Friday, April 14, 2006

TV Myths: First in an Occasional Series

I never meant for this blog to be about TV or film writing -- frankly, I find most of those boring -- but occasionally I'll dip my toe in those waters.

I've been on the Internets for a very long time. My first computer was a 386... That's how long. So I've seen a lot of people with a lot of misconceptions online about TV. From time to time I'd like to explode one.

Here's the first:

When you see a TV sitcom was "written by Joe Smith" it may not necessarily be so.

There have been scripts "written by Michael Markowitz" that I've written 100% of, and there have been some that I've written 30% of, and every percentage in between.

There have been scripts with other people's names on them that I've written 100% of, all by myself. And, most commonly, scripts that say "Written by Joe Blow" that were written by three people and then rewritten by ten people, and
not one of those people were Joe Blow.

So when I go to a Usenet group or TV blog and I see, "Oh, this episode is SO Joe Blow" I have to laugh. Trust me, in sitcoms -- with some exceptions -- the credits are guidelines at best.

When sitcom writers win Emmys and thank their fellow staff writers, they really mean it. Because on some shows, chances are those other writers wrote a lot of that script... or at least those one or two moments that you quote all the time.

Gang-writing, or room writing, is, as a manufacturing process, horribly inefficient. And you can see the result when you watch a formula-driven, mirthless show like Teachers. You would not eat a slice of cheese fashioned by as many hands as shape a Teachers script... but you would drive a car fashioned by as many artisans as skilled as those who crafted Arrested Development or The Simpsons.

It has been said of the Dirty Harry movies that they succeeded because they are a liberal fantasy: Harry Callahan is one of the few people we trust to surrender our civil rights to. Gang-writing sitcoms is a horrible thing or a great thing... depends on the gang.

John F. Kennedy welcomed dozens of Nobel Prize winners to dinner and called them "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

I wish more networks would realize that Carl Reiner was Thomas Jefferson, too. That it would be nice to hear a singular voice on television again.


Sean Tisdall said...

That would require a network to take real risks again, and when I think of a large media company taking risks the episode where Ajax is hired as a poet comes to mind.

Michael Markowitz said...

Well, that's not strictly fair, either. Disney took a tremendous artistic risk with Lost, GE took an artistic risk with The West Wing, Universal with My Name is Earl, and CBS with CSI, a show that everyone else turned down, IIRC. Same with Survivor.

It's very easy to point the fingers at the networks and studios, but I know them and they're smart people. (Some of them... At least two I know are imbeciles.)

The risks are often not taken by the showrunners themselves, or they feel constrained by the system. Or they constrain themselves, out of habit. It's easy to make meat loaf. Why try for steak?

Or the system rewards people who only know how to make meat loaf, and wouldn't know a steak if they fell backwards into it.

Sean Tisdall said...

Yeah that's my point too. There's disproportionate punishment for failure. This takes a business that should be known for risk takers and ends up rewarding risk averse behavior. These intelligent people, who I'm sure there are in any industry, (I've had more illuminating discussions about global affairs working on a line in a kitchen then I ever have in a political science class) are thus trained to avoid risk or at least the appearance of risk so as to avoid the high consequences of failure.

But then, we can observe this effect amplified here in Canada, thanks to the CBC which suffers from a great degree of risk averse behaviour, due to the high scrutiny and interference it receives from the political class. Any series that appears on the publicly owned CBC can ill afford to look biased or lose money. Thus, Gordon Pinsent spent more time playing Hap on Red Green, than he did playing Quentin Durgens, MP. This isn't to call the people on the production end of the business unintelligent, it's simply the awful implications of game theory.

Who would've thought my economics classes would explain formula TV?

Ken Levine said...

A writer I knew was working on DHARMA & GREG, a show entirely room written. After a couple of years of this he was literally afraid to write a script on his own. It had been so long he had doubts he could do it again. That's evil by-product #6 of this insidious practice.

Anonymous said...

wow my name is michael markowitz
and i live in israel.
it is so cool to find someone with my name!!

Michael Markowitz said...

Shalom, Michael. There are more of us than you might think!