I always enjoy hearing about how people got started in their careers so thought I’d share the story about how I landed my first professional “Hollywood” writing gig. I should preface this by saying that I was extremely lucky and I know it usually doesn’t happen this smoothly. Believe me, I know—it’s never been this “easy” again and, over ten years later, it’s still a day-to-day struggle to make a living as a writer.
My first writing credit was for the 1990s TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. For all you youngsters who don’t remember the show, it was a re-telling of the Superman story as a family-friendly romantic dramedy; focusing on the relationship between Superman alter ego Clark Kent (Dean Cain) and Girl Friday Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher). Here’s a clip of the show’s opening credits from season three which was when I came on board:
All this happened during my early post-college years when I was still young and mainly making a living as a freelance journalist (or rather trying to make a living). I was taking playwriting classes and getting involved in theater, and although I was interested in film, it seemed like an impossible career choice. I didn’t know anyone who was a working writer in Hollywood and had no idea how to break in.
But through my journalism work, I met and became friends with a young Korean American comedian named Margaret Cho at about the same time that ABC announced it was going to give her a prime-time sitcom of her own. The show eventually failed, was attacked by community activists for its “inauthenticity” and the public would later learn that Margaret herself had a very traumatic experience during the run of the series, but at the time, All-American Girl was hailed as a potential break-through–the first network TV series revolving around an Asian American family.
Corey, my best friend from high school and fellow wannabe Hollywood writer (Corey went on to become a producer/writer on CSI: Miami–the most watched TV show in the world), suggested that we pen an episode of All-American Girl together which I would then pass on to Margaret and, of course, she’d love it and immediately throw riches and fame our way. Yes, we were indeed that young and stupid. I resisted at first because, well, I thought TV sucked and was beneath me. Again—young, stupid. But Corey convinced me and we set about working on an episode we called “A Streetcar Named Margaret.”
The plot was simple—Margaret accompanies her girlfriend to an audition for a community theater production of the play “A Streetcar Named Desire” and immediately falls for Marlon (yes, an obvious reference to Marlon Brando), a brooding Korean American actor auditioning for the male lead. At first, Margaret’s traditional mother is happy that her daughter is finally dating a Korean, but conflicts arise when she learns he is an actor.
We completed the script; convinced we had a shot and our big break was just around the corner. But the day after we finished writing our episode, All-American Girl was cancelled. Our hard work had been wasted. After ruling out a murder-suicide pact as a response to this bad news, we learned that Disney had a TV writing fellowship and decided to apply. We made it to the finals, but that was as far as we got. Still, we were encouraged and decided to get back on that horse and try again.
By this time, Corey was working in the production office of a new series entitled Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. The show was based on the Warner Brothers lot and I’d often stop by to eat free craft services food observe how a TV production operated. Corey even convinced Teri Hatcher to give me temp work during the times her assistant was out sick. I’m sure Teri has no recollection of who I am or what she did, but those jobs and her money came at exactly the right moments to stave off starvation so I’ll always be grateful.
Anyway, Corey had befriended the show’s writers/producers and we decided to try our hand at writing a spec episode of the show.
We worked hard to create a completely original story that still fit the parameters of the series. Our brilliant plot in a nutshell: Superman gets thrust into an alternate universe where that world’s Superman has been killed by Lex Luthor. To make matters worse, alternate world Lois is set to marry Luthor who is about to be elected President of the United States. Superman must expose Luthor’s villainy, give Lois hope to continue on her own and find a way to return to his earth.
We turned in the script to L&C’s executive producer John McNamara and he promised to read it as soon as he could. So we waited. And waited. Weeks passed. Then, months. Corey would poke his head in John’s office occasionally and see our script lying untouched on his desk. We began to suspect John might never get to it.
But one day, we got the call. John’s assistant wanted us to come by his office that same afternoon. We didn’t know what to expect, but we were hopeful. John began by telling us how hard we must have worked on the script. That’s when we got that sinking feeling. He was trying to be nice before rejecting us. Next, he told us that all the episodes had already been assigned for that season. Sinking stomach feeling increases. Then, he told us they were already doing an alternate world episode later that season so they couldn’t use our story even if they wanted to. By now, we were ready to vomit.
But then, he uttered the magic words: “I really loved your script.” He told us he was genuinely sorry there wasn’t anything he could do. But after a few seconds, he turned to us and said: “I have my slot coming up. Do you want to try to come up with a storyline for my episode? If it’s good, maybe you can work with me on it.”
We couldn’t believe it. Over the years, as I’ve had more experience in the biz, I realize that what John did for us is rare. Here was a TV veteran who was basically offering two complete novices he barely knew, a chance to collaborate with him on his episode. That just isn’t done. I asked John later why he did this and he just shrugged and said, “I thought you guys had talent. You deserved a shot.”
Of course, Corey and I still had to come up with an acceptable story. John’s episode was the third of a five-episode arc where Lois and Clark would finally get married, but the bad guy (Lex Luthor would be confirmed as the villain later) would thwart the ceremony by kidnapping Lois and replacing her with a clone. Whatever we came up with had to fit this arc.
Corey and I were both fans of the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate so we stole cribbed took inspiration from the plot of that movie. When Lois is kidnapped, she gets amnesia and the bad guy convinces her that Superman is her mortal enemy and brainwashes her to assassinate the Man of Steel. It was much darker than the typical episode but we liked it and carefully worked out the beats so we could pitch it to John.
For those unfamiliar with pitching, it is a nerve-racking experience. You have to go in front of the producer(s) and pitch or tell your story in as exciting and interesting way as possible so the producer(s) will buy your story–setting you on that path to fame and riches. It’s akin to performing in front of an audience, which is death for most writers because the reason you became a writer in the first place instead of an actor was to avoid this sort of shit (well, that and we’re just not as pretty as the Sungs and Rogers of the world).
Corey and I had never pitched before. We read all the “how to” books and practiced. The first rule we were taught was to never sit down while you’re pitching—you must remain standing to retain the upper hand. But what John immediately asked us to do when we entered his office to pitch was to take a seat. That threw us off, but we somehow made it through. We had no idea how well we did and all John said was he’d get back to us. Eventually.
So Corey and I went to lunch and talked about everything except the pitch. When we returned to the office, there was a note on Corey’s desk from John asking us to come to his office right away.
John was sitting behind his desk with a big grin on his face and told us that he had talked to the other producers and everyone was in agreement—they wanted to buy our pitch and was that OK with us? Of course it was fucking OK!
When a big-time TV producer buys a pitch from inexperienced writers like us, what usually happens is that we’ll get paid and shown out the door. They have the story now. They don’t need us amateurs getting in the way while they write the actual episode. But not John.
He asked us if we’d like to be involved in every aspect of our episode from story meetings all the way through completion. He offered to take us under his wing and work with us so we would learn how a TV show gets made from the ground up and the three of us would share the writing credit on the episode. And we’d get paid real money for all of this! Was that OK with us? Hell, yeah!
So for the next six months, we received a hands-on education in TV production. We sat in on story meetings where our episode got torn to pieces. We did multiple drafts of the treatment as notes started coming in from the network, the studio and the other producers.
We saw our story evolve into something that had almost zero resemblance to the original idea we pitched. As my fellow Offender Justin is learning at this very moment, TV is tough. You have to produce a new episode every week on a limited budget and timeline. It is a relentless, break-neck schedule and things change every day. Here are some of the notes we got that definitely changed things: cut all scenes of Superman flying because there is no money in the budget for any flying scenes (it’s fucking Superman and they were telling us he couldn’t fly), viewers may be turned off if Lois tries to assassinate Superman so cut that and replace with something “less dark” (but our whole episode was built around that premise), kryptonite is being overused so find another way to kill Superman (the dude is invulnerable—how else are we supposed to fucking kill him? Stab him with a super knife?).
Somehow we survived it all and, although the episode that aired was nothing like our original idea (and frankly, not as good if you ask me), it was still a thrill when we sat down in front of the TV on Sunday, February 25, 1996 and saw our names flash across the screen along with 28 million other viewers all across America. Corey and I even had a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” cameo as bank tellers.
Overall, it was a great introduction to the biz. And it was awesome to be a small part of a show about Superman–an American icon who made the world believe a man could fly! Well…with the exception of our episode because we didn’t have the fucking money to do that.