Agents: Foes Or Enemies?
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 who’s 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 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’ appeared in a single 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 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 group viewing has vanished, advertisers no longer call the shots, multiple formats provide 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? 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, as Long’s naïve positivity is met head-on by his agent’s crushingly cynical reminders that he’s just a writer:
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.
When Long’s agent calls to congratulate him on a new show and Long suspiciously asks why, the agent explains that there was a note on his call-sheet to ‘Call R Re: Congratulations’ and couldn’t he at least meet him halfway instead of getting defensive?
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 Hollywood movie star more famous for being handsome than having acting ability was forced to wait while the star and his agent fought on set over a series of hilariously absurd trivialities. When big money meets big egos, it’s the writers who take the beating.
Conversations With My Agent, by Rob Long is from Bloomsbury £14.99