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This Sitcom Isn’t Funny

Bleak economy, digital revolution, youth culture add up to fewer jobs for older TV writers

ENTERTAINMENT tv radio

“The taint of ageism as I experienced it,” says Bob McCullough, “spreads throughout the industry, regardless of the age of those perpetrating it.” — Daryl Peveto / LUCEO

Youthquake victims

And once she did, she says, it became increasingly obvious. Beatts became the victim of “a youthquake that I had been part of creating.”

Saturday Night Live helped usher in a youth culture that grew to include the executives in charge of programming and their underlings.

“They didn’t get the older people’s points of reference,” Beatts says. “They hadn’t read the classics. They didn’t know black-and-white movies. And they weren’t embarrassed about not knowing. ... They were ironic and postmodern and all this crap.”

In 2004, Beatts says she pitched an idea for a show to a successful producer, a man about her age, and was thrilled when he responded enthusiastically. The next step was to meet with various networks to sell the idea. But, she says, the producer’s agent discouraged him, telling him, “I can’t walk into an office with a couple of alta kockers like you guys.” (Alta kocker is a Yiddish term that translates essentially as “old fart.”)

Beatts acknowledges that ageism may not be solely to blame for what happened to her career. She says she might have hampered herself through “poor career choices, alienating the wrong people, having a big mouth.” But she says the discrimination is real, and the size of the settlement is “a slap on the wrist.”

Writers in Hollywood are a fractious group, so it’s not surprising that some feel the lawsuit was misguided. Craig Mazin, whose credits include two installments in the Scary Movie series, is among the critics. He believes there are many reasons why writers may get less work as they age, including a simple lack of talent.

“Everybody breaks in when they’re young,” he says. “It’s a marathon, and over the course of a career you have to continue to prove yourself. The people who don’t have the goods are going to get winnowed out. Are they getting discriminated against?”

Mazin also points out that genres change over time. Television schedules used to be packed with sitcoms, for example. With far fewer on the air now, he says, it’s not surprising that people who excelled at writing them are finding fewer opportunities.

Mazin, who is 39, says he fully expects that he, too, may someday find that his services are less in demand. “This is professional sports,” he says. “One day it’ll be over, and you’ve got to go in knowing that.”

McCullough dismisses those arguments. He says good writers are versatile and can adapt when genres change. If he was good enough to get top jobs for years, why not now? “I still have a very vital life,” he says. “I’m not doddering. If I wrote a script, I could probably do it in three days.”

Life after TV

He’s not writing scripts anymore, though. He has moved on—he’s an executive with a transportation logistics firm now. But he still finds the settlement gratifying, and not just from a monetary standpoint. “It’s been a very long time coming,” McCullough says. “I’m not sure the money will be significant or life-changing. But it makes a point.”

And the point, he says, is that executives and agents should think twice before assuming that older writers can’t get the job done.

Beatts, who continues to pitch ideas, says she does sense a change since the lawsuit was settled. “I am finding that doors are a little more open than they were, say, five years ago,” she says. “I’m sort of in a ‘we’ll see’ mode.”

Kim Masters is host of The Business, public radio’s show about the business of entertainment, and editor-at-large for The Hollywood Reporter.

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