This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
When I tell people what I do for a living -- which, for the record, I try not to do, mostly I tell people that I'm a merchant banker and leave it at that. When you say "merchant banker," I've found, there are no follow ups -- but for the times when I actually tell people that I write and produce television comedies, what I hear back is either "You should do a sitcom about everybody in the payroll department. Crazy. Crazy funny," or something a little more aggressive and challenging, like "So what do you do now? Sit around and live off of your Cheers residuals?"
For the record, you can't really live off of residuals. Unless you live in Burkina Faso. Residuals are the payments a writer gets when an episode he's written is rerun in syndication, and though the first few times an episode is rerun result in a few nicely-sized checks, the size gets smaller faster than you'd expect.
Also, residuals are totally unpredictable. They come, they go, you get nothing for six months, then, suddenly, they show the episode where Woody does a TV commercial somewhere and you get a check for thirty bucks and you tell your friends that lunch is on you. At Quizno's. In Burkina Faso.
Years ago, whenever I saw an episode of Cheers on a television anywhere -- an airport lounge, a bar, through someone's front window, anywhere -- I'd stop for a moment, check it out for a few seconds, and if it was one that had my name on it, would silently try to calculate the size of the residual check coming my way. It was never more than eight or ninety bucks, really, but money out of the blue -- even small money, unpredictable money -- gives me the kind of warm, happy, purposeful feeling that others get out of yoga and charity work.
Now, though, we're into the really small figures -- latte and a pumpkin scone numbers, really -- something else is creeping in. I don't feel the warm jingle of future change in my pocket. Instead, I flash back almost instantly to the production week of the specific episode.
I remember the late rewrite. The bad runthrough. The headache. The last-minute fix on the C scene. The day player we had to replace halfway through.
I remember sitting in the office, with nine or so writers arranged on the sofa, staring into the middle distance, trying to figure out how Woody or Carla or Sam or Cliff or Norm is going to get out of the fix he or she or they are in and how they're going to do it quickly, with a huge laugh at the end.
And before you know it, walking through the airport or passing a neighbor's house or catching a few frames of a show on the TV in a bar, I've got a flashback headache, reliving the trouble that particular episode caused.
Odd, really. When the residual checks started coming in at around eleven dollars, I started to notice the dark side of reruns. Which means that when they were coming in at twelve dollars, I didn't. So that means that, for me anyway, happiness can be bought. For twelve dollars. Do me a favor: don't spread that around.
That's it for this week. Next week, we'll get wise. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.