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.
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.
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.
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.