Today I was thinking about "new talent."
I'm at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen - watching stand up comedians, sketch artists, improv groups... There's also a very large film festival here, with full length films... shorts... stuff like that.
A lot of agents and managers are here to sign and look for new talent, and more than a few people are here looking to find new comedic voices to write for them... which got me thinking about the different paths toward a person's first shot, and how the very path in which writers and artists are found and hired shapes their feelings toward each other.
My story first, if you'll indulge me.
My first job was writing on Johnny Bravo. To say I had little idea of what I was doing is an understatement. Whether it was jokes that were inappropriate for children's television, or simply mediocre animation story telling, I was learning on the job and I knew it. As I'm sure, by the way, did every artist on that show.
I'm sure I came off as a jackass. I'm sure, at points, I still do. :)
Couple that with the fact that since I didn't know whether my first job would be my last job, I split my attention between comedy and writing animation, with most of my chips on comedy. But by the end of the season - when cartoons started coming back, and I started seeing my words turned into the kind animated stuff I loved as a kid... it became something I wanted to continue doing.
I admit that now, but I didn't know then, obviously. What I knew about the HOWS of animation you could fit in a thimble, although that didn't diminish my enjoyment of it. And my desire to get better at it. And my being thrilled to find a new way to do what I loved to do - write comedy - in a different format.
But that's how I got my shot. I could have been a car crash, I could have been brilliant... I was... something of a fender bender that learned, I think, as I went. And I think that's a learning curve that writers get, that artists get much less of.
Correct me if I'm wrong - because these are just theories - but when an artist gets his or her first job, it's based on a portfolio. Be it boards, character designs, student films... there's a body of work that shows a network, a studio, or a producer that that artist can handle a job. The opportunity might be a position a level or two above the one they've done before - but you pretty much know what you're getting... it's right there on the page.
Its different for writing. Because you have to take so much more on faith. Yeah, somebody can write a great spec script, but you don't know how long it took. Yeah, you can read a great freelance script from another show, but you never know how much others put into it. And yes, you can test writers with freelance scripts... but you never know how they'll do on a production schedule, and you have to cut slack for them not knowing the characters as well as you do.
So, consequently, writers get hired with a lot less certainty in their skills than artists. But once you're hired, you're hired. You'd have to kick an employee in the face, or pee in the Executive Producer's office, to be let go.
I'm sure, as an artist with talent who can execute their job to the standards in which they were hired, looks at a shaky writer who cranks out one, two or three scripts that need work (but hopefully improve along the way) and it triggers an arched eyebrow, or an annoyed grumble.
Artists don't get to suck when hired. Mostly because, you probably don't. You've got a big ass portfolio of not sucking to prove it. If your designs don't match the show, it's obvious pretty fast. If your boards don't work with the show, you learn that after one pitch. If your timing blows, you see it fast. And so on and so on and so on. Even if you're a bit hacky, if you're hacky in the way the show wants you to be hacky, you're probably not going anywhere.
But writing is subjective... and if you (producer / studio) have seen somebody KILL on stage, and make a room or a theater roar with laughter, you already have somebody saying "This person HAS to be hilarious!"
Whether they can tell a story or not is the surprise.
I saw several comics today I would love to come in and pitch the shows I work on. If I like the logline, it'll go to premise. If I like the premise, it'll go to outline. If I like the outline, it'll go to script. That person gets to follow their idea all the way up until the point where it's obvious they're still looking for the skillset to do this regularly. and if they write a great script, they'll get a second one. It's only fair.
An untested comedy writer's portfolio is the script writing process - the ability to learn by doing on someone else's dime, really. Artists don't get that luxury, and I think that's another thing that drives a wedge.
I don't have a solution on this one. I don't even have a theory. But I do think it's one more perceived unfairness that creates tension.
How do you hire a new writer, without burdening or marginalizing established artists?