Young writers are becoming a force in television

August 22, 1994|By Manuel Mendoza | Manuel Mendoza,Dallas Morning News

The twentysomething writing team on the coming series "Double Rush" has been assigned a script about Patrick Ewing's lucky socks.

It seems the NBA superstar needs his charmed footwear in a hurry, but the bike messenger making the delivery gets delayed. The idealistic ex-hippie who runs the messenger service and his '60s cohorts first want their picture taken with the big man's sacred socks.

"The Generation X character thinks they're clinging to a pathetic fantasy," says Greg Malins, 26, the younger half of the writing team. "Because it's our story, he turns out to be right."

Mr. Malins and partner Michael Curtis, 29, are story editors on the series, which focuses on the generation gap between "baby busters" and their Boomer forebears. Though relatively young, the pair have been writing together for six years, and "Double Rush" is their fourth series. (The CBS show is not on the fall schedule, awaiting the early-season failure of another sitcom.)

Writers in their 20s have been a television staple for years, but with most networks trying to please advertisers with youth-oriented shows, younger writers are emerging as a more visible force.

They are sought out by creators and producers for their knowledge of Gen-X cultural references and the hip lingo of teens and twentysomethings. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're writing for their peers.

"The people who the networks think are the Generation Xers are not at home watching 'Murphy Brown,' " Mr. Curtis says. "The people who are lumped into this Generation X group really resent it, hate the Generation X logo and aren't going to watch a show about Generation Xers. The real Generation X is watching 'Dick Van Dyke' on Nick at Nite."

Marta Kauffman, co-creator of NBC's new fall series "Friends," says there are more reasons to hire young writers than their ability to relate to young viewers.

As the prices that networks pay for shows have diminished, it is possible to save some green by hiring green talent. They also get fresher approaches. And there are still the cultural references.

Ms. Kauffman cites a twenty-something writer who came up with the idea of having a "Friends" character hook up with a Deadhead boyfriend. She says she never would have thought of that.

"We feel like anthropologists looking at people in the 20s," she says. Ms. Kauffman and partner David Crane, both former executive producers of HBO's "Dream On," are in their late 30s. "Our reference points are, like, Ethel Merman. So it's useful having people who are going through it.

"And it's nice to have someone who hasn't been around for 30 years. What you don't want to hear is 'When I was on 'Silver Spoons' . . .' You want to know you're not dealing with a lot of bad habits and lots of other people's opinions of writing. Nobody comes in with any preconceived notions, and we get to make the rules."

Mr. Curtis agrees. "Somebody who has been doing it for five or 10 years might have become molded to the formula," he says, setting up a zinger. "We get sucked dry for the first couple years, and then we're TV hacks."

With salaries of $2,500 a week and up, the concept of lower wages for younger writers is relative.

Though the pressures are intense, Mr. Malins makes it sound easy, suggesting why the TV business draws such young workers.

"It's just like high school, but with lots of money," he jokes.

The "Friends" writing team of Mike Sikowitz and Jeff Astrof, both 28, has encountered resentment from older writers.

"Older purists feel that young whippersnappers don't have enough life experience," Mr. Siko- witz says. "We don't think that's true, especially in a show that's drawn from the pages of twentysomething lives."

"Friends," which has the enviable time slot between "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld," revolves around a group of people who hang out in a coffeehouse. Fox and ABC also have new fall series that focus on the McJob Generation.

"We see it as a unique time of life when you've already started out but you've probably stalled. It's not really a Generation X show," Mr. Astrof says in what is by now a familiar mantra. "It's not a bunch of people griping about not having what their parents had."

While the networks have jumped on the youth-show bandwagon that started with "Beverly Hills 90210," they are wary of marketing to the disaffected because Madison Avenue hasn't figured out how to sell to slackers.

So although they may be in the same age group, young TV writers don't always have much in common with their Gen-X peers. Says Mr. Curtis, "You have to have a lot of gumption to get into the television business, and that doesn't fit into the idea of Generation X."

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