Let Me Entertain You

I came across this article I wrote…I just don’t remember who I wrote it for or when. This is what happens to your memory when you a) write a lot of articles for a lot of people and b) creep past 40 years old.  But I think the subject is still relevant and, since I am on a flight to  Germany right now, I thought it would make an interesting blog post in my absense…

My guess is that I’m not the guy you’d pick to
tell you how to live your life. I’m hardly an expert on mental health,
sexuality, religion, education, alcoholism heart disease, drug addiction,
smoking, race relations, feminism, or child-rearing, among other things, but
people think you’ll listen to me. I also know very little about archeology,
quantum physics, auto repair and basic mathematics, but thankfully those aren’t
areas I’m called on to teach you about.

So who am I? A leading educator? An elder
statesman? A respected theologian? Oprah? Nothing so lofty or accredited. I’m a TV writer, and the executive
producer of a network action show. But apparently that makes me the point
person in the organized effort to make you healthier, happier and a more
productive member of society. It’s a big job. But is it really mine?

A few months
ago, a story broke that producers like me are supposedly being pressured by the
government to put “anti-drug” messages in their entertainment programming. It
was big news, but I don’t understand why. Every day, I’m bombarded with mail
from a seemingly endless parade of councils, associations and societies, as
well as action groups, government groups, working groups, and, my personal
favorite, “industry advisory groups.” They all want me to teach you an
important life lesson under the guise of entertainment. To that end, they inundate me with earnest
press releases, shocking statistics, colorful pamphlets, slick videos, and the
phone numbers of “technical advisors”
who stand ready and waiting to sharpen my prose with a few important life

Beyond the avalanche of paper, it’s not a hard
sell, There are a lot of incentives to turn that press release into a line of
punchy dialogue or to give a quick call to that helpful technical advisor. For
one thing, it’s always for a good cause. No one can argue that snorting coke,
wife-beating, overeating, sexual harassment, and drunk driving are bad,
socially unacceptable things. So what’s the harm in sneaking a line or two
about the evils of those behaviors and attitudes into your next plot? It’s like
adding fluoride to drinking water.

Then there’s the implication that your boss is
watching. Most of these groups list an advisory council or board of directors
that invariably includes several network executives and studio chieftans. If
it’s their cause, shouldn’t it also be yours? You are, after all, working for
them, and would it kill you to sneak into a scene that unprotected sex is
dangerous? That cutting down old growth redwoods hurt the environment? That
your villain has had one drink too many?

And if that wasn’t enough motivation, there are
all the awards and accolades you can win. Just about all of the groups have an
annual, black-tie awards ceremony, usually put on by a committee of network and
studio heavyweights, where you can be lauded for your heartfelt propaganda, I
mean, teaching viewers a valuable lesson. Recently I was invited to the Prism
Awards, for the Outstanding Contribution to the Accurate Depiction of Drug,
Alcohol, and Tobacco Use and Addiction. Who wouldn’t want a Prism Award, and
others like it, on his mantle piece? They are great tokens of your political
correctness and media influence. And they make nice place-holders for the
Oscar, Emmy or Tony you know you’re gonna get some day.

But I think there’s a real danger to acceding to
all those well-intentioned, kind-hearted requests for just one little line of
dialogue in your script. No matter how artfully it’s done, you end up with
propaganda as entertainment. You end up with writers who are no longer telling
stories, but giving lectures punctuated with punchy dialogue and the occasional
car chase (albeit with everybody sober, properly belted in and definitely not
smoking, eating, talking on the cell phone or listening to their music too loud
while operating the motor vehicle in what is clearly an unsafe manner to begin

I don’t think people turn on “Battlestar Galactica,” “Monk,” “Law and
Order” and “Grey’s Anatomy” looking for guidance in their personal lives. They want
to be entertained, challenged, captivated, and thrilled. But we can’t do that
if we’re busy checking off items on a lesson plan instead of using our
imaginations to tell exciting stories. And do you really want a bunch of
Hollywood TV writers telling you how to think and behave?

There are those
who argue that we’re doing that anyway, whether we mean to or not. Granted,
television creates heroes and icons, trends and styles, not to mention the
occasional memorable catch-phrase. And certainly some people set out to do just
that every time they set pen to paper. But most of the time, it’s the
accidental, happy by-product of entertainment. We are no more responsible for
how you live than the authors of the books your read, the music you listen to,
or what you browse on the Internet. Who you are, your attitudes and behaviors,
are shaped by much more than an episode of  “Lost.”

So, to put it bluntly, why come to me? Why
not aren’t these same groups asking Scott Turow and John Grisham to stick a few
Public Service Announcements in their characters’ mouths? Why aren’t they
offering Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg and Gwen Stefani some technical
advisors who can help them add helpful dietary hints in their lyrics? The idea
is really no more intrusive or preposterous than coming to me.

It’s hard enough thinking up good stories without
the added pressure of having to dictate morals and values at the same time.
Yes, we reach millions of people every week with our programming. We have a
responsibility to be, well, responsible. But our first, and foremost,
responsibility should be to entertain.

That said, don’t forget to eat some fruit today.
It’s good for you. And tell your friends I told you so.

5 thoughts on “Let Me Entertain You”

  1. Happy to hear that you resisted the numerous pressue groups that wanted to sell their message and hope product placement was also resisted. Let’s face it, us seniors who watch “Diagnosis Murder” on the I are not prime candidates for advice on smoking marijuana, unprotected sex and you know the rest.

  2. It all seems rather unnecessary. If you write a plot where people act naturally, the moral conclusions are usually right there. If you have a wife-beater in the story, it’s going to be hard to have the narrative come out in favour of him unless you’re either telling a story of great moral complexity, in which case button-pushers should let you get on with it, or unless you’re a jerk yourself, in which case it’ll come out in the writing and nobody will pay you much mind.
    Surely the thing to do is handle issues as and when they come into your story, handle them as well as you can, and not force them in when they aren’t relevant. I don’t see anything else leading to good writing – and while I’m prepared to at least hear out a good writer when he has moral advice to dispense, no bad writer’s telling me anything. You don’t get to deliver clunky scripts AND tell people what to do.
    [Not ‘you’ meaning you personally, Lee. :-)]

  3. I really appreciate the anti-heroin messages in WOW! WOW! WUBBZY! My problem is that it’s not believable that Widget would resist stealing Walden’s ice skates.
    I mean, if you’re gonna do dark, do DARK.

  4. As soon as I finish giggling about the elided “not” in “No one can argue that snorting coke, wife-beating, overeating, sexual harassment, and drunk driving are bad, socially unacceptable things,” I’m taking another bong hit, dude.

  5. I read an article somewhere that the “Beer Bad” episode of Buffy, arguably the worst episode ever, was a result of network pressure to put anti-drinking messages in the show.
    “Innocent,” which came organically out of the writer’s room, was largely about the emotional consequences of sex. It was a good episode because the story wasn’t forced by the network.


Leave a Comment