All things must evolve and that is what is happening at No Meaner Place. The scripts have been interesting and they will occasionally make a reappearance. But it is the writer's journey that has been the most interesting, so, beginning with the extraordinary Janet Leahy, we will begin to explore that path in more depth in a series of articles called "Writers I Love."
Neely: Thank you for being my first. I’m sure someone has said that at some point to you.
Janet: (laughing) They may not have been that nice.
Neely: I loved you from the first moment I met you but I wanted to remind you that the material that attracted David Kelley’s attention was a pilot you’d written about the relationship between a mother and her son.
Janet: That’s true. Basically I’d taken the emotions I felt toward my kids and put them in a pilot about a subject that I was very much interested in. What I do is I take something that fascinates me, extrapolate and then exaggerate it while still keeping it realistic. The subject was Asberger’s. I had been in that world quite a bit and I knew the range. I took someone who had more difficulties in life and was more forward in the range than the people I was close to and went from there.
Neely: I was really interested in the incredible bond the mother you wrote about had with her son; the ferociousness with which she protected him.
Janet: Well, yeah. I think that was a universal. I think I touched a lot of people’s hearts with that because when I’m writing for myself (and ideally for a commercial piece as well) I go straight to the emotions that are pounding inside of me. And that obviously comes out on the page and bounces back at the reader.
Last night in class, I was talking to my students about what emotions you put on the page, and I don’t necessarily mean the words. Emotions have a tendency to translate. If you sweat and agonize over what you’re writing, it will come through to the reader (laughing). I think there really is a huge transference of energy I don’t know how to explain it.
Neely: Well David hired you because of that material. I found that you understood what David Kelley wanted and you delivered it week after week, which for a Kelley show was pretty rare. And one thing that really really attracted me was that you were very inclusive with your writers and looked out for their interests. As I recall, you were the most reluctant of showrunners.
Janet: Yes. I had spent the last 12 years consulting because my family came first.
I have an interesting relationship with the television business. I decided many years ago not to be a slave to it, but to let it work for me, which meant I often followed my gut instinct. My instincts were to protect my children and be a good mother to them. It definitely was not something that I actually wanted to do as a young person. I had no interest in being a mother when I was young. But something changed, again unexplainable, and when I became a mother it changed the whole schematic of life.
Well, you know the story in regards to “Boston Legal.” I was returning to television full time after a lot of years doing only consulting work.. My first day in your offices, David said he wanted to make me the head writer, showrunner, or whatever you want to call it. So I kind of got slammed with that. I was in a bit of shock for a long time. But I found it was an interesting challenge and I decided to go for it.
Neely: Considering what you were just saying about family coming first and your reluctance to take on the showrunner position, what were some of the hurdles you had to climb to overcome those things?
In other words, how did you end up being able to balance family with the responsibilities that you had?
Janet: I did not. My family suffered. I have pictures of one of my kids in a play that I missed. I never missed anything, and not out of that notion of wanting to be the perfect mom, because I was not. I just really felt terrible that I missed his play. It was one of those, “Oh my god! How did that happen?” So the answer is that I don’t think I balanced well enough on “Boston Legal;” My kids missed out on some things, although they gained others from the income that I brought in.
Regarding the show and the writers, I made certain deals with myself. I got the staff out of there reasonably well, at 6:30 or 7:00 almost every night except for when a script was due and on those days we were there till 10 or 11. So I kept pretty good hours on the show. I thought that was fairly reasonable, especially because there was an extra factor in that show as you well know: James Spader and the license he had with his character threw another wrench into my job.
Neely: Many of the actors were quite proactive about how their parts were written.
Janet: They were to a certain extent, but most of my work was with James. David gave him that license to discuss his character each week. Those closing arguments James delivered were great and well-crafted; and James contributed to that. They took longer than I would have liked, but that was just part of that particular gig. But there went my weekends and (laughing) I did not appreciate that.
Every show has its elements and you take all of the elements and ask yourself how you’re going to strategize your time and energy. This was one of the many elements of this particular show.
Neely: What would you typically do to assuage feelings, especially when you disagreed with what Shatner or any of the other actors wanted?
Janet: Shatner was pretty much a breeze. He wasn’t difficult at all. Basically my strategy (if you want to call it that) is to listen to what the actors have to say and to let them know that I’m actually taking them seriously, because I am. One of the places where showrunners get into trouble with their actors is if they are disrespectful of their intelligence and their experience. I always listen. I didn’t always agree with them, and that’s where the dialogue would come in. This is years ago, but I only recall maybe 3 times with Shatner where he called me down and wanted to discuss something. Then we talked about the problem, resolved it, then talked about jazz or his horses. It was great. I loved it.
Neely: But that doesn’t entirely answer my previous question. What if you and James disagreed?
Janet: If we disagreed? Hmmm. Unusually we always came up with something. It’s fascinating. I never did anything last minute with him; I always gave plenty of time for those kind of disagreements so we could just sit on it for a little bit. You’re right. There would be disagreements, because he had a lot of anxiety and rightly so because he was the star of a show and his face was going on television every week. So that anxiety? I understood its relevance.
If there was something where he was challenging, I’d say, “Listen. I need to think about that. Let me quietly think about it and then we can discuss it.” I never wanted to be put in a position where I had to defend or reflect so quickly that I wasn’t giving a thoughtful answer. Antagonisms and anxieties can come at you pretty sharply and that leaves you in a place where you may not have your best answers. So at those times I always said to him, “You know what? Let me think about it and I’ll call you back.”
Another strategy was to call him when we had finished a script and were publishing it, I’d say, “James, here’s the script. Here are the parts where I think we can do better and I want to discuss them with you.” That way he knew that I was looking out for his best interests and those of the show. I went to him with my problems before he came to me with his. And often there was a fix that we worked out together. But basically his biggest issues were with closing arguments because, as you well know, they were incredible monologues.
Neely: They were his star turns.
Janet: They were his Emmy…
Neely: Well he did win Emmys. What was it, two in a row, three total? The first one was for the same character on “The Practice,” before the spin-off.
Tell me some more about process. Starting with this show - and we’ll discuss some of your others - how did you break stories and then make the writing assignments?
Janet: This show was different from any other show I ever worked on.
I inherited some of the staff, which is always tricky. It was a show that had many elements – it had a law component, it had investigative journalism, in the sense that I wanted to be ahead of “breaking news” as best as I could; it had a comic element; and it had a drama element. And all four of those had to be excellent.
I looked at what I had to work with. I had a staff that was very talented but no one person was talented enough in all areas. I had a lawyer/writer who was incredibly gifted at telling law stories and doing the research to find creative law solutions. I had never been a big fan of law shows because I felt that they were rather predictable. I wanted to find creative ways to do the storytelling within the law show so we didn’t have the same framework every week where you had a case and you’d go to final scene and have the closing arguments… not that we didn’t do that on the show, but I found other ways to tell stories as well so it wasn’t the same every week. Our lawyer-writer was unbelievably talented and he had the legal-speak that we needed in that respect. He knew drama, but he was not as well versed in comedy as some of the veteran comedy writers.
I had one comedy writer who was hysterically funny in the room; very talented. But I could never get him to write a scene that he had pitched in the room. I didn’t know what to do with that. And I had an experienced writer who I could count on who came from comedy – we had grown up in comedy together, but he also had a classic playwrighting background. So I could often count on him.
I had this mishmash of comedy writers, drama writers, and law writers, but none of us could do it all at the same level.
Factor in the biggest element that I’d never worked on or written a law show and that it was only the second one hour show that I’d done and Oh! So, there were a lot of factors working against us! Basically, I ended up taking a strategy I knew from “Roseanne.” You work it one episode at a time. I also took a page from “Gilmore Girls” which was to do the most incredibly detailed outline you possibly could, because you’d know exactly what each moment was, making any rewrites easier. If you have that, you’re 90% ahead of everything. In fact, it turns out, that’s how we do things over at “Mad Men” now. Seems to be a winning formula.
We would break each story individually within the show, and each show had two or three stories (A, B and C). And then I’d have it gang-written where the writers would write scenes and we’d bring it all together and I would either do the rewrite on my own or I would do it with another writer. And, if necessary, I had our lawyer writer sitting over my shoulder. I would say, “This is exactly what I want to say for this moment, both legally and emotionally. Help me find the words.” And when it was a legal scene, he would sit there and come up with exactly what I was looking for. It was an incredible system.
David would read the scripts and call in with any notes. Typically what I would get back was great positive feedback. He’s an incredibly positive person. If he had a concern it might be with one of the stories, like the B story. So either I could address that within the storytelling or sometimes I would throw it out and we would just do another B story. I had no problem with that kind of flexibility, having worked on some very very difficult shows over the years. And I had no problem just coming up with stories very quickly. It’s a great challenge and a lot of fun.
I brought a hugely positive spirit to the room; I always do. And it worked. I have a talent for balancing drama and comedy, and a lot of it is a feel and a lot of it is instinct. I had the power vested in me by David, working with his blessing. There was a lot of camaraderie; there was a lot of “Why not? Let’s do this! We’re in it together.”
It worked well, that is, until I was more vulnerable, as my father was dying. I had to take some weeks off, then returned. Then I got to see another side of people. That made me extremely sad.
Neely: As I recall, you took some time off after “Boston Legal.” What did you end up doing?
Janet: I mourned the loss of my father. I’m so lucky to have spent that time with him. Clearly we were not meant to write television shows when we’re going through major life events. For paid work, I wrote a pilot for ABC about rookie cops. That really helped keep my head above water. And I also wrote about three quarters of a novel about the Holocaust, strange as that may sound. I learned a lot of lessons about human nature during my dad’s illness and death. I still write pages for it. I think it will be so interesting when it’s done.
And I wrote hundreds of poems, which I’m sure my agent would be thrilled about. Hard to get a development deal in poetry! I had started writing poetry a few years before. I ended up using some of it in “Boston Legal.” Matt Weiner does the same thing on “Mad Men.” He’ll occasionally use some piece that he will have found from earlier days which resonates. So don’t pooh pooh the poetry.
Neely: I won’t, I promise.
I’ve always been impressed with how you can turn stressful situations into new experiences by doing something entirely different to clear your mind and body of, how shall I put it… toxins.
Janet: Well, yeah! First you’ve got to realize that whatever bad situation you’re in is only temporary, which I didn’t use to think. I don’t know if you did. When I was younger I always thought I was going to be in this bad situation forever.
Neely: I’m a glass half empty kind of gal. I still have a tendency to go there.
Janet: It’s a very interesting thing that we continue to do so when all of the evidence, if you’re a logical person - and you’re certainly married to a scientist - tells us it will change…
Neely: I guess evidence of past experience tells us it should change unless you live under a black cloud, but I have to say that being married to a scientist has done nothing to increase my logical thinking – just ask him.
Janet: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that everything changes, so I’ll be okay. I’m extremely facile at nursing and nurturing myself. A lot of it has to do with going on long walks and hikes and writing in journals. I started to write poetry because I had children and I didn’t have time to write a lot. I like poems because you only need a few words. It’s sort of the espresso of my thoughts anyways.
I actually write a lot on the hiking trails. For instance, the circumstances and reactions surrounding my father’s death were remarkably varied and sometimes shocking, a lot of interesting reactions from co-workers and people I thought were friends. So I would tease them out, one bit at a time. I find that you can recover and have something to show for it that maybe other people can learn from. Something that makes me really happy is when other people can learn from a difficult situation I’ve been in. Finding a way to help somebody else gets me out of my own situation, out of my own way and there’s a lot of serotonin that’s released when you help people. It’s not some grand gesture on my part to do good in the world. I find that it’s actually a very effective tool in nursing my own wounds. It just works.
Neely: The vacations you take are often exercises in solitude, thinking and radically new experiences. Where are some of the exotic places you’ve gone and what did you take away from them?
Janet: I loved Machu Picchu. A lot of people go there now. There’s something spiritual there that’s indescribable. And I’ve spent a lot of time over the years in Yosemite. If you do not believe in a god, you somehow decide that there is a god if you go there because the majesty is overwhelming. It goes back to that “it’s all so much bigger than me.” You’ve been to Yosemite. We’ve talked of this before.
Neely: Yes. And I’ve actually been to Machu Picchu twice. I won’t go out on the god limb, but that kind of natural wonder staggers the imagination.
Janet: It puts everything in perspective. When I first worked on “Cheers,” I turned in my first script and I was so scared because I didn’t know what I was doing. It was such an incredibly tense and scary process for me that I turned it in and just hopped in my car and drove up to Yosemite. I’d go by myself and meet people on the trail, new people, and we’d hike together and we’d chat. I’d spend a great deal of time by myself and somehow there was a sense that everything was just fine and that television and that “Hollywood world” was not to be taken too seriously. As long as you can remember that, you’re in good shape.
Neely: What are you working on now?
Janet: Doing a pilot for CBS, which is just cracking me up, because it’s a law pilot. It was due a long time ago, but I’m just finishing it up. And I’m going to Europe to talk about international co-production. The European countries are interested in the American model for creating a series that has longevity, not just the 6 or 10 episodes they usually produce, but producing up to a 100 episodes and selling it to other countries.
Neely: Ironic in that I’m much more interested in figuring out how to make limited series work on American television.
Janet: They’re very much interested in our model and making it work between two different countries. I’ve worked with some of the most difficult people - or people with a reputation for being difficult I should say since I didn’t end up have such great problems with them - so it will be interesting to see if any of those diplomatic skills will carry forth in other countries. Apparently they’re required.
Other than that, I don’t know what the next chapter is going to be. But I bet it’s going to be interesting!
I have also been consulting on “Mad Men” which has been a great deal of fun. The staff on “Mad Men” is brilliant; absolutely brilliant. From one person to the next, they’re the sharpest group I’ve ever worked with and I’ve worked with some really smart people, including the staff on “Boston Legal,” but these guys… they get it. It’s like working with jazz artists. There’s a lot of intuition and understanding what the other person means and the fact that they can get you and play off what you’re talking about. It’s amazing. One of the most interesting and amazing things is to create something out of nothing with people you just met. It’s really cool.
Neely: How long have you known Matt Weiner and where did you first meet?
Janet: We met on “Living in Captivity” which was a Diane English and Tom Palmer sitcom, 13 years ago maybe? I think that’s right. It was my favorite sitcom I’d worked on, but it only lasted 9 episodes. It was one of the first, if not the first hybrid of multi-camera and single camera and it was incredibly funny. Matt was hilarious. Lisa Albert, who has been on “Mad Men” for its run, was also there. We all worked together.
Neely: How would you describe your role on “Mad Men?”
Janet: I’m a consultant and I come in and work on story two days a week and I do a huge amount of research when I’m not in the room. I also think I contribute to the spirit of the room in a good way because we have a lot of fun when I’m there.
Neely: I understand that you also have had a long relationship with Lisa Albert. How many shows have you two worked together on?
Janet: We met on “Major Dad,” and she wrote an episode of “The Cosby Show” when I was running it. We did a show called “That’s Life” that lasted for a couple of months. We did “Living in Captivity/” and then we did “Mad Men,” not necessarily in that order. We’ve been friends for over twenty years.
We went to Ireland together this past Fall to teach professional writers in Ireland how to write a pilot.
Neely: I want to talk about “Major Dad,” but first, let’s go back to the very beginning. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Janet: I did not want to be a writer. I thought it was too hard and I wouldn’t be good at it. But after film school (UCLA), one of my first jobs was as a secretary job at “Newhart” (now called a writers’ assistant) and I decided to try writing a script.
Neely: What did you go to film school for?
Janet: I wanted to direct. When I was a kid, I loved putting on shows and I loved entertaining people. I would tap dance accompanied by the Lawrence Welk Show on TV in the living room. We used to put on variety shows and little plays; we would play air guitar with tennis rackets – all that stuff. I had essentially no background in writing. I thought that was quite difficult. Turns out it is. I did have the feeling in my gut, the notion that if I ever wanted to direct anything I should learn how to tell a good story and I’ve been working on it ever since. I’ve gotten much better.
So I wrote a script on spec for “Newhart” that wasn’t very good but the writers on the show were incredibly encouraging. Miriam Trogdon, Barton Dean, Gary Jacobs, Arnie Kogan, Doug Wyman, Dan Wilcox and David Mirkin. What an amazing bunch of comedy writers, and more importantly, an incredibly decent group of people. They encouraged me to keep writing. And when I had another idea, Barton Dean sat down with me and helped me work on the outline. I wrote that spec script and they bought it. All of a sudden, I was a writer. I got a job about 6 weeks later on staff of a show called “All is Forgiven.” It was created by the Charles Brothers, Ian Praiser and Howard Gewirtz and was a comedy about a soap opera starring Bess Armstrong and Carol Kane. Then it got cancelled and I ended up on “Cheers.”
Neely: I want to continue, but let’s stop here for now. When we continue again, we’ll talk about how you got that first job.
To Be Continued. And watch for the new segment coming soon that allows you to ask questions of the writer.