Thursday, April 21, 2016

Staffing season

We’re getting into staffing season – that musical chairs exercise where showrunners begin cobbling writing staffs together in the event that their shows will get picked up next month. It’s a nerve-wracking process for all concerned, but my heart especially goes out to young writers trying to land a spot.

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?

A showrunner once described staffing by saying, “Who would you want to be trapped in a VW with driving across the country?”

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.


J Lee said...

How does someone like the grammar police guy/gal get into the writer's room in the first place? It it just someone who's lost their comedy fastball and is reduced to just sniping, or someone who is a great salesperson for theirselves when it comes to the hiring process, but under deadline pressure has nothing to contribute?

(Also, speaking of shows, the story from yesterday on "The Twilight Zone" interactive reboot by CBS caught my attention, since they've hired the Other Ken Levine to write and direct the first episode. Not sure what the tit-for-tat would be here, unless you can get together with your son at Apple and turn Big Wave Dave's into a video game.)

Matthew Kugler said...

As always, your advice comes at the right time as I try to remain hopeful and optimistic (who am I kidding, I'm beyond anxious!) in the beginning throes of this staffing season.

Johnny Walker said...

Reading this makes me want to take another shot at being in a writer's room. I feel I've learned an awful lot about how to behave in a creative team situation since my trip to the Sitcom Room, and how to be a constructive, not destructive member of the group. I think the skills you need are required in many other professional situations. Ken, you didn't mention it, but I would add another great tip which I think is useful: Don't poo-poo another idea until you have a possible solution in mind.

When someone says, "No, that won't work because of X", it just stalls everything. It's much better to say, "Doesn't that cause a problem with X? How about we do X instead?". You identify a problem and offer a solution. Much more productive.

Also, please for the love of god, don't take it personally if someone does this to your idea. The aim is to help the team produce something good, not be the star of the room. If the best thing you can on do for the team on a given day is keep your mouth shut, then keep quiet and stay out of the way.

Always remember the golden improv rule: "Yes and..." never "No but...". It's often better to quickly reach the end of the blind alley, than to bicker about whether or not it's worth going down it in the first place.

How about a New Sitcom Room, Ken? With a whole new script? :)

Andrew said...

Off the subject, but Ken, I've love to hear your thoughts on the Better Call Saul season finale. Or even a whole post on what makes the show work for you, since you've already indicated you're a fan. And what expectations do you have as the show continues, especially as it enters more and more into the Breaking Bad universe?

Roger Owen Green said...

Totally off topic: McLean Stevenson on Cher's TV show.

Peter said...

Oh my god. Now Prince has died. What is going on with 2016?!!!

Peter said...

Prince, Bowie, Alan Rickman all dead, Dick Cheney and W Bush still stealing oxygen.

Another reason I'm atheist.

thirteen said...

"A showrunner once described staffing by saying, 'Who would you want to be trapped in a VW with driving across the country?'" I would hire that guy.

Michael said...

I think of Chuck Jones, the Warner Bros. animation genius, saying whenever they planned a cartoon, they would hold a "no no session," where anybody could make a suggestion, but no one could use the word no--thus, no no. You had to improve whatever you didn't like.

CarolMR said...

I remember in the 80s that Al Gore and his then-wife Tipper deemed Prince to be a public menace.

Mike said...

@CarolMR: That's at 2:45 in Frank Zappa meets the Mothers of Prevention.
Though he arguably accomplished worse like letting Dubya into the White House.

Johnny Walker said...

Everyone's talking about all the unreleased music in Prince's basement, but there's still 20 year's worth of albums that nobody's listen to ;) RIP Prince :(

Brian Phillips said...

Would you want to be trapped in a VW with THESE people?

John Hammes said...

"Muppets Tonight", season two opener, September 1997.

Kermit, Gonzo, et al. participating ( briefly ) with "Delirious" and "Let's Go Crazy". An experience forever seared into memory.

Same could be said for that entire unique episode.

Nick said...

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.

Jess Oppenheimer, creator, producer and head writer of I LOVE LUCY, always attributed part of the show's success to their having a woman on staff (Madelyn Pugh). Pugh, Oppenheimer said, gave them a perspective on how women view marriage and male-female relationships that they wouldn't have had otherwise, and this made Lucy and Ricky's marriage more believably relatable than was true of the way marriage was depicted on most sitcoms of the era.