The Desk Lamp

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

A famous actor once tried to describe the rigors of being in production. The hours are long, the food is mediocre, the living quarters are cramped - &quotbasically;," he said, without a smidgen of irony, &quotit;'s like a concentration camp."

Of course, a concentration camp is in the eyes of the beholder, and for him, I guess hell was a double-wide trailer and three catered meals a day. For the rest of us, though, being in production is not at all like a concentration camp. It's not even like taking a tour of a concentration camp.

Let me tell you a true story about Hollywood. Two men have been friends and writing partners for many, many years. They have endured more than their share of career tumult. For many years they were successful writers and producers, and had earned the lucrative status of show runner twice over. Show runner is the delightful and colorful phrase used by executives and networks to denote those few writers who can, in their estimation, run shows -- that is, hire and fire writing staff, supervise casting and production, and guide scripts from conception to re-writing to post production.

What show runners don't have to do is do much writing. Naturally, all television writers aspire to be show runners.

Back to the story. After a few more ups than downs, the partners find themselves on the short end of a bad deal at a notoriously nasty studio, running six episodes of an egregious sit-com starring a clinically insane harridan has-been. This kind of thing happens all the time.

So somewhere mid-sixth-episode, after ten weeks of studio and network interference, and after a particularly stressful conference call between the network executive and the studio executive, both of whom agreed on only one thing -- namely, that neither partner was, in their estimation, much of a show runner -- one partner locks the other partner in his office and proceeds to beat him senseless with a desk lamp. The victimized partner (but aren't they both, in a sense, victims?) lands in the hospital, the lamp-wielding partner is fired (there is, amazingly enough, a no starting of fights clause in that particular studio's standard contract) production is shut down for a week or two, and every other writer in town has something to talk about at lunch.

That story, like most of the stories I tell, is mostly true. Who knows, really, what happened in that locked office? And who knows, really, what the dynamic relationship was between those two partners? Maybe the guy who got cranked with the lamp deserved to be cranked with the lamp. I don't know. And part of me thinks, that although violence is never a good solution, I mean, they were in production. There're going to be stresses and fissures and hot tempers and...a certain amount of desk lamp roughhousing.

Production does something else, too: it delineates the outside edge of acceptable social behavior. I have seen producers dribble sauce from a takeout lunch on their chins and clothes, and then bark rudely at the nearest P.A. to fetch some napkins; I have seen producers too lazy to mutter even the most cursory &quotthank; you;" and I have seen producers literally walk away while someone of a lower caste on the production budget tries to make polite chit chat. The process encourages a certain drift to, well, sociopathy.

When hauled before a judge, as a defendant in two lawsuits (one from the studio, for something called &quotinfringement; and/or arrestation of production schedule due to malice and/or negligence;" and one from his former partner) the desk lamp warrior gave this as his reason for the attack: &quotHe; didn't back me up in a meeting with the network." At lunchtime gatherings of writers, two camps quickly form: those who think, &quotokay;, he didn't back you up in a meeting, fine, that's not so good, but perhaps you could have stopped just short of embedding glass splinters in his eye;" and those who think, &quotokay;, he didn't back you up in a meeting, why did you let him live?"

But that's what production will do to you. Producing a television show plunges even the slickest show runner into a personal Apocalypse Now, with everything from budget overruns to explosive dysentery. But I have to say, were my writing partner to beat me knee-walking bloody with a table lamp, I assure you, I will have deserved it.

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll talk about actors.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long