GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson has written a very entertaining article about his time as a writers' assistant during the late '80s and early 90s. This is a position highly coveted by those looking to work in TV because being an assistant on a show is often a stepping stone to getting a script assignment and then graduating to staff writer and beyond. A great many writers have come up the ranks this way, which is something you might remember from my interview with writer Liz Tigelaar.
(Attn: showrunners with shows coming back next season - I'm available! I know you're out there. Let's grab a nosh at Canter's one of these days and I can convince you I'm the guy you can trust for all your typing and lunch order needs.)
Nelson worked for the kinds of boss we all hope to never serve. He's forced to console his employers at the funeral for a pet, which sounds like an insanely awkward task even if his bosses weren't tyrants who thrived on making other people feel small. At other times, when he doesn't read back a transcribed joke with the proper inflection, he's accused of "ruining" the joke. All in all it sounds like working for them was a generally unpleasent and weird experience:
At first, I should confess, I quaffed their Kool-Aid. At my interview, they flat out informed me that they were “hilarious,” a cut above most clowns. “Not like these fucking idiots in Hollywood.” I laughed at their audacity. They laughed at my laughing—the whole interview was like a coke party. They told me they would storm Hollywood and, if I went along, I could sort of storm it, too. It sounded like a great idea, and also I was broke.
I suppose I thought they would help me fulfill my dream to become a writer. If nothing else, I would get a comedy apprenticeship and witness the process by which funny ideas become fully baked TV series. Sitting at my desk, I plot out my bright future. They'll get a sitcom on the air; once it's in production, I'll become the writer's assistant on the show, slay everyone with my jokes, and graduate to staff writer. (Even today, this is The Plan for many aspiring writers looking for their big break. As one writer's assistant on the hit series Modern Family told me, the job “is like the best grad school you could possibly have if you want to be a writer.”) I just need to be vigilant, write my own spec scripts on the side, then my bosses will read them and see that I can—
ENHHHHH! The Comedy Alarm. A call from L—. What does he want? I can see him motioning from across the hall to pick up the phone. His irony fills the receiver.
“Uh, Jim? I need a ham on rye.”
I scramble for a pen. “Sure…ham on rye.”
“And could you make that cold. Very, very cold.”
“And then, uh, one more thing. Could you…sit on that?”
Comedy! I hadn't recognized it when it finally arrived. It is moments like this when I begin to worry that maybe I've hitched my wagon to the wrong comedy asses.
“I'll get that sandwich for you” is all I say. Then I give him a slight chuckle, because I know that's what he wants. I have only been here a few months and already I know: My job is to serve them and, more important, to humor them. I am regularly summoned into their office to witness the sparks of their genius, to hear a few bits of schlocky humor that, for the well-being of my job, I had better find uproarious.
There are a lot of good stories in the article and I found it rather amusing that as Nelson drops the names of several shows, he assumes they're long forgotten. Should I be concerned I actually have pretty vivid memories of The New Leave It To Beaver, the Ferris Bueller TV show, The Powers That Be and even 704 Hauser?
You can find the whole article here.