Notes from the Fun Factory
I got a gig as a writer on a kids’ TV show. A playwright friend of mine hooked me up. I had never done much of that kind of work, but I figured it would be a good way to make some quick money, without taking too much time away from my novel. The timing was crucial because the week before I had actually started returning my beer bottles for the deposits. I wasn’t sure if the people at the show were going to call at all—I didn’t think the interview went especially well. It was just me and the producer, and the whole time I was talking about my experience he kept leaning back in his Aeron, strumming his guitar and gazing out the window, only occasionally breaking the reverie to scroll through something that had popped up on his laptop.
But just when I had wound down to a nearly catatonic stupor, having run entirely out of things to say about myself, he lurched forward and said, "So why do you want to write for children’s television?" I leaned away from him and frenetically scanned my brain for an answer, then mumbled something about how, "I like children…and I like television." That was followed by about 30 seconds of dead air while he eyed me like some sort of medical curiosity. Then he stood up and said, "Okay, thanks," and whisked me out of the office.
I was surprised when they called and offered me the contract.
1. This is the sweetest setup I’ve ever had. It’s like a playhouse for adults. Everyone is really friendly, the women in the front office are beautiful, and there’s a giant ceramic bowl in the kitchen that’s always filled with peanut M & M’s.
The whole staff seems very enthusiastic about the show. The target audience is 4-6 year-olds, and apparently they’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from parents and the educational research types who follow these things. It’s all puppets—a bear, a pig, a rabbit and so on—shot against a fairly cheesy-looking, computer-animated forest, but the kids seem to go for it. So far I’m still just going through last season’s scripts and sitting in on story meetings. I was a little nervous about the whole thing at first; they take this stuff very seriously. But it is 4-6 year-olds, I’m thinking, so how hard can it be?
2. My first table read. The puppeteers sit around the lunch tables on the set and give your script a cold read while the producer sits back and makes notes. He seemed pretty happy with the script—he called it "a good first effort"—but one of the puppeteers, the guy who works the pig puppet, came up to me afterwards with a line of dialogue circled in red. He said, "Gimlet"—not the puppet’s real name—"wouldn’t say that." "Well," I told him, "I was thinking we could add another dimension to Gimlet’s character—maybe give him a bit of an agenda," I said with a wink. He just looked at me very soberly and said, "Gimlet doesn’t have an agenda."
3. I was hoping to inject a little politics into the show. I pitched an episode where the pig and the donkey are running in competition for some vaguely defined treasury position in the computer-animated forest. It all would have devolved into a mad scramble for power, with the usual upshot about cooperation versus competition and so on, and maybe a subliminal lesson for the kids about how not to let hot-button social issues distract you from your true class interests.
The producer got hung up on a couple of technical points, though. First, he thought that the word "pork" brought up the kind of associations for the pig character that, as he put it, "were better left unexplored." Which I suppose I could see. What really seemed to bother him, though, was a small plot point that turned on the rabbit getting a pair of running shoes. He made a big production of telling me, in front of everyone—and with a fairly condescending smirk—that, "rabbits don’t wear shoes."
That got a big chuckle from the other writers and the new kid they hired as script assistant.
"Well," I said, "he is wearing a vest."
"The vest is part of his character," came the reply, as the script assistant dutifully recorded it on his legal pad. "That’s the difference."
4. The pressure to crank out scripts is starting to build. We’re two weeks behind the shooting schedule and everybody looks stressed. My back has been going into spasms whenever I lean over my desk to bang out some particularly intense puppet dialogue. Plus, I’ve been so wired at night, knowing how much work I have to do, that I started taking Ambien to get to sleep. Sylvia, one of the other writers, suggested it. She explained that she and her husband both take it to wind down from their jobs, and that it keeps them from being at each other’s throats. The only drawback, she said, is that after using it for a while you start to feel a little surly by the next afternoon—"Like you could eat glass."
5. Last night a woman at a party asked me what I do. "Writing," I told her. "What kind of writing?" "Well," I said, "I’m working on a novel." Nothing. Her eyes glazed over as if I’d just said I scrape gum off the seats at a movie theater. "Right now," I added, "I’m also writing for a children’s television show." Her face suddenly came alive. "Really," she said. "That must be fun." "Yes," I said, warming to her enthusiasm and throwing in a bit of a knowing nod, "It’s fun, but it’s a lot of work…"
6. I am a puppet god. What I do is, I put words into the mouths of the puppets. I take these inanimate objects—toys, really—and create characters out of them. I give nuance to the crude sketches of their personalities. I give them a way of orienting themselves to the world. I give them life.
My third script went over really well at the table read. The producer made a point of saying how much he liked it and how it showed that, "even a simple idea can work, if it’s executed well."
After the read, the cute girl who works the donkey puppet gave me a big smile.
7. I’ve been editing scripts on the floor all week, flat on my back. It’s the only way I can keep the spasms from starting up. I think it’s the Ambien. It’s definitely got my nerves on edge. And the coffee—that doesn’t help. Neither do the sodas.
At today’s table read the producer almost stepped on my head. I was lying on the floor behind one of the puppet-maker’s workbenches when he came bounding in to deliver the script. It was a freelance submission by his wife, a marketing executive at some home design conglomerate who, we were told, "has a terrific story sense." Her script had the donkey and the bear deciding at the top of the first act to make a quilt together. It all goes swimmingly, in a sort of dramatic flat-line from beginning to end: they have tremendous fun, the quilt ends up looking terrific, none of the characters get up and move anywhere during the entire script—eliminating any messy issues about things like set design—and along the way we learn an alarming amount of quilt-making technical jargon. When the read was over, everyone sat in stony silence.
Later in the afternoon, at the mark-up session, Sylvia told us that she and her husband are having a trial separation.
8. It’s a slave ship. That’s what it’s like—being on a slave ship. The writers’ room is like the hold of the ship, each of us chained to our desks, manning the oars, while the head writer walks up and down the row of desks ready to crack the whip.
I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’ve never actually worked very hard at anything for any serious length of time but I’ve had enough awful jobs in short stretches to know plenty about genuinely back-breaking labor and mind-sucking monotony. This is worse. It’s a miserable combination of the isolation and inescapable self-reliance of writing with the imprisonment, interpersonal horrors, and spirit-robbing florescent staleness of an office job. Not to mention the fact that somebody else is making all the real money.
I don’t even know if I’ll make it the last two weeks. I’m determined not to quit, though. I’ve decided that if it comes to it, I’m going to make them fire me. I’ll just sit at my desk and do nothing, stare at the wall and shovel down M & M’s until they come in and carry me out. If nothing else, I figure, I’ll squeeze a couple more weeks of pay out of them. One thing’s for sure, I’ll never take a job like this again. I’d rather scrape gum off the seats at movie theaters.
9. I could see doing this again. I mean, it was hard work, but that’s what makes you good. If you’re a craftsman, you use your craft. You don’t sit around saying, "I’m too good for this, I’m too good for that," you hone your skills. You take the skills you have and you hone them. That’s what you do.
Today was the wrap party for the season. I wasn’t going to go—I was pretty wiped from pushing through for 11 hours on a final rewrite and I was trying to sneak out the side door, when I ran into a pack of puppeteers and got herded along.
It turned out to be more fun than I expected. The women in the front office decided to make it a special celebration of the writers. They had us wear crowns made out of newspaper and No. 2 pencils and stand for group photos in the middle of the restaurant, which was a little humiliating. But even with that, I have to say I enjoyed the attention. I flirted with a couple of the front office women, and the cute girl who works the donkey puppet came up and told me how much she liked the way I fleshed out his character.
"You made him more than a dysfunctional donkey," she said. "You made him…human."
After a couple of hours of the open bar, even the puppeteer for Gimlet pulled me aside. "We’ve had our differences, man," he told me. "But I respect you. You know why? Because you respect the puppet."
At the end of the night the producer gave me a kind of hug and told me about another project he’s got in the works that he thinks I’d be perfect for. It’s about an extended family of vowels that plays a lot of winter sports and, from what I can tell, lives in a sort of dyslexic Alpine village.
He asked me if I thought that sounded interesting.
"It does," I told him. "It definitely does. I definitely think it does."
DOUG CORDELL is a writer now based in the Bay Area.