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making the sausage

Polone: The Perils of the Disgustingly Big Hollywood Ego

I don’t know recently sacked Community executive producer Dan Harmon and I have no direct knowledge of whether or not he was unresponsive to his employers, abusive to his co-workers, or irresponsible in how he spent the studio’s money, as has been implied in the news surrounding his ouster. I also have no personal knowledge as to whether or not Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry hit Nicolette Sheridan or if Michael Bay is a sexist bully, I’ve only read such accusations in the press. However, I do know and have first-hand knowledge of other showrunners and directors who act like egotistical jerks, which is certainly common and surprisingly accepted, if not the norm. More than once have I seen people in these high creative positions yell at staff or crew for no good reason, fire people less because of any real incompetence than to show their own power, be demanding about minor details regarding what goes on film (like place mats on dinner tables or books on shelves, details the audience will never be able to notice), hire friends or family or paramours who don’t really deserve their jobs, and many other counterproductive and inappropriate behaviors — simply because they can. And because they believe that everyone else on the production is there to serve their genius or be pushed aside should they disagree too often. It’s all ego and it is nauseating.

Whether or not Dan Harmon did anything deserving of being removed from his show isn’t relevant to my point, but one thing he wrote on his Tumblr page is: “I’m not saying you can’t make a good version of Community without me, but I am definitely saying that you can’t make my version of it unless I have the option of saying ‘it has to be like this or I quit’ roughly 8 times a day.” With this, Harmon is indicating a common idea of people in his position: That the quality and success of a production is solely thanks to the singular vision of one person, and maintaining that vision in every detail is worthy of repeatedly pushing the show or movie to the brink. I reject this idea. The success of a production is the result of the creative participation of many people, and it takes more than one person to effectively take responsibility for every decision. How can something that requires the input of other writers, directors, actors, sound designers, musicians, cinematographers, etc. really be referred to as “my version” by any one person? 

Running a TV show or movie is just too big a job for any one person to do. It should be a collaborative effort among a few people at the top of the pyramid, taking in and using the creative input — as well as the financial expertise — of those below. Yes, someone has to be the ultimate boss, but if one person micromanages too many functions, then it will necessarily lead to some or all of those functions being done less well, with those around the supreme leader feeling superfluous and uninspired. Making all of the decisions and having everyone bow to your will does serve the purpose of making the showrunner or director feel super-important, but, unfortunately, many people don’t handle that kind of authority graciously. Inflated self-esteem leads to mistreatment of co-workers and violation of normal work rules, as well as acrimony with the networks and studios that really have the power when it comes to the disposition of a movie or television show. 

There are terrific writer-producers of television shows and directors of movies who lead with a lighter hand and get the most out of those around them. There are also giant dickheads who make good product but, I promise you, their dickheadedness has nothing to do with why they succeed — and usually, when they misfire, the backlash against them is exponentially worse. It would be great if studios and networks would not cater to the dickheads, but it is unlikely that the competition for talented individuals will ever diminish and demanding people will continue to have their demands met. One thing that would set a better tone would be if we lost the term “showrunner” and the directorial credit “A Film By”: Both monikers infuse too much power into the connotation of one job category and the latter is just plain wrong for the reasons I mentioned above.

As I’ve discussed before in this column, when I was in my late twenties, I was doing really well as an agent and my ego inflated. I used to jokingly say to my colleague Risa Gertner, “I could murder you in the middle of the eighth floor and they couldn’t fire me.” Out of context, that doesn’t sound good; in context, it doesn’t either. I would threaten to quit all of the time and my employers would respond by giving me more money. I would be nasty to them and others, and they would consistently try to appease me — until they didn’t, and fired me. And it was the best thing that could have happened. The shock caused me to rethink how I was acting and who I was, and then make beneficial changes to my personality. Maybe Dan Harmon’s firing will affect him similarly, and next time he has a show he may not find eight details a day worthy of a threatened resignation. 

Photo-Illustration: HBO and Istockphoto