with writer Andrew Nicholls
For its first interview, Thinking 'Toon chose to sit down with Andrew Nicholls, a long-time writer, songwriter, and poet originally from England.
Thinking 'Toon - I want to start this interview in medias res. You have absolute reason to be cynical about the entertainment industry, having been screwed and stepped on several times. What were your first thoughts when you penetrated the Holly… pardon me, worked your way into Hollywood?
Andrew Nicholls - I suppose it was relief and a feeling of accomplishment, mixed with a slowly-growing sense of terror. The relief, because I’d been toiling in a distant vineyard – Canadian TV and radio – for 7 years, and was beginning to wonder if I’d ever get a shot at the so-called Big Time. I was in my mid-twenties and all my friends from high-school had graduated and had jobs, were starting out as lawyers and chemical engineers or whatever and getting married and buying houses, and I was still making about eight grand a year and was becoming sort of the local eccentric. You know; “He thinks he’s a writer...” “Let’s go out to eat, but someone’ll have to pay for Andrew.”
The terror part was just a function of the singular show that I landed on in 1983: the syndicated Thicke of the Night, with Alan Thicke. It was like being a Boy Scout one minute then being drafted into the 1943 North Africa campaign under Patton and being told tomorrow you had to take Algiers. We taped two ninety-minute shows a night, and the disorganization was such that after three months of prep, with nine writers, by the time Tape Date # 1 came along the only produceable sketch comedy in the hopper was used up in two shows. The second show had to be completely thrown out. I did five months of 7-days-a-week work, from nine a.m. often to two or three in the morning, not very much of that being actual writing (I was a “writer-researcher”) and the hours and circumstances and the expectations and the treatment of everyone were brutal. People collapsed; they had kidney failure and chest pains and heart attacks – Rick Ducommun’s spleen exploded while shooting an outdoor piece. Fred Silverman came down with diabetes. Marriages ended, people went into therapy and got into drugs; there were death threats and suicide threats, and handguns and wrist-slittings and it was all a bit much. Not what you picture after watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, you know?
TT - Was it your aspiration to write?
Nicholls - I always wrote little things; poems, short stories, limericks, songs. Cartoon gags. My grandmother had a booklet I wrote at age 5 in her scrap-book: Bleep and Booster Go to the Moon. The rights are available. I’d always read biographies of writers, but they were novelists and playwrights and songwriters. I suppose when I was 14 or 15 it began to occur to me watching TV or movies that people wrote that stuff too. There was so much less public awareness of The Screenwriter then. No magazines about media writing, no internet of course, no courses at colleges, not even night courses. And no books about screenwriters, or none that I found, until Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade came along in 1983. Even when I got interested in TV writing, I don’t think I realized there was potentially a working wage to be had doing it. I was very naïve about it all for a long time. But then, also, I didn’t watch those shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, that would have given me an idea of how much money there was to be made in Hollywood. As I wrote in my (still massively unpublished) book, when I first saw Alan Thicke’s Mulholland Drive spread and the extension of it, running down the hill, I thought that was the neighbor’s place. If I wanted to be extra kind to myself I’d say that proves I wasn’t in it for the loot; that at that point I was Joe Purist. If you’d told me before I left Canada that you could make, say, $200,000 a year writing jokes, I would have said you were crazy.
TT - What did you expect, and was what you received far from those expectations?
Nicholls - It’s truthfully hard to remember now, after 20 years. I just wanted to write full-time, to get my stuff produced, and, I suppose, score a wagonload of babes as a result. How little the boy knew. The joke going around the Writers Guild during the 1985 strike was: Did you hear about the Polish actress? She slept with the writer. Of course, we’re generally an unsightly lot, so what do we expect? A friend of mine has a dictum: no good comedy writer went to his prom. There’s a subtle tautology in there but I’d say the sense of it is correct; we write out of a sense of injustice, and shouldn’t be too surprised when our lives deliver us even more justification for feeling that way.
TT - In your book, Valuable Lessons, you state that you earned what I assume is a collective seven million dollars over the span of your career. For those unwilling to read it, how did you manage to gain – and lose – all of that money?
Nicholls - First of all, those unwilling to read it? Fuck ‘em!
I gained it I suppose because I was of utility to the people who had it. Desirability snowballs in showbiz: the whole problem of getting a career started is the problem of starting that snowball rolling. As soon as you’ve sold a certain number of things, or have reached a hipness quotient of sufficient value – and that can be acquired a number of ways, not necessarily tied to quality of work – you hit a tipping point and, generally to your surprise, you become “hot.” I actually felt it happening. Actually, I’d experienced it once before, in music, with a song that my writing partner Darrell Vickers and I co-wrote and performed, in the early eighties, which took off on college radio in Canada and parts of Europe. Having people look at me in clubs the way I would look at, say, Pete Townsend, was revelatory. You know; “Hey! You’re a potent musical icon!” All of a sudden we were doing radio interviews with people half a continent away asking about our influences, and we knew nothing about the music business. To a certain crowd we were popular, we were hip, and that was all that mattered. “Can you play our club?” “Will you be in our film?” “Will you sign this?” We got bookings from people who’d never heard us live, who didn’t really know if we could even play. All this over a song I’d recorded in my bedroom.
Likewise, in TV, at some point we were head writers of the Tonight Show, and had created a Fox sitcom that was going to start any day, and all of a sudden people starting throwing money at us. The feeding frenzy fed on itself. They weren’t reading our scripts; all they knew was that other people wanted us, so they had to have a piece. And that, you know, makes you harder to reach, harder to hire, much busier – and that in turn drives your price up even higher. “I don’t care how much it costs, I have to have them!”
I should say, in case it sounds like we were the talentless beneficiaries of a particularly L.A. form of mass hysteria, everyone has loved whatever we wrote. Writing what people want, doing it fast and well and with a maximum of originality and energy, whether on Canadian radio or a movie punch-up or a sitcom pilot, has never been a problem for us. The problem, and I’m talking about in the last few years, is getting people to hire us in the first place. Because that snowball has rolled to the bottom of the hill and stopped; we don’t have the feeding frenzy working for us any more, just the latent ability. Ninety percent of those people to whom we were the solution to every production problem are out of the business. That’s the natural attrition rate over ten years. Not expecting that, we lived and spent and dined and clothed ourselves I suppose as if we thought the demand would always be there – as if those who were hiring us would always have jobs.
I can look back now and say I should have had more restraint, but it’s tough when you earned over a million dollars in the last ten months to say, “Well, I think I’ll just stay in my little house next to the freeway here, cos this whole thing could blow over any second.” You don’t feel like it can end. I mean, you’re going to go car-shopping on Saturday and on Monday you get a check for $20,000 and you get another one on Tuesday, plus a residual for ten grand, and a phone call from someone who wants you to write a pilot for their client for sixty grand, and two big movie stars who want to meet you, and when you hit that car dealership it’s tough to say, “Nah, I don’t really want the extras, just give me the cheapest model. With no radio.” You spend it. But you’re not Henry Kissinger, who can make speeches at a hundred grand a pop for the rest of his life, you’re just someone who writes funny, and the Greyhound station downtown is delivering new versions of you every hour.
TT - Let’s discuss, for a moment, your role as a Hollywood writer. First off, how often do you work with your partner Darrell Vickers?
Nicholls - We meet Monday through Friday and write from nine to five, whether there’s work or not. If there’s an assignment, we do that. If not, we write, or plan out, a spec script of some sort – a movie idea, a sitcom, a one-hour pilot. We take a lazy man’s lunch and if something’s up – gotta get the car washed, gotta birthday shop for a family member – we kick off early. That’s the number one perk of writing; you can lie somewhere in the grass in public and eat an ice-cream cone on a weekday and all you have to do is lie to your partner that you have a headache.
TT - And, you two are comedy writers. Is there any discernable difference between a comedy writer and any other kind?
Nicholls - I haven’t known the other kind very much. Comedy/non-comedy is a pretty big dividing line in the Hollywood writing community, as is TV/features and sitcom/one-hour. Three or four times a year I might go to a party or function where there’s a big mix of everybody, but then we’ve got nothing to talk about. The comedy guys can’t whine about how their beautifully-written car chase was screwed up, and the drama guys can’t complain about all the standup comics in town.
TT - Allow me to refer back to Valuable Lessons. Is it true that, after a while, all of the higher-paying jobs disappear?
Nicholls - Apart from the current industry-wide problem of reality and other so-called “writerless” shows eliminating jobs (they’re not writerless, they just don’t put us in the credits, to avoid embarrassing Simon Cowell and Maury Povitch), yes, in the specific case of writers who’ve been working for a while and have reached their forties, it’s pretty tough to score the big money. The Quest for Hipness is a major part of what makes being a movie or TV executive fun. They love to discover new talent. They would, in most cases, prefer to take a chance on someone new and unproven than to make the “duh” move, the no-brainer call, of hiring someone they know for a fact can do it. Where’s the brilliance in that? Where’s the thrill comparable to introducing some wide-eyed newcomer to the big leagues and taking them to Morton’s every Monday night for a month? And they probably feel – not without some justification – that if you’ve had fifty at-bats and haven’t created Friends or Seinfeld yet, then maybe you’re just a journeyman hack who’s not capable of that “spark” that can make a smash hit. Never mind that just about everyone in that category – us quadragenarians – have, at some point, done work that excited all the execs to knuckle-biting madness.
Darrell’s and my particular case might be complicated by the fact that we had a rep for a long time as punch-up guys. It’s like if you’re an expert wreck-diver or something, you do that for a decade, and then one day people start saying, “Hey, what do you know about boats? All you’ve ever worked on is these old wrecks!” The shows on which we were most direly needed were already in trouble, and most failed. There’s not many that look good on the resume, and we were far too busy “fixing” other people’s expensive flops to spend months writing our own. “Do you want to spend the summer writing a cool teen movie from your own outline, then taking it around… or do you want this four hundred grand to consult on That’s My Radish?”
TT - Now, you’re writing for animation, making “a few hundred dollars a week”. What is the average per-annum income for that kind of work?
Nicholls - The average animation writer – working full-time at it, writing episodes only, as opposed to show-running – probably does eight to ten scripts a year if he or she is lucky. If you’re working without a partner, eight 11-minute cartoon scripts (most are quarter-hours these days, because they don’t feel kids have the attention span to watch for 30 minutes. Gee, I wonder why) – that’s eight times maybe three grand. Twenty-four thousand. There’s a shelf, though, below which you can’t survive in L.A. without a day job. If that’s your situation you probably can’t beat the bushes enough after repairing flats or decorating K-Mart windows all day to sell more than three or four scripts if you’re lucky. Also, for that money you’re not going to excite many agents unless you’ve very young and full of promise, or you win an Emmy right out of the box or something. There are plenty of people attending Animation-Writers-Caucus-type events regularly who probably have writing income of under five grand a year. Their enthusiasm, from my experience, not only seems undiminished, they seem to be far more fired-up about it all than the grind-it-out writers. It’s a tough dollar, but if you love cartoons that make sense to me. I just feel bad for kids who grew up loving the classic cartoons and move here and feel lucky because they get to write an episode of Coconut Fred On Fruit Salad Island for $2,500 with no health coverage or pension, and a six-month wait to get paid.
TT - I know you best for your work in animation. Even as an executive producer for the first season of the series W.I.T.C.H., you still weren’t in total control. How does the ladder work, and were you ever able to make it work to your advantage?
Nicholls - W.I.T.C.H. was a huge corporate entity, with Disney, plus Disney Comics, the Italian character and story creators, Jetix U.S., Jetix UK, the Family Channel, the toys, the French animators... you can’t be surprised on a project like that, with so many expectations, when you don’t exactly have a free hand. I think, all things considered, they were remarkably open to our ideas. We added Blunk, the Passling smuggler, and created a geography, an architecture, a history and a folklore for Meridian that supplemented and matched the comics in tone (I felt) but still let us make 26 episodes out of essentially only 6 issues of the comic. That was all they gave us at first and all we were told to work from.
We went about it as you would prep a complicated film: binders full of ideas and suggestions, questions, alternatives, sketches, mini bios, a section for the girl’s hobbies, a section for their favorite foods. We read the comics, then made up a rough arc for our 26 the way you’d hang the roofbeam for a barn, and slowly began suspending the details from that beam. We knew we couldn’t hold off the reveal that Elyon was the heir to the Meridian throne forever... but we also knew that the audience knowing it and the W.I.T.C.H. girls not knowing it was good for a few episodes of dramatic irony. And we couldn’t sustain too many episodes of them knowing and not doing anything about it.
Memos flew back and forth for months. Can Taranee create fire or can’t she? Can we please introduce Will’s dormouse now? (I think it was too close to Kim Possible’s naked mole rat for corporate comfort)
The multi-panel page format permits certain digressions from logic which, from the fluid pace of a comic book, don’t become apparent. They aren’t pointed-to; made obvious, by the stricter requirements of a linear timed narrative. We never understood, if the W.I.T.C.H. girls’ job was to protect the good people of Meridian from this great evil in their land, and if they could open a portal anywhere they wanted... why they didn’t just pop open a hole and escort all the good guys through it, back to Earth, where there was plenty of food and nice clean houses. We couldn’t understand why, if this wall was created eons ago to divide Good from Evil… why there were good people living on the evil side. Nobody answered these questions to our satisfaction, they just said “Do whatever you can do.”
We thought from the beginning having the girls in different grades was a problem; it would have been easier if they’d permitted us to make them all the same age. Scenes could have played with all six girls in the classroom. T’was not to be. We fought Disney over allowing the girls to leave the school grounds for lunch. For various unknowable “imitatability” reasons, they couldn’t do so, though the kids on Recess were much younger and did so all the time. We pointed out this necessarily pushed all action scenes to after school and into the evening – we were going to have a surfeit of night scenes. And extra story days, because of stuff that just couldn’t logically be accomplished between dinner and bedtime. Our argument didn’t wash. The comics had too many fans who liked things the way they were, etcetera. Also, this was our first non-comedy series ever, and we were aware that we were learning things and couldn’t push too hard.
There was a big change at episode 7, when we were called to a meeting and told to “play down the girls” from now on because the series had been sold to Jetix, which had a young male audience. That was a fun meeting. We ended up boosting the monsters and the fights, not a bad thing.
I just heard something funny from a friend. He bumped into Greg Wiseman, the showrunner for season two, and asked him why he hadn’t hired us to write any episodes. Greg told him that he looked at our resumes and we were just “sitcom writers.” Which, besides not being true (we worked on about 20 animated series before W.I.T.C.H., but because they’re non-Writers Guild they’re not on IMDB), it was kind of funny because later in the season the network complained the scripts weren’t funny enough and Greg was apparently asked to hire several “sitcom guys” to punch them up. Ah well, I should know better than to second-guess anyone with that difficult job...
TT - Disney… likes to pretend like certain things don’t exist. Knowing Disney’s unwritten clauses, would you consider writing for them again?
Nicholls - In a heartbeat. They’re the absolute perfect place for a certain kind of show. I don’t know that W.I.T.C.H. is that kind of show... but then, they’re entitled to try to shake things up, to grab a little outside of their normal demographic. Pitching “doing it a little differently” to Disney is a bit like auditioning a rock song for the Pope. You’re never going to go all-out and smash up your guitar, you know? They have all that squeaky-clean history and mythos behind them. You’re not always sure they’re in the same business as you – trying to make kids laugh. The three or four things that kids laugh at the hardest are forbidden there. A good part of comedy’s deal has always been to shake things up, to be transgressive. That can be hard to remember when you work at a place whose message seems always to have been, “People are good and kind, and life is magical and happy.” A great part of comedy has always been pointing out that people can be jerks and life can be painful. And that the “good guys” don’t always win. A Disney defender might say they often reflect that darker truth and that I’m being cynical… but they probably haven’t been trying to sell shows there since 1988.
TT - How tough is it writing a program that’s supposed to meet some government-mandated educational standard when the executives write notes stating “replace this” or “kids won’t know this”?
Nicholls - For a professional it’s not hard at all, provided you have no soul. I mean, it’s not like having to shovel coal into a boiler all day. It’s not hard like that. But if stupidity irks you, if doing things properly is a big part of who you wake up as in the morning, it can be like having a little bit of your skin peeled off every day. Imagine if, instead of getting your paycheck in the mail or in an envelope on your desk, you had to get down on your knees and act like a dog every Friday and bark for it. That’s how it feels. You feel, after a few decades, that you know what you’re doing – you understand certain things – if you’re a good writer, you usually have a pretty good grasp on the world and how it works. Then you get notes like, “We don’t really think children will know that Australia is on the other side of the world, do we?” Every day you’ve either got to take issue with someone who’s more powerful than you, or you’ve got to say, “You’re right, jeez, what was I thinking?”
TT - You stated that W.I.T.C.H. was one of the few (if any) non-comedy series that you’d written for. So, how was writing for that different than writing for an animated comedy? And, was it you and Vickers who had to adapt the comic book to the television series?
Nicholls -We wrote the comprehensive season arc and each individual episode’s story within it. Each episode had to jigsaw into the ones before and after it, so we couldn’t leave too much story leeway to the freelance writers, all of whom did admirable work under great time pressure. Also, you couldn’t leave the freelancers to randomly create monsters or character quirks, or major plot turns, because those might not fit something established in another episode, or might duplicate destruction scenes or fight sequences, or bad-guy phrases. We wanted only so many of the creatures to slither, only so many to be able to fly, or breathe fire or to have multiple legs or scales, and so on.
Every freelancer had to read a daunting info packet containing way too much detail – “In the Infinite City, there are cement-like columns approximately every 20 feet, but also occasional block walls, though we want to see no stairways. No windows, no rain scenes please, no evil creatures until episode so-and-so because the baddies don’t discover the place exists until episode 22…” You have to eliminate the possibility that you’ll waste someone’s time because they didn’t know Hay Lin likes to eat other people’s food or that Caleb can’t refer to his father before episode 18. I found that stuff – envisioning an entire world and the ramifications of placing your characters in it – quite cool, Darrell somewhat less so. He’s much more the straight-ahead gag guy. In animated comedy you can normally sum up the world in 3 pages of bible: “It’s a magic forest, the animals can talk, and all the cops are skunks,” or whatever. That’s a natural result of the high-concept series pitch. We had to be much more meticulous on W.I.T.C.H. I liked it.
TT - You’ve worked in quite a number of places. How many positions do you estimate you’ve held over the years?
Nicholls - Different paying jobs? Probably a hundred and fifty. Some of those lasted years, some only a couple of months, and some only a few days.
TT - I thought this bit was interesting. “Professional” is what you wanted to be when you were up-and-coming. As you got into writing, did you ever feel that you were doing a professional job? Better yet, do you feel professional where things stand today?
TT - By my definition, absolutely, first and foremost. “Write and spell and format and research and edit it properly, and deliver it as funny and as original and as smart as the time you’ve been given allows.” You never slack off, you never say, “They’re only paying such-and-such, they only deserve for it to be this funny.” As Dorothy Parker once told an interviewer, it’s got to be the best you can do every time, and it’s the fact that it was the best that you could do that kills you.
TT - The entertainment industry is like the inverse of the real world… bad ideas are the norm, and inefficient workers aren’t exactly fired. But, let’s turn back to animation for a second. How do you feel about voice actors, and are they anything like stage actors?
Nicholls - I love voice actors. Less ego than stage actors, and very often as much talent or more. It’s a pity that so many of them are losing work because every animated film about six banana slugs “going on an adventure” has to star Brad Pitt, Colin Farrell, Meryl Streep and Shania Twain. I’m making up the Shania Twain part. I think.
TT - What does the phrase “creator-driven” mean to you, and do you think we’re seeing more of these types of programming now than before?
Nicholls - Most TV is creator-driven. The exigencies of TV, the huge amount of coordinated product that has to be pumped out in a short time, makes the creator, who knows the show best, indispensable. At least, until they fire the creators and bring me and Darrell in.
TT - I want to know a bit more about the consultation process. What is that like?
Nicholls - Often it’s just a credit nicety and you do the same work as everyone else, but in our heyday as studio consultants, roughly from the mid-to-late nineties to the early 2000s, we would show up at a studio lot, help out in any way we could for a single calendar day, then go home and not have to face the consequences. Heaven! You could do three different series a week like that, and still have two full days to write your own stuff, or just to slouch off. Every set you walked onto was fresh, a new experience, with new guest stars, a new director. And the pay was typically ten grand a day. That may sound like a lot, but... compare a million-dollar-a-week sitcom that’s funny and gets picked up with one that’s ehn, not-quite-funny and gets cancelled after 3 episodes. One good tit joke per show and some dumb lines for the idiot co-star and you’re rolling.
When we did it by fax or email, same thing: read the pages, ask what everybody involved doesn’t like about the current version, then write your suggested changes and send them back. We started doing that in 1979 on a CBC sitcom called Flappers, and are still doing it – we did a two-hour quickie for someone last Friday.
TT - Writers seem to know everything about everything. Is this the product of research or a good and successful over-education?
Nicholls - I humbly suspect that Darrell and I are better-read than most working comedy writers. Between us, we have the bases pretty well covered I think. Except for gospel music and antique train minutia. We love to research… we get lost in research, we spend hours reading stuff when we should be writing. Since we were kids, we’ve always found a strange humor to certain kinds of unadorned facts. I find that Canadian writers are particularly prone to this urge to know how the world-slash-universe works, I don’t know why.
TT - At this point in time, do you think you could possibly (even if you deeply desired to do so) turn back to a simpler or different life?
Nicholls - I could, I think, if I had the skills, but I don’t know that I do. I think I could have been happy as a watchmaker. A watch, a script: same thing, in a lot of ways. They’re both coherent, compact pieces of work, assembled with great skill from many tiny parts, each of which has to work individually and perfectly in concert with the others in order to produce the desired result. Plus there are beautiful ones and ugly run-of-the-mill ones; I’m talking about the movements now, not the dial or the case. If you think the dial’s the most interesting part of a watch you’re probably an actor.
TT - And, even though it doesn’t pay to look back, would you have considered a different career path if you were your young self again?
Nicholls - Nah. It’s been good. If I had a decent singing voice I might have said music was fun for a while – I believe we wrote pop songs with the same skill we apply to scripts – but it’s a burnout job and there’s too much free beer.
TT - Microsoft Word is a tool that many writers use. If you could have an honest word with the developers, what would you tell them?
Nicholls - Add IDIOT to the thesaurus. And dumb, and fool and stupid. I don’t want my PC to be PC, I want it to help me write, and it doesn’t help to tell me “Dumbness” and “Stupidity” are Not Found. As I say in the book, they must not be looking where I’m looking.
TT - Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell me about your childhood. To be a bit more specific, how was your family and life in England?
Nicholls - I have kind of a crappy memory, worse than most people I know, and my life up to the age of nine is kind of like something I saw in a black-and-white movie. Maybe because I didn’t go back until I was 32. I wore short pants and walked to school and floated paper boats on the canal behind my house and developed an affection for rain that has endured. Sick joke, to end up in L.A. I got my British sweet tooth, the one that would later enrich several Southland dentists. I fully absorbed the British sense of humor: understatement, wordplay, absurdity. Sadly, none of those is fully appreciated in America. I watched The Flintstones and Dr. Who and The Man from Uncle and Thunderbirds and The Saint. I collected stamps and coins – collections I would later sell for the money to take a plane to Los Angeles.
TT - And, the move to Oshawa. What kind of an experience was that for you?
Nicholls - Exciting. Canada in the 1960s was like Disneyland: everything was bright and clean and new and automated. They’re an endearing lot, the Canadians. They’re like the Cute Younger Sister. Something about the country – some mysterious alkalide – reacts to bad news to produce satire instead of cynicism.
TT - Did your parents ever inspire you in your life or your works?
Nicholls - Mmmmm, no. My parents are both literary, my mother especially. She can spell and find her way around a sentence better than ninety-nine percent of the Hollywood writers I know. She also briefly acted on the London stage, but that oddly was never part of the family lore. I don’t think I even knew about it when I began scribbling. They provided a calm backdrop for a kid wanting a career that he suspected would take off very slowly, so that was nice. But they’re completely unfazed by showbiz. My grandmother, my dad’s mom, would read the tabloids and knew who had just dumped who, and who was reputedly gay, but my parents don’t give a rat’s anus about the whole thing. They rarely watch my shows, or any shows in particular. They accept that I write them and that’s sufficient. It’s as if I go to work and split atoms. The knowledge is enough; they don’t need to follow me to work and watch me smash them.
TT - You and Darrell Vickers have worked together from a very young age. At what point was it decided that the both of you wanted to enter the field together?
Nicholls - I don’t know that we ever discussed it. We just always found exactly the same things funny, exactly the same things tedious or unoriginal or self-important. I wish I had more perspective on how we influenced each other, on how we “grew the team” so to speak, from the age of 12 on, but I just don’t. Darrell learned to speak on the phone and forgot how to type. I learned to spell and forgot how to deal with agents. The complementarity of it would be worth studying with successful long-term teams of any kind, but I don’t know where you’d get the reliable data.
TT - Just how many successful writing duos are there in Hollywood? And, how do you go about convincing the showrunners that two writers are better than one?
Nicholls - If by “successful” you mean writing full-time for a living, there are probably between 100 and 200 working teams. Feature writers are almost always solo, so the teams are limited to TV.
TT - You watch a little bit of television every once in a while, do you not?
Nicholls - I do not. By which I mean, I don’t turn on the TV and just watch it – I don’t have cable, for one thing. I can’t stand to have that little “bug” advertising the network in the lower-right corner. How they foisted that on the public in 1994 I’ll never know. If I’m going to watch something I want it full-screen. I don’t want ads next to the page numbers of the books I read, and I certainly don’t want them in a medium where composition and color and focus are important.
I’ll rent a DVD of a well-reviewed series and watch it all in one weekend. But most TV, mine included, I wouldn’t go out of my way for. I’ve never seen an episode of W.I.T.C.H., to give you an idea.
TT - French is clearly a living part of your vocabulary. When did you learn it, and would you encourage others to do the same?
Nicholls - I bugged my parents when I was 11 to write to the Board Of Education and provide French classes in my school. Obnoxious, right? I was a precocious little bugger. Nowadays in Canada French is compulsory after Grade 3 I think, but I had to settle for after-school tuition and a little book called See It and Say It in French. I pick up languages and accents easily. I recommend learning anything that takes you out of yourself and gives you a different perspective on life. Except maybe for incest and folk-dancing, to paraphrase George S. Kaufman.
TT - Writing for television, as you’ve depicted it, seems like a menial job that no one in his right mind should desire. Would you tell an aspiring TV writer to work hard towards his goal or to aim for a different objective?
Nicholls - That’s a tricky question. It would depend on the impression I got when I read a few pages of his or her work. Most people want to be writers far more than they want to write. It is not a kindness to encourage most of them, frankly. But who knows what the market might look like in ten years, or even five? I could try to discourage some illiterate who wrote nothing but cow jokes and in five years the big thing might be bad farm humor. Quien sabe? I tend to have a generally discouraging mien. But if someone came to me at the age of 15 and they’d already written two novels and a stage play and a book of bad poems and a sheaf of fan letters to famous writers and they’d read everything they could find about screenwriting… they’d have to be awfully talentless for me to tell them to give it up. That kind of energy and enthusiasm is a sure sign that a person will be annoyingly persistent for years to come, and from that monomania often comes success.
TT - In my Writing for Radio and Television course last school year, we did a little bit of everything, from writing scripts to performing news shows and making videos. It was decent, but it just didn’t represent wholly the way I’ve found things actually go on in Los Angeles. To what specifications is a script really written?
Nicholls - The answer to that is really a whole series of night courses that I might one day end up teaching. A script has to incorporate a ton of different things: an original story, good lines, good pacing, interesting and well-drawn characters. It has to be not too obviously impossible to film or tape, for budget or other reasons. But there’s an awful lot more to it, on the practical side, that you only get with years of doing it, and with some familiarity of the state of the industry. It shouldn’t be either too much like any recent unsuccessful show, or in key respects too unlike the most successful current show of its type. It should be castable, and the lead should have a great line on page one and a great speech somewhere before the end. It should be physically easy to read – no matter what you learned about the proper way to format things, or how precisely you imagine a certain scene or moment, if it stalls the eye you should probably cut it.
It should contain craft, but also surprise, in places purely for surprise’s sake. There should be enough current references that the reader realizes it’s not a trunk script, but not so many that it will easily date. It should flatter the professional reader, but not assume too hip a reader for fear of limiting the appeal.
It’s nice to have something in it that you know nobody who reads it could possibly have thought of.
And so on. It should call attention to your cleverness, but in a way that’s possible to forget as you get drawn into the story. Then remember again as you finish reading it. It should be like a great wine. But it never will be, because nobody’s that good.
TT - I had a few awful experiences with educational partnerships in my freshman year alone: once I found myself sitting at my computer, retrofitting Dracula for a radio play for roughly seven hours in the evening after my group had failed to work collectively (and, it was due the next day), among other issues such as incompetence and miscommunication amongst my peers. Have you ever had such issues with those you’ve worked for and with? And, what kind of relationship do you have with your agent(s)?
Nicholls - I’ve been with my current agent for less than a year, so it’s great.
I was very lucky to get jump-started to Creator by a spec script (Drexells’s Class, for Fox) early on, so I pretty soon got to choose the people I worked with, and most of those experiences have been good. But no matter what someone’s script is like, you don’t know what it’ll be like to spend 60 hours a week with a person. I wish there was some way to know. People will go batshit on you in a minute for the smallest thing in any high-pressure business, and there’s no way to anticipate it without pre-screening them with an army of shrinks or something. Read any book about war – Rick Atkinsons’s An Army At Dawn, about the North African campaign in WWII is a great example – and you’ll appreciate that the one enduring constant in any complex collaborative enterprise done in a limited time on a limited budget is fuck-ups. Hell, even when the budget’s unlimited, as seems to be the case in Iraq right now, that’s happening. I have to say, though, hindsight has taught me I’d rather employ nice people than pissy talented people. That’s something I learned the hard way, and if you’d told me I’d say it fifteen years ago I’d have called you a liar.
TT - Money is a touchy issue… to everyone, I’m sure. And, when you don’t have enough of it, you want every single cent that you’re owed. I admit, it’s maddening when you put what seems like hours into work for someone else (that they ultimately use as theirs) only to find that they’re “never” going to pay you. How do you deal with this kind of situation?
Nicholls - a) Call your agent over and over and over. b) Hope you have enough leverage that when you complain they cough up, instead of firing you – because sometimes the squeaky wheel gets replaced. c) Drink.
TT - Have you ever met a righteous person who happened to have a copious amount of cash?
Nicholls - Absolutely. But then, I’ve also found a fair number of four-leaf clovers.
TT - As “Executive Producer,” have you and/or Darrell ever hired anyone based on personal preference?
Nicholls - Apart from their talent? No.
TT - Your early experiences in Los Angeles: would you say that they led you to believe that you had to have more?
Nicholls - No. When more came, I was always astonished.
TT - Which is more gratifying to you: writing a script (or spec), being paid gratuitously for it, and having it mutilated beyond recognition, or writing a simple radio script and being able to hear it on the air as-was?
Nicholls - That depends on various other details. Also, I haven’t written radio for many years, so I was more impressionable and simple-minded back then. The best feeling bar none is doing good work, finishing it and saving the file and re-reading it and realizing it’s good. And then you have to hand it in, undergoing the process I once called “Throwing the intricately-carved sausage sculpture to dogs.”
TT - The guys in the suits don’t get some of your lines, and the actors can’t recite them. Have you ever had an experience in which a client wants something re-done?
Nicholls - (Sorry, don’t understand this. Everyone always wants something re-done.)
TT - The ultimate say on what goes in the script is the actor’s, right? After all, if the actor can’t pronounce a word, or if he is sensitive to a few words in the script, changes get made.
Nicholls - That doesn’t mean he or she has final say. The actor can still be replaced. In film the director has final say. In TV, it’s the head writer. In animation (when the writer is often not there during the recording) perhaps it’s the actor, or the voice director. But overall, the studio or network often all but dictates every scene and every line, as I grimly describe in the book. All writers complain about that now. No part of the industry is untouched by the suits’ feeling they have to control every aspect of production, even down to frame-by-frame editing suggestions. “Could we cut away from the hand raising the hot-dog to his mouth 5 frames earlier, to get to the joke faster?” Literally, you get sixth-of-a-second frame-cut suggestions. They only stop meddling with it when it’s too close to broadcast to make any more changes.
TT - And, knowing that DreamWorks SKG refuses to recruit anyone but the big-name acts for the title roles in their films (Shrek, Shark Tale), despite the fact that no one really cares who’s acting in the films, how do you feel about them?
Nicholls - I predict that in twenty years no one will buy furniture unless it’s “presented by” a famous actor.
That’s ridiculous, right? If you think so… how is it ridiculous? Cos we sure do love us some actors.
TT - I nearly laughed when I read how a writer gets his revenge… “In April, 1987 I danced on his obit in Variety in my office at The Tonight Show. Because that – and writing the occasional book – is the only revenge a writer gets.” Would you consider Valuable Lessons revenge?
Nicholls - I think that was a part of my motivation when I first sat down to type. Because nobody knows those stories; stories about supposedly professional people behaving very badly. All of the people who’d done me dirty from when I first arrived here were still fabulously wealthy and living these great lives. I thought there should be somewhere you can go to realize that often TV is assembled with the same skill and decision-tree finesse that goes into a submarine evacuation.
TT - The only thing a television writer can do about his or her anger is suppress it… it seems you’ve done a lot of that.
Nicholls - Darrell, when asked once by Writers Digest about the most important thing for a writer, said it was to “cultivate the ability to conceal contempt.” So, maybe so.
TT - In retrospect, how do you feel about [being] bastardized repeatedly? From doing jobs that no one should have to handle to being openly insulted by Mark Schekter… but, there was one thing I found really interesting that I have to ask about: “No being ordered to drive sixty miles to pick up a bag of pot at the host’s house and deliver it to him and three babes at his beach house before returning to work to finish a spot that he wanted the next morning.” Did you make that delivery?
Nicholls - Yes sir, I did. I was new to L.A. He didn’t even offer me any.
TT - More on Alan Thicke. I’d never heard of him before reading Valuable Lessons, but I've come to learn more about his success. Could you summarize this character?
Nicholls - I think I’d better not, I still see him now and then. He’s far from a failure; Alan is richer than you or I or anyone we know and has probably had more women than the next 100 guys in the phone book put together. Not that that’s the only criteria for life success. A good credit rating is also important.
TT - Is Los Angeles a place where people stay on the job because they need the cash, or because they have no other place to turn? With the way things are currently going, I’m surprised more writers aren’t quitting.
Nicholls - What, and give up showbiz?
TT - I’d like to think that you’ve got projects lined up for the next season, at the least. Could you let us in on what you’re working on next?
Nicholls - The CBC network in Canada is currently (7/24/06) deciding on a one-hour series of ours to shoot on Canada’s East Coast – kind of a Canuck Gilmore Girls. We have a pilot and follow-up script, K-9 Adventures, moving forward in England for Jetix UK, based on a robot character from the Dr. Who series, co-written by Bob Baker, who wrote all the Wallace and Gromit films with Nick Park. We are writing episodes of George of the Jungle for Cartoon Network and Teletoon. And many spec features, one-hours and sitcom things. I just optioned two feature films that I wrote on spec. The Frank and Ernest cartoon in the paper three weeks ago from last Friday was ours...
TT - You did a bit of work for Mickey Rooney. Tell me, if a writer creates something that never makes it to production, is his instinct to sneak bits of that work into other works?
Nicholls - You’re speaking of Wait Till the Swelling Goes Down, bits of which we’ve snuck into about nine other series since. I think so, particularly if it’s inspired writing and you can’t stand to not use it. You have to know the progenitor project is decisively dead, though. We wrote 6,800 gags for a syndicated radio show once, and they bought maybe 500; we salted the better remaining lines through everything we wrote for the next ten years. Because if you earnestly consider some situation and you contrive the very best thing there is to say about it, and distill it into one sentence, it’s hard to let that just die. Someone else at some time in the future is going to want a joke about a pineapple or Mary, Queen of Scots, and your hand’s going to fly up like that brat kid in sixth grade who always knew the answers.
TT - I know by word that Darrell Vickers married, in the 1980s. How does a writer make a marriage work into his schedule?
Nicholls - You’re asking the wrong team member there. I suspect he’d say Judith puts up with him. At least, I hope that’s what he’d say. She’s a saint, truly. Also, she’s a studio costumer, and knows scripts from the production side. It’s not all just a lot of bafflegab to her, she has helpful opinions on dialogue, staging, humor... and of course when it’s a bad idea to put the lead character in a giant peanut costume.
TT - All of these questions may seem pretty taxing… but, I’m very curious. Just how many Canadian writers are in L.A., and how do they fare?
Nicholls - I read in 1983 that there were 800,000 Canadians in Southern California, from which I’d extrapolate that there are 400,000 Canadian writers here. They seem to be thriving. If you want to kill them now, I think you’ll have to import a foreign species that is their natural predator.
TT - You yourself were once a Canadian writer in Los Angeles. Did you ever apply for your green card or for United States citizenship?
Nicholls - Got my Green Card in 1989 thanks to Johnny Carson’s recommendation and a lot of payments to a lawyer in Long Beach.
TT - I feel I’ve prepared a few too many questions. Your willingness and cooperation is greatly appreciated, nevertheless. Thank you for participating in Thinking ‘Toon’s first interview, Mr. Nicholls. Maybe we could take part in another, shorter discussion later on.
Nicholls - I’m here.
Andrew Nicholls' book, Valuable Lessons, is currently available at this address
Special thanks to Andrew Nicholls for taking part in this interview; elements © 2006 Thinking 'Toon and Andrew Nicholls