The Writing Disorder



New Nonfiction


by Sy Rosen

      Almost 20 years ago MTV launched a new show called The Real World and thus began the reality programming boom. Some people think the trend started earlier with An American Family (the Louds) and some even go back to Candid Camera. But The Real World brought reality programming to new heights. It was watched by millions of people—discussed, followed, loved, debated—and roundly condemned by sitcom writers everywhere as cheap sensationalism. And most important, we were afraid it would take away our jobs.
      Yes, I was a sitcom writer. I sold my first script to The Bob Newhart Show (the one where he was a shrink) when I was a twenty-six year old social worker. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Back then you didn’t need an agent, so I snuck onto the MTM studio lot pretending I was delivery man, and dropped off my spec script. Two weeks later I was hired. I worked on Newhart for two years, and then wrote for Rhoda, Taxi, MASH, Maude, The Wonder Years, Frasier and dozens of other shows—a few of which you would have to waterboard me to get me to reveal their names.
       Some people think that writing sitcoms is like dancing with the devil, but for me it was like cha-cha-ing with Charo—semi-glamorous, exciting, and a lot of goofy fun. However, after a while, reality shows started to take over the dance floor.
       With the success of The Real World these shows multiplied, morphed and gobbled up more and more primtetime air time. They could be slapped together quickly and inexpensively, and, of course, didn’t have the care, love, dedication and commitment that we sitcom writers gave to our shows (unless we were too busy playing foosball).
       We writers would talk about these reality shows during our lunch hour. Well, after spending the first half hour debating which restaurant we would order from. We would make fun of their tackiness and how they couldn’t compare to the written script. These reality shows didn’t have our famous second act twist, our two and half jokes per page, our funny neighbor, or our catchy phrases like “Kiss my grits,” or “What you talking about Willis?” Well, I hate to admit it, and it goes against the code of sitcom writers everywhere, but I love reality shows.
       I was transfixed by Survivor and riveted to my medium-sized screen as Richard Hatch sat naked in that tree. I yelled at my TV when the alliance picked off those innocent fools one by one. And I watched opened mouthed as Susan Hawk delivered her famous rat speech. The intensity of these real moments could never be matched by our sitcoms.
       Sure we could have Nell go back home and sing Amazing Grace at her estranged father’s funeral (okay, I admit it, I co-created Gimme a Break). However, it was still made up stories. It couldn’t reach the emotional level of those reality shows.
      Maybe you’re thinking that I just didn’t work on good enough shows, and in a few cases, that may be true. But I was very, very proud of some of the series I worked on (I hope by throwing in an extra “very” I can convince you). However, as meaningful and heartbreaking as the romance between Kevin and Winnie was, it couldn’t match the real life drama of teen romances, pregnancies, and weddings that were taking place on several reality shows.
      Actually, the closest I’ve ever came to reality was having my nose, or rather a mold of my nose, on a Wonder Years episode. When I was younger I had a very large nose (I still do) and the kids at my school nicknamed me “the nose” (they weren’t a very creative bunch). Well, I turned that experience into a Wonder Years episode and changed my character into a large-nosed teenage girl. However this being Hollywood, we couldn’t find an actress for the part because anyone born with an oversized nose saw a plastic surgeon before their sixteenth birthday (and probably had a shot of botox to go). So a special effects guy made a mold of my nose to get what he wanted for the actress. But even seeing a replica of my nose on ABC didn’t satisfy my lust for reality TV.
       Through the years I’ve watched real people date in the dark and break up in the light. I’ve cried at births, proms, weddings and reunions, and cheered for an unassuming British teacher who brought choirs to public schools around his country. I never really got into any of the Housewives, but Danielle and NeNe have not gone unnoticed.
       Of course, I have my favorite shows. For me, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, Top Chef, Iron Chef America, The Next Food Network Star, Billy the Exterminator and Chopped are the gold standard. And if Bobby Flay wants to come to my house for a throwdown, I make a mean tuna salad. I also love Pawn Stars and American Pickers; both have taken Antiques Roadshow to a new level. I would love to go around the country with Frank and Mike as they “pick” items to resell. Unfortunately I hate to travel and get car sick, but at least I can live vicariously through them.
       I think one of the best reality shows is What Would You Do? They stage uncomfortable situations where “real people” are mistreated and then keep the cameras rolling to observe how bystanders react. For some reason when I see regular people standing up to the actor/bullies it makes me proud. I want to roam the streets and look for some form of verbal injustice and correct it. The closest I’ve come to intervening was when a customer at a yogurt store loudly complained that he didn’t get a big enough portion. Although I kind of agreed with him—it didn’t look like a full 6 ounces—I forcefully told him that was no way to talk to someone in the food service industry. Yes, What Would You Do? has made me a better person.
       Perhaps the best thing about these shows is that I don’t actually feel like I’m watching television. I know, I know, a TV writer saying this is blasphemy. But we’ve all been inundated with report after report about television being this great wasteland, and how it’s rotting our brains and lowering our sex drive (I just made that last one up, but I’m sure there will be a study about it in the future).
      Because the people and situations are real I feel like I’m involved. I’m not watching a made-up show, but participating in life. I am learning about human nature and in a few shows like Pawn Stars I’m also learning some valuable historical facts.
       Although, I’m not a complete idiot (even though I am a sitcom writer). I know that most of these shows are massaged and edited to get the best dramatic effect. But no matter what, they are still dealing with real people and these people have become my friends. And maybe that’s the main reason I watch these shows.
      You see, most of the sitcom writers I used to hang out with have retired and moved away or died (although it’s been said that old sitcom writers never die, they just go work for the Disney Channel where they feel like they’ve died).
       I’ve been looking for new friends to fill up my life. I miss having someone to play foosball with. I miss going to Art’s Deli where we stuffed ourselves with oversized pastrami sandwiches and traded war stories. And I miss the rewrite room.
       Okay, maybe the rewrite room has been portrayed as this grueling hellhole where we spent stomach churning all-nighters pitching jokes, desperately competing with each other to get our stuff into the show—kind of like a nerd version of The Amazing Race.
       However for me, a born loner, it was forced camaraderie, as we all worked together to make the script better. It was like being back in high school, but this time I had friends (and no one called me “the nose”). Around midnight those conversations would get crazier and more surreal. We once put the script aside and spent two hours arguing over whether a man who was trapped in an avalanche and had to eat his own leg to survive, would gain or lose weight.
      I know it’s kind of pathetic for me to think that these reality shows are the source of my new friends—that I’m actually hanging out with a contestant from Top Chef or Bobby Flay or Billy the Exterminator—but that’s how I feel. Maybe I need an intervention. Hey, I know just the show.

Sy Rosen has written for several TV shows, as well as numerous personal essays, short stories and plays. Currently, he is trying to become a reality TV star but has been told that he is not real enough.

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