Today’s piece is written by Steven 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 everyday 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.
Installment #2 of WHY WE WRITE is a series of short essays by prominent television and film writers and conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John. (Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org). I have asked the AMPTP to give me original content expressing its side of the current strike, but the group has declined to date.