[personal profile] todoom
Hart Hanson gave the keynote speech at the "Future of Story" conference at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton this weekend. Hanson is one of my favourite TV people -- I'm not quite up to date on Bones, but Traders is one of my all-time top shows. The conference was hosted by the School of Communication, and was being audio and videotaped, and photographed by journalism students, and live blogged and tweeted... and yet I don't know where all this stuff is online. So, I've transcribed the speech here.

His speech was very funny (which doesn't always come across in the transcript), and is definitely worth reading if you're interested in screenwriting. There's good advice for writing, building a career in TV, and navigating the cultural divide between Canada and the US.

Note: possible, subtle spoiler for Bones

[Introduction of Hanson as the distinguished lecturer for the conference; his production company was also a sponsor of the conference.]

Hart Hanson: Distinguished lecturer, hmm. Also, all I did was waive my fee. You don’t have to pay me, I said. I’d like to thank the School of Communications for inviting me to Edmonton in February. It’s a big thrill for me. I live in Malibu, so it’s a change. I’d especially like to thank my university pal, Scot Morison, for playing me against Jack Hodgins to get us both here. Brilliantly played, Scot.

I was certain today that I had 12 minutes of material, and now I’m afraid that I have six hours. So if I stop and stare at this piece of paper, just bear the awkward silence, and it’s me just trying to figure out what to do.

Last time I was in Edmonton was in 1996. I was working on a sitcom, during the heyday of Canadian sitcoms. [laughter] If you’re old enough to remember that. The funniest part of the sitcom turned out to be at the end where the director was getting all the actors to do their little twirl and look at the camera for the credits. You know? [he demonstrates the twirl and stare] That moment?

That was the funniest thing about the sitcom. I hope I’m more amusing tonight than I was in doing that sitcom. Although it was really fun. It’s not supposed to be fun for the writers; it’s supposed to be fun for the audience. The title of this lecture is a little bit misleading. The first thing I have to say is, nobody knows how to appeal to a mass audience, or 90% of things wouldn’t fail. Especially in my business, more than 90% of things fail.

I’m also a little nervous to be talking to real writers, what I call real writers. I believe that novelists and prose writers are the top of the food chain. I am a TV writer; I get to make money. [laughter] It’s just the truth.

But I don’t get to put out novels. But there’s a few things I can say about appealing to a mass audience, because it’s my job. I am very nervous, too. My friend and mentor, Jack Hodgins, a man I love very much and have known for almost 30 years, is here, and never in all that time have I ever been the one up here and him the one down there. So I’m totally intimidated. Whoever’s sitting next to him, I’m sorry, because he’s probably gripping your knee. Again, not a sex thing.

Right now, we just finished shooting the hundredth episode of a show called Bones. For those who don’t know Bones, I thought I’d play this little bit to give you sort of an idea of what lofty perch I’ll be lecturing from.

[montage of comedy, science-geek, gross-out and romance clips from Bones]

There. So, that’s why I get to stand up here and lecture you about mass entertainment. Obviously, the secret is to make people throw up at around 8:07. I will not call myself an artist. This gets me in trouble with my compadres down in LA. TV writers take themselves very seriously down there, and I… I can’t.

I’ve been told that maybe I’d be more successful if I took myself a bit more seriously, but… c’mon! I write a romantic comedy about people who catch murderers. I do actually take what I do very seriously, it’s just that I’m not very solemn or grave about it. I’ve read actual art, and without exception I’ve never seen anything on TV that rivaled a good novel.

Maybe The Wire. The Wire is a very, very good show, written by David Simon and Ed Burns. I don’t know how easy it is to get up here – it’s an HBO show. Do you know this show?

But I don’t think it adds up to a good novel. It gets awkward discussing this stuff because… for example, I think A Confederacy of Dunces is a stupid-ass book, and a lot of very smart people disagree with me. Also, while I’m being honest: Kerouac. [shrugs]

But certainly no TV I’ve written is as good as a good novel, a good short story. I think that writing to please an audience has a mitigating effect on what you get to call art. I know what you’re going to say – Nabokov wrote for an audience.

No one was going to say that. [laughter]

Nabokov said, “I do not wish to touch hearts. I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.”

Of course, that means that Nabokov’s intended audience was basically people exactly like himself. Remember this little Nabokov bit; by the time we get to the end. it’ll make for a satisfying ending.

I know it’s a slippery slope I’m navigating, suggesting that writing for an audience versus writing for oneself suggests that art could be a matter of intention… it’s a sophomoric thing. As one of my favourite novelists once wrote, “Where is the dividing line?”

I certainly believe that in writing mass entertainment I get inspired every once in a while. But to be honest, that may not be inspiration. It may simply be relief that I’ve got an idea. And this is a conversation best pursued in its proper environment, which is probably an undergraduate pub. My favourite is The Pit at UBC.

I’ve never met a TV writer who was willing to suffer for his or her art. They say they are, but really they’re suffering from being ignored or losing their overall deal or lack of respect of smashing the BMW into [?]

We are entertainers. I think of myself as an entertainer and not a serious artist. I do try to attract a mass audience. It’s my job. I’m a network television writer. Even the people who work on rarified cable shows, higher-quality cable shows, they’re trying to attract a mass audience – millions.

There are requirements to do that, and there are tricks to do that, and there is no equation or formula to do that. So I just want to talk briefly about pandering. [laughter]

Pandering suggests that you are… “pandering to an audience,” they say. I would maintain that there’s no such thing as an audience. There’s no one thing that everybody wants. In my show, for example. It’s been a romantic… we’re going into… we’re in our fifth season, hundredth episode. Those two have been dancing around whether or not they’re going to be a couple for five seasons. My entire audience wants them to get together. If I were pandering, I would put them together. And everyone would stop watching next week.

If you give a non-existent audience what you think they want, they’re happy for about three seconds and they love you, and then they turn to something else that they hate. [?} I can’t do that.

An audience wants a story to be over, an audience wants a happy ending, and an audience wants to relax. Those are all things that someone who’s purveying to a mass audience can’t possibly put up with. Can’t have that happen.

I want to talk a little bit very briefly about The Wire and The Shield, which is another show. The creator of The Shield’s someone I know, his name’s Shawn Ryan. He came up to me once and said, “Do you like The Wire?” And I said, “I love The Wire. I think it’s great.” And he said, “Why? They don’t even fucking try to entertain you.”

And I had to laugh, because he’s absolutely right. If you know The Wire, they never reset the plot for you, they never explain the dialogue, it’s really difficult to follow. There’s no effort made to explain anything, and characters who are weak [?] and horrible triumph, and good men die like dogs in the street. That’s not entertainment, but it’s awesome to watch… for a very small group of people. The Wire seldom gets above a million viewers.

My show – and this is not boasting, it’s just a difference – my show, that one [pointing at the screen] gets around twelve and a half million viewers. So, it’s much better than the one… [laughter]

The question is, is it better than The Wire, and that’s a crazy question: the answer is definitely yes and definitely no.

I was going to go through all the stuff I worked on, but I’m not going to. I was going to describe… because I read books and know a writer – Jack Hodgins – I’m a great intellectual down in LA, and they give me books to [adapt?] into television series. The latest one, we got a pilot order for a book that Scott Turow wrote. He’s a pretty good writer. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with best-selling novelists, and a fair amount of time with very literary novelists – they’re not always the same thing; in fact they’re seldom the same thing – and I spend a lot of time talking to them about how their philosophies of writing for a mass audience.

They love their mass audiences, they’re very conceited. To which I say, “What are you talking about? Imagine: can you sell 12 million books a week? No sir, I think you cannot.” I’m not really that [way? witty?]

My entertainer’s opinion on how to appeal to a mass audience: there are all these things that are part of the craft – and I do think of myself as a craftsperson, an entertainer with a craft, not an artist. So there are things… a bare minimum for network television. You need solid plotting, appealing characterization, sympathetic actors, eye candy, pacing, lots of bells and whistles.

Getting this stuff to work, getting the mechanics of a television series to work, is tough. It’s very hard. Never mind the content – just the form. It’s very, very demanding. It takes around 250 people to do an hour of television each week. Most of us are working at the top of our game to get that out. Let’s assume a certain level of competence in the writing/producing of a TV program.

To varying degrees, I believe the secret – there is no secret, first; I believe there is no secret – the secret, then, the secret to getting a mass audience… I didn’t make this up, I wish I knew who did, I’d give them credit. But if you cleave to, if you support – as an entertainer – the basic values of your culture and society, you have a much better chance of reaching a mass audience than if you challenge the mores and morals of a society. I hope a huge number of you are going, “Well, that’s what artists do. Artists challenge what we think.” And I would say, that’s right. So I’m not an artist.

I do have a lot of fun – and I’ve got clips coming up, so if you feel like shutting your eyes you can do it during the clips – there’s leeway in there, there’s fun to be had, but in the end mass entertainment tends to make people feel good about the society they’re in. There’s a whole other discussion about morality… I’d have to have it up in Canada, not down in LA.

But there are those who believe it is the duty of a mass entertainer to transmit constructed values. That is hard for writers and storytellers to swallow, if you think about it. Because if we transmitted all the time’s constructed values… the type of people who tell you what constructed values are… if you transmitted those values you’d be really bored. And boring. You’d get Sunday School stuff. Or high school educational things, that I know stopped us all from doing all those things. Everybody stopped having sex and doing drugs after they saw those movies on why we shouldn’t.

Oh! [pointing at notes] I said, “Note here that I may be becoming boring by this point. Clips coming up.”

And for the purpose of tonight, I’m going to assume that the basic values of cultures are similar between the United States and Canada. There’s a huge difference. One way to find out a Canadian identity is to go down and live in the United States. There are massive differences. Bones, this show, does better in every single market it is in than it does in the United States of America. Including Canada. Although, man, we did really well last night. We were the number seven show, so that might be changing, which means I’m a huge failure.

My partner, Barry Josephson – he’s a big-shot Hollywood movie producer… Men In Black, Bad Boys, big big movie’s Enchanted – and he used to shout at me, “Write more American, damn you! Write more American.” Now that the DVDs and foreign sales are coming in, he seems to be much happier.

I’m skipping a bunch of stuff, you’ll be glad to know.

The Wire’s often under a million viewers. I think it’s an awesome show. I watch it with great delight. It’s one of my favourite shows. Bones gets twelve times that; it’s insane. American Idol gets 30 million. What values does American Idol have? Well, it’s so American. It’s Horatio Alger. Anyone can be a star. And it proves it every year. I have no other reason why a karaoke show is the number one show in the history of television ever, than that. I hope it’s true.

As I mentioned earlier, my theory on why The Wire doesn’t reach a larger audience… it’s a difficult show, so that cuts out a bunch right there. It’s tough to look at, the sound is difficult, it’s low-budget, all those things. But basically, the people who triumph in that show, if you watch it, are the people who put their own needs above those of community. They’re self-serving. This may be accurate. This may be true, that bad people do well and good people don’t. But America doesn’t want to watch that on TV. They want to hear the opposite. The Wire demonstrates that greedy, self-serving people […]

So, no one’s teaching Sunday School using The Wire as a metaphor. The Shield, which my pal Shawn Ryan created, is very much like The Wire, except that what it espouses, at its core, is the value that a determined rebel who doesn’t pay attention to the rules – Americans love that – you need to fight fire with fire… that’s who you want fighting your criminals, is someone who’s almost a criminal themselves. But the worst guys lose.

Same with Dexter. If you think, well, how the hell does a – which, by the way, is about 3 million viewers – Dexter is a serial killer, but he’s a good serial killer. He kills other, worse serial killers. You’ve got to do the tough thing and get your hands dirty for the greater good.

House does that, too. House is created and run by another Canadian, a pal of mine, David Shore. That’s a good one, too, because death is bad, and life is good. That’s a good, clean, universal value. That goes all over the world, which is why very often House is the number one show in the world. Death is bad, almost everyone thinks that. Except for the ancient Egyptians, and they’re all dead.

There was a big moment for me when I was younger, in a show called Magnum, P.I. Very, very important show. I watched every one of those, eleven years. And anyone who’s paying attention would go, “Heeeeey. That show’s kind of like Magnum PI. It never wins a single award, but it sells around the world.” Our guy doesn’t have a big moustache.

It was a big deal. One of the things that made me think this way was I remember watching Magnum, P.I. A filthy Russian – still a communist, I believe, at that time – killed a very nice guy, Magnum’s pal. And Magnum took him out into the jungle, and the Russian turned around and – in that way that all foreigners have when they are portrayed by Americans, says, “You foolish Americans, I am not afraid of you” – he’s French, apparently, I’m not an actor – “with your ideals and your, you know, your morals, you will never kill a man in cold blood.” And the screen went black, and then Magnum shot him in the head.

And I thought, “Ah, 24’s coming.”

That was kind of a game-changer. I actually believe that something changed at that moment. That was very popular entertainment, it had a huge audience in a day of [?] viewer networks. And suddenly it was okay for a good-guy American hero, one who never even had sex – well, onscreen – to turn around and kill a nasty foreigner. And here, all these years later, that’s what we do all the time. “We” being Americans. I think these things are true. I think they have some resonance.

Okay, now you’ll be glad to know I’m going to talk about some of the stuff I actually know. I’ll talk a bit about Bones and how it was designed, and why I think it “caught.”

First of all, it’s a murder show, and that’s bad, so we should catch the murderer. And the murderer should be punished. That’s a very, very… that’s a safe value to… you know, you wouldn’t want to write a show like The Wire, that’s really, really good, where murderers get away with it. It seemed like a pretty good engine for mass entertainment.

And I know I sound glib and flip about it, but when my job was to design a series that would go for more than three years, so that the people who hire me and pay me a lot of money would make their money off the investment… that three years of a television show is roughly 240 million dollars that they would spend. I should make them… it’s my job, I’m the showrunner and creator, to make them that money back.

So, actually, I thought, we should catch murderers. I do mitigate that value somewhat by… many times, you feel for the murderer. You still catch them, and [faux lecturing with a pointing finger] they’ve got to pay for what they did, taking another person’s life… but it’s kind of fun to… it’s a better show if sometimes you go, “Uh, I would like to kill someone.” Is that just me?

The two main characters are timeless. Basically, it’s Spock and Captain Kirk, for those of you who are old enough for that. Aubrey and Maturin, for those of you who are older. One is a scientist and thinks very rationally, and the other is an extremely emotional, intuitive person. Little tricks, we swapped the roles, so the guy is the girl and the girl is the guy.

[Um, considering that both sets of example characters were male…]

Please don’t tell David Boreanaz that. He’s pretty determined to be the guy. And I could bore you with some testing info, but that actually had an effect, in testing. People would say he was girly and she was mannish, just because she’s the one who liked math. That was actually – one of the interesting things – much less an issue here in Canada. It was not an issue here. It was an issue in parts of the States. So, we lost some viewers there, when I made that decision to swap gender roles to some degree, we lost some viewers there.

I thought what I’d do is show you a couple things, a couple values, that we put up on the screen in Bones, and discuss, and sort of point out how one deals with the values and hopes to gain a mass audience without completely and utterly writing Sunday School tripe. My apologies to all Sunday School teachers here. Heather, could we run the next…

Booth: Voodoo, who’s going to believe that stuff?
Brennan: It’s a religion, no crazier than… what are you?
Booth: Catholic.
Brennan: They believe in the same saints you do, and prayer. What they call spells, you call miracles. They have priests.
Booth: We don’t make zombies.
Brennan: Jesus rose from the dead after three days.
Booth: Jesus is not a zombie. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.

Of all the lines I’ve gotten on American television, “Jesus is not a zombie.” I’m so proud. I was amazed that it went by Standards & Practices.

The States, that culture is a very, very religious culture these days. It’s… a significant amount of it is very fundamentalist. My lead character is an atheist. The female character is a scientist and an atheist. The value that we were talking about there is faith. Not to get too personal, but I tend more toward her than him. I’m a little cranky about religion these days, since about 9/11.

So I put a lot of what I think into Brennan’s mouth. But in the end, because Bones is mass entertainment, the spiritual, religious man gets the last word. Okay, it’s a little subversive to say that Jesus is a zombie. But you know what, Jesus was a zombie – three days […] and then he went and scared people!

We get a lot of mail about Brennan’s offensive statements about God, the pope… I don’t know if anyone watches the show a lot… I make a lot of fun of the pope’s hat, and I treasure every one of them. The funny thing to me is that the same letters will say, “Thank goodness Booth was there to set you straight.” And it’s like, I wrote that, too! Apparently, I’m writing the atheist, but Jesus is writing Booth. Could we run the next clip, Heather…

Boy: Why did the chiropractor kill Ashley?
Booth: Because you needed to hear it. Do you understand?

Okay, so that’s a fastball down the middle in the United States: don’t get girls pregnant, if you do you’re responsible for them. This was our little attempt to do, you know that Gloucester story, that pregnancy pact. That kid impregnated six girls, ‘cause they wanted to and they told him there was no responsibility attached, then one of them was murdered and this is where we ended up.

I thought, “Wow. Who’s going to get mad at us for this?” [laughter]

Apparently, Booth should have told that boy not to have sex at all even if all those beautiful girls were throwing themselves at him. Apparently, we should have mentioned abstinence more. That being said, this was one of the more popular… it makes me nervous when we get really positive response on things, because then I think… over too far from what I actually believe. But people loved that scene about a man standing up and taking responsibility for his babies.

Seen out of context, in a way, you could even say that was an anti-abortion scene. In context, it wouldn’t be. But, you know, people watch TV out of context all the time.

Let’s do another one. This one’s a little more… I won’t use the word subtle. […network…] It’s slightly less obvious what values are at work. Can we see this one?

The Redemption of Dr. Sweets

What I had to put up with after that was being called “Truly Good Hart” for about [a month?]

The lead character on our show hates psychology. She thinks it’s a soft science. I think a lot of people do. I think that’s one of the places where she is in sync with the culture, with the American culture. They think that psychology is just another version of good common sense. They think that outside of LA and New York, therapy is a way to talk about yourself for an hour. And for someone to listen… they think that if you have friends and family you don’t need a therapist. (I feel a little bit that way, just myself.) Believe me, I’m well acquainted with mental illness. I work in LA. Some people really need the therapy. Just not everybody.

But those were two shrinks. Our young shrink, played by John Francis Daly, and the older, wiser Englishman, Stephen Fry, was playing a psychologist who was going to retire. And the interesting moment there was where, basically, the older...  “Gordon Gordon” Wyatt told the younger guy that he had been nurtured to be the good person he was, that he was saved by other people, and that if you have good parents you’ll turn out to be a good person. That’s the basic flow of that scene.

This is the most popular scene in Bones so far, if the instant Twitter world and internet is to be believed. It actually rehabilitated, in the minds of the audience, the younger shrink – psychologist. The audience didn’t like him because he was snooty and over-educated and distant from his feelings. So you bring in a touching, large Englishman to tell him he’s a wonderful good heart, and the audience believed it.

That is what the scene was designed for. John Francis Daly is one of the greatest actors ever. That kid is great, and I want the audience to like him for a while. Because they disliked him for about a year, and that really worked. But it was using the values that I knew most of the value would share, is that psychology is common sense, and that you can be raised by good people to be good.

It would be a lot more fun to write a scene where good people raised Charlie Sheen, or something.

And America is anti-intellectual, in a way. I find… it’s very anti-intellectual. They tend to… if I hear one more person say, “He’s a president you can have a beer with!” Jesus Christ! I don’t want him to have a beer; I want him to make me feel stupid.

I want to show you a clip in which I failed massively. Let’s see the next one.

Sweets tells Booth that he thinks he’s in love with Brennan, but it’s a shift in brain chemistry during a coma.

Okay. Oh, boy. That scene was basically about Dr. Sweets telling our hero Booth that he had proof in a brain scan that the way he felt about his partner was as a result of his operation for a brain tumour. Holy crap.

The very idea that love could be something that was as a result of brain chemistry enraged America. The accepted societal view is that love is magical and elusive and a great mystery and you can’t quantify it, and we wrote a scene saying, “No, it’s not.”

Now, part of the anger is that the audience really wants those two together, wants Brennan and Booth together, and Sweets was saying, “No, no, you can’t do it because you can’t trust your feelings.” But, wow. If the other scene where we saved Sweets was… I believe this is the scene why we had to save Sweets […]

It was the most unjoyful noise…. The only other time I’ve heard so much screaming was when we turned a good character bad. They don’t like that. If I had any sense as a network showrunner, as a mass entertainer, I would at some point in the future refute this brain scan scene, and have our characters realize – probably through an epiphany – that love cannot be quantified, that it is magic, and if I were smart, and a good showrunner, who would get a show to a hundred episodes… I would do that. Soon. Probably before the end of this season.

I’m almost done. I do believe that in order to find an entertainment audience, you can’t be cynical – at heart. I know how glib I sound. I take my job very seriously. I weigh these things. They’re not accidental. You have to want to entertain people. You have to make it as best you can. I’m not writing down; this is me at the top of my game.

You have to make it as best you can, you can’t write down, because they will know and they will hate you for it. I’ve had many TV writers come onto my staffs, mostly from the feature world but sometimes the novel worlds and they write down. They look down on entertaining the masses, and they get fired. It just doesn’t work. It always shows. The actors can tell. Everyone can tell.

That is a mystery to me: how we know.

You have to be proud of what you do if you want to entertain a lot of people. This is why I instantly forgive and even admire the pulp writers – they don’t like it when you call them that – the pulp writers who somehow believe they are Proust or Mann or Stegner, when they’re writing crime novels or law novels or forensic novels. They are giving us what they want. They are appealing to a huge audience. I try my hardest to provide what I like to watch on television, on network television.

Like, I don’t know a single television writer who doesn’t want to be on cable, where these rules can be relaxed because you don’t have to go after over 6 million people to stay on the air. You can easily survive at 6 million people. And that’s a smaller audience to go after. If you have to go for 10, 12, 16 million people, you have to make friends with the mores of your culture. You have to know the mores of your culture and make friends with them.

Sure, you can slip in the “Jesus is a zombie” every once in a while. But the overall push of your show or your book, or whatever it is you’re writing for a mass audience, knowing you’re writing for a mass audience, has to support the cultural values of your society.

I think mass entertainers think of themselves as members of the masses who want to be entertained, which means, I agree totally with Nabokov – I asked you to remember that – which means we are all artists, which means there was no reason for you to sit through this entire lecture tonight. Thank you very much.

Q: Hi, just wondering if you could comment… as writers, you must feel a strong tendency towards serializing your plots and as network producers you have to provide a meal each work… could you just comment on that?

A: Oh, man, that’s a really… that’s a great comment. The chances of a serialized show, like Lost or Prison Break or 24, succeeding are very, very small. People miss a couple and they don’t watch again. So networks… when you go in to pitch to the networks, know that your chances of selling an episodic show to a network are higher than selling a serialized show. What they love about serialized shows is that the audience is very loyal, that there’s a core group that will watch a serialized show.

We cheat. Cases are, each week, very episodic, and the ongoing relationships between the characters are serialized. Not to boast… Bones enjoys the most fanatically loyal audience there is. It’s not just me saying that. Our testing people at the network – who are capable of lying – tell us that we have this massively successful… massively loyal audience.

We know that because they followed us all over the place. We were a “programmer” – is that term familiar to you? A programmer is a show they say, “Ah, we’ll just put it on the schedule to plug up holes, and then when it drops below 5 or 6 million viewers and becomes not profitable, we’ll cancel it.” That’s what Bones was, for two years. But this audience followed us around.

No matter where they put us, we got six and a half, seven million viewers, which kept us on the air. And then when they left us somewhere, we got a much bigger audience, doubled our audience. But I believe it is those serial elements… that people really liked the idea of a romantic comedy attached to a crime show. But it would be so much nicer…

I look at Lost and go, “Those lucky bastards. They don’t have to answer anything, they can deal with it later.” And the same with the guys on 24 – they don’t know where they’re going at the beginning of the season. I think, “Oh, that would be awesome.”

We were lucky to get both, but if you want to get a loyal audience, it tends to be the serialized shows that get that, but they go down in numbers. The other consideration for networks – it’s not as much a consideration on cable, by the way, again you need a smaller audience and they can rerun it several times during the week – but you go in knowing, what are my chances with this.

Q: Hi Hart, it’s Josh [Miller].

HH: Hi, Josh! How are you?

Q: Good.

HH: You were involved in that sitcom, as I recall.

Q: I was tangential. It wasn’t my fault.

HH: Yeah, I’m telling people that, too.

Q: I noticed in the opening clip you showed us that there was a needle going into an eyeball, and I was wondering if that was yours or one of your writers after you guys got some network notes, self-administered. No, but serious… how do you deal with network notes? Especially the ones where you go, “This is a hundred per cent the wrong note.” How do you respond? How do you deal with that?

HH: I’m afraid they’re listening.

Audience member: You’re in northern Canada.

HH: There’s no boundaries anymore. Someone here follows me on Twitter.

I’ll tell you the truth. My job was in grave, grave doubt in the first six or eight episodes of Bones, because the network kept asking for CSI, a straight-ahead procedural. “Quit being funny, and quit having characters,” because that was [?]

And I… this is how I handled that note. I’d go like this: [posture of utter dejection] “Oooh. I wish I could do that. But I am just not your guy. I understand if you have to make a change.” I said that several times.

When the show turned around…

I said no, in other words, that I wouldn’t make the changes. So, I’m that guy that will very politely, in a Canadian way, say, “Sorry” – which they mock, because they say “Sah-rry.” And don’t, don’t make those changes that hurt the show.

My rule is, though, if they ask for a change and it’s six of one, half a dozen of another, and it really doesn’t matter, I will give them any change I can give them. I will take any note I can, even if it doesn’t make it better. And unlike… I will say, these people are not idiots. I know that it’s… [sighs] I have huge fights with them and I call them idiots, and much worse, but they’re not idiots. They just have a different agenda, so I try to accommodate their agenda but I won’t wreck the show. I just won’t wreck the show.

And in the end, they know… I mean, I’m the showrunner, and if the show doesn’t do well, I can’t turn and say, “Well, it’s because I did all your notes.” They don’t care about that at all. They won’t remember it, they won’t care, so I have to kind of plant my… I try to deflect with humour and I’m often not successful and sometimes I shout, but. I give them what I can, and don’t give them what I can’t, is the fast answer.

I have done this, I will tell you this: I pulled down my pants and hit the phone with my penis. [laughter]

I’ll tell you something else, though: it was in another guy’s office. And it was my right-hand man’s office, Stephen Nathan, my right-hand man, and afterwards he stopped laughing and went, “Oh, wait a minute. That’s my phone!” So I’d recommend that. I didn’t hit it hard. I mean that… [laughter] This is what happens when I haven’t written out…

Q: Can you comment at all on the success or endurance of laugh-track-type sitcoms that really aren’t funny?

HH: I… I… Look… Not really. Um. Even though they call my show a “crimedy,” it falls in the… I’ve never been forced to use a laugh track. I have really good friends who work on sitcoms. Good sitcoms will use a sweetened laugh track, and so will bad sitcoms.

They tell me people only notice the laugh track when it’s not funny. Apparently, it increases the enjoyment on a show that is funny, because people feel like they’re laughing in a group.

But you know what? I’m parroting to you what I asked Steve Levitan, who does Modern Family. I can’t tell you… It sounded right, though! It’s the best argument for a laugh track I’ve ever heard – it only stands out if something’s not funny. I wish I could be helpful. My last sitcom was here. In 1996. And the funniest part was the credits. And buying a belt with Valri Bromfield at the World’s Biggest Mall. That was funny, too.

[shading his eyes to look for questioners] I can’t really see you, I’m just pretending that I can.

[long pause as questioners wait patiently for microphones to be passed along] This is so not an American crowd. I love comin’ home.

Q: I was just wondering, if you had the freedom to write anything with no constraints, what would it be?

HH: It would be a closed-ended television series that I knew how many episodes I had… what we used to call a miniseries. I would do that in a shot. What the Brits do so well. That would be great. And if I ever do enough clout, I’ll do that. I think that’s just the greatest kind of entertainment, is a closed-ended, you know, 13 episodes, six, eight, 13 episode hours where you could just do the whole thing, I think that’d be just… that’s as close as I’m going to get to a novel.

Audience member: You could do that in Canada.

HH: I keep being told I could do anything I want in Canada, but it’s not true.

Q: Do you have a story in mind you’d like to try?

HH: I have a bin full of story. I call it the bin… the bin of ideas. [pause] I’m not telling you what they are. [laughter] Someone just told me they’d make these in Canada, what do you think, I’m nuts?

Q: Do you think that with the success of Lost – I’m over here, on the other side – with the success of Lost having an end date and that being successful, that closed-ended television will start to come to America, as opposed to the British shows that do it so well?

HH: No. I think that Lost… those guys were brilliant con men. Their show started to tank, and they said, “We’ve always known where it’s going.” This is just – I know them, too. And they brilliantly came up with a plan to make people watch to the end so they’d have closure. By the way, the, ABC definitely wants that, because the other problem with serial shows is, people don’t want to commit to them because they want to know they’ll get to the end.

There were several shows that started up for a while there that were serialized and then got cancelled after five, eight episodes, leaving the audience up in the air. It was the talk of the town, that people underestimated an audience’s desire to end a story, if they were going to invest in it.

So, no, I think those guys came up with a plan, but once… We’ll see how Blood and Sand goes. Do you know Blood and Sand? The Spartacus? Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Rome, Rome was another one that had an end date, but they’re kind of British models. We’ll see how they do. They will try it on cable. I don’t think they’ll do it on network. Lost was a phenomenon.

Q: Do you think that’s to the detriment? Because, for example, Dollhouse just ending and they tried to cram an ending in because they knew they were getting […] so that would have made a better show.

HH: I don’t know if it would have. Joss Whedon takes a long time to find his shows, and he’s a big genius, so they give him the time. And the show got better and better…

Q: And then they cancelled it.

HH: And then they cancelled it because it didn’t matter that it was getting better and better; people weren’t watching it. And cable can get away with that. Cable can be patient for an audience. Network cannot. The affiliates start screaming.

You know, the whole Jay Leno thing kind of brought to the surface what we go through all the time when it comes to ratings. The affiliates are screaming, and they want something else on there that gets an audience. The affiliates don’t care about brand identity nearly as much as the networks do, so it’s just a business model, that probably will not apply to network. And watch me be completely wrong. I would not go pitch a closed-ended show to a network in this climate.

Q: Hi. There are quite a few students of screenwriting here, and I’m wondering if you can say something about writing spec scripts.

HH: It’s absolutely essential. It’s the only way you’re going to get a job, is to write spec scripts. It doesn’t matter what they are. I got my first job writing scripts in Canada by faxing in story ideas and spec scripts to Beachcombers.

I had an internship there and I snuck in and saw the executive producer’s fax number, so I just kept faxing things. I got work in the United States of America. When I went down there, I went there after a good… I was enjoying a nice career up here. I created a show called Traders that did very well, I had worked on North of 60 and Avonlea, I was making a very good living as a TV writer and I’d won some Geminis and, um, when I went down to the United States of America… they didn’t care at all.

I had to write a spec script. I had three weeks, so I wrote an Ally McBeal – because it doesn’t take any real research time, so I wrote an Ally McBeal. And that’s why, now, I write a crimedy. I went down with a funny script in my hand, and now I write a crimedy. If I had gone down with a Homicide: Life in the Streets script… who knows, I’d probably be working for Shawn Ryan.

You gotta write spec scripts, you have to write lots of them, you have to feel like the number of ideas you have are infinite, you have to portray the idea that you don’t care if people steal your ideas – despite what I said earlier, ten minutes ago – because you have an infinite number. You just have to keep that… floodgates open, that you are going to write millions of scripts until someone produces them or hires you on a story department.

Q: I’m interested in the politics and mechanics of the writers’ room – specifically… how important the voice of an individual writer is in the context of a collaborative medium.

HH: It has some importance on my show. Every writing room, by the way… someone once said to me that a writers’ room is like sex; you really don’t get to watch very many other people do it. They’re all different. Our writers’ room comes up with the plots. I or I-and-other-writers will come up with the character stuff and – I’m pointing at the screen as though that’s where Bones [is?]. That’s the personal stuff. I still do a final pass on every Bones script, for better or for worse.

You know, Homicide was a famously… the writers were famously independent on Homicide.

Did I just burp? Pat, I told you I would burp during this and you said you would mute it.

A network show is mostly like someone else’s set of clothes that you have to put on, and the value of a writer is to come in and sound like me, on my show. If you sound like me on Damages, that would be a disaster. But the job is to go in and sound like that show.

That’s a really good question, because writers will come in and try and dazzle. I remember doing this – it was really embarrassing – so, you try to make the show better. “I’m going to show them how this show should be.” Well, good luck at your next job.

You must mimic. Having the ability to mimic someone else’s voice is essential in television writing.

Q: Hello, over here. This is the Future of Story conference, so could you comment about the future of TV writing.

HH: Oh, man. Oh. If I could, I’d be running a network. It’s all anyone talks about, is what the changes in platforms are going to do, in what the individuals’ ability to make a movie and put it up on YouTube is going to do, how… just today at lunch, I was talking about product placement. Product placement has to happen on free television. It has to, because people fast forward through the ads.

I mean, ironically, I do. And, it’s like, they bought my house. They bought this couch I’m sitting on. There are so many issues at stake, it makes the mind boggles… and I do leave that to MBAs.

I am very confident that there will always be – I hate this term and I love it – I’m a content provider. All writers are content providers. They will always need content providers. How that content goes out into the world, what it means for individual writers… I have a nice, fat overall deal. I’m paid very well. One studio takes me off the market, and I can only work for them. Those overall deals used to be everywhere; they’re nowhere anymore. I’m so lucky that I was on a show, coming up to a hundred episodes when my deal came up. During the strike, many, many of my friends’ deals were suspended. The fat days… people making a hundred million dollars – that’s not an exaggeration, $100 million – on a TV show are mostly gone. There’s just an adjustment…

Don’t you think that sounds about right? Don’t you think that making a hundred million dollars for making a TV show is, like, too much? I think that’s crazy. Mind you, I think the same thing about professional sports, so [?] judge.

Everything is up in the air, it’s how stuff is going to be delivered. Hulu and YouTube, as many people watch my show on that as they do on broadcast television. They’re now trying to figure out how to factor DVRs – you call them PVRs? – recording your shows, how that affects… they did a study, and much to everyone’s delight, found out that 40 per cent of people still watch the ads when they should be… no, they shouldn’t be: you should all watch the ads.

I could tell you a long business story about what happened to me this summer, where the fast version is that the head of the new… the brand-new head of Fox called me and said, “You’re going to do it this way, or there will be no Bones next year.” And I, of course, said something… until my wife pointed out to me that about 400 people depend on me for their jobs and wasn’t it my job – this is what she said – to keep the factory going so that everyone could work. Thus destroying my…

But what happened to me was, it was very famous. It was very famous around town, because the models for budgeting and financing television are radically changing, the – is this boring yet? – the venture capital groups that used to be behind the movies and television are gone. They’re gone. So, it’s… I think people are getting a little more optimistic now, but there was a while there were in LA where it was even more desperate and fearful and greedy than usual, which is saying something. It’s a very chaotic time. Many opportunities will pop up, and I’m thinking there’s some kid with a video camera in Lethbridge who’s figured it out. And I hope he hires me.

[February 5, 2010 in Edmonton, AB]

I may transcribe the panel on Canadian film and television, but not for a few days.


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