The Job Where Sharing Your Most Excruciating Moments Is All in a Day’s Work

140 total views
Lauren Bans on the strangely intimate work that goes into writing for TV shows.

Inside the Writers Room The Job Where Sharing Your Most Excruciating Moments Is All in a Day's Work

Illustration by Michael Houtz

It was maybe four weeks into my most recent job when I started telling my newish coworkers, many of whose lower halves I had yet to meet (hat tip, pandemic), about how I masturbate to pictures of my ex-boyfriend on Instagram. Specifically how I pinch-zoom on the ‘grams to “cut out” distracting details—his wife, new baby, and rescue dog—and how this base act actually requires real dexterity. Balancing the phone on the back fingers, using the thumb and pointer to expand the photo? That’s some Simone Biles-level hand gymnastics. (Obviously the other hand is occupied.) Not so much an appropriate story to share at 99 percent of workplaces out there. And yet, at mine, it ended up coming in handy, pun very much intended. It went in the script.

I write for TV, which by all accounts, including my own, is a very neat job, not to mention one subject to a lot of cult-ish fascination. (There are no fewer than eleven podcasts dedicated to unearthing the many mysteries of “the writer’s room.”) A fellow TV writer friend came home complaining about the travails of “the room” so often that her 7-year-old son asked his Catholic school if they could dedicate their morning prayer circle to his mom, who’s been “trapped in the room.” The teacher called home to make sure there wasn’t a Brie Larson thing going on.

On the surface, writing for a comedy television show seems pretty straightforward. Most people I’ve met seem to think it means getting paid a lot of money to sit around a table and tell jokes all day, which is…not entirely untrue. Most people also think they could probably do it if someone would just let them. (By “most people” I mean “men I’ve gone on Bumble dates with.”) But what’s maybe not entirely apparent is that working on a TV show requires literally giving your life—or at least intimate, sometimes excruciating, details of it that you may not even share with your spouse, friends, or therapist. Apologies to Mr. Rogers, but imagination isn’t everything. Stories are rooted in lived experiences. Real emotions. Part of the job is showing up every morning and telling a room of people you’ll probably only know for six months, tops (most shows don’t live to see a second season) the most humiliating, horrible, and perversely hilarious stuff that’s ever happened to you.

This is basically how it’s always worked. At least for the seven or so years I’ve been doing it. It’s possible that the people behind Leave It To Beaver did it another way, but dare I say that the quality of TV has improved since the ye olde plotlines of Beaver bets his baseball glove that he can walk 20 miles. And I bet that was based on a personal story too.

A small fraction of the stories I’ve heard and/or told on the job, and excuse me if I don’t tell you which is which: serving a spouse divorce papers at couples counseling; cheating on a spouse with a couples counselor; confessing to putting a tracker on a spouse’s car; pooping in a tote bag in the parking lot of The Grove; pooping in a CVS bag in an alley behind CVS; pooping at Runyon Canyon behind some minimal shrubbery; taking shrooms and thinking you invented the expression “Boom!”; taking shrooms and calling your parents and telling them you’re gay; taking shrooms and breaking up with your boyfriend in French; fighting with your wife about spending too much on children’s bedsheets ($600); fighting with your husband about erectile dysfunction; making out with a man at a bar who claims to be Waylon Jennings then discovering the next day that Waylon Jennings has been dead 20 years; getting roofied and almost assaulted; getting mugged by a 12-year-old; getting mugged by a preteen but then peeing yourself out of fear; getting arrested in Vietnam; getting arrested in Africa; almost getting arrested in Mexico City but bribing the police and running away; getting an erection during a massage; getting a happy ending during a massage; getting an erection during a massage and having the masseuse take out a tiny chilled spoon from a refrigerator and gently lay it over said erection and say “this should help”; reaching down to reposition one’s junk during a massage and having the therapist jump back and shout “hands up!”; getting banned from a massage parlor; discovering one has two vaginas; getting drunk and trying to walk through a McDonald’s drive-thru; getting drunk and vomiting in someone’s vagina; getting drunk and vomiting on someone’s penis; getting drunk and using someone’s towel to wipe oneself then throwing it out the window to “hide” the evidence; getting drunk and telling your father if he ever contacts you again you’ll call the police; getting drunk and going up to Bradley Cooper at a restaurant and saying “Did we go to college together?”

To be clear, it’s not like the TV shows you watch are just some dude’s weekend translated to the screen. It’s more like when a room is “breaking a story”—and that means plotting it out, not throwing it on the ground and smashing it to pieces, though sometimes they’re one and the same—the room’s collective experience guides the path. The main character is about to be broken up with in an epic fashion? Here’s where the writers in the room pipe in with the horrendous ways they’ve been broken up with somebody or have been broken up with. One of the stories will invariably be about a friend of a friend of a friend. It’s all in service of landing on something funny or dramatic, but most importantly believably funny or dramatic. Which is why if someone is making a show about heartbreak they hire a lot of heartbroken people. A law show? A couple of lawyers. A doctor show? At least a medical consultant. If producers could hire sociopathic serial killers for a serial killer show, believe me they would.

Obviously all art borrows from reality to some extent. Novelists routinely base novels on their own lives or the lives of friends or the lives of people they can barely tolerate on Facebook (and then get in trouble for it.) But the demand for fodder just isn’t the same. Novels aren’t on every week for 22 weeks for 10 years—at this rate, you run out of humanity very quickly. Multiply that by the gazillions of shows on the billions of platforms and you get…I’m not sure, I’m a writer, not a math major…but a major premium on lived experience. As a TV writer, you’re paid not just for your creativity and intelligence, but for the currency of what’s happened to you. For your stories. Entering a new room is like punching in at the life experience factory. (Which actually sounds like a pretty good premise for a dystopian drama. In a world where the only currency is your life….Be right back, pitching this.) A room can alternately feel like a very fun hang with friends and a trauma support group—either way, a very strange vibe at a workplace.

I didn’t even realize how bizarre this was until the pandemic hit and writers rooms moved online. I had spent years happily bouncing from room to room, eating the novelty Trader Joe’s snacks you would never buy for your own home but that are always stocked in a show kitchen, and happily sharing all of my humiliations (there are a lot). My first job was on a 24-episode-a-year sitcom. We spent all day together, and many, many nights, for months on end. And the jobs since have largely followed that template. It produces weird effects: When you’re spending 90 percent of your waking life with your coworkers, the intimate moments somehow feel earned—the in-between moments sand down the more intense confessionals. Yes, I knew what kind of porn they masturbated to and the details of their split with their spouse. But I also knew the normal boring things, like no mayo on their sandwich, what their kid’s bat mitzvah party theme was.

But doing it over zoom, before a bunch of floating pixelated heads in computer space, has driven home just how truly strange the job is. It’s very much Hi, hello! Nice to meet your torso online! Here’s my deepest trauma! See you never!

On a recent show I worked on there was a day early on, maybe only a couple weeks in, where story conversation turned to the death of a parent. Most people in the (virtual) room had experienced this. One writer very recently. Another with a parent from whom they’d been estranged for the last five years. One writer began crying while describing what it’s like to mourn the death of a father they never really knew, then everyone in the room began to cry too. Seven little boxes on a screen, all wiping tears off our cheeks at 11 a.m. on a Thursday at work. We cried together for a bit, decided on a path for the episode, and wrote the outline into a Google doc. A couple months later, the show wrapped. I haven’t seen any of them since.

Share this Post

About Us

Celebrating our best lives at fifty and beyond! 50ismorefun brings you motivational news and stories centered around life, fitness, fashion, money, travel and health for active folks enjoying the second half of lives.