Being A Female TV Writer Is Just As Hard As You Think

Why can't I find a Jack Donaghy to my Liz Lemon?


by Rebecca Bohanan

There's something about the world of film and television production that turns me into a doe-eyed innocent. When I step onto a lot or into an office, I carelessly throw my pretty white hat into the sky of endless entertainment possibilities, and the rejection, disappointment, and sleaze that I sometimes see in the industry evaporate. Just one step, and I transform into Tina Fey: a successful television writer who has not yet become incredibly jaded, and also, coincidentally, happens to be a woman. And that’s exactly how I was feeling the afternoon I sashayed into Steve's office.

If I had guessed what lay before me, I might have checked my doe-eyed wonderment at the door. But my perception was clouded by my doe eyes and pretty white hat, so what I couldn’t make out in that moment was that Steve was the kind of guy who oozed “stereotypical producer,” from the streaks in his spray tan to the Botox scars on the sides of his receding hairline. He stood when he greeted me, and gave me a weirdly intrusive handshake that sandwiched my hand. “How Hollywood,” I thought.

“Hi, I’m Steve,” he said.

“Hire me!” squealed the mini-Tina Fey camping out in my brain.

He added, “You’re not what I expected,” as he led me to my chair. I didn’t think much of it, at the time, but I did remember it later.

I was in his office to interview for a job as a P.A. Steve seemed interested in my “insight” (his well-chosen word), and was impressed by my film education and screenwriting achievements up to that point. (I blushed with pride.) He said I should be “more than just a P.A.,” (I blushed harder) and that I “should be involved with preproduction on the next project.” (By that point I probably looked sunburnt from blushing.) He noted that the only thing I really needed to become a success was a mentor, and said he'd like to be that for me.

“You mean… like Jack Donaghy is to Liz Lemon?” I managed to not say out loud.

I kept wondering it as he led me on a private tour of his production studio: his sound stage, his editing suites, his super-cool hang-out kitchen with his super-cool film-nerd employees — all of whom reported to him.

After only an hour, I truly believed this guy might help me, just as Jack helped Liz hire Tracy Jordan, write a book, host a talk show, and buy her very own Manhattan apartment. “He actually sees something in me,” was all I could think.

In the previous hour, Steve had learned the following key facts about me as a person: I love Bruce Springsteen more than Spanish Johnny loved Puerto Rican Jane down on Shanty Lane; I swam competitively growing up and I love being in the water; and I love dissecting screenplays.

Before the elevator arrived, he added, as an afterthought: “I’m headed to the Hamptons tomorrow. I might actually be meeting up with — you’ll never believe this — some of Springsteen’s people. You should come out with me.”

“What? You’re what?” The words sounded so absurd, I had no idea how to process them. “Meet Springsteen’s people?” Who was this guy?

“I… I work tomorrow. No. Thank you, though.”

“That’s a shame. Well, I’ll send you the first script. Let me know what you think.”

The elevator doors opened and Steve ended the interview with something even more awkward than his initial handshake. He leaned in and gave me a hug. My doe eyes quickly turned to deer-in-the-headlights eyes, and I pulled away, backing into the elevator.

“Bye,” I managed, although I was suddenly so confused. Jack never hugs Liz. Jack would never even shake Liz’s hand. Or pretend to like her music. Or invite her to the beach.

I liked the job, and I wanted the job, but suddenly I wasn’t entirely sure what the job was, or just what kind of mentor Steve wanted to be. Over the next three days, without contacting Steve at all, I became acutely aware that he was no Jack.

 

From Thursday afternoon to Sunday evening, I received the following one-sided correspondence:

Thursday evening, email:

rebecca, such a pleasure meeting you — quite surprising — definitely more than expected. i'm kind of reeling... so, here's the script & teaser & writer's summary of the director's notes from tuesday.  read whenever you feel like it and get in touch as soon as you want. till then, steve.

Friday morning, email:

morning rebecca, doing a little work and then on my way to the beach.  call me later - maybe make a plan, come see me, and we’ll make it a really happy friday! till then, steve.

Friday evening, text message:

u wanna catch a train to asbury park in the am — read the script on the way— have lunch, go for an ocean swim – head back to the city on the boat in the evening… might be a nice change from yr routine. I’d like to spend the time w u if u feel good about that. steve

Friday, late night: missed call.

Saturday, text message:

I’m in town and wld like to invite u to brunch if u r comfortable w that. steve.

Saturday, late night: Three missed calls.

Sunday, email:

rebecca, didn't hear back so hope you were not put off by my inviting you again to the shore for lunch & a swim on saturday.  funnily enough, i had lunch with bruce's pr lady that day — seems he might even come to my screening in asbury park on the 29th.  that'd be something....bet you'd come to that one! don't know if you've taken a look at the script (no rush there) but i'm in town and going to make brunch — omelette and feta salad — come over if you'd feel comfortable doing that.  if so, give a call. maybe do that anyway... till soon i hope, steve.

Finally, Sunday evening, I caved and sent him an email:

Steve, It was nice to meet you. Just want to let you know that other projects have materialized and I won't be able to give your script due consideration. Thank you for the opportunity to interview.  Good luck to you, Rebecca

Five minutes later, email:

rebecca, no worries — i fully understand — good luck to u too! just plse return the script and materials that i gave u as they r in short supply. I’ll be at my office, just stop by. all best, steve.

Commentarium (21 Comments)

Feb 20 12 - 1:37pm
TV Professional

Rebecca --

The problem isn't that it's hard for women to be writers or successful in show-biz. I've been writing and producing in Hollywood for nearly 15 years... and have many man successful female writer friends. They work in drama, comedy and variety. And while I don't speak for them... or even profess to know what it's like to be a woman, what I can say with 100% certainty is this: if you're the age of a PA (give or take 22 or 23) YOU ARE NOT A TV OR MOVIE WRITER (yet). And if you think you are, you're either a writing savant (and or genius) or filled with unimaginable hubris. My guess is -- it's the latter. I'm always amazed that people think they can just come to show-biz and be a writer... and are then surprised that it wasn't what they expected. Do you have any experience on which to draw from? What do you have to say? If you think you become a writer by meeting with a some sleezy guy with a production office you deserve what you get. You become a writer by writing... You don't become a writer by working as a PA. You make money as a PA. You make friends as a PA. You learn how movies or TV shows are made as a PA. You make connections. You get coffee as a PA. And like any social setting where adults find themselves, you get hit on. Surprise! You know how you learn about writing? Write! Write something great. You also should move to Los Angeles. NY has about 3 TV shows... Hollywood has about 3000.

Oh, one last thing. You know who else it's hard for in showbiz? 22 year old guys. They very rarely get writing jobs, too. It's not a sex thing. It's an experience thing.

Feb 20 12 - 4:27pm
.....

good point

Feb 21 12 - 4:43am
huh

Yikes, adults should not find themselves getting hit on during a hiring interview unless it's for an escort service. Also, lots of other fields do suggest that you find a mentor who is successful in your field, particularly if you are a woman. If all of them just want to hit on the younger women in lieu of mentoring, that's a systemic problem in your field.

Feb 21 12 - 12:33pm
The way it is

Yeah, and FeBreeze should come out of my rear when I fart. But that's just not in the cards. When you work in a field where you get paid for playing make believe, there will be people out of touch with reality. They will hit on you. There are mentors, and there are sleaze balls. In a perfect world, there would be only mentors. But in that world, my room would smell like FeBreeze after I ate at Taco Bell.

Feb 20 12 - 4:23pm
canadian

This article just made the writer come off as deluded and stuck in a fantasy world. If you want to make your career as a writer, MAKE YOUR CAREER AS A WRITER. Why do you need a man to help you out the steps? Make things happen for yourself instead of whining about a man isn't around the figure out your shit for you.
And another thing: you want to know why the relationship between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy seems too good to be true? Because it's a fucking tv show.

Feb 20 12 - 6:30pm
src

"How do we get the Jack Donaghys of the world to view women as smart, potential long-term mentees — the same way that they might look at a younger guy who reminds them of their up-and-coming former selves?"

Is this relationship actually common in the entertainment world?

Feb 20 12 - 6:34pm
KS

I spent many years at the beginning of my career looking for a mentor. I'm sure that some people actually do find someone who can help them avoid making the obvious mistakes while learning a trade, but I never found this person. In the end I just had to dive in, have my share of disasters, and after a large number of years, I'm a seasoned pro. I suspect that I'm more the rule than the exception.

Feb 20 12 - 8:12pm
TV Professional

There's one other thing, I forgot, Rebecca.

The character of Liz on 30 Rock is in her late 30s, perhaps 40 or 41. And while I can't recall the specifics -- not that matters, it's fiction, anyway -- she didn't graduate college, walk into Jack Donagy's office and say "I'm a writer. Can I be in charge of a late night sketch show?" If her fictional career path was anything like the career paths of the dozens of variety show writers I know and have worked with, she started out as a PA on some crappy Comedy Central show....got let go when the host was fired for doing drugs backstage... got another crappy job as a PA... then another... then at her next job, the writer's asst was out sick, and presto, she was now working with the writers. Then she bounced around from one crappy show to another writing jokes for people a lot less funny than she is... until she landed at 30 Rock. The point is: all that time, she was writing jokes in her spare time, honing her craft, figuring out how sketches work, and why so many of them suck... It was only then she found a mentor (fictional, I might ad. In the real world, older, successful guys only mentor a young pretty girl to get into her pants. But, the girls who put themselves in that situation, know that... it's the bargain they make with themselves... They'll trade sex and companionship for a leg up on everyone else.)

Feb 21 12 - 7:02pm
Also TV Professional

I think you have extrapolated a lot about this young woman and her life journey based on information that simply isn't there. Who's to say she's in her early twenties? Self-identifying as a "doe-eyed innocent" indicates a maturity beyond that particular epithet. I know talented people in their 30s still slogging their way through PA-ville. Everything is changing exponentially in the media landscape of today, and the person claiming to know the TV writer's path in the 21st century is the person I would accuse of unimaginable hubris, not the young writer trying to find their way.

Rebecca: Surely you've already had your fair share of criticisms and comments from the peanut gallery, and it's the great gift your generation has to be better-adapted to rolling with these punches than its predecessors. But in this case, the above commenter has done you a favor: punctuating your very point with a venomous rant of presumptuous accusations and advice aimed more to hurt than help. The irony is so palpable it's delicious.

The bottom line is this: Writing, like any of the creative professions, is so deeply competitive that the wise individual knows the only person they can fully trust is themselves. As the above commenter has illustrated, even the successful do not outgrow the nagging feeling of never being quite good enough or the panic of not knowing where your next gig may come from. The natural impulse when resources are in short supply is not to foster the young, it's to eat them. Your quest must be one of self-validation, for the Millenials have no mentors to claim.

Feb 20 12 - 8:44pm
Another Steve

Nice try. A few thoughts:

1. It's unfortunately that the Steve in your story was a sleaze, but somtimes the world is sleazy, and you have to detach from it. Or not... if you're into that kind of thing.

2. Many male writers are without mentors, too.

3. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are fictional characters.

Feb 20 12 - 9:02pm
growingupishard

although i am neither a writer or work in the entertainment world, i was a female in a completely male dominated industry (different profession now) for the better part of my 20's. it sucks but it's pervasive: assholes in your industry. if it's not the sexist pigs, it'll be the bitter old ladies. if it's not the misogynistic male colleagues who take every chance to sabotage your work product in your face, it'll be the slutty girls who sleep their way to the top, making it impossible for the rest of us to be judged by the quality of our work and intelligence. life, young lady, is unfair. i won't try to convince you of sometimes delusional thought that if you work hard it'll pan out for you. the fact is, sometimes it just won't, and sometimes it will. you don't need a mentor, you need a life experience and the guts to stick with what you think you love doing. do not whine about what you don't get - most truly successful and tenacious people (men or women) know what it means to stand alone, completely. i never had a mentor in any of my jobs and turned out just fine. if you're the type that NEEDS a mentor, you're not going to make it. i always thought it'd be nice to have, but at the end of the day, there is an odd sense of freedom and pride in knowing that whatever you have was your own making. independence, isn't that what us women should really be striving for? i just sort of shake my head when i see and hear about girls like you... entitled, whiny.

Feb 20 12 - 9:26pm
svp

Surprised to get to the end of this and find so many negative comments--I liked it. I didn't feel like the writer doesn't think she needs to pay her dues or anything... definitely didn't think she thought 30 rock was non-fiction!

Feb 22 12 - 1:02am
Shocked and saddened

It is amazing that the vast majority of responses to this blog are either attacking or scolding the female writer, instead of addressing the boorish behaviour of a male in power, perceptively an individual who would have significant influence within his industry. "TV Professional" above is another stellar example for and of this sleazy industry. Sad. I guess the interns seduced by JFK, Clinton, Letterman, anon, Et. Al., simply had it coming to them or should be blamed for not gaining more life experiences on their own.

Feb 22 12 - 10:12am
Jax

I think the difference is that she wrote the article, so people are responding to her. She can't do anything about his creepy behavior, all she can control is her reaction to it. While I don't agree with the people who are openly attacking her, I do feel like the people who are telling her that she will need to develop a slightly thicker skin to succeed are not completely off base.

Feb 27 12 - 1:39am
LMB

Her reaction to him was controlled. She cut him off. Then she wrote a story about it for Nerve. What's thin skinned about that?

Feb 22 12 - 2:43am
monkey

So here is the thing I think- while I get that being harassed is a bummer on the job- it is part of the job as a woman. Learning to handle it while hanging onto the job and getting your own back is the magic trick. NOT longing for some guy to come rescue you. Cause that is what this reads like to me.

His behaviour was not acceptable- but since when do boys play fair? And if she had put a stop to it , or even better, did the work and ignore the rest of this guy's bullshit, she would have had some power in the situation. As it was, she lost time to this idiot, but allowed him to intimidate her as well.

Feb 22 12 - 8:15pm
monkeehouse

I did not get that rescue me idea at all. Rebecca is just telling a story of what happened to her......great story & well written. Sometimes a rose is just a rose.

Feb 24 12 - 7:28pm
TV Professional

Rebecca --

There's yet another thing I forgot to add. The headline on this post is "Being a Female TV Writer is Just as Hard As you Think." Only here's the thing -- You have NO idea what it's like to be a female TV writer. You aren't one. Did you even talk to any female TV writers? Actually, this is a piece about how hard it is for a person with no experience to get a job. And this isn't a problem that's unique to 20-something girls. Wanting to write for TV... and actually writing for TV are two different things. Finding a job was impossible for 8.3% of the population last month. The good news, if there is any, is that you're not alone.

Feb 26 12 - 2:58pm
Dee

Sexual harassment is illegal and punishable by law. It is no more "just the way things are" than murder, arson, battery and theft. Remember what you said the next time someone steals your car and beats you to a pulp. Guess you won't be calling the cops, then. Hope you don't whine about it.

Feb 26 12 - 5:01pm
Two Cents

Dee, along with murder and arson you forgot rape and torture. What this poor girl who wrote the story suffered is equal to all those things!

Mar 25 12 - 6:11pm
She's Right

As a fellow young woman in the entertainment industry, I have run into the situation of which she speaks not just once but multiple times- and older man extending casual invitations to get together, promises of introductions that never materialize, something that is always slightly off.
It got to the point where I created a false boyfriend- but to my surprise, that never really staved them off either. Why? Because they have money and power. And this seems to make them think that it is appropriate to reach out to younger women in a vulnerable place who need more than anything to trust them and be able to see them as a mentor in a confusing, and often suggestive manner.
This is not to say that I haven't met a few male mentors along the way with the money and the power and the wives and kids who have been tremendously honest, good people. But they are few and far between.
After having a number of experiences similar to her, I frankly felt lost. I happened to stumble upon New York Women in Film and Television and am now a proud, involved, member.
All these experiences have taught me that as a young woman, you can reach out to men, but have the capacity to feel not only horribly disappointed but also devalued, as if their words about your talent were only efforts to get you into bed, whereas reaching out to successful accomplished women has no downside.
Thank you so much for bringing this story to light; it needed to be told.