By Laura Van Slyke
Breaking into television is tough. Staying there is even tougher. Three decades? Nearly impossible. Enter: Karen Hall. Since her time as a staff writer on MASH in the early 1980s, Karen has written for sitcom (ROSEANNE), political drama (THE GOOD WIFE), and crime (BROTHERHOOD). She’s mastered longevity. She’s mastered versatility. In this interview with TV Writer Karen Hall, she discusses her long career.
Karen will be teaching a fully-conferenced live online class “Intro to TV Writing” (7 Wk) at Writing Pad starting Tuesday, 10/18 where you will learn everything you need to know about TV writing fundamentals and crafting a great TV series. But until then, here’s a little bit about Karen.
1) Would you start by telling us about your background and how you broke into the biz?
I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old. My first grade teacher made the class write stories. I told her that I didn’t know how to do that. She said, “Write three sentences and make something happen.” (To date, some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received.) I did that, and I loved the feeling. And I discovered that I was good at it. So, I had a laser focus from then on. I was extremely fortunate to have had some truly gifted writing teachers, and they are why I was able to succeed. I had originally planned to major in English (Creative Writing) and write novels, but my advisor and I did not love each other (interesting story – I’ll tell you if you take my class) and I switched to playwriting. When I was ready to graduate, I decided that I wanted greater job security than Broadway could provide, so I moved to Los Angeles with the intent of becoming a television writer. I met Alan Alda through a class I was taking and he liked my writing, so about a year later, when MASH was ready to hire a new staff writer, he recommended me. I went in and pitched ideas and they gave me a freelance script. They were very happy with it, so I was off and running.
2) What are the top five scripts that all aspiring TV writers should read?
I recommend scripts for writers to read based on what they are working on or would like to do. I tell them to read pilots because that’s what I think they need to be writing right now if they are trying to break in. For sitcoms, I recommend reading/watching the pilots of Friends, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Frazier, and The Big Bang Theory. For half-hour one-camera: Pilots of The Wonder Years, The Office, 30 Rock, and Arrested Development. My favorite one-hour pilots are The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. I also really like the Bloodline pilot and The Night Of pilot.
The great thing about wanting to write for television (or any media, really) is that a wonderful and inexpensive education is out there to be had: I learned everything I knew, before breaking in, by studying what the people who went before me had done. But then, I was learning when there were no great writing classes like the ones that Writing Pad provides. I would have killed for that opportunity!
3) During your 1980 debut on “Eight is Enough,” what was the most crucial thing to learn?
I was very lucky because I had a great mentor, my playwriting professor Louis E. Catron (whose books are available on Amazon) and our class was set up in a way that taught me both how to write and also how to take criticism from my peers. (Writing Pad’s classes are set up the same way.) Being able to get feedback from my fellow writers was really valuable because television is such a collaborative effort, and I learned early not to take criticism personally, and how to use it to make my writing better. One thing that I did not learn from my classes (because they were for playwriting and not for television) was how to structure a television script. It’s something that most beginners don’t seem to learn from watching television and it can be taught in a way that gives beginning writers a big advantage over their competition.
4) You’re a script cleanup pro. What is your most dramatic example of a script revision?
Well, as a showrunner I’ve had to throw scripts out entirely and do a page one rewrite in 24 hours, complete with all new stories. That’s about as dramatic as it gets. I typically check into a hotel, hide, have people bring me food, focus on the script and nothing else. It can be done, when you know what you’re doing.
5) What is the most valuable piece of advice that a writing mentor has given you?
It came from my sister, who is also a television writer/producer (Barbara Hall, currently EP of Madam Secretary). I was in the early stages of writing my novel and I was calling her constantly to talk about it. One day, having had enough, she said, “Just shut up and write the damned thing.” It not only worked for the novel, but I have internalized it and every time I find myself complaining about writing instead of actually writing, I hit myself over the head with it.
6) What was the writers’ room like for women in 1980?
I can only speak to my own experience, and I was so young then, it has always been hard for me to separate how I was treated because I was young from how I was treated because I was a woman. I can tell you that there were a lot of requests for me to wear dresses and sit across from the mirror, which were made in jest, but not really. One thing I remember well is that the first 20 minutes of every morning at the writers’ table would be talk about sports. As a result, I became a lifelong sports fan. I had to start watching sports and learning about sports, so I wouldn’t be bored out of my skull for the first 20 minutes of every day (I bore easily and I can’t stand to be bored, which turns out to be a good trait for a writer)
7) How television writing evolved over the last 30 years?
The changes in the form of technology have been mind-boggling and they have been constant and fast (Writers have also listened to 30 years of “the technology is in its infancy, you can’t share in the profit yet” but that’s another story). When I started, there were just the three big networks and everything was “appointment TV” because there was no way to record a show and watch it later. A show didn’t have to be something like Game of Thrones to be a “water cooler show.” It wasn’t difficult for a show to get attention. In the course of 30 years, telling someone what I do for a living has changed from “I LOVE that show!” to “I’ve never heard of that.” I really don’t like that part of it.
I like it when everyone is sitting around the campfire, listening to one story that they will all talk about tomorrow. On the other hand, the sheer number of shows has created a great advantage for writers because there are now so many jobs for them. Choosing to be a television writer is not as outlandish as it was when I broke in. In fact it’s a very pragmatic career choice right now. As far as the storytelling itself, the basics of telling a good story haven’t changed since Aristotle wrote The Poetics. I do like that part.
8) You’ve been in the game writing longer than the average screenwriter. What’s your secret?
I actually know the answer to this! Again, I have my mentor, Louis Catron, to thank. He started his classes by teaching students the importance of writing from a credo. He harped on this and made us actually write our credos. This gave me an early sense of the importance of “self as source” that I think it responsible for the longevity of my career. It is impossible to guess trends and figure out what “they” are going to be buying this year. But if I ask myself what I’m going through, what my friends are going through and what people really care about at present, I can come up with ideas that I’m excited about writing (so I don’t get burned out) and touch something in people because they are universal.
That’s a deep well from which to draw, and so far, I haven’t reached the bottom. I think it has also been important to be versatile, to be able to write many things. When I was on MASH, I remember people declaring that comedy was dead. And it was starting to limp. So I went from there to Hill Street and I have jumped back and forth between comedy and drama, long form and short and everything in between. I always take a job if it’s something I haven’t done yet, though these days that’s hard to find!
9) From political dramas to sitcoms, you’ve written it all. How do you cultivate versatility?
Like I said, I push myself to do things I haven’t done yet. Right now I’m working on a lavish 16th-century mini-series set in Spain and a British movie that is a cross between Emma and Atonement. Those are both things I haven’t done yet. I push myself to say “yes” when it’s something I’m afraid of doing. One thing I have to say, though, is that versatility has a lot to do with talent. If I hadn’t been born with a sense of humor, I wouldn’t be able to write comedy. So a lot of my versatility has to do with things over which I had no control. But there is a lot about being versatile that can be learned, and it’s smart business practice. If you are a versatile writer, you have a much better chance of finding a good job.
Thank you so much, Karen! We’re all one step closer to writing our first eye-catching pilot. We can’t wait for your Intro to TV Writing class. Sign up before it’s sold out!