The End of the Story of a Writer - Macleans.ca
 

The End of the Story of a Writer


 

Earl Pomerantz recently finished his series of “The Story of a Writer” posts, covering his entire career in television from his boyhood in Canada to Hollywood, the many shows he wrote for — including The Cosby Show, where he was showrunner for the earliest episodes — all the way up to the early ’00s, when the work dried up (as it did for many situation comedy writers, but especially veteran writers). It would be great if he would turn the series into a book, but for now it’s worth going through the archives for those posts; there’s all kinds of interesting stuff about the nuts-and-bolts of comedy writing, and unlike many writers, he has a very clear-eyed, nostalgia-free view of television history. In fact, sometimes I think he underrates himself and the shows he worked on.

The two final chapters were a sort of sustained look at the sitcom collapse of the early ’00s. Chapter Thirty — in five parts, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, — was about the last show he produced, Kristin Chenoweth’s flop comedy Kristin, and why a show that seemed fine to everyone involved (though with a key casting problem that kept it from being what it should have been) became a critically-reviled bomb. It ends with him analyzing the show with the benefit of hindsight and realizing that the sensibility of the show (and the writers, perhaps, he thinks) was behind the times, and that even the things that used to be advantages in TV — actors with theatre training, for example — were actually disadvantages due to over-familiarity. It’s a poignant ending to the chapter because, again, it’s not just a nostalgic wallow and not just a complaint about ageism; he’s genuinely trying to figure out what a veteran’s place is, or should be, in a show business world that by definition needs to be up-to-date.

And the last chapter, Thirty-One, was in two parts — part 1, part 2 — and dealt mostly with his final consulting job, on According to Jim, where he meets a younger generation of improv-trained writers, the more aggressive modern rewriting process, and the generally depressing atmosphere for comedy writers at a time when jobs were scarce. It’s also a reminder of how much hard work goes into even a bad show; this was According To Jim we’re talking about, yet there’s no indication that the writers weren’t trying to make it good. If anything they were trying too hard; as Pomerantz exclaims at one rewrite session, “We’re not making it better, we’re just making it different.”


 
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The End of the Story of a Writer

  1. Thanks Jaime, I'll check this out.

  2. I gotta say, I've read Earl Pomerantz's blog since Jaime first mentioned him here and I've enjoyed the whole thing.

    Thanks for the tip Jaime!

  3. I don't remember "Kristin" at all, though I guess that's not all that surprising based on the fact that it premiered over the summer and only aired six episodes. It certainly didn't have good timing – I think of 2001 as squarely in the middle of the reality TV craze, where it was really hard for any scripted shows to get much buzz. The few sitcoms that emerged (the only ones that comes to mind are Malcolm in the Middle and the Bernie Mac Show) were dramatically different from what had come before, whether that meant single camera or difference in tone. Without something to differentiate it from the very sitcoms the viewing public was turning away from, it's not surprising that the show failed to grab an audience.

    • Okay, just looked through the broadcast lineups for the years around this and it seems that I did forget a couple of kinda-hits that were more traditional sitcoms: According to Jim, 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter, and Reba. Reba's survival can probably be attributed (at least in the short term) on the WB's desparation, where anything with a remotely decent audience survived. According to Jim and 8 Simple Rules, though, survived on ABC. Maybe there was just enough of an audience for (new) traditional sitcoms to support these two shows, but nothing else.

      (I'm not counting pre-existing sitcoms, which had already built up their audiences, since I think what new shows someone will watch is a lot more indicative of their interests in television than what shows they have been watching. That millions of people still watched Friends in its last seasons doesn't mean that they would have watched it if it had been a new series.)

  4. Is Earl Pmerantz related at all to Hart Pmerantz? I seem to remember a comedy series when I was really, really young called the Hart Pomerantz-Lorne Michaels Comedy Hour or something like that.

    • Yes, they're brothers.

    • I remember as a kid in the early seventies watching this oddball show called "This Is The Law" on CBC. Hart Pomerantz was one of the panelists. I seem to recall him being quite funny. It must run in the family.