Why We Write

December 24, 2007

Why We Write – Number 2: Steve Levitan

 Number 2

 

 Today’s piece is written by Steve Levitan, creator of “Just Shoot Me” and co-creator of “Back To You”

I swear to God this is true.  A couple of years ago I had lunch with a network president who asked me the following question:

“If I offered you a billion dollars, but you could never write again, would you take it?”

I tried to keep a straight face and act snooty because I knew he assumed my answer would be “no” and was paying me a compliment, but, let’s face it, he had me at “billi…”   Hell, he didn’t even make it hard.  I mean, if he had added, “But you have to cut off your fingers,” well, then now we’re talking a much tougher decision.   I play golf.  I play guitar.  I have an iPhone.  What the hell am I going to do all day now that I have a billion dollars and no fingers? 

The truth is the strike has given me the chance to experience life without a creative outlet like writing.  Here’s something amusing I’ve started doing the past six weeks: I have two teenaged daughters who have just gotten to that age when they’re ashamed of me. So, whenever I drop them off outside a party and there are other kids standing around, I scream out desperately from the car, “MAKE GOOD CHOICES!!!”  They’re just mortified. Now that’s good fun.

Maybe I don’t need this job to be happy.  I have skills to fall back on.  During my senior year of college at (the) Harvard (of America’s Dairyland UW-Madison), and for two years afterwards, I was a television news reporter and anchor for the local ABC affiliate.  I covered big fires, killer tornados, grizzly murders and, worst of all, holiday parades.

Like most newsrooms at the time, ours had three televisions on the wall so we could see what the other stations were doing.  However, I found myself more interested in what came on before the ten o’clock news than during: Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, Wonder Years, Cheers.  I began to wonder if I could ever write something like that.  So, one day, without any plan or guidance, I started firing off my first script — a spec Moonlighting.  It was one of the hardest things I had ever done and I had absolutely no clue what to do with it, but I finished.  I had an incredible sense of accomplishment, even though, to those around me, I was like one of those crazy guys who builds a rocket in his backyard.

I then moved back to my hometown Chicago to take a job creating ad campaigns for Miller Beer, McDonalds and that little bastard the Pillsbury Doughboy (total prima donna).  And I kept writing.  A Cheers.  Then a Wonder Years.   My roommates would just shake their heads and wonder why the hell was I writing fake television shows instead of going out to the bars with them.  a) I just couldn’t stop.  b) It was fourteen below outside.

Long story short, I finally moved to L.A. to write and produce trailers and TV commercials for Disney Studios and, a year and a half later, got my first chance to meet on a television series: Wings.  I went in, pitched a story and, what do you know, they bought it.  I then wrote the freelance script and, when I went to the showrunners’ offices to turn it in, they invited me to come watch the filming of the season premiere later that week.  

I had never been on a sitcom set in my life and it was everything I hoped it would be.  I would have loved every minute of it, but I knew they invited me before they read my script and, throughout the filming, I became increasingly convinced they hated my script and consequently the talentless hack who “wrote” it.  Finally the show ended and David Angell (who left us too soon) asked me to come down from the bleachers onto the set.  Here it comes, I thought, the speech where he tells me I should go back to Chicago and write more cuddly copy for the doughboy (who, btw, has an eating disorder). 

“Steve,” he said in a “let’s just be friends” tone.  “We really liked your script and, if you want to join us, we’d love to have you on staff.” 

I’m not sure I can adequately convey the glory of that moment, but cue the fireworks.  There I was, on an actual sitcom set, in actual Hollywood-adjacent, being asked to join a network show by the guy who wrote some of my favorite episodes of television ever.  Kiss my ass, Doughboy, I’m on staff!

Now, some sixteen years and three or four hundred episodes later, I have to admit to being, at times, a bit jaded.  The hours can be long, cancelled shows break your heart, and I have, on occasion, walked onto a soundstage with more dread than delight. 

But most days, I pinch myself because I’m one of the lucky few who’s living out his Rob Petrie-inspired dream.  And every day I walk that picket line, I know I’m doing it so that, in the future, others will get to experience my good fortune.  After all, my job is to sit in a room with genuinely funny people and tell stories.  I get to see my work performed by some of the best actors ever on television.  And, on a good night, I get to make millions of people laugh. 

That’s something I never want to give up.  Not even for a billio…I’m sorry, I can’t even say it with a straight face.

 

WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers.  Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers during the strike, and perhaps beyond.  If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at whywewrite@gmail.com.

24 Comments »

  1. Steve, I enjoyed your essay very much. Just one question: When you were doing TV news, did you cover stories of large bears murdering each other or GRISLY murders?

    Comment by Nelson — December 24, 2007 @ 11:21 am | Reply

  2. Thania St. John was one of the writers and producers for my all time favorite TV Show Lois & Clark – she is one of the many people my heart goes out for in this horrible time. Even those writers I don’t know of just by seeing their name I support just because they’re doing something I only wish I had the talent and guts to do myself.

    Stay strong guys and gals🙂

    Comment by Andrea — December 24, 2007 @ 11:27 am | Reply

  3. Steve,

    I’m supposed to be doing something efficient at work now. (Aw gee. Sorry to rub the “I’m working” at ya)

    This essay cracked me up one side and down the other. I had to share your comment about “MAKE GOOD CHOICES” with a co-worker. Then I shared this site with him.

    It is great to hear that you are living your dream. Stuff like that makes me feel like I may eventually get to live my own. I would love to write for a living but don’t quite know how to do it and support myself. (Single chick here) Doing what you all do is something that intrigues me greatly.

    I write also. Mostly feature articles, etc. Have the proverbial script half finished on the bookshelf. I’d love to be working on it now, but the only way I feel I can support you and the others is pencils down.

    Your essay touched a chord in me that hasn’t been twanged for a while. THANKS!

    Stay strong. Please know that what you are fighting for may someday benefit someone like me. And I thank you for it.

    Roobaby
    Becca on DHD and UH

    Comment by roobaby44 — December 24, 2007 @ 11:32 am | Reply

  4. Love it. Love, love, LOVE it.

    Thank you for this. Very inspiring.

    Comment by Bon — December 24, 2007 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  5. LOL. I use to love embarrassing my kids like that! My boys are out of school now though, but my daughter is 17 and almost done – so I get to have that fun with her!

    Stay strong everyone – You guys are great!

    Comment by simple mindz — December 24, 2007 @ 12:19 pm | Reply

  6. Hi Steve,

    I cannot tell you how much I miss going to work every day on Back To You. I miss it a bill… okay, now I’m laughing. But the devastation this strike brings only goes to show you how much the world needs writers. We wouldn’t have our jobs if it weren’t for you. So I thank you for that and I’ll join you on the lines again in the new year.

    Peggy Lane O’Rourke

    Comment by Peggy Lane O'Rourke — December 24, 2007 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  7. Steve-
    Sorry I didn’t mention it before but it was early; Wings is still one of the greatest shows in the history of sitcom television. People may fight me on this but I have the gloves ready. If I’m having a bad day, Lowell can bring me out of it. It wasn’t just Thomas, it was the words – and without the words I wouldn’t get the same emotion.

    I’m sure your daughters will appreciate the embaresment one day:)

    ….

    Comment by Andrea — December 24, 2007 @ 5:44 pm | Reply

  8. I just wanted to say that I think this blog is a great idea…I think that writers, particularly for the small screen, too often seem invisible or irrelevant to people. It shouldn’t be so.

    Comment by Mollie Bryant — December 24, 2007 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

  9. There’s three kinds of people I respect more than anything:
    1) Writers 2) Comedians 3) Straight cameramen who shoot lesbian porn

    Comment by aniche — December 24, 2007 @ 6:49 pm | Reply

  10. Nelson,

    I just wanted you to know that I did not make a careless spelling error — the murder in question, while certainly grisly, was, in fact, that of a grizzly bear. The accused killer, another grizzly (why is there so much bear-on-bear violence?), claimed it was self-defense, but the jury ruled that it was, in fact, a senseless premeditated killing over a picnic basket.

    — Steve Levitan

    Comment by Steve Levitan — December 25, 2007 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  11. This is beautiful.
    It inspires me to continue chasing my dream to be in the position for someone to someday ask me why I write. My essay would be eerily close to that of Steve’s- right down to the embarrassed teenager.
    I’m printing off these essays and keeping them in my writers satchel.
    I’de like for someone in the AMPTP to attempt to write an essay on “Why I’m a Mogul”.
    That would be a pretty short paper.

    Comment by Gladgirl — December 25, 2007 @ 12:52 am | Reply

  12. I’d take the billion dollars. Someone else could do my writing for me.

    I don’t remember any grizzlies at the UW, but it’s been a few years since I left.

    Comment by Brian — December 25, 2007 @ 4:28 am | Reply

  13. If you ever make it to the Mark Twain House in Hartford, there is a letter from one of his daughters to him and she asks “father, why do you write?” His answer was-“life, life, life.” I think that sums it up pretty well.

    Comment by Dave — December 25, 2007 @ 8:12 am | Reply

  14. Steve:

    I had the opportunity to hear you speak at a lecture a few years back at UCLA. Your words were inspiring then and they are inspiring now.

    Thanks for not only creating really good television but also for giving encouragement to those who hope to join your cause.

    Mark Mercer

    Comment by Mark Mercer — December 25, 2007 @ 3:26 pm | Reply

  15. Steve Levitan’s essay reads true. While his friends were out barhopping and it was fourteen below, the writer’s mind hums with dreams yet unrealized, characters yet unshaped. It is a pang called the birthing process, this deep ache to create. And when that has been done and the show takes shape, writing is done. The writer has then achieved his true meaning and conceived the soul of the show in realistic terms. That is writing, because writers don’t do it because there is money involved. Money is great and lots of it, but a writer is more at home in the midst of his characters (the new ones) that he breathes life into and watch them walk and talk around him. He gives a proper definition and shapes them, the voices that play in his head in the form of a story. It is conceptualization of an idea that the writer has and the true joy he feels as his work is completed on screen is indescribable – it is so much more than a billion dollars.

    Comment by Jacob David — December 25, 2007 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

  16. Thanks for writing your essay. I’m a college student and it gives me hope that people like you are helping the generation like me earn a living someday. You are very encouraging person

    Comment by Jen Sparkman — December 26, 2007 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

  17. Steve, you remind me of me when I’m writing. To quote Curtis Mayfield, keep on keeping on.😀

    Comment by Roy — December 27, 2007 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

  18. Kickass essay, sir. Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

    @ Gladgirl: That is a fantastic idea about “Why I’m a Mogul”

    “As a child I would play in the orchards until six or ten of my servants would carry me on a rickshaw made of pillows into the house where I would enjoy my twice-daily snack of gold deplumes (whether I was hungry or not) and watch Ducktales. I remember vividly how I would watch Scrooge Mcduck swimming through his money pit and thinking to myself, that’s the kind of modest, simple life I could lead.”

    All the best, guys,

    E

    Comment by Ethan — December 27, 2007 @ 5:58 pm | Reply

  19. Steve,

    Although I’m not yet a member of the WGA (and hope to be one at some time in my life), I know where you’re coming from, but my life is a bit more of a struggle. I see writing as an outlet to get away from my current day job of flipping hamburgers for minimum wage every day.

    I would like for my writing to be known. But that day may not come unless a deal can be struck with the WGA and AMPTP. You’re encouraging me to continue with my end of the fight, and keep to all of my resolutions both personal and as an aspiring writer. Let’s show those turkeys who’s REALLY being shot in the foot.

    Comment by Christopher Vickers — December 27, 2007 @ 10:29 pm | Reply

  20. Nice piece. Probably my favorite so far. This essay series has made me reflect on an essay Paul Auster wrote that appeared in the New Yorker in 1995 called “Why Write?” Ever read it? Highly recommended. Really sums up how life drives a writer to the page. There’s a transcription on some public school site. Take a look.

    http://shs.westport.k12.ct.us/chia/AP/handouts/why_write.htm

    Don’t give up your fingers, though. Didn’t go well even for the Bionic Woman this year.

    Comment by Brooks Briggs — December 28, 2007 @ 12:51 am | Reply

  21. Greed is Greed
    But Greed at the expence of others is a crime.

    I understand what a hard job it is to lift a pencil and dream up Ideas while drinking coffee
    How lucky I am that my job is less stressfull.

    Lets hope that if you should ever have need, Im not on strike trying to obtain a wage increase that would still see me earning many times less than yourselves.

    Comment by Firefighter — December 28, 2007 @ 5:54 am | Reply

  22. Steve:

    As the father of three teenagers I can tell you that soon shouting from the car will no longer be enough. You’ll have to mortify them at the mall, before and after school, etc. And soon, that’ll be so easy, it won’t even be sport anymore!

    Comment by Thom Bray — January 5, 2008 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  23. Steve, love to chat up new project!! Won’t be long. tks. KSQ

    Comment by Kyle S. Quinn — April 25, 2008 @ 11:07 am | Reply


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