Saturday, March 21, 2015

Writers' torture: Waiting for your script to be read

For a writer it never gets easier.


You’ve turned in your script to the producer/network/studio/agent/manager/professor/best friend.

And now you wait for the response.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You’d think in time it gets easier. It never does.

You generally calculate in some reasonable reading time period. They’ll read it over the weekend. But you still think, if they were really interested they’d read it tonight. Why aren’t they reading it tonight?

The longer you receive no answer the more you think they hated your script. He just can’t bring himself to tell me how much it SUCKED! You start doubting the script, yourself, your religion, everything. You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame.

Then you reach the point where you wonder, should you remind them? And if so, how? This depends on the relationship.

I would say this, try to find out what the reader’s behavior pattern is beforehand. It might save you a lot of time and anxiety. There are some producers who just don’t give you feedback. On a show we once worked on, we turned in our first draft and heard nothing. Weeks went by. The producers put our script into mimeo for the beginning of production and still said nothing. I was walking to the parking lot that night with one of the producers, and neurotic insecure writer that I am, I asked him what he thought of our script? He looked at me like I was crazy. His answer was “Well, we kept most of it, didn’t we?” From that day on I never expected feedback from any script we turned into him (which is good because we never received any). But we knew he was pleased so that was good enough.

I’ve known writers who thought they were getting fired at the end of the year only to get promoted. They had no idea where they stood. For some producers, that's their style.

On the other hand, there was Larry Gelbart. Here’s one of the many reasons I loved that man: You’d turn in a draft to Larry at the end of the day. Two hours later he would call you at home to tell you how much he liked the script. He understood the butterflies all writers experience waiting and went out of his way to be sensitive to that. When David Isaacs and I were running our own shows years later we adopted that same practice. If a writer turned in a draft we made the time to read it and respond right away. It’s how we liked being treated; it’s how we felt we should treat others.

All I could say is hang in there. And don’t build a “Jack story”.

What’s a “Jack story”? Well, it’s often attributed to comedian Danny Thomas and I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this:

A guy’s driving down a country road late at night and gets a flat tire. He opens his trunk to discover he has a spare but not a jack. Up ahead he sees a light. There’s a house about a half-mile up the road. He decides to hike there and see if he can borrow a jack. He figures the owner of the house will gladly let him use it for a few minutes. Why wouldn’t he?

But as the guy trudges on he wonders -- maybe the homeowner won’t be so neighborly. After all, he is a stranger. Maybe he’ll be suspicious. Maybe he’s the kind who doesn’t like anyone touching his tools. He lives way out here in the middle of nowhere – he’s probably anti-social, probably a real asshole. The more the guy considers these options the angrier he gets until finally he reaches the house, rings the bell, the owner answers, and the guy says, “Screw you! I don’t need your fucking jack!” turns on his heel and marches off.

Your script is just as good if it’s read the first night or second week. So relax and have faith in yourself. Now, if I could just learn to believe that myself.

This was a re-post from 84 years ago. 


Ben said...

I finished my script 2 weeks ago. I still can't get my wife to read it. How's that for faith?

Steve Bailey said...

I can't resist mentioning that the "Jack story" goes back a long way, at least to the Marx Brothers. In DUCK SOUP, Groucho, the leader of Fredonia, prepares to extend the hand of friendship to his rival Trentino in order to avoid war with Trentino's country. But Groucho works himself up into such an outrage over Trentino's (imagined) spurn of friendship that as soon as Trentino arrives on the scene, Groucho slaps him, and then their countries are at war.

Griff said...

While Danny Thomas was a peerless monologuist, the basic "jack" story long pre-dates him. Years ago, it was apparently known as the "plow routine." It was beautifully adapted for use in DUCK SOUP for a key scene in which Groucho, leader of Freedonia, is supposedly hoping to reconcile with the ambassador of Sylvania...

Groucho: I'd be unworthy of the high trust that's been placed in me if I didn't do everything in my power to keep our beloved Freedonia in peace with the world. I'll be only too happy to meet with Ambassador Trentino, and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. And I feel certain he will accept this gesture in the spirit of which it is offered.

...But suppose he doesn't. A fine thing that'll be. I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept. That'll add a lot to my prestige, won't it? Me, the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador! Who does he think he is, that he can come here, and make a sap of me in front of all my people? Think of it -- I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept. Why, the cheap four-flushing swine! He'll never get away with it, I tell you, he'll never get away with it!

[Ambassador Trentino arrives, ready to extend his hand.]

Groucho: So -- you refuse to shake hands with me, eh?

[Groucho slaps Trentino with a glove.]

Oat Willie said...

This column sounds like a gentle comment on some of the banter that occurred on this space during Ken's Asian vacation.

VP81955 said...

As I wait for professional actors to table read 10 pages of my "Fugitive Sweetheart" script at a contest in Glendale next Thursday, and as I reach 88 pages on my other romantic comedy screenplay, I needed reassurance such as this, a reminder that, as Tom Petty wrote and sang, the waiting indeed is "the hardest part" -- especially when it comes to creating characters for fun and (with hope) profit. Thank you, Ken.

Tom Michael said...

When I read the Jack story, it also reminded me of Duck Soup. Here's the clip:

Igor said...

Ken, I LOVE the graphic you used for this. The perfect emotional connection (at least for me, since I've used one of those).

Now, if only you could find a photo of Natalie Wood using one.

Igor said...

BTW, Ken - I posted the above about LOVING the jack graphic before I'd even read the part of your post about the "Jack story". For me, that actual jack is all about having to move some otherwise immovable object.

@Ben wrote, "How's that for faith?"

I dunno. Is Faith your wife?

Rashad Khan said...

Potential Friday Question: Reading about the musical adaptation of "Happy Days" has me wondering, what other sitcoms (or even dramas) do you think could be adapted successfully for the stage (either as musicals or non-musicals)?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Steve, Griff: I also was about to point out DUCK SOUP. You probably were writing your posts simultaneously.


DBenson said...

"Go, and never darken my towels again!"

Recalling freshman year in college. A professor was handing back term papers each day as he read them. Mine, one of the first turned in, had yet to appear. I asked about it; he said the title was interesting and he was saving it for last.

Now that was a scary week. I was not the brightest one in that class and knew I'd be rated against all the geniuses he'd read before me. It was like auditioning for an amateur musical right after the semi-pro who did the Soliloquy from "Carousel."

I got a passing grade. I scored a few points for stumbling onto a topic the prof was personally interested in, and lost a few more because my errors bothered him more.

Brownie said...

I was going to read this post in 1931, but I kept putting it off...screw it, I'll have Marjorie Lord read it!

cd1515 said...

Friday Question:
it always strikes me as lame when on a TV show, there'a about 5-6 people standing there when one says to another "we need to talk privately," and then they step 18 inches to the right where EVERYONE COULD STILL EASILY HEAR THEM.

is that a blocking thing, like is it too hard to get those 2 people further away?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I actually submitted a spec script for a show that's one year shy of being on the air for 20 years, non-stop; I was informed by one of the show's associate producers (whom I was instructed to contact) that my spec would be forwarded to the head writer at their annual story meeting in the summer, and that I would hear something then.

Personally, I'm not at all anxious about what I'll be hearing, because I know this is pretty much a long shot and it probably won't get any further than the suggestions bag anyway; besides, I wrote it more on a whim than anything.

Dango said...

My wife hates everything I write. I'm on my fourth assignment now. I don't ask her to read anything anymore.

VP81955 said...

Anonymous Brownie said...
I was going to read this post in 1931, but I kept putting it off...screw it, I'll have Marjorie Lord read it!

The lady in my avatar read it, and loved it. She wants Ken to know he can write scripts for her anytime.

Bryan Thomas said...

The wait is truly one of the worst parts of being a writer. Kudos to Gelbart and to you for following his example. It shows special respect and caring for your writers and that is gold we rarely experience.