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Better Know a Writing Staff: MAD MEN


 

You know why Mad Men is the perfect subject for a post like this, apart from the fact that the DVD just came out this week and the second season starts near the end of this month? It’s because the writing staff is so small. Makes writing a post like this a bit easier than those network dramas with 95 co-executive producers, all of whom are waiting for a chance to take the showrunner’s job.

Matthew Weiner (Creator, Executive Producer) – Weiner’s background is fairly well known at this point, almost legendary: he started as a comedy writer, working on shows like Becker, The Naked Truth and the cult flop Andy Richter Controls the Universe. He keeps talking about how unhappy he was on Becker, but honestly, he could have done a lot worse; it was one of the better sitcoms of the late ’90s. Anyway, feeling unfulfilled as a sitcom writer, he wrote Mad Men as a spec pilot, and it came to the attention of David Chase, who hired him as a staff writer on The Sopranos. Cable TV writing staffs are often assembled from people who either aren’t wanted by the networks or are transitioning from one kind of writing to another (in Weiner’s case, from comedy to drama); it’s often pointed out that The Sopranos staff writers were mostly people with unimpressive or not very drama-appropriate resumes, but it makes sense, because the most in-demand writers would get to do more episodes, and have more opportunities to create their own shows, working at the broadcast networks. A cable writing staff will usually consist of a star creator/showrunner and a bunch of writers without a huge track record, which — assuming that he picks good writers — probably has a lot of advantages over the huge resumes on many network writing staffs, since it leaves the showrunner’s position, and his vision, more secure. Weiner’s choice of writers unsurprisingly tends toward people with his own background: comedy writers who are willing to adapt to writing drama with an ironic edge.

Lisa Albert (Producer) – Is a veteran sitcom writer. She spent several years as a staff writer on Major Dad, and freelanced episodes for many sitcoms in the ’80s and ’90s back when freelance scripts were actually produced. (Did you know there’s still a Writers’ Guild rule that every show has to at least meet with a couple of freelance writers every season? What sad meetings those must be nowadays.) She also wrote one episode of Becker, but after Weiner left so there’s no connection there. Most recently, as network sitcom jobs have dried up and freelance jobs have become nonexistent, she apparently did what many veteran comedy writers did and wrote an episode of Hannah Montana for The Disney Channel, and now she’s a drama writer.

Bridget Bedard (Staff Writer) – This is her first TV writing job as far as I can tell. She is a graduate from NYU’s film department whose student film, Baby, won several prizes and was shown at Sundance.

Andre & Maria Jacquemetton (Producers) – A husband-and-wife writing team, the Jacquemettons have written for Star Trek: Enterprise, Baywatch, Relic Hunter and Highlander. In other words, if most of the Mad Men writers are refugees from sitcoms, you could say this team is a refugee from genre shows that took in a lot of freelance scripts. There aren’t a lot of genre shows out there and those that are out there have fairly closed writing staffs, which may be one reason why you find a number of genre-TV writers turning up on cable. Mrs. Jacquemetton was in TV production in her native Boston before going to L.A. to pursue a screenwriting career (in the usual way: being a writers’ assistant, entering and winning screenwriting contests); now in addition to writing, she is “head of writing for film, television and interactive media at Vancouver Film School.”

Tom Palmer (Co-Executive Producer) – Canadian alert! Palmer, from Toronto, is another sitcom writer, and along with Lisa Albert, one of two Mad Men writer-producers who wrote for the ’80s Pam Dawber comedy My Sister Sam. (This show spawned the much-quoted, kind of stupid joke that CBS executives said: “Get me the star of Mork and Mindy,” and the producers thought they meant Pam Dawber.) Among his other credits, he was a producer on the middle seasons of Murphy Brown — the Dan Quayle years — and was a co-executive producer on one of the first sitcoms Matt Weiner worked on, the much-retooled Tea Leoni vehicle The Naked Truth. He’s the third in Mad Men’s trio of sitcom-to-drama transferees.

Chris Provenzano (Staff Writer) has been working in basic-cable TV for a decade, mostly as a writer. He wrote for the E! Channel’s Talk Soup, wrote and directed for Comedy Central’s Reel Comedy, and wrote for the Game Show Network‘s Chuck Woolery reality show, of whose existence I was unaware but which I now believe must certainly have been the greatest thing ever. He’s also written screenplays, one of which was optioned and turned into the movie Thank You, Good Night, which sat on the shelf for five years. The director’s website now boasts that the film is from a co-writer of Mad Men.

Robin Veith, the Mad Men writers’ assistant, was promoted to writer at the end of the first season and co-wrote the season finale with Weiner.


 
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Better Know a Writing Staff: MAD MEN

  1. Major Dad? Seriously?

    I find it amazing how some writers/producers start out and where they eventually end up.

  2. Why do you find that unusual?

    TV writing isn’t like novel writing – an individual pursuit with an editor that develops style.

    TV follows a more industrial model. You come up. You start with whatever show hires you.

    Much in the same way an actor can show up in bit parts first. It’s like if you said, “I can’t believe George Clooney guest starred on The Facts of Life.”

    Why not? It was a gig. They paid. You have to start somewhere.

    When people look at a writer’s early credits they sometimes make a fundamental mistake.

    When you’re hired, your job is not to be the most brilliant writer on the show. Your job is to be able to replicate the tone of that show as much as possible.

    So a really good Major Dad is going to look…like a Major Dad. Not like, say, Mad Men.

    Alan Ball wrote cheesy sitcoms before Six Feet Under. That’s how it goes.

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