Sunday, October 26, 2008

The House of Flop

“What the hell”, I thought. I hadn’t tried to write for TV in years. Why not give it a shot? I dove in and three weeks later, a 51-page spec pilot was rolling out of my printer. Like all great TV shows, it had a dazzling cast of characters, tons of melodrama, a dash of comedy plus lots of bloody, gratuitous violence (for the kids). Flush with excitement, I showed it to a small, select group of people, the majority of whom didn’t seem to like it very much. They had a few good things to say, but the common theme seemed to be confusion. Apparently, my initial stab at creating an hour-long drama had left my readers a bit baffled as to what kind of TV show I was trying to write. Was it supposed to be funny? Dramatic? Scary? Clearly, nobody was quite seeing in their mind’s eye, what I had seen in mine. If this had been a feature script I would’ve had a better sense of how to proceed, but being a relative newcomer to TV writing, I felt sort of clueless. After a week of lost sleep, I opted to slide my pilot quietly “into the drawer” and move on to a feature spec. In the land of show business, this sort of occurrence goes by many comforting names, but in the real world, I think it’s called “failure.”

Who knows why, but every once in a while a project just doesn’t gel. Sometimes, you’re blissfully unaware of that fact until someone (hopefully someone tactful) points it out. Early in my career, I wrote a short play that attracted the attention of a New York based TV executive. Sensing my ship had come in, I rushed to my typewriter (yes, it was a typewriter) and proceeded to crank out my first-ever TV movie (A.K.A. backdoor pilot). At the time, quirky, character based shows like “Picket Fences” and “Northern Exposure” were all the rage, so I decided to “outquirk” them all with a story based on the early days of my parents’ marriage when my dad was a young evangelical minister. I wrote it as truthfully as I could (including lots of references to Jesus) and sent it off to the executive. Weeks later, I received a short, terse note saying she had problems with the show’s “intense religiosity” and “aggressive proselytizing.” It was the first time that it had occurred to me that this exec was a native New Yorker (and Jewish) and might not have experienced the story in the spirit it was intended. Of course, it’s easy to step in artistic dog shit when you’re young and inexperienced, but sadly it can happen at any point in a person's career.

By 2005, I was a produced screenwriter, living in D.C. and commuting to L.A. once a month for work. One day, mid-flight, I had what I thought was a hilarious idea for a buddy movie. The plot revolved around two young cops forced to go undercover in order to solve a series of murders in a clown school. Hilarious, right? Granted, I’m not known for churning out mainstream comedies, but this idea practically wrote itself. In a few short weeks I had a script that I thought was side-splittingly funny. It had tons of physical gags and managed to balance both highbrow and lowbrow comedy including a scene where our heroes burst into a backroom; certain that they’ve located the place where the sinister clowns are meeting. Finding the room empty, the first cop looks suspiciously around and says “Where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns?” and the second cop replies “Well, maybe next year.” That joke still makes me laugh! When the script was finished, I showed it to my then-manager and agents. It was greeted with what could best be described as a “deafening silence.” Nobody got it. One of my agents simply said “I hate clowns. They scare me. I couldn’t finish it.” My former manager said no clown movie had ever been successful in the entire history of show business. I couldn’t believe it. A year later, I tried it out on my new manager who was similarly baffled by the tone (R-rated humor mixed with circus clowns). I don’t know. Maybe I’m insane. Maybe I have no taste. But that script still slays me. I think it's a riot.

God knows, I’ve written some bad shit in my day. Some of it I did consciously (usually with a gun to my head). Such is the life of the professional. The good news is that the business is usually forgiving to writers (much more so than directors or stars). In my opinion, if there’s one thing more deadly than flopping, it’s the fear of flopping. I encounter this a lot when talking to novice writers who can never seem to finish anything (a sure sign of fear of flopping). To me, the joy of writing is striking out into unexplored territory and seeing how far I can trek before falling off a cliff or being swept over the falls. Thank god that every once in a while somebody (like a Charlie Kaufmann, for instance) will courageously stick their neck waaay out and take a shot at reinventing the wheel. That said, even Mr. Kaufmann (whom I think is brilliant) has tripped over his own genius once or twice.

Are you ready for the scary part? I’ve personally talked to writers who have scored huge, ground-breaking successes. I’ve also talked to writers who have suffered big, embarrassing failures and interestingly enough, both had similar stories to tell. Both felt supernaturally compelled to tell their highly unique story. It just came bursting out of them. It felt dangerous and hard to commandeer; like a raft hurdling down the rapids. No one felt safe or secure about the outcome. And then, when the projects finally debuted before the public, some were cheered, while others were booed off the screen. Nobody wants failure, but if it’s your intention to “create” for a living, I can guarantee it’s waiting for you. It’s lurking around some corner with a big stick. It hurts, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.

I never like to glamorize artistic suffering. It’s real. It definitely exists, but I never want it to have any power over me. And I certainly don’t like giving it any credit. But, truth be told…Once you’ve been run over by the truck or had the anvil fall on your head, it never hurts the same way again. I once had a theatre critic write some truly evil, dismissive shit about my work in the pages of the New York Times. Adding irony to insult, the review came out on Christmas Eve. I was crushed. Devastated. I thought I’d never write again. But I did. I also grew up a little. I learned. I kept going. A few years later, the Times had something much nicer to say about a film I wrote. I don’t know whatever happened to that first critic. I suspect he spent the rest of his career thinking up nasty things to say about people. Except for the occasional misstep, I’ve spent mine making people laugh. Works for me.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As always, your entry talked me down down from the "literal" ledge. Thank God for shared pain and Crumbs cupcakes to keep me at the lap top. Keep sending in the clowns. And, I agree, that was some funny s***!