Writing for Free

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Said Samuel Johnson, at some point, to someone. Good advice.

Years ago, I used to write occasionally for a marginal London literary rag, and the editor would always say something like, "Gosh, I wish we could pay you properly. Anything we'd offer would be terribly insulting, I'm afraid."

What the editor didn't know, apparently, is that it's almost impossible to insult a writer and offer him money at the same time. You can offer him too little, of course -- if you do, he'll probably act like he's been insulted, but he'll be lying. Writers, if they're any good at all, will do it for almost free. But not entirely for free. And writers are so lazy and easily distracted -- if they're anything like me -- that without even the most threadbare financial reward system in place -- in my case, my English editor paid me 50£ per column -- we simply wouldn't get out of our bathrobes. We wouldn't stop watching all 12 episodes of season four of The Wire. We wouldn't stop surfing the web. We wouldn't not go out for pie. Or so I used to think.

My friend Ken Levine has a blog, which is gradually becoming a legal requirement for any living creature -- but the difference here is, Ken's a professional writer who has a blog. In other words, Ken is writing for free. Even though he knows better.

I'm glad he is, though. Ken and his partner David Issacs are two of the funniest, best writers around -- I met them on my first day in the business, back in the Harding administration, and I've never strayed too far from them since. Ken's shining moment, as far as I'm concerned, didn't happen on Cheers or Frasier or MASH or any of the hit shows he and his partner have written for over the years. It took place during a six-episode summer series that he and David created. My partner and I were helping out. One day, the line producer came in with a rejected studio expense form. Back then -- and maybe still, for all I know – the studio had a particularly lordly parking policy -- if you were "above the line," that is, a writer or producer or some other form of "talent," you parked on the lot. If you weren't, you parked in the parking structure across the street. Oh, and you paid for the privilege. Thirteen dollars a week. Well, Ken, I guess, had taken his secretary's parking fee and put it through as a production expense in order to reimburse her the thirteen bucks, on principle. But the accounts department rejected it, so Ken being Ken, he got on the phone.

"Yeah, this is Ken Levine. Quick question: how come I can't put my secretary's parking fee in as a production expense?" We could only hear half of the conversation, but it was obvious who was winning. "You're telling me that parking for my production secretary for a show in production doesn't count as a production expense? Where's she supposed to park? On Gower? Move her car between 2 and 4 on Tuesdays and Wednesday's for street cleaning? Great idea. Good, sophisticated thinking over there in studio finance. So let me ask you, what, then, would count as a production expense? What do you mean, research? Like, a book? Like if I bought a book I could expense it? Really? Okay then. Guess what? I bought a book this week. It's called How to Park Your Secretary and it cost thirteen bucks."

And that was that. Followed in subsequent weeks with other interesting book titles, such as The In's and Out's of Buying Your PA's Pizza and my personal favorite, A Birthday Cake for the Weird Guy in Props.

Ken's not the only working writer with a blog, but he may be the funniest. One of the great things about the web -- aside, of course, from up-to-the-minute reports about the exact status of the tissue samples removed from Anna Nicole Smith's corpse -- is that we get to hear from writers like Ken, directly, rather than through the characters they've created. Rather than hoping the network buys their pilot.

Well, as Dr. Johnson said -- no man but a bloghead ever wrote, except for money. You can find Ken's blog at KenLevine.blogspot.com. That's Levine like l-e-v-i-n-e, sometimes pronounced "leveen," but I wouldn't recommend doing that around Ken.

That's it for this week. Next week, we'll order a pilot. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long