The professional code among comedy writers dictates that if you have a friend who is producing a pilot, you are honor-bound to volunteer your “punch up” services for the pilot production week.
Punching-up a script is writers’ slang for sitting around with other writers, eating expensive take-away food, and trying to make the script funnier. Mostly it involves telling long and obscene stories that could never, under any circumstances, be told on broadcast (or cable) (or even premium cable) television. But every now and then someone pitches a great punch-up to a scene, so it’s an easy and fun way to help out a friend.
We do this for two reasons. First, friendship, which among writers is a word whose definition is so elastic as to also include the definition of the word “enemy,” — meaning, it’s fun to spend a week watching your “friend” get abused by neurotic, job-fearing studio executives and arrogant, hitless network development types; and two, because you know that no matter what happens, because you’re a volunteer, you get to leave whenever you want. It’s like a busman’s holiday — on his day off, no one can figure out why the bus driver rides the bus. But it’s really obvious: he doesn’t do it because he likes the ride, he does it because he likes getting off, whenever he wants. Walking out, that’s the thrill.
There’s also a third, mercenary reason: if your “friend” ends up with a hit television series on the air, he’s honor-bound to hire you as a writer on the staff.
So not long ago, I was helping out a friend who had a pilot to produce. I show up on the first day, for the table reading and the first thing I notice is, there are a lot of people milling around. More than the usual already too-large contingent of studio people and network people and agents and managers. And then I notice that the production contact list, rather than the normal four-page stapled-together phone number list, is a saddle-bound booklet including multiple entries for the network, the studio, the production company at the studio, the star’s production company staff, the other star’s management company’s development staff list, and the rest of the production personnel. It was a hefty volume.
Which made sense later, after the surprisingly funny and sprightly reading, when my poor friend had to listen to a series of useless notes from three people from each of the main constituencies, which when you do the math means fifteen people, fifteen executives, all straining and grasping for airtime, all desperate to be noticed by each other and each other’s bosses.
And then later, back in the writer’s room, as we’re about to begin the rewrite, I notice two guys who I don’t know. The writers — we’re all friends or friends of friends, we know each other — but these two guys, silent, affectless — never met them in my life.
“Hi, I’m Rob” I say, extending my hand. “I’m here to help out with the re-write.”
One of the guys looks mildly alarmed. “I’m Larry,” he says.
“I’m also Larry,” the other one says. And we shake. But they don’t really ever say what they’re doing here, which starts to really bug me.
But we start the rewrite, it’s going well despite the constant chirp of the telephone as each executive from each constituency calls to reiterate the notes — that’s fifteen calls at ten minutes each, making a two and half hour dent in what should be writing time — but at one point, as my friend and I are taking a short break, I ask him, “Hey, what’s with the Larrys? What are they doing here?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says. “They work for someone. Or maybe they’re producers? Or something?”
“Can I ask them?”
“You know what?” my friend says, “Don’t make waves. Leave the Larrys alone.”
Which I understand. I mean, my friend is trying to launch a series. Maybe the Larrys are powerful guys, essential to the smooth-running of the production, he just doesn’t know it. Why make trouble? But for the rest of the day — and for the next four days, as the Larrys sit silently with the writers, neither speaking to each other nor contributing to the rewrite — I can’t help myself. I keep needling them. When we’re about to change a line, I ask “Is that cool with you, Larry? How about Larry?” And when I finally suggest, “Hey gang! Let’s all go around the room and say why we’re here. I’ll start. I’m here to help my friend with the rewrites. Who’s next? Larry? Larry?”
But the phone rang with more notes, and then they called us to the stage for run-through, so I never got to find out who, exactly, the Larrys were.
And when the pilot wasn’t ordered, I knew I’d never find out.
So, if you’re reading this right now, Larry, and other Larry, I hope that you’re both doing well at…whatever it is that you both do, assuming, of course, that you both do the same thing. Or, that if you both do individual things relating to the production of television shows, that you’re both thriving at those individual things.
But if you’re looking for a career change, may I suggest that with your obvious skill at sitting quietly, contributing nothing, and saying absolutely zero, it would be great if you guys could find work in the development department of a studio, network, production company, or management company.
Actually, now that I think of it, you both should be running large hedge funds. What those places need, now more than ever, are a couple of guys who excel at sitting quietly and doing nothing.