You always remember your first time. It happens to all of us eventually if you are in the game long enough. You get axed, canned, terminated, kicked to the curb, dropped, given the boot—FIRED! So, there I was waiting tables in this Italian restaurant in Los Angeles… this sounds like the beginning of a joke—and after a year and a half—that is exactly what the job became. I knew the end was near. I had just ended a successful three-year run of a live sketch comedy show where I gained priceless acting and comedy writing experience. This is what landed me my first real writing job at MTV on one of their hugely popular game shows. I don’t recall how I snagged my agent at the time, but I had one and luckily he also represented the producer of this hit show. I got an interview with the producer, he liked me hired me. I kissed the restaurant good-bye and was now a staff writer making three times the money I did as a waiter. It felt really good to finally be on my way as a working professional writer and not schlepping plates of pasta to ungrateful trolls.
I actually looked forward to getting up in the morning and driving to North Hollywood to the production offices. I couldn’t wait to get to the writer’s office and start my day. Most days I would be the first into the office, I’d turn on the lights and as the head producer would emerge from the elevator, I would be the only person he would see—the eager and thankful writer typing away at his computer.
I settled into the writer’s room quickly with the five other writers who had been on the show during the first season. During our lunches, they would regale me with all the gossip and we started to bond and become an efficient creative unit. We were each responsible for a quota—thirty bits per day, ten bits in the three different categories. I can’t explain how much fun it was to sit all day and write jokes and sketches in the writer’s room. I even had a desk and a phone.
This was my first experience being creative under a deadline and it was much different from anything I had ever been required to do before as a writer. When I’d hit writer’s block, the daily quota became a looming dark cloud, but I’d stay as long as it took to complete my quota and turned it into the head writer. Every day we would get back our material with an acceptance or rejection note flagged on every bit. We were crafting the entire show’s material and not everything we wrote was genius, but that’s why we had daily quotas. I always strived to do my best on every bit and turn in what I felt was my top work.
The weeks rolled past in a blur. Our writer’s lunches became commiseration sessions, as we’d grouse and laugh at the job and the material. I remember one of the veteran writers from the first season said, “It’s been six weeks. I think we’re all in the clear and we’re going to keep our jobs. They can’t let any of us go now. It’s smooth sailing from here until production.” I even recall we may have toasted to his declaration about our good fortune. It was probably exactly how the diners felt on the Titanic…
Yes, six weeks had blown past and I was now struggling with one of the three segments called “Round Two’s”— the idiotic mini-sketches that were supposed to be “messy, dirty, loud, wild, sexy, vulgar and over the top.” I may have left out a few requirements, but you get the idea. Zany stuff like, “In your best Elmer Fudd voice, sing to your date while you’re out hunting wabbits with this giant carrot.” That one crashed and burned. During a pre-production run through with the contestants, the guy being asked to do the bit was from Jamaica and never heard of Elmer Fudd. Now you can see how easily something that was genius in the writer’s room can go down in flames. It became increasingly more difficult to come up with new bits that weren’t done in season one. I started to feel the pressure.
I remember it was a Wednesday during a run through. I got a call at my desk from the producer who wanted to see me in his office—nobody else but me. I had a queasy feeling deep in my gut something was wrong. I quietly headed over to the producer’s office where I found the head writer already there. The producer asked if I could close the door. Now my heart was beating out of my chest. My senses heightened. I felt like I was just called into the principal’s office. The producer starts with, “now this has happened to all of us…” and I swear the room started getting dark as if I was going to pass out. THIS IS NOT HAPPENING! The producer and head writer continued to play good cop/good cop and tell me it wasn’t about the quality of my work, it’s just they thought I had “segment producing” experience when they hired me. The show is moving into the studio phase of production and they need someone who has experience writing on the fly. My eyes focused on their lips and I could not believe they were letting me go. I wanted to say, “But we just passed the six week safety net!” It was all a load of crap. This was the first job I was ever fired from.
Our meeting was over in five minutes. They told me I could “work out the week” and I felt so horribly numb, I planned on going home at 5:00 that day. If you fire me on a Wednesday and I’m on salary—I leave when I’m fired—thanks, guys. I quietly ambled back to the writer’s room where I didn’t say a word to my fellow scribes. We were all called into a major run through with contestants and a network executive. I slumped in my chair, miserable and glanced over and saw the executive motion toward me and whisper something to the producer. Now I really wanted out of there.
Later, I packed up my desk and said goodnight to my fellow writers, never telling them I wasn’t coming back tomorrow. I decided to go gently into that good night. FADE OUT— THE END.
The next day I called my agent, and if you remember he represented the producer of the show as well. I told him the producer fired me and he was shocked—shocked! He had no idea and told me he would find out what happened and call me back. What an idiot. The producer must have told him, as we were mutual clients. It made no sense that he wasn’t in the know. He didn’t really do much for me after this debacle anyway. Around noon I started to receive condolence calls from my fellow writers. They were totally shocked and it really rattled the writer’s room. We had bonded over those six weeks and to them it felt like the producer snuffed out one of their own. It was nice of them to give me their support. I later found out it was something to do with politics, as the brother of a writer from last season was brought in. The bright spot was when the show aired for its second season, I ended up receiving full writing credit on every episode . Deservedly so, as I wrote six weeks of material that ended up in most of the episodes.
Now, I found myself out of work and Christmas was coming. I enjoyed the holidays as much as I could and hoped for a better New Year. A few months later, I was blessed when I received a six month option on my spec screenplay and I was once again back in the game as a screenwriter. The road to carving out a career can get bumpy and rough at times, but if you stay in the game you will prevail—even if you get fired from your first professional writing job.
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“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” —Kurt Vonnegut
“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” —Confucius
“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.” ~ J.K. Rowling
“People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich.”—William Faulkner