Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Writing room etiquette

There was a lot of controversy surrounding my post of last Thursday – what was really going on behind closed doors in writers rooms with reference to Charlie Sheen. Some thought it was offensive and I was insensitive for posting it. Others understood that I was merely showing what actually happens. A few just liked the jokes. I’m sure others didn’t have problems with any of that, just didn’t like my writing.

But as I said at the time, writing rooms can get pretty ribald. All subjects and body parts are fair game. The only real requirement is that it be funny. Remember a few years ago a FRIENDS writing assistant tried to sue the staff for sexual harassment? The court ruled in favor of the show and the unique environment that comedy writers work in.

And it should be pointed out, we make these horrible blue jokes not so much because we’re awful human beings, but because we’re under tremendous pressure. Scripts have to be fixed overnight. You are expected to be funny on demand, which is not easy to do. Try it.

I’ve probably spent half my life in writers rooms (although it seems more like 80%) and have quite a few stories. Almost none I can repeat here. But there is one that I want to share. And don’t worry, I’ll clean it up. But it speaks to this issue.

The showrunner on one particular series I worked on had maybe the filthiest mouth in Hollywood. Sailors and bikers would blush. But he was screamingly funny.

For late night rewrites we would have a writers assistant in the room taking down what was pitched. One night our normal assistant was sick so they got a temp to replace her. This new assistant (we’ll call her Prudy) didn’t know what hit her. After about an hour she finally spoke up. She said to the showrunner in a stern tone, “Can we just confine our comments to the script?”

There was a hush in the room. No one talks back to a showrunner like that . We braced ourselves for the explosion.

But it never came.

The showrunner took it in stride and good spirit. He said, “Alright, fine. Take this down”, and he began dictating.

“Fade in. Interior apartment – day. Fred enters. Fred says…”

At which point he let fly the raunchiest, filthiest, c-bomb laden, XXX, perverse stream-of-conscious monologue ever uttered. Needless to say, we were all dying.

When he was finished, careful not to leave out any depraved act or euphemism for sexual organ (he must've gone on for five minutes), he leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his neck, took a beat, and said to the temp:

“Okay, now read that back to me.”

Poor Prudy had to recite the entire offensive speech. By now we were on the floor, holding our sides.

I felt bad for Prudy because obviously she didn’t know what she was getting into. And clearly, she had the wrong sensibility for that position. But damn, it was funny.

And by the way, the showrunner did hold it down somewhat the rest of the evening, I’m sure that was in deference to her. He had made his point, but for all his colorful language and vivid imagery he really was a good guy. I wish he had asked her to type it up, though. God, would I have loved a copy of that.

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