What does making it as a TV writer really mean? Those who’ve been around for awhile but haven’t become star show runners all say it’s pretty much like this:
by Bryan Behar
In a digital-era where “sitcom writer” sounds almost as contemporary as “telegraph operator” or “CompuServe tech support,” I was astonished to realize I just finished my 21st show in 20 years. Or as my writing partner pointed out, if we were comically and racially mismatched buddy cops, we’d be one week from retiring to a sailboat. Worse, we may actually be at an age where we are too old to be “too old for this shit.”
Before I broke into sitcom writing, the idea of someone finishing their 20th season conjured up images of jowly alter kockers, with names like Sy or Hy or Sidney, eating sky high tongue sandwiches and pitching jokes dripping in Borscht juice and Vaudeville rhythms, recounting tales of how they transitioned Fibber McGee and Molly from radio to TV. Guys (and one girl) whose reruns are available on kinescope at the broadcast museum. Not on Amazon Prime. You know who I didn’t picture? Me. Now. I can’t be a grisled twenty-year vet dispensing career wisdom. I wear Pumas. I listen to Pavement, for chrissakes. I could’ve sworn I just got here.
Early on, twenty years seemed like such a vastly overlong career, that in most writers’ rooms I’ve been in, there’s a running joke that you can add “My twenty years in Hollywood” to any imaginary memoir you’re writing and it’s inherently more interesting and salacious. Try it. “Blowing Sailors and Eating Cashews”– I have no idea what that means. “Blowing Sailors and Eating Cashews: My Twenty Years in Hollywood”– I still have no idea what that is. But there’s no way I’m not at least clicking on the free sample.
You’d think that after 20 years, I’d have acquired some over-arching universal theory that explains the television universe. You’d think, but you’d be wrong. Would you settle for a handful of not-so-trenchant observations? 1. All comedy writers think it’s funny to say “guv’nor’ in a Cockney accent. And all spouses don’t. 2. Shows where you work till 6 in the morning are no better and usually significantly worse than shows where you stay till 6 at night. 3. Don’t work for someone going through a divorce (see #2). 4. America loved multi-cam sitcoms, so networks stopped making them. 5. If you eat peanut M &M’s every minute of every day, you might gain weight. 6. TV executives enjoy buying shows from tall men who live near the Palisades. Then again, they may live near the Palisades because they’ve sold shows. Or because they’re tall men. Did I mention, it isn’t a very well-formed theory?
But there have been a couple things that’ve surprised me more than others. First, 99 per cent of television comedy writing doesn’t involve writing television comedy. I became a writer assuming I’d get to be an eccentric hermit who only spoke to another human when turning in my Daily Grill order. Imagine my surprise to learn that shows are run like comic jury duty. Ten to twenty hours a day locked in a room with 11 comedians and one person oddly fixated on punctuation….