The agony and the ecstasy of one man’s experience working in the TV writing biz. 1,449 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
There are many dreaded words a father can hear from their child. “Dad, I wrecked the car.” “Dad, I’m in a Tijuana jail.” “Dad, the pee stick has a plus sign.”
But none of those words could ever compare to the sheer horror of hearing a child of mine say, “Dad, I want to work in showbiz.”
Perhaps I should elaborate…
I am a husband and father of three kids. My career has been spent bouncing back and forth between life as a writer and life producing promos for a TV network. It’s been an occasionally pleasant but also frequently demoralizing. The highs are way too high and the lows are way too low. It’s career crack. Addicting, unhealthy and way too much suffering has to incur before receiving those rare tastes of joy. All those years of stories that started out with, "There’s a producer who seems to like my script…” “A big agent is going to read my script this weekend, I hope…” “The producer said if I give him a free option, he’ll try to sell it…" and then inevitably end with, "I haven’t heard back from him/her yet."
This is a profession I’ve regretted pursuing for a lot of years. And a profession I have adamantly tried to steer my children away from pursuing. You want your children to be both successful and happy, not just getting by and miserable. So I tell them my war stories to make it easy for them to reach their own conclusions.
My first real job after college was working in the trailer department for a low-budget movie company. After years of editing trailers for their movies — in short, putting lipstick on their pigs of movies — I approached the CEO about an idea for a film that I could make cheaply. He immediately agreed.
Wow! From the lowly ranks of trailer monkey to writer/director!
Then I learned a new word: schadenfreude. Little did I know that, behind my back, the CEO’s assistant was conspiring to derail this project from ever happening. In her mind, if somebody was going to hit the lottery and become the next great young filmmaker, it was either her husband or no one. So after a week of getting this movie set up, I go to his office where this evil, ugly, mean-spirited assistant had convinced the CEO to drop the project.
Nothing like having a conversation start with him saying, "My people here have told me I should not make your film.” Five minutes later, the movie was dead and five minutes after that, I was back to being a trailer monkey. The assistant smiled. Schadenfreude had won the day. Years later, I found out her husband dumped her and she was living alone in Santa Barbara, unsuccessfully trying to sell her own writings. I think I was happier to hear that news than she was to hear the CEO take away my movie.
Cut to ten years later when I manage to get a staff writing job on a hip new comedy show. Man, it felt good to nail a gig like that! And it lasted… exactly 13 weeks. Way cool to get that gig, way too demoralizing to stay at that gig. Because I never really understood what a sociopathic writing staff meant until I joined that one.
The head writer had a book on his table called, The Encyclopedia Of Retardation because he thought it was funny to look at pictures of retarded people. He also liked to make jokes about his mother’s breast cancer.
Amazing how the coolest show on TV had the most dysfunctional writers on TV. The writer’s room was mean-spirited and overflowing in schadenfreude as everyone’s goal was to figure out who the weak personality was and attack him/her like a wounded animal. I was in a great place in life: my wife had just given birth to our first child, I had this cool gig. But the overwhelming desire to see others fail, including me, and that The Encyclopedia Of Retardation was more than I could handle. If only I’d had that CEO’s assistant’s address in Santa Barbara… I think she would have loved that book.
The next 10 years I spent writing for shows that got cancelled. I remember one was cancelled three days before Halloween. That’s fucking October, and they don’t hire writers again for the fall shows until April/May so now I was looking at six months of guaranteed unemployment. And I could never get myself out of that lower level writer credit of Story Editor, Executive Story Editor. I did get one job that lasted a few seasons on a one-hour drama, and the Co-Executive Producer who helped me get it was the one person who seemed to go out of his way to demoralize me every day.
There was no winning. I came to the steadfast conclusion that even when you win, you lose.
Then I got a great writing job on a cable show where I was respected. I was considered the top writer on the staff. I was sent up to Vancouver to cover the set because I was implicitly trusted by the Executive Producers. I thought I had finally pushed through that wall of demoralization. This was the happiest I’d ever been. And it had a lot to do with those trips to Vancouver.
This is how it would go: a town car would pick me up at my house to take me to LAX. We always flew Air Canada and I always had a first class seat, which gave me access to the Maple Leaf lounge. There I would get loaded on all the free alcohol they were giving out to big spenders. Then I’d board the flight where every actor you’ve ever seen on TV would be in first class with you. On one flight, the attendant offered me the chance to sit in the cockpit and watch the plane land. Are you shitting me? It was amazing!
Then, after clearing customs, a waiting driver took me to my suite at a popular hotel. Every day, the transpo department would shuttle me to and from the set. One week, a famous actor was starring in my episode and I can remember having dinner with him at Gotham, the best steakhouse in The ‘Couv, where he sang a song from Victor/Victoria that had been cut out of the movie. I’d gone from the The Encyclopedia Of Retardation to famous actors singing in exclusive steakhouses.
Then, sometime around Thanksgiving, the show was cancelled.
At that point, I finally said fuck this. Working in the TV promo business was steady. If a show was cancelled, it didn’t matter to me because another show would come along that I would promote. It’s been far less glamourous than dinner with actors in steakhouses but it beats unemployment and The Encyclopedia Of Retardation.
It’s been over a decade since my last series gig and dream of being a professional writer. I focused on my family and the things in life that really matter. Then my best friend since kindergarten and I decided to work on a movie idea, just for fun. We ended up pitching it to to a big studio… and selling it. Yes, real money! Ten years out of the business, diving into my middle age years, and I sold a fucking pitch. Are you shitting me?
So now my professional life is spent producing TV promos and writing movies. There seems to be a nice and rewarding balance with that, and I certainly have no intention of quitting my day job. But every so often I have lunch with a friend who’s a struggling writer. We’ll talk about what I’m doing for maybe 45 seconds and then the rest of the lunch consists of him telling stories about, "There’s a producer who seems to like my script…” “A big agent is going to read my script this weekend, I hope…” “The producer said if I give him a free option, he’ll try to sell it…"
And you know what? I legitimately root for all this to happen for him. I’ve been on the ass-end of schadenfreude my entire career and I have no intention of passing that ill will forward to anyone.
So when my children talk about their lives after school, I give them one adage: "Stay the hell away from the entertainment industry". It’s just not worth the peaks and valleys. If they’ll do that for me, we can talk about wrecked cars, Tijuana jails and pee sticks.
This story first posted here August 9, 2017.