Let me tell you a story that I heard a few weeks ago. I've altered some of the specifics, because, well, Hollywood is a small town and I'd like to keep working here. Still, it's worth telling. It's a story that illustrates the practical nature of the kind of people who thrive here. So here it goes ... A big network signs a major Broadway star to do a series. This happens quite often, actually: the rigours of stage work - and the ability to charm an audience - are ideal training for a star of a half-hour comedy. So with the star suitably dazzled by flattery and woozy with gold fever, the network searches around for a writer.
But they're not really looking for a writer, as in "someone to write a script". They're looking for "auspices", to use the industry term, which, like most industry terms, is neither accurate nor wholly literate. Auspices, around here, means not just a writer, but an uber-writer - a guy who will not only create a series and write the pilot episode, but who will also executive produce the resulting - one hopes - enormous hit.
So the network finds some pretty impressive auspices - a guy with a hit show already on the air - and sets up the deal. Their thinking is: the guy has a hit television show already on the air, so he must know something about how that kind of thing gets put together. That's a fair assumption, one would think. Here's the snag: unfortunately, that particular writer can't write. In fact, he's awful. His scripts are unfunny, childish stacks of paper, with stories so conventional they're almost confusing, and jokes so flat you can't distinguish them from the stage directions. How this tiny talent of a man came to such worldly success is an example of the efficiency of the Hollywood economic model. You can get anybody to rewrite anything. Or, as the network executives like to say, "we can get somebody to plug the 'funny' in". A few years ago, this guy wrote a lousy script that somehow limped onto the network's schedule. A crucial late addition to the cast ("we can always plug some 'funny person' into the cast", I can hear the network executives saying) pushed it into a minor hit.
The network perspective is philosophical: it isn't important if the writer can write. It isn't relevant if he's talented or not. What matters here is that he's got something - some magic pixie dust, some intuitive sense, maybe just some dumb luck, whatever - and that something has managed to put a hit on the air. Here's the second snag: everyone knows the guy can't write, but with millions of dollars in the bank, he's forgotten that.
So the guy writes the script for the Broadway actor. He gives it to a writer friend of his, to whom he has promised a staff-writing job on the series. "What do you think?" the writer asks his friend. His friend has a choice: if he tells the truth, the writer may be so furious that he takes back the job offer on the spot; if he opts for mindless flattery, the writer may actually give the script to the Broadway actor as is, queering the deal, also resulting in his unemployment. It's a classic Hollywood ethical dilemma: either choice ends up in a job search. The friend chooses the middle path, the typical Hollywood way - he tells the writer a half-truth.
"It's pretty good," he says, slowly, hoping to be let off the hook. "I mean, it's a first draft, right?" "Nope. It's fine the way it is. At least, I think so. Don't you?" "Oh, yeah. Yeah," says the friend, mindful of his mortgage payments. "It's just that, I mean, shouldn't the network see it first? Maybe give it a second pass or something? You know? Like a polish or something? Just tweak it a little? Here and there? You know?"
The writer does not give the script to the network first. And he does not "tweak" or "polish" it at all. Instead, he flies to New York, presents the whole muddled, jarring, monotonous raft of dreck to the Broadway actor, in his dressing room, between the matinée and the evening performance. By the time his plane has landed back at LAX, the Broadway actor has read the script, called his agent, pulled out of the deal, and issued a press release announcing his decision to "concentrate on the arena of feature films".
"The dummy showed him the script," the network executive fumed. "He actually thinks he's a good writer. I tried to tell him, 'you're not a good writer'. I said, 'you don't have to be a good writer. We can get somebody to be a good writer for you.' And the guy says to me, 'then why have me do the show at all?' So I told him, 'We like your auspices.'" Which, when you think about it, makes a certain kind of sense.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood