Years ago, I wrote several shows for a man who owned a semi-big TV production company. Why he kept hiring me, I have no idea, for
we agreed on absolutely nothing.
If I wanted to set a scene outdoors, he wanted it indoors. If I wanted to hire the blonde actress, he wanted to hire the
brunette. One time, the Associate Producer came in and asked us what kind of food the caterer should serve at dinner. The producer said
"Mexican" at the exact same instant I said "Italian."
There were times when I felt like I was trapped in the Monty Python Argument Clinic. (I will call this producer Myron, though he
would probably insist I call him Harry.)
Such contrariety can sometimes make for a stimulating creative environment. Sometimes.
At other times, it can bring invention to a screeching halt, impeding all progress, bringing all to outright hostility. In some
offices, it can lead to threats of firing/quitting (pick one) or, at least, vast amounts of energy being expended on something other than making the
Stephen Sondheim once said, when embarking on a new Broadway musical, that the most important thing is to make sure that everyone is
doing the same show. My worst experiences in television prove Mr. Sondheim correct; even when you have talented people working together, if
they have disparate visions, what gets on the screen can easily wind up being a compromise that represents no one's concept.
One guy wants it red, another wants it yellow...and you wind up making it orange, not because that's what it should be, but because
that's what ends the debate. (Sometimes, you can't even arrive at that kind of compromise, and you wind up making it blue, just so nobody wins,
The most destructive of these quarrels — painful to be in, ruinous to the production — are those wherein the spat devolves
into some inane power game. You know the type — the kind where people are fighting, not to prove they're right, but just to prove they
have some standing. I once won an argument with a director, after which he turned to me and said, "The next time we have a dispute, we're doing
it my way, even if you're the one who's right."
I had those kinds of battles — and every other variety — when I worked with Myron, the producer who would prefer I call him
Harry. What made those shows workable — what allowed us to get them on the air with a minimum of bloodshed — was the presence on
Myron's staff of a rabbi.
That's "rabbi" with a small "r." In the Jewish faith, a rabbi is a spiritual leader who leads religious services, counsels
members of his synagogue, officiates at ceremonies and teaches, among other duties. This is not the kind of rabbi I'm talking about in this
In show business, an uncapitalized rabbi is a man who displays enough kindness, wisdom and experience that people are apt to heed his
counsel. He need not be Jewish — though all the show biz rabbis I've met have been. He also need not be an older man — or
even a man at all — though, again, I've yet to encounter an exception.
What he needs is to project sanity and understanding such that his decision is accepted by all. When a conflict is reaching
meltdown proportions, the matter is brought before the rabbi and he settles it.
The secret of being a rabbi is to make certain that all the combatants retain some measure of dignity, and that neither loses nor
wins. Even if he thinks one guy is full of Bandini, he says things like, "Each of you has a valid point" and "We all have to work together" and
"I'm sure we can arrive at a workable solution."
Sometimes, he steers you to those unfortunate resolutions where everyone is happy only because nobody got their way. Still, that
can be preferable to spending all eternity in gridlock. Whenever Myron and I had a disagreement we couldn't settle between us, we would take it
to the rabbi. This did not happen often...no more than three or four times a day.
We would truck down the hall to the rabbi's office and sit before his desk. I would tell my point-of-view, Myron would tell his
point-of-view, and we would tell the rabbi that the only thing we could agree upon was that neither of us was changing his mind.
The rabbi was an older man — wizened and unflappable. He would hear us both out, then he would spend a few minutes cleaning
his glasses, stalling while deciding what to do. Finally, he would speak in calm, rabbinical tones...
"Well, as I see it, each of you has a valid point," he would say, even though he knew darn well that only one of us had a valid point
and it was me. "We all have to work together and I'm sure we can all find a workable solution."
Then he would propose one of those solutions where nobody wins...but it's okay because nobody loses, either. We would agree to
the compromise and that would be the final word on the matter. Production could resume.
At first, I thought this rabbi was an uncommonly wise man, and I marveled at his Solomon-like ability to find a common ground between
two men who were in separate orbits. Eventually though, I realized that there was no great foresight being employed. The man was merely
adding whatever I wanted to whatever Myron wanted and then dividing by two.
If I wanted six extras in a scene and Myron wanted ten, we wound up with eight.
Or if I insisted a scene be three minutes long and Myron was determined it run no longer than two, the scene would end up being two
minutes and 30 seconds in length.
This did not require great wisdom. It merely involved knowing how to average.
Where it got tricky was in the non-numeric quarrels...but even then, all the rabbi did was split the difference. If Myron thought
an actor should wear a tuxedo and I thought he should be in casual clothes, the rabbi would suggest we put the guy in a sport coat.
Or if I wanted to do a bit about skateboards and Myron wanted to do a bit about ice skating, the rabbi would decree we should do
something on roller skating. Halfway in-between.
Or if Myron felt we should hire a big name guest star for a role, and I felt it should be played by an unknown, the rabbi would settle
it by booking Cesar Romero.
Once I understood the principle, I naturally began to sabotage it. If Myron wanted the scene to run two minutes and I felt it
should be three, I'd go in and demand it be four minutes long. Then the rabbi would say, "Well, as I see it, each of you has a valid
point." Then he would say, "We all have to work together and I'm sure we can all find a workable solution." Then he would decide the
sketch should be three minutes long.
This worked very well until Myron figured it out, too. He started adjusting his demands in the other direction to
compensate. The rat.
Most of the time though, a rabbi is a handy thing to have around. Alas, it's getting so few of the companies I work for have
anyone on the premises who can fulfill that function. All the good rabbis seem to be retiring or dying off.
Therefore, I came up with an idea. I call it the Show Biz Court.
The Show Biz Court, if and when we can ever get it up and running, would be a private agency that settles disputes between creative
people. It would seek out all the surviving rabbis of show business and hire them, perhaps coaxing a few out of retirement.
Then we have to get everyone to put into their contracts that all critical creative disputes will be settled in the Show Biz
Court. It's kind of like agreeing to submit to binding arbitration.
Here's how it works: Let's say we're working together and, at some point, we have a quarrel we cannot settle between ourselves.
We are at a total impasse. That's when one of us says, "All right! We're taking this to the Show Biz Court!" Either side may make
this demand and the other side has to go along with it.
We phone the Show Biz Court and secure an appointment, hopefully for later that day. Then we report to the offices of the Show
Biz Court where we are granted fifteen minutes — and not one second more — of a rabbi's time. There would be a small fee for this
service, which we would agree to split.
We are both sworn in and then I get five minutes (carefully timed by a bailiff of the Show Biz Court) to state my position. Then
you get five minutes to explain how you see the matter and what you want to do.
Then the rabbi says, "Well, as I see it, each of you has a valid point." Then he says, "We all have to work together and I'm sure
we can all find a workable solution." Then he announces a compromise —
— and that's it. End of argument. We are both contractually and morally bound to do what he says. We are also
forbidden to reopen the discussion. That matter is closed forever and, should you bring it up again, I can haul you back to the Show Biz Court
and sue you. And don't think I won't do it.
The Show Biz Court would provide a few other services. For example, it seems to take forever for the Business Affairs folks at
some studios to finalize a contract. I've had negotiations drag on for months with my agent trying desperately to contact them about their
latest offer. Then they call back only when he's unavailable. This game of Stoop Tag can go on for weeks or months. Even years.
Even when they do connect and reach some sort of harmony, that's not the end of it. In Hollywood, work is almost always begun on
a verbal accord with the paperwork to follow. Invariably, when they send over a contract, our side has to say, "No, that's not what we agreed
to" and the battles begin anew. I have worked on shows — this is not an exaggeration — that were literally filmed, aired and
cancelled while my agent was still arguing over specific contract terms.
So, at the Show Biz Court, we will have Negotiating Chambers. If a studio wants to hire me to write something, a representative
of their Business Affairs Department reports to the Show Biz Court, as does my agent. They are then locked into one of these little
rooms. They are not allowed to leave until they finalize the contract on paper.
In the Negotiating Chamber, there are chairs and a table, calculators, notepads, pencils, and a supply of snack foods, coffee and soft
drinks. There are also telephones and fax machines which can only connect to (a) their respective clients and (b) a secretarial
pool outside, wherein contracts will be typed up and copied. No cellular phones are allowed in the Negotiating Chamber, nor is there a
Currently, it is said that in Hollywood, the winner in any negotiation is the person with the least to lose. Under my proposed
arrangement, it would be the person with the least to lose...and the strongest bladder.
Should they prove unable to agree, the Show Biz Court can declare a Hung Negotiation. At this point, they have the option of
taking it before a rabbi to mediate — or they can declare themselves hopelessly deadlocked. If the latter, then the deal is considered
off and both sides are forbidden to reopen deal-making in any manner for a period of ninety (90) days. This is to prevent either side from
using the old ploy of walking out on the bargaining to scare the other side into running after them and giving in. In the Show Biz Court, if
you break off negotiations, you'd better really mean it.
If and when an agreement is reached and typed up, an officer of the Show Biz Court checks with the client to make sure he or she
agrees. The officer will previously have verified that the person representing the studio is empowered to make the deal. (Another
negotiating stunt is to get you to accede to certain compromises...then they say, "Oh, the guy you've been talking to isn't authorized to finalize
the pact." They then refer it to his superior, who holds you to your concessions while refusing to honor the ones his side has made.
There would be a colossal fine for sending a rep to the Show Biz Court who can't close.)
Assuming all is Kosher, the magistrate will then check the payment history of the employer to see if they have been notably tardy in
paying writers for their work. This is a relatively rare occurrence in show business, occurring no more than around 98% of the time. If
the company is oft-late or financially unstable, they will have to post a bond with the Show Biz Court in order to have the contract certified.
This will ensure timely, total payment, should the Court verify that I have fulfilled my end of the agreement.
Once all this is done — preferably in one afternoon — the contract is validated. Naturally, it specifies that all
creative disputes will be settled by a rabbi of the Show Biz Court.
The Show Biz Court is a terrific idea...which is amazing when you consider that it was mine. It's such a terrific idea that, of
course, it will never happen.
Still, when I'm trapped in some silly argument with a producer...or when my agent is taking weeks to finalize the final draft of the
contract for a show I've long since completed...I think about it. I think about the Show Biz Court and how nice it would make everything.
And then something jolts me back to reality and I remember: This is show business. It's not supposed to be nice. It's not
even supposed to be sane.