From working on an assembly line at a brush factory to winning an Emmy while working on Frasier, Lori Kirkland Baker (Frasier, Desperate Housewives, Wings, Freddie)has never been short on creating material. “Non-(industry) related jobs helped me develop characters and write dialogue,” Kirkland Baker says. “I enjoyed meeting people of different backgrounds and studying habits and idiosyncrasies.” She was in college when she worked at the brush factory. “We made toilet bowl brushes, basting brushes, the whole nine. It was horrible, but the money was decent at the time.”
When Kirkland Baker came to L.A., she left the brushes behind and opted for temping, wanting “to work in the industry in any capacity,” she says. “I temped through an agency, and they only placed me with studios. I worked in many different departments, seeing all sides of the industry.” A friend then got her her first writers' assistant interview – and job – on Perfect Strangers, which was when she decided she wanted to pursue an entertainment writing career.
TSL: And how long did that take, from first spec to staff?
LKB: I gave myself five years and did it in four. Had the five years come up, I may have extended it if I felt like my material was excellent, and I just wasn't getting read at the right places. It depends on a person's individual comfort level — and how much money they need.
TSL: And in those years, how many specs did you write?
LKB: I wrote about three to four specs and used two to get my first agent and job.
TSL: How many specs do you think one should expect to write before they get their first staff job?
LKB: At least two, but it totally depends on the quality of the material and the format. If I were hiring a staff writer, I would want to see material for the format I was producing (i.e. single-cam half-hour, multi-cam, etc.). A great play is a bonus, but I would want to see that you can write what I'm making. If a new writer is applying for, say a procedural one-hour, they should have two procedural hour specs that are top-notch and error-free, in addition to anything else they've written. But as a showrunner for that procedural, I would only be reading their hour specs.
TSL: Aside from having top-notch specs, they say luck and timing and who you know play a big part in one succeeding out here.
LKG: Absolutely. Those three elements can be primary in getting a job. But your talent is what will keep you employed. You can't fool all the people all the time!
TSL: You’ve worked on some pretty remarkable and renowned shows. I know it’s hard to play favorites, but… can you?
LKG: Frasier was absolutely my favorite place to work. All the writers got along really well. The cast was wonderful. No drama. All fun.
TSL: Speaking of fun, I know you have won some writing awards – namely, an Emmy for Frasier as well as a WGA award – in addition to having been nominated several times. What does that feel like? Does it make all of the hard work worth it?
LKB: Awards and nominations are wonderful, and the night I won an Emmy and walked up on that stage was amazing and unforgettable. But it's the paycheck that gives my family a comfortable lifestyle that makes the hard work worth it. And the finished product – when I'm working on a show I'm proud of – it's a real boost to see my name associated with it.
TSL: Now, speaking of the aforementioned drama, some writers’ rooms seem dominated by mostly male writing staffs. Have you found this to be problematic? Or, in general, do you think it is?
LKB: It doesn't bother me that the staffs are dominated by men. But when I offer a female point of view, I don't like to be shouted down by men who don't know what it's like to be a woman. I would never presume to tell a man how men as a whole feel about an issue. I think my perspective should be respected.
TSL: Agreed! Do you think it is more difficult for women to get writing jobs and run shows?
LKB: Not writing jobs, because there's a certain cache to being a female writer. In fact, it may help you get the job. But showrunning jobs do tend to be harder to get as a woman. I think it may be the difference between applying to a writer versus applying to a network. A creative versus corporate issue.
TSL: Any advice would you give to "Hollywood" to encourage they hire more women?
LKB: As long as the most talented person is getting the job, I don't care what their gender is. I do think a show with female leads should have women writers, and the converse is true (but not usually an issue). "Hollywood" just needs to use common sense on that.
TSL: Now, what about TV hours…?
LKB: TV hours can be long because not all showrunners are good time managers. A common trait amongst writers is to procrastinate and the inability to focus until the eleventh hour. You must fight this innate demon as an executive producer because it's not just your time you're managing. Ideally, the head writer goes in early and knows what she or he wants out of the day and can jump in with the staff in earnest at 10. An hour for lunch and out by six.
TSL: I know that once a writers’ room orders dinner, watch out…
LKB: While it's important to have fun while writing because that feeds creativity, it's crucial that you're able to stay on task and not let the "room jokes" spiral into requiring you to stay for dinner. It's also critical that you can be decisive and not use your time to make lateral changes to a script when you could be moving forward.
TSL: As someone who used to have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a midnight snack way too often while working on shows, I think that was very well said. What about working weekends? That seems to be commonplace on certain shows these days…
LKB: Weekends are for production emergencies, not make-up time for poor writers' room management.
TSL: What about balancing work and non-work life? I know you have a family and probably enjoy spending time with them…
LKB: I won't work on a show that has a history of ongoing late nights. If it's occasional, that's okay. I don't think it's okay to miss work because of family unless there's a special event like a kid's play or something. But again, if I'm working for a showrunner who is a good time manager, this should rarely be an issue. It's important that you let your limitations and expectations be known when you take the job.
TSL: And, last but not least, words of wisdom you would give to someone who wants to be a TV writer…
LKB: One word: write. Don't stop. Keep pounding out product and honing your skill. And write for yourself. Don't try to determine what people want to see. Write whatyou want to see. Write voices you know and keep it real. But above all — WRITE.
TSL: Anything else you would like to add…
LKB: Save every dime!