Writing Outside the (Idiot) Box

Dream of churning out laughs for the Hollywood machine? Do it from home, counsels Greg White, who finds freedom writing for anything but TV.

A writer writes. If your desire is to find an audience, that’s easy. You always have yourself.  That first caveman needed to get a thought out so badly he burned his fingers grabbing a coal and probably exaggerated the tale of his bison kill. He chuckled to himself as he drew pears to represent his wife’s boobies, providing the first literary symbolism.

I used to write television.  People often ask why I no longer do. I could lean in close, slosh my drink as I gesticulate wildly and tell huge, well-crafted tales of the abuse that little box inflicted upon my art, but I simply explain, that the nature of that business has changed and I write elsewhere.  Their eyes glaze over as they search the room for anyone with current credits, perhaps a “Housewife”. I take another roll and let my inner typewriter of justification click away.

Legitimate Hollywood is a fantasyland made up of eyeliner and marshmallow fluff, with a very tall and strong wall around it. Millions are jumping up and down, trying to get even a peek, and hopefully find a way inside. Those who do break in, while grateful to be there, are constantly worried they will be shoved back outside the gates, or worse yet, face shame and ridicule over their latest project and wither away in a sailor’s hat trying to recapture that magical combination in the land of Gilligan.

I got over that wall and wrote sitcoms. I wrote lots of other stuff prior to that, but got extremely lucky, got an agent, wrote on network shows and in the WGA. It’s wonderful. It is something enviable, and I am proud of it. It placed me in a legitimate light, and paid me a lot of money.  I loved that part.  Sure, there are long hours, but writers, (not me) that catch lightning in a thimble and get on a show that hits syndication, buy second and third homes. When they open their mailbox, rainbows gush out, the show’s corny theme music plays, and a residual check floats out on Agent commission-free air.

But once inside that wall, no one is safe. Every project in show business ends, so everyone is constantly unemployed. Networks cancel shows before they can run in all three time zones. Someone in Manhattan pushes their plate back, and calls LA: I know we spent a million bucks on that crap but I don’t care for it. Run that Asian show about nurses. Nurses sell, and we are all going to be speaking fucking Chinese so get me more of that.  I was on one show that would have been a lot funnier if the writing team didn’t have to rush to their offices at every break to call their agents to see what the next job was. Once a show gets cancelled, all of those writers are looking for jobs, and there are only so many to go around.

Writing staffs have decreased. Gone are the days when shows like Roseanne had 32 staff writers. She bought them numbered football jerseys and would point from the stage and bark, You, seventeen, what’s a funnier word for pink?  Bottom line is that it’s about the bottom line. Budget cuts have trickled down to the writers, and producers are more likely to dole out freelance assignments than pay a dozen writers $15,000-a-week salaries.

I love the television business but hate the business part.  I do not miss the scramble at pilot season, the lies your fellow writers tell about the interviews they did not go on. How many times can you pump yourself up and truly believe that “This Full House spec I wrote is really, really funny!” Writing jobs are like the hot cheerleader in high school: everyone wants her, but she can only put out so much, and half of the stories about bedding her are made up. By writers.

I wrote with a partner, and when we didn’t get staff jobs one year, we parted ways. For me to write television again, I would have to write all new spec scripts, and frankly I don’t want to. Television has been very good, but it is not good now. Non-writing network execs give script notes like, Could she wear a sweater in this scene? I think sweaters are funny. We’d have to write to that. If it takes all night you have to address that note and make sweaters funny. Trust me, at four in the morning it isn’t any funnier. Besides, it’s culottes that are funny, but no one listens to me.

I wanted to keep writing, but didn’t know what I wanted to write. I wrote an online sitcom, and was happy to be hip and learn that new medium. Turned out to be a TV wolf in online clothing. The brilliant dialogue and wacky scenarios I created were still ads, just clickable. Yes, Madison Avenue controlled the internet sitcom too. When I was just a television viewer, I didn’t know advertising drove television show sales. As a television writer, I learned that pilots might be produced in LA, but are flown to NYC where Mad Men sip martinis in fancy screening rooms and decide if Geico or Bounce would buy the shows.

Then I jumped on the blogwagon. The modern day diary. That damn free internet. But is it free? I built a website for my stories and monetized it, on which Google places ads. While reading my story about forgetting to serve a salad at a dinner party, you might see an ad for a Geico and click on it and Google sends me a check for .37, coincidentally the size of some of my television residual checks.
I had a fine home for my stories, but perhaps the greed and blood I tasted from television led me to search for other legitimate outlets for my rants. The senior editor from HuffPo called me and praised my storytelling, asking me to contribute to them. Her call gave me that wonderful ego high, the same when I got my first television assignment.  It is like that great feeling you get when someone smiles at you, and their smile makes you smile. I get a little rush from that, and sometimes, not so little.

For me, the format of a half-hour television series is limiting. Limited not just by time, but also by the very situation of the show, and network censors. You have to have a certain number of jokes per page, and make sure you end every scene on a joke that is ruined by whichever actor has the biggest salary and most fragile ego.

Outside the strictures of the sitcom, I can write like Prometheus unbound. Writing stories gives me the freedom to write hundred of thousands of words and actually complete a thought without writing to a commercial break. I can develop characters without plugging in their trademarked tagline.  With a half-hour script, I was ruled by a stopwatch, and had to cut priceless, hilarious jokes because of time. That, or the actor stepped on the joke, perhaps because the network wouldn’t let them wear the “glasses” they picked up at Yale Drama School.

It’s not only Faye Dunaway who can’t find work in Hollywood.  Writers face age discrimination, too. It always struck me as idiotic that networks hire writers out of college to run shows. While an Ivy League education provides the technical skill one needs to write, I would rather hear the stories the actual old ivy growing on the walls might tell. Often, starlets have to pack their bags because their looks fade, but no one can see through a typewriter. The decaying Cryptkeeper can submit his work to blog and book editors; no one cares how old you are in other journalistic outlets.  Put on a glamorous Jane Jetson mask for a Skype call if needed. Give me a writer who fought in Viet Nam, who has war stories, and still knows how to navigate the interweb and buy clothes on Gap.com. At 22, you pretty much just have the Gap thing.

Television is disposable journalism. You reach down in your soul, tell secrets and put them out there for the world to laugh at, and Middle America just has the show on in the background as noise to accompany their hand-held Angry Birds game. Stories, novels and even blogs live more permanently. Written words are longer lasting. When people are gone and apes rule the planet, one of them might hap upon a crumbling library and pull a dusty copy of A Confederacy of Dunces off the shelf and chuckle.

I am vey grateful for the chance I had to write television. I followed early advice from a seasoned veteran and bought something with a portion of the money from each script so that I would always have something to show for it. I did pick up mementos and have the eternal listings on IMDb.

The trick with television writing is to stuff your bags with cash and get out of town. Move where there is less traffic and no state income tax, and spend your days pursuing altruistic endeavors, like helping Tippi Hedren with those lions.

And write. A writer writes.

 

“8 Reasons to Write For Us”

 Image of vintage television courtesy of Shutterstock

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About Greg White

Author, blogger, television writer, world traveler, and inveterate bon vivant Greg White is also a former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, now battling it out on the blogosphere at http://www.eatgregeat.com and http://www.gogreggo.com.

Greg has just finished his soon-to-be-published memoir about his Marine Corps boot camp experience. He served six years in the Marines. Truly a glutton, he also completed Officer Candidate School over the course of two summers---thus relishing the joys of basic training three times.

Greg has a voracious appetite for life and regularly contributes here and to The Huffington Post.

Follow him on Twitter  and Facebook

Comments

  1. Jane Jetson says:

    I could substitute “photojournalist” for “writer” and almost tell the same story. Thanks for sharing.

    • Greg White says:

      Thanks, Jane Jetson! I wonder if we could substitute a lot more professions in there? Wouldn’t it be great if artists could focus on art? I remember thinking once I had an agent that I got to sit back and create, but as you know, we have to work just as hard, agent or not. I hope your photojournalist career continues with great success!

  2. Aside from an enjoyable stint writing sitcoms with the Gregster, I’ve also written in other genres and mediums, and found that, each time I went from one medium or genre to another, people tended to think it was not a step sideways or exploring something new, but rather that I was taking either a big step or down. Recently I was asked by an exec, who’d gone on record as loving my work, why I hadn’t done sitcoms in so long. The expression on his face and the worried tone of his voice made clear that he was really concerned that if I wasn’t doing them at the moment, it must be that I am no longer capable of doing the job (or, at least, doing it well). I knew his concerns were echoed, if not suggested, by other sitcom writers who had never done anything but sitcoms and couldn’t imagine (or wouldn’t acknowledge) any reason why a person who’d done sitcoms wouldn’t be doing them still, unless they were no longer capable. It’s an aspect of the business I don’t really care for, but, to use a tired phrase, it is what it is. And you’ll encounter that no matter what medium or genre you work in. Few things feel as nice as being on a hit sitcom. The sense of validation and financial security can be intoxicating, and the cocoon of the writers’ room and the sound stage become a world all its own, to the point that it feels strange when you’re outside it, in the real world. Sometimes, that cloistered feeling overwhelms to the point that the comedy you create becomes overly self-referential, and you can deluded yourself into thinking your show is a bigger part of the world than it actually is. But, then, I saw the same thing happen when I was working in a grocery story, and there was a lot less money in that. So, if you are on a hit show, enjoy it and enjoy the flow of money. And, sure, enjoy how impressed people are when they hear what you do. But don’t enjoy it so much that you will miss it terribly when it goes away — as it will never the moment that sitcom goes off the air. Otherwise, you will be the person most convinced that you’re a failure if you don’t get right back on another sitcom. Glad to see that Greg has avoided that delusion, and found others to enjoy in its stead.

    • Greg White says:

      Thanks for those thoughts, Uncle Bob. You reminded me of the best thing (after the money) about writing on a show – the bonds, which I still enjoy with you and so many others, only forged in the trenches of the writer’s room and sound stages. I still write for friends, and it is out of pure love. If a show offered me a job, and it worked with my schedule — and I haven’t slipped into eastwooding land, I would do it. The key for me to avoid delusion has been my boyfriend. He has never, and will never have any interest in anything Holllywood, and when we are in town, he will rarely even venture East of our home in Santa Monica. What matters to him is that I take the garbage out.

  3. Comedy writing seems to me a most difficult undertaking as It has and is worked from every conceivable angle. So many thousands of shows have been produced and so much material consumed the generation of new humor would be such a task, such as trying to make a sweater funny (Ed Wood comes to mind). Then humor to one person is yuk to another. Classic humor such as All in the Family or Carol Burnet lives on and on, but then I never considered hits like Gilligan’s Island and particularly Green Acres more than silly drivel that mindlessness was a prerequisite to enjoy.
    Just saying…..

    • Greg White says:

      Hey now! When Lisa put whole eggs into the cake mix box, shoved it in the oven and pulled out a totally baked, beautifully iced birthday cake with burning candles – that’s funny! Of course All in the Family is close to my heart, and Carol still makes me laugh. I respect every writer and comedian – they are putting themselves out there to be laughed at, and that in itself is a serous business. Thanks for writing and no, you can’t borrow any money and I will not introduce you to Oprah, you get giggly.

  4. Christopher Young says:

    Thanks Greg – as a person looking to move further into writing, this was a great insight. There seem to be some good schemes in the UK to encourage submissions for emerging writers, I’m going to try my hand with a few pieces.

    I hope you’ve managed to find the right balance between producing the work you love and living well off it. All the best.

    • Thank you for commenting! One of my early mentors told me that “there is room in this business for everybody.” There really is, it is a medium needing content every moment. A network exec told me, when giving notes on a script, “You never learn anything form praise.” Promise me you will write with the most tenacity you can, and I wish you all success. Someone should have to rip the pages from your hand, as you are never ready to release them finally. I seek and find balance – and try to live in constant gratitude.

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