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Conversations with My Agent by Rob Long - book review: Recollections of a comedy writer raise a cheer
Wednesday 16 July 2014
In 1963 Mel Brooks's comedy partner Carl Reiner wrote the autobiographical Enter Laughing, about being a young TV scriptwriter working on live TV comedy for a showrunner described as "the Ulcer That Walks Like a Man". Forced to write up his ideas just minutes ahead of the performers going in front of the cameras, he found the experience terrifying and exhilarating.
In 1993 Rob Long wrote about being a young TV scriptwriter coming off Cheers and finding himself mired in the inner circles of development hell, forced to explain every spontaneous joke until the life had been crushed out of it.
What had changed in 30 years? The managers had taken over the talent, monetising television's most unquantifiable quality: what makes people laugh. The result was like trying to explain Monty Python's dead parrot sketch to Martians. Two decades further on, Long's book and its sequel Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke are appearing in a single volume, but how much has the ground shifted again?
Well, the agents (at least, the US ones) remain pretty much the same – doom-laden, prickly, inscrutable and seemingly working for the wrong side, they cheerfully deliver grim news and can hardly recall your name but the system has changed. Family viewing has died, advertisers no longer call the shots and multiple formats are creating new demographics.
Does this mean that Long's biographical chats with his agent are past their sell-by date? Unfortunately no, because as long as the industry is run by people who are employed simply to add layers of misunderstanding to "content provision", it can't possibly change.
There are numerous passages here that still chime gruesomely with present-day experience, as Long's naive positivity is met head-on by his agent's crushingly cynical reminders that he's just a writer.
When Long's agent calls to congratulate him on a new show and Long suspiciously asks why, the agent explains that there was a note on his call-sheet to "Call R Re: Congratulations" and couldn't he at least meet him halfway instead of getting defensive?
Of course this isn't just showbiz humour but Jewish humour, and to that extent it doesn't translate quite so well. British writers tend to take in their stride the kind of perceived slights and grievances that upset Long because they're simply grateful to get any work at all.
But if the locations are different, the set-ups are similar. Agents are devils' advocates who keep writers on track and protect them from their real foes: lazy managers justifying empty jobs.
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