Joe Rubin is that kind of name where you stop and ponder if you know the guy. It's simple and unassuming, like the dude who lived downstairs from you in your first apartment. The Joe Rubin that I got a chance to interview recently isn't the guy who used to steal your newspaper, though. He's one of a large pool of talent that goes largely unrecognized by those people looking forward to reading the Entertainment section of the paper.
Start with some writing talent
Rubin is a television comedy writer. The very sound of that term brings mixed emotions to the table with the recent WGA (Writer's Guild of America) strike and the spotty knowledge that most of the public has about what the people behind the scenes really do in the industry, I know. But the simplest definition usually ends of being the most lacking. The hard working people that bring our beloved programming to the screen aren't little robots that churn out material faster than Diablo Cody's trendiness will eventually sink. They are fathers. They are thirty-somethings who battle adolescent executives. They are middle children with lingering feelings of inadequacy.
They are people like Joe Rubin. Well, in this case, it IS Joe Rubin. Middle child, father of two, thirty-something comedy writer with a story to tell. And a far more engaging one than the blurbs in the E section feature.
AwesomeZara: Did you go to school for writing?
Joe Rubin: I attended the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri - before discovering that it wasn't necessary to attend any university anywhere in this particular field that I have chosen.
Mizzou is actually known for journalism, but I knew I already wanted to be a Hollywood writer and director, so I went the communications route. I'm not sure I would have been able to get into the "J" school there, anyways.
My point was that none of it really matters. That way of thinking - study and prepare for your field - doesn't really apply to showbiz. Sure some classes can help. But knowing what I know now, I would have become an Art History major or just really learned a broad number of things that you may only get the chance to do in college.
I have encountered many IVY leaguers that are very bitter because they were such academic all stars and expect big things in showbiz. I hate breaking it to them that they have basically taken their degree and joined the circus.
AZ: Under your imdb.com profile, you have some credits writing for sitcoms, "Everybody Loves Raymond" most notably. Was it your plan to go into comedy writing?
JR: Yes, sort of. You see, I come from a family of therapists (enough said?). Yes, I have issues. Anyways, my dad is a child and adolescent psychologist and my mother is a marriage and family therapist. Now my brother and sister-in-law are in the psych biz too. Thus, most people would say that makes me a good candidate for one of two careers: 1) A resident in the nut house. 2) Comedy writing for TV - which in reality IS a nut house disguised as a legitimate industry, so I guess there was one option for me after all. I possibly could have become a shrink like the rest of my family. But I was an average student, so that would have been difficult. All in all, coming from this torturous background not only made it my plan to get into comedy, but I almost felt obligated to do it.
As far as writing for other genres, I'll admit, I've never really experienced any true drama. I mean, I come from sheltered suburbia, I never had trauma in my life, etc. Thus, that kind of writing didn't really come from the heart. I'm not saying that I think one needs that to write drama, it just didn't come naturally for me. But after pursuing comedy writing for many years, I discovered that the anxiety, neurosis, bad self-image etc. that fuels my writing is drama in a sense. To the contrary, I discovered that most of the comedy work force is made up of many people who are regular guys with no inner pain whatsoever, who merely just want to tell jokes. At least I had to struggle with myself. I like to believe that leads to more substance to comedy writing. And I think the recent death of the sitcom genre validates that.
Jesus, this interview will make me believe I know what I'm talking about.
AZ: I'm kind of lame because
I don't watch much television anymore. Yet supposedly I'm still in that coveted target demographic. (18-35) Have you had any difficulty trying to write something outside of this heavily desired genre and getting executives to look at it? It just feels like the studios want to target a certain group of people but also want writers who will simply TELL these people what they do and do not like.
Combine with a heaping spoonful of neurosis
JR: I'm not sure I understand this question, but I will give it a shot. I think this relates to what I was saying above and the answer is absolutely YES. I'm sure you have heard about the tremendous catch 22 in Hollywood. All these quotes from studios about wanting to find "fresh new voice" and "something new"� should all have a colossal asterisk next to them. The studios must find fresh new voices without putting their own jobs on the line. The best protection they can have is to only try something "experimental"� from a major name or player. That way, when it tanks, they can say "How did I know it would tank, it was from freaking' Norman Lear? (For example)."
So getting executives to look outside the box is especially tricky for guys like us (Oh yeah. I write with a partner. His name is George B. White).
By the way, as for being lame for not watching television, I'm right with you. Have you seen what's on television? I also believe in the "You don't eat sausage when you work in the sausage factory" adage. I do TIVO a handful of shows (HBO, cable, PBS shows etc). This is not uncommon for TV writers, in my experience. In any event, I mostly spend my time watching "The Wiggles" because I have two kids. Let it be known, - even if I didn't have kids, I'd watch "The Wiggles" over most of today's network programs.
AZ: The big thing that everyone is talking about these days is the WGA strike. Are you a member of the Writer's Guild? If not (or if so), how does the strike personally affect you?
JR: Yes, I am in the guild, but not current with my dues, since my last paid writing gig ended in spring of '06. Thus, I did not get to vote on the strike. It definitely affects me in a couple of ways.
As for writing I think the overall economic impact has yet to be determined. For me, the psychological factor (since I am not currently employed as a writer) is a big one. What is the future of this industry? Why the Hell am I writing this screenplay, when there's no one who will read it besides my wife (at least she'll read it, though)? Will there even be a WGA that has any power when this all over? Is this industry slowly following the music industry and what will those changes mean for writers like me, who have had a few victories and are just trying to get over the hump? Will there be even fewer opportunities, or will there be thousands writing webisodes for $500 a week? It's hard to press on when these issues are added to the regular day-to-day issues of trying to sell something in an already topsy-turvy marketplace.
Secondly, my back-up job is that of a TV editor. I was working part time in network promos for the FOX network and they went into"safe budget" mode once the strike hit and cut my shifts (perhaps they found out my attitude towards reality programming). So I had to return full time to my job as an editor here at the E! Network. That's how it initially hit me.
AZ: Ideally, what would you like to accomplish with your writing?
JR: I think that question has many levels. Of course, to entertain people/make 'em laugh blah blah blah. Ultimately, writing/directing my own feature or having a good six-year run of my own TV series is the ultimate. But on the next level, I'd like to help people. Yes, I apologize for that self indulgent, egotistical horse hockey. But I do hold out hope that maybe my pain (my own struggle with my self) is other people's gain. And by figuring myself out in a screenplay or TV show, hopefully I have something to say that may do something for somebody. Yeah, and I like to set up gags too.
AZ: When the entertainment industry shows people working in the entertainment industry (specifically, writers for television shows), there's always a group of people sitting around a table working on ideas. Have you worked in this kind of environment, or
is it all a ruse?
Add a dash of the Wiggles
JR: I have been part of it. It is not a ruse. Or is it? Hmmm.
What you may have seen in those behind-the-scenes glimpses is the writer's room. The set up for episodic TV (I only know the comedy one in detail) is to have a group of 7-12 people in a room collaborating on episodes that are to be shot a month or two down the line (that gap usually starts to narrow as the season goes on). One person, or team, per episode is excused from the room for about a week to write the first draft of the episode which they will get a screen credit for. However, that episode may be completely an assignment and not that person/team's story.
Now, is it a ruse? Well, let's just say that some shows aren't exactly as well-oiled a machine that "Raymond"� was. The horror stories are out there. I however, have not lived any of them. I would also like to work again. So even if I had lived them, I would not tell you about them.
AZ: As a writer, do you ever have the opportunity to work with the people who will be saying the lines you've written?
JR: For a lower level writer (that means we weren't hired as producers) we seemed to interact with the talent when we were on stage, but most of the "working"� with them is pretty much designated to the upper level writers.
Yes, the term "lower level"� can weigh on the confidence of someone whose self-esteem is already fragile. Why not,"Non-Producing Writer?"�
AZ: Here's one that I always love to hear: What's your REAL job?
JR: I love it too. Unfortunately, I don't consider mine a real job either, or at least, one with a desk, cubicle and 401k.
I work as a TV editor (as I talked about above). Right now, I work at the “Daily 10” on E! What I do is pretty far removed from comedy writing. Many of the people around me are more journalistically inclined. It's more of a news environment than a theatrical one. Most of my co-workers have no idea about my other career (and why should they?). So I guess I'm like a lot of other “artist' who have a day job. We pay the bills and then go home and try to create something.
However, every Friday I edit this thing called the “Hollywood Rap,” in which I usually get creative control, other than actually writing (or performing) the rap. It gives me some creative satisfaction. It only sucks because I have to do it all in like six hours. That's how a day-of-air cable shows works. You can watch one here. Go to the videos and search for “Hollywood Rap.” There's a whole archive of them.
I should ask them for a kickback for this plug.
AZ: What's been one of the most difficult experiences that you've had to go through in your pursuit of scribing greatness?
JR: Maybe I have to list the all the things first and then that will help me narrow it down. There were the years of pursuing PA jobs. Then there are the years of the actual P.A. work itself. The constant networking. The uncertainty. The constant undermining. The inferiority complex. Well, come to think of it, that's it. After all is said and done, overcoming my own inferiority about my writing has been the hardest battle. Once you really believe in yourself and are proud of your work (granted that you have a steady back up job to support you) it doesn't matter what anyone thinks (add "Chariots of Fire" theme music here). They might not hire you, but what can you do about that? I can't be the only writer who thinks this way, can I?
AZ: For those unfamiliar with what Production Assistants do, could you describe their purpose?
JR: Well, it's like this. Production Assistant became the generalized term for the do-it-all assistants who are at the bottom of the food chain. Being that there is really practically no way to break in to show business without networking, bright, well-educated college kids (most of the time) must start at this position. That's probably not that different than most industries. Yet, PAs must do ANYTHING. No job is too demeaning or degrading. If it is, there are 1000 others right behind you who will take
it. Except for some of the positions I got. Nobody wanted those.
Voila! You've got yourself screenwriter Joe Rubin!
Examples: Two years, making $250 a week on my first job on the ABC "Home Show." (with Gary Collins, who ironically, recently got picked up for a DUI). It was all I could get. On "Step By Step" I was along side the star of the show, who was forced to be a PA for a month or so with me when he was on work release from prison. That says it all. Being a PA was literally a prison sentence for someone. There were shows in which this all took place: I got my ideas stolen by writers, almost fired by an 11 year-old star, mistaken for Steven Spielberg by Japanese tourists, saw a female talent nude everyday at her house, had to pick up homeless people to be on shows, guard craft service tables from homeless people (which was ironically on a shoot for a United Way PSA). That's just a starter. Anyways, we all have stories I suppose.
AZ: Who have been some of the biggest influences on your work?
JR: As for TV certainly the guy we personally observed rise to do big things - Phil Rosenthal (creator of Everybody Loves Raymond) has been a big influence. Unfortunately, to reiterate, most of TV doesn't work like "Raymond"� did. So thinking like Phil has only gotten us into trouble. He was kind of a freedom fighter for sanity in the industry. I also love "The Office"� but it's painful to watch because I would have loved to be a part of it (We met with Greg Daniels the Ex. Prod right after the pilot was shot and didn't get the job. Damn!) I must add that I loved the original British "Office"� more than almost any show in recent years. Allan Ball's "Six Feet Under"� is one of my all time favorites. Oh yeah, and "Mad Men."� I'm sticking to recent favorites if that's OK.
As for feature films, I really like the Alexander Payne/Jim Taylor movies. I think they are solid, simple, well-crafted scripts that really speak to me. I aspire to make small dialog driven movies, so go figure. Coen Brother movies are big on my list too. Small movies that stick with me lately are: the Ang Lee movie EAT, DRINK, MAN WOMAN,� Alfonso Cuaron's Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE,� LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. They all contain every emotion and seem like great goals to have. Recently the Irish film ONCE,� just blew me away. It was so simple and powerful. Am I headed towards drama? I don't know. When I started writing, my influences were primarily The Zucker brothers. I still love those bastards.
One in Hollywood may draw the conclusion that by aspiring to do these types of movies, I am aspiring to starve. I don't know. At least I have a day job, huh?
AZ: What do you have on your plate for the future?
JR: Aside from all the questions we all have about the future of writing for TV or film, I forge ahead. I've written a screenplay on my own and now I'm starting another one. My agent still has a job, so that's good. George and I will still try to sell our pilots and get staffed if there are any jobs available. I am also learning about how I might be able to cash in on the new story I tell my kids every night at bedtime by writing a children's book. To my dismay, a huge blurb on Yahoo appeared last week which read, "Striking Writers Turn to Children's Books."� Now, I'm starting to believe that if I were to apply for a job selling shoes, I would have to compete against other upper level TV writers for the jobs. Most importantly, I need to support my family as an editor during these crazy (crazier than
Joe also discussed with me the book that he's written about his time as a P.A. but shared his fear that, in an industry where it's all about who you know and which correct backs you have to scratch, it might not be in his best interest to release some of the salacious details.
Personally, after learning so much from him, I'd like to learn more. Because if there's one other thing that this industry thrives off of, it's manipulating the misgivings of others for the sake of the almighty dollar. If so many stars can have sex tapes bolster instead of ruin their careers, then Joe might actually be scratching just the right way with the proper expose. Give it some thought, Joe.
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