Like many of you, I read last week’s blogwar between Ken Levine and Roseanne Barr over Barr’s New York Magazine piece about the first season of production on Roseanne. Like many of you, I had lots to say about it. I write about issues of gender in film/tv production culture and production history, and there was plenty going on there with regard to gender. But what motivated me to write about it here (and actually made me so angry that I had to put this piece on hold for three days to reedit with a cooler head) had less to do with gender than with issues of creative group authorship and its rewards. I’m referring here to Levine’s response to Roseanne’s claim that she was robbed of a “Created by” credit on the first thirteen episodes of her show. In this piece, I am going to address those comments, which I think, in an exchange filled with hyperbole, cheap shots and inflammatory and anecdotal evidence being slung in all directions, tend to escape notice. To me, Levine’s remarks about this credit issue are worthy of more attention because, in that they come from someone who claims to be a writer first and foremost, they are more disturbing than anything else that was said on either side.
In case you have forgotten what Roseanne looks like …
The basics of the initial article and Levine’s response: In the New York Mag piece, Barr describes her struggle to wrest power from the showrunner and executives on the first season of Roseanne, and how that culminated in a standoff between Barr and Matt Williams, the then-showrunner, executive producer and credited creator of the show, over a line of dialog. Levine blogs a reaction a few days later, invoking a kneejerk, “but she was horrible to work for” defense of Williams, a writer/creator/executive producer he claims not to know, and about a set he admits he had no firsthand experience on. Comment threads below each article blow up with discussions debating whether Roseanne and women in general are inherently bitter or oppressed, whether women are held more accountable for bad behavior in positions of power, whether gender divides writing rooms, etc. Is this still happening? Was it ever?
As regards this particular show and its production, most of this is stuff that can never be definitively settled. It’s anecdotal. It’s she said, his friends who worked for her said with regard to Roseanne’s set antics and who was really to blame for what everyone seems to agree was a poisonous atmosphere during season 1 . Roseanne can be a problematic feminist figure, especially when it comes to what happened behind-the-scenes of the television she produced, and I don’t think I am qualified to trace the root cause of the troubles on the set and decide whether none, some or all of them should be labeled as gender trouble, whether Roseanne is a bad person, whether Levine’s friends are bad writers. And neither are most of you. We. Weren’t. There.
What I do think it is possible to tackle is this issue of creativity, the role of the “creative” in the hierarchy of television production (who ultimate creative power falls to and where they sit), and the way that is represented by the “Created by” credit and, in this case, the struggle surrounding it. Levine devotes much of his initial post to Roseanne’s claim that the credit was stolen from her and given to Matt Williams by Marcy Carsey, ABC Television, and Williams himself. Roseanne describes the experience in her article:
It was at the premiere party when I learned that my stories and ideas—and the ideas of my sister and my first husband, Bill—had been stolen. The pilot was screened, and I saw the opening credits for the first time, which included this: CREATED BY MATT WILLIAMS. I was devastated and felt so betrayed that I stood up and left the party. Not one person noticed.
I confronted Marcy under the bleachers on the sound stage when we were shooting the next episode. I asked her how I could continue working for a woman who had let a man take credit for my work—who wouldn’t even share credit with me—after talking to me about sisterhood and all that bullshit. She started crying and said, “I guess I’m going to have to tell Brandon [Stoddard, then president of ABC Entertainment] that I can’t deliver this show.” I said, “Cry all you want to, but you figure out a way to put my name on the show I created, or kiss my ass good-bye.”
I went to complain to Brandon, thinking he could set things straight, as having a robbed star might be counterproductive to his network. He told me, “You were over 21 when you signed that contract.” He looked at me as if I were an arrogant waitress run amok.
I went to my agent and asked him why he never told me that I would not be getting the “created by” credit. He halfheartedly admitted that he had “a lot going on at the time” and was “sorry.” I also learned that it was too late to lodge a complaint with the Writers Guild. I immediately left that agency and went to the William Morris Agency. I figured out that Carsey and Werner had bullshitted Matt Williams into believing that it was his show and I was his “star” as effectively as they had bullshitted me into thinking that it was my show and Matt Williams was my “scribe.” I contacted Bernie Brillstein and a young talent manager in his office, Brad Grey, and asked them to help me. They suggested that I walk away and start over, but I was too afraid I would never get another show.
Based on what I’ve read about the show, this seems like a fairly accurate retelling of what Roseanne experienced and was told (and yes, other parts of her accounts in the original piece as well as the accounts in Levine’s rebuttal conflict and seem distorted at times, so I’m not saying we should take every story in both pieces at face value…again, I have heard so many stories about this one set over the last 15 years that it would be hard for me to put the larger debate about “what really happened” to rest here. The people who were there know what happened to them, but for me to weigh in is a recipe for the derailment of this discussion). And Levine doesn’t actually take issue with the story’s veracity at all, but rather with Roseanne’s naivete, as well as her sense of entitlement. He says that Roseanne is a crybaby for saying she was robbed of the “Created by” credit, because, basically, every comedian who adapts their work to the episodic TV format has someone helping them, and what does it matter if someone else’s name is on a show that has your name in the title? Here. Let him tell you:
If [Williams] had taken all her ideas, written a script, told the press it was his life story, and then hired Camryn Manheim to star in the show, then yes, I’d say we have a major case of identity theft. But everyone KNOWS the show is based on Roseanne and her material. Matt even said as much in articles back then. The name of the fucking show is ROSEANNE for Chrissakes! All she really is being gypped out of is royalties. And I think she more than made up for that in her salary and ownership position.
He follows this up by explaining that it was the writer of the pilot who deserved the credit, because:
it takes skill and experience to turn fragments of a stand-up routine into a cohesive television series.
There are many Ken Levines, but I believe this is our Ken Levine.
I know it’s easy for people to see red after reading some of Roseanne’s statements in her original piece and her blogged responses to Levine. She doesn’t mince words, and she takes some cheap shots (so does he). But these two passages make me angrier than anything else in any of the posts ever could. Why? I didn’t see him refer anywhere to the material Williams (and Barr) adapted as anything more than jokes, bits, pieces…fragments. Of what, Ken Levine? Fragments of what? What raw material was Matt Williams using his skill and experience to adapt? It’s called writing. What stand-ups do is called writing. And it takes great skill and experience to craft a “stand-up routine” like the one Roseanne agreed to adapt with ABC, or the one that Bill Cosby agreed to adapt with NBC, or, since you bring him up, the one that Tim Allen agreed to adapt with ABC. The fact that the people doing it aren’t initially members of your guild, didn’t come up having to play politics in the writer’s room and thus don’t know that they need to fight for a the credit that acknowledges that the work all originated with them doesn’t change that. And you not only advocating the disenfranchisement and marginalization of a fellow writer, but also shaming that fellow writer for not understanding their marginalization implicitly (something you ONLY understand from having worked in the Cheers room when those stand-ups were working in clubs)? Is a FUCKING SHAME.
It absolutely DOES matter that Roseanne, Tim Allen and Bill Cosby (all of whom adapted shows with Carsey Warner, all of whom didn’t initially receive this credit) receive writing credit for their work (which they eventually did apart from Allen). Especially early in the series. The pilots for their shows are almost entirely composed of their jokes, acted out practically word-for-word. Readers, I suspect Ken Levine already knows this last to be true, but if you don’t believe me, go watch this clip from Bill Cosby: Himself:
then watch the this scene from pilot for The Cosby Show, starting at 2:00:
I can already hear what Levine would say to counter this. That “Created by” credits are usually awarded to whoever wrote the pilot, and that it’s all a guild issue and therefore nothing to get in a twist about. Because this is all a business and this is the way it works, and that’s how you get a show made and bla, bla, bla. Go check out Whitney Cummings’s show(s). Created by Whitney Cummings. Go check out any other show recently adapted from a stand-up’s act. Usually the performer writes or co-writes the pilot and creates or co-creates the show. Because stand-ups have always written their shows’ early episodes in one way or other in older adaptations. The only difference is that now they are usually paired with a TV writer to go to draft on their pilots right off the bat. Because that credit matters. It represents more than simply who wrote the most words of the pilot with final draft screenwriting software. The industry has gradually changed to reflect this credit’s importance, or at least the artists’ awareness of its importance.
Did it change out of the goodness of its heart? I can’t trace the change to its source and am just reacting to the fact that this doesn’t seem to happen anymore, but I’m thinking no. Because the film and television industry is rigged as much as possible to benefit powerful insiders like Marcy Carsey, Brandon Stoddard, Matt Williams and, at least at the point he’s now at in his career, Ken Levine. Those people don’t give away power until they are up against Wasserman-esque agent and some talent with a great property or some other form of leverage. Plus, there are a lot of people like Ken Levine out there to slow this type of change down. Many of them are executives who, to some extent, are employed specifically to repeat the mantra of “This is how the buisness works. That’s how it is. You’ll never get a show made that other way.” These executives are the risk managers. They are there to keep the train on its tracks. And they are often really important, because in many situations, standing practice and long held industry wisdom are crucial in keeping disaster at bay and completing a great product. That’s a big part of what production executives do. What’s a shame is how often you hear this mantra from people like Ken Levine, who are supposed to be creative first.
My sense is that Levine doesn’t credit people like Roseanne with being writers because they don’t do his kind of writing and they don’t come from his world, where his viewpoint as an upper-level writer, more specifically an EP-level writer who works closely with network, is privileged. His privilege, which he’s not even fully aware of, makes him feel entitled to see Roseanne et al as actors, not writers. That he sees them this way is obvious from his statements in a previous blog entitled “Why Do Stars Take Producing Credits? Because They Can.” In his answer, Levine talks about Keifer Sutherland, Roseanne Barr, Alan Alda and Ray Romano as if none of them were writers for their shows…something only really true of Sutherland:
Some stars are in a position to ask for and receive a producing credit. For show writer/creators this is sometimes the deal you have to make with the devil. A producing credit gives the actor more creative say. And depending on the actor, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve had good experiences with Alan Alda and Ray Romano. Both had terrific attitudes and contributed greatly to the development of their shows. There are many others. I hear Keifer Sutherland on 24 for one.
Some shows are better because of the star’s creative vision but they themselves are horrible people. Roseanne springs to mind. I don’t think her show would have been half as good without her input, but her writers are still having Viet Nam flashbacks.
Levine repeats this mistake in the comments section of his Roseanne rebuttal, in which he confuses female stars with female writer/stars as well. But the fact that Levine sees Roseanne as a “star” rather than a writer is perhaps clearest of all a few paragraphs down in his first blog about the NY Mag article, when he balks at Roseanne’s description of the struggle over the line change:
Roseanne makes a big issue over a particular punch line that she found offensive. And according to her, Matt dug in and there was an ugly standoff. I agree with her that the line was bad and needed to be replaced. But I guarantee that if she weren’t so relentlessly combative, the showrunner (ANY showrunner) would have been happy to find another joke. In this case, it wasn’t just a joke, it was the ‘line’ in the sand. I’ve had actors object to lines and there’s never been a problem. I’m never going to force an actor to say something he hates. But I also expect the actor to present his objection is a respectful way.
Object respectfully? Respectfully? This is not the story of a primadonna actor who got close to her character and thought she knew better than the people who created said character for her. This is the story of a primadonna actor/writer who originated the character and created the world of the show. And for that and many other reasons, I find Levine’s tone argument -his statement that Roseanne should have asked for a line change, but that the way she asked for it was wrong- contemptuous and itself lacking the proper (or any) respectful tone.
This is an unrelated picture of a baby horse. It soothes me at times like these. Let’s ride away, baby horsie.
Here’s why Levine is retreating under the big, comforting umbrella of “this is the way it is done,” that has sheltered many an industry insider on many a production. Because it’s just easier than considering the alternative: change. When confronted with change, it’s easier to point to the umbrella and say “Get under here with me!!! Storm coming!! This is how we make TV shows here. Don’t you want to make a TV show?” This is usually enough to make the person asking for change see reason. If it isn’t, the umbrella-holder can trot out more conventional wisdom, bolstered by a few anecdotes of people who either took the advice offered them and succeeded wildly, or who didn’t take the advice and were never heard from again. And as I’ve said, sometimes this invocation of “This is the business. Always has been, always will be” is a good and helpful thing. But perhaps just as often, it’s an excuse given because the person offering the advice wants to keep all their points, avoid offending sponsors or some segment of the audience, please their bosses, or even just go home by 5pm every night. Often it’s also a way for a person with less vision, a weaker creative compass, to feel as though they understand the industry, because these tidy stories make that industry seem masterable and navigable and like a place you can thrive even if you aren’t a creative visionary. That’s why the Levine-Barr dustup eventually became a contest for Levine, his friends and his readers to tell their best Roseanne stories, put the most wisdom on display in the form of BTS anecdotes, and discredit her because “she didn’t understand the business,” when she may actually have understood it and wanted to change it anyway.
These people don’t want to think their cherished bits of conventional wisdom are not natural laws. And they don’t want to think that there’s potentially something better outside of the umbrella’s protection for those willing to get wet. But there is. Because the umbrella is just mythology. And mythology can’t be right all of the time. William Goldman said it best: Nobody knows anything. That means that nobody knows what’s really possible, creatively, until they try to do it. But because trying new things involves risk, few people at the executive level want anyone to try. And when there are large personalities, often coming from outside the film/tv industry, collaborating with groups of people, many of whom were born on the inside, what’s really possible is often lost in the shadow of “how we do it.”
Yes, Ken Levine, I believe you have lots of friends with lots of horror stories about Roseanne. I also believe that when you hear anecdotes like that, it can feel like they’re the only side there is to a story. Yes, I believe she’s been tough to work with for many. You’ve pointed out these obvious facts without truly acknowledging that it is often this kind of personality that produces groundbreaking TV (see Milch, Sorkin, many others who have done something truly new).* You’ve written off everything she had to say as “insane.” And most people who read your blog will believe you. Because Roseanne, a known firebrand, is also well-known as a “crazy,” a “bitch,” a “difficult personality,” a “loudmouth,” a “complainer,” a “victim,” and a “nuisance.” And those types get rain everywhere, don’t they? They behave badly and they don’t know when to take what you’re giving them and say “thank you.” Why can’t they just give us their creative juice more respectfully? Why do they have to be so…different?
Here’s a fact: Roseanne changed television. Another fact: Changing things, especially from the outside, often comes is a Roseanne Barr-shaped package. Uruly. Strange. Troublesome. Crazy. Rude. Angry. Loud. The history of American film/tv creative products is a history of innovators being told “we don’t do that here,” ignoring it, and either and succeeding or failing as a result. We need innovators. Without them, we’d still be watching Deanna Durbin dance movies. And without a certain level of self-importance and unruliness, those innovators wouldn’t succeed. The fact that someone as tough as I think we can all agree Roseanne is had a hard time getting power over her work speaks volumes about how much a less “difficult” creative would have had her vision eroded by the system Levine champions. And yes, these outsiders often require the help of those who know about this industry, but that help shouldn’t come at the price of the helper being put in the driver’s seat with the right to refuse the true creative center anything they don’t ask for respectfully.
This brand of “help” shouldn’t come at the hands of a writer, nor should the policing of the boundaries of the writers room. Creative integrity is creative integrity. Ken Levine’s blog stuck up for his industry, not his craft.
I don’t know if I’d want to work for Roseanne, either, based on both Levine’s accounts and Roseanne’s. I kind of love being home at 5 if I’m being honest. But I’m glad she was here. I’m glad she opened up doors for writers coming from outside the industry. I’m glad she got her credit by season 2. I loved seeing her name, and Diane English’s name, and Linda Bloodowrth Thomason’s name, and Bill Cosby’s name (from season 2 on) at the end of their shows’ opening credits. It made me feel like the world was changing to become more like the one I hoped to inhabit as an adult. Like change was possible. I was ages 11-20 when Roseanne was on and I noticed that credit. It was important. It still is.
*I should make clear that I’m not at all saying that bad, disrespectful behavior on the part of creative personalities is ok just because they are creatively important, especially when it hurts other workers. But I think it is wrong to seek out people like Roseanne specifically for their creative difference, and then act surprised when they have big, even problematic personalities…the kinds of personalities that are often booby-trapped with defense mechanisms, protecting their sharp edges from the sandpaper that is this industry. I plan to blog about the difficulties of writing about this kind of creative personae…how to look at it without mythologizing it, but without using its downsides as an excuse to take the creative banana and throw away the peel that produced it. I think lower status workers have a place in that discussion, since they are often asked to absorb bad behavior so that the rest of the industry can work with these personality types…also problematic and complex.