In the Writers’ Room: Notes from My Decade in TV

March 19, 2013

My career has been based on the simple act of answering the phone.  Apparently, I’m no good at self-promotion, but very good at answering phones.  It’s happened a dozen times.

I had never even thought of writing for TV when I got a call from Andy Breckman.  He had found a few of my solve-it-yourself crime and mystery books and tracked me down.  I believe his exact words were, “I’m either going to steal your plots or hire you to write for me.  Your choice.”

His new show turned out to be Monk and it kept me happily employed for the next eight years, eventually as Co-Executive Producer.

The first question people ask is, “What is Tony Shalhoub like?”  He’s great.  Modest and giving and not obsessive-compulsive.  In fact, he’s a little sloppy.

The second question is, “How are the scripts written?”

At Monk, we had a room full of funny guys and me.  Someone would come in with an idea, like, “Monk Goes to Jail.”  For the next week, six grown-ups sat around a table and figured it out.  Why does he go there?  Is he undercover or did he get convicted?  What mystery is he solving?  Where are the funny moments?  When you watch a show, the story may look seamless, but that’s only because the writers did their jobs.

After Monk ended, I worked on White Collar, but refused to move to L.A.  (Monk had been written in New Jersey, of all places.)  For the next year, we tried writing the show long-distance, with me in New York and the others in L.A.  But we discovered that you have to physically be in the writer’s room in order for things to work.

Here’s an example.

One day at Monk, we were arguing about a plot element.  I had, with great effort, brought the entire room over to my side.  They were finally agreeing with me.  The only problem was, I had to pee.  And I could no longer put it off.  It couldn’t have been more than two minutes later when I rushed back to the table.  But it was too late.  While I was gone, they had changed the plot, and there was no changing it back.

By the way, I still think I was right.

And that’s why you have to physically be in the room.