Ladies & Gentlemen: A Job
I said a while back that I would write about television
once I had worked in television. At the time that seemed
an unlikely happening, since the barriers around TV jobs are
so tall and onyx-like for first-time writers. But then
there's the rub about LA: You can't ever say you're a total
failure, because success is always hanging tauntingly around
some streetcorner in this ephemeral maze of a city, and it's
just waiting for you to turn the right angle and bump into it
with your best "Pardon me, ma'am. What's that? Sure, I'd
like to be a movie star."
All of which to say is that while I'm not exactly a raging
success just yet, I now have a TV writing job. I am a staff
writer on The Best Damn Sports Show Period. I've been
doing this job for about four months now-- concurrent with
my no longer doing much writing for beloved Sheckymag, you
may well note.
But this week our show is "dark" (that's Hollywood lingo,
my friends), meaning the show doesn't tape, and we aren't
working (though many of us are here acting like we're working
so we don't use up vacation days). Which means I have the
time and brain wherewithal to write more than sports jokes
for a few days. So I thought I would step back into the
SHECKY fray and maybe yield some light upon something
industry-ish that could possibly help standups who believe
that they, too, want to break through the barricades and
storm the emperor's throne of television.
Since I'm working on a talk show, I guess it would be most
logical to write about... working on a talk show.
* * *
The Best Damn Sports Show Period airs for two hours a
night, 11 - 1 a.m., Mon- Fri. (Or 8 and 11 on the West
Coast, and sometimes again the next morning.) It is on
FoxSports, a subsidiary of FOX, which is a subsidiary of
the News Corporation, owned by multi-billionaire Rupert
The show, if you haven't seen it (and so many haven't),
is five guys (Chris Rose, Tom Arnold, John Salley, Michael
Irvin, and the now departed John Kruk) sitting around and
talking sports. There are all sorts of sports "updates"
(a la Sportscenter) done by the newswoman, Lisa Guerrero.
There are celebrity guests from sports, music, film, TV.
And there are comedy bits: sketches, top lists, jokes, etc.
It's where sports meets comedy, we're told. Like a hooker
and a john.
To do my work on this show, every day I drive an hour or so
through the beast of LA traffic, leaving out of Glendale,
cutting through back neighborhoods to Mulholland, snaking
my way to Coldwater Canyon, then down down down into
Beverly Hills, where I drive onto the Fox Studio Lot off
Pico and Motor. I flash my ID badge, the guards smile,
and here I am: A Hollywood writer.
I work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., give or take, and we're dark
probably five or six weeks a year. So guess what? It's a
job. Just like any other corporate schtick. In fact,
amazingly like any other corporate schtick. People here
are overworked, pushed, underappreciated, seething, striving,
and always looking to get out to something better while hoping
they don't get fired from what they currently have. Modern
life. Everyone at your job is an open wound, and all bosses
are made of salt.
My day consists of some fairly predictable grooves. From
8 to 9 a.m., the show's producers have a morning meeting
where they set out what they want to do that day, including
the comedy bits they plan to incorporate into the normal
talk format: a sketch, a cold open, a few top lists,
off-the-cuff jokes for Tom Arnold, props, whatever. We
get there at 9, and talk these things over, sometimes lay
out the exact sketch, sometimes just assign writers to do
the sketch, and then we head to our cubicles to write. We
write scripts, get feedback, get shot down, write again,
write again, write again. After a whole lot of other jazz
I'm not going to get into here, sketches are finally set,
a feature producer tapes the sketch, edits it, and then we
all wait to see if it gets approved by the producers so it
can go on air.
The show is taped in a building near us from 3 to 5,
and our comedy accounts for maybe three minutes of airtime
on a two-hour show. Seems like so little product for a lot of
effort, but that's the nature of the game. Everything you
see on television, no matter how small, carries a buttload
of work behind it. Especially something that has been
produced, uses actors, has to be edited, etc.
Our staff consists of five guys: Myself and Bob Oschack
are standups; Josh David and Brian Kahn were writing
assistants on sitcoms; the head writer, Jerry Perzigian,
is a sitcom veteran hanging out here because sitcom jobs
have dried up like raisins in the microwave. Probably the
best part of the job, other than getting a paycheck for
typing jokes, is being on a staff of other comics and
writers. Especially this staff. Whereas on a sitcom
writers seem to chew on each other as they compete to
get things produced so they can get attention and move up,
our show isn't that political. We don't compete with each
other for attention. Everyone gets jokes on, everyone does
sketches. It's supportive, friendly, and we even get to
throw footballs in the walkways.
On the other hand, writing on staff is unnatural to
anyone who has learned comedy via standup. The first
couple of months it killed me to have other people "alter"
or approve my stuff. Our head writer comes from
sitcoms, where things are written verbally, where people
"pitch" ideas and story beats and jokes, and the group
stays together until something "good" emerges. It seems
slow and tortured to me, especially since I work fast and
I have always written alone, at my computer. But over
time I have learned to work verbally, I've learned to
pitch and not be too pissed off when my stuff isn't
chosen or gets altered, and I've learned to develop
ideas and work through them with a group. I still
prefer to write alone, then go to the group for input
when I need it, but I'm able now to move back and forth
between group and solitary process without it making my
skin crawl. And believe me, for a standup accustomed to being
the lord and master of his own comedic domain, that
Okay, all well and good. You get some idea of the job.
It's writing whatever the producers want, some of which
you like, much of which you don't, and it's hanging out
on staff in a corporate environment not unlike IBM.
Fine. But I know what you really want to know. You
want to know how you can get my job. Or any job, really.
Well, I'm not going to tell you. Okay, I'll tell you
some, but there's too much to get into all the details
right now. But I'll tease you with two things that are
absolutely essential if you want to get hired as a small-time
First, have friends who already work in Hollywood.
Four of the five people on our staff (including me)
were hired here because they had friends who told them
about this job and brought their stuff to the person who
was doing the hiring. Friends are why you work in Hollywood.
If you don't have friends you need an agent or manager to get
in and find work for you, and those bastards only want to
work for people who are already making money.
Second, be qualified to get a job when a job opens. And
I don't mean that you are funny, or that you can
potentially be funny on a staff. I mean that you have
already written monologue jokes five days a week for a
year (which I had done for a radio prep service prior to
landing this job). I mean that you have already written
a hundred top lists (again, something I had done).
And that you already have
fifty television sketches written. And you have already written
ten spec sitcoms, and really learned the form. And that, once
you have written all these things, you have them perfectly
organized, copied and ready to be submitted as samples.
Let's put it this way: If you have to write a
sample the week you hear about a
job, you're screwed. Making things good takes time.
Believe me. If you're submitting a week of jokes, but
I'm submitting the best of what I wrote for fifty-two
weeks, you're at a massive disadvantage.
So if you want a job, make friends and start creating
your samples now. That's how you get most Hollywood
jobs. Someone lets you in the door, and when you get
there you have great stuff that makes people want to
That was my preaching. Now, before I finish, let me
draw a few big conclusions to all this.
Hollywood is a different place when you have a job than
when you don't have a job. When you don't have a job
all you can think about is how you are quickly sinking
into bankruptcy and what schemes are available for keeping
your kids in health insurance. Hollywood is hell when
you're not working.
When you are working, though, Hollywood seems almost
benign. Possible even a nice place to be. You know
people. They know you. You can actually see yourself
fitting into the landscape of it all.
This holds true even on a low-level job such as mine.
I say "low-level" because I work for cable,
not the networks.
Which means I don't get the monster salary and residuals of
a network show. But I do get to pay my bills, I have more
status than those who have never worked (people actually
talk to me at the Improv now), and my failing, creative ego
is somewhat shored up by the proof that I can write this
stuff, it goes on air, it gets laughs, and someone pays me.
The main thing this job offers, however, is that it
demythicizes Hollywood. For the first time I am allowed
onto a studio lot, and I can see firsthand the real and
actual process, people, and psychoses that is the Hollywood
infrastructure. And once you know what's going on, you can
actually plot your way through it, instead of blindly groping
Okay, that's all I got for you right now. Maybe I'll talk
more about it whenever we're dark again, which I think is
in about three months. Right now, while I have the free
time, I have to get to work on my latest sitcom spec so I
can, like everyone else in this town, be always ready to
jump to the next, much shinier and higher paying wheel
in the hamster cage known as Hollywood.