Conversations With My Agent
In 1963 Mel Brooks’ comedy partner Carl Reiner wrote the autobiographical ‘Enter Laughing’, about being a young TV scriptwriter working on live TV comedy for a showrunner described as ‘the Ulcer That Walks Like A Man’. Forced to write up his ideas just minutes ahead of the performers going in front of the cameras, he found the experience terrifying and exhilarating.
In 1993 Rob Long wrote about being a young TV scriptwriter coming off ‘Cheers’ and finding himself mired in the inner circles of development hell, forced to justify and explain every spontaneous idea and joke until the life had been crushed out of it.
What had changed in thirty years? The managers had taken over the talent, attempting to monetize television’s most unquantifiable quality; what makes people laugh. The result was like repeatedly trying to explain Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch to Martians. Two decades further on, Long’s book and its sequel ‘Set up, Joke, Set Up, Joke’ were republished in one volume, but how much has the ground shifted again?
Well, the agents (at least, the US ones) remain pretty much the same – doom-laden, prickly, inscrutable and seemingly working for the wrong side, they cheerfully deliver grim news and can hardly recall your name. I once had a film agent who called at my house after his car broke down and asked for help without even recognising that I was his client.
But the system has changed. Family viewing has all but vanished, advertisers no longer call the shots, multiple formats are providing new outlets for creativity and thanks to shows like ‘Extras’ and ‘Episodes’ nearly everyone has a good idea of what goes on behind the cameras.
Does this mean that Long’s biographical chats with his agent are past their sell-by date? Unfortunately no, because as long as the industry is run by people who are employed to add layers of misunderstanding to ‘content provision’, it can’t possibly change. There are whole passages that still chime gruesomely with present-day experience:
MY AGENT: They just hired a head of the network. And the good news is that the guy they hired has never heard of you or your work.
ME: Why is that good news?
MY AGENT: Because the other person they were considering hates you and your work.
British writers tend to take in their stride the kind of perceived slights and grievances that upset Long because they’re simply grateful to get any work at all. But if the locations are different, the set-ups will probably never change. Just last week a friend working with a movie star more famous for being handsome (in a frozen-faced way) than having acting ability was forced to wait while the star and his agent fought on set over a series of hilariously absurd trivialities about the actor’s motivation. When big money meets big egos, it’s the writers who take the beating.
I’m lucky now to have an agent who likes and understands what I’m doing, and I do think there’s a different sensibility that comes from British agenting. There’s a wealth of new young talent getting through the system, but one problem has grown. Johnson may have said ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money’, but there are more middle-class writers now than ever before, because working class ones find it harder to stay the course without secondary income (a complaint currently levelled at the acting profession).
It was always tough to make a living from writing. There’s only one JK Rowling.