A series of interviews with hard-working writers —
by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick
Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.
From writing a play for his church, to the Central Vault at Universal Studios and on to one of those mythical Hollywood mailroom jobs, writer Dean Batali worked his way up in the industry before landing in the writers’ room on TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, That ‘70s Show and Ties That Bind.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?
It wasn’t until college that I really decided I wanted to be a writer. Actually, my church was doing a play and it really sucked and I wanted to write a better one than they were doing, so I wrote one for college. I wrote a musical based on Noah and it was really just Fiddler on the Roof meets Godspell. It’s just kind of silly and fun. So if my church had been doing a better play, I wouldn’t have become a writer.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST ENTERTAINMENT JOB?
Well, I should say first, I didn’t just move to LA. I actually was fired from a theater company. I was working for a theater company in Seattle full-time with my wife and they fired me because I was a bit young and abrasive. In the back of my mind had been Hollywood, like maybe someday after I’d written some other plays I might go to Hollywood, but that sort of forced the issue, so 3 weeks later we came to Los Angeles.
My first job in Hollywood was actually in the mailroom at CBS Radford Studios, which was then CBS-MTM. To be fair, my actual first job was in the Central Vault at Universal Studios where I worked for like 6 weeks counting money.
I actually had one of those mythical mailroom jobs in Hollywood and the beauty of it is that CBS-MTM at the time was almost exclusively television and primarily sitcoms, which is what I wanted to do. So at that time they were shooting shows like Roseanne and A Different World and I actually put the name on the door that said Seinfeld when they were moving into the office, so it was a perfect place for me to be.
WHERE DOES THE MAILROOM THEN TAKE YOU?
I met a lot of production coordinators and production assistants actually because they’re the ones you deliver the mail to. And everyone tends to be really friendly in Hollywood. I never had to ask anybody to read one of my scripts, everybody always offered. I still say that to people, eventually, if you hang around long enough and don’t piss them off, they’re going to ask you what you want to do. Almost all of them did. I’d say I was a sitcom writer and so eventually that led to them going, hey, they need a PA over on this show or they need a PA on this show.
I met writers Mark Egan and Mark Solomon, who had run Newhart the last couple years, and we just started chatting and talking when I delivered the mail. We kinda connected and when they were doing a pilot, they needed a PA and that was my first PA job and then I went with Stephen Grossman on 3 or 4 other pilots as we moved along and then eventually moved up from Production Assistant to some other jobs.
I was in the mailroom for probably 3 ½ months and I still wonder if I would have made it as a writer if it wasn’t for that job because I met all those people.
WHEN WAS YOUR FIRST CHANCE TO WRITE A SCRIPT?
I used to write with a partner, Rob DesHotel. And Rob and I were both assistants on the third Bob Newhart show called Bob, where he was a comic book artist. The people who were running that show were Bill and Cherie Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton and they had run Cheers for seven years, so these were some of the best comedy writers in town. After the pilot, they needed an office manager, kind of their main assistant, so I got that job. Honestly, I learned more just copying their scripts than I’ve probably learned since. It was just a master class for the first 12 months when I was their assistant.
Then I left to become a writers’ assistant on another show and eventually came back to work with Rob and Bill and Cherie on a show called Hope & Gloria. So we had written a couple specs by then and one of our scripts, a friend of mine, Bill Fuller, passed it on to Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn who were running an animated show called Duckman and they had run Moonlighting before that. One day out of the blue I just got a call on the answering machine, “This is Jeff Reno. I read your script and I really liked it and I want you guys to come in here.” And again this is just because a writer friend, Bill Fuller, who I had met while working on an MTM pilot, had read it and really liked it and passed it on just out of the goodness of his heart.
So that was the first thing and then at the same time, Bill and Cherie read our spec script. Another writer on Hope & Gloria passed our script on to an agent at CAA and so it was all within that kind of six month period where the Duckman thing happened, Hope & Gloria gave us a script and we got an agent at CAA who then passed our material along.
HOW DID YOU GET REPRESENTATION?
Well, first of all, so many people ask how do you get an agent. And the way you get an agent is by writing a great script and probably 75% of the people I know got their first job without having an agent. It’s just kind of a myth, how do you get a job? You have to have an agent. How do you get an agent? You have to have a job.
I’m talking mostly in television because most of the people in television, for example on That ‘70s Show, 75% of us had been writers’ assistants before we were writers and 50% of the writers by the final season had been writers’ assistants on that show. So that’s kind of how that happens. Most people in Hollywood really like to help other people and we read so many scripts and when we read one that is good, we tend to really want to pass it on, so that’s what happened with this writer J.J. Paulsen who read our Simpsons and passed it on to his agent at CAA and in fact, the guys at Duckman, Reno and Osborn, we weren’t represented when we first met with them and they sent us to their agent to meet. And my friends Bill Fuller and Jim Pond who had first read the Duckman and sent it to Reno and Osborn also introduced us to their agent.
So there’s a little bit of camaraderie here. I know we’re all in competition, but when you read a script that’s really good, it tends to get passed on. So we actually had a choice because we had two or three agents that we met with. In that sense we were being courted because it looked likely that we were going to get on Hope & Gloria and we were getting enough meetings so they saw in us somebody they could make money from.
We connected with the agents at CAA more than we did with anybody else at the time. I work with a manager now who I got kinda from a recommendation from a friend.
It still is weird. I mean it was a huge timing thing. It just kind of worked, suddenly we were signed with CAA. That led to Buffy, led to ‘70s Show. Led to everything else. That agent was really good for us. But getting him was simply through a friend of a friend who passed it on.
Most jobs in television are happing now because you’re a PA or a writers’ assistant or know writers on the shows. Or you go through a workshop or one of the programs in which case you’re also meeting agents.
Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.