CHRIS ABBOTT, PART FOURComplications Ensue
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Friday, May 06, 2005

Here's the fourth part of my interview with showrunner and creator Chris Abbott, author of the new book Ten Minutes to the Pitch.

AE: TV writers often get fired. You haven't, but you've seen it happen. What do you think are some good ways to survive it?

CA: I think you have to have a life outside the business. It's so important to have something else that's meaningful to you. You won't write as well if you don't have something. And eventually your career will end and you will still be a young person . I worked 25 years straight, then I hit the magic 50 and it started waning fast ... which is ridiculous ... but that's the way it works. One day you'll be without work. Imperatively you have another side of your life that feeds you and nourishes you.

Keep contacts, make contacts, keep friendly relationships with lots of people. Throw your friends free lance scripts. Throw people you don't know scripts - they really feel obligated to you, the others don't! (Laughs.)

I've often reinvented who I was. Though I never got fired, what I was writing got out of style. I was known for writing family shows, then chick shows, then action adventure shows, then back to family.

If you've been fired, write a script that's completely different from anything you've written. That will get you in doors you haven't gotten into before. Rethink who you are and what you write. Every time I've been out of work I've written a new spec pilot. I've never sold any of those scripts but they've always reinvigorated my career. It gives you something new for your agent — people say, "Oh, I know her work," and your agent can say, "You don't know her work, this is completely different stuff than what you've read" and then they're willing to read you again. Nobody's willing to look at old scripts again.

AE: Because if you stay employed too long, your specs get out of date.

CA: And nobody wants to see what you've been writing for hire.

AE: These were all spec pilots?

CA: I never wrote specs of existing shows. I always write a spec pilot or a spec screenplay. And when I'm hiring writers, that's what I want to read. Can you write characters, can you write plot, can you write twists and turns, interesting dialog ... all of that will be in a spec script more than in a spec existing show. Agents would call me, "Do you wanna see their CSI"? And I'd say "no!"

AE: You realize you're in the minority there.

CA: Oh, I know! (Laughs.) But it's always worked for me.

AE: How important is genre to a television show? Is it risky to have a TV show that crosses genre boundaries? What are the genre boundaries?

CA: What do you mean?

AE: Like Lost. It's a drama but there's also something science fictiony going on on that island. Or Desperate Housewives. Is it a drama, is it a comedy, is it a satire, is it a farce? Half of the show is a painstakingly observed drama about housewives in the suburbs living lives of quiet desperation, and the other is a mystery, I mean the body in the pool — Lisa my wife said that it's like living in the suburbs if all the rumors are true — maybe that plumber isn't really a plumber maybe he's a spy! So it's all these hybrid shows.

CA: There used to be specific genres and you stayed within it. The network always asked "what's the franchise?"

Within the last ten years there's been a concerted effort to try to mix genres so someone will pay attention to you — buy the show or tune in to watch. The networks used to stay faithful to shows that were just well written, well acted, etc., and let them find an audience. They used to hold onto shows because that had faith ... they grew and did fabulously well.

AE: Now you need more of a hook.

CA: And that's where this kind of a hybrid system comes in. What's the zaniest way to do this. This is a nighttime soap but really it's a mystery. TYou have less money to spend and less time to find an audience. Bochco and Kelley very often go for shock value — that's valid — nothing wrong with that. I remember this fabulous show back in the "olden days" — Family — it was brilliant but subtle. Not crazy and zany.

Shows are on longer now, too.

AE. If you're writing a spec pilot, how much do you concentrate on writing a kickass pilot episode, and how much on what will eventually become a show bible? I hear that Glenn Caron doesn't even write a bible -- but doesn't the network need something awfully like one?

CA: Well remember you used to write a two hour pilot, it'd be a movie, and then sometimes you'd get into trouble later, because you couldn't make a series out of the pilot.

In the last ten years they do one hour pilots. I like to worry about the world of the series and who's going to drive the series from week to week. And then write a typical episode. It doesn't have to be the first story chronologically. The pilot doesn't have to set up the universe, it just has to be the universe.

AE: So the pilot doesn't have to be the first episode?

CA: It's going to be the first episode they shoot because it's going to be the pilot, but it doesn't have to be the first episode they run.

Of course, they might just shoot the pilot and throw it away.

AE: They're still doing that, shooting pilots and throwing them away?

CA: Used to be they'd get 100 pitches, and they'd commission 25 scripts, commission 15 pilots, and buy three shows. Those numbers are now reduced. They make 5 pilots, maybe buy three.

AE: Seems to me they ought to be able to judge from the script instead of having to make the pilot.

CA: You'd think. But there are so many ways to screw up a good script in production.

AE: But that doesn't show that the script isn't a good idea, that shows that they cast it wrong or had the wrong director. Doesn't mean the show's no good.

CA: But that's the way it is. They can insist you cast it a certain way and then when the casting doesn't work, it's your fault. When I shot the pilot for Legacy for UPN, I was coming in for a meeting on Wednesday so I sent them a tape on Monday so they could watch it on Tuesday. And they call up, and say, we'd like you to rethink the music. I'm like, what do you mean "rethink" the music? You have to rewrite the music, re-record it ... some of them have no concept of what it takes to put something together.

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I remember when Ally McBeal came out, that's when -- I think -- the word "dramedy" was born. A lot of attention was given to the fact that it was a genre hybrid, and I guess it worked -- it certainly had a massive amount of publicity.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:07 PM  

I always thought of the term as "dromedary," thinking of the remark that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. But that's how my brain works.

Actually I believe the term was invented for The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd starring Blair Brown. Kinda dates me, doesn't it?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 4:15 PM  

Nah, that doesn't date you too badly. I'm 31 and I clearly remember the Molly Dodd show. I just forgot that it was being spun that way.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:54 PM  

Actually, I think thirtysomething was in on that action, too. That show came out the same year as Molly Dodd. See, if it's one show, it's just a show, but if it's two, it's a bonafide trend and has to go to the genre-naming commission in Geneva.

I'm still bitter that they went with "dramedy" over my preferred construction: "crama."

By Blogger DMc, at 10:58 AM  

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