Media Circus

It's lonely -- but lucrative -- being a schlock TV writer

By Catherine Seipp

Published August 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the stellar writing of contemporary classics like "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons," "Larry Sanders" -- and, I suppose, even the clever luridness of "The X-Files" -- has convinced some people that we're living in a new Golden Age of Television, and perhaps we are. But as the old Nichols and May routine went, let's pause for a moment to consider the unsung drones of TV, the writers who work away faithfully in obscurity -- quietly, steadily, putting out garbage.

Which isn't to say that they don't have talent -- just that the great piles of money forked over for constantly catering to the mass market tends to ... well, not exactly encourage it. And the market is mass, despite the standard "I never watch TV" comment TV writers hear all the time at cocktail parties. "Oh, I know, no one does," a sitcom writer I know once deadpanned after being informed of this for the umpteenth time. "I don't know why they pay us."

I was thinking about all this last week after catching up with my friend Henry, a rather successful magazine writer and mid-list novelist who last year landed, pow, right in a pot of jam: a staff writing job on a one-hour dramatic series. It was not a big series. To someone making, say, $800,000 a year at "The X-Files," Henry's new riches probably would sound laughable. Once they've been doing it a few years, in fact, TV writers think anything less than half-a-million a year is abject poverty.

Still, Writer's Guild minimum fees are $24,384 per episode for a one-hour network prime-time dramatic series ($15,844 for non-network), plus a salary, for which a typical Guild-mandated minimum is $2,377 per week for 30 weeks. Then of course there are residuals. Henry naturally felt he was rolling in it, and he liked the feeling. Right away, though, he was frustrated by the group nature of TV writing.

"You go through six different people and 28 different drafts," Henry said. Everyone has a suggestion, not always because they've read the script closely. "Once, they asked why there couldn't be some romance between two characters. I said, 'Well, they're brother and sister. I just thought it might be a little ... weird.'"

Another time Henry's boss pointed to another writer on the series, and said, "Why can't you write more like him?"

"I'd need 10 bucks," Henry responded.

"Ten bucks? Why?"

"Because I'd have to go buy some bottles of cheap vodka, drink it and hit myself over the head a couple of times with the empties. Then maybe I could write like him."

Still, the money kept piling up, Henry began thinking about buying a house in Brentwood, and after a while he started to at least act like part of the team. "I finally reached the point," he recalled, "where one day an executive said to me, 'Have I told you about my new idea?' And I said, 'No ... but I love it!' There was a silence. And the room filled with the realization that, yes, they'd broken me."

Then the series ended. Not a disaster; series always eventually end, and competent writers just go on to the next one. But a funny thing happened. Henry looked at the stack of scripts his agent sent him during pilot season, which is basically the new fall TV season in embryo, a period during which writers get hired (or not) for the next few months, and then he basically just sat there. Because after reading them, he realized that there was not one that didn't make him want to vomit.

Other TV writers started saying, "What's the matter with Henry?"

"I just can't muster the enthusiasm," Henry told me. "I just can't say to my agent with a straight face, 'I love "Dellaventura!" Get me an interview with them so that I can go pitch!'"

One night Henry was out for a walk and he ran into Miles, a very busy TV writer he knew. Henry congratulated Miles on his new show. "Yeah," said Miles, "I said to them, 'Look, if I'm going to do this show, I'm in charge! I make the decisions! I'm the executive producer!' And what are you working on now?"

"Nothing," said Henry.

There was a pause. Or, as they say in TV scripts: Beat, beat, beat.

"Boy," said Miles regretfully, "I wish I could assign stuff ..."

I looked at Henry's note to himself on the cover of the "Dellaventura" script. "Grade C-minus. Kojak cleans up tenement and nabs psycho stalking young Japanese woman." Inside he'd circled various illiteracies in the script: "DEALERS and PIPE HEADS lurk in the hallways like scepters(sic) of death ..." Next to a bit of dialogue from the helpless tenement owner -- "I've got a wife and daughter. I've also got pancreatic cancer. The doctors have given me three months to live." Henry had scrawled one word: "Please."

Reading a TV script is an enlightening exercise, because no matter how stupid and unoriginal a show seems on TV, it's even stupider and more unoriginal on paper. Take the opening description of private investigator Anthony Dellaventura ("Danny Aiello is Dellaventura!" in the CBS fall ads): "Dellaventura is overtly masculine; no excuses, no apologies; the face and voice a richly traveled road map of the city so big they had to name it twice -- New York, New York."

But "Dellaventura" is a craftsmanlike piece of work compared to the next pilot script in Henry's pile, "The Notorious," by hot "X-Files" alums Glen Morgan and James Wong. "The X-Files," a show so popular that entire online discussion groups can be captivated for weeks by the significance of Agent Mulder's upholstery, is now the single biggest influence on dramatic series. "There's nothing new in these pilots except for the gruesome stuff," Henry said, "and that's entirely due to ('X-Files' creator) Chris Carter. He's got his finger on the pulse of something -- and I'd say it's a 12-year-old boy."

Henry had gone through "The Notorious" pilot script and, perhaps as an exercise in self-torture, circled each time the word "invoke" was used for "evoke." His note on the cover read, "Grade D: Idiotic comic-book story of seven crime families -- and the son of mob boss Dante Alighieri, who comes back to rub them all out. The seven families represent the Seven Deadly Sins."

He was troubled by nagging questions of logic: "I kept thinking, 'Well, how did the Sloth family work their way to the top?'"

Henry and his wife went to dinner with Miles and Miles' wife. Miles was being especially gruff and successful. "So I faxed my agent and ..." Henry started to say.

"You never fax your agent," Miles interrupted impatiently. Henry thought, "Well, maybe you don't fax your agent, Miles, but mine won't take my calls."

So what is Henry going to do? "Books, I like the work," he said. "Television, I like the money. Listen, if any of these places call, I'm going to go in and say, '"Roar?" What a wonderful show! I'd love to be on it!'"

Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Catherine Seipp

Related Topics ------------------------------------------