A friend from my television days wrote recently. She is a former network executive who fled north to Big Sur a few years before I emigrated to the East. She asked if I still liked living in Maine and if I missed L.A. and making money writing for television and that life.
She got me thinking. Not about Maine vs. California. Maine wins that one in a walk. It’s not perfect, but it’s the only state I’ve been in that actually looks better than the postcards, and the culture has a nice mix of sophistication and simplicity.
L.A.’s baseline condition is smelly, smoggy and congested, punctuated by floods, fires, riots, paramilitary bank robberies, gang warfare. And there was another thing. Earthquakes. No wonder they shot “The Ten Commandments” there. They could shoot half the plagues in cinema verite.
The television writer part is more complicated. There is no one “life of a writer.” Some writers go from strength to strength while others of equal or greater skill struggle. Some career trajectories show a slow build, others look like a heart attack patient’s EKG. Some fail up, others just fail. Talent helps, as does savvy, and charm. A few thrive by creating or exploiting palace intrigue. From what I can tell, nothing is either necessary or sufficient. I found luck to be a big factor, but to paraphrase the legendary golfer Ben Hogan, the harder I worked, the luckier I got.
My career was marked by rejection, caprice and insecurity. First I couldn’t get agents to read my material, then they would read it but didn’t like it, then they liked it but wouldn’t represent me because nobody was hiring and the industry was dying. Finally, an agent took me on as a favor to a client who was my friend. The agent sent my material out to shows, starting the whole cycle over again, only with more powerful people rejecting me.
It took forever to get the first job, forever and a half to get the second. Whenever a job ended, I figured that was it. Show business finally found me out, and I’ll never work again. More than once, I cleaned out my desk after being called in to see my boss, and then found out he was promoting me, not firing me. More than once, bosses told me I was the one indispensable member of their staffs and then let me go a few months later. Caprice. On any given day you could be a genius or a bum, sometimes both. People magazine once called a friend of mine the writer of the best movie in theaters and the worst show on television in the same issue, two pages apart.
I had a 12-pound shot put in my stomach when I was working and a 16-pounder when I wasn’t. You would think getting out would be a good thing, and it was, sort of. However, as my friend intimated, you do miss the income. Also, I still don’t feel quite complete about the whole adventure. I reached my primary goal of running shows, but had to take a step back to solve some health issues caused by an unhealthy relationship to stress. I’ve learned a lot since then and would love another crack at show running. With the explosion of new platforms and delivery systems for entertainment, and the industry’s increasing shift toward an entrepreneurial business model, I like my chances.
I also miss my writer friends. Being on a writing staff often means long hours cooped up with people you might not ordinarily befriend, but cannot escape. It’s an intense, insular shared experience that could be claustrophobic, like serving on a submarine, but could also form strong bonds. I have been lucky enough to have three extended “you had to be there” experiences. In boarding school, we united against the common enemy of an oppressive authoritarian environment. Stand-up was a little different. We tended not to be joiners, skewing more toward the disgruntled, live-in-your-mom’s-basement, “If the world would just listen to me, we’d all be better off” type. But we were united by a shared passion for an incredibly difficult art form. We also spent years doing the same kinds of gigs and dealing with the same kinds of audiences. Even when we didn’t work together, we were living parallel lives. And only we knew what it was like to be on that stage.
Television writing combined both. The common enemy was time, and you could only understand being on a staff if you had been on one. But TV writing is also creativity under pressure. I spent years among people with a breathtaking spectrum of talents (and, often, a similar array of dysfunctions, but that is another story). With the clock always ticking – one of my bosses said it was like being trapped on a railroad track trying to stay ahead of the train – it’s an act of faith to say, “Stop, we can do better here,” but people did. Sometimes the results were great, sometimes barely good enough. The process could be torture or magic. For me it was uniquely engrossing and a privilege to participate. I hope to again.
So Sherry, if you’re reading this, yeah, I do kind of miss it.
Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.