Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Clique-Com

One of the best commentaries on the NewsRadio DVD set is the remarkably candid commentary on the season 2 premiere, "No, This is Not Based Entirely On Julie's Life," with creator Paul Simms, writer Brad Isaacs, assistant producer Julie Bean (the Julie of the episode title) and actress Vicki Lewis. Basically they spend large portions of the episode talking about behind-the-scenes affairs on the show: apparently Lewis was having an affair with Isaacs, breaking the heart of Bean, who had a crush on Isaacs too, while Isaacs suspected that Lewis and Simms might be two-timing him. Where were the mainstream gossip columnists (or "MSGC") when all this was going on?

Anyway, it's mentioned in the commentary that NewsRadio started out with a very small writing staff; it was just Simms, his Larry Sanders colleague Isaacs (who left in the second season), and his Harvard buddies Josh Lieb and Joe Furey. Starting in season two, when they had to do 22 episodes, they hired a staff of writers, and many of them, as they admit on the commentary, didn't work out. What I find interesting is that most of the writers who didn't work out were women; Leslie Caveny held on the longest, but by the third season, NewsRadio had an all-male staff and continued that way to the end. It was very much a cliquish writing staff, like the early writing staff of The Simpsons; everybody in the room shared a similar sensibility, much of the staff was Harvard-educated, and many of the jokes had that geekish/cliquish "Harvard Lampoon" vibe. NewsRadio perhaps could have used someone to do what James L. Brooks did for The Simpsons and keep reminding the writers to give the episodes some heart, or at least some kind of point; NewsRadio was one of the best sitcoms of the '90s, but it did have a tendency to get repetitive because so many of the episodes were built exactly the same way: a series of little interlocking wacky stories, none of which built to any particular resolution; when it wasn't at its best it could feel like a bunch of Conan O'Brien routines strung together and set in an office.

The other thing about the show is that because the writing staff was kind of cliquish (and young), its writers' main frame of reference for the show was their own lives as TV writers; that's why many of the episodes have little to do with radio or regular office work and a lot to do with the stuff that went on in the NewsRadio writers' room. The episode "Bitch Session," from the second season, is based on a real-life moment when Paul Simms overheard Brad Isaacs bitching about him to the other writers (Simms, Isaacs and the rest hash this out on the commentary); I suspect that a fourth-season episode called "Jackass Junior High," where Lisa (Maura Tierney) gets to see what the guys act like when there are no women around, may have been inspired by the boys'-club atmosphere of this and a lot of other sitcom writers' rooms; and in general, as the show goes on, the character of Dave seems more and more like a sitcom showrunner: a young, talented guy told to be the boss when he's not really sure how to exert authority over a bunch of crazy people.

But back to the thing about cliquish writing staffs: ten years since NewsRadio started, the Harvard Lampoon seems to have relaxed its reign of terror over TV writing staffs, but in other ways, writing staffs have gotten even more cliquish, in the sense that almost every major TV show nowadays seems to be entirely staff-written. This was not unheard of even in previous decades; WKRP In Cincinnati went through its entire final season without a single script by a non-staffer, and some shows just had two or three people writing every episode, like Green Acres. But freelance contributions used to be much more common in TV than they are now; it used to be that some shows would have maybe a couple of staff writers in addition to the showrunner, and they would get the rest of their scripts from freelancers. (Joss Whedon's grandfather John Whedon was a typical example, providing solid though unexceptional scripts on a freelance basis to several shows.) With various changes that have taken place, including the increasing perception that the showrunner should put his or her stamp on every episode and the increasing emphasis on rewriting as opposed to writing (which makes it more important that there should be a big staff to rewrite the script, and makes the contribution of the initial script less important), the professional freelancer is pretty much a thing of the past now.

There are good things and bad things about that; all in all, as a viewer, I suspect that the good things outweigh the bad, because most shows have always gotten their best work out of staff writers -- pick any show from the '50s or '60s and you'll often find that the weakest episodes are the ones by the freelancers. On the other hand, the total dependence on staff writers may contribute to a sense of sameness that pervades some shows today, sitcoms especially. NewsRadio wasn't a show that had that problem, but we can all think of some shows that would benefit from an outsider's sensibility being brought in to shake things up; the troublemaker in Jackass Junior High.

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