A few months ago, an old friend from Los Angeles, a director who emigrated to Canada for professional reasons, invited me to help him out on a television pilot he was producing for Canadian television.
After a delightful week in Toronto, for which I was paid nearly enough to cover the cost of transportation to Toronto, we made a very nice episode of television with a talented cast and funny script.
I’ve always believed it is both good and good business to help out a friend professionally. Behaving like a good person helps you become one. It is the personal growth equivalent of that old joke, “The key to success in show business is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Sometimes I even get work out of it. This was one of those times. Last week, the Canadian network picked the show up for 13 episodes, and I have been hired to help produce them.
Do not panic. “The View From Away” will continue throughout my stay in our neighbor to the north. It will be “The View From Away … from away,” at least for the next few months.
I’m looking forward to being back in the game. In the more civilized atmosphere of Canada and with the benefit of several years of personal growth, it should be less stressful. I will be there to assist the process and support my friend as a consultant. Functionally, it is a job I held many times in Los Angeles, helping to plan out stories and guide writers in outlines and scripts, then working in rooms full of writers during polishing and rewriting.
My friend may ask me to help him when he meets with network executives for notes, to minimize the inevitable miscommunication that accompanies that particular game of telephone. The show is on a tight schedule, so I may be pressed into service occasionally on post production, the catchall term for all the jobs necessary to turn the raw footage into a broadcastable show: editing, color correction, sound correction, and sweetening – TV speak for adding a laugh track.
The most intriguing part of the job is being on the sound stage on shoot nights. One of my specialties has always been the liaison between writers and director. In between takes there are a hundred people swirling around doing all the things necessary to the magic that is television, and the director is at the center of the vortex. He is surrounded by people asking for decisions about everything from moving the cameras, to making sure the actors look the same in each take of the same scene, so it doesn’t end up looking like a bad straight-to-video slasher flick, where the killer’s knife changes hands in mid-slash.
The writers are also among those competing for attention, trying to improve the script even during the shoot. However, 10 writers shouting jokes at a director already being pulled in a million different directions is bound to make him, well, let’s call it “irritable.”
Fortunately, sound stages are enormous, accommodating several large sets, room for four cameras to move around, and bleachers for 200 spectators with room to spare. This allows the writing staff to sit in another part of the forest, so they don’t add to the cacophony. When your hilarious joke just lies there because audiences are idiots, you need to change it. Other times you get a note from the network requiring you to rewrite a moment.
At these times, the writers huddle and simultaneously pitch replacements for the line that is changing. It is organized chaos, except for the organized part. One of the writers has to listen to all the pitches and decide which ones to pitch. That person is usually also the writing staff’s sacrificial lamb, the one who makes the long trek from the writers’ ghetto to Valhalla – the spot on the floor where the director sits with the camera coordinator and the script supervisor, watching four television screens at once and juggling a thousand details.
On this show, that guy will probably be me.
The only given in interrupting the director to pitch jokes is that however carefully you pick your spot, it will be the wrong one. At best the director will only be half listening. Often, the exchange starts like this:
“Um, we were thinking —”
Finding the right joke or the right fix for a scene with the clock ticking and 10 people shouting at the same time is one of the most exhilarating aspects of writing for television. Pitching those fixes to a harassed director is one of the most intimidating. On the other hand, it is gratifying to be in on those last-minute moments of fine tuning.
I didn’t realize how much I missed that creative rush until we were shooting the pilot. I’m looking forward to feeling that again. Not to mention four months in Toronto, which struck me as something like Chicago viewed in a fun house mirror.
What’s not to like?
Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.