From Voicebehind.comVoiceover: An Interview with Dean Batali
Wednesday 23 April 2003, by Webmaster
Voiceover is a monthly conversation with people who shape contemporary culture through their life and work and words. Some are well-known. Others have quiet influence. All are exploring what it means to engage the times in which we live. The questions are always probing. The answers are rarely easy. Welcome to the conversation. Dean is Co-Executive Producer of FOX’s That 70’s Show. He wrote for the initial two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB), and served as co-producer on ABC’s recent remake of Fantasy Island. He was also a staff writer on NBC’s Hope and Gloria, and has written for Duckman, Bruno the Kid, Mickey’s Campfire Tales, and Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete and Pete.
VO: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Dean. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think you started out your career with a local theater company in the Northwest. At what point did you know you were ready to pack your bags and move to Hollywood?
DB: The exact point was when I was FIRED by that theatre company. (Our personalities didn’t gel too well.) But I looked at the dialogue in the plays that I had written and realized it had the pace of sit-com dialogue. And I also wrote fast, which I knew was needed in the television world. But, mostly, I wondered why people who believed in God weren’t seen much on TV (this was in the olden days — 1990 — before, even, ’Touched by and Angel’ or ’Seventh Heaven’) and wondered if maybe I could work in Hollywood and try to have some input regarding what was on TV. So here I came.
VO: When you got to Hollywood, what was hardest part of breaking into the industry?
DB: Probably getting my first job on a studio lot. My wife and I sent out a bunch of cold resumes. She happened to get a call from the CBS-MTM studios saying they needed somebody in their mail room. By then, she already had a job as an assistant to the head of film distribution at Disney, but she mentioned that her husband would love the job. They had me send over an application, and hired me the next day.
So, essentially, my wife got me my first job. Unfortunately, this story only confirms the rumor that, in Hollywood, they hire you based on who you sleep with.
VO: That’s hilarious. So, what surprised you the most in your first days working in Hollywood?
DB: The quality and the craftsmanship of the work. The people who build the sets, do the make-up, edit - they are all top-notch artists. A lot of people who had worked in theatre eventually migrated to Hollywood, but still had the "let’s put on a show" mentality of community theatre, although now they had a lot more money to work with.
VO: Where do you find creative inspiration?
DB: Well, without trying to be cute, the answer to that is "Around the table in the writer’s room." That’s one of the problems with being a TV writer - you don’t get to wait for inspiration. The clock is ticking, the episode is going to be filmed, and we, the writers, just have to make it as good as we can before cameras start to roll.
In a broader sense, I am inspired by a desire to share my perspective of the world through story telling and character revelations. As a writer, I am arrogant enough to think that what I have to say matters. As a Christian, I am hoping that others might be encouraged, enlightened, and challenged by what I have to say.
VO: In your mind, what makes a good television show?
DB: I like shows that examine the intricacies of human relationships (which makes me not too big of a fan of a lot of the procedural "law and coroner" shows on the air because many of the humans in them are dead). Good TV shows allow us to see ourselves - for better or for worse - and become more empathetic to people in different situations.
VO: If your television could only tune in one show, which one would you want?
DB: NYPD Blue. I think it’s the best written show on TV, and has been a fascinating study of redemption and sin and justice. If I could choose from the history of TV, I’d pick Homicide: Life on the Street. Consistently outstanding.
VO: How do you see the entertainment industry changing in the years to come? What kind of shows will be popular?
DB: It seems like the reality craze has peaked, but I’m not sure we are going to be seeing significantly fewer reality shows. They’re here to stay.
In terms of fictional TV, look for what Hollywood likes to refer to as "adult situations," which means a lot harsher language, more violence, and more skin. They feel like shows such as The Sopranos and Sex and the City are popular because of the language and the sex, when actually they are popular because they are well-written and compelling. So expect the boundaries of language and the like to be pushed further. Most networks already allow three of George Carlin’s ’Seven Dirty Words’ in prime time. I’m not sure how much longer the other four are going to last.
Procedural shows (like Law and Order and CSI) are going to stay strong, too. But I’m hoping relationship-driven dramas (like thirtysomething, or todays’s Gilmore Girls) will blossom again.
VO: Briefly describe the "writer’s room" on a comedy show. It has to be a funny place, but is it happy?
DB: There are about 10-12 writers on every show. We all sit in a room and try to fix the problems of the week’s script (that is, make it funnier, or move scenes around, or write new ones that are needed to clarify the story). So we’re all trying to contribute jokes and ideas and suggestions and get as much of it as we can onto the page.
And that’s about 40% of the time. The other 60% we’re joking about what we saw on TV the night before, or what’s been going on in our lives, or anything else that might fill up the time before we have to start working. And it’s sort of like being at a party with the ten funniest people in the room. (The old "Dick Van Dyke" show captured the spirit of the room pretty well, although there were only three of them.)
We laugh a lot. The writer’s room is one of the funniest places you could imagine being. It can also be the meanest, most sexist, cynical, sometimes racist, offensive place imaginable. Pretty much everything you do, say, think, wear, or smirk at becomes fodder for comedy. So it’s not a place to be thin-skinned. We are all teased and chided for what we like and/or what we believe in. Usually it’s good-natured; sometimes not.
So, is it happy? Well, most of the people are fairly happy. But they aren’t always very nice.
VO: Is there an average profile of a writer on a comedy show? A certain type of person that is drawn to that kind of environment?
DB: There really isn’t much of an "average." I guess a large handful of writers grew up in New York City. A few have a journalism or theatre backgrounds. Most have always been identified as funny, although few were very popular in high school. About ninety percent of the comedy writers I have worked with have been male, and almost all of them have been white.
VO: You wrote for the first two seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What did you learn about yourself as a writer during those years?
DB: I learned to be a better writer, because the guy who ran the show was probably the best writer I’ve ever worked for, and he challenged us to come up to his level. I also learned how much I enjoy the "music" of dialogue - that is, how words and phrases sound, how they go together, etc. And I learned that I’m really more of a fan of hour-long TV than ½ hour sit-coms, because you have more time to examine relationships and character development.
VO: How did you go from Buffy to THAT 70’s SHOW?
DB: Going to an hour-long like Buffy was sort of a fluke. When the creator of Buffy was putting together his staff, he wanted some drama writers and some sit-com writers. I had been on a sit come called "Hope and Gloria" for two years, then did Buffy for two years, then wanted to get back into sit-coms for a while. My agent sent a sample script I had written for another sit-com to the producers of 70s, and he invited me to join the staff.
VO: You were recently named Co-Executive Producer for THAT 70’S SHOW. For someone outside of the industry, what does that mean?
DB: It’s pretty much just a fancy name for "He’s been writing for at least five years." There are various titles given to writers, depending on experience. You go from staff writer to story editor to executive story editor to co-producer to producer to supervising producer to co-executive producer. Executive producer is the highest title in TV - he or she is the "show runner" who oversees everything and runs the writer’s room.
VO: THAT 70’s SHOW has quickly gained a cult following and syndication. Was there ever a thought early on that this was possible?
DB: By the time I joined the staff (in the second season) there was a pretty faithful following - not huge in the ratings, but very loyal. And our reruns did almost as well as our original episodes, which seemed to say that people didn’t mind watching the show a second or third time. So I think even early on there were signs this show might last a while.
VO: Who is your favorite character on the show?
DB: I think I enjoy Fez the most, because he still has an inkling of innocence, and we can also write him a little more silly than the rest of the characters. And, sue me, but I like silly.
VO: I want to change gears a bit here, and talk about the culture and Hollywood. You once described Hollywood as a "junior high school with rich, angry people." What are the prevailing values of people living and working in Hollywood?
DB: The people in Hollywood are not bad, moral-less people. They make great efforts to be non-judgmental, but don’t mind ridiculing certain groups of people if it serves the story or gets a laugh. Like junior high kids, they tend to ostracize those not like themselves, and because they’re rich, angry (and smart) they can do that in creative ways.
They tend to be socially very liberal - to be honest, I would say they are on the extreme left - but economically somewhere in the center. Since writers make a lot of money, there is a lot of talk about taxes and the like.
The biggest thing I’ve realized is that, for most of the people I’ve worked with, nothing is sacred to them. They will joke about and disparage everything - from themselves to their family to God. I
VO: Any thoughts on how you "change" Hollywood?
DB: First off, more people with varying world views need to consider a career in Hollywood. Hollywood is very homogenous, highly secular, horribly isolated. The balance of ideas that seems to be represented in Washington simply are not seen in Hollywood.
In addition, people who care about the content that is coming out of Hollywood need to be more pro-active in finding and praising the good. If Hollywood executives believe there is a market for movies and TV shows that say different kinds of things than are currently being said - or show different kinds of characters and behavior than is currently being shown - they will start producing different kinds of things.
VO: You are passionate about your Christian faith. You’ve said in the past that your faith is under attack the moment you step on the studio lot. How so?
DB: Well, as I explained, everything you are is fodder for comedy in the sit-com writers’ room. I share who I am in as natural way as possible (we all do - that’s part of the community of being on a writing staff). And so my Christianity is made fun of, sometimes good-naturedly and sometimes not. And a lot of what I try to do is work against the misperception many people in Hollywood have about Christians, who are hugely misunderstood by most Hollywood writers.
I have worked with more than fifty writers on various shows. Of those fifty, I have met only three others besides myself who even go to church - and I am the only one who would describe himself as an evangelical Christian. Most of them simply do not know that people like me exist. One writer literally once said to me, "I’m so glad I know you, because now I know that all Christians aren’t freaks." But that writer still thinks that the rest of Christians are freaks.
VO: In a sense, you are engaged in public relations — trying to repair some of the misperceptions people have about Christians. Of course, some people who don’t know you might find it a little hard to believe that a Christian is even working on THAT 70’S SHOW. What is your response?
DB: I find it hard to believe myself. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense if I was on "Touched by and Angel"? But if we’re going to be salt and light to the world, then we have to go to the places that need us the most. Perhaps I can bring a different perspective to a story, or offer up a glimmer of redemption or humanity in a story line that focused on cruelty or destruction.
It is also important to note that, as TV writers, we don’t get a whole lot of choice regarding what shows we write for. A lot of it has to do with who is hiring when, and what scripts get sent where. I also hope to eventually create my own show, and to do that I have to establish myself as a staff writer (while trying not to compromise my belief system).
VO: You talk about bringing a different perspective to the story. Can you give us some more insights into how your presence in the writing process affects the content of a show?
DB: It probably affects it more regarding the things that have been kept off of the air. There have been specifically anti-Christian things that have not made it to the screen because I am on staff. And we have done a few stories that deal with church because I have suggested them.
VO: You are a husband and father. How does the entertainment industry affect your family life?
DB: It’s a tough balance. When we are in production (from August through March), the hours can be long. If a script has problems, it’s not unheard of to have to be at work until late into the night for many nights in a row. But we also get extended vacation time during the holidays and April and May, which makes up for the hours a little bit. The key to the balance? Having a wife who understands and supports what it is I am trying to do.
I should also admit that it’s sometimes hard not to bring home the cynicism and critical nature of the writer’s room. But I try to leave that at the gate as I drive away from the studio.
VO: Michelangelo said to "criticize by creating something beautiful." How can we do this in the television industry, especially since most of us are merely consumers, not creators of entertainment?
DB: Consumers might not be able to create, but they can criticize by praising (the good) - and criticize by ignoring (the bad). Write letters to executive producers, network executives and - most importantly - the advertisers. Tell them what you liked about certain shows, and (with regards to the advertisers) why you appreciate them supporting such quality.
Also, encourage the next generation of artists to think about what they want to contribute to the culture. Christians especially need to look at Hollywood as a mission field, and encourage qualified people to go there and make a difference.
VO: Finally, what are the things that matter most to Dean Batali?
DB: Well, at the risk of sounding pious, I just want to please God. I came to Hollywood because this is where I thought God wanted me to be. I also want to figure out how to develop a marriage and a family that is a good example of His love and grace. And be a part of a church that actively contributes to advancing the kingdom of God.
And I collect Winnie-the-Pooh stuff. It may not be in the ’matters most’ category, but it comes in at twenty-two or -three, so I thought I should mention it.