The New York Times News Service
TUESDAY, AUGUST 26, 1997
By JAMES STERNGOLD
LOS ANGELES - Richard Appel was a Harvard man for the 1980s. He graduated
with a degree in history and literature in 1985, went directly to Harvard
Law School, like many of his classmates, and later joined the U.S.
attorney's office in Manhattan, a conventional step in a high-flying career.
And today? Appel is a Harvard man for the 1990s: he writes for ``The
Welcome to the other Hollywood. Without doubt, the movie industry continues
to be the most visible and glamorous side of the entertainment field. But
head over to the second most fashionable tables at the city's must-see
lunch spots, or peek inside some of the biggest houses in Los Angeles'
toniest neighborhoods, and you will find the frequently better-paid and at
times better-educated writers and producers of television shows.
Prime-time television may be reviled in intellectual circles for its
supposedly lowbrow sensibilities, but many people in the medium regard this
as a second golden era, both in terms of money and the quality of writing.
Few things demonstrate the growing attractiveness of the field more than
the presence of dozens of Harvard graduates (as well as many other Ivy
Leaguers), particularly in the realm of comedy. Writing staffs of shows
like ``The Simpsons,'' ``King of the Hill,'' ``Saturday Night Live'' and
``Late Show With Dave Letterman'' have come to look like Harvard alumni
Many other shows, including ``Party of Five,'' ``Cracker,'' ``News Radio,''
``Third Rock From the Sun,'' ``Seinfeld,'' ``Veronica's Closet,'' ``The
Larry Sanders Show,'' ``Suddenly Susan,'' ``Murphy Brown'' and ``The Naked
Truth,'' have or have had Harvard writers and producers and even a few
It is a career path that, as many of these people admitted, at one time
seemed declasse by Harvard standards, but has gained considerable cachet
with the soaring salaries and numbers of graduates heading out here.
``It's like there's a conveyor belt of people now coming out here,'' said
Appel, who added that many of them, like himself, had worked at The Harvard
Lampoon, long a launching pad for television comedy writers. (``The Lampoon
has been the end of many a promising career in cancer research,'' said
David Sacks, class of '84 and a co-executive producer of ``Third Rock From
These people are, of course, endowed with varying degrees of talent. But,
more important, they tend to be exceptionally ambitious, and the world of
television now has credibility as a place that bright young Ivy Leaguers
can go to show off their skills, something they were far less likely to do
a generation ago.
Jonathan Aibel, class of '91 and a writer at ``King of the Hill,'' said he
recently went to a reunion and spent time with two classmates who are
currently law clerks to U.S. Supreme Court justices. He said he had feared
some subtle sense of rejection but was pleasantly surprised.
``They said they enjoy the show,'' he said. ``It was really good to hear
It is a business that pays huge sums even to very young people and is
rising in prestige because of heavy media coverage. It requires not bursts
of output and solitary efforts, as in writing screenplays or novels, but an
ability to churn out consistently snappy scripts in collaboration with
other writers, week in and week out.
``It's the same thing motivating these people that motivated graduates in
the past, just in a new area,'' said Carolyn Strauss, class of '85 and a
vice president for original programming at HBO. ``The focus of money and
power just shifted in a way.''
At a show like ``The Simpsons,'' fairly typical for sitcoms, a story
editor, who holds one of the most junior positions, earns about $110,000 in
a 22-episode year. (Payment is made by the episode.) The job of supervising
producer, a mid-level writing position often reached after a few seasons,
pays roughly $550,000 a year, and the top writing job, that of executive
producer, $700,000 to as much as $3 million a year.
By contrast, the top salary for a first-year associate at a major New York
law firm is roughly $86,000 a year, a figure that rises to about $170,000
in the fifth year, according to the National Association for Law Placement.
``I think we'd all be doing this even if it paid $16,000 a year,'' insisted
Bill Oakley, class of '88 and a consulting producer of ``The Simpsons.''
``But it does help that you can make as much after a few seasons as someone
who's been at a law firm for 40 years.''
Steven Peterman, class of '72 and an executive producer of ``Suddenly
Susan,'' said, ``This has become a fast-track place where a smart person
can make a lot of money in a hurry.''
It helps, too, many said, that television shows are run by writers rather
than deal makers. This produces a work environment that many regard as more
intellectual and more in touch with the craft than film, which some writers
complain is an endless series of pointless meetings.
``In television you work for other writers,'' said Jonathan Collier, class
of '83 and a consulting producer on ``King of the Hill,'' which was created
in part by another Harvard alumnus, Greg Daniels, class of '85. ``In film,
you work for people who want to have lunch with you.''
Indeed, there is a sort of reverse snobbery now, with many television
writers looking down on film as generally less interesting than good
John Romano, an executive producer and co-creator of ``Michael Hayes,'' a
one-hour drama series that will make its debut this fall, was an English
professor at Columbia University before coming to Hollywood. He said he had
been drawn here in part because he felt that the literature of the medium
was more interesting than movies, or even many of today's novels.
``Television dramas are genuinely intelligent and interesting in the
complexity of the situations in which you can put your characters,'' said
Romano, who attended Yale, not Harvard. ``Television in that sense is rich
in character and complexity, even in a way film generally is not. There are
many writers who find film language poor. And the novel has really turned
Heavy news coverage of the television industry has also added sex appeal to
the business. ``In the 1980s investment banking got the same media play
that Jamie Tarses gets today,'' Ms. Strauss said, referring to the
embattled young president of ABC Entertainment.
And one should not underestimate the draw of the relaxed character of the
television writing business, in which a pressed shirt is as welcome as a
tie-dyed T-shirt and dreadlocks in a corporate boardroom.
``There's a tremendous amount of work, a tremendous amount of competition,
tremendous job insecurity,'' Sacks said. ``There are lots of periods of
unemployment. Nevertheless, just the opportunity to show up and work in
jeans and a T-shirt is a huge electromagnet to young people.''
Which is not to say there is not a knee-jerk defensiveness among these
``Yeah, I have had encounters with people recently who thought not only
that television writing was for morons, but have said things like, `Don't
you of all people wish you wrote for something more positive?' '' Appel said.
Appel, who is married to novelist Mona Simpson, said he never felt a need
to apologize for his work in her literary circles but added, ``I guess you
can't help but be a little defensive.''
Irene Ng, a Harvard pre-med student who stars in a Nickelodeon show, ``The
Mystery Files of Shelby Woo,'' said there was still some division among
students in their views on television.
``One group is fascinated by television and impressed and happy for you,''
Ms. Ng said. ``They think it is really just great. The other group is like,
well, one friend said: `Acting on TV, it doesn't help people. It's so
self-promoting.' I do get a sense that some people think working in TV's
not socially responsible.''
William Wright-Swadel, head of Harvard's career services office, said that
the largest number of Harvard's 1,600 or so graduates each year still went
into what he called ``the big four'': law, business consulting, medicine
and investment banking. Nevertheless, he said that a media fair, the first
ever, was set up last November to introduce students to jobs in the
entertainment business. It drew nearly 800 students in a half-day.
``The thing that was important was that the whole thing was
student-generated,'' he said.
Lucy Fisher, class of '71 and the vice chairman of Sony Pictures
Entertainment, said that for a number of years she had hired her assistants
from Harvard. She said she no longer did so but that she was receiving a
growing volume of inquiries from undergraduates.
``If I opened those floodgates, I know about a zillion Harvard people would
come out here,'' she said. ``There's a lot of interest.''
Some Harvard graduates said they had had to conceal their alma mater
because of anti-intellectual attitudes just below the surface among some
people in Hollywood.
Nestor Carbonell, class of '90 and an actor who plays Luis, the passionate
Latin photographer, in ``Suddenly Susan,'' said he had hidden his Harvard
background at times because it led some directors to believe that he could
play only highbrow parts, not street toughs.
But the name and the network can clearly help. Christopher Keyser, class of
'82 (and class of '85, Harvard Law School), is the co-creator and executive
producer of the drama ``Party of Five.'' He said he had never obtained a
job because of his Harvard connections, but he admitted that they could
help get a young writer a second look, which can make a big difference.
``The world is an unfair place like that,'' he said.
But, he insisted, ``there is not a secret handshake.''
All this still leaves open the question of whether these well-educated
writers are raising the quality of prime-time television or trying to
appeal to what some critics describe as the lowest common denominator. GQ
magazine raised the issue several years ago in an article titled ``Smart
People, Dumb TV.''
For their part, the writers tend to regard their work as lifting the
quality of television, citing the popularity of their shows as evidence.
``For me, it's the perfect synthesis of high and low,'' said Sacks of
``Third Rock From the Sun.'' ``You can make a great insight into the human
condition and then have a guy tumble down a flight of stairs.''
Well, let the reader judge. Sacks cited a ``Third Rock'' parody of the show
``ER,'' in which the characters in his show, aliens in human form, had
insinuated themselves into a hospital, pretending to be physicians.
``When's our next shift?'' Sally asks.
``Hard to say,'' Harry replies. ``We're not doctors.''
``I can't wait to go back to that place,'' Tommy says. ``It's like
Disneyland. Only with a really high fatality rate.''
In another episode, which is to appear on Halloween, Tommy and Sally buy
costumes at a shop and dress up as Sonny and Cher. Dick, the group's
leader, asks who they are supposed to be.
``Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,'' Tommy replies. ``But I think the guy at the
store made a mistake.''
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