Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Can an older writer break in?

Here’s a Friday Question that’s worth a day’s worth of attention. It’s a question that a lot of you have. Mike Bloodworth sent it in.

As I near SIXTY I'm wondering if I should move on to something new, such as writing. However, I can't help but wonder if there's any point. Is the future of comedy writing reserved for your twenty-something grad students that you're always going on about? Or is there a chance that an older writer can be successful at this present time? I mean funny is funny, right? Good writing is good writing regardless of the author's age. Or am I just kidding myself. I'd love to hear what you think about this. And about aging in Hollywood in general.

Well first Mike, I think you need to define for yourself WHY you want to get into comedy writing. Is it because you feel you have a need to express yourself, it’s a real kick to hear something you’ve written get laughs, comedy writing is something you’ve always wanted to do, something that gives you inner satisfaction? Or is the end game to make money? (And if it is, by the way, that’s totally fair.) Answering the question helps decide what for you will constitute success.

When I started out I just wanted to be a comedy writer. The idea of getting up in the morning and my only responsibility was to be funny seemed like a dream. The notion of going to work at a movie studio or television lot was the be-all and end-all for me. But I was in my 20’s, single, and didn’t need much to live on (the one advantage of not having a girlfriend).

When you get to sixty, either you’ve made enough that comedy writing is a lark, or you hope that comedy writing will generate needed income. If it’s the former then go for it. What the hell? You have nothing to lose? If it’s the latter you need to face some harsh realities.

But before I spell out those realities I want to say very clearly that people do beat the odds. Older writers do break in. Not as many and it’s harder, but it does happen. If you want to be a quarterback in the NFL and you’re sixty – not a chance in hell. But you can break in as a writer.

Yes, there is ageism. Established comedy writers can’t find work. Networks do covet youth. It’s hard for me to really fault them on that since I was the happy recipient of work when I was in my 20’s.

If you don’t live in Southern California, that’s another drawback. It’s good to be here for networking purposes, support group purposes, and availability to agents, managers, the business in general. But moving to Los Angeles is always a big crap shoot. It’s a big crap shoot for young people so someone in their 60’s really has long odds. I’m assuming it’s harder for someone who has had roots for many decades and quite possibly family obligations to just pack up and take a shot in LA.

And the clock is ticking. Millennials have more time to kill. And can probably live cheaper. All of this needs to be factored in.

But here’s the good news (finally): No one can tell your age based on your name on a script. Unless your name is Woodrow Wilson Jr. a reader should have no idea that you’re not 24. You’re unfamiliar just like all the twentysomethings. An actor must produce a headshot (although those aren’t always the most recent shots. Some 60-year-old actors are still using their high school photos.).

And subject matter is important. There are more channels catering to older people so their sitcoms might welcome a writer with a little age on him. Or you might think of expanding into light hour dramas. They seem to have a more open attitude towards writers who no longer need to be carded.

Beyond that, the key is the script itself. If you have a writing sample that knocks in out of the park you’ll have showrunners coming after you. Sure, there is way more pressure on writing that breakout script, but it CAN be done. It seems like every year there’s another story about some nimrod in Minnesota who sends in a script and either Clint Eastwood directs it or a showrunner puts him immediately on staff.

Best of luck. My first suggestions would be to love what you’re doing first. Get pleasure out of the actual experience of writing comedy. And then if you sell it, congratulations, you grabbed the brass ring.

21 comments :

VP81955 said...

I'm 62, and thus have learned to realistically limit my expectations -- a bit. While I love writing comedy and enjoy watching good sitcoms, I honestly can't see myself in a writers' room, working with a group of twenty-somethings; I'd be out of my element, emotionally and commercially.

I prefer writing (or collaborating) on features, where you often have more control over the finished product. There still are many producers seeking low-budget comedic feature material; while you may not be able to land A-listers, occasionally one might show some interest. There are plenty of possibilities to pursue -- if you don't enter the industry with stars in your eyes.

"You're never too old to write," Carl Reiner once told me. Sound advice. Go for it.

bücürükveben said...

A good writing is good writing regardless of age. I agree, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky wrote their best novels in old ages. As for the cinema: Clint Eastwood made Gran Torino in 2008 when he was 78 years old. Sometimes we can miss opportunities in our youth, it's not a crime, everybody can make mistakes...I'm 60 and writing scripts, stories and I love it.

Dr Loser said...

Can I make a more general comment on behalf of the middle-aged? I think this applies to every opportunity I (you) get:

Do not put your age or your date of birth on your resume.

I know, I know, non-discriminatory policies and all that. But it's really hard to prove discrimination if they don't even call you back, and trust me, they won't.

Once you've exchanged emails and talked a couple of times over the phone, and you finally get a face-to-face, it's surprisingly difficult for the money guys to turn you down ...

... unless, of course, you are an Oscar-winning actres over the age of forty. Or an NFL quarterback.

Dr Loser said...

Or, to put Carl Reiner's quote in another way, "You're never too old to wrong."

E. Yarber said...

The prejudice against age is one of those bits of conventional wisdom that aren't as established as firmly as one might suppose.

Back when I was reading scripts, it seemed like every third entry came from some wannabe trying to play the youth card: the story of a plucky 23-year-old who came to Hollywood ready to make their Dreams Come True, and brushing past laughably weak odds to find a sympathetic power broker who hands them a career. You have no idea how many of these pipe dreams ended with our adorable lead receiving an Oscar for the filmed story of their struggle, coincidentally titled the same as the script they'd submitted.

The flip side was the dark side of fame. The grimly determined 23-year-old artist had to contend against an Evil Parent who tried to dash their sacred dreams by insisting that a writing career was unlikely and the budding genius should consider reasonable goals. The audience was meant to share unconditional hatred for this despicable mom or dad, and exult in the final scene as the humbled parent watched their universally adored offspring accept an Oscar, denouncing them from the stage as the audience of their famous friends cheered them on. The parent was unable to attend the ceremony of course, being in prison on child molestation charges. (Well, at least ONE ended that way, with Evil Dad immediately committing suicide having realized his worthlessness in the face of his genius son's epic success).

Me, I was always rooting for the evil parents. Their kids couldn't write about anything except the same shallow fantasies, and relentlessly playing the Youth Card doesn't work too well after a few extra years. These wannabes were not adding vibrant new ideas to the mix, just fragile ego and a view of life based entirely on media cliches. All they cared about was an infantile view of easy gratification and ego reward from show business, which is not really a place where one gets much of either. LA is full of such never-will-bes spending their days congratulating each other for all the big accomplishments they're never going to have.

I came to LA a little older, having worked in print as a writer and lost any delusions of how fun the business was supposed to be. I'd also worked a few jobs and seen how a variety of people lived. The thing to remember is that writing is not about YOU, but the AUDIENCE. They want to hear about issues that matter to THEM. The last thing they care about is some spoiled brat assuming they hate working jobs and raising families because all that matters is pushing a bad script in LA.

If you have something to say to people outside the entertainment bubble and can make some guy feel better after a hard day on the job, you may be able to write something that will break through the mass of self-serving junk that clog up the submissions. Of course talent and technique are also important, but at least you're already ahead of the crowd here.

Pat Reeder said...

Applause to E. Yarber for what he wrote above, and thanks, Ken, for writing this. I'm not geriatric, but I'm old enough not to be considered a likely candidate for writing sitcoms. But that's okay: when I was 20, I spent a year in L.A. one week and decided I couldn't stand it. So like E. Yarber, I found other ways to express myself humorously: on the radio; writing and voicing comedy commercials and industrial video; writing speeches, books and print pieces, etc. That also helped me learn about all sorts of things (politics, business, marketing, etc.) that someone brought up on a diet of nothing but media would never know. Eventually, I launched my own syndicated radio humor service. I now write from home in Dallas, for radio, TV and the Internet. I'm doing exactly what I want and actually make more money now than I ever did when I was younger. So you don't have to move to L.A. and write sitcoms to make a living as a comedy writer.

One other thing that's great about writing long-distance for radio or the Internet: nobody can tell how old I am or judge me for it, nor tell my race, and with the name "Pat," they can't even tell if I'm a man or woman. The downside is that if someone doesn't like what I write, I can't blame it on discrimination. I have to come up with top quality material and prove myself every day or lose my clients, because they don't give a damn how funny I was last week if I didn't send them something good today.

I always say that there's no point in retiring because if I did, I'd just sit in a recliner, watching the news and making sarcastic comments, and I do that now and get paid for it. I will retire only if and when the people paying me to make those comments decide they're not funny anymore.

BTW, if I could make a suggestion for your questioner: check out Comedywire.com, a site launched by a friend of mine. He's building a network of comedy writers who work from home and write one-liners for ad agencies, DJs, politicians, etc. There are some people there with excellent credentials, as well as newcomers who are just breaking into the business. It might be a good way to judge if you're cut out for a "be funny on demand" career.

richfigel said...

What Ken wrote was true -- up to a point. I'm an over-60 writer, who did not write my first script until I was in my 30s. Back then, the advice was to write feature specs as writing samples. But I optioned a couple of features and although I live in Hawaii, I got repped by a manager (the late Cathryn Jaymes, who launched Tarantino's career). However, I didn't make any visits to LA to take face-to-face meetings, and I think that was a big mistake.

Flash forward and now the advice to break in is to write a TV or web series/pilot -- not features. So I wrote a drama/comedy TV pilot that got me a new manager: A young guy, who did NOT know my age or seem to care when he read it, loved it and started sending it to his contacts at major studios. They liked it a lot too, and it got me a meeting with two execs at Paramount TV.

I'm in good shape for my age, in part, because I know the odds are stacked against older writers. But I can't hide my balding head and gray hair. When I met the execs (early 30s, button down types) I immediately sensed they seemed... surprised. Also, it was two days after Election Night, and there was a bad vibe everywhere in LA. So I tried to lighten the mood by tying Trump's election to a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series I wanted to pitch. The VP of Development put up her hand and said, "Too soon." Everything went downhill from there.

A day later my manager sends an email stating the other exec told him "the meeting did not go well" because I talked too much and kept changing subjects. Which was true -- I couldn't get a read on them, and they didn't seem to be responding to any of my pitches. So maybe I just blew the meeting. But the ex-manager said he was dropping me because we "weren't a good fit." When I had lunch with him prior to the Paramount meeting, I think he was surprised too that I looked older than I sound on the phone or in my emails.

However, I don't feel people in the movie business are as hung up on age. On that same trip to LA, I got to pitch a big action comedy spec (called STUNT GUYS) on stage at the American Film Market, and was immediately approached by a lot of people -- including young filmmakers who asked me if I wanted to go karaoke with them! Maybe it helped that STUNT GUYS is about aging stuntmen who are out of work because CGI has replaced them, and they have to perform in a cheesy live action show to pay the bills. So now I have a producer shopping that, and nobody seems to care about my age on that project. In fact, older folks were saying to me how they missed seeing real stunts in the kind of action movies we over-60 audiences grew up on!

Aloha,
Rich

Pizzagod said...

I loved this.

Reading about Washington obsessively, your blog is kind of a reality check; there is more to life.

You were very kind in your explanation.

Aaron said...

I'm in my 30s and moved to LA last year to try to break into animation. I, too, wondered about the ageism thing - I'll be 40 before too terribly long - but the artists I spoke to, most of whom are in their 50s, said "nobody gives a shit, if you're good. And if you are good and lose out jobs to 20 year olds, it's either because they got in thru an internship or the studio knows they can get away with paying 'em minimum wage and working 'em like dogs. Older people don't usually tolerate that shit."

The struggle is still real but that kind of put me at ease. (At least regarding age. I might suck, but at least being in my 30s won't hold me back.)

Les Nessman said...

Last week, I read an obituary for a writer named Hugh Wilson, who had a successful career including creating "WKRP in Cincinnati" and directed and was a screen writer for "Police Academy"

Here is the last two paragraphs of the obit:

A few years ago, he said, he tried to get back into television, floating a show idea in Hollywood, but got nowhere. He said he fully understood why no one was interested in an aging TV writer, even one with his résumé.

“I know the feeling,” he said. “When I was working on ‘KRP’ or ‘Bob Newhart,’ if some ‘I Love Lucy’ writers came in and wanted a job, we’d go, ‘Please; you’re so done.’ So what goes around comes around.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/obituaries/hugh-wilson-who-created-wkrp-in-cincinnati-dies-at-74.html

VP81955 said...

To "Les": I would hope if Ken wanted to write for a Chuck Lorre series, Chuck wouldn't deem him too old.

Peter said...

Ken is too good for the dumbed down comedy of Chuck Lorre.

MikeN said...

>since I was the happy recipient of work when I was in my 20’s.

Kudos for acknowledging this. I get irritated seeing all these actresses complaining about an age line in Hollywood. How many jobs did they 'steal' from older actresses 20 years ago?

Yes, they do have a point. Ken's point about 3 Billboards being a bunch of Trump voters applies more generally. It can be tough to take movies and shows seriously seeing the cast of pretties(eg Quantico). Tyne Daly starred opposite Clint Eastwood. Would that happen now?

Rod said...

Hey Ken-- What's Edgar Martinez got to do to get into the Hall of Fame? Do you think he should be in? He was a DH you know.....

Donald Benson said...

Do agents and managers prefer new clients with a potentially long career in front of them? Will they invest as much work in an unknown who may have only a few big money years, compared to a youngster who might mean a decade or more of fat commissions?

As for showrunners and the like, will they similarly gamble on an older "promising" writer as readily as a younger one, or will they fret that the older writer is as good as he's going to get?

ODJennings said...

A possible Friday question:

I'm just wondering if you've had time to watch LA to Vegas, the new Fox show and if so, what you think of it, especially as it compares to Wings.

My impression is that the interior of airplanes aren't naturally funny places, especially when all the passengers are sitting in their seats. It made me realize how little time Wings actually spent inside the airplanes, and how much better the show was because of it.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Thanks for sharing this Ken. I'm 51 and, over Christmas, finally finished my first screenplay. (Or at least, the first screenplay I wouldn't be embarrassed to show other people.) While I think it's good, I also realize that (a) there's a lot of work I'm sure it still needs, (b) there's a lot I have yet to learn about the industry, and (c) the worries about ageism do come to mind from time to time.

But I love how Syd Field expressed it in his great book, "Screenplay", which is: *writing and completion of your work* is achievement enough, regardless of whether Hollywood flash-in-the-pans think it's produce-able it or not.

I admit I'd love to send it to you, but I'm imagine you're already up to your eyeballs in unsolicited drafts from fans begging for your seasoned expert feedback. Anyway, thanks again.

Ken Levine said...

Steve,

Congratulations on finishing your script. My one rule however is that I don't read unsolicited scripts -- both for legal reasons and if I agree to read one I'd have to agree to read for everyone and I would be inundated with scripts. I hope you understand. Again, best of luck with the script.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Thanks for the well wishes Ken! They mean a lot. :-)

Pseudonym said...

I can also imagine that there are physical aspects to writing which might be kinder on the young. I'm in by 40s and I know I can't pull all nighters like I could in my 20s. Not without it affecting my health.

Steve Mc said...

I recently submitted an original pilot through an online, open submission call from a broadcast platform. They did not (illegally) ask for your age but DID require you to submit links to your social media profile(s). Was this to see how clever & creative I am in the online world or to see who I am in the offline world?