Justin Halpern
Are Network Notes Really As Eeeeeeeevil As They Are Made Out To Be?

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Even if you don’t follow the television business that closely, at some point you’ve probably heard some story about network executives flying in on their wings made of anti-creativity and crushing what was an otherwise brilliant script by giving this horrible thing called “notes.”

Before I get to that, let me familiarize you with the notes process.  Generally speaking, there are two groups that give notes.  The first is the studio (they produce the show) and the second is the Network (they air the show.)  To better understand the relationship, think of a TV show as a car that’s for sale.  The writer is the person who designed and built the car, the studio is the owner of the plant that makes the cars, the Network is the car dealership and you, friend, are the customer who buys the car. (And according to the ratings, you pretty much fucking hate the cars we make.)  So the owner of the car plant will give you thoughts on how you should design and build the car, but the dealer is the one actually selling the cars, and if your car isn’t selling, they’re gonna toss it off the lot. So when they tell you changes they’d like you to make, you listen closely. (I realize this probably isn’t how car manufacturing works, but Jesus, just roll with the analogy.)

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Now, ultimately, the person who needs to be pleased most in that scenario is you, the customer/viewer.  But fuck if any of us know what you want, so the Network does its’ best to try and gauge what you might like the best, and what types of shows they want to put on their network. This last part is important, because it’s the primordial ooze from which notes crawl out of.  Networks all have a brand that they attempt to stick to.  This can change from year to year depending on what is working for them.  But let’s just say for fun that Network A has decided their brand is shows about guys with huge cocks.  All year in development season they’re going to buy up pitches from writers who either have shows that are about guys with huge cocks (a cop with a huge cock, a law firm with huge cocked lawyers, etc…) or shows that pair well with those shows.  

As a writer trying to sell your show during development season, you sometimes tailor your pitch to the network you’re pitching to.  You think “Well, I’m going in to Network A, so even though my show is about a piano teacher, I’ll emphasize in my pitch that this piano teacher has a huge cock.  Then when I make the show, I’ll just leave out the huge cock stuff and they’ll be fine with it because it will be a great show.”

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Here’s the problem with that: No matter how amazing your piano teacher show is, the network NEVER forgets that they want a show about a guy with a huge cock. So every episode you write, you’re getting the note of “can we get more in this show about his huge cock?” And you’re saying to yourself “this is not the show I want to make. They’re ruining the show.”  And maybe that’s true, but in this scenario, I believe the writer is in the wrong.  The network had made it clear what they wanted, so by selling your show to this network, you’re agreeing to make your show be a huge cock show. You don’t really have the right to complain that they’ve given you that note, because that’s what they’ve always said they wanted.  And the network execs are being hammered daily by their boss, who has in turn promised advertisers that their ads will run during shows that are about guys with huge cocks.  So this is not something that is easily dismissed.   

Let’s take a look at another scenario.  Say a network has been having trouble finding shows that are working. A writer comes in during development season and pitches a show and very clearly states that it is about a piano teacher and THAT IS ALL. The network says “great, we love it.  We think a piano teacher show can really work on our network this year.”  So the writer begins making the piano teacher show, but because it’s very difficult to make a great pilot and first few episodes (In terms of comedy, Modern Family might be the last one that really came in fully formed), the writer is taking a little bit of time to figure out what exactly is the best version of this show. The network sees this at the table read of the first few episodes and wants to help right the ship. I genuinely believe that most network executives are people just trying to make the show better.  I mean, it’s their job.  But making good television is really hard.  Great writers have spent insane hours trying to make a show work, but there are a lot of factors that go in to it, and no matter how hard the writer works, most times the show still comes out poorly. And when a show is going through a rough patch, the network, who has invested millions of dollars, has more notes to give, and gives them with a bit more urgency.  So going back to our example, after a bad table read, a network might say “You know, what if you focused less on the piano teacher part, and more on his son who we think is a stronger actor?  And what if his son had a huge cock?  That’s been working well for some of our other shows.”  In this scenario, the writer is in a tough spot because they want to keep the network excited about the show, because that means they’ll spend more of their promotion dollars on it, but they know that those notes probably aren’t going to make their show better, and might instead make it worse.  Usually what happens is the writer attempts to find a happy medium and very rarely does it work out for the best.  In my opinion, in that situation notes can end up ruining a show that might have had a chance of working.

I have worked on shows with both scenarios. I have also worked on shows where the notes from executives have greatly benefitted the show.  On the current show I am working on there have been several times where an executive, both studio and network, have given a note that very much helped the show.  You may say “You’re just being ass-kissy because you currently have a show on a network,” but I will tell you that a) no one reads this blog so I really don’t care what I say here and b) I wouldn’t spend 3000 words on a tumblr post just to blow a group of executives.  There are much easier ways. 

To answer the question that I posed in the title of this post (which I guess means that everything up until this was pointless bullshit), Network notes are neither wholly good, nor wholly bad. There are great executives and terrible ones, just as there are great writers and terrible ones.  I generally think that even when you get a terrible fucking note, if nothing else positive, it forces you to think about your script, and that’s never a bad thing.  The best you can hope for is that you’re working with an executive who will listen if you tell them “You know what?  I think this character can still be compelling if he has a regular-sized cock.”

What Exactly Does Written By Mean?

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The other night I was sitting and watching television with a good friend of mine. He works as a paramedic and couldn’t give two shits about the entertainment industry. We were watching a rerun of The Simpsons, specifically, the one where Sideshow Bob tries to kill Bart and destroy television in Springfield. It’s one of those classic Simpsons episodes where every line is quotable, and afterward my friend said “Whoever wrote that one is a fucking genius.”  

"Well, I’m sure the whole staff wrote it," I replied.

"Then why does one guy get credit?" he asked.

It occurred to me that if you have a real job that matters to the world and you’re not just writing dick jokes all day, you may not be familiar with the inner-workings of a TV writer’s room.  So I thought today I’d shed some light on how an episode of TV is “written.”

TV writing is incredibly collaborative. At the start of the year, usually some time in June, we all sit together in the writer’s room and mostly talk about Game Of Thrones, but definitely not about the show we’re being paid to write on. (Side note: What the fuck do they talk about in the Game Of Thrones writers’ room?)  We also drink a ton of LaCroix, which is barely flavored sparkling water that is a gift from the goddamn lord and you should purchase right away.

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At some point, though, we are forced to talk about the show.  Usually the creator of the show will talk about the kinds of stories they want to tell, and more specifically, what the show IS. This is incredibly important.  The reason there are so many dog shit shows is not, I believe, because there are so many bad writers. There are great writers on bad shows and bad writers on great shows. (Check out the writing staff of your favorite show on IMDB and start clicking through their credits.  They will undoubtedly have some stinkers if they’ve worked long enough.) A lot of shows end up stinking because premise of the show is not clear, nor are the characters, and you’ve limited time to figure out how to make the show work. It’s like the reality cooking show “Chopped,” where they take very good chefs, then hand them a basket of confusing ingredients and ask them to make something delicious in a short amount of time.  It’s hard to make a tasty dish when you’ve been given ricotta cheese, a pig’s butthole, and thirty minutes.

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So after hopefully everyone feels comfortable with what the show IS, the staff starts to pitch stories for potential episodes.  This usually starts with people throwing out something very simple, like “I thought it might be funny if X character really wanted to do BLANK but it happened to be on the same day as Y character’s birthday.”  FEEL FREE TO STEAL THAT GOLD FOR YOUR SCRIPT.  

A pitch can come from any of the writers.  There is obviously a hierarchy, but generally speaking, the shows I’ve been on that have been run the best felt like a comfortable place where anyone can pitch anything.  There are a few dickhead showrunners who run their writer’s room like they’re a fifteenth century king, but for the most part ideas are welcomed.  If the idea pitched gets traction with the show runner, then the entire writing staff will sit in a room and try to break out the beats of the story on a white board in the room.  ”But Vince Gilligan does it on notecards!” you say.

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Well, I would counter with Vince Gilligan can do whatever the fuck he wants because he is VINCE FUCKING GILLIGAN. (Side note: By all accounts, from every writer I know that’s worked with him, he is the nicest dude alive. I tell you that so you can love him even more.)   

Anyway, after the story is beat out, (this takes a few days and involves lots of discussion and phrases that start with “I hate to shit on what we have so far, but…) generally a writer has been assigned to write that script.  Sometimes, occasionally, it is because it’s a story pitched by that writer.  Most of the time, it’s not.  It just goes in order.  Scripts are handed to the upper level writers first, then mid-level, then staff writers, but sometimes staff writers don’t get an episode.  If the show isn’t behind, that writer writes an outline/is handed an outline that is written in the room, and gets five or so days to go off and execute the script based off that outline.  There are choices the writer can make while off on script, but, to go back to a cooking analogy, think of the showrunner as the head chef of a restaurant.  If he sends you off to cook a chicken picatta and you come back and bring them a turkey burger because you think it’d be better, they’re going to be like “I GIVE ZERO FUCKS AS TO WHAT YOU THINK IS DELICIOUS. YOU WANNA DESIGN THE MENU, GET YOUR OWN RESTAURANT.”  If you bring them a Chicken Picatta and you decided to change the sauce?  Fine, just have a reason why and make sure that sauce is m’fuckin tasty.   Now here’s where I bring this meandering-as-hell post back to me and my paramedic friend sitting and watching television.

In most cases, that writer is going to be given credit for that script, even though after they come back with their draft, the entire staff rewrites it.  Most of the time, it is a HEAVY rewrite.  Not due to the writer executing a shitty draft, but because a) sometimes it’s hard to see story problems in an outline, and not until that outline is well-executed can you see what’s not working, and b) Writing is hard and most things need to be rewritten to become good.  (For instance I did not rewrite this blog post and it’s not that good.)  I would say that if 30% of your writer’s draft stays in the final product, you wrote an AMAZING draft of the script.  Like, you should have an inflated sense of self-confidence that can only be crushed by a loved one when they remind you that you have a silly person’s job.  There are many times when less than 5% of a writer’s draft will be in the final product.  

So the next time you’re reading a recap of your favorite show and you scroll down to the comments section and someone says “Ugh, this episode sucked.  The episodes written by (insert writer’s name) always suck because (insert writer’s name) sucks,” just know that commenter knows not what the fuck they speak. It takes a village, friends.

Does Anyone Give A Shit About The Inner-Workings of A TV show?

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For the last year and a half, my writing partner Patrick Schumacker and I, along with TV Producer extraordinaire Bill Lawrence (Spin City, Scrubs, Cougar Town) have been working on a sitcom based off my second book “I Suck At Girls.”  Four years ago Patrick and I along with some other nice gents, turned my first book, “Shit My Dad Says,” in to a TV show as well.  A TV show that my dad referred to as “shitty,” and “a pile of shit” and “a fucking shitty thing.”  In short, it wasn’t great.  It was our first show and as much as I’d like to place the blame elsewhere, we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing and the show ultimately sucked because we weren’t the strong voices a show needs in order to be a success.  TV shows are a little like football teams in that you need a great Quarterback (lead actor), and a great coach who knows exactly what he wants from his team (the creator/showrunner).  We were the equivalent of Norv Turner without the acne. 

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Since then, Patrick and I have been on the writing staff of several other shows. Some good (Cougar Town), some not so good (How To Be A Gentleman, anyone? No? No one? Sigh.)  But this year, we were lucky enough to get another one of our own shows on the air.  The show, titled “Surviving Jack,” stars Christopher Meloni. You may know him from Law & Order SVU, Oz, Wet Hot American Summer, and a bunch of other cool stuff.  Here is he being bad ass in Oz:

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On our show, he plays a dad, but roughly a similar shade of badass-ness.  Anyway, I’m not here to sell you on the show.  It’s several months until we premiere, at which point if it’s up to me to promote the show, this fucker is dead on arrival anyway.  If you want to know more about it, just watch this and try to ignore that “HEY CHECK OUT HOW WACKY FUNNY THIS SHOW IS voiceover. The show is not wacky, I swear. Okay, apparently I’m trying to sell you on the show just a little. Regardless, the point of writing this post is to tell you that we’ve just finished shooting the first season and we’re going to start the post-production process, and I figured I might keep a blog of what goes on during the months leading up to the airing of a TV show. You might not care, and I wouldn’t blame you.  But I like chronicling things, and if you’re a TV nerd, you might enjoy seeing what goes on behind the scenes. The posts will generally be shorter than this one.  In fact, there’s no way you even made it this far. Therefore it doesn’t matter if I end this with a non-sequitur. Fuck the New England Patriots. I can’t stand them.

Every Awards Acceptance Speech Ever

I watched the Golden Globes last night until I couldn’t physically stomach watching them anymore.  Then I decided to hastily throw this together.  Also, I’ve moved most of my writing over to a site called www.thesefriesaregood.com, which is updated daily.

Oh my God, I’m not surprised at all but am pretending to be because it makes me look humble!  Here are two or three fragmented sentences to show that I am genuinely unprepared and wasn’t not planning to win!   Wow!

(PUT ON MY SERIOUS, “PASSIONATE ABOUT MY WORK” FACE)

There’s no way this movie could have been made without a whole bunch of Jewish names, so here they are, in order of most likely to give me future work.  I’d also like to thank my non-Jewish co-star in the film, who I probably had sex with.

(CAMERA CUTS TO SHOT OF CO-STAR, PRETENDING TO BE HAPPY BUT INSTEAD WONDERING WHY THEY DIDN’T WIN FOR THEIR ROLE)

Oh my God, I’m flustered again!  Let me stutter over a few words and then remember that I should probably thank my agents.  Here goes a list of names you’ve never heard of, that you don’t give a shit about, in order of who makes the most money off me.

(MUSIC BEGINS TO PLAY)

Oh no!  I’m definitely forgetting to thank someone that makes me money.  Uh- um- oh wait here are three or four more names I’ll rifle threw really quickly so that I’ll receive a text message later from them telling me how great I am/was.  Oh and before I go, I’d like to thank my parents, and my husband/wife that I’ll be divorcing in 2-3 years when I start fucking another co-star!  Thanks!

My Dog Is Super In To Game Of Thrones

Here’s how you can tell when you’re really in to a show; everything you see reminds you of that show.  For instance, my wife sees my dog being dried off after a bath, I see Ned Stark from Game Of Thrones warning me that winter is coming.  (Also, full disclosure: The show I was writing on just got the shit cancelled out of it, so I have some time on my hands.)

My Father’s Take On Internet Comments

I don’t get to spend as much time with my father as I once did, and he’s not the type to call me up just to shoot the breeze.  So when I receive calls from him I know it’s either my birthday, I pissed him off, or the world has pissed him off.   Yesterday was one such day.

            “Hey Dad,” I said, answering my phone.

            “I just read on the internet that you’re a talentless piece of shit,” he said.

            “What?”

            “Yeah, I was on the internet trying to find that picture of you from your college baseball team where you look real skinny and gangly like a circus freak, and so I type your name in to Google, and I see some comment about you that says you’re a talentless piece of shit,” he said.

            “Why were you looking up that picture of me?”

            “Cause you look funny in it and it makes me laugh.  I wanted to show your brother.  That’s not my point though.”

(the pic he’s referring to)

            “Doesn’t it bother you that people can go on the internet and call you a talentless piece of shit, and never have to say it to your face?,” he continued.

            “I don’t know.  Doesn’t really bother me.  I got my break by writing down things you say.  I think just karmically speaking I deserve to hear that on occassion,” I said.

            “I’m not talking about you.  I’m speaking fucking globally.  If you can’t handle some pissant writing something nasty about you, then I failed as a father.   What I’m trying to say is, don’t it trouble you that there’s a whole generation of people growing up that just say whatever the fuck they want, without any consequences?

            “I don’t know.  I mean, that’s just the internet,” I said.

            “Don’t you get what that means, though?”

     ”Not really.”

            “Jesus H.  You’re a bright kid but you sure like to wear an asshole’s costume every once in a while.  It means that the future leaders of your country, I say your ‘cause I’ll have long decomposed, are gonna be people that have absolutely no experience with actual confrontation.  Thirty years from now the President of the most powerful country in the world is going to be some little shit who sat at his computer and hurled insults three feet away from his mommy’s tit like it was no big deal. I don’t condone fighting, but when a human being understands that his or her actions might result in a giant fist up his or her ass, he learns a thing or two about acting before he speaks.  All I’m saying is, I’m glad I’m gonna be dead.  Also, Happy birthday.  That’s why I called.  

What Your Groceries Say About You

Whenever I’m in the grocery store, I always tend to look at someone’s cart and then immediately make a judgement about that person based on the contents of it.  I think Webster’s dictionary defines that as “Being an judgmental asshole,” but so be it.  Anyway, after one such trips to the grocery store I went home and fired up the ole’ photoshop machine and did this.

Inner Monologue of A Guy At His Wife’s Work Party

The only thing more awkward and weird than being at a work party, is if it’s not your work.  I wrote this a couple years ago after making a huge ass of myself at my wife’s work party.  

When can I eat the food?  Why is no one eating it yet, it’s out there, it’s been laid out, and no one’s touching it.  Why the fuck would you put food out on a table, and then not serve it?  It’s buffet style, that means I can help myself, right?   I’ll just head towards the food, and pick something up and eat it, and it’ll be fine.  Okay, here we go, going to just grab a piece of bread and a slice of salami and- OW! WHO THE FUCK PINCHED ME?!  My wife?!

What the?  Don’t mouth “don’t embarrass me?”  It’s not like I pulled my pants down and jacked off on to the fruit platter, I just want to eat a slice of fuggin salami god dammit.  Screw that shit, I’m not going to be bossed around like I’m a child.  I’ll show her, I’m going to raise my eyebrows at her, and make a slightly angry face.  There, now she knows who’s f-in boss.   Jesus Christ, there’s so many old people here. 

When I’m old, and my wife is old, am I going to want to have sex with my wife?  Cause right now, old people are fuggin gross.  Oh, here comes my wife’s friend who she hates.  Do we really have to hug hello?  I’ve met you three times, one of which you got wasted and told everyone you liked the taste of semen.  Ha, that was hilarious.  I’m going to remind my girlfriend about that time.  Whoa, DON’T FUCKING PINCH ME!

The Best 25 Dollars I’ve Ever Spent. Ever.

So I received an email today from my wife that said “The dog’s anal glands are full and need to be manually emptied.”  I emailed back and said “You just made me so hard right now.  Also, what in the hell does that mean?”  Apparently the reason dog’s sniff each other’s buttholes is because there’s some sort of gland in there that fills up with this nasty fluid that gives off a specific smell to them.  

That might not be 100% accurate, but I refuse to google “dog, anus, smell,” so just go with that basic concept for right now.  Anyway, sometimes that gland gets blocked up and fills with fluid, and that fluid has to be taken out manually.

(It’s a bad sign when i looked at this and WISTFULLY thought to myself “Why couldn’t it have been something with the dog’s retractor penis muscle?”)

So, I sort of saw how this movie was ending, but tried to prolong it by asking my wife what “manually” meant.  My wife informed me that that meant someone (read: me) has to reach my hand in to the dog’s asshole, and retrieve fluid that literally is what gives the shit it’s shit smell.  I immediately started going through the seven stages of grief.  

Denial: “Maybe the anal gland’s aren’t full.  Maybe they’re not even full enough. Maybe you should think about that before you go haphazardly emptying anal glands.” 

Anger: “Fuck this dog.  I never wanted this dog.”

Acceptance and hope: “Maybe this will be the last time I ever have to stick my hand in a dog’s asshole.”

Etc…

(immobilisation was TOTALLY my favorite.)

But then my wife tells me “there’s an option.  We can pay the vet twenty five dollars to do it.”  Twenty. Five. Dollars.  You know that game you play where you’re like “Hey, how much money would it take for you to do (insert terrible thing).”  Well, if anyone ever asked you “Hey, how much would it take for you to stick your hand in to a dog’s asshole and milk shit glands empty” I’m guessing you wouldn’t be like “Eh, maybe twenty five bucks.”  If you did answer “25 bucks” then you probably followed that answer with  ”Okay, it was fun playing this game,  now I have to go back to blowing homeless guys for crack.  I’ll talk to you later.  Good seeing you.”

5 More Accurate College Mascots

I attended San Diego State University, and although I actually really enjoyed it, when I was a student there it was not considered cream of the crop.  If you got over a 2.0 and had never fucked a dead body, they’d basically let you in.  Anyway, I made these a couple years ago mostly because I was bored and I like to piss off people who went to USC.

5. The San Diego State Worthless Degrees

4. The West Virginia Birth Defects


3. The North Dakota State Absolutely Nothing Who Gives A Shits

2. The Humboldt State Killer Hydroponics

1.  The University Of Southern California Date Rapists