I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants over the weekend, because as a lady who writes comedy it is some kind of law. They sent something to my house; it was very official. And because I’m a lady who writes comedy who also likes extra credit, I went to see Tina speak with Steve Martin last week, where I truly couldn’t walk five steps without running into or recognizing another woman I’d either worked with or had a meeting with or interviewed with or knew through comedy since moving to Los Angeles. (I also held the World’s Smallest Impromptu Book Signing, wherein I defaced Tina Fey’s Bossypants.)
I bring this up for a couple of reasons. It’s staffing season, which means right now writers are waiting to find out which shows are going to staff which writers, depending on which shows get picked up for the fall season, and it’s all very hurry-up-and-wait while your scripts get sent to network executives, showrunners, assistants and trashcans.
Tina was very gracious whenever asked if there’s a “boys club” in comedy writing, and I feel she’s being intentionally diplomatic. I don’t know her life; maybe it is just as easy as “Get a job writing comedy, stand next to Amy Poehler while you do it,” but I bet she’s holding back a bit of her truth.
She’s a self-admitted “nice girl” who just wants to do a good job and not make waves and be fun and have fun and everybody makes a good show, yay! I get that. I am also that girl.
About three years ago, right about the time that Samantha Who? was going into our second season, I had a phone call that haunts me to this day, and I think about even more during this frantic time of the year that is staffing season.
“I was talking to my agent,” this male writer said to me. “And we were talking about how lucky you are.”
“Yes, I know,” I said, as I will and would say to anybody listening. “I’m very lucky to be working, I’m very lucky to be on a show people seem to like, and I’m very lucky that I like the show I’m working on. That’s a job lottery situation.”
“No,” he says. “He was talking about how you’re lucky because of what you are.”
I know I paused before I asked, “What does that mean? What am I?”
“You’re a mid-level female writer. People are always going to need one of you in the room. It’s great. You can go from failed sitcom to failed sitcom for the next six or seven years. You’re all set.”
After he finished giving me that Thinner-esque curse, I closed my eyes. Took a deep breath. I forced the angry Little Pam inside me to stay quiet and not get baited, not grab my nearest copy of Bitch Magazine, roll it up into a twat-baton and say something like:
“Well, THANK YOU for letting me know that I’m so lucky to be blessed with this MAGICAL VULVA OF OPPORTUNITY! I can’t wait to help others by letting them gaze upon this sacred gynopart that’s filled with diversity-requirement-fulfilling jobs!”
Instead I calmly asked, “Why was your agent talking about me?”
“Oh,” he said. “He wanted to know if you were happy with your representation.”
And then I thought I’d be able to let it roll right over me. Just let it go. Because I know that was a conversation not meant for me to hear. That was an agent talking to his client, telling him the reason this chick he knows is working is because she’s a chick, and she can just bop from Ladyslot to Ladyslot telling jokes and showing boob and it’s only because she’s got some ovaries that she’ll get a paycheck. And he’ll pick up dinner and don’t sweat not getting hired this year; there are no jobs out there, no good ones anyway hey call me later i’m on a plane, dude, bye.
I have to confess that I hate that I cannot let that go. I really tried to let it go. But, UGH. “Failed sitcom to failed sitcom.” “What you are.” The belittling “mid-level female writer,” as if I’m some less-than out there.
I know that’s what he said, because it’s what I hear in my head every week or so since that night. It is the treadmill on which my brain runs while I’m up all night writing pages. It is the Rocky theme song that plays in my head while I come up with pitches. It is my fuel, my angry fuel. It is the machine I rage against.
It is so infuriating! On so many levels!
And what’s frustrating is that his agent (and I’m going to keep telling myself it was his agent who said it because that makes me feel better about everything) was wrong. At least, in my experience, it has been very difficult to go from failed sitcom to failed sitcom because a mid-level female writer isn’t exactly what each show needs. They need a cheap female staff writer or completely-free diversity hire, or they want an experienced co-executive producer who costs a lot because she’s worth it.
Let’s push aside that it’s unfortunate that it’s harder to get hired as a woman if the showrunner isn’t in the habit of hiring women. Let’s just ignore that reality, how many men think that women aren’t funny. Or that hiring a woman brings “problems” because you feel less free to make your fart jokes and fake-fuck your co-worker on the table. Forget that part and pretend it’s all equal out there, because I like to. I like to think my gender doesn’t matter. So then you’re up against the money. They don’t really want any mid-level writers because they’re still learning. In theory. In title. Nobody knows what I’ve done on each show unless they ask, but my title says: “She’s been in some rooms, she knows how to write, she doesn’t know how to run a show yet.”
That’s taking a risk on both my vagina and my brain. That’s a budgetary nightmare for a showrunner who just wants a bunch of writers who are going to make his or her day less shitty.
So. I have to rely on good agents, good word of mouth, people I’ve worked with before giving good recommendations. I have to make sure I have excellent samples, writing that makes people want to meet me. I must be patient. I must wait. I take meetings. I write specs. I write pilots. I keep working. I write novels so I can sell them to networks so I can create shows that way. Yes, folks, that’s my secret. It’s as easy as publishing a novel.
What I’d really like to tell whomever it is that thinks the chick in the room has got it made is: If it’s so easy to get staffed on a show as a woman, then why does my union hold a contest for it?
When I tell people that I’ve recently won a “diversity” contest from the Guild, they give this strange look. Because their first thought is, “I didn’t think she was gay.” Then their second thought is, “I know she can’t be Asian… but maybe she’s a little… black? Can I ask her that without sounding racist?” And then they say out loud: “Oh, my God! Because you’re a woman?!”
Shocked, horrified, hands on face offended. “A woman is considered diversity! You’re a minority?”
I share that link because it brings me back to Tina Fey. My 30 Rock spec is included on that website. It’s not the script I entered for the contest — my original pilot script for CRAZY CAT LADY: MURDER SOLVER is what was selected. But they asked, after I was chosen, to have one of each — an original and a spec. (sidenote: only three comedy writers were picked, one of whom I went to college withbecause it’s THAT small of a writing pool).
Having just seen the 100th episode of 30 Rock, I can safely say that my spec script is probably dead. But some of you write to ask what these things look like, and for some reason the Guild is just letting anyone download these things, so take advantage. That script was inspired by something I went through when I got my first sketch approved onMencia, and parts of it we later used for a Samantha Who?. Incidentally, it isn’t the closest I’ve ever gotten to writing jokes for Tina Fey.
In early 2007, right around this time of the year, I’d just moved into an apartment and started to get some semblance of my life in order, when I got a call from my own agent. “Are you willing to move to New York?” he asked. He told me that Tina Fey had read a script of mine (not that 30 Rock; you don’t read specs of your own show), and that it was down to me and some other guy she was interviewing that week. “If he doesn’t get the job, you’re flying to meet her on Monday. Have a good weekend.”
Now, keep in mind that this is agentspeak here, so just like some other agent told that male writer he was awesome and I was just a chick, my agent here was doing his best to make me seem like I was one plane ticket away from a job on 30 Rock. The dude must have nailed his interview, or they saw nine people before me or I was never one flight away from Tina’s desk but the point is: I didn’t get the interview. And one week later I got an interview on Samantha Who?. And I got the job.
…and then promptly went on strike. If I’d gotten the 30 Rock job, I’d have moved to New York and then gone on strike. Maybe I wouldn’t have starved and gone broke, and maybe I would’ve kept that job for more than a year, and maybe I’d still have that job (actual percentage of these things being possible — 34%, 27%, 08%). I can’t even imagine how different everything would be. Truly, my whole life would be different. And I’m quite in love with my life, so thanks for saying no, Tina Fey. Sorry I defaced your book the other night. (I’m not sorry.) (Also, you can still say yes.) (I’m cheap! (see above))
I guess I’m about three years into the seven-year prison sentence stamped into my brain of being a mid-level female writer jumping from failed sitcom to failed sitcom. There have been shows I was almost on, shows I was on, shows I almost created, shows I wrote but nobody read. There have been proposals and pitches and meetings and punch-ups and “I don’t understand; they said you had the job, but now they just don’t have the budget for your level.” I’ve been singled out, recommended, read and “adored.” I’ve been pitched to, passed over, rescheduled and abandoned. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve written even more. I’m a couple of credits away from being elevated higher than “mid-level female writer,” and I can’t wait to find out what new, terrible, miserable problems the next level brings.
But for now, I am here, perched over my Magical Vulva of Opportunity, wondering who’s going to want some of this.