Hourly Wages

I’ve been writing for television long enough to recognize certain patterns, even though the days of the fixed Fall-premiere schedule are over. New shows, and new seasons of old shows, can start airing at any time now, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. That means their development periods can also be scattered anywhere across the calendar.

Nevertheless, in Canada, where so much development depends on government funding agencies and their schedules, the first quarter of most years tends to be vacation time for me. Everyone waits with great anticipation to see what will be given the green light in late-March, early-April. Then it’s go-time and writers like me start pitching their brains out for all sorts of shows, new or renewed, in an effort to lay claim to as many episodes as we can get our greedy keyboard-callused fingers on.

Long stretches of atrophy punctuated by sudden bursts of demanding, draining (and highly profitable) activity is what fuels this business and keeps people like me coming back for more. I value my downtime as much as my contracts, and I was never able to embrace the idea of working an honest nine-to-fiver and then trying to cram all my fun and recreation into two days out of every seven.

Many people outside of the film and television industry have a hard time wrapping their heads around my career and how it functions. Although they can certainly appreciate (and envy) my ability to spend much of my day in a bathrobe, taking regular video-game breaks, and dropping everything to go watch a movie whenever the mood strikes me, they don’t necessarily understand it.

My family history is composed almost exclusively of sweaty blue collars. The few white collars mixed in with the bunch tend to be more of a light-blue shade. My grandfather set the pace by moving to Canada in 1922 and working himself to death at Dominion Bridge in twenty years flat. He didn’t actually die on the job. He was conscientious enough to wait until his lunch break to snuff it. But I’m sure he would have finished his day and punched out had his body been able to hold on a few more hours.

When I told my family I wanted to be a writer, I might as well have been announcing I wanted to be an astronaut. And, honestly, I think they’d have been better able to grasp the concept of one of the Simmonses blasting into orbit to repair satellites and dig up moon rocks. I find it fascinating to sit them down in front of an episode of some TV show I wrote and watch them watch it. They pay attention throughout the opening credits, right up until my name appears on the screen. Then they lose all interest. It’s like the rest of the show has no connection to me. As long as my name is spelled correctly in the credits and on the cheque, they’re happy. The fact that I invented everything that happens or is said for the next half hour of television is lost on them.

I could try harder to explain it, but honestly, I gave up years ago. If they know I’m working, they’re satisfied. But then there are those first quarters…

“Are you sure you don’t want to get a little something?” is a regular question I have to endure in these periods. The “little something” in question being a regular job. One my family can identify with. Oh, nothing like digging ditches or laying bricks. But a nice, safe, ordinary office job. A job that pays a nice, safe, ordinary salary.

I could explain how it’s hard to go back to that sort of work when now, screenwriting, I can make what I used to make in a week or two in one hour flat — writing zingers for the smart-aleck sitcom character, action scenes for the sugar-fuelled cartoon hero, or gardening-tool sadism for sociopathic gangsters. I could explain, but I expect the same sort of emotional disconnect that happens to them the moment my credit fades from the screen.

I’ve been thinking about my old jobs lately, waiting for my forced vacation to end. There were four of them in total. Four real job-jobs. I can’t say I truly enjoyed a moment of any of them. But each of them had a lesson to teach that still applies, in some fashion, to my career of choice today.

In the coming days, as I begin pitching in earnest for a new year of television programming, you can read a bit about my formative years. Or, at least, the years that formed my current work ethic that keeps me in bed past noon and bathrobe-clad through till suppertime.

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