Don’t write what you know! Stan Zimmerman on Skirtchasers
Stan Zimmerman on the changing landscape of television, greenlighting gay stories and maintaining a long-term writing partnership.
Growing up, Skirtchasers screenwriter Stan Zimmerman knew what a writer’s room was — thanks to watching The Dick Van Dyke Show — but he had no idea that he would eventually work in some of the most famous writer’s rooms in TV history.
“I had a habit of rewriting plays when I was younger,” says Zimmerman. “But because I wasn’t a reader, I didn’t think I could be a writer.”
Instead, Zimmerman wanted to be an actor. As a youngster, he attended theatre summer sessions at the acclaimed Cranbook School in Michigan before studying drama as an undergrad at New York University. His time at NYU would prove to be fortuitous. It was there where he met his writing partner, James Berg, who was majoring in journalism at the time.
Their friendship ultimately spawned one of the longest running comedy writing teams, landing them in such varied and acclaimed writing rooms as The Golden Girls, Roseanne, and The Gilmore Girls. The duo would also go onto pen and create the Lifetime series, Rita Rocks, as well as write A Very Brady Sequel.
Now the scribes behind the infamous lesbian kiss on Roseanne more than 20 years ago have written Skirtchasers, a comedic webseries centered on a woman, who after a breakup with her girlfriend before their wedding, realizes her relationship issues stem from the cavalier father who abandoned her.
The series, which started streaming on Tello on May 22, stars Elizabeth Keener (The L Word), with Barry Bostwick (Spin City) as her estranged father, and Meredith Baxter (Family Ties) as her divorced mother.
Creative Screenwriting chatted with Zimmerman on Skirtchasers, the changing landscape of TV, and the secret to the success of his writing partnership.
How did you get your start in writing for TV? What was your big break?
Jim and I ended up moving to L.A. from New York. We had written a bunch of spec scripts, and at the time, you had to go to L.A. to get a job on a TV show. And I always loved sitcoms — in my bedroom in Detroit, I created my own TV network because I wasn’t popular or played sports — so we came out here to L.A.
We started writing a bunch of spec scripts and then just one of them was the right show, the right story, and all of a sudden – we were out here maybe six months – we got offered four different TV shows to get staffed.
Our mentor was one of the development people at this new ABC half-hour show Just Our Luck, so we took that one. Luckily, that evolved into a career.
It was very unusual, but we got a pilot deal at CBS right from the beginning. Usually, you have to be on staff for a few years before that. So things moved very fast, which was super exciting, but we worked very hard to keep that ball rolling. We kept writing and writing, and doing a lot of shows, and then we had the immense luck of landing on The Golden Girls during the first season, which changed the trajectory of our career.
What is a favorite memory from The Golden Girls?
There were so many. One being that Estelle Getty took us under her wing on the first day.
And then to be there during the first season, when no one thought it was going to be the huge hit it was because we didn’t have computers back then, so the ratings weren’t instantaneous. We didn’t know what the ratings were until the table read on Monday. They’d come in and say, “Oh, you were 12 this week,” and then it was seven, then two, and then one. Bea Arthur, who had been on many shows, was even surprised by the ratings. So, to witness that, it felt like being apart of history and that was very cool.
As a young kid to be on that floor and standing between an audience of all ages, and on the other side, there were the four best comedic actresses on television together on one show, it was pretty overwhelming and exciting to grow up on that set.
What inspired you to write and create Skirtchasers?
It’s very difficult to sell pilots because as a writer, you don’t get to write your vision. You do a pitch, and then the network tells you what their needs are. So a lot of times we find that there are stories we want to tell, so we end up writing them on spec, which is what we did for Skirtchasers.
We had never seen a father-daughter relationship like this before on television. You see a lot of sons and mothers, and sons and fathers – probably because there are a lot of men writing those tortured stories – so we thought it was really interesting to have a father and daughter be so similar. Both cheat on their spouse and both are into women, and they both have messy relationships.
So we wrote it on spec and we gave it to some producer friends, and they loved the writing and characters, but in the same sentence they said, “But we can’t make this because the networks have already bought their one gay show for the year.” And so steam would come out of my ears, and I’d be like, “Are you kidding me?”
I’m not one to let things go, so I started plotting and planning on how to get it made. I’m friends with Elizabeth Keener, who was on The L Word, and I gave her the script and she really liked it. We thought of her friend, Christin Baker, who runs Tello Films, which is the only lesbian content website around, and she flipped out over the script and green lit the script instantly.
The webisodes are cut evenly and make sense where we stop on each of them, but we’ve also edited them as a full half-hour and we intend to approach the networks with that pilot. That way, they’re not just reading a script – they can watch it. So we want to see if it we can sell it, either as a prototype or as what we’ve already made.
It’s really a wild west out there. They’re creating shows around tweets and Funny or Die videos, and that’s exciting. Anybody can go out there and make it happen. It wasn’t our initial goal to make a web series, but it’s a great way to create your vision and make a pilot. We actually got to make our idea.
The television landscape has dramatically changed since you first started out in the industry. Do you like what’s happened?
I think it’s amazing how TV has changed. When we started out, as gay writers, we couldn’t be open to anyone in the room. We were told by agents that we had to bring a woman to an event. It’s amazing what shows are out there now, having written the lesbian kiss on Roseanne and seeing how much of a controversy it was, and then Will & Grace opened doors, and now we have shows like Transparent.
Network shows are still limited though. I think they still act from fear a little bit based on the shows they choose. But luckily there are just so many avenues for TV now, which I think is very, very exciting because there really aren’t any rules anymore.
When we started out, there were few networks and outlets that you could sell a script to, and if you didn’t sell one, then that was it. Back then if you wrote a script, there was no selling it to another network. Networks would just throw the script away.
You’ve been in a writing partnership with James Berg for many years. What do you credit its success and longevity with?
Luckily Jim and I are best friends, and early on in our relationship, we decided that we wouldn’t talk to each other during the weekend. So when we got together for work on Monday morning, we’d say, “What did you do? What did you do?” But we didn’t really socialize much on the weekend anyway. Most of the time we were working on deadline.
But I think that helped. I also think what helps is that we’ve grown in similar ways over the years, and we’ve been able to push each other in our career.
We also don’t hold onto things for too long. We have disagreements, but we learned to let them go early on. Luckily, we knew from the beginning that we are a team. If someone does something good, then we both succeed. If someone makes a mistake, we have to learn from it.
It’s been fun to share this experience with someone, and I feel blessed that we met in college and we’ve been able to have this journey together.
What is your writing process like?
We have our computers linked up to the same screen, so that sometimes we’ll say something to each other like, “Turn away,” or “Go to the bathroom,” and then we’ll write something, a section of the scene, and the other person comes in and will see it and change it. It’s fun that way.
And I think with comedy, I think it’s really important to have a writing partner. I’ll improv some comedy and he’ll laugh, and I’ll be like, “Why is that funny?” And we’ll add it in. So I think it’s great to work with someone.
I also mentor some writers, and I think it’s cool working with them. I love the brainstorming process, which I think is what is so great with a staff of writers. They challenge you to make it better – if they are the right group of writers. I don’t like doing things on my own. But over the years I’ve changed and pushed myself to do things on my own, like theatre. You have to be scrappy in the L.A. theatre scene.
You mentioned that you mentor writers. What do you advise them when they’re trying to get their career going?
I advise new writers to watch TV a lot, and see every show at least once in the genre they want to write in.
I also advise them to write a story that they’re passionate about, and not what a network will necessarily buy. You have to feel for your story.
I don’t really buy into this whole “write what you know about” notion. Jim and I got some blow back when we did Rita Rocks. ”You’re not a housewife. You didn’t play in a garage band. How do you know that?” But I’ve lived in a house with a housewife, my mother, and I’ve lived in the suburbs.
People who write about aliens don’t know aliens. You have to have an imagination and be listening and watch people, which I think goes back to my theatre training. Jim and I still do that. We’ll go to a mall and watch people and have our own imaginary dialogue of what we think they’re thinking and saying.
What were some mistakes you made early on in your career?
I think I questioned a lot of the characters’ relationships. The thing is, when you go onto a show, you’re going onto someone else’s show. You have to be able to balance giving your opinion and letting them do their thing.
I think there was a minor problem when I started out because I looked really young, and writers would say, “Who is this young writer? Why is he questioning? What does he know?”
I would ask questions like, “Why is this main character friends with this person?” But I come from an acting background, so I would ask those types of questions because I also knew the actors would ask those questions, too.
How has writing and directing Skirtchasers been different compared to your previous writing experience?
Skirtchasers was so thrilling for me because when you work in network television so much of your time is eaten up by having to go through so many different layers of notes. From the producer’s to the network’s, and that can get frustrating having to explain it. So many people have different opinions, and when it comes to a new show, so many people are acting out of fear, which can be limiting.
With Skirtchasers, we eliminated all of these layers and it really was me and Christin Baker from Tello Films, and she trusted me to put together a team and hire the actors I wanted. It’s exciting for me, after all of these years, to have the trust to do the show I want.
Would you ever go back to network TV?
Oh, yeah. Jim and I were just hired to do a pilot – I can’t tell you what it is now or what network, but hopefully soon – and it’s exciting, and it kind of makes total culmination sense of our years in the business. And if a network job came up, we would consider doing it.
We’ve done so many shows that we don’t have to or want to do just anything. But with the right show and people, it could be really fun. And because I am doing so much theatre now, if it takes time away from that, it would have to be something that I really love.
You put in so many hours on a show and you’re sitting there at two in the morning arguing over the button of a scene, and you’re like, “Why are we doing all of this when only five people are watching the show?” Because I’ve had experiences like that.
But then when you get the chance to be on a Golden Girls or a Roseanne or a Gilmore Girls, and you see that so many people are enjoying it and being affected by it? There’s nothing better.
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