Monday, January 29, 2018

Two Friday Questions on a Monday

Here’s a two-part Friday Question that became an entire post. It’s from…

Rat Billings, who first asks:

When you were still climbing up as a young writer, how did you deal with the emotional side of being re-written?

No one likes to have their bubble popped. 

It was tough I’ll be honest with you. Either they rewrote us and (in our humble opinion) made the script worse, which angered us. Or they would make it markedly better and we would kick ourselves for not doing it that well. And along with that was the self-doubt that maybe we’d NEVER be able to write that well.

This is another reason why it’s good to have a writing partner. At least you have a support system in place. You tend to take the rewriting as less of a personal attack.

But here’s the reality: ALL young writers get rewritten.  Get used to it.   If you think everything you write is gold and should not be touched you are in the wrong business. Learning to accept that you will be rewritten, not being defensive about everything will go a long way towards advancing your career.

I’m reminded of a WGA membership meeting years ago. Everyone was there since we were deciding whether to go out on strike that year. Larry Gelbart got up to speak. He opened by saying, “Everyone in this room has re-written everyone else in this room.” He was not far wrong.

Use it as a learning experience and incentive to do better.

Pat also asked a related question.

When you were running shows, which steps did you take to make sure that your writers all felt valued throughout the inevitable process of re-writes, etc.?

First, I would work hard to make sure they had everything they needed to begin writing the draft. The story was well-worked out, a lot of joke pitches were already there. And I made myself available should the writer have any questions or problems along the way.

Once they turned in the script I made sure to read it that night, as soon as possible, and call them at home. I would lead with the things I liked and thought worked and then would say there were things we could probably improve upon and very briefly preview those.

When we either gave him notes for a second draft or (if time did not permit that) began rewriting ourselves we would try to include the writer as much as possible. Hopefully he would learn from how and why we changed his draft.

We would always give a young writer a second script, even if the first one was disappointing. Often the second script would be much better, and it was clear the writer learned from the first experience. However, if the second script was really bad then we had to assess whether he was the right fit for our staff. And sometimes they were. Sometimes you had writers who were joke machines and made an enormous contribution; they just couldn’t write great drafts. So you stopped giving them script assignments but kept them. Other writers you let go.

We try to provide as supportive and stress-free environment as we can, but at the end of the day the writer still has to deliver the goods. And some writers may be lovely people but they just can’t cut it.

That’s as fair as we can be in a truly cruel business.


David Schwartz said...

I remember being very insecure about my writing abilities when I first started writing scripts. I wrote for one show where my script was pretty much gutted. I looked at the draft that the story editor had gone through, and it seemed like there were red marks everywhere, with large sections crossed out and rewritten.

I clearly remember thinking to myself, "I'm not very good at this and should probably get out of the business." I shared my insecurity with a friend of mine (Mark Evanier, who is known to many people on this blog) and he said something profound. I don't remember the exact quote after all these years, but essentially he said, "The key to whether or not you're doing a good job is not how much you're rewritten, but whether they keep hiring you." Mark was right. We all get rewritten. The real test is whether we keep getting assignments.

LinGin said...

If I wasn't sure of it before, this post confirms it. You're a mensch, Ken. Although how you have managed to survive in show business with your menschiness intact is mystifying to me.

Johnny Walker said...

Got to say, couldn’t ask for a fairer sounding boss!

Joseph Scarbrough said...

You've often talked about how M*A*S*H pioneered multiple storylines per episode - usually at least three, sometimes even four - so I'm curious as to how you feel about how SEINFELD is often credited as setting that standard, since each episode had a separate, yet connected subplot for each of the four leads?

Y. Knott said...

"Rat" Billings?

Chris G. said...

Friday question for you:
Do you think there's been an Emmy bias against "one-liner guys?" I think about how important Morey Amsterdam, Gavin MacLeod, George Wendt, and Peter Boyle were to some of my favorite sitcoms, but none of them ever got an Emmy.