The brilliant Tina Fay, in her comic element as unloved script producer Liz Lemon on the greatly missed American sitcom, 30 Rock.
In an earlier post, The Loneliness of Liz Lemon,
I wrote about how upsetting it was being the script producer or head writer of a TV sketch
show, and therefore being the one who has the unenviable task of rejecting
scripts that writers have prepared, because you don’t think they’re good enough
to be filmed and put on television. You are immediately disliked, no matter how
politely you reject their work. Even if you give them money. And a car.
know what it feels like to be one of the rejected ones. Back in March, I received
a phone call from producer Rick McKenna. He’s married to Gina Riley, who is a good pal, but I knew Rick long before I knew Gina. He ran The Last Laugh theatre
restaurant for a time, so every comedy person in Melbourne knew him. I always
found him affable, though I knew some comedians complained that he could be
tough. That is, he wouldn’t let them perform because they weren’t funny enough
on stage, in his opinion. It was his call to make and, frankly, he was usually
not-funny-enough-on-stage category is one in which I undoubtedly fall, but
fortunately most of my visits to The Last Laugh were more about coming to see
people do material that I had written for them, than getting up on stage and
trying to be funny. Rick’s phone call came first thing in the morning. We’re
both early risers. His excuse is that he’s got a family. Mine is that I am
suffering so badly from insomnia that I tend to get up at five and try to get
some work done, when St Kilda is relatively quiet. I might as well take
advantage of my sleeplessness. So I’d already been up for four hours when Rick
called. Had I been less weary, I would probably have handled the call a little
better. Rick told me he had got some money from Foxtel and had a sketch comedy
project he thought I might like to work on. Normally I would have given an
immediate but polite ‘No, thank you.’ Rick is nice, sketch comedy is tough. But
this sketch comedy show that Rick pitched involved new and old, tried and
tested talent. He wanted me to write some material for it. I really should have said no, but Rick is
a good businessman and knows how to get the answer he wants. He said very persuasively
that I’d be working with a lot of old colleagues whom I liked, in particular
Gina Riley and Glenn Robbins, that I only had to produce about a minute of
broadcast material per episode and that I could pretty much make my own hours.
I was guaranteed a first series of ten episodes and then, most likely, a second
series of a further ten episodes.
beginning to sound appealing, even though I had sworn I would never again do
sketch comedy, the most depressing form of television to produce. The head
writers of the show were two guys from advertising. They were Phil and a guy
whose name I forget. We’ll call him Not-phil. They were nice guys. I first met
them in a production meeting weeks before the series went to air and I told
them what they could expect during the ensuing weeks. Somehow, I didn’t manage
to dissuade them. I sat there telling them all these nightmare stories, about
how they were about to lose all their friends and that they would carry the can
if the show was deemed unfunny, because it’s usually the writers who get
blamed, and it’s very hard to blame the performers when you’ve got veterans
like Jane Turner, Michael Veitch, Magda Szubanski, Gina Riley, Glenn Robbins
and Marg Downey, who all have the comedy runs on the board.
into Comedy Company mate Glenn Robbins, who was also keen to have me aboard. My agent did a deal and I
was suddenly a contributing writer on a show that had only just been christened
Open Slather. So I had said yes. Sort of. And I
really shouldn’t have.
the show went to air on Sunday evenings on Foxtel, I wrote some stuff with
Glenn Robbins. That was my single, solitary good experience during the time the
first season went to air. I wanted to write with some of the other old hands,
because it’s pretty miserable writing comedy on your own, but everyone was too
busy. I did spend an afternoon writing with Magda, but I screwed that up
because I was away from home and somehow convinced myself that I had left the
iron on. Given that I so rarely use the thing, it was a fairly irrational fear.
Some of the alumni of Open Slather
The show would be around fifty minutes a week – which was a massive undertaking and everyone worked so hard that I never got a chance to work with any writers. I just submitted stuff week after week in the time leading up to the show. Some weeks there would be as many as ten sketches that I dutifully fired off to Phil and Not-phil, Then I watched the show going to air. It was the first time I have ever worked on a sketch show and been so far down the food chain that the only way I could see the show was to watch it on TV. There was to be no live night, because the style of the show precluded that. Not everything was funny, but it all looked fantastic, like a movie. I was used to sketch comedy shows where the sets were obviously just sets and the microphone boom shadows were ever present. Everything in the old live-audience shows was overlit.
a laugh riot, but Open Slather looked
fantastic. The first episode seemed promising, though the stand-out parts were
nearly all performed by the alumni, mainly Gina. The new and upcoming kids
didn’t get much of a chance to shine. There was nothing of mine in the show,
but I got a writing credit at the end, which I thought was odd. I’d been paid
far too much money to get nothing on the show, so I rang up in concern, but the
producers reassured me that the system was a bit gridlocked so they were
shooting the stuff that had arrived earliest and was therefore prepped, or
words to that effect. I didn’t want to seem anxious, with my grand track record
in comedy, though of course I was. With a sheaf of new sketches I paid a visit
to Phil and Not-phil. I didn’t ask them point blank if they disliked the last avalanche
of sketches I had submitted, since nothing had been used. Instead I talked
about their vision for the show. What sort of sketches did they want? I never
really got an answer to that, but I wasn’t going to let it go. I actually pitched my latest bunch of sketches. I
acted them out and got laughs. There was one sketch they really liked because
they could shoot it on a location that had already been organized, so it seemed
a ‘no-brainer’. One of them actually used that word. Like I said, they’re from
advertising, but like I also said, they’re nice guys. My sketch was a takeoff
of those really annoying Jeep ads where the revelation that someone has bought
a jeep is somehow meant to generate overwhelming joy or envy or disbelief.
actually wasn’t happy with that sketch, because it seemed a return to parody
comedy. Shows that I had previously helmed had well and truly mined this seam.
But because the production standards on Open Slather were so much better, the
parodies were encouraged. One of the joys of the Fast Forward ad parodies was
that they were only nearly lookalike.
Director Ted Emery took great pleasure in recreating impossibly difficult
locations, props, etc, and making them look deliberately amateurish, even
though he made them seem filmic. It’s sort of like being shithouse, but
pretending you’re not.
thought that getting some new regular characters up would be the best way to
give the show a brand of its own. To this end I spent a very short afternoon
writing with Magda Szubanski. Magda had other people to see, I had steam irons
to worry about, but I really needed to have Magda with me if I was going to try
to invent new characters for her. She was obsessed about a woman called Suzy Menkes. Check her out and you’ll
see why. Magda launched in to an hilarious impersonation and I quickly wrote
three sketches involving the character. It didn’t seem to matter that Suzy
Menkes wasn’t widely known in popular
media, since Magda was making the character funny in her own right. You didn’t
need the recognition factor.
explained this to Phil and Not-phil when I submitted the sketches, along with
the usual fistful of accompanying material. We checked out Suzy Menkes on Youtube
and yes, it certainly seemed good fodder for Magda. The next episode came and went.
One of the supporting cast, Ben Gerrard, had a character he called Johann. I
recognised Ben from the excellent ABC sitcom, Outland, in which he was very good. But
Johann, his new character, was disappointing. He was far too much like Sacha
Baron Cohen’s Bruno (even down to the
camp teutonic accent) and there really weren’t enough jokes. But this character
seemed to be doing the same stuff as Magda’s proposed ‘Suzy Menkes’
character, thus the material that Magda and I had written no longer had a place
in the show, since Johann was covering the whole fashionista world in his own weird way. So, the stuff that Magda andI had written could never saw the light of day.
stuff that I had written with Glenn was hilarious, I was certain. They were
mainly Glenn’s ideas. He’s very good at noticing the little, annoying and
quirky aspects of life then riffing on them neatly till they morph into sketch
material. And since Glenn was a main player in the cast, I figured he would be
able to fight for our sketches.
Glenn Robbins, in non-fighting mode. One of the funniest guys out there, and a decent paramedic (see previous post about how I owe Glenn my life.)
watched the show week after week and didn’t see any of my stuff. Oddly, I still
got a credit at the end of each episode. I rang my agent Kate and asked if she knew
anything about the show. What were its prospects? Was it doing okay? Popular
opinion suggested it wasn’t. More importantly, had Kate heard anything about me?
Was my stuff okay, yet somehow overlooked for one reason or another? Was
it too long? Or, dare I say it, too not-very-funny? I could never get through to
Rick Mckenna to ask him. He was
apparently too busy fighting legal battles with Gina Reinhart about some
supposed slight that Open Slather had made against her much envied reputation and sylph-like
appearance. When I rang the head writers yet again to see if I could somehow help them
with material that was more to their taste, they told me they had been sacked. But I was so overconfident about my own abilities as a comedy writer that I felt my position was still secure or would somehow be enhanced. Kate rang and told me that series one of the
show still had two more episodes to go. Producer Rick McKenna would be travelling overseas,
but according to my agent, I should continue submitting as I had been doing
from the start of my contract. Kate emailed me that Rick wanted to come back to
me with a ‘variation’ on last season’s offer. I’d been head writer on so many
sketch shows, most of which went okay, I felt pretty sure Rick wanted to offer
me the same gig on Open Slather. Thus, I worked very hard during
those last precious weeks. I thought I should set out to be brilliantly comic,
so Rick would have no choice but to give me the head writer gig. (Working on
your own also makes you delusional.) Oddly enough, ‘head writer’ was a position
I would not have considered accepting for a moment during the show’s
preproduction, but now I had to make a point. I could fix this show. Even the nice critics were starting to write mean things
about us, though some had been kind to us early on. Our ratings were apparently not
great. And there was I thinking that working on a cable show might be more fun
than working for normal TV, because there would be hardly any crits. I know we're meant to shrug off bad reviews, but if I ever bump into Bruce Elder from the SMH it will be very hard to prevent myself from throwing something heavy and metallic at his head. Apparently I'll have to join a queue.
submitting a mountain of solid gold material I waited for Rick McKenna to return
from Los Angeles and call. I wondered what tone I should take. Should I leave
it to my agent, or should I make Rick beg me to come and fix his show? I was in
the shower when he finally rang, but I wanted to take the call, since he was
always so impossible to reach, so I kept him waiting as I dried myself off – it
takes longer now I’m fat - and put on low-rent St Kilda winter wear. (That is,
a black tracksuit. Usually not one’s own.) I waited patiently for Rick’s
‘variation’ on my commitment to series one, as promised by my agent. I was
staggered when Rick told me, nicely, that I wasn’t to do further work on the
show and that he had nothing to offer me. Why did this upset me so much? Not
a thing of mine had been used, despite the weekly credit. I was clearly of
no use to the show, such as it was. Open
Slather was not exactly an ornament on my resume. It was just that I knew
the show could have been better if only they’d used my stuff, or maybe paid me
to edit some of the other contributions. Which is what dismissed writers always
say or feel when they get the shove. I was in the same position I had gleefully
put so many other writers in. (Okay, I was never gleeful about sacking people,
it just seemed that way to them. Although there was one. Never mind.) And it does feel terrible. So, I won’t be
watching the show anymore. Apparently I’m not in a minority.
to close by saying that the show was okay, and people were courteous. There are
some good, funny sketches there, and George H. Xanthis, one of the new kids on
the block, really stands out. (And that’s hard in a cast where so many of the
men look alike. Let’s put it this way. George is the seriously handsome one. Sorry, Ben, but it's definitely George, so put your clothes back on.) I hate seeing comedy shows
fail because I know how bloody hard they are. I hope things look up.
Gina Riley and Magda Szubanski, still funny on Open Slather.
The new kids on Open Slather. (I didn't write this sketch).