The Person Who Wrote It Is Eating Ramen: Samantha Irby on Writing for TV
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
This week on The Maris Review, Samantha Irby joins Maris Kreizman to discuss Quietly Hostile, out now from Vintage Books.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts.
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: For years, you were trying to make this TV show about your first essay collection, and in this essay you kind of do the work of writing that episode into an essay.
Samantha Irby: Yes. Okay. Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of that. We had been for different networks, different executives. When we finally got the final no, I was like, okay, I’m done with this. I have been put through the meat grinder. Now I’m gonna go be a hot dog, or whatever it is that happens to ground meat. I’m gonna be in some chili. So it doesn’t feel all for naught, I’m going to put the script in the book so people can at least see what we were trying to do.
Then I told my agent this plan and he was like, haha, Viacom owns that script for five more years and we cannot back you in a lawsuit from Viacom. And I was like, oh, yes, I would never ask you to. So then I figured out a way to kind of, I wanted to show what was in the show but figure out another way to do it.
So I’m gonna talk about the behind the scenes stuff, because it’s all stuff that’s frowned upon for you to say to people who are not like in your writer’s room or whatever. You’re not supposed to tell real people that it’s constant rejection and it’s all a fallacy. And only like three people get to make exactly what they wanna make. And the rest of us have to figure out how to try to fit our round peg into a square hole or whatever that phrase is.
People just make so many assumptions about careers and industries and whatever, and I just wanted to be like, Hey, you don’t have to feel bad for me, but this is what it was like. It was seven years. In the essay, I list all the things that have happened between first taking the book out to see if anyone would buy it and when things ended, and counting the number of birthdays. Like when you think about a thing in terms of like, okay, this kid was five when I started and is 12 now that I’m finished. I can’t believe I devoted such a big chunk of my life to this thing that is now gonna be nothing.
So I feel really good that I was able to salvage the thing and paint a picture. So maybe you can imagine what it would’ve looked like. But also it answers people’s questions like, where’s your show? What are you doing? Why didn’t they want it? Hollywood is so opaque. It doesn’t even hurt my feelings anymore because I used to feel like, oh, is it me? Is it because the book is about me? And the show would be about me? It’s money. It’s, we have three fat shows and so we don’t wanna make your fat show. It’s all these things that are out of my control that I should not take personally. And it felt good to be like, okay, everyone, this is what I tried to do. It’s not working. Don’t ask me about it ever again. When’s your show gonna air? It’s like, never o’clock.
MK: But you have written for some really wonderful shows. You had your episode of Shrill, which was the best, and then you were just on the Sex and the City reboot. And yet, we were just talking before I pressed record about the WGA strike that just started and how much it fits with the experiences that you have documented in this book.
SI: I don’t see like other people’s contracts and I definitely do not read my own. I’m just like, where’s the DocuSign? Whatever, just pay me please. But reading people’s stories about how little they’re making, and I’m lucky enough that I have the books, I live in Michigan, I don’t have to worry about paying $3,000 for a studio apartment in Los Angeles. But I also get residual checks that are like for $40 or $9 or whatever. And I’m like, okay, this is a laugh for me because I have another source of income, but real people are getting the same checks and trying to make a life out of it, and that is bonkers to me.
I saw an infographic… First of all, I love an infographic because I don’t know how to read. So, I saw an infographic of all of the top CEOs in Hollywood and how they’re making $200 million a year. I’m like, okay, could you shave some of that off and pay 22 year olds who are doing the heavy lifting in your writers rooms? Who you’ll never meet but are funny and make your show great? It really is distressing.
I’m glad it’s happening for many reasons, but I do love that other people outside of the industry are paying attention because people hear “TV” or “movie” and they think “millionaire!” And it’s like, no, not the person at the keyboard. The millionaire is on screen saying the lines that someone else wrote. The person who wrote it is eating ramen.
MK: Seems unfair. And then, of course another aspect of your writing on the Sex and the City reboot is of course that you get a lot of death threats.
SI: I knew people were nightmares before, but… So all the other TV I’ve worked on has been small. Not really indie, but you know, they have an indie feel in that 12 people watch them. And we’re allowed to be super creative and nobody ever contacted me about nothing.
And then this show. I was a Sex and the City fan from when I was 19. I’ve seen every episode dozens of times, and I could not believe they reached out to me. I couldn’t believe I then got hired. So I was on cloud nine, and then the two things happened that clued me in that this is gonna be a wild ride. First, they did a like meet the new writers kind of thing, and they were like, here’s our new brown faces.
And it was like everyone honed in on us and were like, these three are the ones messing up the show, which is like, I wish. Next book I’ll explain the hierarchy of who does what and how. Anyone in my position, you’re lucky if you see some original jokes I wrote. I’m not making the big character decisions.
So I loved, loved, loved it, but I was not prepared for that level of spotlight. And then on Twitter, I saw this woman I followed ( I’ve since nuked my Twitter). The first cast photo came out and Miranda was wearing white pants and this very smart woman I follow on Twitter was like, Miranda wouldn’t wear those pants, she has a child. In my head, I’m like, you’re going see her child getting his dick sucked or whatever. Like she’s an adult, she can wear white pants. And I was like, okay, nobody has ever talked about anything I’ve worked on. And this is gonna be a thing everybody talks about.
I felt protective and a little defensive, so I was like, I have to stop reading this stuff now. But people found me, oh my god. I wrote the episode where Miranda gets fingered by Che, a non-binary comic, and some guy commented on my Instagram that I was destroying the American family, and I was like, me?
SI: I was like, then I should be richer than this! Like what are you talking about? I’m wearing a shirt from Target! I’m, I’m ruining families. It’s just insane to work and… I don’t even know how the actors do it. I am, but a lowly internet person. Just to have that many eyeballs trained on you and what you made and nitpicking it and analyzing it, and I’m the kind of person.. (this is why I don’t read book reviews either.)
I’m the kind of person who, I don’t get mad. I get like, I’ve gotta tell them what I was trying to do because if they just heard me explain it, then they’d like it! I wanna convince them and you can’t. That is a terrible way to be. I wish I had a callous over my heart. I don’t even read reviews of books my friends write because I’m like, oh no, you’re misinterpreting! So it was wild to just hear everyone’s misinformed thoughts and their threats against me, which honestly kind of made me laugh.
Like no one is coming to rural Michigan to find me. But it was so overwhelming and I was like, this is my first big show and I don’t know if I could do another big show. But I did work on season two, so you, you have more American family breaking up coming from me.
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Samantha Irby is a humorist and essayist and the author of three previous essay collections. Her latest is called Quietly Hostile.