Friday, November 21, 2014

Careers in Entertainment: So You Want to Be A TV Writer or Producer? Interview with Lisa Melamed of Party of Five, Sisters and Other Hit TV Shows

Hey Dude Celebrated it's 25th anniversary this past June
at the ATX Festival in Austin. Pictured: Lisa Melamed (second from left)\
is flanked by cast members Chistine Taylor, Jonathan Galkin and
David Lascher.                                             Photo Courtesy Lisa Melamed
      Ever wonder how a TV writer gets to be a writer? Does it take education, talent and luck, or all of these? Read on as I interview Lisa Melamed, whose resume as a television writer and producer spans not just several decades but a plethora of popular shows we've all probably watched.

I met Lisa on a shoot in LA recently for a new show and she was kind enough to let me probe her mind to satisfy my curiosity. Find out how she made it and what any aspiring writer still needs to do.

Suzee:  You have worked on so many popular shows, I don't know where to start. So I will ask you,  how did you get started? Tell me about your road to Hollywood from Brooklyn.

Writer/Producer Lisa Melamed has worked
on Hey Dude! Sisters, The 4400 and many more.
Lisa: I got a B.A. in Television and Radio from Brooklyn College (City University of New York) in 1979.  Soon after that I was hired at Scholastic Productions in New York City, which is the t.v. and film division of Scholastic publishing.  The job was to develop shows and movies from Scholastic’s vast library of children’s and young adult books, and also to come up with original ideas.  I started as an assistant and moved up the ranks during the seven years I worked there.  We produced a number of Afterschool Specials, and the series Charles In Charge came out of Scholastic.

At that point I wasn’t writing scripts so much as midwifing them, but I was getting a really good education because I was constantly reading scripts, giving notes, getting notes, etc..  Eventually I became brave enough to start writing some sample scripts and sending them out.  My first two t.v. samples were  a

Murphy Brown spec (a spec script is when you take an existing series and come up with an original story using the show’s characters and format) and also a pilot called “Grace Under Pressure” about an overnight radio d.j..  Neither of those was ever filmed but they demonstrated that I could put a story on its feet and write good dialogue.

 “Hey, Dude”.  That was a great job, really fun, terrific colleagues including Graham Yost (who created “Justified”) and the lovely actress Christine Taylor.  The show kept one writer living on location in Tucson while it taped, and I had that position for several months, which was a great immersive learning experience for me.  It occurred to me that I should strike while the iron was hot, so while I was working on “Hey, Dude” I moved to Los Angeles, wrote another spec script (this time, a “Roseanne” episode), and within a year got hired as a writer on my first network show, “Brooklyn Bridge.”  That one was quick and painful (!), but the next season I got staffed on the NBC series “Sisters,” and ended up writing twenty-one episodes of that show over three years.  That was the one that truly launched my television writing career (and provided me with some important friendships that are strong to this day).
I got very lucky that through one of my Scholastic connections I was offered the chance to write for Nickelodeon’s first sit-com,

Suzee: What courses and internships did take? What would you recommend to someone who wants to do what you do?

This first photo was taken at the ATX Festival in Austin this past June, for the 25th anniversary of "Hey, Dude". Pictured are Christine Taylor, me, Jonathan Galkin, and David Lascher (cast members of "Hey, Dude")

Lisa: As I mentioned, my degree was in Television and Radio.  The production courses were pretty rudimentary back in the day.  I remember hand-lettering graphics for credits, since this was in the 1970’s, pre-computers.  And the cameras were enormous and cumbersome.  But between theory, writing, and production courses, it gave me a good overview of the industry.

One of my professors was James Day, who had been the president of KQED, which I believe was the first Public Television station.  He was an amazing teacher and a great resource, and after graduation, he pointed me toward a few unpaid internships, one at Children’s Television Workshop testing video games for Sesame Place, and I also did some work for a PBS study he was running.  And it was Jim who handed me an article from Variety about Scholastic’s newly formed television department and suggested that I apply for a job there.  I owe him a great deal, as I do two other professors, Geraldine DeLuca and Roni Natov, who taught children’s literature and ran a journal of children’s literary criticism.  They published a paper I wrote in the journal, which was a very helpful resume item for a recent graduate to have, and I think made a big impression when I applied for the Scholastic job.

"The take-away from all of this would be to try to make professional contacts as early in one’s career as you can, even while you’re still a student.  And do the extracurricular work so your resume can stand above the many others you’ll be competing with.  There was definitely luck involved, but there’s a straight line from those classes to the internships/publication to breaking into the industry. As a side note, over the years I’ve named characters after those three professors as a show of my gratitude toward them." - Lisa Melamed

Suzee: You have been the co-executive producer for such hit shows as Party of Five, Lipstick Jungle and The Fugitive and Consulting Producer for The 4400, A Gifted Man and currently Manhattan, among others Can you explain what exactly a producer does? Is it mostly writing, or are you responsible for other aspects of production?

When you’re on staff of a television series, the hierarchy goes as follows:
Staff Writer
Story Editor
Executive Story Editor
Supervising Producer
Co-Executive Producer/Consulting Producer
Executive Producer

In a way, those titles are comparable to Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior in that they’re sometimes more indicative of seniority/longevity on a project than they are indicative of the actual task.  Responsibilities really vary from show to show and from writer to writer.  But having the word “producer” in your title generally means that you contribute more than simply writing your individual episodes.  As a producer-level writer on various series, I’ve been involved in casting, editing, going on location scouts, and pitching in on rewrites of other writers’ scripts when necessary.  When you see the credit “Produced by” on a television series, that’s the person who’s really in charge of the nuts and bolts of production, the budget, hiring the crew, etc.

Suzee: Can you walk me through a day in your life as a producer for a hit TV series?

Lisa: A day at work on a show generally involves hours in a writers room, where the plot of every episode is crafted by the staff.  (And a lot of discussion about where to order lunch from.)  Later on, you get assigned a specific episode, for which you write an outline and then a teleplay.  The show runner, the studio and the network will all weigh in with notes on these documents and there will be multiple drafts of each.  If your episode is prepping (the week before it will be shot), there are casting sessions and meetings with the director about props, wardrobe, and the tone of the show.  If the episode is currently filming, it’s sometimes the writer’s responsibility to be on-set to be an extra set of eyes and to answer any questions about the script that the cast or the director might have.  If your episode is in post-production, you could spend hours of the day working with the editor.

Suzee:  Do you have to do a lot of research as a producer and writer? Your new series, Manhattan takes place in the 1940's. The 4400, which I loved, was sci fi. I imagine you really have to engross yourself in the characters and their lives.

I do a ton of research.  “Brooklyn Bridge” and “Manhattan” were both period shows, so any cultural or historical reference I wanted to make had to be vetted to make sure that it actually existed in the year the show took place.  And characters I’ve written have had a wide range of jobs and hobbies and interests and illnesses that I, myself, never had, but that I had to become familiar with in order to give the character depth and specificity.

When Swoosie Kurtz’s character on “Sisters” had breast cancer, or when Scott Wolf’s character on “Party of Five” struggled with alcoholism or Paula Devicq’s character with depression, I needed to make sure I had the knowledge to be able to write those stories with authority and great care.  You really do owe that to both the actor and the audience.  Oddly, in my career, I’ve given bone marrow transplants to three fictional characters in different series.  I’ve got files and files on that topic.

Needless to say, the internet has been a huge help. I remember writing a scene for a “Party of Five” episode where one of the characters was repairing a motorcycle, and what an amazing experience it was for the first time to not have to leave my desk, but rather to plug some words into a search engine (remember, this was the mid-1990’s) and find the right language to use to make it feel authentic.  Life-changing.

Suzee:  What are the major changes you have seen in the production of a TV series since you started in TV or in the way success of a show is measured?

Lisa: Production has remained very much the way it was when I began writing. The cameras are a little smaller, the editing software is faster, but fundamentally things happen the way they always have.  But there are so many more outlets now, viewership has become much more splintered.  I often use this as an example: when “Sisters” was canceled after six seasons on NBC, it was (only) getting a 16 share on Saturday nights at 10:00 p.m..  Nowadays, the networks don’t even put original programming on Saturday nights, and a sixteen share on any night of the week would be considered a massive hit today.

On the one hand, it’s great that there are many more means of distribution, many more shows, many more jobs.  But it’s challenging to try to stand out among so many choices.  I feel like some of the lower concept kinds of shows that I like to write get pushed aside in favor of shows that have a bigger, louder hook.  I’ve joked that the only way “Party of Five” would get on the air today is if the dead parents returned as zombies. 

 Suzee: What were some of the shows that you watched as a child that inspired you? What made you say, "I want to write a show like that, or "I bet I could make that story even better! " Did I Dream of Jeanie, The Brady Bunch, The Love Boat or Leave it to Beaver make you dream of a job in television? 

"Honestly, “John-Boy Walton” is one of the reasons that I’m a writer." - Lisa Melamed

 Lisa: I loved that “The Waltons” was shown from the point of view of the storyteller.  I remember being so excited when he sold his novel and moved to New York.  No kidding.

 Other shows that had a big impact on me were:
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”
and later on:
“St. Elsewhere”

Suzee:  What are some of your favorite shows on TV now? What are some of your favorite shows on other platforms that you like to binge-watch?

Lisa: Right now I’m loving “Girls”.  I’m just happy that Lena Dunham exists in the world, I think she’s got such a smart, specific, pure voice.  And I have huge writer-envy over “Orange is the New Black.”  “Transparent” on Amazon is fantastic – I watched all ten episodes in one day.

I would say that my favorite show ever is “The West Wing,” and more recently, “Friday Night Lights” absolutely blew me away.  There’s a part of me that wishes I’d had an opportunity to write for these shows, but on the other hand, it was so wonderful to get to be purely a fan.

Suzee: With all of the new platforms for content, do you think this will have a positive or negative effect on the industry?

Lisa: This is a very fun business to be in, a great way to make a living.  So if there are more opportunities for writers, directors, actors and all of the various craftspeople, that’s a big positive.  There will definitely be growing pains as the industry continues to evolve.

One example of this was the Writers Guild strike of 2007.  Distribution of content changed so quickly with dvd’s and On-Demand and watching shows on the web, and the strike was our effort to make sure that creators of content get compensated fairly when their work is shown in new ways.  And it’s a little bit confusing to keep track sometimes: a show with a million viewers on one outlet is a big success, whereas in another outlet, it would be deemed a huge failure.   We’re all learning the new rules.

Suzee: Any new projects in the works?

Lisa: I’m excited for the next phone call that brings me an opportunity I never could have anticipated.

Visit Lisa on IMDB at: