This is not something that’s worth a whole lot of attention, but someone pointed out something I find interesting about the credits on Mad Men: Matt Weiner, the show’s creator and showrunner, takes a co-writing credit on most episodes. Creators normally take a lot of writing credits in the first season and then fewer as the show goes on and the writing staff gets larger, but this season has had Weiner as one of the names after “written by” on almost every episode, including last night’s Kennedy Assassination Spectacular. In many cases, when a showrunner has a co-writer credit most weeks, it means that he assigns the script to one or more staff writers, rewrites their work extensively, and then adds his name to the writing credits (presumably having written enough of the script to satisfy Writers’ Guild requirements for such a credit). It could also mean that the episodes are written in the room by several writers and that Weiner is usually one of them; I don’t know.
This does not mean that Weiner does more writing than another showrunner who isn’t credited with writing a lot of scripts. David Milch or Joss Whedon don’t normally take script credits unless they assign the entire script to themselves, but no matter who’s credited, the voice of the show is largely theirs and a lot of their writing is in the script. (On Buffy, the dialogue in the early episodes as well as later ones like “The Zeppo” is largely Whedon’s, while he and co-showrunner Marti Noxon wrote the bulk of the scenes in the final season’s “Conversations With Dead People” episode without credit.) Script credits on any show with a writing staff can be misleading, obviously, since there’s so much rewriting that goes on, and since everything is ultimately filtered through the showrunner. The episode is usually credited to one person or team for various reasons: royalties, acknowledgment of the important work involved in writing the first draft of the script. But obviously, except for individual lines or jokes, it’s extremely difficult to tell anything about individual writing styles based solely on the episodes someone was credited with scripting.
The practice of showrunners or head writers adding their names to the episode, even if they did do a lot of rewriting, is generally frowned upon. One writer told me — this was ten years ago; no current show involved in this anecdote — that two senior writers on his show were prone to what he called “credit hopping,” taking a co-writer credit for the standard rewriting that goes on in any episode. He felt this was an insult to the hard work of the original writer, and didn’t seem to look kindly on the writer-producers involved in the practice. It might be different on Mad Men, though, because the show is serialized and therefore it’s hard to tell where one episode begins — and therefore where one script begins — and ends. A traditional assignment of one writer, one script might not even work. In any case, the point remains that someone who has only a handful of writing credits on his show may in fact write just as much of it as someone who’s credited as co-writer every week; it really all depends on how the credits are doled out, and has little to do with the actual contributions.