- “I like these creators, so that means I’m now good enough to write for them.”
- “I’m not impressed by those creators, therefore I’m already too good to write for them.”
Here’s one of my biggest regrets of my career: One day in film school, I casually mentioned to my mentor that I’d had an idea for a tween show. He liked the idea and suggested that he set up a meeting with a producer he knew in that world. But I then realized that I didn’t really care enough to develop the pitch that far: “Are you kidding? I’m busy writing spec scripts for all the deep, complex, dark shows on TV, and now you want me to change gears and pitch for some kiddie network I’d never even watch?”
A lot of writers say that you should never write something you wouldn’t watch yourself. On the surface, this seems to make sense, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: Do the writers of “Dora the Explorer” really love to watch “Dora the Explorer”? The fact is that most unsophisticated kids’ shows are actually written by sophisticated adults…and that’s the way it should be.
Actually, it gets worse: when you first start out, not only are you not experienced enough to write for the shows you love, you’re not even experienced enough to know why you like them.
So many of of us in film school would say “I love ‘Sopranos’, ‘Mad Men’, and ‘Breaking Bad’ because those shows prove that you don’t need a sympathetic protagonist!” We failed to perceive that while, yes, those shows chose to sacrifice some sympathy, they made up for it by generating more empathy: we don’t like Tony, Don, and Walt but we do love them.
I have nothing but respect for those shows, but I now realize that part of their design is to flatter the audience in a very cynical way: On the one hand, they say, “You’re a sophisticated audience that doesn’t need likable heroes”, but on the other hand, they work extra hard to subtly manipulate us into loving them.
Of course, I only figured that out later, once I’d tried to create some unsympathetic heroes of my own and discovered that everybody hated them.
I should have dropped everything else and written that kids’ show. I should have started on the ground floor. I should have tried to figure out how to get an audience to like a likable character (which is, believe it or not, very hard to do) before I tried to get people to love an unlikable character (which is even harder).
UPDATE: Two day after I posted this, the Onion AV Club ran a great interview with the supremely talented Graham Yost (“Band of Brothers”, “Justified”) where they talked about this:
- GY: Hey Dude was my first real “paid to write scripted television” experience. It was very low-budget. We were shooting on location at a real dude ranch in Tucson, so it looked pretty good for the paltry sum. We’d shoot an episode in three days so we were shooting 10 to 15 pages a day in the half-hour format. It was a great experience. The budget was a challenge, but the big challenge was just that we weren’t necessarily the best writers; we all became better. Lisa Melamed started on that show, and she’s gone on to a long career in television. That was the starting point for me, and we learned a lot by doing, and that was really cool. You could just see things to do and not do.
- I got asked recently, I think it was by TV Guide, to write a short thing about Hey Dude. There’s a story I always tell: This producer from Knoxville, Tennessee—after I had this character give this long bit of exposition about how they ended up where they are—said, “You know, you could have just had her say, ‘I’ll tell you later.’” And I was like, “Oh my God. You’re absolutely right. I should have done that. That would have been so much better.” I still kind of overwrite, so I haven’t entirely learned the lesson.
- AVC: There are so many good TV writers who have come out of children’s TV. What do you think makes that a good proving ground or a good learning ground?
- GY: The thing that jumps to mind is that it’s the equivalent of writing a sonnet, which is that there are limitations, and you have to be creative within those limitations. So perhaps you come up with solutions that you wouldn’t have otherwise. If you could do anything you want, you might not have thought of [this]. I think that discipline is very helpful in television. It’s just also the volume. For me, I think we did 65 episodes of Hey Dude, and I wrote 13 of them. So one in five episodes I wrote, as well as doing a lot of rewriting. It was just a lot of work, and that discipline of just getting up and having to write. It was pretty wonderful.