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When to Quit

It’s the Hollywood way: become an assistant to get ahead. But some aspiring writers wonder whether this tradition is keeping them back

Steve Gabriel works as the script coordinator on $#*! My Dad Says, the new CBS sitcom starring William Shatner. The show is based on the Twitter feed of a guy who is 29. Gabriel is in his forties—he’d prefer not to reveal his exact age.

Gabriel wants to be a TV staff writer—and at times, he’s been one. Soon after graduating from college, he got a job as a writers’ assistant on Carol Burnett’s 1990 variety show, Carol & Company. He worked with the writers of the Home Improvement pilot and went on to write a script for the series that was produced during its second season. The Home Improvement creators promoted him to staff writer on their next show, Thunder Alley, starring Ed Asner and Haley Joel Osment. His next job was another promotion: story editor on the Dave Chappelle sitcom, Buddies. But the show was canceled in 1996 during its first season.

“That’s kind of when the rails came off the tracks,” says Gabriel, whose graying, close-cropped hair makes him look more like a colonel in the Air Force than a proofreader of other people’s jokes. “I didn’t get a job after that and had to start over.”

This is the reason that Gabriel, at forty-something, is an assistant to writers instead of a writer himself. To pay the bills he became a script coordinator, first for the short-lived 1998 Fox sitcom Costello, then the following year for ABC’s Norm MacDonald vehicle, Norm, and later for Will & Grace. Toward the end of that hit’s eight-season run, he was promoted to staff writer. But then it, too, was off the air, and he went back to script coordinating on the 2008 NBC comedy Kath & Kim (canceled) and this year’s 100 Questions (canceled).

“I always feel, ‘I know more than that person.’ ‘I’m better than them.’ ‘I’m a better writer than that person,’ ” says Gabriel, explaining why he hasn’t given up. “I’ve been told my scripts came in better than a co-EP’s”—co-executive producer, high on the writer totem pole. “Stuff like that.”

When asked whether he’s ever considered switching careers, Gabriel demurs. “I know people who don’t do it anymore, and they don’t seem to be any happier,” he says, before describing various projects he is developing—a TV pilot and a comic strip called Hope & Death—that could help him break through once again. “I know people who’ve had kids and had to drop out to support them. I feel bad for them that they’re not able to pursue their dreams.”

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For every aspiring writer whose Twitter feed becomes a sitcom, there are thousands of others toiling away at the assistant level, striving to one day be promoted to a full-fledged staff writer. Ideally that job is like a golden chairlift that carries them up the writer hierarchy, through mysterious titles like “coproducer” and “executive story editor,” before all of a sudden they’re running a show, creating other shows, and flipping through the Tesla catalog.

That’s the fantasy. Here’s the reality: Shows get canceled. The people in charge don’t always promote from within. Or a fledgling writer’s spec scripts—intended as writing samples, not for production—just aren’t good enough. So why keep the faith? The cyclical nature of television means that there’s always next season. Which is why some assistants remain assistants for years or even decades, always praying they’ll move up the ladder.

“The siren song of being a writer on a show is very strong,” says Andrew Meyers, 40, who’s been a writers’ assistant and script coordinator since landing his first television job in 2000 on the Showtime series Rude Awakening (it was canceled a year later). He compares the allure to “no-calorie cake. It’s cold fusion. It’s free energy. It’s very tempting, but as any researcher will tell you, you can spend a lot of time trying to develop cold fusion—you can spend a lot of money that goes nowhere.”

A quick primer on the television writing support staff: The writers’ assistant sits in the writers’ room, where staff writers gather to talk through a script, and jots down every murder confession and fart joke. The script coordinator proofreads and formats each script. (On sitcoms those two jobs typically overlap.) Meanwhile the show runner (the head writer, who is the de facto CEO of the show) and the executive producers have personal assistants to answer their phones, manage their schedules, and—according to one woman in this job who wished to remain anonymous—purchase $450 snakeskin clutch purses for their waitress girlfriends. Some shows hire researchers. The writers’ production assistant, or PA, picks up lunch. Everyone plays the tricky game of doing their assigned job while trying to pitch ideas in order to get a better one. (Full disclosure: I’ve been in their shoes.)

Michael F.X. Daley, a 43-year-old script coordinator on HBO’s Big Love, has been playing this game for a long time. His master’s in screenwriting from Loyola Marymount led to entry-level assistant jobs on shows such as The X-Files, Crossing Jordan, and the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, where he penned a script that was made into an episode. On the side he wrote spec scripts for The West Wing, Ally McBeal, Six Feet Under, The Shield, and Without a Trace. He finally got a staff writer job on the CW network’s 2007 fantasy series, Reaper. The gig almost tripled his salary. But the show was canceled. His agent sent him to interview for writing jobs, but nothing panned out—which means he proofreads other writers’ scripts even as he yearns to become a staff writer himself.

“I can’t just sit home,” Daley says. “I need a paycheck. I couldn’t afford to live on unemployment. I’ve put so many eggs in this basket.”

For late-blooming TV writers, the numbers give reason for optimism. In 2007, only 6 percent of the TV writing jobs went to people 30 years old or younger, and 37 percent went to those ages 31 to 40, according to the Writers Guild of America—meaning that the majority of television writers are over 40.

Yet the clock is ticking, says Jane Espen-son, who is a writer-producer for series such as Battlestar Galactica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She also has a blog that gives advice on breaking into television writing. “I think age does still matter, unfortunately, especially in comedy,” she wrote in an e-mail. “There is certainly a perception that younger writers are going to bring in a ‘fresh’ point of view and that their writing will appeal to younger fans.”

Television writers have been at the forefront of the fight against ageism in Hollywood. In January a group of older writers settled their age discrimination lawsuit against the major networks, studios, and agencies for $70 million. The Writers Guild recently raised concerns with the Internet Movie Database about the site’s policy of listing writers’ dates of birth. The fear is that writers will be judged by their age first, their work second.

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Many assistants believe that when show runners hire writers, they don’t care about age; they simply want the best people for the job. But others are apprehensive that TV bigwigs might subconsciously assume that an assistant who is nearing midlife must have a past riddled with well-deserved failure. Daley says he worries that producers will wonder, “Why has it taken this guy so long?”

To guard against this preconception, Daley, for example, canceled his MySpace account and doesn’t indicate his age on his Facebook page. One late-thirties assistant who didn’t want her name used says she secretly studied Saved by the Bell and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to understand the cultural touchstones of her younger colleagues.

Some assistants are self-critical and admit they may not be selling themselves the right way. Wendy Wilkins, who turned 41 in August, has a résumé that resembles a highbrow Netflix queue, with credits for Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and Rome. Her low points in the assistant trenches include being yelled at on the set of Malcolm in the Middle and being asked to procure a ten-inch black dildo for Mr. Show with Bob and David.

“I’m always the mom,” she says mournfully. “Like buying birthday cakes and making sure people pick up after themselves. I think that’s why people don’t take me as seriously as a writer.”

David Rodwin, 39, is more uneasy about the fact that he took an assistant job in the first place than he is about his age. “I’ve begun to think that having been a writers’ assistant at all has actually been a detriment,” he says. Rodwin allows that while the job has created some relationships, “people know you by what you’ve done previously.” He’s afraid that prospective employers will think, “Once an underling, always an underling.”

Rodwin left a career in New York heading a company that produced short films and musicals to move to L.A. and try his hand at TV writing. His first job was as a writers’ production assistant and researcher for the CBS drama Swingtown, which lasted a single season. At his age, Rodwin says, the shift in his relative status seemed surreal. “People felt a little awkward asking me to do things that a PA would normally do,” he says, though that didn’t prevent one person from telling him his coffee was undrinkable. Now his peers are starting to run shows: The electric guitarist for the solo opera Rodwin wrote and performed in 1997 became the show runner for the Jonas Brothers sitcom, Jonas L.A., and hired Rodwin as the script coordinator.

“The hardest thing is to be a bystander,” he says. “I’m the stenographer. I’m the note taker. I’m the person who makes sure all the periods and commas line up and the formatting is correct and the coffee is made. The hardest thing is keeping my mouth shut.”

More than one assistant has vented his or her frustrations by writing about the experience. Wilkins has a pilot called The Assistant, about a female lackey in Hollywood in the midst of a career crisis. Rodwin once wrote a script called The 40-Year-Old Assistant, about a guy who makes it big in finance only to fall on hard times and be forced to take an assistant job in the movie business (he later changed the setting to a vineyard after an agent was unreceptive to another show about the entertainment industry).

Rodwin promised himself that when he turns 40, if he hasn’t achieved success, he’ll turn to another line of work. But many others are staying the course.

Dustin Paddock, 38, began as a PA at Dick Clark Productions right out of college, in 1994; since 2004 he’s been the script coordinator on Fox’s medical drama House. With a writing partner and an agent, Paddock believes that his breakthrough could come at any moment. Luckily his understanding wife, a nutrition manager at a nonprofit, has a more stable job that helps support their three sons and pay the mortgage on their home in Altadena.

“I think if I had a backup plan, I probably would have used it by now,” says Paddock, who also keeps his frustrations in check by puttering on a novel called Nobody’s Nephew, which is inspired by his inability to benefit from nepotism. “There’s no age in my mind where I say, ‘This is it.’ Because there’s always a little trickle of hope.”        

Illustration by Barry Blitt