When asked what advice she would give an aspiring TV writer, Dee Johnson (The Good Wife, Army Wives, ER, Melrose Place) says, “(My) first impulse is to tell them to run away. Failing that, just make sure your work is as bullet-proof as possible before you hand it over because you only get one first impression.”
When Johnson first started out, writing spec after spec, “too many to count as I was trying to figure out where my voice best worked,” she worked everywhere from in accounts payable at a computer software company to being a production assistant on a TV show.
On what made her want to be a TV writer, Johnson says, “TV saved my life. Or at least allowed me to see that things didn’t have to be the way they were in my particular household. In essence, it gave me hope.”
TSL: So before you were a paid writer, you worked at a computer software company in accounts payable?
DJ: Which is odd, since I tend to be rather numerically dyslexic.
TSL: So obviously you were meant to write.
DJ: I wrote and wrote and wrote. In terms of how many specs I wrote… too many to count as I was trying to figure out where my voice worked best.
TSL: Do you think writers should give themselves a certain number of years to "make it"?
DJ: It's funny because when I first moved to L.A., I met a "psychic" at a party, and she said it would take seven years, which I scoffed at, of course. But the truth is, she was kind of right — not that I believe in that stuff. I moved here in 1986 and was on my first staff job in 1993.
TSL: Once you realized numbers weren’t your specialty, you were a PA before getting staffed, right?
DJ: A PA, then I became a writers’ assistant to a number of very talented writers, many of whom were quite nurturing, or at the very least read my work. And I broke the cardinal rule of spec writing by writing a spec of the show I was on at the time. It was called I'll Fly Away, and I couldn't help myself. I just thought it was such a rich, beautifully written show — it was the kind of stuff I aspired to write. At the time, I was the assistant to David Chase, Barbara Hall and Henry Bromell, and I was lucky enough to be given a freelance episode as a result.
TSL: Wow, what great mentors. What happened next?
DJ: Shortly thereafter, Frank South (whom I'd worked with on Equal Justice) called me in to meet with Darren Star for a staff writing job on the original Melrose Place. I got the gig, and it was fantastic. Thirty-four episodes a season, so even as a staff writer I got to do six episodes a year.
TSL: So let’s go back to the writers’ room for a moment. Do you think being a writers' assistant or script coordinator is worth it?
DJ: I think being an assistant provides you great insight into the world of TV- writing. Not to mention contacts and mentors — reluctant and otherwise. That said, just showing up for work every day doesn't and shouldn't entitle you a shot at an episode. You need to be a great assistant first. At the same time, you need to commit to learning/respecting the craft. And, of course, you need to write, write, write.
TSL: Every day?
DJ: When I was trying to break in, I certainly did. I don't do that as much anymore, though I wish I did, at least to preserve my own voice. TV is very much about staying within the lines of an established vision (the showrunner's), so it's important to keep your own creative self going on the side.
TSL: If one works a job without industry contacts, do you think it's important they network with industry folk in their downtime?
DJ: Probably, yes. Though you've got to back up any contacts you make with good writing.
TSL: Speaking of Hollywood, it seems like such a men’s world and some shows seem dominated by mostly male writing staffs. As a female, do you think it is more challenging to get writing jobs, run shows, etc.? Or is it getting easier?
DJ: Your work speaks for itself, typically. That said, there's a lot less willingness to hand the keys over to a woman to run a show (without an "arranged marriage" with a seasoned male co-showrunner). I can't think of one instance in which an inexperienced female writer/creator has been given the go-ahead to helm a show alone, but I've seen that happen with similarly inexperienced male writers.
TSL: What advice would you give to “Hollywood” to encourage they hire more women?
DJ: Only that it would behoove them. The female audience is huge in TV, but if I had a buck for every female-centered show that was created/helmed/produced by an all male EP team… well, I'd have quite a few bucks.
TSL: What about TV hours? As someone who has proofread many a script at 2AM, I know they can be pretty long. I’ve worked in some writers’ rooms where we worked nearly 24 hours a day – and weekends – while I’ve been in others where we had eight-hour days, minus weekends, and seemed to have gotten more accomplished. What do you think is key to an optimal writers’ room & its productivity?
DJ: Optimal is a room that's well managed. If you work me 24 hours a day, you're gonna get diminishing returns, plus I'm gonna be pretty bitter about it. I've found that you get the best work out of people when you respect their time and recognize how collaborative TV is and should be.
TSL: I wish you had been my boss when I script coordinated. You also have a family. How do you balance work and family time?
DJ: I'm fortunate enough to have a stay-at-home partner, but it is hard to be away so much. I try as best I can to write when everyone's asleep, either late into the night or waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning in order to at least be there for breakfasts and dinners.
TSL: Maybe on shows I was on, I should have pretended I had a family to go home to. On that note, for future reference, would you recommend marrying or dating someone in the industry, or not?
DJ: Wouldn't recommend it. I like having real world sanity to keep me in check.
TSL: Do you have advice you would give someone who wants to be a TV writer?
DJ: First impulse is to tell them to run away. Failing that, just make sure your work is as bullet-proof as possible before you hand it over because you only get one first impression. Secondly, play well with others. Thirdly, learn how to handle criticism — it is probably 95% of the job.
TSL: Anything else you would like to add…?
DJ: Just remember, you can learn just as much from those who fail as you can from those who succeed.