Written By Summer 2011 : Page 42
WRiteRs of a CeRtain age ay Romano paints the scene: After spending the day acting in Men of a Certain Age, then looking at dailies, hanging out in the editing room, and working on rewrites, he’s sitting up in bed with his laptop, watching actors’ auditions for an upcoming episode. “Stop! We have enough money,” says his wife, Anna. To which he replies, “I can’t have this argument again.” He’s telling the story in his upstairs office tucked away at the back of the Warner Bros. Burbank lot. This is where he and his writing partner, Mike Royce, first worked on the Men pilot: a pair of former stand-up comics who, years before, had transformed into writers and producers on Everybody Loves Raymond. This unpretentious space, haphazardly decorated with mismatched bureaus and worn leather furniture, doesn’t reflect that sitcom’s phenomenal success—unless a color caricature of the Raymond cast counts, hanging as it does on one wall. Throughout its nine-year run, Raymond, based on Romano’s stand-up comedy and starring him as the schlubby husband with the pretty wife, three kids, domineering mother, and crotch-ety father and brother, landed numerous trophies, including SAG, People’s Choice, Emmy, and television critics’ awards; in 2002, Romano won his own Emmy for acting. Now, with Men of a Certain Age, he and Royce have created a drama that looks at the 42 • WGA W Written By summer 2011 R
Writers Of A Certain Age
Ray Romano paints the scene: After spending the day acting in Men of a Certain Age, then looking at dailies, hanging out in the editing room, and working on rewrites, he’s sitting up in bed with his laptop, watching actors’ auditions for an upcoming episode.<br /> <br /> “Stop! We have enough money,” says his wife, Anna.<br /> <br /> To which he replies, “I can’t have this argument again.”<br /> <br /> He’s telling the story in his upstairs office tucked away at the back of the Warner Bros.Burbank lot. This is where he and his writing partner, Mike Royce, first worked on the Men pilot: a pair of former stand-up comics who, years before, had transformed into writers and producers on Everybody Loves Raymond. This unpretentious space, haphazardly decorated with mismatched bureaus and worn leather furniture, doesn’t reflect that sitcom’s phenomenal success—unless a color caricature of the Raymond cast counts, hanging as it does on one wall.<br /> <br /> Throughout its nine-year run, Raymond, based on Romano’s stand-up comedy and starring him as the schlubby husband with the pretty wife, three kids, domineering mother, and crotchety father and brother, landed numerous trophies, including SAG, People’s Choice, Emmy, and television critics’ awards; in 2002, Romano won his own Emmy for acting.<br /> <br /> Now, with Men of a Certain Age, he and Royce have created a drama that looks at the Insecurities and indignities of middle-class guys, well on the right side of geriatric, but aware of teetering on its brink—while, paradoxically, not feeling quite grown-up. “It’s good to be the boss,” Joe says to his friends one day. “Even when you’re the boss, though, you’re still you.Sometimes you’re like, Who are you?”<br /> <br /> As the show takes a close look at the men’s relationships with each other and their working worlds, it also looks at their connections with women—and how the women fare with such uncertainly aged men.<br /> <br /> As Royce looks on, Romano drags a storyboard from its spot on the floor, propped next to an armoire. Still scrawled on it in blue ink are episode ideas he and Royce tossed around as they created the pilot. Most made it onto the air: joe sees himself in the kid; owen has a crappy demo car; terry and the dick; joe goes on a date.<br /> <br /> “I pitch that every episode,” Romano announces, about the date theme for his character, Joe Tranelli, a divorced father who’s awkward in an unfamiliar world of available, confident women. “You want to write what you know,” he goes on, about himself and Royce, both longmarried with families. “My character is lost in the dating world, which is exactly what we both would know. We know nothing about dating.”<br /> <br /> In Raymond, Romano was in nearly every scene. Here he shares acting chores with Andre Braugher as car salesman Owen, finally emerging from beneath the considerable weight of his controlling “daddy”; Scott Bakula plays actor Terry, backing off his dream of show business success, not to mention his shallow womanizing, at the same time that Joe is deciding to pursue the professional golfing fantasy he dropped years ago upon opening a party supplies store.<br /> <br /> “There’s a weird mix of redemption,” Royce says; “a weird second chance,” adds Romano, who tends to finish Royce’s sentences, and vice versa.<br /> <br /> Producer Bridget Bedard says about Royce, Romano, and the writers’ room: “The dynamics have been hammered out so long ago, they’re like an old married couple. They’re not still trying to figure out how to work together, so we just get in there and work. They set the tone, and they have to control it. It’s an unwieldy beast, and smart people in that room who have a lot of ideas can take it in a different direction if you’re not careful, and if you don’t know what you want. It’s sort of like drawing good ideas out of them and corralling them at the same time.”<br /> <br /> A Guy thing<br /> <br /> The idea for the show came about after Raymond ended its run in 2005. Royce and Romano, who had worked together on a best-selling children’s book, Everything and a Kite, wanted to collaborate again. The next year they began meeting to bat around ideas: Maybe they would write a movie, maybe a TV show. “It was not a matter of, Let’s get a TV show on the air,” says Royce, lean, with compact features and lively brown eyes. “It was, If we could do something with a lot of freedom, probably for HBO or a cable place.”<br /> <br /> Romano picks up the thread: “Some of the movie aspects looked appealing. First of all, you can expand a two-hour story and throw everything you have, all your creative energy, into it, and work a year, two years. But then we thought: A movie, there’s no guarantee people see it. And with a TV show, you don’t have to wrap everything up.You can have a continuing story and see these lives as they progress.”<br /> <br /> Freed from regular gigs, both in their 40s (Royce is 47 now and Romano 53), they found themselves Constantly talking about personal matters and their families, and so Men was born. HBO, where Royce had a deal, passed on the show in 2007, but in 2008 TNT picked it up. Airing in 2009, it became an instant critics’ darling.Ratings have been up and down, however, due to the show debuting in winter, and TNT splitting the season to air NBA games.<br /> <br /> “When my head gets too big with reviews, I look at the ratings,” Romano says, his face suddenly gloomy. “The perception of the show is not what it really is. Whether that’s because I’m on it, they think it’s going to be a silly comedy, or whatever.”<br /> <br /> Royce reassures him about ratings: “That’ll change this summer.” With Romano acting, and obsessing about everything from major casting to music, they write as much as possible in advance. TNT provided four months for them to get a jumpstart on their first 10 44-minute episodes, and having a long lead time in the beginning enabled them to read carefully before hiring their six-person writing staff. “It was always a piece of material that knocked us out,” remembers Royce.“‘They wrote this? We have to get them.’”<br /> <br /> Neither man had written drama before. “In the first season, I was, ‘All these people are better writers than me. I don’t know how we’re going to do this. I’m just going to sit and listen,’” Royce says. “It’s our show, so we lead the way, but I would encourage anyone out there who’s putting a show together [to] get writers who are better than you.”<br /> <br /> Romano sees the writers’ room as similar to a baseball team. “Where you know, well, this guy’s a good singles hitter, and this guy’s real fast, he can steal bases. Jack Orman came from hard drama [E.R. and J.A.G.], and then we have Lew Schneider, who was on Raymond, and we know he’s a funny guy. And Bridget has the woman’s point of view and this kind of sweetness, but also there’s a pathos to some of the stuff too. You get it all, and it filters through.”<br /> <br /> The show’s humor doesn’t revolve around sitcom jokes that bark and beg for a laugh, but small recognizable moments that arise from situation and character.<br /> These must be written and played just right to work: Owen sitting on the edge of the bed, with actor Braugher bravely exposing his man boobs, or absurdly hooked up to his C-PAP machine; Joe trying to convince his friends that he loses two pounds when he pees. Dating again, he’s ready to make breakfast for a woman he’s slept with, but she’s out the door, grabbing his crotch as she leaves, Romano’s face flickering with the discomfort Joe feels trying to maintain a surface cool. “It was more the way she grabbed my crotch,” he later explains to his friends.<br /> <br /> Pivotal conversations take place in a Norms coffee shop, the perfect setting for these normal guys as they come to terms with aging. “I used to be hot,” Owen says, after a woman brushes past without noticing him. Joe jokes, “You were lukewarm 50 pounds ago.” Unlike women, who tend to reassure each other about their insecurities, Joe and his friends, like most men, poke, dig, insult, without ruining their friendships, and the banter is never banter simply for banter’s sake.<br /> <br /> Romano and Royce had wanted cable because they needed their guys to talk the way real people talk. Instead, on at 10 o’clock, they find themselves surprisingly close to being clean. “The nine o’clock standard is, you get two bullshits or two assholes or one of each.The odd thing is, dick is totally exempt,” Royce marvels.<br /> <br /> “We go to the dick well a lot,” says Romano, before changing his mind. “Not any more.” <br /> <br /> Royce agrees. “There was some sense that we found it funnier early on.”<br /> <br /> Going in, the writing partners knew they were after a naturalistic feel: 16 mm with a hand-held camera, and a look way different from Raymond. Admirers of Friday Night Lights, they traveled to Austin, Texas, and watched them film. “They don’t block. They let the actors go off script,” Romano says. That didn’t fit their plan, but director of photography David Boyd did, and he came aboard.<br /> <br /> Sian Heder, writer-director of the award-winning short Mother, remembers being won over to her first television job after Royce told her he was going for the feel of a Nicole Holofcener film (Friends with Money, Please Give). Alexander Payne (Sideways) is another influence: “The show definitely has that indie vibe,” Heder says.<br /> <br /> THE WOMEN OF MEN<br /> <br /> The two women in the Men of a Certain Age writers’ room, bridget bedard and Sian Heder, arrived having already met at the Film independent Directors Lab—more defining, Heder thinks, than being female. “i jokingly said, ‘We’re the poor people,’” she remembers, referring to the indie world versus successful tV. “it wasn’t just a female thing, but also an age thing, and a class thing. I’m 20 years younger than most of those guys and come from a completely different background.”<br /> <br /> Bedard was first to join the show, insecure, not because she was a woman, but because Mike royce, ray romano, and Lew Schneider knew each other from everybody Loves raymond. “At least 30 percent of the time, they were referring to things i had no idea what they were talking about: people they knew, incidents, inside jokes,” she says. “i just felt that i wasn’t contributing enough, and that made me nervous about my position.That wore off after the first season.”<br /> <br /> Says Heder, who had never sat in a writers’ room and was equally intimidated: “it’s a process of learning to be brave and bold, and when you have a funny thought that might be weird, or you’re afraid it might not be funny, you have to say it anyway. It was exciting, actually, to learn to jump in like that and assert yourself as a lady.” She gives the word lady an ironic spin.<br /> <br /> Concerned she’d become too bold, she asked royce, who reassured her. “even a stupid idea can trigger a conversation that leads to a brilliant idea,” she says. “if you sit there and wait for the brilliant idea to come, you’ll all sit there in silence. And some of the great ideas that ended up in the show were stories that we were telling to make each other laugh.”<br /> <br /> At times, Heder surprised herself with her raunchiness. “ray has made many jokes about how bridget and i can always be way dirtier, and go way farther, than any of the guys in the room. He’s always, ‘Oh, God, if we left the show to these girls, it would be way darker.’”<br /> <br /> To illustrate, Heder describes a scene of bedard’s, in which the guys at the car dealership play around at Halloween. “She had them, like, humping a skeleton on the hood of a car. Mike saw it and he was, ‘this is like a gang rape of a skeleton. We’re not putting this in the episode.’ And bridget and i were, ‘Why not? It’s so great.’” Agrees bedard: “We’ll be going down a road and then, this is a little too much. Bring it back to the tone of the show.”<br /> <br /> Although the men are the leads, Heder and bedard have pushed to make the women more than foils. “it’s important to give them an inner life, and justification, and nuance, and humor,” Heder says. “they can be just as rich, even though they’re there to support.” And, of course, the show is at heart a drama. She mentions a line of Joe tranetti’s in her script, “the bad Guy,” in which Joe finds himself named “defendant” in his divorce around the same time that he discovers his teen daughter is having sex. “He says, ‘i feel like it’s all going away from me.’ And, really, that’s the theme of the whole series: it’s what happens at that point in your life when the end is maybe closer than the beginning. Have i done everything i wanted to do? Am i the man i wanted to be?”<br /> <br /> Or, for that matter, the woman.<br /> <br /> Character isn’t Fate<br /> <br /> Romano and Royce always knew their characters, though they didn’t know exactly where those characters were going.“As far as what we think the arc of the season would be, when we sit with the writers at the very beginning, we have a general idea of where they would end up,” says Romano. Explains Royce: “Obviously, we always talk about the story, and there’s an outline, and we talk about that and give notes and stuff. But it’s interesting. Because we don’t have to do that punch-up thing where we’re littering the show with laughs, it gives you a freedom to be more creative.”<br /> <br /> The glimpse into the men’s lives is so intimate that meetings get instantly personal among the writers, who pull from their own experiences, disguising details to protect friends and family, as writers everywhere do, but also using a fair amount of research. For instance, Royce’s best friend growing up had worked for his father’s car dealership, and so had a writer’s PA, which has helped authenticate those details for Owen’s storyline. “There’s a fun vibe to the room, and it’s sort of comedy-oriented in the way we discuss things,” Royce says. “There’s a thing in comedy rooms where you start pitching stuff you never would put in the show. Outrageous, dirty, crazy.” Romano gives a throaty chuckle. “I didn’t think we could replicate the Raymond room and what went on there.We’re close.”<br /> <br /> It reached a point, though, where they had to start clarifying.Royce explains, “We had this thing where Jack [Orman] was, ‘Wait a minute—we’re putting that in the show?’ ‘No, no, no. That’s a joke pitch.’ We set up a system, like in soccer, where you get a red card and a yellow card. We put up green for a real pitch. But it was fun to watch the so-called drama guy write what had hilarious stuff in it, and the comedy people write this stuff that had a little drama.” (Orman was with Men for the first season. ABC picked up his Pan Am pilot for the fall.)<br /> <br /> Co-executive producer Schneider sees the comedy as being more like real life than it is in most sitcoms: “Once you set up the dramatic tension, anything that’s even a little funny is a relief,” he says in a phone conversation. “It’s like mixing the fiber into your breakfast cereal. You don’t notice it as much. It goes down easy. You can play the reality of scenes, because you’re not having to say, ‘Time for your joke in 15 seconds.’ The jokes are woven into the thing, instead of dolloped heavily on top.”<br /> <br /> Bedard, who came from Mad Men, sees Men of a Certain Age as balancing optimism with an attitude that is dark but never bleak. “We took out a big event this year with a death.<br /> <br /> It just felt like, What are we doing here?We were giving this character too much to deal with that doesn’t feel like our show. Our challenge as a show, perhaps, is not to bore people to death, because we’re spinning stories out of nothing— out of the funny, mundane things in life—and trying to also build an arc for the characters in the season.”<br /> <br /> Bedard pauses for a minute before continuing: “I don’t think we’re boring at all, but there’s no sort of bigger thread. There’s no mystery, there’s no murder plot that we’re following. We’re just trying to spin these interesting stories, out of a car-driving incident, or you’re mad at your kid, or a first date, or whatever. And it’s an hour, not a half hour, so it can’t be broad either. It has to be realistic.”<br /> <br /> Gamblers Synonymous<br /> <br /> At first, Romano didn’t buy into a scene Bedard wanted in her “How to Be An All-Star” script: Joe, in the early throes of a romance and worried about his son Albert’s insecurities (“He’s like me, socially awkward. Bad with humans”), decides to get out of his temporary housing and buy a place. Gambling broke up his marriage, yet he makes a reckless $25,000 bet on a football game to try and win a down payment.<br /> <br /> “We had the idea that he would make this huge bet, and he would win, so that in a way he never learns his lesson,” Bedard says. “And, in a way, he’s sort of rewarded for having done it, yet he then loses the girl.” Bedard tried to write the scene, but how do you write about a guy, alone, watching a game? “In spite of the fact that the idea was very dramatic, it was a boring scene, because all the drama is in the game.So I thought, What are we going to do? Are we going to show the game? Show him sitting there watching the game?” She decided that Joe would believe the game was lost, a result so horrible that it would drive him to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. “And then, of course, the reversal is that he can’t sit still in the GA meeting, and he walks out.”<br /> <br /> In his teens and early 20s, Romano had his own brush with gambling: “I lost more than I should have. Luckily, when I started making money, I stopped.” So he didn’t find it credible for Joe, with that much cash on the line, to ditch the game before it ended.<br /> <br /> “We had to hash it out in the room,” Bedard remembers, with Romano, still not convinced, eventually telling her to write the scene, and they’d see if it worked. “We just decided to try it and make it seem like it was so clear at half-time that the game was so far gone that he assumed he had lost.<br /> They lose their star player, and he’s so convinced he’s lost, he Goes to GA. And it worked much better then, because you’re watching the drama of him losing as opposed to him just watching a game on TV.”<br /> <br /> In the end, Romano liked it. “It was one of his great scenes acting-wise,” Bedard says. “I think Ray just thought, if we bring GA into it, it’s going to be melodramatic, and then the way we undercut that was having him walk out. You think, Okay, he’s going to see the light now, and he doesn’t.”<br /> <br /> Originally, Bedard had Joe leave the meeting, duck into a bar to watch the game, and discover he’s won the bet. They changed it to him listening in his car, pounding the steering wheel with excitement, as pious GA members stream from their meeting onto the street, seen through the car windows.Nothing warm and fuzzy here ever. “Any aha! Moment is undercut,” Bedard says, with a degree of glee.<br /> <br /> For the upcoming season, she wrote a script, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” with Royce. They rarely sat in a room together. “We would keep passing it back and forth until it got closer and closer, then we would work on specific areas together, neurotically,” Bedard says. “He’s the only person I’ve ever met who’s more neurotic than me. Calling me at 11 on a Saturday, going, ‘I was thinking about that line that Owen says.’ I’m like, ‘Really? It’s 11 on Saturday.’”<br /> <br /> One would expect Bedard to see a contrast between working with these men as compared to Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner. “Matt’s one of the funnier people I’ve ever met.But it’s just a more serious room,” she recalls. “You probably never would compare the shows, but they’re actually similar in the sense that they are making these stories out of very small emotional moments between characters.”<br /> <br /> And Weiner, Royce, and Romano are all perfectionists, she observes. “Matt, you would know he’s a perfectionist just from his demeanor. With Mike and Ray, you wouldn’t suspect it, but it is exactly the same. Ray will not let anything by.<br /> He cannot stand for anything to be inauthentic. Anything that bumps him the wrong way, we’ll have to take it out and rework it.”<br /> <br /> Romano sighs and says, “Writing is like parenthood. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.” Though he wrote a couple of scripts a year for Raymond, it took him a while to feel like a writer and become a fixture in that writers’ room. “I didn’t want to impose on them,” he explains. With comedian friend Tom Caltabiano, Romano wrote the first season’s finale.“That was the first time for me to write a script. Just sit there with a blank page. I went into the writers’ room, and I said, ‘I owe you guys an apology.’ It’s like when you become a parent, and all of a sudden you realize how hard it is, and everything, and you want to apologize to your mother for what you did to her.<br /> <br /> “I didn’t give my writers a hard time,” he points out. “But as a comic stand-up, who is used to writing his own stuff, In the beginning I almost resented it: How are they going to know what to put in my mouth? And then I saw how hard it is to write a script, and I said, ‘You guys are doing great.’”<br /> <br /> Royce mentions that usually you don’t want the star of a show in the writers’ room, but with Romano it worked out: “He was just in the mix.” And he was always willing to try something, even if he didn’t like it at first. “He wouldn’t get to the table read and give it some unfair reading.”<br /> <br /> These days, Romano’s wife isn’t the only one who thinks he works too hard. “My therapist tells me I should give some of it up,” he announces. Royce looks alarmed and quickly disagrees: “No offense to your therapist, but that might end up being worse.”<br /> <br /> Heder has pondered the same question about Romano though. “He doesn’t need to be putting himself out there,” she says. “He’s very open about his life, and his neuroses and insecurities that we end up using, and putting up on screen, and it’s a very vulnerable place to be. It’s intriguing and inspiring to me that somebody who doesn’t have to do that is still interested in doing it.”<br /> <br /> There are, of course, reasons for Romano to continue working that have nothing to do with having made enough money or won enough awards. “There’s an overall high,” he says. “But then, if I’m going to pick little overall jolts of high, I’d say, ‘Writing is torture.’ But then, when you write, and you all of a sudden get on a little bit of a roll, and you come up with a nugget—dramatic or humorous—I get a little high the whole day.”<br /> <br /> Royce elaborates: “It replaces [the creative high] when you’re a comedian and you think of a new joke. It gets you through the day.”<br /> <br /> With a faraway look, Romano is still thinking about the various kinds of highs: “So there’s that. Then there’s the feedback high. We have table reads every week, and I get a little exhilarated during the table reads. When we see the rough edit of an episode, and we see it all together—we have great editors, and the editors put in music that we didn’t think about—you watch that, and it gives you a little thrill. Then I watch it with my wife, or someone else, and you see them getting into it. That’s a thrill. I’m an actor, so I’m a narcissist at heart. So I love these little jolts.” He can’t stop. “It’s also fun to feel something. We’re writing what we feel, and what we’re living.”<br /> <br /> Royce spells it out: “It’s not that all this stuff happened to us, not by a long shot. You’re saying, ‘This is what I find emotional, this is what affects me.’ And if people think it sucks, that hurts, but so far they’ve been very nice to us.”<br /> <br /> In the middle of it all—when the writing, the acting, the editing, the auditions are happening—it can feel overwhelming, concedes Romano. “But I’ve always said this: ‘I’m less miserable doing it than not doing it.’ I’m more miserable sitting at home with nothing to do, than having this, which I’m passionate about. It’s a good torture. A good problem. Yeah!”
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