Posted on February 15, 2019 at 8:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
Almost everyone in the United States has encountered Jeff Abugov’s work, although they might not realize it.
Nowadays, he’s a sci-fi/humor writer, but in a previous life, he did writing and producing stints on such TV shows as Cheers, The Golden Girls, Roseanne, Two and a Half Men, and Grace Under Fire.
So odds are good you’re familiar with Abugov’s story-telling, and odds are equally good that anyone who knew him at a kid saw this coming decades away.
For example: When he was a kid, all of his toys were characters, with specific motivations for their actions and consistent personalities. (Never mind that he might not have known how to explain "motivation" and "consistent.")
And if there weren’t enough toys to fill roles? No problem. That just meant he’d draw faces on his socks or steal his sister’s Barbies.
We’ll get out of Abugov’s way and let him tell his own story, since he clearly has a knack for it.
SADYE: When you decided to move away from Hollywood, what made you decide to write books?
JEFF: The wonderful thing about TV and movies is that it’s collaborative; the terrible thing is that it’s collaborative.
So, for the most part, I just wanted my work alone — my thoughts, my energy, my feelings — to go straight from my head and heart to the head and heart of the person I’m trying to reach (which is everyone, actually). ...
That’s not to say I’ve given up on TV or movies. If the right project comes along, I’d be all in in a heartbeat, but I’d have to be passionate about it, and wouldn’t just take a job for the sake of having a job.
(And I know that I’m very fortunate to be in that position — I wasn’t always.)
SADYE: How much overlap or divergence is there between fiction writing and screen writing?
JEFF: Good story-telling is good story-telling.
Whether TV, movies, theatre, novels, or just scaring your friends around a campfire, they all rely on the same basic elements of character, structure, plot, and pace.
Screw up any one of those, and you have a mess that no one will like.
That said, in books, it’s all on you. There is no director to set the pace; you’re the director, and you set the pace.
There are no actors to emote your words; you’re the actors, and your words have to do the emoting on their own. You are everything.
By way of example, the helicopter sequences in Zombies versus Aliens versus Vampires versus Dinosaurs (hereby referred to as ZAVD) total about ten or fifteen pages spread out, I think.
If I had written it as a screenplay, it would have been just a few sentences, such as “The chopper careens toward the brick wall, out of control,” and then I’d let the director and CGI guys figure out the rest.
Instead, I had to map out every single move on my own, then figure out how to convey it to my readers with absolute clarity, accuracy, and heart-pumping action, even though I didn’t know a damn thing about helicopters, so I had to find a pilot willing to teach me.
If that sounds like a complaint, it’s not. It was awesome!
Writing books is incredibly liberating, the boundaries of a story limited only by one’s imagination. No sets, budget, casting, or location-scouting necessary.
If you can think of it, and if you have a pen or laptop, it becomes real.
SADYE: What has been your favorite part about your book-writing career?
JEFF: I’m going to give two answers to this one.
First, the actual writing. All my novels are written on spec, meaning, no one is paying me to do it up front.
This takes an enormous amount of pressure off the process because no one is waiting for it, counting on you, and you have no deadline.
If that great story you planned to write starts to take a turn you didn’t expect, you can just follow it down the better path, no matter how different that path may be.
You can’t do that when you’ve been hired. You’ve told your employers precisely what you’re going to write, and that’s precisely what they expect.
Or, when that great story you passionately believe in begins to peter out in the second act, you can just save it in a file and move on to something else.
That’s also something you can’t do when you’ve been hired because people are counting on you. ...
Time Travel for Love and Profit was actually one that I had put away for a while.
I always knew the core idea was terrific, but when I got to the romance part, I realized that my protagonist had taken on a life of his own from where we started, fleshed himself out in ways I hadn’t planned, and that I had created a character who would not speak romantically.
It just wasn’t his voice or his nature to do so. I tried to make him, forced him as best I could, but he refused.
I knew where the story was headed, knew everything that was supposed to happen, but how does one write a romance when the narrator won’t speak romantically?
For those of you who’ve read the book, you know how I solved that particular peccadillo, but the solution came to me many months later, and by accident.
My other favorite part of my novel-writing journey is all the amazing people I’ve met along the way. ...
First, I write (my) book, then I edit it, fix it, change it, improve it, make it worse, change it back to how it was, and edit some more; and only once I’m certain I’m finished, I find experts in their fields to read it and tell me where I went wrong.
Be they helicopter pilots, physicists, soldiers, art experts, cops, or psychics, I have met so many wonderful, generous people outside my little Hollywood bubble that I never would have met otherwise, and several of them remain in my life as dear friends.
Wouldn’t give that up for the world.
SADYE: So back to Hollywood. What was your favorite show to work on?
JEFF: It depends on how you define “favorite.”
I’m obviously incredibly proud to have been a part of Cheers. I had been a huge fan of the show before they hired me, before I had even decided to try to break into TV (I originally came down here to work in film).
It was the only show I can say that about — that I loved it as a fan before I got there — so, in a sense, that would automatically make it my favorite, right?
But it was my first job on a staff; the show was already an enormous hit; and I was low-man-on-the-totem-pole so everyone was my boss and they were all brilliant.
So I was pretty much terrified I’d be fired the entire time I was there.
I’m also incredibly proud of the Roseanne show and the work I did there.
Putting a heavy dramatic subtext under comedy was always something I wanted to explore, and I think we did it as well as anyone.
It was also where I first got my “producer stripes,” and I was able to participate at a whole new level. It was where I learned to run a room, and by “learned,” I mean by fire — “Jeff, take these guys and fix Act II.”
It was the first time I could look at an episode that I hadn’t written myself and, upon completion, proudly say, “I made that.”
Sure, still as a part of a group, but senior enough that I could actually feel the pronoun “I” about the whole episode, as opposed to Cheers or The Golden Girls, where I was just thrilled that a joke or two of mine landed.
On the other hand, the hours on Roseanne were brutal, and the politics were chaotic, so as proud as I am of the show and my work on it, the experience was anything but “fun.”
Two and a Half Men was the polar opposite of that, only the pronoun was back to “we” because everything was gang-written, which is a very fun and efficient way to write, leading to great hours, a sensible workday, a lot of laughter, and the ability to make it home in time to have dinner with your family.
Also, of all the very funny shows I’ve worked on, laugh-for-laugh, Two and a Half Men may just be the hands-down funniest. How can I not be incredibly proud to have been part of that, too?
But as fun and family-friendly as gang-writing is, sometimes a writer just needs that lonely, painful, isolated experience of sitting in front of a blank page in his underwear in terror, pulling out his hair because he doesn’t know what to do next.
Or the exhilarating experience of having it all magically gush out from his head and heart through his fingers and onto his monitor.
Or everything in between, desperately trying to find something deeper and richer, to dig, dig, dig into who the characters really are, what the piece is really trying to say — but that’s not possible in gang-writing; it’s not even the goal. ...
So, which is my favorite? I guess I’d have to say it’s a tie between those three.
I suppose I could’ve just said that to start with, but it feels like a cop-out without the explanation and, also, boring.
SADYE: Can you share an especially good — read: “interesting,” maybe “scandalous” — show-biz story with us?
JEFF: Roseanne was shot at what we here commonly refer to as “Radford,” because the studio is on Radford Street. ...
It (also) was where Gilligan’s Island was shot. The lagoon, which is now a parking lot, was just a very big empty hole in the ground in the ’90s.
One afternoon, our boss, the showrunner, had to go off to do something.
I don’t remember what exactly because it’s not important, but what is important is that we knew about it days before, that we were supposed to come up with new stories in his absence, and that Gilligan’s Island was playing in re-runs on KTLA every afternoon.
On that day, one of the writers brought in a small, battery-operated TV. Another brought in some really great weed.
So, once our boss left, off we went to the Gilligan’s Island lagoon, where we turned on the TV, smoked the weed, and watched Gilligan’s Island, high, on the lagoon. I cherish that memory.
(As a footnote: the stories we came up with were terrible.)
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