The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this Episode 368 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is out of town for the week, but he emailed and he is officially jealous that he’s missing out on this episode because today we’ll be talking about what it’s like to be a staff writer on a television program and offer some suggestions for getting that job and doing that job.
I’m so excited to introduce two writers who have first-hand experience on the topic. Alison McDonald is a Humanitas Prize winner, a Fulbright Scholar, Daytime Emmy and BAFTA award nominated TV writer and director whose credits include American Dad!, Nurse Jackie, and the remake of Roots, for which she received WGA and NAACP Image Award nomination. Alison wrote, directed, and executive produced An American Girl Story: Summer Camp, Friends for Life for Amazon. She’s currently a writer and co-EP on an upcoming Showtime legal thriller. Welcome Alison.
Alison McDonald: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here.
John: That was a great warm up. And you have a dog at your ankles. What other program is going to give you a dog–?
Alison: Again, like my bag is big enough to fit Lambert in. So, yes, hi listeners, I’m going to be absconding with John’s dog at the end of this.
John: And our second guest, well, if you Google Ryan Knighton it will Canadian Writer, which is true. Ryan was a guest on Episode 195 in which we talked about writing for Hollywood without living here. But for the last few months he has been living here, working as a consulting producer on In the Dark, a CW show about an irreverent blind woman who investigates her friend’s murder after the police dismiss her story. He is also adapting the novel Piece of Mind into a feature for Paramount with Daisy Ridley attached to star and J.J. Abrams producing. Ryan Knighton, welcome back.
Ryan Knighton: It’s nice to be back. And I’m hoping to take your dog with me, too.
John: All right, so it’s going to be a fight over my dog.
Alison: It’s going to be a tussle.
Ryan: Yeah. But I’ve got the blind guy advantage of like I’ll put Lambert to work.
John: Yeah. Lambert would be a terrible seeing-eye dog. Now Ryan I’ve known you for a long time but I’ve never asked you the question: you never had a support animal? You never had a seeing-eye dog?
Ryan: No, I never had a service dog.
John: OK. And why not?
Ryan: Well, a couple reasons. One is I have a French bulldog and I think she would be very jealous. People actually do sometimes—
Alison: The French are like that.
Ryan: Well people sometimes stop us when I have the dog and they’re like is that your seeing-eye dog, as it wraps itself around me. It is so not. But I don’t have one because I just sit so much and I just feel like having a large dog that needs to be worked all the time is just cruel to make it sit at my feet while I rewrite things that it’s not interested in.
Alison: Oh, that’s interesting. Like you don’t think the dog would pitch jokes for you?
Ryan: If it did I might get one.
John: Before we get to our main topic, we have a little bit of news. So, in front of Alison is a copy of the new Scriptnotes t-shirt. And so Ryan can’t see it, so Alison can you describe this t-shirt for our listeners?
Alison: Ryan, it’s very cool. It’s a black tee with stacked colored, I’m assuming like revision script pages, although I’m going to point out because everyone gives notes in this town. Progressive revisions aren’t accurate.
John: So tell me how you think they’re not accurate, because I thought we actually got them just right. So tell me.
Alison: Oh, doesn’t it go from white, to blue, to pink?
John: Yeah. Is it white, pink, blue in that one?
Alison: This looks magenta to me.
John: Oh! So really it’s not that they’re in the wrong order, it’s that they’re slightly the wrong shade.
Ryan: I just want to say I don’t know what magenta is.
Alison: You’re wearing a black and almost magenta checkered shirt.
Ryan: I didn’t even know that.
Alison: So there’s red, and there’s the spectrum of red, and magenta is closer to the pink end of the spectrum. So, Craig and John need to do a rewrite on these tees.
John: All right, we’ll be tweaking this. But this is the new Scriptnotes shirt. It’s called Colored Revisions.
John: Yeah. That’s the idea behind the shirt.
Alison: It’s very clever.
Ryan: Your audience just listened to a person describe a color to me for the first time. I now have magenta in my head. I haven’t–
Alison: Really? That’s kind of cool for me.
Ryan: Alison just gave me magenta.
Alison: Wow. The only thing of service–
John: A moment that happened right here. So if you are interested in this t-shirt, we also have two other t-shirts back from the vault. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. There will also be a link in the show notes.
So, usually when t-shirts go up they’re only up for a short period of time. I think these are going to be up kind of recurring, but you should order them now so you can have them in time for the Austin Film Festival. I would like to see a lot of Colored Revision shirts out there in the audience while we’re at the Austin Film Festival. The other shirts we’ve got up there are a new Highland 2 shirt and a Karateka shirt which was something we did when we did the Karateka game years and years ago. And it’s cool and eight-bitty and pixely. So, check those out. Alison McDonald, thank you for describing the t-shirt. And we’ll make sure the colors are just right for you.
Alison: I’m sure it’s Craig’s fault.
Ryan: Well apparently if they don’t sell all the t-shirts Craig wears all the other ones that are left over all at once.
Alison: Oh, does he?
Ryan: Wears them around.
Alison: That’s got to be quite a sight.
John: I have some follow up too on previous Scriptnotes things which you guys can help me out on. So, we’ve been talking about sort of movies that are unavailable, movies you can’t find anywhere. And one of the issues being is that things have moved more towards digital, you know, you can buy a movie on iTunes, but a tweet that was sent my way this last week was from Anders G Da Silva. He writes, “Hey Apple, three movies I bought disappeared from iTunes library. Apple: Oh yes, those are not available anymore. Thank you for buying them. Here are two movie rentals on us. Me: Wait, what?”
And so the point is you can buy a movie on iTunes but then it’s just not there anymore because licensing stuff changed, and that is just nuts.
Alison: That gives me a panic attack. It really does. That’s sends me down an existential hole of what is real and what is not, what do we value. I still have tons of DVDs. Like I still buy them.
John: So Craig pointed out on Twitter this morning that technically even a DVD is kind of a license to watch a movie. It’s all kind of nuts. But if you physically have the DVD in your house you’re going to be able to watch that movie. And to have it just be removed from your digital account is just really frustrating.
Ryan: It’s weird how like they’ve actually redefined the word “buy.” Like to buy a movie it doesn’t mean what it used to mean.
Alison: It means nothing at all, Ryan.
Ryan: Yeah. I guess. Yeah.
Alison: I mean, had he not complained would they have refunded him his money?
John: That’s the thing. If he hadn’t noticed that the movies were gone would they have even done anything?
Alison: Apple, we’re directing this to you.
John: I also feel like this is the kind of thing which the WGA – no union is going to be able to address this. It feels like that’s government somewhere stepping in and they’re saying if you’re going to provide this kind of license for something you have to say that it’s really going to stick around.
Ryan: But we should also note that he bought a movie and then when it disappeared they gave him two rentals. As if that is an equivalent. Like I didn’t know two rentals was the same as ownership.
Alison: Nor did I. I don’t think anyone but Apple knew that. I think that’s highly contestable.
John: Last week we had Aline Brosh McKenna sitting in the chair that Alison is in right at this moment and she was talking through sort of her experience with sexual harassment. But we recorded that episode literally right before Les Moonves was ousted completely from CBS. So, all sorts of things have happened in the meantime with Les Moonves and other stories came out. But one of the most interesting ones I thought was yesterday, as we’re recording this, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason who did Designing Women and a lot of other TV shows wrote a piece for the Hollywood Reporter talking about how she never faced sexual harassment from him but she had an overall deal with CBS and got no shows on the air for years because he–
Alison: Seven years.
John: Seven years. He just basically stonewalled her. And was so nice to her face and undermining her constantly behind her back. How did you feel as you read that, Alison?
Alison: I’m going to be honest. It’s difficult to put into words just how enraged that made me. I can’t be as eloquent as Linda was in her piece. If you gave me the time to sit down and write out my feelings they would be less visceral. But the degree of deception in a way that it’s common in the culture of Hollywood to smile to someone’s face while you’re twisting the knife in their back, but this was lengthy, engineered deception and derailment of her. And not to be too alliterative. But, it’s really shocking how vicious it was. And how sustained it was. And he obviously engendered this culture at CBS that enabled this and encouraged this. And despite it being against his and the company’s best interests.
This woman had a proven track record and could have netted the company hundreds more millions of dollars in license fees and awards and yet it was more important to him to abuse her in this manner. So, again, it’s shocking that everyone below him went along with this.
John: Yeah, Ryan, that was a thing I didn’t really notice from the article is that for him to have done this everybody else had to know that this woman that we’ve had – this showrunner, this creator we have this giant deal with that we deliberately are never going to put her shows on the air. What was your reaction as you were reading through this? Did you feel that sense of rage and frustration? I started to wonder is anyone Les Moonves-ing me right now.
Ryan: It was all the talk in the writers’ room that morning. And there was such a palpable rage about it. And it was interesting because as you pointed out it wasn’t specifically about sexual harassment but about just the cult of power and personality and how it even exceeds economics, like you just pointed out. That’s what’s kind of shocking underneath it. It is a town that seems to love to cudgel you with economics as an argument for making something or not making something, but then to have the whim of personality and power above that have even more clout. It was truly astonishing. And it was like an amazing piece. The knife in that thing is so sharp. And if you haven’t read it I just encourage everybody to go read it, because it is quite the rallying cry I think.
John: So you were in a room to be able to talk about it and that’s an unusual experience for you because you’re mostly a feature writer. So right now you’re writing on this CW but this is the first time you’ve been writing on a show.
John: And so I want to get into this and I want to sort of talk through the process of getting on a show and sort of what it’s like to be writing on a show versus writing features independently, because Alison you’ve written independently, too. So I want to compare and contrast those two and really dig into it, because I’ve had no experience writing on the staff of a show.
Ryan: Oh really?
John: I’m literally just going to ask you questions. And not knowing very much about what it was like I went out to Twitter and I had a bunch of people tweet in their questions for you guys about sort of what it’s like to be a TV staff writer.
Ryan: Oh cool.
John: So, Alison, it’s been a while since you’ve been a staff writer, but can you time travel back and talk us through getting that first job writing on television, and how you got the job and sort of what it’s like that first, those first few days, that first week getting settled.
Alison: Oh boy. It’s a triggering question. But I do – I want to preface what my response is by saying that if you polled a hundred different writers with this question you might get anywhere from 25 to 99 different responses. So, this was my experience.
I am somewhat unique in that I did not set out to have a career in television. I went to film school wanting to write and direct independent films. And then the bottom fell out of indie features. There just was not a career to be had in them. So it was both necessity and somewhat fortuitous that I fell into my first TV job. So that’s the preface.
I was newly out of film school and had worked as an intern at Jim Jarmusch’s office in New York. It was a wonderful experience. And I met a UPM, a unit production manager for anyone who doesn’t know, who is essentially in charge of finances for production. That’s true in TV and in film. And she left her job with Jim, the production ended, and she went to work on a feature and offered me a job as a PA, which is a step up from an intern because you actually get “paid,” although I came to find out that she was paying the male PA more than she was paying me.
Alison: Yeah. Lots – have me back on, John. So at any rate, so I was working that job initially as a PA and was bumped up to production secretary at some point. And then our production offices moved to Kaufman Astoria, so all this was in New York.
And next door to us the Whoopi Goldberg sitcom was starting to set up their production. So this was before the writers were actually there. Most of the writers, I think perhaps all them except for the Turners, were Los Angeles based. So the room wasn’t up and running yet, but their UPM was setting up the offices and starting to hire local crew.
So I just walked down the hall one day, poked my head in his office, and said, hey, if you need a writer, you know, in that way that speaks of one’s naïveté but also you have to be ambitious and why not. And I had, again, just being out of film school I had written and directed two shorts that had gotten some attention on the festival circuit and also had some writing samples. So I was armed and prepared and that’s the best piece of advice that one can give anyone, because nothing else is in your control. And he explained to me the way writers’ rooms are staffed and how writers have long since been hired, the point of which the UPM is setting up an office, but he was very kind and said, “Leave me your card and I’ll let you know if any positions open up, specifically like a writer’s assistant.”
So I went back to my office and asked the other PA who was in the office at the time “What’s a writer’s assistant?” because obviously if you aren’t in this world and you aren’t introduced to the various levels of support staff that these shows have you have no idea. I mean, even if intuitively you know, OK, this is someone who assists the writers, in what way? And it affords one very close proximity to the process. And there’s no greater apprenticeship than that job. So at any rate, long story short, I was ultimately hired as the writer’s researcher for that show.
John: So not quite an assistant, but you’re in the mix.
Alison: Do you know what’s interesting about it, I don’t know that those jobs exist on most shows. Whoopi wanted someone who could keep an eye on topical subjects for the show to explore. And that’s what landed in my lap. So I was only too happy to do that. So I didn’t have the administrative tasks of a writer’s assistant, i.e. you’re being the court reporter and you’re typing down contemporaneously what everyone is saying, and then having to cull all of those notes at the end of the session. I was just working autonomously and, again, you try and observe what’s happening in this room around you, and I saw, OK, I’m not in the room with writers the way the writer’s assistants are, so I don’t have the proximity. But they can read my writing. So I was going through the newspapers on a daily basis and culling things that I thought might be topical, you know, appropriate for the show, but then also writing a paragraph, no longer than a paragraph, satirical take on what that particular story was.
Ryan: That’s a cool job.
Alison: You know, and it’s one that I was able to craft on my own. Nobody said this is what we’re expecting. It’s just give us some news stories. So the idea popped into my head to attack the task this way, which if you could look at through jaundiced eyes, so it feels like a menial task, you’re just cutting and pasting newspaper stories, but make it an opportunity. Do it with purpose. So, what came to pass is that more writers would approach me and say they thought today’s edition was really funny. I got other people – they were passing this around, so other people in the production would request me to put them on the distribution list. And eventually caught the attention of Whoopi’s producing partner who once the show got its back nine recommended me for a writer’s gig.
So I actually moved up the ladder faster than any of the other writer’s assistants.
John: So were you given one of the freelance gigs or what was it?
Alison: The way that happened is there are two options and they went with option A was to make me a staff writer as opposed to just paying me for a freelance script. So I was on staff. I did wind up getting a script. But it was more satisfying, because then I was in the room and I became a colleague. The funny coda to that story – and this is something you wouldn’t know if you were entrenched in the culture – is that in writers’ rooms typically the upper level writers tip their assistants. So the showrunner tips his or her assistant and then all of the writers combine, and it’s all based on seniority, so depending on how big a wig you are.
John: Tip? What do you mean?
Alison: So the way one would a server in a restaurant. Just a service tip, you know, because it’s Hollywood and everyone loves to give gifts. And these jobs don’t pay well, so let me state that. So, as part of the support staff I was tipped, and then suddenly I’m now in the room working with them and it’s like I hope you all don’t want your money back. I had bills to pay.
John: So you were in your early 20s or how old?
Alison: Yeah. And we’ll circle back around and Ryan can give his experience, but being fresh out of film school I was not prepared to read the room the way I was even a year later. It’s like, oh, this isn’t a free for all. This is actually a highly choreographed exercise in controlling chaos, to distill it into something that you can put on the air a week from now. So, again, coming from a classroom environment where there is a free exchange of ideas was both good preparation, because when you’re on a film set you learn the art and skill of collaborating, but also poor preparation into think that everyone on staff is encouraged to speak with equal volume.
John: Yeah. I want to get back to that because that’s a crucial thing I’ve always heard about TV writers’ rooms. So, your experience, while unique, was also kind of typical in that you got hired on as a very low level entry level job. You proved your merit. You proved that you were someone worth watching. And you got tapped on the shoulder to come into the room and become a staff writer.
Now, Ryan, your experience, you’re not a young woman in your 20s.
Ryan: I’m 85.
John: You’re 85 years old. And you’re a feature writer. But I would say actually a considerable number of feature writers are also writing TV now. So I think your experience is probably not going to be as atypical as a person who has mostly written features who after writing a bunch of features is now being brought into a room and having to adjust to that whole experience.
So, can you talk us through your early days, sort of entering into a writers’ rooms and sort of what your expectations were and what you were actually doing once you were there?
Ryan: Well, I mean, I came in as a bit of a spy. You know, I was actually in Portland doing a speaking gig and my agent called me and said that there was this show and the main character is a blind woman and Michael Showalter had shot the pilot and Corinne Kingsbury had written it and it was great and it was funny and it was very much my tone. Is it kind of too on the nose for me to want to do a show with a blind character?
And we hadn’t talked about me staffing on a show before. And the reason I did it in part was because I had a number of pilots in development elsewhere I thought I should really get inside a room and just be in one for a while and see how they really work and what works in them and what doesn’t. So I kind of came in both to roll up my sleeves but also very selfishly to spy.
And when I walked in the showrunner is John Collier and he had been on Bones, and Monk, and Simpsons. And the first thing he said to me in the kitchen is a lot of feature writers get really disoriented when they get into a room. It will rewire your brain. And after 15 weeks it’s completely true. Like it’s just a completely true statement.
And like Alison just said, I did not know that it was such a militarized think tank. That there is a real structure and it’s a deep structure. And from the outside you would think it’s an expression of status, or something very superficial like that, but it is a way of funneling the chaos of ideas towards moving forward. So, it’s not arbitrary. It’s not done out of a sense of pride like I have more experience than you, etc. etc. There really is a rationale underneath it, because you have too many people with too many great ideas and you have to somehow create a substratum to organize them.
So, I walked in and I knew enough to just listen, which is kind of the first job is doing a lot of listening, and as they say read the room. And being a blind guy I had the disadvantage of not being able to read the room, so I was just sort of listening to like just geographically in the room where the talking was coming from. And if you do that you can kind of get a sense of the way the room is organized. Like more comes from over here, less from over here. Right?
And it was really interesting for the first few weeks for me because I’d never been in such a boiler room sort of environment of pitching. I mean, I’ve pitched a ton of stuff over the years, be it features or radio or books, whatever. So pitching isn’t new to me, but pitching in the speed and in a constructive way in the chaos of other people also pitching, so you’re building on top of them, and also having to think like as fast as you need to. That was really disorienting.
But my favorite thing I discovered was I did not anticipate the level of memoir that goes into making a TV show. Like you get people in a room who ultimately at some point and at some level are drawing on their personal lives. And so you’re kind of in a collaborative memoir that is being repurposed as fiction. And so it’s pieces of people’s lives being stitched together into these Frankensteins. And I started as a writer doing memoir, like my first book was a memoir. So, after a couple weeks I found this really comfortable place where I’m like, oh, I remember what it was like doing this. You just tell people all you’ve ever done and that you think might be remotely interesting. And then somebody else puts a different head on it and somebody else puts wings on it and suddenly it flies and it’s not yours anymore.
So I found that whole experience really – like really interesting. And it requires a level of trust in the room, too, that you feel comfortable admitting things about yourselves because you don’t want to make characters that are saints as well, right?
Alison: That was so incredibly eloquent. That sounds like a place I want to be.
Alison: I want to engage in that experiment.
Ryan: You should try it. It’s called TV.
John: Now, Alison, you have the benefit you’ve been on multiple shows. So you’ve seen the whole range of how a show can work and how it can function. Probably some that function really well and some that do not function well at all. But for a person who is a new staff writer, what’s some general advice you can offer in terms of listening and then eventually speaking and how do you find the place and the time to speak up and to actually contribute something versus reading the room that Ryan was describing?
Alison: I would say that the best fallback position if you’re brand new to the room is to listen. To listen with the intensity that you would speak in other instances. And you may not know initially because every room is different, the way the personality of every showrunner can’t be boiled down to any one predominant trait except megalomania. But it will service you well in every room in which you ever enter, because even as I’ve made my way up – even as I’ve clawed my way up to the top I have not had the security that a lot of different TV writers have where you’re on The Office for seven seasons, or you know anyone of those shows, or like Frasier. I worked with a writer who had been on both Cheers and Frasier.
Alison: Right. So I can’t even imagine what kind of not just financial stability that gives you but also a level of comfort in knowing that your best ideas – your worst ideas rather won’t define you or limit you on a moment to moment or hour to hour or season to season basis. And that you have the freedom to make mistakes with impunity. That you just don’t have on a show that – you know, where you have to start over again every season.
But the ability to read the room and to be strategic about when you speak and what you say is crucial. And perhaps that serves you in every facet of show business and life. But a constant, and I’ve written on both comedies and dramas, and I would say that Ryan said this very, very succinctly. I won’t be as succinct because there are years of trauma attached to this advice.
Ryan: It’s my soft belly. It’s my soft belly that made me succinct.
Alison: You have no idea how much I envy your calm – none of this is triggering for you. But in a comedy room, for example, the pitching is fast and furious. And people are practically falling all over themselves to speak, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest aggression. It’s that, especially on a sitcom you just have to feed the beast of jokes, like there has to be a joke every two lines, every three or four lines. And so that kind of velocity certainly creates an environment that may feel like a mosh pit.
And on dramas there’s obviously a different, depending on the drama, like I’m on a legal thriller now, you may be pitching story arcs and it’s not that you don’t have to be able to pivot quickly, but pauses are encouraged. You know?
John: If there’s a silence that lasts 15 seconds that’s not the end of the world in a drama room. Whereas a comedy room that could feel different.
Alison: It’s almost death. It’s almost like unleashing a virus.
John: So I’m going to go to a question from Twitter. Michael Tull asked, “Which is better, to be able to come up with unique dialogue/stories on your own or to be able to go with the flow and have random bursts of input for other people’s ideas?”
So as a staff writer, which do you think serves you better? To be able to contribute in the room and to add on to things, or to be a person who can draft a whole idea and present it?
Ryan: You know, it’s interesting. From my observation anyway, I don’t know if that is – I don’t know if it’s an either/or question. In some ways one of the things that seems to make a room really work is the composition of the people in that room. So, you might have somebody who has a different skill set than somebody else. But there’s also this under sung value of a difference of personalities. There’s some people who are just great cheerleaders to keep things going forward when it feels pretty down. There’s some people that are just work horses, that just get up there and they hold the board together, and they’ve got the best handwriting in the world.
So, you know, it’s not like there’s a very narrow bandwidth of skill set you can specialize in. I think the strength is to know what you can contribute and to see its contribution to the whole in the way that people are kind of arranged around that table and what they bring. And I have different skill sets, I think. And in this particular room it took me a few weeks to kind of figure out, oh, this is probably the best thing I can bring to the table because I can’t bring everything I want to. You know, there’s just not room to try and do everything.
So, knowing what you can bring and how it would complement who is there is more I think valuable.
John: Alison, what’s your take on that?
Alison: I would concur 100%. And it changes from room to room. What the showrunner is doing at the outset of any room is assessing skill sets. She or he may have hired you thinking that your area of specialization was going to be X, but in this constellation of writers and experiences and levels you may be more useful doing Y. And the best example of this is comedy rooms, which they’ll often split into two. I once on a staff of 18 people. And they’ll often split into two for efficiency sake. You just can’t be in a room with 18 people pitching jokes. You really shouldn’t be in a room with 10 people pitching jokes. But one room will just be on story and the other room will just be the joke room, which I found to be no exit. Like I cannot stand it. Pitch one liners for six to eight hours every day.
Ryan: Comedy is such an unfunny business.
Alison: Oh god. Again, that’s another episode. But I was surprised, but depending on the room, depending on the show in question I was either in the joke room or in the story room. And it was just how that particular showrunner assessed my ability. And that goes back to the you need a full set of skills because any one of them may be called upon or required more in any particular room. And I think what most showrunners would probably say is that if you can get a couple of people who can give you really solid first drafts that’s invaluable. Because that’s where most of the time suck comes in having to rewrite. And the rewrite may not be because of anything you can necessarily control. Like you may get studio notes–
John: They blow up the episode.
Alison: Exactly. They blow up the script and suddenly it has to be rewritten in two days. That actually happened to me on my first Whoopi script. So somebody who can write quickly and write well quickly. You know, like in comedy rooms it’s almost like you can add the jokes later, you can add them on set, but structure you can’t piece together on a set. So, that skill set I think is certainly – help me out here, Ryan.
John: It’s important.
Ryan: It’s the thing.
Alison: That’s the brass ring. If you can do that. But again you may find that you’re better at doing that on a procedural than you are on a legal thriller. But I think to answer the person’s question, perhaps in a different way, is there’s no way to predict on a daily basis what you’re going to need to do in any given situation. So I think having an open mind and being courageous in that way, you know, if that doesn’t sound too precious.
Ryan: I could add, too, that part of it is, and I wasn’t really aware of this prior, and hadn’t really thought about it, was that as you go into production people start peeling away, right. So there might be a writer off on draft, there might be somebody out on outline, there’s somebody on set, there’s somebody in post. So the composition of the room isn’t stable either. It’s changing all the time.
So you might have had a particular role that you sort of fell into for a while, feeling it was your comfort zone, but as personalities in the room shift you might get called upon for other things that you didn’t do before.
I love it when people ask questions and you say the question is wrong. It’s the classic advice column move. But that’s just the nature of the beast I guess.
John: Let’s segue to a question from Victor Herman who is asking about that shift of the room. “Once an episode’s story is broken and a writer leaves the room for any number of days to write a script, what does it feel like to come back in the room now that the story has progressed without you? Are you vocal if there is something that’s happened that you don’t like?”
So, Alison, let’s pretend that you are off writing your script.
John: Now you come back in the room and they’re working on another episode. Things have changed. If you see something on the board or the episode is going in a way that you sense is going to be trouble do you speak up? How do you address that?
Ryan: You walk in the room and you’re like who is Victor? There’s these names on the board you don’t recognize.
Alison: Here’s a quick anecdote. I once was sent off on outline and got a call day two that the network had decided they didn’t want to kill off this character that I was killing off. Come back in the room. We have to rebreak the story.
John: Let’s clarify. So, to be off on outline means that you are writing the outline or you are writing the script?
Alison: It means that you’re writing the outline. Now, there are extraordinary circumstances where you’re writing both simultaneously. And that’s when, yes, the network has blown something up and you have to – there’s so many extraordinary circumstances that you talk to enough TV writers they’re like, oh yeah, that’s happened to me. Where just bureaucratically the network will demand an outline, even though the script has already been written. So you’re trying to distill a script into outline form. It’s ridiculous.
But I would say you always have to bear in mind the value of diplomacy. You’re off on script so you’re siloed and you’re focused on, you know, you have this myopic focus on the task at hand, these 28 to 55 pages, while the room is going on without you and they’re discovering other things about season arc and perhaps even series arc that you weren’t privy to. So they have information you don’t have. And you have information they don’t have because you’re discovering something about the character as you’re writing it. Jokes that weren’t pitched in the room or layers to the character that weren’t discussed in the room.
And depending on the room you may have a great deal of autonomy, or you may have very little. So I think if you come back into the room and something doesn’t jibe with you it’s just how do you go about farting in an enclosed space?
Ryan: That’s it. Next question.
Alison: I mean, depending on your dynamic with the showrunner it’s something you might want to have a sidebar on. And the showrunner can weigh in on I think that’s a valid concern, we’ll raise it in the room, or I hear what you’re saying but we’ve moved in this direction and I’ve called it. Like we’re heading on. And I’m sure that – this is something that does apply across all genres, across all rooms. You have to learn not to be precious of your writing. You won’t survive if you don’t.
And it’s actually a very good skill because even if you’re writing a play at some point someone is going to tell you that they can’t – this is impractical, we can’t get this set, or whatever it is and you have to adjust. But it’s constant adjustments in a writers’ room. So, if the showrunner has decided that they’re moving on from your idea, they’re moving on. And you need to let it go.
John: A question from Bob who asks, “How much is done or expected to be done at the office versus at home? So, are you working all the time? How long does it take to write an episode for a 30-minute show versus a 60-minute show?” Talk about the workload and how much of that work takes place over the course of ten to six or ten to whatever in the room versus not in the room. Ryan, what was your experience with work at the office versus work at home?
Ryan: I know it changes for every show, but you sort of get the schedule and the rhythm of the room pretty quick. And in our case we usually start at ten each morning. You know, your hope is to leave by 6:30 or seven. And often you don’t. Often you stay later. Just depending if the network blew something up or if you’ve fallen behind, whatever.
I would say the room can have a rhythm in the day where it’s like we’re all together at the beginning and sort of mapping out something large and then we might split into smaller rooms and somebody is doing episode eight and another one is doing episode nine. You’re running back and forth in between them because it’s a serialized show so you have to make sure everybody is speaking to each other and they’re not moving the story away from where it needs to be.
But workload wise, I mean the thing I found quite weird was how little I actually wrote for a long time. Like you’re really in a room talking a lot. And eventually you’ll go to outline. Eventually you’ll go to script. But that’s more the exception than the rule of your time. So, you’re in the room for the most part. You’re in there with people. It’s like you’re in the belly of the yellow submarine. And depending on your showrunner, when you go to outline or episode they may want you to stay around the office. And I can see advantages for that, especially if you’re doing a serialized show, because things might be changing and hot in the room and it might affect your episode so it’s good to be nearby so you can be pulled in, so you can integrate those changes.
You know, we might be on episode five and they’re shooting episode three and we need to do something in episode six that actually requires they change something back in episode three, so you might be tapping something that’s already almost going into production, just to make sure that something can be serviced further ahead in the story.
So, you know, it really depends on the show because in our case it’s sometimes helpful to be around the offices because it’s such a live worming show as far as the story and how it moves and shifts. But our showrunner has also been really great about if you want to write at home and you feel better and that’s good for your practice then go do it. And he’s cool with that. So we’ve been sort of given a lot of leeway that way.
I like staying in the office just because I kind of like to keep my finger on the pulse.
Alison: I would add only that having been a number of different shows and shows that are very room reliant and shows that aren’t, one of the disciplines that I didn’t value way back when but I certainly do now is the ability to write anywhere. Whether it’s actually on set, where you’re rewriting jokes on a sitcom, or if you have to quickly do triage on a script that the network has blown apart, and you’re shooting these scenes the next day, so you’re absolutely going to be writing in an office, or in a production vehicle.
The more you can test your ability to endure those extreme circumstances, the better off you’re going to be. Like how nice it is to sit home and write in your pajamas, all you screenwriters out there. John, I’m looking at you. For the most part you don’t have that option. I’m currently on a show where the showrunner will sometimes specify I’d like you to be around in the office should something change, or you know, it’s fine, go ahead and write at home. But I usually force myself to do half and half.
John: An important question from Gary Whitta who asks, “Sweats in the writers’ room? Acceptable?” So, it is different. As feature writers, I don’t have to get dressed. I can wear anything. But you are actually going into the presence of other people. So what are expectations for how you should dress in a room? Alison, in your experience what are the levels of dressed-up-ness in a writers’ room?
Alison: Comfort is key. I mean, I won’t be tongue and cheek with my response. Comfort is key. Because as Ryan said, depending on the room you may be there for eight to 14 hours. And I’ve seen it all in terms of attire. But writers on the whole, I think you’ll forgive me for generalizing, but are pretty casual folk. So, I worked with some dandies and that’s always a bit strange, but there is no code. I think that the strange thing about Hollywood, and surely you’ve found this even as a screenwriter, is writers tend to be the worst dressed. And agents the best. And then the network execs, you know, it’s like business casual for all of them. But agents definitely in pearls or suits and ties. But writers, yeah.
John: So Ryan Knighton, I see your dress code. It was already described as a red and black flannel. It’s the only time I think I’ve not seen you in a black t-shirt. That seems to be–
Ryan: That’s my uniform.
John: That is your uniform. So, can you offer any insights on the wardrobe of your–?
Ryan: Oh man, I’m a blind guy. I don’t know what they’re wearing in the room. I have no idea. They’re all naked for all I know. There are certain running jokes. And I’m sure he’ll be happy I say this. There’s an EP on our show who I just love. And he’s just a great veteran comedy writer. And he spent so many times eating lunch out of plastic takeout containers that he just refuses. So he has his plate and his fork and he does his dishes and he’s always dressed to the nines every day. And it’s just like he’s really committed to the idea. I’m here a lot. I’m just going to make it good. And apparently on a show he was on years ago people started people ribbing him about his fork and knife and his plate and all that kind of stuff. And eventually they noticed that he just kept adding to this. And so he brought a napkin. At a certain point he had a candle.
Alison: And a Ganymede to serve him.
Ryan: And I think that is just the best. And I think there’s something great about that variety in the room that everybody just sort of takes control of their own little micro environment of themselves.
Alison: I would say the one exception to the casual workwear code is on sitcoms where on show night if you’re always the person in a t-shirt and jeans you bring the sport coat. It’s a fun ritual, actually, because there’s an audience there and you’re filming a little half hour play so you dress up a little bit.
John: Brendon or Brian asks, “What’s for lunch? How early in the course of the day is the decision made about what the writing staff is going to eat for lunch?” And that is whole thing. And so even here, like Megan will run out and grab lunch for us sometimes. But it’s nothing like what the PA servicing a writers’ room is doing with like these giant lunch orders that are coming in. So talk to us about lunch. Ryan Knighton, this is your first time experience.
Ryan: I have so many thoughts about lunch. The thing about lunch, because I had heard about this before I came down, like it became sort of this weird cultural trope about the writers’ room and the lunch. And the thing I didn’t realize was it’s also because it’s like your own holiday moment in the day. It’s like the middle of the day. It’s the one moment where you sort of feel like you’ve stepped out of the room, even though you’re not in the room. So what you eat and sort of arranging that sacred time where you’re not on task is really important to people.
And in our case the menu goes out the night before. So we actually get it the night before.
Alison: That’s so smart.
Ryan: Which is great. Because it’s on the table. It doesn’t take up time in the morning. And it’s not a big to do. The only difficulty is deciding at 11 o’clock at night what you want tomorrow. But I can live with it.
Alison: I just want to say to anyone whose impulse might be, oh, I can’t believe these spoiled Hollywood writers are complaining about a free meal, it’s not a free meal people. Like they feed you so that they can keep you in house. It’s to keep you close by.
Ryan: How about we just work while we’re eating.
Alison: That’s most rooms. And what’s become quite standard now is there is a very hard rule about budgets. So try and be in Los Angeles or New York and find a lunch that you can get for like $11.25. Again, we’re not talking pampering and flying in sushi from Alaska or something like that. But I would also say that Ryan is right. There can be cultural wars over lunch.
Ryan: Oh yeah.
Alison: There can be holy wars waged over lunch. I worked with this one guy who was so obsessive and even if someone is trying to institute like a democratic process, like each person in the room gets to pick, like I’ve been that writer. I was a staff writer on a show and not knowing LA I just looked at the menu of some place and said this is fine. And everybody complained about the lunch, so of course you feel like you’ve got the scarlet letter A.
But I’ve also been in rooms where as Ryan just said the showrunner likes to work through lunch, which is torture. And it’s not just torture because you don’t get that decompression in the middle of the day. It’s because you have to watch other people eat. And then the room just smells. You know, the more rooms that you’re in the more contemporaneous mental notes that you take, like I will never do this when I run a room, I will never do this. You have to give people lunch and you have to enforce the no eating in the room edict because it needs to be a pure space in all senses of the word, except for the fact that we’re writing television. But yes.
John: Let’s talk about money and sort of the financial aspect of it all. Two questions that came in. Daft Kid wrote, “Is the pay enough to live off in LA?” And then Anthony Kupo asked, “Please give us a ballpark on salary.”
So, it’s always awkward to talk about money, but I texted a friend who is on a network one-hour and he polled staff writers on a network one-hour. And they said that after taxes and agent, but not counting a manager, it’s roughly $2,200 per week for a 20-week guarantee. And so for a 20-week guarantee that’s $44,000, which seems good, but is a challenging amount. If that’s the only money you’re making for a year in Los Angeles that’s a challenging amount.
So, when you got brought on to be a staff writer on Whoopi’s show, that was probably – you were just out of college. That was really good money for you.
Alison: Yeah. It was more than I could count. And by the way I just finished paying off my film school loans six weeks ago.
John: Congratulations. That’s nice.
Ryan: Wow. Yeah.
Alison: Maybe it’s been eight weeks. I can’t believe that I don’t have hash marks on my arm. The amount of time and just the amount of mental space of that debt took up. But it did feel like a lot of money in that very naïve sense, because you’re just used to seeing a negative balance. But, you are talking about living in New York or Los Angeles and if that is the one job you have, like 20 weeks you work out of a 52-week year, then that has to stretch quite a long time. And you have no idea of knowing whether you’ll work five months from then, one year from then, two years from then. So you have to learn to budget your money and live very modestly I would say.
Ryan: The rhetoric around it reminds me a lot about the way anybody talks about any kind of well-paying seasonal labor. Like you can be a rough neck on oil rigs and it’s a very similar kind of culture where it looks like you’re being paid just a ridiculous amount of money, but then when you think about 25% of it goes to your agent, manager, lawyer, a bunch goes to taxes, it only gets paid out over six months, and then you’ll find out six months later if you get to work again for another year, you have to sort of save with an anticipation of disaster all the time.
So it’s not even like you really can enjoy that feeling of security because on the other side of it is a big unknown question mark. And so everybody sort of squirrels away anticipating the worst, which it kind of creeps into your psyche.
John: The example I gave was on a network show that is a 20-week show, but like so many shows these days are for streaming, they’re for cable, and there’s no guarantee you’re going to be that many weeks, you’re going to be at that rate. And one of the sort of WGA negotiations that has happened was about options and exclusivity. Basically when you finish a show how long can they hold onto you without paying you in case there’s another season of the show coming up? And so that is a huge factor in your ability to make a living as a TV writer.
And so what was great money for Alison coming out as a first time staff writer would be a challenging amount of money for somebody with a young family. It’s a lot.
Alison: It’s why I don’t have a family. [laughs] No, I mean, the truth is I have friends who have kids and when I say to them I was up until three or four finishing a script, you know, they look at me slack-jawed. And then I think of oh my god what if I had to feed a kid, too. What if I even had to walk a dog? So, perhaps the most useful piece of information to someone listening to this podcast, and god I wish podcasts existed when I was first starting out, is that if you’re uncomfortable with the notion of instability, and Ryan just spoke to this, this life isn’t for you.
It just – I mean, Linda’s story is a perfect example of that. Because you would think no one has greater stability than someone who has a $50 million deal, with this proven track record, who was in demand. But she was yoked so severely by Les Moonves. And that was an exclusive deal I have to assume. So obviously that’s an extreme example. She had been very well paid for a long time. She earned all of the money from her shows that had been on the air.
But television is predicated on failure, even more specifically than any other area of show business. Perhaps theater. But you just have to assume that you’re not going to work for a long time. And that’s not catastrophizing. That’s being a realist.
So, you have to be able to weather that storm emotionally, psychologically, and financially. And it never ends. You know, I’ve been doing this now almost 15 years. And when my room wraps in two months, less than two months, I don’t know what my next gig is going to be. So.
John: Crazy. Ryan Knighton, you’ve been doing this less than a year. On the whole how would you compare the experience of writing in TV versus writing in features? Did it make you want to do more TV or did it make you feel better about what you can do in features?
Ryan: It has really given me a taste for TV. I will say that. And I was joking in the room quite often that like there’s elements of working in TV that remind me of radio. And there’s elements of writing features that remind me of writing books. I mean, there’s that solitary isolated thing of novels and feature scripts. Whereas there’s such a much more social element in television and the process is incredibly social. It’s not just the nature of being in the room with the people, but the work gets done in a very socially collaborative way.
And it’s kind of refreshing to be yanked from my basement after ten years and be put in front of people–
Alison: What were you doing down there?
Ryan: You know, just like doing the laundry and just hoping there was another gig around the corner somewhere. So, you know, I think like a lot of people in the business right now because there’s such a seismic shift in what’s being made in terms of features and that there is so much more being made in terms of television, and streaming and cable, that everybody has got their eyes on both sides.
You know, so many companies that I met with in the past that used to be just features all have TV sides now. So, I’m looking at it more. And the thing that I find is that it just asks a different kind of brain around your writing. And there’s a lot of really interesting puzzles that I just never encountered before. Like I was saying to my assistant this morning that with features you start with a blank page and a concept and a pitch or a piece of IP and you just sort of sky’s the limit go for it. You know, what is your best version of what this story could be if it was up on a screen.
And there’s so many decisions that have already been made about television before you start writing. You know, you have certain actors for a certain number of episodes and so you got to plan out a season that makes somebody drop away for three times and make sure if you can at least have two of those episodes back to back so they don’t have to fly back and forth. And you’ve got four standing sets and you’ve got only four days on those and four days out for every episode. So you can write the most amazing episode of that show but it can be completely unproducible. And so you’re writing with all these interesting constraints already in place.
And that’s not a thing I’d had to do before. So, it’s a cool new puzzle in that respect. So I would say I’ve got a taste for it now.
Alison: That’s maybe the greatest gift that TV gives you is it forces this discipline that you never would have been able to describe had you not been in it. But I think having a producer’s brain is something that most writers don’t have to have or adapt to if you don’t write TV, precisely for what Ryan said.
But once you have it, I think it makes you a better writer. It certainly makes you a more efficient writer.
John: All right, let’s go onto our One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing is a TV show called Succession on HBO. And it’s a really good show and everyone talks about it as a really good show, but my experience getting into it was interesting because it’s a traditional show in that it’s once per week. And so it’s not a Netflix show which is all available at once. And I heard some good things and I heard some not good things about it. And so I sort of held off on watching it until like six or seven episodes in and everyone is like oh my god it’s amazing. And so now I’m watching it and catching up.
But it’s been such an interesting experience because I feel like Succession would have had a different placement in the world if it had all come out at once. And I think everyone had seen like, oh, it gets really good so therefore you should watch it. And yet in a weird way I think coming out week by week and then getting really, really good has sort of given it extra life. And you might have missed it if it was just like another really good show that’s stacked up waiting for you to watch.
So, Succession is a really good comedy-drama. It has a quality of Veep but it’s not Veep. And it takes a little while for it to find its tone and its footing, but I highly recommend Succession on HBO.
Ryan Knighton, what is your One Cool Thing?
Ryan: My One Cool Thing, so you know, since I’m working on this show and the main character is a blind woman and they brought me in for reasons related to that, amongst other things, one of the things that kept coming up was how technology has really changed the whole experience of being blind. And it actually throws a lot of really interesting wrenches in the storytelling that wouldn’t have existed ten years ago, five years ago even.
So, you know, I still have a stick, which is the best technology they came up with, which is kind of sad. But it’s very hard to improve on the stick. But there is something that has made a kind of run for the improvement on it. And it is an app that’s called Be My Eyes.
And Be My Eyes is run by – well the app basically is you can sign up, so anybody out there who is sighted can sign up to be a volunteer on this app. And it’s on a blind person’s iPhone. And it’s just a big button in the middle of the screen. And when you hit it it calls a random volunteer. And then it’s like FaceTime and they look through your phone for you and they can see things for you.
So, like if I’m standing at a street corner trying to find a crosswalk I can just Be My Eyes and John would pop on, or somebody in Tokyo, and they can look at the crosswalk for me and steer me.
Alison: Wow. You have to be a very trusting person.
Alison: And I’m not.
Ryan: You do. But it’s also fascinating because it’s become repurposed. Like apparently people with dyslexia have been using it. And all sorts of other circumstances. It’s sort of like a network of just volunteers who can FaceTime to help you with anything that could be solved by FaceTiming.
Ryan: So, it’s kind of fascinating. But I don’t use it too much, because I like to have the material of being lost. It’s like it’s better stories if I get lost. But I put it out there because it’s a great thing to support by even volunteering for it.
Alison: That extraordinary.
John: Alison McDonald?
Alison: My One Cool Thing is a cool thing wrapped up in a piece of advice, and I hope that it’s one that hasn’t been mentioned on this podcast before, but if it has I think it’s still useful to hear again. And that is to take improvisation classes if you are interested in writing for TV. Is this a refrain oft repeated on this podcast?
John: It’s never been a One Cool Thing, so it’s good advice.
Alison: I had actually been writing in TV rooms for a while and started taking classes at UCB, at Upright Citizens Brigade. They’re actually matriculated “theater schools,” so you can take a number of different classes, in sketch and different aspects of improv and performance. But it teaches you the discipline of not just coming up with ideas and being able to dismiss them efficiently and not getting too attached to any one idea. But the discipline of collaboration.
And a lot of the same rules of etiquette apply in an improv troupe that do in a writers’ room, and UCB the philosophy is don’t be a dick. Like that’s first and foremost like the do no harm. First do no harm credo. And I wish more people adhered to that in TV rooms the way that they do at UCB.
But the second is that you are part of a multi-hydraed brain, and we spoke about this earlier in the podcast that there may be a unique skill set that you have that you contribute in this particular room that you wouldn’t in another room. And you have to be comfortable with that. But you also have to recognize when you’re getting in your own head too much.
And this is hard to just as human beings. You want to excel and you want to succeed and you know the high pressure stakes in a room. It’s not just the show must go on, we have to shoot this. It’s, you know, I want to have this job next season so I need to impress the showrunner. But if you’re so much in your head you’re not going to be able to be productive. And if you pitch a joke that dies in the room you cannot allow it to derail you.
So that’s what being in improvisation class can teach you. Just like get past that one bad joke, that one bad idea that didn’t fly. And there will be someone who comes around who either builds on it, like the yes-and philosophy of improv, or in the room, you know, you’re just going to move past. Like bad ideas are the ingredients of what ultimately becomes a good script.
So I think it teaches you dexterity. It teaches you to have a very healthy outlook on what the sausage-making process is.
John: Excellent. That is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s also where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions or the things I read from Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Are you guys on Twitter? Do you want to be singled out on Twitter?
Ryan: I’m just @ryanknighton.
John: @ryanknighton. And?
Alison: I’m @shegotproblems. [laughs]
John: It’s because you were asking all about how to use Twitter. So now you have more Twitter followers.
Alison: Yes. I’m following you, John. So you know you can follow a follow with a follow? I don’t know even how the lingo goes. I don’t know if I’ll follow Craig.
John: You should follow Craig.
Alison: He’s [unintelligible]less. Said with love.
John: You can find links to the stuff we talked about on the show today at johnaugust.com. So just search for this episode. You can find the whole podcast on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there you can leave us a comment. You can tell us how awesome Ryan Knighton and Alison McDonald are.
You’ll find transcripts at johnaugust.com. We get them up about four days after the episode airs. And you can find all the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net or as seasons at johnaugust.com/store.
Alison McDonald, Ryan Knighton, thank you so much for talking TV with me. This was great.
Alison: I’m delighted to have been here. Can I do a pass of the transcript? Can I clean up my dialogue?
John: 100%. Easily. The studio is going to blow it up anyway.
Alison: I’m just kidding. I really do adore Craig.
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- Anders G Da Silva’s tweet about missing movies from his iTunes library
- ‘Designing Women’ Creator Goes Public With Les Moonves War: Not All Harassment Is Sexual, a guest column by Linda Bloodworth Thomason for the Hollywood Reporter
- Succession on HBO
- Be My Eyes app
- Improv classes for TV writers
- The USB drives!
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