Brainstorming a good ‘Jeopardy!’ answer is a union position, too

Writers strike outside The Walt Disney Co. studios in Burbank, Calif., Tuesday. The first strike by Hollywood writers against TV networks and movie studios in nearly two decades entered its second day Tuesday. Erica Magda


Writers strike outside The Walt Disney Co. studios in Burbank, Calif., Tuesday. The first strike by Hollywood writers against TV networks and movie studios in nearly two decades entered its second day Tuesday. Erica Magda

By Lynn Elber

LOS ANGELES – In the entertainment industry, there’s more to writing than putting words on the page.

The thousands of Writers Guild of America members who walked out in a contract dispute Monday didn’t drop just movie and TV scripts – they were crafting answers for “Jeopardy!” and banter for “Dancing with the Stars.” They edit the work of their colleagues, livening things up as a movie “script doctor” or getting a soap opera’s sprawling relationships back on track as a script editor.

They may work on their own, or be part of a freewheeling brainstorming session. Workweeks may be an orderly 40 hours or a manic 80-plus. Pay can be $50,000 for an original screenplay, or soar past $1 million for a top screenwriter or writer-producer in charge of a hit TV show.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, writers are not all ensconced in sun-drenched Los Angeles: of 12,000 total guild writers, about 4,000 belong to the WGA East.

Most reality shows are nonunion, and independent films can be made outside the guild’s purview, but much of what consumers see is the work of union writers. Their efforts also appear online or on DVDs, with the wide compensation gap for old vs. digital media at the heart of the contract dispute.

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The career path writers take can be as disparate as their jobs, demonstrated by the following five writers.

Monologue maestro

Bill Scheft, longtime monologue writer for CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman.”

A Boston native, Scheft majored in Latin at Harvard (“I thought the church was going to come back,” he quips) before embarking on a brief career as a sportswriter and a longer one as a standup comedian in New York.

He applied five times to Letterman’s show, then at NBC, meeting rejection each time. On his sixth try, when the show needed a monologue writer, Scheft was in. That was 16 years ago.

His goal was to “sit in a room alone and write jokes, and that’s what I was doing,” said Scheft, 50.

That’s a literal description of his working conditions.

“I love the ‘Dick Van Dyke Show’ but it cemented a preconception in people’s minds about how it works,” he said. Sitcom writers bat ideas around together; that’s not the model for late-night, where writers generally work solo.

“Five guys in a room working on a piece is not generating as much material as five guys in five separate rooms would,” said Scheft, one of a quintet of writers who help produce Letterman’s monologue.

Writers work on a 13-week contract; if it’s not renewed, a month’s notice is given. To get health insurance they must reach a salary threshold of $35,000.

“A lot of guys have passed through the hall since I’ve been there,” Scheft said.

Script editor for soap opera

Courtney Simon, script editor for “As The World Turns.”

Simon studied theater at Indiana University and followed her dream of acting to daytime drama, with a long stint on “Search for Tomorrow.” When a fellow actor decided to try her hand at writing for TV in 1980, she pulled Simon along.

“I enjoyed it and I pretty much worked from that point on,” said Simon, with writing and editing jobs on some nine shows, among them “All My Children,” “General Hospital” and “Guiding Light.”

As a script editor on “As the World Turns” in New York since 2000, Simon is responsible for reading every script for continuity, quality and the “usual copy editing that one does,” she said. In a pinch, the studio will call on her to write scenes.

Working mostly at home, Simon travels to the studio once a week for a meeting with the show’s executive producer, a network representative and the head writer.

A team of “breakdown writers” produces outlines for a week of shows, with each outline turned over to an individual scriptwriter. The script then ends up in Simon’s hands, a process that has to keep moving smoothly to produce an hour of angst for every weekday of the year.

Vacations are rare.

“I try and take the weekend off,” Simon said, “when I can.”

‘Jeopardy!’ writer

Andrew Price, writer for “Jeopardy!”

Price, 45, was advised by his mother to become an accountant because he was good in math.

“That was the last time I listened to my mom,” he said.

A post-college job in a New York photo lab led to a video shoot for performance artists, then production assistant work on features film and commercials. He was recommended for a job at MTV, where he worked as a series writer and script supervisor and gained more in training than salary (topping out at about $850 weekly).

Heading to Los Angeles in the early ’90s, he began writing on a freelance basis, selling scripts to series including “Star Trek: Voyager” and a Disney Channel movie, “The Luck of the Irish.”

When a producer he’d worked with joined “Jeopardy!” – one of the few guild-covered game shows – as head writer 10 years ago, Price followed, starting as a researcher. Three years ago, he became part of a 10-person writing staff.

“Whatever interests you that day” can end up being a category on the show, Price said. If his daughter is studying amphibians, he said, “Jeopardy!” viewers could get the same lesson.

While the $75,000 to $100,000 pay range is relatively modest by Hollywood standards, there are other benefits, including a kid-friendly atmosphere. “It feels like home there,” he said.

Ex-standup comic

Devon Shepard, writer for “Weeds” and “Everybody Hates Chris.”

When Dennis Miller’s syndicated talk show was canceled, Shepard, a production assistant, decided to turn to standup comedy, testing his material on customers at a south-central L.A. barbershop.

Rob Edwards and Bennie Richburg, writers for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” stopped in, got a taste of Shepard’s wit and invited Shepard to join them on a new Patti LaBelle show, NBC’s “Out All Night” as a writer’s trainee. He jumped from there to Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince” sitcom.

“I haven’t looked back since,” said Shepard, a guild member for 16 years.

Shepard’s other credits include “The Wayans Bros.,” “Mad TV” and, most recently, “Weeds.” He was a consulting producer on the Chris Rock-produced sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris.”

In the beginning is the story idea. Both for “Weeds” and “Chris,” writers and producers gather at the studio to introduce possible plots and subplots. When an idea is locked down it goes to a staff writer.

Series writers earn a minimum of $75,000 per season and typically have in their contract a guarantee of getting to write one or two scripts, which can earn them about $17,500 per script.

“I like to write at home,” Shepard said. “I can’t write at the office at work. Too many distractions.”

‘Law & Order’ producer

Warren Leight, executive producer, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

Leight, 50, of New York studied communications at Stanford University under “the delusion I would graduate and become a working journalist.” Instead, he freelanced articles, wrote for a comedy group, TV and some “bottom-feeder” filmmakers before turning to the theater.

His 1999 play “Side Man” was a Pulitzer Prize nominee and a Tony Award-winner.

Tapped to join the “Law & Order” drama in 2003, Leight started out as a staff writer and – because “nobody wanted to move up through the ranks” – eventually became a producer and the showrunner, the person with primary daily responsibility for the production.

“I’m the buck-stops-here guy,” he said. In his average 65-hour workweek, down from the 80 or so hours at the beginning, he watches rehearsals and crafts instant rewrites, plots future episodes with the designated scriptwriter and puts out various fires.

A location, for instance, may have fallen through or “one of the stars may be having a day and I have to ameliorate their concerns,” Leight said.