I have spent at least half my life writing scripts, giving script notes, and meeting with writers of every shape, size, and affliction. Before I began Little Airplane Productions in 1999, I worked at Sesame Street where one of my responsibilities was to train writers in such far away places as South Africa, Jerusalem, Shanghai, and Cairo. I was usually accompanied by my boss and dear friend, Cathy Chilco, and, after a hard day’s work, we enjoyed looking for trouble in foreign lands. (I recall one night in Warsaw where, after a lovely dinner of vodka and lard, we lost a week’s salary trying to play blackjack in Polish.)
Needless to say, no matter where in the world we were, the writers we met always fell into a few rather predictable types (making allowances, of course, for minor cultural variations.) At the risk of pissing off yet another sector of my industry, I’ve spent this Sunday morning creating a glossary of sorts of the types of writers you can expect to meet if you are working in the kids TV business anywhere in the world. I should preface this list by saying that I am, and will always be, a little bit of each of these writers.
The Pear Shaped Writer. This writer has been sitting in the same spot for so long that his ass has become one with his chair. He has managed to consolidate all of his life onto his desktop so efficiently that he can get everything from food to companionship to entertainment with the simple click of his mouse. You can tell you have hired a Pear Shaped Writer because he will invariably decline any invitation to meet at the office, citing some simple but irrefutable reason such as Sciatica or a plumbing crisis.
The Neurotic. This writer is most comfortable around plants and medications. She is likely to have a humidifier blowing on her desk (which makes it looks like a dragon’s lair), and several bottles of hand sanitizer which she will apply every 200 words or so as if her keyboard had somehow visited a developing country between scenes. The Neurotic will often bring her own lunch to work in a little plastic container and eat it very quickly and covertly, as if she expects a hawk to swoop down and steal her gluten-free delicacy. The Neurotic only makes eye contact with cats.
The Writer’s Writer. This writer prides himself in knowing everything there is to know about script formatting, tabs and fonts. (Which, I should note, is not the same thing as knowing how to write.) The Writer’s Writer is a stickler for whatever is in his contract and he won’t even consider writing an extra draft without talking to his agent and manager and letting you know (repeatedly) that he’s talking to his agent and manager because he really just wants you to know that he has an agent and manager. (Which, I should note, is also not the same thing as knowing how to write.)
The Not Funny Writer. No matter how hard he (or she) tries, this writer simply cannot write a good joke to save his (or her) life. For you gentiles, one clue that you have hired a Not Funny Writer is that they will overuse the word “fun” in their scripts (i.e. “Let’s go to the park, it will be fun!”) Another clue is that he (or she) will often write the following stage directions (despite the absence of a joke): “ALL OF THE CHARACTERS BEGIN TO LAUGH.” This line can typically be found at the end of a script when The Not Funny Writer simply can’t think of any other way to end a show. (Btw, an alarming number of preschool shows end just this way.) For reasons I have never understood, the majority of the world’s Not Funny Writers seem to reside in countries located in the North. I am open to theories.
The Late Writer. This writer is so chronically late that the only thing that seems to get he (or she) to deliver a script is the threat of non-payment. Since they are very good with words, this writer tends to write very lengthy e-mails explaining the reasons for his (or her) lateness. (These e-mails invariably try and shift the blame back to the production.) The Late Writer will often provide the sort of detailed documentation to support their claims that one would expect in a court affidavit. (i.e. “On the 11th of March your script coordinator said he would get back to me ‘tomorrow,’ however no correspondence was received until 37 hours later which puts it on the 13th of March, a full two days later. I will forward you the e-mails. So, clearly, being ‘late,’ as you call it, is common on your show, so I just don’t see why I–and I alone–am being singled out.”)
The Early Writer. This writer hands in every script two days after getting the assignment. As evidenced by the hundreds of typos, it’s clear that The Early Writer has not even read his own script before sending it in. This sort of writer is so supremely self-confident that he is typically shocked that there are any notes at all since each word he pecks out on his keyboard is, in his own estimation, a veritable gold nugget that he’s pooped out onto the page that you should be very thankful to receive.
The Renegade. The Renegade likes to put things in a script that he knows can never be produced just so he can have a long argument with you and explain why kids’ shows have become too “safe” (often referencing the Dutch shows in which toddlers are allowed to cut sushi with a sword.) This writer is usually very talented, but the value of their talent is often outweighed by what a big pain in the ass they are. The best strategy for getting this writer to behave is to tell him, simply, that you will rewrite his script yourself if he has such strong feelings about the notes. The pride of this writer is such that he’ll cave on any issue rather than allow someone else to touch a word.
So, there you have it. If I’ve left any of you out, I do apologize. I’ll close with a story about a visit that Cathy and I had to the home of some Scandinavian producers of Sesame Street. We were greeted in their driveway by a large jovial bear named Upenmaller who was shoveling snow. Upenmaller did a little welcome dance for us and then gave us a “bear hug.” (Apparently Upenmaller was something of a local hero.) During dinner, Cathy and I could not help but notice that their senior writer, a somewhat famous elderly gentleman, looked increasingly depressed over the course of the meal (even more so than your typical Scandinavian writer.) Finally, Cathy, who has a very good heart, leaned over to the guy and said, “Sir, is everything alright?” The old writer looked up at her, emptied his glass of schnapps, and said, “I have spent my career writing plays about life and death. Now, I am writing for Cookie Monster and Herr Snuffleupagus. But worse than this, dear lady, in the driveway in a bear suit is my only son, Upenmaller.”
Josh with former Sesame Street Writer/Filmmaker Mo Willems and Head Writer Norman Stiles.