We’re trying something new today instead of our usual Friday group post. Instead of all six of us answering a question, we decided to put one chick on the hot seat in our own version of #AskMeAnything. Read on to learn what we’ve been dying to know about our own lovely Ellen Byron!
I’m fascinated by your career as a TV writer. What was your favorite episode you ever worked on, and what did you love about it?
Ellen: Oh man, that’s like asking a parent to pick a favorite child! But I think it might be an episode my TV writing partner and I wrote for a show called Maybe It’s Me that was on the then-CW in 2001-2002. It was a single-camera, quirky family show and in this episode, the parents chose Hair as their community theater production. The play involves nudity and you can guess how well the prospect of that went over with their teenage kids. Julia Sweeney and Fred Willard played the parents on that show, and they were hilarious. But I also have very fond memories of a Wings episode we wrote titled “Is That a Big Sandwich or Are You Happy to See Me?” That was an absolute blast to write and film.
My image of TV comedy writers was formed by The Dick Van Dyke Show. What do real TV writers, like you, think of that representation? And what grade would you give the show for the quality of its writing?
Ellen: That show is a deserved classic and I can’t think of a fellow TV writer who doesn’t love it. I’d give it an A+ for the quality of its writing and storytelling. But when you look at the episodes, they really focused more on family and personal stories than the workplace. I think they make the task of writing a TV show look a bit easier and less time-consuming than it really is. But The Dick Van Dyke Show is over fifty years old. Work environments change. I think Thirty Rock, which I loved, was a more accurate depiction of writing sketch comedy today. But this in no way denigrates The Dick Van Dyke Show, which I still think is brilliant.
Let me jump on the TV question bandwagon too! People always ask me about the biggest differences between television and novel writing. So…what do you find to be the biggest differences between television and novel writing?
Ellen: I think the biggest difference is the most obvious: writing novels is solitary, writing TV is a group effort. Yes, you may get sent off to write a script – I say “may” because I’ve worked on some shows where the episodes are all room-written by the writing staff – but given the size of staffs, you may at most write four episodes out of a twenty-two episode network season. The outline of any episode will have been broken in the writers room, the staff will punch it up together, and then once the episode goes into production, you’ll be revising the script all week based on performances, as well as notes from the studio and network. This mostly applies to multi-camera half-hour shows. But even in single camera or hourlong shows, where a showrunner is more likely to take a pass at a script than the entire room, it’s still a communal effort.
When did you know you wanted to write professionally and how did you make your way in?
Ellen: To be honest, I kind of fell into it. In college, the chairman of the theatre department was a Lit and Crit prof. She’s the first person who told me I should pursue writing as a career. My dad was an advertising copywriter – a true Mad Man – but having seen the vagaries of that career, I totally swore it off. I was trying to be an actress, but during a long stretch when I wasn’t getting cast, I got bored and wrote a play. The play got a staged reading at a theatre, and I wrote another one, a one-act titled Graceland, that got produced and published. I continued to write plays, but needed to support myself and that’s where some good, old-fashioned nepotism comes in. One of my father’s clients was Hearst Magazines. He brought me to a party and introduced me to the editor of Redbook. I was already writing features for Soap Opera Digest and she asked me to do a roundup of soap stars for her. That led to a career as a freelance entertainment journalist, which supported my playwriting. Eventually I decided to make the move into TV, which required a physical move to L.A. That was brutal, since I’m such a New Yorker. Once here, I networked like hell, used my plays as a calling card for agents, and eventually met my TV writing partner in a UCLA Extension Advanced Sitcom Lab. We wrote a couple of spec scripts together, got signed by one of the Big Three agencies, and started getting work.
Wondering how a sitcom writer segued into writing mysteries? Well, I’ve always loved them. I even tried writing one once, inspired by a TV writer I worked with who I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t kill him in real life, so I thought I’d kill him in a book. Since I was motivated by vengeance rather than artistic drive, what I wrote wasn’t that good, and I assumed I couldn’t write mysteries. Anyhoo, a TV writer’s career often hits lulls – noticing a “lull” theme to my career? – and during one of mine, a friend started a writers’ group. I challenged myself to try writing a mystery again. The first one I wrote, You Can Never Be Too Thin or Too Dead (formerly known as Reality Checked) won a William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant, and I was all, this is easy! Well, for pretty much the first time in my professional life, I had trouble landing an agent. It took months. When I finally did sign with one, my book didn’t sell. BUT while waiting for that to happen, I busied myself by writing another mystery, Plantation Shudders. The rest is history! To my family. And no one else.
Okay, since everyone is asking TV writer questions, I have a few, too! Is the Writers Room total chaos or more controlled? Do writers ever get fired? Is there a lot of joking around like 30 Rock? Or is the atmosphere super-competitive like Mad Men or more trading one-liners/uppers like Blackish? Do interns bring you lattes and kale smoothies? What happens if the “talent” hates what you’ve written and do you interact with them? Do you joke or cry when you get home? And most of all, how do you develop that thick writer’s skin? (Asking for a friend.)
I’m going to answer these one-by-one:
- The writers’ room can get chaotic, but if it’s that way the whole time, you’re screwed because nothing will get done and you’ll never leave. A good showrunner knows how to find the balance between the staff letting off steam and getting work done. You need both, especially with comedy.
- Yes. Writers do get fired. Rarely out of the blue. Usually for a network 22-episode season, there’s an option to pick you up after the first thirteen. That’s when writers will get cut loose. Cable has the same structure, but with a different timeline because their seasons are shorter.
- There’s absolutely a lot of joking around in a comedy room. At its best, it can be the most hilarious, fun place in the world to work.
- It depends on the show and the showrunners. I’ve been on super-competitive staffs, and staffs that were like family.
- Production assistants – not interns – do bring us lattes and food, but not as much as they used to. #budgetcuts.
- We do interact with the actors and I have to say, I’ve been really lucky. For the most part, they’ve all been terrific. With comedy, it’s pretty easy to tell when something isn’t working. Actors will make adjustments and try to find the funny. And if they can’t, we re-write it. It’s a very collaborative process.
- Yes, I’ve cried when I got home after a rough day. And joked – sometimes waaay blue. My husband once said, “I played hockey and spent a lot of time in locker rooms, and I’ve never heard the language you bring home.” Sitcom writers rooms can get wildly inappropriate. Which, given the current environment, may change.
- If you don’t develop a thick skin, you don’t survive. Stuff can bother you – see “Yes, I’ve cried” above – but a) you can’t let your vulnerability show, and b) you can’t let it affect your work. How do you do this? I don’t know. You just have to be stronger than the negatives. Learn to let them roll off you. Learn how to have a sense of humor about everything, and not let anything get to you. When I was a tween, I fell in love with a book called “The Year of Janie’s Diary.” In it, Janie writes an essay titled “Forward ever, backward never.” I think that helped me develop a thick skin. After any particular professional blow, I remind myself, “Forward ever. Backward never.” It doesn’t always work. But it helps.
Thanks Ellen for being first on the hot seat! Are there any questions you’ve been dying to ask Ellen? Comment below!
Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to Chicks on the Case and never miss a post. Just click the button on the top right side of this page and let the fun begin!