Why We Write

December 31, 2007

Why We Write – Number 7: Steven Peterman

  Number 7

Today’s piece is written by Steven Peterman, Executive Producer of “Hannah Montana.”

 

I grew up in Milwaukee.  Nobody wrote for a living in Milwaukee.  You worked at Allis-Chalmers making farm equipment, or at one of the breweries making Pabst, or Old Milwaukee, or Schlitz. Or, like my dad, you owned a tavern, a bowling alley and eventually, the only Italian American restaurant in town operated by Jews.  Be a writer?  That was crazy.  I was going to be a rock and roll god. 

I remember songs since almost before I could talk.  Perry Como and Brenda Lee. Elvis singing “Jailhouse Rock.”  Roy Orbison singing “Cryin’” on Ed Sullivan at Grandma’s house, with Uncle Jerry laughing because Orbison looked so goofy with his bad toupee and his big black sunglasses and me wanting to hit Uncle Jerry with a folding chair from the dining room because maybe Orbison looked freaky but Jesus, his voice could break your heart. 

I wanted to affect people the way Orbison did, or Van Morrison, or the Beatles.  There was just one problem. I was short.  And I wore glasses.  And my fingers were too stubby to ever be able to duplicate Mark Knopfler’s brilliant live version of “Tunnel Of Love.”  And that high tenor that made old women weep at my Bar Mitzvah went away, leaving a shaky baritone which would never again hit the high notes Tom Petty can reach after rolling out of bed and lighting a cigarette.  Plus, when I grew my hair long I looked less like Jimmy Page and more like my Aunt Syl, who I loved and miss dearly but would still prefer not to resemble.

Okay, that’s clearly more than one problem.  So I tried to be sensible.  I graduated high school, went off to college, graduated, registered at law school, hyperventilated, ran away, lived on a kibbutz for six months, went back to law school, registered, went to three weeks of classes, hyperventilated and ran off to New York to be an actor, where, four months later, I was playing a law professor (!)…on Broadway (!)  In the film of this, that last run-on sentence will be a very amusing montage, assuming it isn’t cut to move the action up. 

After six years working and starving, I moved to LA where, amazingly, I worked more than I starved.  Theatre, movies, movies of the week, guest shots, pilots and series that almost made it.  It was fun, and exciting, and there were times when I lost myself in the character and it was almost as good as a guitar solo.  But that didn’t happen often enough, and the series never came and I started to get too hungry and desperate and started sucking at auditions and knew I had to do something.

That’s when friends who had given up their own dreams of acting to become working writers, encouraged me to try it.  I of course responded, “Why the hell would I want to do that?”  From what I could tell it was lonely, ridiculously hard and most of them looked miserable.  Especially the comedy writers.  They looked awful.  And it was no wonder.  Actors were treated like shit until they got the job.  Then it was great.  Writers were treated like shit until they got the job, and then they were treated worse.  

So I avoided it.  Until I ran into Gary Dontzig at the gym.  I met Gary doing a play at the Old Globe in San Diego.  I thought he was boring and he thought I was over the top.  Later, I realized he was much better than that, but had been stuck in a boring role.  He still thinks I was over the top.  I was, but I did it brilliantly, and the part demanded it.  Anyway, I ran into Gary and bitched about life and said I was thinking of writing.  And he said he was, too.  Years later he confessed that he hadn’t been, but actors are so competitive he felt compelled to lie.  He actually called me later and invited me over to throw ideas around.  To this day he doesn’t know why he did that.  I was so surprised I said…”uh, okay.”  I hung up and told my wonderful, increasingly impatient wife, Susan, who I’d been smart enough to meet in between working and starving in New York, that I was going to piss away an afternoon at Gary Dontzig’s.  Susan, the only one who was bringing in any income, reminded me that I wasn’t doing anything else the next day, since I’d already been to the gym that day and had to “rest my muscles.”  (She failed to understand that as an actor I had to keep my body in the phenomenal shape it was.  Fortunately, writing has no such requirement.) 

So I went to Dontzig’s.  And something clicked.  Because we were different.  Because we weren’t best friends.  Or even friends (this was before we became brothers).  We each brought something different to the party, but overlapped enough to meet somewhere in the middle.  More importantly, he believed in putting something, anything down, where I would have stayed on our first sentence from that day in 1984 until…now. 

We wrote a spec “Family Ties.”  It was 75 pages long.  Yet surprisingly easy to cut.  Much like this piece.  Our friends said it was good.  So we wrote another.  Just to make sure we could.  And we got an agent, and then, our first job.  And another.  And then Diane English and Korby Siamis read us and we got on the original staff of “Murphy Brown” and now it’s twenty years later and I’m a writer.

And it’s still ridiculously hard, and I frequently look miserable.  But I’ve grown to love it almost as much as I hate it.  I still love hearing something I’ve written get a laugh.  Or make people cry.  Or think.  I love that I can write characters I’d  never have gotten to play.  I love working with actors and directors to fix a scene.  I love editing.  I love walking onto a stage where 120 people are working on something that wasn’t there before writers put it on paper.  And I love being stuck in a room with people so wonderfully funny they can make me laugh at two in the morning when minutes before I hated every one of them and prayed for an earthquake that would send the building crashing down, killing all of us if it meant getting out of the fucking scene.

That’s why I write.  I’ve been unbelievably blessed.  I’ve worked on shows that were considered important and shows that weren’t.  Shows that were fun, and shows that weren’t.  And now I’m doing “Hannah.”  And a few months ago we were sitting in the writers room, staggering toward the thirtieth episode of the season, and someone at the table said, “You know, in twenty years people are going to come up to us and say, ‘I grew up watching your show.’”  

It’s not quite being a rock star.  But it’s close enough.  I wish us all a speedy and successful end to this miserable but necessary and noble effort.  Considering what Disney’s gonna make off “Hannah” I feel quite confident in saying we deserve every nickel. 

 

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.

21 Comments »

  1. Dear Steven,

    Twenty years ago, “Murphy Brown” was my heroine. I had graduated from college, was living in LA and wanted to be an actor. But when I watched “Murphy Brown” I changed my mind and wanted to be a hard hitting journalist. I’m still working on that.

    Thanks for creating one of the most memorable characters that made me laugh so hard I fell off the couch and the same time, made me want to be a “Murphy Brown” myself.

    Comment by roobaby44 — December 31, 2007 @ 7:31 am | Reply

  2. Looks pretty close to “rock star” to me.🙂

    Another wonderful piece.

    Man, I love this!

    Comment by Bon — December 31, 2007 @ 9:43 am | Reply

  3. So you are responsible for Hannah Montana…I direct you to my angry vlog on the show here.

    Comment by Chris Salvador — January 6, 2008 @ 1:26 am | Reply

  4. i’m curious, how much do you make as a producer on hanna? Do you get 2 checks? 1 writer check that’s too small and 1 producer check that’s just right? As someone that works in the business it seems to me that good writers have found an elegant way around the “underpaid” cmplaint by getting producer positions. Of course, the studios have said they’re eliminating hyphinated job titles because of the strike. Oops, looks like you’all killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Too bad the WGA didn’t learn from the ’88 strike where the brilliant leadership lost them 80% on new media residuals agter a 22 week strike. Great job there. It wasn’t enough that we were all making money, sounds like writers just feel unappreciated. Not a very good reason to shutdown an industry with over 100,000 people in it. I’m not gonna argue the noble morality of you struggle, writers are not turn of the 19th century factory workers being forced to work in inhumane conditions. They were well paid COGS in a very large creative machine. Get over yourselves and get back to work. Hanna is a cute show, war and peace it’s not.

    Comment by Todd — January 7, 2008 @ 10:29 am | Reply

  5. pardon the many typos. i’m writing this on my wii while my two year old climbs all over me.

    Comment by Todd — January 7, 2008 @ 10:33 am | Reply

  6. You’ve made me laugh, you’ve made me cry. You’ve made me think. You’ve given me heartburn. You’ve caused constipation. And you’ve caused the opposite.

    Your writing has always been fresh, your characters real (and “over the top”), and always has the mark of Steven Peterman on it-a singular voice. And as a musician, the voice (tone) is the first and last thing I hear in music.

    May your voice continue to sing!

    P.S. And take the networks for every penny you can!

    Comment by Richard Bruce — January 11, 2008 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

  7. To Todd, who wrote on January 7th. I’m going to assume you’re cranky because the kids are keeping you up. I remember those days, too. Actually, I get one check, which is not as big as it might be because I gave away the scripts I might have written so that my writing staff could make up some of the difference between the comically small amounts we all make on cable compared to people who work network, a disparity even more remarkable considering “Hannah” now beats most of the competition on network. And I’m not out on strike as a producer, which, by the way takes up most of my time–casting, editing, dealing with set designers, wardrobe, directors, actors and of course, the network. I’m out as a writer. And I’m fighting for the writers who will come after me, because given my age, it’s highly unlikely I will ever make up what I may lose if this strike continues. And I’m also fighting for all those other people you mention in your response. The teamsters and IATSE members whose pension and health benefits are directly related to what we get in residuals. The makeup and hair and wardrobe people, the camera operators, the grips, the construction crews, all of whom stand to lose years of hard-won benefits if we fold. I’ll go back to my little show when I’ve done my part to protect my kids. And if you work in this business, your kids, too. Get some sleep, if you can.

    Comment by Steve Peterman — January 11, 2008 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

  8. The reasons the strike continues.

    The writers demands the producers want dropped:

    1-reality T.V.: REALITY—NO SCRIPTS!!!
    2-animation: allready covered by the IA. To take it would lower the amount of people contributing to our health and pension fund. don’t want that.
    3-Right to strike: Sound great. Love it!! where is it talked about in your strike authorisation letter? A bit late huh?

    I support your fight for fair pay for your work in theory, but we are way past that now. Drop these items, get back to the tables and negotiate. I know the producers walked out last time, and they may have been wrong, but you’re losing the moral high ground the longer this goes on. Call their bluff.

    Side deals help nobody. CBS controls the residuals and new media outlets for letterman, not worldwide pants. All side deals with the indies will be superceded by whatever agreement is made between the producers and the wga. Stop wasting time.

    Finish the battle your membership started, a membership where more than half DON’T work regularly and have other means of employment. They started the battle and left our sons and daughters to fight it.

    On a side note, I’ve spent the last ten years in those same meetings as one of the crew members you mentioned. I’m not sure if you wanted sympathy or were just bringing it up to illustrate how busy you are, but there are not many people out there who wouldn’t mind getting paid to eat and talk about clothes. The AD’s do all the hard work organizing productions, wouldn’t you agree?

    Comment by Todd — January 15, 2008 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  9. i support your causes, but your point of view is not correct, there are many ppl that write even in Milwaukee

    Comment by תיקון מחשבים — January 25, 2008 @ 12:54 am | Reply

  10. Congratulations on writing a show that Disney can be proud of. Best of luck with future Hannah Montana episodes.

    Comment by Sophie — February 3, 2008 @ 12:38 am | Reply

  11. You’ve come a long way from the “Pizza Wagon” days. Loved the pizza and the show! My daughter is a huge fan even though she is 16.

    Comment by Linda — April 14, 2008 @ 10:17 am | Reply

  12. Hey Steven,
    Who knows if you even read these posts?
    We were together on Givat Oz in 1973, before the war. I have a valuable possession that truly belongs to you – it is what I believe to be the only recording of “Ulpan Blues”, written and performed by you. Are you interested in hearing it again, or do you remember all the words?

    I have enjoyed following your career over the years – good thing you ran away from law school when you did – yes, the country would have had one more brilliant jurist; but I am so happy that the creative drive in you prevailed.
    Congratulations on the amazing work you have produced – it is remarkable to see how you have brought entertainment and pleasure to millions of people.

    Warm Regards,

    Mindy Stein
    Boca Raton, Florida

    Comment by Mindy Stein — June 7, 2008 @ 3:54 pm | Reply

  13. Hi Stevie,

    Hope you don’t mind the name and sure hope you remember who I am. I still remember you sitting in front of me in Chemistry at Marshall High, making sure I pass the course…to this I must thank you! My image of you walking through the halls at school, seeing you act and sing in the musicals and being at BBYO events with you is still so very vivid in my mind. I have ALWAYS followed your career and found myself full of emotion when you won the Emmy for Murphie Brown and you “dedicated” it to your dad. How’s your sister doing? As the years go by so quickly, I find myself wanting to stay in touch with the good times of our youth. You have done amazing projects, Stevie. The Milwaukee gang loves ya! I live in Florida but still go back to Milwaukee at least three times a year. Sure hope you read this. I know you are a very busy exec but would love to hear from you if you ever get a moment. Always, Shelly/Dolly/Rochelle

    Comment by Shelly (Dolly) Rapkin — July 1, 2008 @ 5:20 pm | Reply

  14. i love watching hannah montana and i hope you put lilly and oliver together because alot of people say you might get more veiwers and please dont put miley and oliver together anyways your a great writer🙂

    Comment by alexander — July 8, 2008 @ 11:12 am | Reply

  15. I am so crazy proud of you…
    love

    Comment by Claudia Cron — September 7, 2008 @ 5:22 am | Reply

  16. great work!!!

    Comment by industryfinest — September 12, 2008 @ 10:20 pm | Reply

  17. great stuff

    Comment by טכנאי מחשבים — July 8, 2009 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

  18. Dear Steven,
    Since you are one of the producers of Hannah Montana, I have a suggestion for an episode. A question is asked all the time, especially after watching Hannah Montana with Miley’s mom in them. My suggestion for an episode is to show how Miley’s mom died. You could possibly make an episode where she goes back in time or something. Somehow explain that though cause many people are confused on how she died.
    Thanks for your time,
    Jenny Naillon

    Comment by Jenny Naillon — May 21, 2010 @ 4:25 pm | Reply

  19. Dear Steven,
    I have a question for you. Miley has made so much bad desicions in the past years of taking those inappropriate pictures & stuff and why hasn’t Disney fired her yet? She is a bad influence on kids and i dont think thats right. But i have to say Hannah Montana is one of my favorite shows & i always watch it.

    Thanks!!!
    Dani Toro

    Comment by Dani Toro — May 21, 2010 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

  20. most american restaurants serves fatty foods that is why sometimes i avoid them `”,

    Comment by Activated Carbon Filter — November 22, 2010 @ 5:18 am | Reply

  21. No, il contrario.

    Comment by cheap oem — April 9, 2011 @ 5:10 pm | Reply


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