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How to Become a Writer, Part II: In Which Things Pick Up a Tiny Bit

Yesterday, we began answering Arvid Ingan's question, "How in god's name did you become a pro screenwriter and start writing for The Simpsons??" The answer, much to your dismay, was more circuitous and less glamorous than you might have imagined possible. It gets a little more boldfaced today, but all that boring crap yesterday was more instrumental.

÷ ÷ ÷

When last we left me, I was a published New Yorker writer. I planned on spending the rest of my days at a big white house in Connecticut. Adding to this delusion, only three months later, the New Yorker published another piece, a parody of Thomas Pynchon's new book, Vineland.

I didn't publish another piece in the New Yorker for almost four years.

However, Randy Cohen, then a writer for David Letterman (and now The Ethicist), read "Life Without Leann" and said I should submit material for Late Night. I did, and did not get the job. But Randy Cohen passed my material on to Susan Davis, a talent scout for HA!, a precursor of Comedy Central, and I got a job on The AfterDrive, a comedy talk show starring Denis Leary and Billy Kimball.

WRITING LESSON: Make Friends With Talented People

I moved to New York.

The show ended 13 weeks later.

I was unemployed, in New York.

Randy recommended me to Cara Stein at William Morris. I was still unemployed, but had an agent. The first thing Cara told me to do was write a "spec" TV script. The two big rules for writing spec scripts are:

1. Don't Write a Spec for the Hottest Show on Television
Because everybody else is doing that, and TV showrunners guickly get sick of reading yet another Office in which Jim and Pam finally do it.

2. Don't Write a Spec for the Show You Want to Work On
They know the show better than you, are better at doing it, and more easily angered when you give one of their characters a poop joke. They're also a year ahead of you, and what you have decided to write about may no longer be relevant, or worse, may overlap with something they are already doing.

So, naturally, I wrote a spec for the only show I wanted to work on, then the hottest show on television. It was called "Bart Burns Down the House." This was 1991, the second year of the show. Randy sent it to George Meyer, a friend of his, who sent it back saying he couldn't read it because he had just written an episode in which Homer set the house on fire (the legendary "Homer the Heretic").

I answered a want ad, and landed a job on the National Lampoon, which was coming back as a monthly under George Barkin (Ellen's brother), backed by Jim Jimirro, who had made his fortune on the Dorf on Golf wacky midget videos. George was brilliant and high-minded, and fired rather quickly. Along with Chris Marcil, Sam Johnson, Danny O'Keefe, and Ian Maxtone-Graham (who I had met on AfterDrive), we were allowed to put out a couple more issues before being fired after resisting putting a date rape joke on the cover.

I was unemployed again. Then Ian Maxtone-Graham got a job writing an MTV Game Show pilot, and hired me. The pilot wasn't picked up.

This time I was unemployed for several months. Then Susan Davis suggested me to a producer that was doing a pilot for Spy magazine. That pilot went nowhere, but I met Spy founder Kurt Andersen, and later pitched him the cover story, "1,000 Reasons George Bush Should Not Be Re-Elected." (Little did I know that eight years later we would elect another George Bush that would make his predecessor seem like Lincoln.) I was hired at Spy by then-Deputy Editor Susan Morrison (who now edits "Shout and Murmurs" at the New Yorker, among other things), and worked there until a few months after Kurt left.

I worked at HBO for a while, developing shows nobody ever saw for Comedy Central. Chris Marcil and Sam Johnson had gotten jobs writing for a new cartoon, Beavis and Butt-Head, and recommended me. I wrote a bunch of episodes, as well as two books, one of which you can now buy used for a penny. I also got more pieces in the New Yorker, usually a couple clumped together separated by years. Ian Maxtone-Graham recommended me at SNL, and I managed a meeting with Jim Downey (who in classic Jim Downey fashion, scheduled a 1 p.m. interview and then came out at 11 p.m. and invited me to dinner with the cast and writers), but did not get the job. I was almost hired at Conan, I think.

Kurt Andersen took over New York magazine and hired me. I worked there for a few years, writing two go-nowhere (non-WGA-minimum-paying) movies on the side. Then, in August 1996, when I was on my honeymoon, Kurt was fired after running a cover story critical of Henry Kravis' buddy Bob Dole. I resigned.

I was unemployed again. And married. With a mortgage.

Mike Judge recommended me to Rolling Stone to write a faux profile of Beavis and Butt-Head to coincide with the movie. While in LA that November (the idea was that I was following B&B around Hollywood), I visited Ian Maxtone-Graham, now working at The Simpsons. He introduced me to Mike Scully, the new executive producer. Both Ian and Ron Hauge, who I had worked with at the National Lampoon, recommended me. I submitted "Bart Burns Down the House."

And that's how I started writing for The Simpsons. But I'm sure there's a faster way.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. I Love You, Beth Cooper
    Used Hardcover $3.50

Larry Doyle is the author of I Love You, Beth Cooper

One Response to "How to Become a Writer, Part II: In Which Things Pick Up a Tiny Bit"

    Arvid Ingan May 18th, 2007 at 11:30 am

    You've answered my question spectacularly--thank you! Now I'm off to buy your book.

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