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The Medium Is the Messengers

Brian Lowry is a Times staff writer

The recently adopted--but still fiercely debated--TV ratings

system has pushed television once again into the center of a national discussion over social values and the influence of the medium on American life.

But lost somewhat in the debate is the issue of creative merit. Just how good are the shows on network prime time? Is prime-time entertainment now better or worse than at other times in the medium’s history? And how does the quality of television relate to the debate over values?

To try to answer these questions, Calendar went to the people who actually write the shows. We assembled a group of writers associated with critically acclaimed programs to talk about the state of their union--prime-time television. The group, which met at the Writers Guild of America, West, represented both current comedy and drama series as well as programs from the recent past.

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Topics included comparing today’s programs to the past, changes in the writing process, network interference, how there can be enough comedy writers to staff the 64 sitcoms that were scheduled when the season began last September, and the freedom to use once-forbidden words on such programs as “The Larry Sanders Show” and “NYPD Blue.” The participants were:

Allan Burns, 61, produced such MTM classics as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda” and “Lou Grant.” He also introduced Jim Carrey to America in the short-lived 1980s series “The Duck Factory.” Burns, whose credits include the movie “A Little Romance,” has opted out of television in recent years while writing screenplays and a novel.

Charlie Hauck, 55, currently an executive producer on ABC’s “Home Improvement,” began his career on “Maude” and later

created “The Hogan Family.” Hauck, who wrote the Hollywood novel “Artistic Differences,” notes in his biography that he “lives in Los Angeles, about 10 blocks from Michelle Pfeiffer.”

Carol Leifer, in her late 30s, has written for numerous sitcoms, including “Seinfeld,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and, most recently, “The Naked Truth.” A stand-up comic who has appeared in several Showtime specials, she’s currently developing a sitcom in which she’d star for the WB network.

David Mills, 35, has spent two seasons working on “NYPD Blue,” after writing for “Picket Fences” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Before that, he wrote for the Washington Post.

Lydia Woodward, 45, is currently an executive producer on television’s top-rated drama, “ER,” which she’s been with from the beginning. Before that, she worked with “ER” producer John Wells on “China Beach” and “Angel Street.”

Question: There’s a perception that television is, more than film, a writer’s medium. Do you think that’s the case, or is it becoming less the case?

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Hauck: It’s absolutely a writer’s medium, and it may be becoming less the case.

Q: You frequently hear TV executives say, “The play’s the thing.” But over the last eight to 10 years, it seems whenever there’s a dispute between the writer and star, it’s always the writer who goes, especially in sitcoms.

Mills: I’ve been lucky enough to work for two of the biggest writer-autocrats in drama, David Kelley [of “Picket Fences”] and [“NYPD Blue’s”] David Milch. In both of those circumstances, the actors were so appreciative of the level of writing that these bosses provided on a consistent basis, there was no problem. These guys were the bosses, and the actors didn’t raise a fuss.

These are the people who are kind of making [television] a writer’s medium, in the sense these writers have a distinctive writer’s voice, as distinctive as David Mamet or [Ernest] Hemingway. These are shows that even the audience, I think, gets a sense of “Wow, this is good writing.” I think that’s something new since the ‘80s in drama, a sense of TV as great writing.

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Q: Is that something that’s easier in drama, for the producer to essentially be the star?

Woodward: The writers are the producers. It’s really a case where you can work yourself closer to the top of the food chain than the bottom of the food chain, which is great. In our show, we’ve got a great respect for what the actors do and they’ve got a great respect for us. I think that’s probably harder in a single-lead show, which more half-hours are.

Leifer: I think that happens in half-hours too. When I was on “Seinfeld” and I worked for [producer and co-creator] Larry David, the show is really in his voice, and it filtered down through that. In putting together a writing staff, it was definitely a strike against you if you’d worked on other sitcoms. He liked to hire people who he felt hadn’t been corrupted by the half-hour system already.

Burns: I think you see the turnover in writing staffs more on shows that are single-star shows than ensemble comedies. . . . Unless it’s a show where they build it around someone, it’s very easy to write somebody out, and the actors know that. Look what happened at “NYPD Blue” with [David] Caruso, who made this colossal mistake, thinking he had this enormous career somewhere else. He didn’t, and I think the rest of the actors saw that.

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I’ve been lucky. Even though I did “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Mary was the most “non-star” star you’ve ever seen. She trusted the word. She learned from Carl Reiner and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to trust what was on the page. If anybody in our show had any ideas otherwise, she quickly disabused them of that. Consequently, anyone we spun off adopted the same attitude, which was heaven for a writer. . . . Just to rewrite for somebody’s ego is a waste a time.

Q: That does seem to have changed. Maybe Roseanne started it, because she was able to take control of her show and steer it as writers came in and out of it.

Hauck: You used to be able to recruit very good writers by standing outside the “Roseanne” stage right next to the paramedics. As the writers were being tended, you’d go out there and make a deal with them.

Q: How do you feel about writing now versus writing 10 or 20 years ago? How does what’s being done now compare?

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Hauck: There’s two parts to that: How did we enjoy writing then, and were the shows better? When I started out on “Maude,” it was a golden age in the sense it was a quality show and the network was respectful of it. You didn’t have the sense of pressure I see now, even on the hit show I’m working on--the nervousness on the part of the network and studio--or the interference.

I was watching a friend produce a pilot. After every scene he’d get a call from the network and the production company, often contradicting each other--things as specific as “We’d like a reaction shot from the little kid.” I don’t remember that kind of intrusion.

Woodward: It seems the attention span in general is much shorter now than it used to be. That changes the way you’re writing in terms of the process.

MTM has a great, classic reputation as a studio that put shows on the air and let them build. That doesn’t tend to happen as much any more. An example was “Prince Street,” which was on two episodes and then gone. I’m not the network; I trust they know how to do their jobs better than I do. But it doesn’t seem to me a terribly valid way to test a show.

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Mills: That’s something I’m very conscious about when I sit down to write. . . . The ‘80s formed my sense of the highest level of television drama. The difference now from 15 years ago is the viewer has a hundred other things he could be watching at any given moment. There’s just so much media now, I feel very conscious in every script [that] the stakes have got to be high, the characters have got to be popping. You can’t let ‘em up for a minute.

I think it’s very demanding, and I know that because, as a viewer, I can be someplace else like that.

Woodward: That’s interesting, because I would never, ever think about that in a million years in writing a script. That would never occur to me. To me, it’s still very much you’re writing about character, you’re writing a story. I would think, “Are the stakes high enough to service the story?” but not about an audience.

The odd thing about television is, in the case of “ER,” roughly 35 to 40 million people watch it every week, and you have no sense of it at all, and you don’t ever think about it. You don’t ever think that you’re putting something out that’s going to be seen by that many people, and even if you did, what does it mean? You’re just drawn back to telling a story.

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Mills: But when you think of what stories to tell, and what characters to create, you have to raise the bar really high: Is this story compelling enough? Are these characters real enough? There’s just so much out there--how do you stand out amid everything else that’s out there in the pop culture?

Burns: I don’t think television today has anything to apologize for--certainly not the best of television. I think the best is as good or better [when compared with shows from the past]. I think “ER” and “NYPD Blue” are absolutely the best dramas I’ve ever seen, ever. And I worked on a good one, “Lou Grant.” These shows have just pushed into new areas.

Consequently, I think the shows are enormously entertaining--interesting, smart, compelling. Series drama is the best I’ve ever seen it. Movies of the week are another thing. They used to be the pride of television, and they’re just awful.

Episodic drama, week in and week out, is the best it’s ever been. Comedy, when you take the top shows, I’ve never seen anything better than “Seinfeld” and “Frasier.” “Home Improvement” on good weeks is just terrific stuff.

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Q: Right now there are more than 60 sitcoms in prime time, if you count all the networks. One of the laments is that the talent pool has been thinned out.

Burns: A lot of shows are gang-written, and they look like it. I’ve always felt the best shows have one writer, or a team, writing the whole thing from beginning to end. I can remember maybe four episodes in my MTM history that were written gang-style, and that was done with the last “Mary Tyler Moore” show only because everyone wanted a credit on that show.

Now it’s the norm. I talked to a friend of mine who said very often they go to the table with nothing much, knowing that they’re going to all write it that week. They go to separate rooms and write.

It’s a hell of a way to write a show. You don’t get any sense of character, it’s all jokes and moments. There’s very little sense of flow to a show like that. A lot of what makes comedy successful is not the jokes, it’s the people. If you base a show on jokes, you’re dead, as far as I’m concerned.

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Hauck: The odd thing is that while there are more sitcoms now, it also seems to be harder to get in [to the business]. I guess ever since the Harvard contingent decided as a career decision to go into writing as opposed to investment banking, which actually happens, there’s a lot more scripts around. It’s much more crowded.

Leifer: I agree with what you were saying about this gang-writing approach, because I’ve had the luxury of working on some critically acclaimed shows like “Seinfeld” and “Larry Sanders,” and some other ones in between. It just boggles the mind that, when you write a script, they’ll say, “Hey, you take Act 1 and you take Act 2.” What’s the point? If you’re the poor Act 2 person, it’s ridiculous.

Even beyond that, the thing I noticed is that on “Seinfeld” there was very little network interference, because they couldn’t argue with success, so they pretty much took a hands-off approach or made minor suggestions. In these other shows I’ve worked on, the network gets in there.

Q: As far as pushing the envelope on shows, you’ve had a chance to work on “Larry Sanders,” which gets to play around with language more. “ER” and “NYPD Blue” have pushed the boundaries of where dramas can go. Does that help as a writer?

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Woodward: Quite honestly, I can’t tell you that we’re conscious of it. In terms of “ER,” we look at the characters first and start thinking about what are interesting stories to tell about these characters. That’s the starting point for everything that happens on the show--what will interest us as writers, and what will interest the actors as actors, to keep things as fresh and as stimulating as possible.

I don’t think we’ve ever approached anything as “This is something we would push.” If we’ve gone out there, it’s by accident, because that’s where the story went. . . . Wherever it goes is where the story needed to go.

Mills: You’re always conscious of your limits anyway, so you take for granted and internalize those limits wherever you happen to be. . . . On our show, you can say “a--hole” a few times in an hour, but you can’t say “bull----,” even though you might want to, so you don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what you can and can’t do.

What people have to be conscious of now is a new vision. We’ve mastered the cop show. We’ve mastered the medical show. The frontier now is finding whole new areas, like “The X-Files,” for instance. That is a show that is visionary, and “Beavis and Butt-head” is a show that is visionary. Those two shows will probably define what ‘90s television is about.

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Q: In comedy, there is a sense that sitcoms have fallen back on sex joke after sex joke. Do you agree, and why is that? Is that because some of the areas that once were joked about, such as race, are off limits?

Hauck: I don’t think that’s it. Sex jokes are easy, a given laugh. . . . It’s not always cheap, but always easier than another kind of joke.

Leifer: To me, a sex joke, if it’s original, if it takes a new tack--great. It’s a question of whether it deals with sex on an intellectual level or a cheap level. On “Sanders,” being able to use the language there, the profanity, just makes it easier to write, and it makes the show funnier.

Q: The question is: Would the show be as funny if you couldn’t use the language as freely?

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Burns: I don’t think that’s what makes it funny. What makes it funny is how accurate it is about human nature. We all recognize those people--especially those of us in the business, but even if you’re not. The insecurity of Hank [the “Sanders” sidekick played by Jeffrey Tambor]--we all know people like that, whether you’re in the business or not. What makes that show successful is all about character. . . . The humor comes out of the situation.

Q: Is there any consensus on the TV ratings--whether it’s a good thing, or a terrible thing in terms of what it does to the shows themselves?

Hauck: Don’t all shows have the same rating?

Woodward: It’s not having any impact whatsoever on what we do. We say, “Here it is; put whatever rating you like on it.” If the purpose was to curtail us creatively or in terms of content, that purpose is not going to be fulfilled. If the purpose is to guide the viewer as towhat someone thinks is appropriate for a certain age group, those little things up in the corner may help do that.

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Q: Of course, the stated purpose is to help guide the viewer, but some people do want to see it curb content.

Burns: I’ll never like the idea of any kind of government control over what we do. Remember the family hour? “Maude” was one of the lightning rods, and it had very little to do with violence, sex or that kind of content. It had to do with intellectual content, I really believe.

There was a great fear, on the part of the right wing, of some of the stuff that “Maude” and “All in the Family” were getting into. There was no sex or real bad language or anything on those shows, but they came down on them really hard. We fought that battle and won, and they backed off for a long time. Now we’re back facing it again 20 years later.

Leifer: It’s amazing to me “Maude” did an episode about abortion. I don’t know any sitcom that would take that on now, or be allowed to.

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Woodward: Which is kind of scary.

Q: There are certain topics, which have nothing to do with sex or violence, that are essentially taboo.

Mills: Race has never been dealt with as frankly in the last 30 years as it was on “All in the Family.” Why all of a sudden have sitcoms sort of abdicated the social realism that was done to such classic effect in the ‘70s?

Q: Do you think there is still any sort of inferiority complex within the industry on the part of television toward feature films?

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Woodward: I think it’s just a much more personal question about what you like to do. If you worry about whether you’re a second-class citizen because you’re writing for television as opposed to writing for features, then you’re thinking about the wrong things. . . . I’m guessing we’ve all done television because we like doing television. It’s a different process. To me, what’s great about doing television is the process.

Hauck: Features are bigger. It’s a big screen. They win. In terms of what’s on television versus what’s in feature films, television can hold its head proudly--even hold its head above.

Burns: As far as content goes, absolutely. You don’t get quite the production values or the prestige in the community or the world at large as movies get, [but] you can’t see six movies a year that are as good in quality as “Seinfeld,” as “Mad About You,” as “Larry Sanders.”

Hauck: Broadway too. You go to the theater and see these honored shows, and I’m sitting there staring at them with cobra eyes.

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Q: There is a challenge in writing for television that is unique, which is to advance while running in place. The interesting thing about a series is that you can never resolve what the issue is because you have to come back and do it again the next week.

Hauck: There is a certain degree of freedom in a feature, in that you go from here to there and that’s the end of it. A series, if you’re lucky, never ends.

Leifer: I also wanted to bring up testing and how insidious it is to the whole TV process. “Seinfeld” had terrible test scores at first. . . . Hurray for NBC for sticking with a show with a bad testing report, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a network now that would take a testing report like that and say, “No, no, we’re going to go with our gut and present [the scores] to them at their 100th episode party.”

Hauck: That’s because there’s no gut to go with in many cases at the networks. It is a matter of guts, and they live now off fear and adrenaline.

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Q: This may sound silly, but what sort of reaction do you get from people who aren’t in the industry? When you tell people you write TV programs, what do they say?

Leifer: “Can I give you a script?” has recently become overwhelming. I have to call my relatives now and tell them not to give my number out to people who visit their condo. . . . It’s become such big business, and people know it’s very lucrative, so everybody’s looking for a way in.

Burns: Everybody wants in. I have a lot of friends who are not in the business, and they’re all calling me up because their kids--sons of doctors, lawyers, real-estate developers, things like that--all want in the business. It’s incredible. How did they get infected with that?


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