So first: big news this week, the HNS cover finally went live! It really is thrilling to see your work on the cover of a magazine for the first time. The issue will be live soon and when it is, I’ll post the full article.
Been running around to a tons of meetings and workshops. Did another great workshop at YouTube with Chris Chan Roberson. It’s getting very exciting cause in about a month, I’m finally starting production on the collaborations and the workshops address using the lighting and equipment in the studios. A lot to absorb, but very very cool. Unfortunately, the workshop was the same night as Big Screen Little Screen, so couldn’t attend, but I’ll be going back next month.
Also, was interviewed on Da Flava Radio. They asked me to do a monthly Lele segment on their show. They air in Atlanta and Gambia in Africa! Pretty cool. They’re also picking up Lele’s 60 Second Wrap-Up so, starting late June it’ll officially be on three radio stations!
And then there was the Rollo meeting. The first tip-off: we met in a restaurant. Not an office. Not a network. At a tiny hipster joint in the East Village with dim lighting, cushy, low-to-the-ground chairs and tables, an old Das Racist mix on the speakers. At this point my I’m Officially Skeptical Meter was binging through the roof. But hey, this is Rollo World.
Rollo’s hookup, the guy from the network, is short with exceptionally pretentious eyeglass frames, early thirties, clears his throat a lot and orders a craft beer. I instantly dislike him. I’ll call him “Pete.”
He and Rollo schmooze like crazy, which, essentially, is like attending the world’s biggest name dropping festival. It’s awful. The first thing he says to me, ten minutes later, is, “I hope the chairs aren’t too low.”
When I was starting out, I flew out to LA for a meeting with a mid-sized production company. It was the second script I’d ever written. A pilot. I didn’t have a clue about how things worked in Hollywood and a friend of friend had made a call. I sat down in a room with the two women who ran the company and one said, “You know Leesa, the chair you’re sitting in is lower than the chairs we’re sitting in. If you’d prefer to sit in a chair that’s on OUR level, I can have my assistant bring one in.” And I said, ” You know [name redacted], I’m on a mission to sell this script. If I sell it to you, cool. If not, that’s ok, because I will sell it. So I don’t really care how high the chair I’m sitting in is, I just wanna pitch.” Call it huge cojones, call it being oblivious, either way, they offered me a deal two hours later. FYI, I wistfully refer to those few hours as “My hotshot years.”
I did not repeat that speech to Pete, mainly cause I was pretty convinced by that point he couldn’t get me a deal. Or if he could, it certainly wasn’t the deal I wanted. Instead, I said, “Nah. I’m cool.”
Pete goes into his spiel. [Tiny network no one’s ever heard of] is really blowing up. He loves Chilltown and wants me to pitch it to his boss, who also has a boss (or two.) I ask him about the network. What other shows do they have? What type of financing do they typically do? He skates around and doesn’t really answer but says they have financing for shows. He wants to set up a second meeting. Something more formal. I’m thinking, “Perhaps in a Chinese restaurant next time?”
My I’m Officially Skeptical Meter has morphed in a full-fledged Bullshit Meter and it’s really going crazy. I already know this Pete situation is a deal that’s not going to happen–if this is step one for a network that nobody’s ever heard of, it’s just, well, a really bad idea. But I’m also a little pissed. I knew it was gonna be a bad. Just didn’t think it would be this far off the mark. I guess I felt I owed it to Rollo to at least take this meeting. And I genuinely feel sorry for him. I know he’s not a liar. He’s just…desperate now, I guess.
I told Pete I’d get back to him. Rollo looked crestfallen.
Hello Internet! We’re now hiring Editorial Fellows for our New York office.
Editorial Fellows are Gizmodo’s entry level editorial positions. We ask a lot of you, but in turn, you will learn a lot about this whole professional blogging enterprise. So, the ideal candidate is someone who’s looking at a career in media, but fairly geeky too. Oh, and you must be within daily commuting distance of Manhattan.
30-something “child” that he is, Curtis Gwinn has an IMDB page that many of us would, um, kill for. He writes and produces both comedy and drama and has extensive experience with broadcast, cable, and interweb TV. He even acts too, but we forgive him.
Oh, right, he’s also an alumnus of TVWriter™ ‘s Online Workshop and a former People’s Pilot Contest competitor. We forgive him for that as well. (But will he forgive us?)
Curtis’s biggies include THE WALKING DEAD, where he is Supervising Producer, NTSF:SD:SUV, ANIMAL PRACTICE (aka “The Monkey Show”), THE ONION NEWS NETWORK, and THE MAN SHOW.
Last week, TVWriter™ Reporter-At-Large Justin Cloyd talked to Curtis about his life, career, and, yes, relationship with this very site. We’ll be carrying it in two parts.
Here’s the first:
I have a warm up question: Every entertainer has influences that inspire them and help guide their creative pursuits. What are yours?
This is always a tough one because, and I’m not trying to sound snooty or pretentious, I’m influenced in some way by everything I come in contact with. And what I mean by that is, I take lessons and inspiration as much from the things that repulse me as I do from the things that I love. Often times, for me, learning what I’m NOT is tremendously elevating and exhilarating.
But to answer your question more in the spirit in which I think it was asked, when it comes to TV I would say that I was most influenced by British comedy as a youngster. The Young Ones, Monty Python, Red Dwarf, Black Adder and Fawlty Towers being the most impactful on me. Though, the rash of early 2000’s alternative Brit comedy was also a massive revelation for me… Spaced, The Mighty Boosh, Look Around You, Jam, and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. All of it genius.
On the drama side, I grew up loving the more fantastical and/or seedy, so Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who (primarily the Tom Baker years), Tales From the Darkside, Friday the 13th: The Series, Quantum Leap, Amazing Stories, The X Files… Anything supernatural or mysterious, I was in.
Don’t get me started on movies and comic books. I won’t stop.As an adult, I still love horror, fantasy and sci-fi (Game of Thrones! The Walking Dead!), but I think I’m most influenced by the more gritty, human stuff… The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire (though I know for some of my friends, it’s “bored-walk”, but whatever, it’s great), and my two most favorite dramas of the modern era – Deadwood and The Sopranos. The latter of which I think is the best TV show of all time.
You’re an…uhm, older adult now, and are an entertainment industry success story. There were a few years in the middle when you were an adult before you were a professional entertainer. During those years, did you have the constant drive compelling you to be in entertainment? Or did you just stumble upon the path?
Older adult?! What the fuck?! “Older adults” are in their 70’s. How old are you, you little punk?
To answer your question, yes, from an early age I knew I wanted to be in entertainment. It was a constant drive. There was a running joke in my family because when I was 3 years old, my mother asked me what I thought I’d be when I grew up and I told her, “a writer.” I even told her I had a typewriter with me in her belly. They all thought that was hilarious, but obviously it was formative in some way, right?
Between then and now, I also pursued a career in rock music and acting. Both of which were clearly towering successes…
Now get off my god damned lawn!
You’ve had a long career filled with many splendors. It’s had ups and downs, trials and tribulations, successes and failures and all the rest. At what point on this long, winding road did you feel legitimized in your choice of career?
I still don’t feel legitimized. I’m not sure I ever will. I think for my sick, neurotic mind it’s important to feel the need to SOMEDAY be legit. I feel like I have to constantly earn my place…otherwise I might get complacent. I never want to be the bloated writer/producer, living off of royalties, sitting on a golden toilet, firing one assistant for buying my 3rd wife the wrong anniversary gift while simultaneously screaming at another assistant to, “Tell Michael Bay I’m in for Cabo!”
Notice I have two assistants in that scenario. Pretty cool.
As far as feeling, “a part of something,” or that I was making headway… There were three times; 1) When I got my first series as a creator with, “Fat Guy Stuck in Internet,” on Adult Swim, 2) Being asked by Paul Scheer and Jon Stern to executive produce, write and direct for, “NTSF:SD:SUV:: (also on Adult Swim) and most recently 3) When I was hired to write and produce for one of my favorite programs (and comic books), “The Walking Dead.”
All three of those experiences were accompanied by giddy, “am I dreaming?” moments of surreal joy.
You started out as a comedian, and up until just recently, most of your employment has been in comedy shows. A lot of comedians get their funny through coping with their past. There’s a show that you’re in at the UCB Theatre called Death By Roo Roo: Your F’ed Up Family. In Roo-Roo’s description it invites for people to come and let “Roo-Roo West take what caused your family pain and turn it into a night of hilarious improv comedy.” With this in mind, on a scale of one-to-Batman, how traumatic was your life?
Hmm… It definitely wasn’t Batman traumatic… Maybe more like one of the lesser X-Men, or if I’m being honest, one of the New Mutants (post Fall of the Mutants, just getting into Inferno). But if I’m being HONEST-honest… More like one of the Morlocks – just sort of a homeless, jackass teen in bad clothes and a shitty haircut living under the city, pretending he was totally cool with being a B-class mutant, but secretly really wishing he could be an X-man… If only to sneak a peek of Kitty Pryde in the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters’ locker room.
I didn’t have the best childhood, but it was a lot easier/luckier than 99% of the human race. Not to mention, all of the bumps in my personal road have completely informed who I am… My worldview, my personality and my most prized possession, my imagination. Wouldn’t change a thing.
As anyone who reads TV Writer regularly knows, Larry advocates that to be a TV writer you have to live in LA. During the course of your career you made the move from New York to LA. Was this hard for you? Was this the only time you had to make a move like that? Any advice for those planning on a similar relocation?
I think Larry is right… for now. Things are changing so rapidly that really, if you have the skills, the drive and the access to quality cameras and editing, you can make your TV or Internet based show anywhere. However, if you want to work for the networks, or break into traditional cable narratives, with staffs and free lunch on the lot… Well, then yeah. You have to be in Los Angeles. Stop pretending you don’t. It hurts me to listen to it (because I was that guy in NYC for 12 years without a consistent job who, since moving to LA, has done nothing but work).
Obviously, that’s not everyone’s experience. I was lucky in the sense that I’ve been a part of the UCB Theater in NYC since 1999. So, by the time I moved to LA in 2010, there were already a ton of friends out here and a huge network of people to vouch for me, and plug me right into the scene.
To put it simply, if you’re an auteur and have the resources, you can make it from almost anywhere…. But you’re still severely handicapping your chances.
In a note to TV Writer you expressed the difficulty of breaking into drama when your last credit was “’the monkey show’ on NBC”. Even though you’ve worked on several shows that have found an audience, was it difficult for you to be taken seriously in the business as a writer when you only wrote comedy?
It wasn’t hard to be taken seriously in the “business,” it was just hard to convince drama folks that I was serious about working for THEM. I think for a lot of showrunners and producers, it may have seemed like I was trying to get a job, any job, rather than being truly passionate about drama writing. I mean, I just didn’t have the track record. Where was the proof that I was a “drama guy?”
I had to do a lot of selling in person to assure people that I was determined to make the switch from comedy to drama. I also had to prove it to myself. I turned down several very lucrative comedy offers because I felt that I had to walk the walk, draw the line in the sand and say, “no. I do drama now.”
That’s not to say I would never do comedy again. Of course I would. I mean, a lot of great writing blurs the lines between comedy and drama anyway… Is Louis not dramatic? Is The Sopranos not hilarious? When I saw August: Osage County on Broadway, it had me crying and laughing at the same lines. That’s good shit!
On a side note, “the monkey show” was an amazing experience. It got knocked very hard, but for me personally, it was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had in TV. I’m thankful to the creators and producers for hiring me.
I said then that “my personal experience so far is that only about 20% of the programs meet my criteria” and went on and on about my one positive experience in the college TV writing arena, when I taught TV and film writing at The College of Santa Fe twenty – yikes! – years ago.
So now it’s time to talk about my four other experiences. For everyone who comes to this site, especially (because s/he asked) the visitor who signed her/his post “Bewildered College Teacher Who Really Wants to Know:”
Having enjoyed myself at The College of Santa Fe and becoming increasingly bored with my latest attempt at retirement in the early 2000s, I followed up a suggestion from a writer friend of mine who thought I’d be a great teaching fit at a Big 10 university where she taught part-time.
Big 10 was looking for someone to teach TV writing specifically, and when, aided and abetted my my friend, I e-mailed the Department Head about my interest, he jumped on it immediately and flew me out to talk further.
I got the campus tour from a student who was moving to L.A., hoping to get into the biz because, she said, “I’ve used up everybody at this place.”
Then I sat down with the Department Head, who said he was thrilled that a writer with my experience and reputation wanted to work there but couldn’t for the life of him understand why I would.
“The weather here stinks,” he said. “And we’re all underpaid. And you’re, well, you’re you. You don’t need this kind of thing.”
He also let me know that if I did need it I’d have to be ready to move to campus in, literally, “one week. We need you to commit now and come immediately.”
I said, “That’s impossible. I have a wife. And dogs and cats and horses and chickens. It’ll take months to work everything out.” Gwen the Beautiful, my wife, used to work in HR at UCLA. She knows how places like that recruit and hire. Which means I know it too. I stared at the D.H. “Don’t you guys usually hire people at least a semester or so in advance?”
“Yeah, we’re late on this thing. So you can’t do it, right?”
And, as he said that, I realized what was going on. They already had what businesses call their “preferred candidate.” But HR was on them to make it look, on paper, as though they were conducting a genuine search.
And, sure enough, a couple of weeks later my friend the part-time teacher told me that’s exactly what’d happened. They’d brought in a friend of the D.H.’s who had written and sold less than half a dozen TV scripts.
I’d written and sold hundreds. And produced ten times more.
A few years later, another friend, who taught on the East Coast, sounded me out about replacing a retiring professor at his illustrious institution. That sounded pretty cool, so I said yes, and they too flew me out.
And asked me to audition by teaching a mock class.
No big deal. I love teaching/talking to bright, eager, young people who love the same things I love – TV, films, and writing. I gave ’em my best hour and had a great time. I was pretty sure the students did too.
Afterward, I met with the Dean. “Wow,” he said. “That was something. You’re inspirational as hell.”
I started to thank him. He cut me off. “But we don’t need to inspire our students. They’re already so jazzed up that we can’t keep up with them. We get application from so many already inspired students that we’re turning them away.”
I flew back home shrugging. A couple of weeks later my friend there told me that they’d decided not to hire anybody, and instead retire the chair for awhile.
Fast forward another couple of years. A friend teaching at a Southern university calls and asks if I’d like to teach there because they’re adding a new TV writing track.
The Program Head is all excited when I say yes, and we exchange a series of e-mails and phone calls, all very casual and friendly and, “There are a number of ways we can set this up. We want to make sure everything works just right for you.”
Sounded pretty good.
Finally, since we’re such good buds, the Program Head says she doesn’t want to inconvenience me by flying me out and they do what I now know is the pro forma interview as a conference call. Four faculty members and me.
As soon as we’re all on the phone, I relay a message from another friend of mine who I’ve just learned is the President of the University Alumni Association. A simple, “Alumni Honcho says hi.”
Silence. Then, in a voice that would freeze the Human Torch, the Program says, “I didn’t know that you knew Honcho.”
And doesn’t speak again for the rest of the call except for a curt goodbye when the other three teachers are finished shooting the shit with me.
The next day I get an official HR e-mail saying the University is talking to lots of applicants and will get back to me as soon as a decision has been made…and that may not be for quite awhile.
I never hear from my no-longer buddy the Program Head or the University again.
Let’s move on to the last time I expressed interest in teaching in a college TV and/or film program. This one worked out a little differently. A retired, non-writing, non-teaching friend who for reasons known only to the retired spent a lot of time checking job listings online e-mailed me with something he thought I’d be perfect for: A TV writing gig at a Major Southwestern State University.
I went through their online process without any “in,” got the e-mail that said I was among those being considered, and then, months later, got another e-mail telling me I hadn’t been chosen.
But that wasn’t the end. A few days afterward I got a call from a young woman who said she’d just been hired for that very same gig and “Would you consider taking me on as a coaching client and teaching me all about writing for TV?”
“You don’t know about television writing? You’ve never done it?”
“Oh no. I just graduated from Major Southwestern State University. All my teachers there thought I’d be a great addition to the faculty, so they arranged a new job just for me. I read your Television Writing from the Inside Out book in one of my classes, so I knew you were the best one to help me do the job.”
Which brings us to what we in TV call the Tag. Contrary to the impression I may have given, I don’t hate college television writing programs.
But considering how the schools I’m familiar with hire those who teach these programs, and who they do hire, I sure as hell am not impressed.
I absolutely guarantee that any new TV writer will learn more in one hour as a gofer on TV series…or, what the hell, as a food server in a restaurant close to a TV/film studio or TV network office building than in an entire post-graduate course of study.
Go to L.A.
Coming next week: A new question. About a new topic. I swear!