Hey, you aspiring TV writers. It’s a hard job to crack into, but if you’re good enough and driven enough, it will happen for you. Don’t give up!
For if you work hard enough, someday you too may work on your own show for a year — from pitch to outline to script to pilot to the triumph of being picked up to series: the Golden Ticket. Then you might move across the country to actually make the show, hire a hundred actors and writers and crew members, and then in the middle of editing the 4th episode, get your show abruptly cancelled via late-night Friday phone call from Los Angeles. Then the fun part: you get to walk in shock back to your office — abandoning the confused editor waiting to lock the episode — and personally call all the actors and writers and crew and inform them the proverbial plug has been pulled and they no longer have a job, sorry. You will talk them through the tears and confusion — attempt to ameliorate the soon-to-be full-blown PTSD taking root already in them, all the while pre-knowing yours will go untreated and indeed sneak up on you weeks later. Do you clean out your office now? Do you wait — ? Shit! But first you better go see about that one prop for episode 5 you had to approve — oh, yeah. None of that matters. Everything has stopped. This is the moment after the 10.0 earthquake. Suddenly, nothing is the same. You don’t have a show anymore. Twenty minutes ago it was what took up 17 hours of your day. 24 hours of your mental real estate. It literally doesn’t exist anymore. The frozen people of Vesuvius had more warning than you did.
Then you can hole up in your rented NYC apartment and sleep for a few weeks because you are so sleep deprived that you once fell asleep literally on your feet in the writers room. Also, you had to sign a 6-month lease so you’re paying for the place anyway and you’re also, you know, paralyzed. And then a hurricane might hit and you can sit in the dark for 5 days and throw out your food and attempt to soothe your dog who is traumatized by the dark and the constant wailing sirens. Eventually you will pack up your apartment and drive three-thousand miles back across the country with your dog (because she is afraid to go in a crate in a plane) and after a number of days noting the varied and constantly-changing topography of the country, listening to podcasts or music or just the sound of the motor and the snoring of your dog in the front seat next to you, you too might find yourself in a shithole Arizona motel eating Taco Bell and watching Zooey Deschanel on Letterman and drinking a bottle of Jameson’s you smartly got back at an Albertson’s in Gallup, New Mexico, not knowing when you’d find another store selling anything but beer, and realizing you’ve been avoiding writing any of this down because you are no longer an employed professional writer so have no pulpit from which to give advice. You assume you will work again, but the fatalistic side of you will be tempted to Google “professions” and see if you have any aptitude for anything other than writing. (You don’t.)
Okay, so this is clearly my indirect, cowardly way to get into finally talking about what happened to me when my midseason NBC sitcom Next Caller, was abruptly “cancelled” before it even aired a few weeks ago. As to why the decision was made to peacock us: there are many theories and reasons and sub-reasons — many having to do with them having no place for us with 5 midseason shows and never really committing to us that much in the first place by only ordering six episodes, and needing to focus advertising dollars on other shows that were working when some of their other new shows didn’t. But what it comes down to in the end is, I think, that they just didn’t like what I was doing that much.
And I say “I,” because I was not only the creator and showrunner, but the sole Executive Producer as well. So the blame falls squarely on me; which is how I wanted it. Of course this is not fair or the whole story. There is a larger discussion that has to do with network expectations verses the Creative’s expectations; the wisdom of holding to what you deem good vs. What They Want; making yourself laugh first. But I won’t have that argument here because I would like to work again and because I will get too angry and passionate and I can’t type fast enough. (But if you corner me and get a few drinks in me I will be happy to have the discussion/rant in private.) I don’t really blame anyone. The network executives are people doing a difficult job. People I mostly really like. I was a first-time showrunner 3,000 miles away — naturally it was not the most comfortable position for them. They couldn’t really keep an eye on me or give me notes in person. I wish they could have, though. If you’ve ever been separated from a romantic partner, let’s say, you know how impossible real communication is long distance. Sure you can Skype your tits or whatever, but real conversation is often strained and intentions and meanings somehow confused and corrupted by the distance and maybe also by the satellites the words have to bounce off to reach their intended targets. We are monkeys who need to look into each other’s faces to gauge true intent, and on speakerphone with 11 people (9 of whom you haven’t met) giving you notes on something you’ve made your whole writing staff stay up until 3am working on in the room, miscommunication can be the only outcome.
I am of course bummed out for myself and my bank account and my career and the resulting “waste” of a full year of my life (during which I was balancing not only making my own show but being Co-EP on the final season of Weeds). But mostly I’m really sad that the audience won’t get to see the show we made (and were in the process of making), because I managed, through fortune and hours and hours of reading scripts and taking meetings, to hire an extraordinary writing staff of fun, awesome, cool, talented writers — all of whom I plan to continue to be friends with. (Seriously, this was a good staff, and I put them through the paces; many moved across the country just to do this show; I put relationships in jeopardy for some of these folks. Whatever. They’re awesome.) The actors were similarly fantastic. Collette Wolfe is a dream. I hired her based on seeing her in Young Adult — a movie in which I think she stole the show in a 5-minute role. Collette will go on to have a crazy career and this will be but a blip. But hopefully a fun blip. Dane Cook is a natural and the nicest, most easy-going, hard working, ethical guy you could hope to meet — who also happens to live in a house that almost literally looks down on all of us. (I know some people might not like his stand-up, but he’s really good at it. Test your old opinions: go see him at the Comedy Store some night; test your old MySpace-days prejudice). Working with Jeffrey Tambor — an actor who has been in two of Top Ten sitcoms of all time — will probably be the highlight of my career. He is the nicest, most interesting, inquisitive, playful, insightful, smart man around. And not only are Joy Osmanski and Desmin Borges, Chris Perfetti and Trey Gerrald all stupendous actors, I have no doubt I will be friends with them for years to come. I will miss all of them, and already do.
This has gone on longer than I intended. I don’t love talking about my personal life that much on the Internet, but I have to get over the fact that it’s not narcissistic to acknowledge that there are some people who read my stuff and are genuinely curious and wonder what the fuck happened with Next Caller. So that’s it. That’s the story. Tomorrow I will drive through the rest of Arizona and California and arrive at my house in Los Feliz, unpack, return the rental car, and try to figure out what’s next. I’m not starting from a dead stop — ironically I have yet another pilot at NBC that I wrote with my old Weeds boss Jenji Kohan that is still “in the mix,” and an old Showtime pilot I wrote that suddenly five years later has new life — but the future is, for the first time in many years, completely open and thus, terrifying.
Still want to be a writer? Of course you do. Hopefully my tale of woe sounds exciting and like a hard-shell-taco-and-whiskey you’d be happy to swallow (otherwise, quit now). Good. Now go write some more. (I recommend Swork in Eagle Rock if you need a good writing cafe.)
Thanks for reading,
Stephen Falk. (Sent from outside a Starbucks in Flagstaff, AZ.)
PS: I will brag about something for a second, though. I can now say with certainty: if you ever find yourself in the position to get to put together a comedy writing staff, and then you complain that you can’t find enough funny women… Nay, if you already have a show on the air and you have like 12 guys and 2 women: you didn’t look hard enough. I insisted on having as near even as possible ratio of females to males (not including me they were 5:4), and aside from getting to be smug about it, it just makes for better energy and perspective in the room to have an even gender balance. Do it.