Even after 22 seasons of writing for TV, I never presume to speak for any other writers. In fact, my self-esteem is often so staggeringly low that I rarely even presume to speak for myself.
But I think there are two topics on which I’m most comfortable speaking for all television writers with absolute moral authority. 1. Sushi doesn’t travel well from Brentwood to Burbank during rush hour. And, 2. No one really wants to be cornered by someone to hear your self-proclaimed “the world’s greatest sitcom pitch.”
Confession time: I am woefully gullible. Like at the level of Charlie Brown trying to kick a PAT or the naive sap who every year had to plan the Buffalo Bills’ victory parade. Which means, that every time I hear out of the blue from an old friend, relative or school dad under the guise of just wanting to catch up or grab lunch, as a 50-something year-old man, acutely aware of how hard it is is to make or maintain male friendships, I naturally take these people at face value. Silly, silly, naive, stupid, silly me.
Because time and time again— we’re probably approaching a third counting hand by now— whether it’s on the phone or direct message, in a friend’s pool or the temple carpool, what I took as someone reaching out to enjoy my company invariably segues into “Now that I have you, you have to hear the idea that’s going to change your life.” Mind you, it’s never by someone who writes for a living. Nor is it even by someone who intends to write their masterful notion. “I’m just the idea man” they say, as it is always a man. “But you’ll write it up. For me.” As if I’ve just been bestowed the gift of a lifetime in lieu of receiving Chanukah gelt this year or a pair of slacks.
Before I continue my bellyaching (and in real life, it usually is a 3 Zantac irritant), there are 2 things I want to clear up. The first is: I’m not tragically tone deaf. I realize that compared to all that everyone else is going through in the world, this barely rises to the level of a pet peeve. I’m super aware of that. And there was a time, pre-Trump, pre-Weinstein when a pet peeve was sufficient enough to merit an inconsequential blog post. So this piece is self-awarely “old school” in that regard.
Second, you may have concluded just from the title alone that “I am a prick.” I don’t believe that I am. And am willing to supply notes of reference from assorted rabbinical interns and board-certifed surgeons that I am not. Have I ever in my life engaged in behavior that one might call “prickish?” I guess drunkenly shouting across Wilshire Boulevard to people camped at the Avco Theater, “Darth is Luke’s father!” wasn’t my finest hour. But in my defense, I’d likely had half a Mickey’s Big Mouth on an empty stomach. That defense may not hold up in superior court, but... actually, no but. That was kinda douche-a-rific. As is saying “douche-a-rific.”
You should know that not wanting to hear unsolicited pitches in awkward locations doesn’t mean I’m a curmudgeon who doesn’t wish to help prospective writers. In fact, lately, I’ve been trying to pay forward whatever minimal expertise I’ve accrued to almost anyone who’s asked.
A fellow writer friend recently passed away and I was completely taken aback by how many people posting kind sentiments on his Facebook wall came from newcomers who he had taken the time to counsel. This made me recognize that I can briefly shove aside my fears of social interaction and/or script reading and do more for people seeking their first break. I’m not saying I deserve the Presidential Medal of Freedom, per se, but in the month since I’ve been on hiatus, I’ve read spec scripts of 6 people I don’t know tremendously well. And got together to meet with two prospective comedy writers. All I got in return was a free vegan lunch and a banana. I should rephrase that: “I got a free vegan lunch and banana!” Plus, I’ve got to meet a bunch of cool youngsters who can possible still hire me when I’m trotting around my Major Dad spec in 2030. (Writer’s note: Doesn’t 2030 still seem like the way-off-future, like Blade Runner?) (Writer’s note 2: Don’t I seem oddly concerned that you don’t think I’m a dick? We’re working on that in therapy. Believe me. We are.)
But to me, I see a big difference between reading a spec or meeting for skinny lattes and someone behaving as if they are saving your career by delivering you a lifeline. Again, I’ll give you two reasons. One is actually mildly flattering. The other’s pretty insulting if you think about it. So I don’t.
The flattering half of the equation is the assumption by a small handful of people left in the world that I possess the clout to get their pilot idea made. My writing partner and I have probably sold close to 10, 15 broadcast pilots over the past few millennium. And even we’ve yet to have one shot and made. I’m very privileged to still be part of the TV club, but trust me, one reaches a certain age where doubt creeps in about whether making my own show will still remain a viable option. Perhaps my intimate photo collages of me and Uncle Jesse somehow have given the false illusion that I am the Chairman of Television. It’s flattering, sure. But it’s not entirely true.
The insulting assumption is that I, or any other writer, is just sitting around blankly, without an idea in our heads, until you who works in commercial banking or the local escrow office comes by with the can’t miss “next Cheers or The Office.” And you’d be stunned at how many times the pitch is literally just the phrase “next Cheers or The Office.” Yes, I admire people with fire in their belly and a whole lot of gumption. And I get that those people aren’t considering that folks who do this for a living think about their own ideas every second of every day, in hopes of continuing to put food on their families’ plates. So, odds are that the one idea that popped into your head may not be as good or as sellable as you may think. Or as the ones we’ve already pondered. I say this especially to people who want me to reboot classic shows that I neither nor created.
As an aside, television writing has historically been less high-concept than the film world. What makes a show a perennial hit or syndicated bonanza is more often the writer’s specific voice, take and vision. Not some big, gimmicky idea.
I’m not trying to be harsh. I’m just trying to draw healthy boundaries for me. Whenever I feel cornered, especially by a pitch, my fight or flight, panic disorder kicks in big time. I once literally bolted from a Jacuzzi-brand jacuzzi. Yes, yes, I know. That’s why God created Ativan. And there are those who will say and I’ve heard them say it “Hey man, it comes with the territory.” First of all, don’t call me “man.” You’re not directing the Brady Bunch in a groovy new detergent commercial.
What it ultimately comes down to for me—and I know you’re NEVER supposed to admit to having feelings in Hollywood— is that it’s kinda hurtful. Because each time, I get suckered into thinking someone is reaching out to see me or see how I am. Like the call I got very soon after my Dad died. I naturally assumed this guy was checking in, not about to vouch for how kooky the characters in his real estate office were. When it becomes instantly clear that instead someone wants something from me, I get a little bummed. I get a little more distrustful. Not in a woe is me kind of way. But it’s nice to feel that your friends don’t want something from you. And that’s why I so value my real friends. Or those that are incredibly successful and don’t need anything from me ever. But somehow they feel like a different article.