A TV show’s writers room assistant plots more creatively than her bosses. 2,556 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“It must be weird that we’re exactly the same age and I’m an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator and you’re the writers assistant.”
She really said “slash.” She said it two times.
I wanted to tell her it was fuckloads easier to make it as an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator when your father is a major exec at a major studio and he got you that first job on an insanely hot Netflix series not because you were qualified, but because your father was owed a major favor from a Netflix VP thanks to a gambling debt. And so, Graylon Kipling, freshly graduated from Cornell, got plopped into a top-tier TV job even though she couldn’t write for shit and everybody wanted to fire her fat nepotistic ass – and eventually did. Now, because of another chit called in by her father, here we sit in our offices on the NBCUniversal lot ready to start work on a ten-episode order of Graylon’s very own new series, TabOO.
It was harder for me. I grew up in the Midwest with a dad who sold Toyotas and a nurse mom. They thought my being a CPA would be an awesome job instead of those “Hollywood dreams” harbored by their little girl. So I have an accounting degree which I never plan to use. But I made it to L.A. and did the barista thing and met a guy at Peet’s who helped me get a job on a Nickelodeon show as a PA. I ended up in the writers room as the assistant after the current writers assistant crashed into a morning rush hour pile-up on the 134 freeway.
But this is the conversation I only play inside my head, very fast, because Graylon’s waiting for me to answer her question. I look down at my feet, as if I’m trying to be humble and oh so thankful for this opportunity, and I say, “Yeah, it’s really weird that we’re exactly the same age and you’re an executive producer slash showrunner slash creator and I’m the writers assistant.”
She is despicable. She is the C-word, which I don’t say because it’s vile and Trump-ish. Except that’s what she is.
Her assistant is a gorgeous, smart, super-efficient Hispanic named Elena. But Graylon calls her Juanita and thinks that’s funny. One time, after Graylon has just left her desk, I heard Elena mutter, “Chocha.” I have a feeling I know what that means.
Elena and I love The Walking Dead and we talk about it all the time. One day Graylon heard us and shook her head. “Zombies are so last year,” she sniped. “And shouldn’t you be in the writers room, Liz?”
My name is Elizabeth. Everybody calls me Elizabeth. Except for Graylon. At the job interview, she automatically shortened it to Liz and I corrected her. “It’s Elizabeth,” I said.
She frowned. “Like the Queen?”
That’s not exactly the way I ever thought about myself, as an old lady wearing crowns and tiaras, but I wanted the job so I said, “Yes, if you’re a big fan of royalty.”
She hesitated for the tiniest fraction of a second and laughed, a deep belly laugh like a seal bark. Ark, ark, ark. And she confided (swear to god), “Princess Diana is my spirit animal.”
Only in L.A… Only in freakin’ whackjob if-it-rains-they-call-it-“Stormwatch!”-on-the-local-news L.A… She thought what she said was so funny that she said it again. “My spirit animal, Princess Diana. Do you have a spirit animal, Liz?”
She never calls me Elizabeth. Elena calls me Elizabeth. So do the writers and even the studio people who pop in every now and then to see how things are coming along. I’ve figured out which snacks everybody likes best and who wants coffee, who wants tea, who wants Diet Coke with one slice of lime (only one, that would be Graylon). I don’t care about being the best writers assistant in the business, but I do want to be invaluable.
I have an office the size of a closet. It doesn’t have a window and it’s near an ancient air conditioning unit so every now and then I hear buzzes and whooshing sounds, but I’ve gotten used to them. There was another office available – not much bigger, but it had a window. I said I was fine with the closet because I could concentrate on my work and suggested the PAs would probably prefer the room with a window. Naturally the PAs now treat me like one of the writing staff and get me my favorite treats from Trader Joe’s (Thai lime and chili cashews). But I don’t tell anybody I really picked the smaller space because it’s inbetween the writers room and Graylon’s office and that ,when the air conditioning unit isn’t banging, I can hear most of what Graylon says.
It helps she has a loud voice.
Graylon wanted to write all ten episodes of her show herself and was pissed when the network made her hire a writing staff. Her number two is a funny Jewish guy who talks all the time about his wife and four daughters. There’s another guy who looks a little like Brad Pitt except for a wall-eye and you’d think he’d use his WGA health insurance to have it fixed. But you get used to it after a while. He has perfect handwriting so he’s usually the one at the white board writing down scenes and act breaks. The baby writer is a man who looks too old to be a baby writer and is at least forty. He has chapped hands and sits at one end of the table and rubs lotion into his pink peeling knuckles.
I don’t sit at the main table. I’m off in the back corner at a tiny desk. I write down most everything the writers say and later, after everybody goes home, I go through my notes, clean things up, and email the day’s work to the staff. We have a running list of story ideas, things like “an episode about a kite” or “a runaway train.” I could slip in a couple ideas of my own, but I don’t. I’m silent in the room, and silent in my notes. That’s what I am. The unheard-from observer.
I haven’t forgotten what Graylon had made clear at my interview. “I don’t believe in hiring writers assistants who want to be writers. They get distracted and spend too much time thinking about how to get ahead. You’re hired to be the room’s ears, Liz, not the brains. If you’re uncomfortable with that, look for another job. It’s a pain in the ass breaking in writers assistants and investing time and work in them and then having them pitch stories like they think they’re good enough. So, as long as we’re straight, Liz: you’ll never get a script on TabOO.”
Of course I want to be a writer. What, I moved out to L.A. to be a writers room assistant? Yeah, right. But this is what I reply to Graylon. “I want to be the best writer’s assistant I can be.”
And that’s why I make sure Graylon is always up to date with notes and outlines and drafts in color-coded binders. Technically I’m working as the script coordinator, but because I’m doing coordinator work for assistant pay, production is thrilled and I don’t want to make waves. I’ll wait until we get a back order or a second season to ask for a little more money. My job now is to be there for Graylon, an extra assistant if Elena isn’t available. Does Graylon need me to schedule a massage? Make a dinner reservation? She was wary of me at first but came around, especially when she realized how much she likes Trader Joe’s Thai lime and chili cashews.
Thomas, the fortyish baby writer with chapped hands, is good in the room. He throws out dozens of ideas, then takes bad ones and makes them work. He’s funny and eager to help the other writers but never steps on anybody’s toes. He’s not especially friendly to lower-level people like any of the assistants. One day, when I offer him a coaster, he says, “You think this is the Polo Lounge?” I smile, but he doesn’t smile back.
I’m sitting with Graylon in her office listening to her whine about her terrible experience on that Netflix series (“I was set up to fail!”) and I’m nodding sympathetically when she gets a text. She checks it and does her seal bark laugh. “Thomas is a prize,” she tells me. “I’ve been stuck on the end of act two and he just solved it. I don’t know what I’d do without him. But that eczema or psoriasis or whatever on his hands is sort of repulsive. I should ask my herbalist to make him something.”
I hear her talking to her agent – not the whole conversation but snippets like, “Home run,” “Hit it out of the park,” “Thomas is a real MVP.”
Graylon asks me to help her help Thomas. “TabOO needs Thomas, Liz. I have the perfect staff in the perfect balance. I don’t want his problem to impact my show. But I’m not sure if I can work with him unless that rash goes away.” She rubs her hands together with Purell. “God, I hope it’s not contagious.” She sends me to a Studio City mini-mall where her herbalist is young and heavily tatted and listens to my description of Thomas’ skin problem, them disappears into the back for fifteen minutes. I can hear The Price Is Right on TV. When he reappears, he gives me a small package wrapped in brown paper. “Three times a day,” he tells me.
Inside, the balm smells like old socks. Old socks with dead feet in them.
When I get back to the office, the writers are gone but Graylon is there, a script in her lap, her feet on her desk. She’s replaced her Jimmy Choos with Uggs and she’s shrieking with laughter. I ask her if she’s okay. “It’s Thomas’ first draft. I can’t believe how funny this is. He’s a genius.”
Graylon notices the package. “Super. Let me write a note and you can leave it on his desk.” She sniffs. “Smells kind of wooly. Like the outdoors.”
The balm seems like it’s working on Thomas’ hands, at least for the first couple of days. He keeps the jar next to his laptop and smears it on throughout the day. I’ve gotten used to the smell, but it’s lucky I sit by a window I can open a little.
Graylon gives Thomas notes on his first draft and tells him how much she adores it (I can hear the conversation through the wall) and how she wants to make sure he writes at least two more scripts this first season. But she also tells him to keep this a secret from the other writers so they don’t get jealous. Graylon and Thomas laugh conspiratorially. Very creepy.
I haven’t read Thomas’ script. He was supposed to give it to me first so I could format it to look perfect because Graylon likes every draft to look perfect. Maybe Thomas forgot. It’s not a big deal. Later ,I ask Thomas if he’d like me to format his script and he says he’ll let me know when he’s ready. He says it in a sort of snotty voice. I never noticed before but the end of his nose is inflamed and crusty.
When I finally get to read Thomas’s script, it’s good. But based on Graylon’s praise, I thought it would be incredible. I tell Thomas I like his script very much and he doesn’t look at me but says the printer has run out of paper. Accusingly, as if I made it happen.
His hands are more chapped and the ends of his fingers look like hot dogs left too long on the grill.
I listen to Graylon and Thomas huddle in her office. “It’s ready to go to the network,” he says to her.
She replies, “I think it could use one more polish.”
“It’s ready now,” Thomas demands. I hear a thump, like a fist banging on a desk, and Thomas then walks out of Graylon’s office, his face flushed, the tip of his nose bright red like Santa’s. Or more like Rudolph’s, so shiny it looks as if it’s blinking.
I pop my head into Graylon’s office. She has pushed her chair away from her desk. “Can I get you anything?” I ask.
“Could you do something about that?” She nods over at the script on her desk. It’s Thomas’ latest draft. I reach for it and notice flakes of skin. Scaly. Almost bloody. “I thought my herbalist would help,” she says as I pick up the script and slide the skin pieces into the trashbin.
“Maybe Thomas isn’t using it right.”
“Maybe. He’s been so moody lately.” Graylon smiles at me. She looks tired. “I’m glad you’re here, Liz.”
Thomas is wearing gloves the next day, but the red is spreading up his arms. When the number two writer says, “Good morning” to Thomas, Thomas snaps at him with an angry “Fuck you.”
Thomas is silent the rest of the morning. Graylon talks about story and character arcs for the rest of the season. At one point Thomas takes off his gloves and, although we try not to look at his hands, it’s impossible to miss them. They are appendages from a horror movie.
“Maybe you should see a doctor, Thomas. I know a wonderful dermatologist in Santa Monica,” Graylon offers.
Thomas is slathering the herbalist’s balm on his hands. “You said this was supposed to work. Does this look like it’s working? I think this is bullshit. I think this show is bullshit. All you people, you’re worthless. Hacks. Bullshit.” He slams the jar on the table. Nobody says anything.
Graylon walks out of the room.
In the afternoon, a PA packs up Thomas’ office. There’s a rumor that Thomas has been banned from the lot. I look at his bare office. Two windows. Pretty good for a baby writer. Every trace of Thomas is now gone except for the almost empty jar of balm. I pick it up.
I might not have big showbiz connections like Graylon’s but I learned a lot from my parents. Like to persevere no matter what. My father used to instruct me to size up the competition. He was an auto mechanic before he sold cars. I could change a drive belt or replace an alternator when I was eight. So it wasn’t hard to cut the brake line and ensure the writer’s assistant on the Nickelodeon show would have an unfortunate car accident. Thanks, Daddy. And my mom the nurse taught me things, too. Adding cayenne, some meth, and a dash of Adderall to that herbalist’s balm I brought back to the office worked out nicely, I think.
The writer’s room will be different without Thomas. I won’t move up to the main table right away, though. I’ll take it slowly. That’s another lesson I learned from my parents: it’s always smart to bide your time.