How Do I Amicably Break Up With My Writing Partner?

A scene from the Broadway production An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck because now you know Priyanka!

How do I break up with my writing partner without causing permanent damage to our relationship? We’ve been working together since college, but it’s becoming clear that we are interested in pursuing different kinds of projects, and my acting career has taken a backseat to our writing efforts. It makes me nervous, because we’ve been close friends forever and we’re actually a great combo — I’m the “people person” while he’s more the shy worker bee. I’m also worried about branching out on my own, and I don’t want it to feel like I’m abandoning him. There’s no way to get around the fact that it’s going to be an uncomfortable conversation, but any tips on navigating it? —Todd, Los Angeles

You’re so thoughtful! Usually nobody cares about the other person’s feelings enough to get it right, and the breakup is just a big ugly mess and then awkward for a while. You’re already 20 steps ahead and a better friend than most. In our business, where personal and professional lines often blur — the people you work with become your best friends, and your best friends will be called upon to collaborate with you until the end of time — I think one of the most important job skills you can learn is to part ways with people while remaining on good terms. I’ve never broken up with a writing partner, but I did leave (she would say “abandon”) my mentor at a talent agency in order to produce, and I later moved on from my producing partner (nicest man in the world, Jack Black) so I could write and direct. While everyone was sad at first, we have strong and warm and respectful relationships, for which I am grateful and proud.

Confession: I don’t know if I’ve ever viewed any writing partnership as permanent, but maybe that is the former agent in me. Many writing partnerships benefit early on in staffing — a team costs the same as one solo writer. While it certainly helps with initial gigs to be able to provide two writers for the price of one, I don’t totally understand why anyone would split a paycheck forever. But nonmonetary issues like, um, friendship, complementary skill sets, and a shared avoidance of loneliness are a beautiful and effective bond. That said, I’ve seen a lot of writing partners split up way down the road when they get married or a baby is born, because it’s a quick and practical way to double your income.

When partnerships really last — see Lord and Miller, or Tim and Eric, or Goldberg and Rogen (yes that’s all dudes, but not for long!) — it’s because those teams have a shared vision of what they want to accomplish, and it’s usually rooted in producing, and building a company and a brand. Empire-building does not sound like the foundation of your current partnership. You also don’t mention that you’re just frustrated or not getting along, which might be more of a temporary problem — it seems clear that you actually want different things. It’s hard to throw yourself into auditions and performing when you feel like you have to be outlining in a room somewhere and worrying about another person’s expectations. And if you aren’t interested in the same projects, that’s tough. It’s time to give each other some room to figure out your own creative journeys. Now, how do you express this to your partner without sounding like a condescending jerk and losing his friendship forever?

First, be honest. There is no white lie or workaround to “we want different things,” but hopefully if he’s as good a friend as you say, he’ll understand that you need to think about your own stuff for a second, and see how that shakes out. Creative people are expected to be a little single-minded and selfish, and it’s okay to pursue your own dreams and your own voice! I would avoid falling into the trap of telling him what he needs, though, or what is “for the best.” That’s just like breaking up with someone for their “own good,” and it feels gross.

You sort of glance over the fear of branching out on your own, but you will be okay. So many writers and performers start out on improv teams or sketch groups then split off into pairs as they start to write their own stuff and seek representation. There are definitely writers and performers who enjoy collaborating in a group (see everything from SCTV to Teachers), or in pairs (Broad City, Detroiters), but for some, there is the niggling feeling that you want to make your own solo thing. I felt this for years, started out in staff meetings full of literally hundreds of people, found happiness at a company of two, and now I work in a quiet room by myself, and I am thankful every day. I get it. There is a rush involved in pursuing dreams that are just yours.

When you talk to your friend, talk about these solo projects you’re dying to pursue, how you’ve been trying to make it all work, and that you feel like it’s now or never (it’s always now or never). This isn’t to say he’ll love what you put out there. Be prepared for anger. He’s going to be mad at you — either right away, or as he works through the five stages of grief. I’ve never left a job without one person being really mad at me at some point, which is completely understandable, because they care so deeply about you and what you add to their professional lives. What worked for me was reminding those people that while our professional relationship was going to change, our personal was not.

When I leave (close) work relationships, I go a little overboard. Frankly, I might have made it a little uncomfortable for them by making plans, popping by, and inviting them to social gatherings while they’re still kind of mad at me in order to get them used to the new normal. Neither of them liked it, but we have transitioned nicely into pure friendships. And it’s not even like your work relationship is over forever! While I recommend not muddying the waters with any work stuff in the meantime (make a clean break — time your assault of kindness for when you’ve wrapped up your mutual projects), eventually you guys will collaborate again. In all likelihood, one of you will direct, produce, or act while the other takes on another role. You never know. But the key is maintaining that friendship, which will continue to enrich your life, and probably your work, for the rest of your career.

How Do I Amicably Break Up With My Writing Partner?