This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
Right about now, in the majestic and dignified pageant we call the television production year, we're smack in the middle of pre-production.
It works like this: in late May, the networks order new shows, and renew old shows, for the fall season. The first weeks of June everyone scrambles for a job on the new shows, and to replace people who have left returning shows. It's a cutthroat, undignified, and ultimately ugly process -- no more cutthroat, ugly, and undignified as anything else that goes on in Hollywood, of course, but it's compressed into two furious weeks, so it just seems worse.
But by now, everyone who is going to get a job has gotten one, and everyone who isn't, hasn't. The people who aren't working have an easier time of it: all they have to do is hang around coffee shops, revising enemies lists, complaining, bitterly criticizing all of the shows that, until very recently, they were desperate to work on, and asking themselves the question that unemployed writers have been asking themselves for centuries: 'Am I not working because I'm not really all that good, or all that funny, or all that talented, and no one has the courage to tell me because I respond to even the mildest criticism with rage and tears and hysterics and why would they tell me anyway, I'm too old to do anything else and it's too late to switch careers and I've got too much of my self wrapped up in this business and I don't seem to realize that year after year, eking out a living scrambling for jobs is a sign that this is never really going to happen for me? Or, should I fire my agent?'
The working writers have a tougher job. They have to go into a room and work productively and happily with other writers.
Our first staff job, back in the Lincoln administration, was on a long-running hit comedy. I was 24. My partner and I were staff writers -- the lowest rung on the staff, slightly south of the senior production assistant, actually -- and we sort of sat there for a couple of weeks in terrified silence, smiling robotically and laughing on cue. But for some reason, a couple of writers four or five rungs above us -- senior members of the writing staff -- decided to hate us. And I mean, hate us. Hate hate -- it was baffling. I mean, I understand despising the writers just below you on the chart; I understand trying to undermine the group just above you on the chart; I even get trying to set the two groups against each other -- look, the reason most writers in town go around miserably torturing themselves by thinking everyone hates them, they're about to be fired, and they can't really write very well is because everyone does hates them, they are about to be fired, and they can't really write very well. But it never made any sense to me -- and it still doesn't make any sense -- why you'd focus all of that useful career-building viciousness on guys way, way down the ladder. A few years ago, I recommended a team of young, talented writers for a job on the show. I didn't know the show-runner that well, but I knew the young guys pretty well, and I was sure they'd do a good job.
"I'm not sure about them," the show runner told me on the phone after their interview. "I like the shorter one okay, but the big one likes himself."
"He likes himself. He's...confident."
"Confident? Really? I just thought he was tall."
"I don't know. It's a staff job, right? We're all sitting in a room together working, pitching jokes, fixing stories. Do I really want to spend ten hours a day working with a tall guy who's confident and likes himself?"
"Well, they write good drafts. And I think the tall guy was a pretty fat kid growing up. And his mom is a constant problem to him, if that makes it any better. You could spend all of pre-production teasing him about that and that might make him less...adjusted."
"Yeah. Yeah. That might work. Look, I don't care, you understand. These guys will be four or five rungs below me. But it might be good for the guys one step up to know about the fat stuff and the mother thing. I mean, we've all gotta work together, right?"
"You want the team to work as a team," I said.
So he decided to hire the guys. I called them immediately.
"I've got good news and bad news," I said. "The good news is, you've got a job on staff next season."
They were ecstatic.
"What's the bad news?" they asked.
"Stay tuned," I said.
That's it for this week. Next week, we'll lie to each other.
For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.