The Emmy-winning screenwriter reflects on his time at Cheers, pilots he'd love to make, and how to get ideas on the page for years on end
Rob Long broke into the entertainment business in 1990 by landing a job as a staff writer on the hit TV show Cheers. He has since worked as an Emmy award winning screenwriter, a producer, a script consultant, and a commentator. Among other things, he is as a contributing editor at National Review, delivers a syndicated weekly radio commentary called Martini Shot and is Editor-in-Chief at Ricochet. Our interview took place at his house in Venice, California, where he lives with his dog.
Give me the quick version of your career. How did it all happen?
How all this excitement? After college, I had no idea what to do. It was 1987, and the rule back then was that you go to Wall Street. I figured there was one bank that would have me, but even they reminded me that you have to know something about finance. Then an acquaintance got a job teaching screenwriting at UCLA, and said, 'You should go to film school.' I said, 'Okay.' At that point, nobody knew what that meant. So, I came out to UCLA, and did their screenwriting program for about year and a half. At a certain point, I had enough scripts written that I signed with an agent, who got me work in four weeks.
You got a writing job that fast?
The business back then was different. They needed people, and it was also this kind of weird, arcane skill, so if you could figure it out and arrive at the right place at the right time, they just sucked you right in. It was really like old Hollywood, like being at the luncheonette counter and being discovered.
Was writing something you'd always done?
I always thought I was going to be a writer, but I don't think I really knew what that meant. I'm still not sure. The kind of writing I do is mostly such that I don't even write. I just talk things out. Someone else writes it down. For dialogue and drama, I find that when I'm staring at the screen or a blank page it isn't as easy as when I'm just sort of thinking out loud. Prose is a really fun thing to do, but it's harder. You have to write on every line. I don't really write for the page, I try to write as if someone is speaking it.
Has that always been your method?
At my first job as a staff writer on Cheers, I walked into the number one show in the country. People were getting Emmys and other awards, and it was universally recognized as 'well-written.' But the truth was that we weren't writing. None of us was sitting with a cardigan sweater and a pipe typing it out. We were acting it out. We were in a room filled with writers and a writer's assistant who took fantastic, fast stenography, and we'd act it out for our colleagues. 'Sam comes in and says this, then Norm does this.' If they laughed it went in, and if they didn't laugh, it didn't go in.
So it's basically improv with a note taker?
It really is. You're improvising an actor's performance of someone else's character.
How many people are in this writer's room?
In the old days, it was 9 to 12, but everybody knew the rules. It was like a knightly code - certain things you would never do. I hate sounding like an old man, but now it's broken down: the whole etiquette of the room and how the room works. Sometimes I go in the room to help out and it'll be a total cacophony.
So what are the rules?
For example, you can't get up, go to the bathroom, come back, and ask, 'Hey, what did you guys do when I was gone?' No, no, no. If you leave, you leave. It marches forward. Another rule is that you can't be a downer. In that moment when everyone is laughing at something, don't be the guy who says, 'Wait a minute, do we really want to do it that way?' Those people kill the spontaneity of the script.
Why is spontaneity important?
That's what delights the audience, right? You're trying to convince people when they watch something that it is happening right then and you try to capture that - the fun of something immediate. If you're doing TV comedy, all you've got is a bunch of people in a room. They're all living together or belong to the same family or they all work in the same place - and so you've got to have a little bit of spark. It's hard to do, but it's totally worth it. And if it sounds like it's already been through this drama machine, it has a leaden quality. Some people don't mind that - some people kind of like it. There are very successful shows like that. But I like it a little more spontaneous.
What shows do spontaneity well?
There aren't very many. Very few people in the industry like doing it because it's hard. Some of these single camera shows like The Office pull it off sometimes - and 30 Rock does it, where you kind of don't know from minute to minute what's going to happen. You have to be like Tina Fey, who has how many years of emotional memory spent trying to entertain a live audience and make them laugh. If they didn't laugh on SNL, she bombs on national television. So she's got that working for her.
But network executives hate spontaneity and straightforward humor. They're never satisfied with something funny, because in order to succeed it has to actually get laughs, which is always kind of a crap shoot. They'd prefer for a plot that makes total sense, because it's safer - even if you don't laugh, it doesn't fail completely, because you've got this heavy-handed narrative carrying it along.
What's a successful show that isn't spontaneous?
Frasier was one. It was tightly written, and never had that party atmosphere. But right now, I can't think of a successful show of that kind - there aren't that many successful shows in general, and even fewer successful comedies. When you take the audience out of it and you're making a little movie every week, you have to be super good, you have to be executing at an incredibly high level.
Tell me about the collaborative aspect of screenwriting. You're trying to be creative, to think of good jokes, good scenes, good dialogue. Are there specific people with whom you had a good dynamic? You knew the way that they thought, or they knew the way you thought and they would be the ones who, for some reason, would bring good material out of you?
You want to work together with everybody. The best room I was ever in was the Cheers room, which was like - we had incredibly high powered people who all knew the rules and who all knew that the goal was to get home. The show itself had a voice and so everybody was trying to say something right for the show, true to the show, and you had a lot of characters to work with. Usually a scene would have three characters, but the setting is a bar, so you could easily bring in a fourth voice or have a fifth character crossing in the background. So, you had all the people working on different possibilities, and the rule was just always keep building. You didn't have to have the punch line, you could just have the setup. Or you could find yourself spending an hour on one joke, and then someone would say, 'Change the setup like so,' and then you do, and somehow it works.
What happens in a bad room?
There's a lot of chin stroking. Giving notes is the easiest thing in the world. There's a whole generation of dumb ass kids who grew up convinced that they're creative in some way. 'I'm really creative or I'm really funny because I was in an improv troupe in college for a semester, and even though nobody ever laughed at me I'm pretty creative, and so I'm going to be a creative executive.' Which means, I don't have to do anything ever. I don't have to actually write anything. I don't have to actually create anything. I don't have to do anything. I could just sort of stand there and say, 'Yeah, this scene's a little - um, I don't know.' Just making these creative judgments. Everybody wants that job - to be a consultant in life. Nobody wants to be the person doing it.
Is that chin-stroking attitude damaging because it causes the writers to get off track? Or is the problem that it's impossible to be creative in an environment where putting yourself out there triggers criticism?
It takes away from that willingness to jump into the fire, but also I think it's damaging because it elevates the easiest job in the world. It's the difference between identifying a problem that you have four or five funny solutions for - being willing to sit there and solve them, and you believe that your job is to solve them - as opposed to what it is now, where people think their job is to sort of identify problems, talk for awhile and then find some non-funny, uninteresting way in prose or dialogue to elide them.
They're making fixes to the logic of the plot. So at no point is anybody saying, 'This seems not funny, let's go punch it up. I've got seven jokes here I think it could be funny,' because that requires you to have talent. People always try to negotiate themselves out of the job that requires them to have talent. They're the first generation to grow up with scoreless soccer and bicycle helmets. Insofar as they're concerned, everybody's job is to kind of make them feel good.
What was it like going from a writer's room at a show like Cheers to sitting down at a screen alone to write things?
It was really hard. I still don't really do it. If I have to write a comedy, I back into it. I'll write some notes for myself, then I'll bring a writer's assistant. I'll walk around and I'll just talk and come up with stuff. You end up with 30 pages of notes. I'll go through them and try to put them in order and get other ideas. Then I'll bring the writer's assistant back, and we go through the whole document again, putting stuff in order. I'll just keep doing that and refining it each time. Maybe by the third time I'll say, 'Okay, let's do it in screenplay form,' but it'll actually end up half script, half prose. Before actually sitting down to write something, I've got to have this great big document that's already a bit like a script.
I can't, for some reason, face the blank screen.
Is the writer's assistant giving creative help? Or is it just a matter of having someone that gets you out of transcribing your own brainstorming sessions?
'I don't have to worry about transcribing this later myself' is actually a big deal for me. Half of the stuff that I don't do, I don't do because it's hard physically and I'm lazy. 'So I have to sit down and type up this long recording of myself talking? I can't do that.' Having someone else to do the writing frees me up to just think. It doesn't matter if 2/3 of what I say doesn't go anywhere. I don't care. I'm not typing it.
You're also getting feedback. There you are, acting out a scene, and the writer's assistant is laughing. So it's like, 'Oh, it's good, okay. That worked, put that in. That was good, it was funny.' At the same time, it's important to make sure that you've got stuff coming out that you're not pre-judging.
You can judge it all later.
Do you ever get writer's block?
A couple of years ago, I was just completely stymied from starting something. I had this thing to do and I just didn't do it, and I couldn't believe that I wasn't doing it. I called a friend of mine who's a shrink back in New York, and I said, 'Do I have ADD? Is that what I have?' She said, 'You should go see this guy I know, he's a shrink here in L.A. I'll call him for you, he has a lot of writer clients.'
So I went to see this guy. He's a psychoanalyst, which is not so great. I sort of laid out - I said, 'I think have I have ADD, so I think you need to prescribe Ritalin or something,' and he said, 'You don't have ADD or ADHD or whatever it is. I could prescribe it if you want, because it won't hurt you, it'll just make you jumpy. But you don't have it.' I'm like, 'What do I have?' And he says, 'I don't know.' We went back and forth for another hour going through all the other things that it could be. He says, 'Depression?' I was like, 'I don't think I am.' He said, 'I don't think you are either.'
'Could it be,' said this doctor, 'that you just don't like writing comedy by yourself?' I said, 'I don't.'
'So why are you doing it?'
"It's because I have to," I said.
We went through the whole thing. I told him how we used to do it on television shows. 'Well, why don't you just get a writer's assistant in the room?' he said.
So I did.
Do you find that you work better when you're a little bit distracted? At a coffee shop, for example, rather than a quiet room? Does the setting matter?
If you wake up, get a cup of coffee, and sit down at your desk, say it's 9:30 in the morning. In that situation, I'm thinking to myself, 'Holy shit, really? I'm going to be here all day doing this? This is painful hard work! I can't do that. Please, what's on the web? Do I have any new emails?' I just see myself as trapped, like I'm drowning, and I just flail for anything to take away that awful feeling.
'My God,' I think, 'I could be here at this desk forever.'
And I can't. I just can't.
How do you get around it?
There's a technique which I think is really interesting - this Italian software guy came up with it. He calls it the Pomodoro Technique. His problem was that he was ADHD, he couldn't focus, he always had code to write, and so he thought: 'I'm just going to set a timer to what I believe is the minimum attention span unit,' which was 25 minutes. So he sets his little timer for 25 minutes and he would just work straight through. Every time he found himself distracted, he would just write down what distracted him and then keep working. After 25 minutes - what he calls a Pomodoro - you take an enforced five minute break, and then you come back and do another 25 minutes.
And after three or four 25 minute sessions, you have to take a full 25 minutes off. He's Italian - he says this is time for a one espresso, one cigarette, and then you come back. And when I am diligent about that, it's fantastic. No matter how taxing a task is, 25 minutes of it is bearable. I tell myself, 'I'm going to sit here and be creative and write even if it's bad, I'm just going to write something for 25 minutes.'
'Okay?' I say. '25 minuets is not going to kill you, right?'
Are there any other methods that you've come across over that years? Even ones that have failed?
Everything fails eventually, right? You outsmart it. There was a guy across the street from me who was a writer - I forgot his name. But he sold a couple of big, big features. I think he's a big deal now. When his little cottage across the street was being rented, I went and looked at it because I thought, 'Maybe I should rent a little office.' And so I went across the street and looked at it, and it was too big for what I needed, but he had a little index card still taped above where his desk used to be. So I went and looked at the index card. It's hilarious. It said, '9 AM: START! 10:05: check email. 10:10: do stretches, pull ups, 10:30: START!' And he had a whole day listed of how he was going to focus. It was impressive - a little index card with angry little letters. I could never do that, but I could see wanting to. Nobody's more hip to my bullshit than me.
How deliberate is the setup of your office? Is your desk intentionally near that window over there?
I write better by windows. Anything to remind me that I'm not trapped, because being trapped is the worst. I find I'm most productive - I'm going to San Francisco tomorrow, and I'm just booking my tickets. And I'm thinking, I probably should book that latest flight, because even if I get to the airport at 8:00 AM, I could sit at the United Red Carpet club in SFO, and it's really a productive place to work. I'm thinking the wait would be a good thing. I get two full hours in there. I can catch up on stuff and be way ahead. I know I can do stuff there productively because I'm not there forever, right? I'm only there for two hours, there's a comfortable chair, it's got Wi-Fi. I can do all the stuff I need to do, because I know that pretty soon I'm going to fly away.
You see, escape is the important thing.
Do you have a favorite idea that you've come up with over the years? Or one that you're particularly engaged by right now?
One story I've been thinking about, and that might make good TV, is about a guy who goes to visit his aging father on his birthday. He hated his dad, had a terrible relationship with him. His father was a big mogul somewhere and they just never got along, but he goes back for the birthday, just because, you know, why not. His dad has a massive stoke in the middle of the party and is basically on life support. So everybody in the family ends up standing around this machine, and they have to decide what to do. His ex-wife says, "Pull the plug." His new wife, she doesn't quite know how the estate has been worked out, so she says, "Wait a minute." The kids have their own issues. Everybody has an interest in keeping this sort of brain dead old man alive. And that sounded really interesting and funny in that mean, dark way that everything funny is.
What about a project you'd love to do, but haven't been able to pull off? Maybe it isn't commercially viable, or the networks just don't see its appeal?
I've got a fantastic story that is going to be very difficult to convince anyone to make. There are three brothers in South Carolina and they have competing barbecue chains. The oldest brother makes the best barbecue, famously good. But he is a crackpot confederate racist. He flies this giant confederate flag in front of every one of his stores. If you walk into one of them, you don't go right to the counter, you have to walk through a small vestibule/bookshop where he sells racist tracks and horrible, hand printed pamphlets, unbelievable stuff. But he's got the best barbecue.
Well, I read about how this one store is being boycotted by every local black church. But unfortunately, it's got the best barbecue, so a lot of people buy it from the takeout window in the back. So you have this fantastic irony: African-Americans in South Carolina going to the back of the store, not due to Jim Crow regulations, but out of the shame and embarrassment. No one wants to be seen walking in the door in this place. But the barbecue is so good that everybody has got to have it. So they all sneak around to the back so that none of their neighbors will ever know.
To me, that would be a great show. And people will say, "Hey, this is great. But we can never put this on television."
But you still have the impetus to write it?
Oh well, you have to write it. And you never know. Maybe someone makes it. I have to write it because if I don't I'll just kill myself, but also because if you want to sell it, no one will buy it from the pitch. They would just say, "Oh God, it's fascinating. No way." And I wouldn't blame them. How do you execute a crack pot racist in a way that isn't offensive, or on the other hand, too judgmental. It's just hard.
Right. It can't be too offensive or unrealistically unoffensive.
Yeah. You can't be so offensive that you think, "This is awful to watch," but also you can't write this guy so that he gets his comeuppance, right? And it's really something to pull it off. It's so hard. It's super hard.
Like pulling off Archie Bunker.
Yeah, yeah, you're right, which of course they can never do now.
That's the great tragedy of American culture: that you could not do All in the Family now. They would not let you. Americans have decided that the worst thing in the world is to be offended, and so they're constantly running around being offended. And there's no cultural elite to say, "Get over it."
What role does that play in your writing? You always hear about artists pushing back against taboos. Do your attitudes about the culture of taking offense shape the projects that you want to write?
Oh yeah, for me definitely. I always feel like the struggle with radio commentary is just being so truthful every week. Truthful enough that your audience says, 'Oh, I get it. That's exactly right.' You want them to say, 'Oh, that's exactly true. That happens all the time.' And reality isn't always politically correct.
I did a script last year which I really liked. It's all set in an office, where a bunch of people are getting laid off, some are getting promoted, and there's a scene where these two women who are vice presidents are having lunch. One of them is obsessing over the fact that another women who hates her - all the women in the office hate one another, but his one hates her especially - is her new boss. And so her job is over. She's going to be fired and she's upset by that because she loves her job. She loves her routine, she loves getting dressed in the morning, she loves her outfits, she loves her briefcase, she loves the laptop, she loves when they have conference calls, she loves going on business, she loves all the things, she just loves it.
But now that it might end? She admits she doesn't always know what's going on. She loves her job, but she has insecurities about it too.
So I turn this in, it goes to the studio, and I get this note back from a female vice president who said, 'I love it, especially when she says all women hate each other in the workplace, because they do.'
She said, 'Oh, I think that's going to be great. People love that because it's true. But what about the part where she says she's not good at her job?'
'I don't know, what do you mean?' I reply. 'She didn't say that.'
'She says that she doesn't always know what's going on.'
'Yeah, but isn't that true of everybody? Does everybody feel like they don't always know what's going on?' This female vice president in a big studio says to me, 'The character is a female vice president in a big company. I just think that if you're a vice president at a big company, you're obviously good at what you do. Is there some way we can make it clear to everyone in the audience that she's really good at her job?'
Luckily, this was on a big conference call. There was a pause. If we'd all been in one room, it would have been insane. Everybody would go like, 'Are you kidding me? How much could you project?' Luckily, we weren't looking at each other, so I said, 'We can take a look at that, absolutely.' Then of course, the minute the call was over we called each other and said, 'Can you believe that?'
If you just try to write what you think is true people don't always like that.
Is it fair to say that all good screenwriting rings true? I think about The Wire. I've never been to Baltimore, or spent time in a police department, or hung out with guys in a drug gang, but the scenes, the characters, the dialogue - it's evident that the writers know what the hell they're doing.
As you're working on a script, how do you know you have that verisimilitude?
I don't know. I was just helping out in a rewrite for a pilot. And it's a really standard, straight down the middle family comedy. The story revolves around a father and mother who are a little bit competitive about child-rearing. It revolves around the daughter leaving the house, and she texts her mom to say she's going to the library. But she doesn't say anything to her dad. And it just seemed like it lacked something in the ending. Well, one guy pitched a small bit of dialogue at the end. The father says to the daughter, "Hey, you leave the house, you've got to text both of us."
Small little thing. And it just sounded right to me.
I'm not married. I don't have kids. But it sounded like this very believable, legitimate demand, and it gets across that he felt left out, and what he wants to change. You have him say something really specific, because you can believe anything from a character if it's specific enough.
But how do you know that you've succeeded given that TV is a medium where the ultimate audience is watching at home?
For most of the kind of television comedy I write, I am with the audience. The audience is there during tapings. There are 300 of them. They've been corralled from malls and Universal Studios and all over town, they come in and they're usually hot and they've been staying out in the sun for a while and they come to this cold sound stage and they start grumbling really within 45 minutes.
Your goal is to make them laugh, not just once but several times at the same joke because you're going to shoot two or three takes. To me, the studio audience is really important. In sort of the same way that maybe a chef peeks into the dining room and watches as people sit there eating.
You went to cooking school, right?
Yes. I went in Paris and I went up in northern California.
Compare the creative process you use in cooking to what you do in your day job. Is it the same? Is it different?
It's not completely different - you're working on deadlines. You can cook a great dinner, but if it isn't done until the next day at 10AM it's not a great dinner. I work backwards too. For me, in a restaurant you just want the plate to look good. You want people to have a good looking plate of food, so you've got to move backwards from that vision, making sure that it's going to have all the colors that you want, something crunchy and something that's acidic and something that's fatty and all that stuff. So maybe in that sense it is the same. You're composing something backwards. You don't quite know what all those things are going to be. But you know you need the protein and you know you need the starch and you know you need some kind of green.
So you pull it all together.
It's my intention to conclude these interviews with hard won advice. What would your answer be if someone came to you and said, 'I'm a young aspiring screenwriter. What pitfalls are to be avoided? What should I do to succeed?'
First I'd say that the job of your boss or your colleagues is not to make you happy or to teach you anything. I think it takes young people a long time to realize that. They still see their career as a kind of long graduate course in life, which it isn't. I'd advice them to take risks too. A lot of times people are totally risk averse when they're young, which is bizarre. It used to be that you had to do 10 or 15 things, or one very big thing, before you'd get your own show. Now they'll give it to you, but they'll take it away from you. They'll do your pilot and then they'll fire you, which is unfair in many ways because running a TV show is really a hard thing. It's not intuitive, you have to learn it.
I'd also say that I never think about the commercial possibilities of a script before I write it. I'd rather write it and like it, and then figure out what happens later, because the thing is, there are two ways to sell something. One is to pitch it, and then they pay you to write it. And the other is to just write it and they pay you if they like it.
The latter is the spec version. Financially speaking, it is high risk. Maybe you spend a lot of time writing something that you can't sell. But if you write it well it has no real downside, because having a good piece of material out there with your name on it is a great thing. There are a lot of people who would read the script and say, "We'll never make this, but I want to meet you." And that often means they want something else from you later, or maybe they want to meet you and say, 'Is there any way you could do this, but not have the old man who runs the barbecue place be a racist?'
And you can tell them, 'No, obviously that's the whole story,' but it starts things going. Kicks off a working relationship. And it saves you from having to say in the middle of the writing process, "I will execute this in a way that won't make people crazy." You've done it, that's how you're executing it. So, I would say, I would never think a lot about commercial viability. Obviously, it has to be television show or a film so certain things are just naturally ingrained in the medium, but don't obsess about it.
Just produce good work.