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My Hollywood Unemployment Agony
A TV comedy writer shares the private shame of being out of work
By Anonymous TV Comedy Writer
I’m a mid-level TV writer in Los Angeles and I’m afraid. Not of crime rates or Wokeism, or even angry hordes of Ted Lasso fans.
I’m afraid because I haven’t worked in a year.
So who am I? What shows have I written for? Are you kidding, I’m not telling you any of that shit. I can’t have my name out there like that.
To most people, this sounds absurd. “You’re a writer. Maybe somebody will see what you’ve written and give you a job!” Except that’s not how this business works. TV writers don’t get jobs by writing, they get jobs by having other jobs. (The same goes for agents. I spent five years trying to get an agent. The day I got hired on a show my phone started ringing off the hook. It’s stopped ringing since then, partly because phones no longer have hooks.) Agents and showrunners are like women who date Pete Davidson. They don’t want you until somebody hotter than them wants you. The labor shortage and the Great Resignation don’t apply to us. (It would be so nice if they did!) Unless you’re at the very top of the TV writer food chain, there’s always someone waiting to take your job before you get it.
And yet unemployment in Hollywood is a job. It’s so much of a job I can literally describe it to you using what corporate types call a “Job Description.”
Job Title: Unemployed TV Writer
Start/End Date: Hahahahaha
Role Summary: As an unemployed TV writer you will be expected to look for a job while pretending you’re not looking for a job because looking for a job is very “ew” and “yuck.” Joblessness is a big fat scarlet J. It’s like a MAGA hat you can’t take off.
Qualifications: Good news! Being unemployed requires no qualifications whatsoever. You could be a recent college graduate or a seasoned showrunner who got canceled for asking your assistant to send feet pics.
Secondary Duties: Navigating The Changing TV Landscape. There are currently 559 scripted series on the air and ten writing slots. You could always pitch your own show, but most projects are based on pre-existing IP, so get ready to take a meeting with that woman selling her farts in jars because she just signed with your agency. With Open Writing Assignments becoming commonplace in TV, expect to spend some time coming up with your take on an idea some producer had in the shower. No, I’m serious. It’s called “Shower” and it’s about a guy who gets his best ideas in the shower. Forty-seven other writers are pitching on it so you better give it your all!
The other part of The Changing TV Landscape is demographic. I’m a woman, which I’m told is a Good Thing. Then again, I’m a white woman, which I’m told is a Less Good Thing. Neither of these pronouncements, which come from everyone from agents to executives to guys who haven’t written an episode of TV since Becker are quite true. Being a woman has both helped and hurt me in the past. I’ve gotten a leg up in situations where an all-male room needed a woman on staff. I’ve also gotten shit from showrunners who were pressured by the studio to hire me instead of their friend. Passive-aggressive shit, mind you. (Remember we’re talking about middle-aged men who still play Dungeons and Dragons. No one’s going to throw a phone at your head, that’s for jocks.) Now, to be fair to people who run shows, they’re busy and under incredible pressure. If I were in that position I’d want to hire someone I know and trust because he sold me cocaine in the 90s while working as a valet at Shutters.
Oh, back to the job description. Your third-most important duty is running errands while trying not to bump into people you know. Once, during a prior period of unemployment, I ran into an old coworker in a Pavillions parking lot. He asked me what I was working on. Not realizing he meant “what show are you working on?” I made the mistake of answering, “a spec.” His eyes bulged with panic. What if I asked if he could “take a look” or, even worse, “pass it along.” (The only thing TV writers hate more than writing is reading.) He nervously said something about getting home to his family. (N.B.: Gen X male comedy writers have no interest in being anywhere near their families.) His Tesla sped out of there so fast it almost hit a group of normie loser non-pros. I’ve never been so embarrassed for someone, by which I mean me.
Which brings me to another key duty: coping with shame. One approach to this is therapy. To everyone in therapy right now: congrats on having earned enough WGA Extended Coverage points to pay for it! Another approach is to stop thinking so much about yourself and help the less fortunate, but I should warn you that half the volunteers you’ll meet at that cat shelter are other unemployed writers trying to network.
Networking! Why did it take me so long to mention it? Because, if you’re a TV writer, networking isn’t a thing. Networking is for people in normal fields like sales or making high-altitude destroyer missiles for Raytheon. The Hollywood elite don’t need more friends. They’re too busy trying to demote the ones they have to Yearly Dinner Party Acquaintances. No one’s looking to add people. This isn’t the cult from Wild Wild Country.
Wait, I almost forgot. There is one other thing.
Strategizing with your reps. If you’re lucky enough to have them, check in at least once a week so they can tell you that Jason Sudekis’ development assistant just read your script and really likes your vibe and would love to have 19 Zoom meetings about it before never calling again.
Expectations in Your Role
Sometimes it’s not the what, it’s the how. Is your problem your power being turned off due to non-payment, or is it your attitude? Here are a few ways you, an Unemployed Writer, can do a better job of being unemployed:
Get Advice From the Masters. I mean, not in person. These people have gates on their houses for a reason. But there are plenty of successful writers on podcasts. Don’t have time to listen to podcasts in between all that other stuff? No problem, I’ll summarize. “How did I get into the business? It’s pretty crazy. After graduating from Harvard I showed up in New York with maybe, like, 20,000 dollars in my pocket. Luckily, my roommate was best friends with Amy Poehler so I spent a weekend writing a packet for SNL, was hired the next week and now I have eight shows on the air.”
*suddenly, hearing the sound of an angry mob at the gate*
“I’ve been really lucky.”
Write Your Way Out of It. Sometimes a failed TV writer makes a comeback by writing a script that becomes a critically-acclaimed hit while their old colleagues from Suddenly Christine fall off the map or continue to bitterly hack it up at Nickelodeon. Consider this your inspo. All you have to do is write the greatest script of your life. That’s right, just write the next Mad Men. No pressure!
Promote Yourself on Social Media. If you can’t write your way out of a jam, try writing your way into one. The best place to do this is Twitter, a social media platform where disgruntled liberals go to become more disgruntled before ordering from GrubHub. A lot of people join Twitter hoping it will help their career, and in a few cases it has. But it’s mostly a pyramid scheme based on recruiting an ever-increasing number of bad-take-havers, whose takes attract even more bad-take-havers to become outraged at the original group of bad-take-havers’ takes. If you want a job, you’d have a better chance trying to shitpost your way into a Republican Congressional seat. Or getting a job at Gutfeld!
The good news? If you can manage to post jokes on there without anyone threatening to murder you, you’re probably pretty good at it.
Don’t Be Afraid To Reach Out. In all seriousness, this is a brutal industry. A brutal industry that attracts sensitive people. It can be a toxic combination. I’ve tried meditation, exercise and every medication you can imagine. I was fortunate enough to find one that worked out. It hasn’t solved my problems but it’s made it easier to cope. So, like I said, don’t be afraid to reach out. Just not to me. To be honest, you seem a little desperate and it might rub off. Plus I don’t want to blow my cover.
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Also on The Ankler:
It’s Anxiety Week! The Entertainment Strategy Guy takes a hard look at the numbers behind our collective feeling of instability and stares straight into The Content Bubble’s Sum of All Fears.
Then go deeper into our exclusive Anxiety Week coverage. For an understanding of why so many of us feel this way, start with The Pit in Your Stomach is Real, and continue on to “It Feels Like the Last Days of Rome” from new contributing editor Nicole LaPorte.
CAMERA ROLL IS UP! Great photos of who was where this week in Hollywood.
Check out our new awards season pop-up, The Glossy. It’s Vincent Boucher’s take in the ramp-up to the Oscars on the nexus of fashion and entertainment, who’s making money now and how, and the most inventive costume work in film and TV.
Zelensky Memo Reveals 'Your Business Smells Russian' Campaign: Sean Penn's co-director/producer shares the leader's call to action, revealed on The Ankler Hot Seat podcast.
On The Optionist:
A highly curated list of 10 current and backlist books, new journalism, and podcasts ready for option. This week: divorcees, a detective and Ukrainian ghosts.
Subscribe during the free beta period here (it’s almost over!).
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