As promised, I'm back to share the best bits from the pinnacle, the zenith, the apogee, of the whole Screenwriting Expo 2007 experience. No, it wasn't the lunch. It wasn't the free Celtx USB key. It was, my virtual friends (and real Mom)...
...the extraordinarily peppy Bill Lawrence.
One would think that, after almost 15 years in the business, a writer might be a little cynical. But if there's cynicism brewing in Bill's breast, he kept it well hidden at Expo. He was funny, sincere, and brimming with chocolaty delicious advice for TV-writing babies everywhere.
Plus, after spending an hour-and-a-half on stage entertaining everyone, he exited, followed by at least 30 people (including me) who wanted to get some face time. Bill stayed in the hall for another 45 minutes, until he had shaken hands with all of us and answered all of our questions.
How sweet is that?
So here we go, reissued and repackaged, advice from Bill Lawrence filtered through me and delivered to you.
On career lows
Bill was fired from his first four writing gigs. That's right - four! Talk about discouraging. Instead of quitting to become an embittered New York cabbie, he went home, shed a few tears, and vowed to make some changes. Apparently, as a young writer, he'd had a bit of an attitude in the room. It led to three of the four firings (he deftly skimmed over the details of his departure from Friends). On his fifth job, Bill went in reformed, and he's been a mega-success ever since. So leave the attitude at home, in your closet, on that top shelf that never gets dusted – it will only kill your career if you bring it out to play.
On being a TV writer
It's clear the Bill loves loves loves being a TV writer. This pretty much sums it up:
"If you ever hear a TV writer complaining about their job, you have my permission to kick them in the face."
On working with his wife
Christa Miller, Bill's wife, plays the snarkodelic and irresistibly hilarious Jordan on Scrubs. He says he decided to cast her because "that's pretty much what she's like". Also, he's, like, the only guy in North America who gets to tell his wife where to stand, what to say, and what to wear. Of course, that only applies at work. She chose his outfit for Expo.
On directing TV
Bill says that the whole cast hates it whenever he directs an episode – and he hates it too. "You have to sit there while everyone does each line like seven times. It's so boring!" Every time he has to direct, he tries to go in with a good attitude – this time he'll work hard and do a great job. About 15 minutes in, he's lost interest completely and just wants to run back to the writers' room where everyone is having fun.
On writers' assistants
When my turn for face time came, this is what I asked: "Do you think that the only way into the business these days is by becoming an assistant and working your way up the ladder?"
"Absolutely not," says Bill. He told me that if he was getting into TV writing now, he'd take all that time he spent looking for an assistant gig and channel it into finding representation. Though he's heard of shows that promote their assistants to staff writer jobs, he doesn't really think it works, because in the eyes of the other writers, that person will always be an assistant, not an equal member of the writing staff.*
He also talked, during the event itself, about Scrubs' enviable writer training program. The show hires a new assistant each year. That person spends a year working as an assistant. The next year, they are given an episode to write. Once their episode has aired, the entire staff helps them find an agent, and they are sent out into the world, produced script in hand, blinking their wide brown eyes at the wonders they behold. Wait, he didn't say that last bit – I just got a little carried away marveling at the brilliance of it all.
Every show should adopt this policy. What could be better than getting a year of training in an actual writers' room, then being given a credit and the help of a gang of mentors? It's ideal. C'mon, all the other shows in the world, get with it. Adopt The Scrubs Method now!
Too much schmoozing, not enough writing. My Bones is a sad, lonely, and neglected creature. But now I'm ready to feed it the finest oats and curry comb until it shines with a virile glow.
*I discussed this with a fellow TV writer, who also works as an assistant on a real, live sitcom. He didn't agree at all. He knows a couple of assistants who have been transformed into fragile baby-writer butterflies, and they're getting along like ice in a freezer (FYI - that's good. Ice likes it cold).
So there you have it. There are no definitives in this business, but that's why we love it.
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