even if chances are low, you gotta take it. 

My other concern is that when I have a pilot in production it is no time to break anybody in. I much prefer to surround myself with a smaller group of All-Star writers I know. We move quicker and more efficiently. We all have the same comic sensibility. No one is going to waste our time pitching completely inappropriate jokes. Everyone is rowing in the same direction.

I was in a room a couple of years ago for a pilot rewrite. I kid you not, there was no less than twenty writers – probably more. High level, mid level, newbies, maybe even a few people from the studio tour who just happened to wander in. And before that, at the table reading, there were five to ten more writers in attendance. It was nuts.

I’d say most of the writers in the rewrite never spoke a word. I don’t know why they were there other than to eat lunch or maybe hide out from the cops. Others were pitching drivel. Maybe four of the writers actually got jokes in. And they were primarily veterans. Most of the stuff came from the two showrunners themselves. And here’s the irony, they’re both terrific writers. If we had a pilot I would invite just the two of them to help. That’s all we’d need.

So for young writers, not only is it hard to stand out in normal circumstances, you’re trying to be noticed in a room of twenty. Depending on when you enter the room you might be stuck in the back corner – like having the farthest booth in the county fair.

What was the original question? I’ve gone off on a tangent and forgot what he asked. Oh yeah. Networking.

Networking is important. Showrunners help their mentors, friends who are down on their luck, writers’ assistants that have earned a shot, staffers they’ve worked with before, and newbies that dazzle in pilot rewrites.

The trick is getting in. And if free labor is one way then you’ve got to do it. But make no mistake -- you’re doing the showrunner a favor as much as he’s doing one for you.

Somewhere in all that I hope I answered Jim's question.  Or at least touched on it.


Scooter Schechtman said...

"Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post when I drifted off and started talking about something else."
The glorious gist of "Tristram Shandy", and you have no apologies to make.[takes another hit off the hookah]

Pat Reeder said...

Your comment about the show with all the writers and so few who contributed anything reminded me of something I read in one of Steve Allen's books. He was puzzled when the long list of writers would scroll by on "Saturday Night Live" by how many writers it took them to turn out two good sketches and a lot of filler once a week when he used to do 90 minutes of good material five nights a week with a handful of writers.

It also made me think of something some friends of mine once told me. They're a married couple who are a well-known comedy and writing team, and who used to write for several top network sitcoms, both on staff and as show doctors. The wife was telling me that I was such a good writer, I should get out of radio and go into television. I told her my limited experience with TV had convinced me to stay in radio. She said that was probably wise because on some of the shows she worked on, it seemed that half the staff was there to get the show on the air, while the other half was there to stab the first half in the back and take credit for their work.

Igor said...

Ken, to offer at least HOT Chinese food to your worker-newbees, I recommend the MaxiMatic EWMST-325 Elite Platinum Triple Slow Cooker, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008GS8Q6S/ref=ox_sc_sfl_title_1?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER

Jacob said...

Who is Steve Allen?

Terrence Moss said...

Look it up.

Rich said...

Who is Steve Allen?

Dead guy. Self-proclaimed genius. Had a TV show a couple of thousand years ago. Spent his latter years appearing on TV in bad hairpieces to remind everybody how brilliant he was. Wrote a bunch of books based on the theory that the world was waiting breathlessly for his opinion on...well...everything. Claimed to have written over a thousand songs. (Old joke: name three.)

Dusty said...

Hi Ken. Friday Question for you: I've heard that part of Dancin' Homer came Wild Bill and the Roar from 34 at Orioles games. Any truth to this?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Friday Question: Why all the plastic surgery and botox and collagen? Does no one know that screens have higher resolutions now and we can see how badly the work went and how unnatural the face looks? And can't we just CGI lines out of faces we love?

You might have answered this question before. I'm not even sure it's a question as much as an exasperated rant. Yep, I saw a photo of someone who was once picture perfect and now looks a little frightening.

By the way, thank you for the posts regarding the production of your play. They aren't just informative; your genuine appreciation of the talents and travails of others is a tall cool glass of positive - it refreshes the soul. Thanks for that.

Lyle said...

Enjoyed your comment about talent never getting old.

Wish that was recognized at the network level.

I read both you the Earl Pomerantz religiously ... love you both. You're working. Earl's not. He should be.

Enormous talent. It hasn't died. If I were a network big shot I'd hire the best damned comedy writers I could find. They don't have to be 23 or 24. They can be Earl's age. With his track record.

I'm just sayin' . . .

Gary said...

Rich, Steve Allen was also one of the funniest, wittiest talents ever. He could do 90 funny minutes of a talk show without any preparation or scripted questions, compared with today's shows, that contain not one second of spontaneity. All his innovations are now taken for granted, apparently because they happened "a couple thousand years ago."

Curtis said...

The extent of my experience with Steve Allen is in a documentary I have on rock and roll. Allen appears in a TV clip dated 1962, stating that rock and roll was in its death throes and predicting the return of swing and the imminent arrival of a second big band era.

Prophecy was apparently not among his gifts.

James said...

I recently read Garry Marshall's autobio, and he talked about a period in the 60s when he and Jerry Belson (I believe) were writing scripts or ghosting scripts as favors to producers who had helped them early in their careers, as payback. Obviously that was decades ago, but I wouldn't be surprised that something like it still goes on.

Bob in the UK said...

Off-topic Friday question if you would be so kind...

A friend and I were discussing TV dramas we boxset, and he mentioned there was nothing better than bingeing a way through an entire series. I'm the opposite, and watch a boxset as though it were on TV (one episode a week or thereabouts). I enjoy the anticipation that the writers and directors wanted to build from one week to the next.

But in this age of boxsetting and original content dumps (13 episodes available in one go) by the likes of Netflix and Amazon video, would the mindsets of writers and showrunners have changed? Will the absence of a week between airings change the way a show is written, with one eye on the long tail of the boxset experience? Is it happening already?

Jonathan Stark said...

I agree with you, Ken. It's tough when the room is so large, I prefer a smaller room. But everyone there was unemployed and looking for a potential job. I always think of it as those depression era photos of long lines of men standing by a sign that says 'Help Wanted'. But on the positive side it was a room full of great people and I made a few friends...and the Chinese food was kind of warm.

Chris said...

Friday question:

In Cheers' "Don Juan Is Hell" Sam repeatedly dodges Diane's question of how old he was when he lost his virginity. However, she answers his question that she was 19. Was this a big debate in the writer's room?

It was written by Phoeff Sutton. Maybe you can get him to do a guest post.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Three Steve Allen songs:

"This Could Be The Start of Something Big"

"Cool Yule"

"You're a Muggedy Wump"

BTW -- His wife Jayne was "bawwn in Chy-nah."