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Ever since I retired from television writing at the ripe age of 38, people have asked me: “Why would you quit such a cool career?” Especially if they know I worked on popular shows like Friends, Freaks and Geeks, Desperate Housewives, and Breaking Bad. It’s impossible to answer this question over the course of a cocktail party conversation. Where would I even begin? There were the grueling hours, the egotistical bosses, the politics and dysfunction, the ways in which TV writing is more like making widgets than creating art—there’s everything that the Writers Guild of America is currently fighting against with their ongoing strike, and the issues have only gotten more complex since I retired in 2008.
The decision to quit had been forming for years. I had been working as a television writer for a decade, and for at least half of that time I wanted out. My disillusionment had begun at my very first writing job but was momentarily staved off by a positive experience at Freaks and Geeks. Then came Friends.
When my agent told me the Friends team wanted to meet with me, I was stunned. It was, without a doubt, America’s most popular sitcom. Friends wasn’t just a show; it was a juggernaut. Therefore, whether I wanted to write for it was irrelevant. What kind of fool would pass up the chance? Still, that didn’t stop me from arguing for my limitations.
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“I’m not a joke writer,” I insisted to my agent, Larry Salz. “The comedy on Freaks and Geeks was character-based.”
“They don’t need another joke writer. They want someone who’s good with story and character.”
This made me feel only slightly less petrified. Writing for Friends after only two years of experience seemed equivalent to going straight to the Olympics after just learning to skate. If I screwed up, it could ruin my career.
What made the situation even more uncomfortable was that NBC had just launched a diversity program, a sort of voluntary affirmative action. The network was making efforts to hire more writers of color. On principle, I support affirmative action policies because I believe overcoming institutional racism without it is impossible. But in practice? It’s a major mindf-ck. You don’t know if you’re getting the job because of your talent or your race. Naturally, I wondered whether I was hired for Friends because of the diversity program or because I was the right person for the job. But dwelling on that question wasn’t going to help my career.
Friends had many writer-producers in decision-making positions, and because it was important for new writers to fit the culture, I had to be vetted by a total of eight people. These included the creators, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, and a bunch of erudite Harvard and Yale grads.
I managed to survive the gauntlet of interviewers and, after, heard that they called my former boss Judd Apatow to inquire about me. I saw him a few days later at a Freaks and Geeks panel discussion. After the talk we chatted in the lobby as fans milled around, eyeing him. Even though he had vouched for me with the Friends people, he warned me about taking the job.
“The show’s been on for what? Six seasons? It’s a well-oiled machine.” He shrugged. “You’re not going to learn that much.” Despite his warning, I knew that if the show wanted to hire me, there was no way I could refuse. Sure enough, when Larry told me they were offering me the job, we didn’t even discuss saying no.
My first day at Friends, in July 2000, was a nerve-racking blur. The staff had 14 writers, which was large, but this show had a big budget, many episodes to produce, and high expectations. Five of the writers were women. I was the only minority. The other new hires—all dudes—had previously been writers’ assistants on the show, so they were familiar with the staff and the culture. They weren’t brand-new like me.
We gathered in the writers’ room, an enormous sun-drenched corner office with a huge oak table and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Before we did any work, Marta and David announced we’d be going out for the “annual welcome lunch” at Ca’ Del Sole, an Italian restaurant in Toluca Lake.
The lunch had the forced feeling of Thanksgiving dinner with relatives you don’t like. I could tell the old-timers were on their best behavior but would rather be gossiping over burgers from In-N-Out. I, too, wanted to be anywhere else. Sitting stiffly at one of the large round tables, I kept a smile plastered on my face and picked at my fancy salad, feeling guilty about being treated to such an expensive meal before even putting in a day’s work.
In all of my fears about the new job, I never predicted one of the challenges I would face was that the Friends writing staff was cliquey, more so than at any other show I would work on. They reminded me of the preppy rich kids in my high school who shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch and drove brand-new convertibles. The welcome lunch was only the beginning. During pre-production the staff went out to lunch every day, and the stress of figuring out who to sit with stirred up troubling memories of the middle school cafeteria. Now I understood why the Friends writers had interviewed me so rigorously. Personalities were a huge part of the job.
Each 12-hour day started in the giant conference room. At 10 a.m. people would trickle in to eat breakfast and read the newspaper. Then we’d break into two teams of seven and go to separate rooms, where each team worked on a different episode. We had to produce 23 shows that season. It was brutal. Having one team work on the current episode while the other worked on the next was the only way to keep up.
Every morning a few senior writers would go off to confer and come back minutes later to assign the teams. The teams varied each day and seemed to be picked at random. But they were of utmost importance, because the people you were stuck with determined whether you would have a decent day or be miserable by lunchtime.
David would always lead one room and Marta the other. I was scared of them both, for different reasons. David, an impossible-to-please workaholic, was always looking for a better line or joke. Behind his soft-spoken demeanor, he seemed to be judging everyone with eagle eyes. He was the most genteel person in the room, becoming visibly pained whenever the conversation turned blue—which happened often.
Marta was the Oscar Madison to David’s Felix Unger. She had a booming voice and a laugh that could rattle windows. She would kick her bare feet up on the conference table and do needlepoint while we worked. An outspoken liberal, Marta took the diversity program seriously, and I suspected she had more to do with hiring me than David did. Still, I would do anything to avoid being alone with her and having to chitchat, which always felt stilted. (Crane and Kauffman declined to comment.)
In theory, “breaking” stories on Friends—plotting out an episode’s scenes—should’ve gone faster than on dramas, since sitcoms are only half as long and have fewer story beats. Even so, there was a lot of sitting around the table in silence. Trust me, any show that makes it to season 7 is hurting for ideas.
Much of the time, the writers’ room was like an endless cocktail party where we had run out of polite things to talk about. And so we talked about sex. Constantly.
That year a former writers’ assistant had launched a lawsuit against Warner Bros. for racial discrimination and sexual harassment, claiming that sexually explicit talk made the Friends writers’ room a hostile workplace. It’s true that the sex talk was pervasive. But the California Supreme Court would ultimately rule that talking about sex in the writers’ room did not constitute harassment, and that for an “adult” comedy that revolved around sexual themes, it was necessary for the creative process.
Harmless, maybe. But necessary? That’s hard to justify. I remember exactly one time that details about our sex lives were used on the show, in “The One with Rachel’s Book,” where Joey finds a book of erotica that Rachel uses to get off. (Several of us had such books in our nightstand drawers.) But mostly we talked about sex just to amuse ourselves. What kind of birth control did we use? Did we have sex on our periods? Did we ever fall asleep during sex? When I answered no to the latter, one of the writers quipped, “That’s because you’re not married.”
None of these conversations bothered me. I was proud of my ability to laugh at obscenities and not take offense. In comedy, this toughness—or, put another way, lack of sensitivity—was considered a requirement. But given how much has shifted in the last few years around sexual harassment and racial injustice, I’d probably feel differently if I were sitting in a writers’ room today. Can people be funny and sensitive at the same time? I’d like to think so.
On rare occasions, the silly things we did to kill time while trapped in the room led to a story idea. Like the 50 states game. Here’s how it works: you make a list of the 50 American states from memory. Easy, right? But people always forget at least one. I was unable to master the game and became obsessed with it. The writers’ room table was littered with sheets of paper listing 48 states, followed by an angry expletive and a doodle of my head exploding.
We turned my fixation into a B-story for the episode I would write, “The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs.” This was going to be the Thanksgiving episode, and the A-story was about Phoebe sneaking a dog into the apartment and everyone having to hide him from Chandler.
What I was most worried about was writing jokes, so I took meticulous notes in the room even though the writers’ assistant was already typing up every word. After we broke the story, I went home to write for a week—what is known as “going off on script.” Working my own hours, braless and in stretchy pants, I relished the solitude, free from the peculiar social obligations of the Friends office. But I felt immense pressure to write a good script, or at least one that wouldn’t get me fired.
Fearful of making a wrong move, I stuck closely to the detailed outline, and I didn’t have trouble figuring out story beats by myself. But I got anxious whenever I had to write my own joke—not just a funny line of dialogue but a joke joke, especially a strong one at the end of a scene or act. Not trusting my own instincts, I needed to bounce my jokes off someone else. I didn’t realize at the time that every comedy writer does this. Even my boyfriend, a much more experienced writer, was still asking, “Is this funny?” He came over to read my draft.
When I got to the tag (the short scene after the end credits), I hit a snag. The room had not been able to decide on the final joke. Earlier in the episode, Ross makes a bet with Chandler that he’ll be able to win the 50 states game; if he can’t, his punishment is he won’t get to eat Thanksgiving dinner. But Ross can only remember 49. In the tag, Chandler tortures him over his hubris, and Ross is supposed to remember the 50th state in some random, hilarious way. I was beating my head against the wall, trying to figure out how to make Wyoming funny, when my boyfriend came up with a great idea.
Are you aware how wrong you were when you said this game was, and I quote, “insanely easy”?
And you’re aware how acting all cocky makes other people feel stupid?
Yes, I’m aware.
And you’re aware how annoying you are and how you’ll never finish this game unless I give you the answer?
Yes, Chandler, I’m well aware! So just give me—
(freezes as it hits him)
Well aware . . . Delaware!! Delaware!!
A couple of days after I handed in my script, one of the senior writers called me into his office to give me notes. Amazingly, they weren’t too bad. I pulled it off—I didn’t get fired! But after my second draft, the script got turned over to the group. At Friends we rewrote every script together in the room, line by line. No one’s work was immune. When your script was getting torn apart, you had to let go of all sense of ownership or your ego would end up in tatters. I didn’t have much attachment to my Friends script, but the process of watching it get rewritten was painful and demoralizing, nonetheless.
There was one thing I loved in my first draft even though I didn’t come up with it: the Delaware joke. When the room was done with my script, only one word of the scene remained: Delaware.
After each script was completed, we’d have a table read in a Warner Bros. conference room, and the cast would read it aloud in front of the producers, writers, executives, and various department heads. Table reads at Friends were a big deal and served three purposes: (1) for the actors to judge the script (so they could gripe about it later), (2) for the showrunners to decide what didn’t work and needed to be rewritten, and (3) for the writer of the episode to feel both bloatedly important and sickeningly self-conscious.
At first, I was excited about table reads because I got to be in the same room as the cast, who were Big Stars. Plus, there was a catered breakfast buffet: fluffy scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, pancakes, waffles, pastries of all kinds. On the way to the table reads, I would start salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
But the novelty of seeing Big Stars up close wore off fast, along with my zeal about breakfast. The actors seemed unhappy to be chained to a tired old show when they could be branching out, and I felt like they were constantly wondering how every given script would specifically serve them. They all knew how to get a laugh, but if they didn’t like a joke, they seemed to deliberately tank it, knowing we’d rewrite it. Dozens of good jokes would get thrown out just because one of them had mumbled the line through a mouthful of bacon. David and Marta never said, “This joke is funny. The actor just needs to sell it.”
Once the first rewrite was finished, we’d have a run-through on the set, where the actors would rehearse and work out blocking with the director. Then everyone would sit around Monica and Chandler’s apartment and discuss the script. This was the actors’ first opportunity to voice their opinions, which they did vociferously. They rarely had anything positive to say, and when they brought up problems, they didn’t suggest feasible solutions. Seeing themselves as guardians of their characters, they often argued that they would never do or say such-and-such. That was occasionally helpful, but overall, these sessions had a dire, aggressive quality that lacked all the levity you’d expect from the making of a sitcom.
The run-throughs were followed by more rewrites. We hunkered down in the writers’ room and worked into the wee hours, endlessly rewriting stuff that was funny the first time. Someone would pitch a joke and everyone would laugh, but whoever was running the room would ask for more pitches. We’d pitch dozens of alternates before they would decide to go with the first pitch. One night I fell asleep with my head on the table, and when I woke up they were still working on the same joke.
I tried to contribute to the rewrites, but my strength was fixing story problems—not pitching jokes. Comedy rooms favor writers who are quick on their feet and good at performing: class clowns. That’s not me. Sometimes I’d think of a joke that I could clearly picture Chandler or Phoebe saying to hilarious effect, but I’d wreck it in the pitch because I was so nervous. Being surrounded by an elite cadre of comedy writers had eroded my self-confidence.
After the rewrites and rehearsals, we would finally tape the show on Friday night. While sitting in the audience of a sitcom starts out fun, it ends up feeling like the longest night of your life. At 5 p.m. the crowd would be revved up and punchy, but after six hours of sitting in one place, watching the same scenes over and over, they’d be hungry and tired and no longer laughing.
Which is why it made no sense that we had to rewrite jokes based on the studio audience’s response. During the taping, the writers sat in a tense cluster off to the side of the bleachers. Between takes, we would huddle around David and Marta to pitch new jokes when the ones in the script didn’t get a big enough laugh. And when I say big enough, I mean uproarious—the kind of laughter that is impossible to elicit after someone’s already heard a joke. The element of surprise is crucial. A joke might get a hearty laugh on the first take, but on subsequent takes the laughter would taper off, sending David and Marta into a tizzy.
The huddle was by far the most stressful part of the job. Being a good performer was everything, even more so than in the room, because in this high-stakes, time-pressure situation, David dropped the pretense of diplomacy and only listened to pitches from his three go-to joke writers—all of whom happened to be men.
The one time I ever got a joke in during the huddle was when Marta liked it. In the Christmas episode, “The One with All the Candy,” Monica makes holiday treats to put out for the whole apartment building. When Chandler asks her why, she says, “We can learn their names and get to know our neighbors.” Chandler’s response to this, as written in the script, did not garner the side-splitting laughter required. The usual suspects pitched some alternate lines, all met by David’s silence.
Then I pitched, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we just moved?”
Marta let out a full-throated laugh, which in that moment was the most wonderful sound I’d ever heard. David seemed unconvinced, but there were no other pitches he liked, so Marta got her way and I got a joke in.
That also happened to be the episode in which I was tapped to be an extra, playing one of the angry neighbors who stalks Monica and Chandler’s apartment, demanding more candy. I escaped from the huddle and stepped onto the set, joining the rowdy mob packed into the hallway. David Schwimmer, who was directing the episode, came over to give instructions. “Patty, can you scooch closer to the door?”
I scooched, thrilled that instead of saying, “Hey you,” Schwimmer addressed me by name. That night was the high point of my Friends experience. For once, I felt like I had something to do with the show.
Friends rarely won any Emmys, but they swept the People’s Choice Awards every year. The writers were all invited to attend the ceremony (without plus-ones). Decked out in a crimson floor-length gown, I hitched a ride with a few other writers in a stretch limo. When it was time to accept the trophy for Favorite Television Comedy Series, the whole staff was urged to go up on stage. I stood behind the others, feeling like I didn’t deserve to be up there at all.
Even though I got along with everyone at Friends, I still felt like an outsider. I once heard the writers refer to the act of telling people they wrote for Friends as “dropping the F-bomb.” The bomb was meant to impress and would usually be met with wide eyes, drooling, and babbling. But I had no desire to drop the F-bomb, because presenting myself as a Friends writer felt fraudulent and just kind of wrong.
For a long time, I justified my imposter syndrome because I was a drama writer working in comedy. And yes, that was part of it. But imposter syndrome, I later learned, is a common experience for racial minorities who work in fields where they lack representation. As the only Asian writer in many rooms, I felt so alone, buckling under the pressure to represent my entire race and prove that I deserved a seat at the table—or a spot on that stage.
When the season wrapped in the spring of 2001, I was delirious with exhaustion. The marathon was over, and I crawled across the finish line. Once again, my future was up in the air. Friends had an option on me, which meant that if they wanted me back, I had to do it. As far as I knew, no writers left Friends of their own accord. I didn’t really want to go back, but I didn’t want to get rejected, either. No one had treated me differently during the last days, and I’d been included in all the season-end festivities. And yet I had a bad feeling.
Soon after we wrapped, my agent reached out. “I want to warn you before David Crane calls,” Larry said in his usual brass-tacks way. “They’re not picking up your option.”
“Oh. Okay.” I didn’t even try to act surprised. “Did he say why?”
“They need a joke writer for next year.”
Well, that was that. A joke writer I was not. Thinking of all those times I felt invisible in the huddle, I was mortified and indignant.
I was also a little bit relieved. No more all-night rewrites, no more anxious joke pitching, no more feeling like a nerd at the popular kids’ table. That said, it still sucked to be dumped. “My option didn’t get picked up” was just a euphemism for “I got fired.”
A few minutes after I hung up with Larry, David called. “This is an ‘I’m sorry’ call,” he began in a soft voice. I managed to pull myself together and put on a professional demeanor.
“I just want to thank you for the opportunity to work with such talented people on such a great show,” I said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”
I found out later that one of the other new writers had also been fired. I felt bad for him, but I have to admit it was a comfort that I wasn’t the only one, and that they’d fired a white guy as well.
In the end, Apatow was right: I didn’t learn that much, except that I never wanted to work on a sitcom again. But the choice had been clear at the time. And, for better or worse, Friends would remain my most recognizable credit.
Excerpted from End Credits by Patty Lin © 2023, used with permission from Zibby Books.
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