This entry is bigger than reality television. It covers traditionally scripted shows and films as well.
I had the great pleasure of attending an event this past Sunday that celebrated the cult favorite comedy SLEDGE HAMMER and its creator, Alan Spencer. In his closing remarks after three hours of episode viewings and guest interviews, Alan recalled a number of his mentors and friends who had so greatly affected his work and/or encouraged him along the way.
Before I go any further, let me tell you about Alan’s early years and how he met those people.
Alan’s career took flight at a very early age, and it was during the shooting of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein that he met both Brooks and star Marty Feldman when he (no, I’m not kidding) wandered on set, went right up to Mel Brooks and asked if he was “busy.” Brooks, who was directing at the time, then gave young Alan his first piece of advice: “Be inconspicuous, kid.” The years to come would bring plenty more advice, and he and Alan remain friends to this day.
Now, I’m not advocating that you wander on set of your heroes’ productions — I simply share the story above as an example of the importance of seeking out mentors. Is it any wonder that Alan sold SLEDGE HAMMER in his early twenties? Or that he was able to capably act as its showrunner despite his young age?
What made the difference? Well, besides the fact that Alan is a flat-out brilliant writer, he had the best comedy mentors on Earth to turn to when he had questions.
Lots of first-time, totally green creatives mistake the jobs they want as lone wolf gigs where any discussion of the work pollutes the writers’ vision. They just want to write their specs and send out query letters or come up with shows to pitch that very seldom make it to the level of getting a meaningful meeting.
In a speech I made back in June, I said that you couldn’t throw a stick without hitting a mentor, and it’s absolutely true.
While working as a logger/transcriber for the MTV series FEAR, I learned quite a lot about the reality business in conversation with members of the story department and the executive producers, Cris Abrego and Rick Telles. Later, on THE OSBOURNES, I got to work with Greg Johnston, Sue Kolinsky, Henriette Mantel, Jeff Stilson, Melanie Graham and Shari Brooks. Sue and Henriette actually read some of my earliest tv specs before I sent them off to my lit agent, offering notes and advice that allowed me to put my best foot forward.
While you’re a lot less likely to land a Mel Brooks, Marty Feldman or Andy Kaufman to learn from as Alan did, there are plenty of hugely successful people with less recognizable names that are eager to answer a question or two now and again. This is how we learn and refine our craft… not by holing up in tiny apartments attacking keyboards alone and entering mostly insignificant screenplay contests.
Whether you’re interested in a career in reality tv or elsewhere in the creative writing or producing community, seek out the folks who’ve put a few years in the rearview mirror at the job you’re dreaming of. You’ll save years of heartbreaking trial and error and turn your false vision of how the entertainment industry works into a realistic one on which you can hang a career and be infinitely more productive.
Ask yourself — who do you want to learn from today?