I’m writing my memoir. It’s called BUT IT’S FUNNY IN RUSSIAN: A WRITER’S ADVENTURES IN TEACHING OVERSEAS. I’m posting the first chapter here, and I’m interested to know what you think. Do I sound snarky? Sincere? Is this a book you’d invest time and coin in? I welcome your comments here, or via email through the link you’ll find on this page. Tyty. -jv
ONE: MR. NEEDY
The story starts with a job I couldn’t hold.
It was the late 1980s and I was writing for a situation comedy called Charles in Charge, not the original network show but its reincarnated syndicated cousin, starring the estimable Scott Baio as a college student-slash-nanny to three problematic tweens. I had scored big with a freelance episode called “Dorm Warnings,” in which Charles gets fed up with family life and moves into a college dormitory with his buddy, Buddy (the somewhat less estimable Willie Aames), and hilarity – as it so often does in sitcoms of a certain ilk – ensues. I’d also written an episode called “May The Best Man Lose,” which featured, as God is my witness, a dunk tank. On the basis of these twin triumphs, I was offered a six-week contract as a staff writer for the rump end of the 1987 season, running from late October until the Christmas wrap. This was my first staff job on a TV show and I was agog at the pay: $2,000 a week, which was big money in 1987 dollars and not chump change even today.
I had a huge office. Biggest office I’ve ever had in my life. Basketball court huge, airplane hangar huge, deep space huge, with a desk that stretched from the large picture windows into the middle of next week, and a couch big enough for a decent six-on-six pillow fight. I also had free run of the supply closet, and so I tricked myself out with plastic covered paper clips, three different kinds of tape (Scotch, duct, masking), power stapler and three-hole punch, binder clips of every imaginable size, reams of bright white 20 pound bond, and brass brads and the ever-so-sexy Chicago screws for holding my scripts together. For all the amenities of my office, I didn’t have to spend much time there. I rolled in around ten in the morning, did some desultory writing, attended staff meetings and table readings, and got out of there by six or so, except on taping nights, when I might be stuck till nine or ten. As has been noted by many wise sitcom staff writers, you always like your executive producer to be happily married. If he is, there’s a decent chance you’ll get out of there at a decent hour; if not, expect a gross parade of all-nighters, because if the boss doesn’t want to go home, no one goes home. Well, it happened that this show’s executive producers were married, presumably happily, to one another, so the show ran well and lean, and everyone went home on time.
Well, the writers did.
The support staff – writers’ assistants, production assistants and production secretaries – had it exactly opposite. They came in early, stayed late, encubicled themselves in a big open bullpen, and performed meaningless menialities all day long for not much more than minimum wage. And why? Because all they had to sell was their time and their effort, while we on the writing staff could sell our ability to write jokes, dialogue, and stories involving dunk tanks. This taught me a crucial life lesson, one I’ve never forgotten: If all you have to sell is your time and your labor, you’re really kind of screwed, because everyone else has that same commodity for sale. Yours is worth functionally no more than theirs, and none of it is worth more than the bottom of the market will bear. This is especially true in Hollywood, where eager employees’ own dreams conspire with skinflint employers to deflate wages. Yes, it’s true that I’m doing scut work for peanuts, you’ll tell yourself, but I’m doing it in Hollywood! No telling where this job may lead. It’s the key to my future! Uhm, not so much. While it’s true that some writers’ assistants do go on to become writers, they’d probably get there faster and easier just by writing terrific scripts (if they’re able). Simply being present in the office isn’t the key to anything, except, perhaps, the office door, as in “Lock up when you leave.” If you want to escape this sort of wage slavery, you need to provide added value, above and beyond time, labor and an insider’s knowledge of the copy machine. You need talent or craft or creativity or special skills.
What Hollywood taught me first: It’s not enough to be in the right place at the right time. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right tickets.
So there I was, in the right place at the right time with the right tickets – and murderously insecure. This was a staff job. This was the big time, and I really wanted to make good, with jokes that made people laugh, stories that made people cry and dunk tanks that made people wet. All day, every day, I walked around in a perpetual haze of am I okay? Was I living up to expectations? Was I earning my giganzo office and palatial couch and all those lovingly rat-holed binder clips? Were the right people noticing me?
Did they approve?
Approval, that’s what I needed more than anything – constant assurance that I wasn’t screwing up. Let me make this clear: I was an okay writer. Not as good as I later became, but more than up to the challenge of writing for the likes of Charles in Charge, where a decent bra joke (“Training bras? What are they training them for? The Olympics?”) was a pearl of great price. So the problem wasn’t my skills. The problem was my insecurity.
Which, unfortunately, I wore on my sleeve like a giant, pulsating cufflink.
See, what I didn’t know then – what I subsequently learned – was that every other writer on the staff, from the Executive Producers, through the various ranks of Producers, Story Consultants and Story Editors, right on down to the bottom of the staff ladder, they all had my same insecurities. They were all afraid of not doing well enough, not getting their stories approved or their jokes shoehorned into the script, not keeping their jobs and giant offices. They all needed approval just as badly as I did, with one big difference: They’d learned to hide their need, tuck it safely away where no one could see. Now see me from their perspective: The guy who felt like everybody else felt, but didn’t know better than to barf it all over the office all day every day. Can you imagine that such an emotional Mr. Needy might be a threat to the tranquility of other writers, all the way up and down the staff chain? Can you envision the choice his bosses faced: Either confront their own insecurities or make the irritant go away?
Can you guess which choice they made?
So I got fired. Well, let’s be kind and say not rehired. To this day I am certain that it was lack of confidence, not lack of skill, that got me let go. And it was a big setback. Here I’d been all hot in Hollywood, reaping the benefits of Hollywood’s validation, and in one disastrous Christmas week, it all went away. Worse – worst – I’d gotten hooked on the drug of Hollywood approval. I needed the good opinion of others, a demonstrably desperate daily fix, and when I went cold turkey off approval, my self-image totally crashed and burned. Crawling from that wreckage, I did some deep soul-searching and emerged determined never again to be a slave to external validation. I would find my value within; I would seek approval only from myself. That’s a hard place to get to, and trust me, I never would’ve gotten there if I hadn’t been forced to it by circumstance.
Second Hollywood lesson: In story or script or even in real life, the truth is revealed under pressure. Absent sufficient pressure, no one willingly embraces hard new truths.
So there I was with the new truth, one that all creative types, or really anyone whose ego rubs up against someone else’s needs to know: We all have to learn to ignore fickle opinion and trust the inner voice that says, You’re doing fine, your work is fine, just keep growing in your craft, no matter what your craft may be.
Now fast forward to 1993. I’m in Sydney, Australia, leading one of several concurrent seminars on sitcom writing for the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. By this time I’d kind of come into my own as a teacher, and while I was sharing the stage with several heavy hitters from American sitcom – significant show runners of whom I was rather in awe – I had purged my insecurity, and replaced it with bedrock confidence that I knew my craft, practiced it well and, above all, could help others do what I do. So it happened that during a break, three young ladies approached me to have a chat. I’ll never forget their names, for I’d never met a Saturday, Sheridan or Rebel before (they love to give their gals power names in Oz). And I’ll never forget what they said: that of all the speakers speaking, they far and away liked me best.
I felt the old temptation to bask in approval, but instead I heard myself say this: “I’m not worthy.” I don’t know what effect those words had on Saturday, Sheridan and Rebel, but they sure slapped me sideways, as I suddenly, viscerally, experienced the crucial and transformational distinction between fearing I’m not worthy and knowing I’m not worthy.
To fear being unworthy – especially for creative types, but also for teachers, entrepreneurs, anyone pushing the envelope of their ability – is to live in daily dread that they (whoever they are) are going to discover what a fraud you are. To know that you’re unworthy, by contrast, is to see yourself as a function of your gifts and happy accidents: the gifts of your intellect, talent and drive, and the happy accidents of your birth, background and education.
As Alan Wykes reminds us in The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling: “…each of us owes our existence to the chancy collaboration of two small fertile organisms; while an apparently chancy distribution of chromosomes, genes, and hormones influence our sex, coloring, and disposition.” Yes, we’re all a product of our gifts, and if we’re smart, we’ll try to make the most of them, but whether we succeed or not is largely a function of factors beyond our control, starting with the extremely long-odds lucky chance of having been born in the first place. To know you’re not worthy is to acknowledge this profound good fortune, and in the light of that, to live forever without fear. That’s really something, to live without fear. It’s really worth getting to. In that moment in Sydney I had a revelation: Knowing that I wasn’t worthy purged me of my unworthiness. And if that’s not Zen, I don’t know the sound of one hand clapping.
And without going all preachy or all Eastern on you, these are the sort of thoughts and discoveries that I hope to share in this book. You may ignore them if you choose, and opt just to view my journey from afar. It’s been a pretty interesting trip; I’ve taught and trained writers in 26 countries on four continents (at last count), and picked up a few stories along the way that may amuse or amaze or dismay. But for those among you who have a passion for writing or other forms of creativity, or just want to live a more, uh, present life, I plan to provide such insights as I can into what it means to be a writer, to work with writers, and to help writers excel worldwide. I invite you to extrapolate these insights into your own experience. My perspective is pretty unique. I don’t know anyone else who has traveled so far and taught so widely in the narrow realm of writing for television and film. And whether it was channel surfing in New Zealand (“one…two…one…two”) or confronting the proud censors of Malaysia, I’ve come away from every experience with a little deeper understanding of what it means to walk the writer’s path. If that’s your path – or even if it’s not – I invite you to share it with me now.