Pickets and Pitches
L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service
Vail CO, Colorado
Waving signs, chanting slogans, marching in circles: These seemed like activities for poor people. So I had avoided picketing with my fellow Writers Guild of America members until someone appealed to my better self with this argument: Picket lines are the best networking opportunity ever invented.
I headed to the Fox lot in Century City on the west side of Los Angeles after hearing it’s the hot spot for powerful TV show creators and writer-directors because it’s closest to their beachfront houses. I was warned to skip the 5 a.m. shift, when the important work of preventing Teamsters and UPS trucks from entering gets done, because no successful writer ever wakes up before 9 a.m.
When I arrived at 9:30, Emily Fox, who has written for “The Ghost Whisperer,” told me to flip through the sign-in sheets. “To see if there’s someone here you would accidentally like to run into,” she explained.
Within minutes, I was walking in a tiny circle with writers from “The Simpsons,” which I thought was a strong start. But when I wondered aloud whether this whole strike was even a good idea, Matt Selman set me straight. Once a war starts, he said, soldiers have to listen to the generals and do whatever they’re told. “I don’t, however, feel this way about real war,” he clarified.
I ditched Selman as soon as I spotted Chuck Lorre, who is in charge of “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang,” a show that almost hired me this year. Instead of handing him a script, I chose the classy route and chatted him up about the strike. It was going well until we ran out of things to say and were stuck marching in circle after circle in awkward silence, occasionally interrupted by my desperate conversational gambits, such as “The signs asking people to honk? Not such a good idea, it turns out.” I had to repeat that one about four times. Honking cars are an impediment to networking.
I got pointed in the direction of “Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence, who I had limited success with. I got some good time in with Dan Sterling, who runs “The Sarah Silverman Show” and Carter Bays, the co-creator of “How I Met Your Mother.” For a while I chatted up “House” creator David Shore, who said I wasn’t the first writer to approach him on the picket lines. “I prefer to think they’re coming up to me because they like me and I’m good-looking,” he said. He also came up with this genius suggestion: To improve networking, the guild should institute speed picketing, in which you change walking partners every 10 minutes. There are good reasons why Shore has a top-rated show and I don’t.
My schmoozing, though, was amateurish compared to that of a small group of super-attractive people amassing spellbound crowds. It turned out they were not writers at all but actors. “I think networking is all this is,” explained “American Dad” writer Chris McKenna. “Especially the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) people. It’s, `Hey I love your show. If you ever need voice work …’ and then they give you their card.”
I was about to approach Joss Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
and “Angel,” when I spotted the biggest networking opportunity of my life: Larry David. I waited until the perfect lull in his conversation and then, when he was just opposite me, leaped to the other side of the line. When I introduced myself, he responded, “Joel Stein, the writer?” I felt very important until I realized that was the safest thing in the world to say to someone on a WGA picket line.
I was making some headway with David when he suddenly asked whether he should go all the way to his car to get his suntan lotion. When I suggested that he use someone else’s, he explained that he only uses a brand called Badger because it doesn’t burn his eyes. It became very clear to me that although he’s a great writer, David has no acting skills whatsoever.
Happy with all that I accomplished for myself in a short four hours of picketing, I headed back to my car. I was parked next to John Bowman, chair of the WGA’s negotiating committee and creator of “Martin” and “Frank TV,” who was also leaving. Bowman, who’d scored face time with Norman Lear and Garry Marshall on the lines, was impressed with my work that day. “Where else are you going to meet Larry David other than a picket line?” he asked. “And it’s a great leveler.”
TV writers are doing such amazing career advancement while not working that jealous film writers, who generally don’t know each other as well, have appointed drink captains who gather about 80 people at a different bar every Thursday. They’ve brilliantly removed the stupid parts of picketing ” like trying to get the studios’ attention ” and replaced them with drinking. I hate screenwriters.
There’s little chance that the WGA will settle this dispute any time soon, because it turns out that walking in tiny circles is a brilliant social tool. It should be instituted at all parties, even those not held at country-western bars. The best the studio execs can do is to swallow their pride and come out to march with us. I’m pretty sure that would produce better show ideas than any pitch meeting.
Joel Stein is a columnist for the Times.