Saturday, August 01, 2020

Weekend Post

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.


Griff said...

Perhaps the most famous variation on the "jack" story is found in DUCK SOUP, when Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) persuades Fredonia dictator Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) to meet with Sylvania Ambassador Trentino in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.

Firefly: Mrs. Teasdale, you did a noble deed. I'd be unworthy of the high trust that's been placed in me if I didn't do everything within my power to keep our Freedonia at peace. I'd be only too happy to meet Ambassador Trentino and offer him on behalf of my country the right hand of good fellowship. I feel sure he will accept this gesture in the spirit in 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 it! 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 out of me in front of my people? Think of it. I hold out my hand, and that hyena refuses to accept it! Why, the cheap four-flushing swine! He'll never get away with it, I tell you! Oh, please…

[Ambassador Trentino arrives.]

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

[Firefly immediately slaps Trentino.]

As I transcribed this, it was impossible not to be reminded of at least one current world leader.

Arlen Peters said...

Ken, your philosophy is why you are such a mensch: you simply treat people how you would want to be treated! And God Bless Larry Gelbart. Anther "supreme" mensch!

YEKIMI said...

Same when I wrote jokes for DJs. Some never said whether they liked them or not until I heard them used on the air [the ones that I could pick up OTA, this was the pre-internet days.] Other's would call and tell me "Great stuff! Keep it coming.] One even went as far to give me props on air. {"Hey, I'm not responsible for this stuff. You can blame ________"} One even mentioned where my full time job was which sorta gave me the heebie-jeebies because I tried to keep my joke writing self apart from my more serious job because I didn't think my bosses would be too happy. [I was right, they weren't]. I had two people come in and were just standing there staring at me and I asked if I could help them. They said "Oh no, we just wanted to come in and see the guy who wrote the jokes for the morning DJ. Is he here?" I told them he had just stepped out but I'd give him a message if they wanted to leave one. Sorta creeped me out. Guess I didn't look "funny" to them or else they thought I was just funny-looking.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Sure. I all about the "No news is good news" philosophy. But what if your script truly sucks or even just missed the mark? I would hate to get a last minute, "You need to rewrite this NOW!" Imagine the pressure of that. It would be like high school all over again. That is, staying up all night to finish a paper that you should have written a week ago.
I suppose, as always, there are two sides to every coin. Only in this case you don't get to "call it."


Chris said...

Friday question: on the series 2 finale of Becker, Panic on the 86th, was the cold opening with the two of them hugging requested by CBS or was it your idea?

P.S.: "You wanna get rid of a woman, just tell her you care." - any heartbreak behind that one or was it just a "day at the office" punchline to end the scene?

Chris said...

Friday question follow up on the Becker S2 Finale: what's the story behind the useless degrees in psychology jokes?

Doug said...

***Friday question: How long do you usually spend on a treatment when you are pitching a series? Is it longer, shorter or about the same for a film?

As always, enjoy reading your daily offerings on your site.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I've written two specs for two different animated series years apart.

The first spec I wrote, I happened to be in contact with the show-runner (in charge of the animation production) at the time, and he directed me to the people I needed to get in touch with with the other company that handled the writing and story planning (as this series is a co-production). After getting in touch with an associate producer, I was sent a release form that I had to sign and attach with my script, of which said associate producer informed me that he would forward my script to their head writer/story editor at their next writers meeting later that summer, then let me know what would become of my script. And that was it; never heard anything from anyone ever again . . . though, the show-runner was amazed and impressed I got as far as I did in this process. That was several years ago.

The second spec I wrote was earlier this year, but because trying to contact the current show-runner seemed far more difficult, I decided to go straight to the head writer/story editor, who seems to respond to messages from fans rather quickly. I didn't receive a response until a few months later, but he informed me that their network has no such procedures or protocol set into place that would allow him or any of their writers to legally accept and read scripts written for their own show, so they would be unable to accept or read the script I had written - and he was extremely apologetic about it, because he knows what it's like to struggle as a writer.

But yeah, even to this day, it seems like, "Don't call us, we'll call you," is still a standard response from the industry. In hindsight, I'm no longer too pleased with first spec, and I'm kind of glad it was never used, but admittedly, I still feel really strongly about my second spec, and wish it could've been used for this series - especially now that I've had other ideas for additional scripts that I know now I can't even submit or be taken into consideration.

Honest Ed said...

Tbh... You could have stopped after your first line!

But on the matter of responses... There was the time I was commissioned for a pilot by a major UK broadcaster. The brief was 'we want the next Show X (the channels then big hit) and we think this might be it'. Delivered the draft and 9 months later haven't heard anything, I mean, literally nothing. Then I pitch it to another channel, who love it and want it. Within hours of seeking confirmation that the original channel will release it because someone else's interested, head of drama at the original channel tells us that he loves it and he wants it. So it gets kicked up to his bosses, who pass because it's too much like Show X... The irony being that, other than both being big hearted comedy drama, it was nothing like X.

I delivered a first draft of a BBC script last Friday morning. By Friday afternoon I got a response Fromm the most junior of the producers, telling me she loved it. It doesn't mean much but since it got me through the weekend without fried nerves, I'll take it!

Kurt And Michele Weber said...

Hawkeye Pierce tells Henry Blake that he's doing the "jack story" in "Life with Father" -- season three, episode eight. Now I finally know to what he was referring! Cheers and all best regards, Mr. Levine. :-)