Steve Faber had an extremely unlikely transition from practicing law into the world of TV and screenwriting. Since making the career change, he’s written for Bonnie, Married with Children, For Your Love, and The Trouble with Normal, and co-wrote the mega-successful comedy, Wedding Crashers. Faber has also served as a consultant for countless screenplays and television projects. He also writes for The Huffington Post. We promise: this is the photo he asked us to use. Probably because it is awesome?
He is fascinated and frightened by Celebration, Florida, as we all should be.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in LA – in the valley. 50,000 dollars of psychotherapy later, I’ve been able to forget most of it. I went to Chatsworth High, graduated a bit early, rode a motorcycle out of town and left for about ten years. I went to Europe, then came back and went to UCLA, to law school, and worked as a lawyer in the Bay Area.
Wow. Was writing always the goal even while you were practicing law?
To be honest with you, I never imagined that I could earn a living as a writer. I didn’t know anybody who did, I didn’t have any connections. But during the first year of law school I kind of became the class clown. It’s funny: I was painfully shy growing up and it was a way to overcome my shyness. Then the first year of law school everyone was so uptight and nervous, because only the upper 2/3 of the class got kept [for the next year], so everyone always wanted to laugh.
After school I practiced for a bit, but I didn’t get into it for the money, honestly. I opened up a non-profit legal aid clinic for women, and worked for the district attorney’s office, and then it just got way too boring [laughs]. And I thought: I’ve saved up enough money to try to write – to at least give it a shot – if I lived sparsely.
What was that transition like?
I knew nobody in the [writing] business. Not a soul. When I moved back down to LA from Sacramento and the Bay Area, I said to my wife, “You know what? I’m gonna have a massive nervous breakdown if I continue doing what I do. I really need to give [writing] a try.” So I literally threw everything into the back of my pickup truck, moved to LA, rented an apartment, and started writing spec scripts for TV [editor’s note: “spec scripts” are teleplays for television shows currently in existence that writers use as samples].
What year was this?
This was the early 90s. The goal was to get a literary agent. At that time, there were a lot of boutique agencies with clients that worked a lot. Now it’s pretty much five or six big agencies that consume the entire town – the small agencies aren’t viable anymore, really. But at the time there were a few good ones, and I couldn’t get anybody to read anything.
How did you prepare yourself to write for TV?
I started recording TV sitcoms and watching them over and over again, looking for common threads and themes. I went to a store on Sunset Blvd, this combination sushi/whorehouse/tattoo place. No, I’m kidding. It was this place that sold teleplays and screenplays. I bought a few to learn the format, and I just watched these things over and over and over again, and a) came to the realization that a chimpanzee could do this, and b) I’m slightly more evolved, so I can probably do it, and 3) one day I can make my own TV show that will be better than this shit I’m watching. The first script I wrote was written on a typewriter, because I didn’t have a computer.
Honestly, the writing part of it ended up being the easiest. The business part of it became the most difficult.
What were your first spec scripts?
I had a spec Wonder Years and a spec Seinfeld. I eventually found an agent – a boutique agency – I’d rather not say whom, cause it ended disastrously. She read the script and thought it was good – and she signed me and my writing partner at the time.
How long did it take you to get noticed?
Well, nothing happened for about a year. Then one day I got this call from an executive who said, truly, that she was “moving offices” and looked behind the credenza in her office and found this spec script and decided to read it — it was the Wonder Years one – and she really liked it. This was Passover, so i thought it was a strange religious symbol. But she made some phone calls, got us an interview for the Bonnie Hunt Show, which was David Letterman’s first foray into TV production.
Can you tell me about that interview process?
They were interviewing really high-end writers with a lot of experience – and I said to my partner at the time, “There is no way we’re getting this. We’re up against so many well known writers.” But I thought: I’m just going to go in there, make an ass of myself, let the chips fall where they may. So I just walked in and [Bonnie Hunt]’s like, “Excuse me, I’m in the middle of interviewing some other writers,” and then ten minutes later I walked back in and said, “Are you done yet?” Then ten seconds later I walked back in and said, “Howbout now?” and she started to laugh. She ended up hiring us. And then, in a really bizarre move, she fired the entire staff, except my partner and I!
So it’s safe to say that your first TV-writing experience was rather challenging?
The whole show was crazy – it was filmed like a live show for vague reasons. We’re working seven days a week, sleeping there, doing sound editing. Les Moonves was running CBS at the time. And Letterman would fly out, try to mediate with her and Moonves, and he’s like: “I want to talk with the writers,” and she’s like, “I don’t have any writers, really.” and he’s like, “Hmm…” You know, rightfully. So we spend the evening with David Letterman and he keeps asking me, “Steve: what the fuck is this?” He didn’t get it, I didn’t get it – it was written for her, but she improvised for it, it was all nuts.
I was vomiting every morning in the CBS parking lot, I drank eighty cups of coffee a day, I wasn’t sleeping, I’d just had a kid, it was hell. But we re-tooled the show – did another six episodes – then that was a disaster, and I just thought, we need an easier gig. If this is the norm: this sucks.
I get a six-cent residual check from that show every six years, cause it’s turned up on Romanian airwaves or something.
Were you offered Married with Children pretty soon after?
Yeah. That show was so much fun. The thing about TV is that everyone takes themselves so seriously, but it’s still all the same shit, you know? I’m talking about sitcoms – there’s great creative stuff out there – but at that time, with few exceptions, it was mostly crap – either a Friends knockoff or a Cosby knockoff. but Married felt like the anti-Cosby.
We used to get [lots of] great letters. I wrote this one Christmas episode — there’s a contest in the neighborhood to see who has the nicest decorations for Christmas and the kids kidnap Marci’s nativity scene and hold it hostage and she agrees to pay them, and as they’re driving through the Holland Tunnel to meet her, the [whole thing] falls out the window. I remember I got a letter that said “Dear Producers and Jews…”
Was there a turning point that brought you to screenwriting and moved you away from TV?
There was a big one. In 2000 I got cancer. Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I was in the hospital for eight months, and I had an epiphany that I ought to make myself happy. I just thought: enough of this TV thing. I’d written some pilots, filmed a couple, but it was all the same – too many cooks in the kitchen. And so I told myself that to get out of here I’m going to write the way I want to write.
I actually wrote a screenplay in the hospital and New Line bought it and oddly enough they’re finally putting it into production in a few months. It’s a great story – I think it’s going to be this great teenage stoner movie.
How do you feel about the TV/screenwriting business now?
I always say, “In LA you can’t take friendship personally.” It’s probably the only place, apart from Washington D.C., where that’s true. People that can, do. People that can’t, give notes. And that’s always a problem and it can get very very frustrating.
It reminds me sometimes of, like, the old Soviet Union – much more talent than there are jobs. On the TV side – everyone’s scrambling to kiss ass, make sure they’re still in the oil painting, you know? The show-runner pitches – “Hey, howabout someone slips on a banana peel and falls in the toilet?” You just sort of laugh and applaud at the most sage words since the Rosetta Stone. That’s what i started hating about TV – it’s script by committee. And that ends up being the problem with film, too. There was a film I worked on with 54 writers. It’s insane.
So, despite all this, what do you think it takes to actually “make it” nowadays?
Perseverance. Honestly. I think Hollywood is going through a collective nervous breakdown. All the models are changing. The TV models are changing, the Network TV model is broken, they’re spending millions of dollars to film hundreds of pilots, none of which will get made, but there’s all of these outlets, so many more than when I did it. I think you’ve got to get get an agent or a manager, and you’ve got to move out to LA. If I wasn’t in this business, this is the last place I’d live.
And you can’t sit back and wait for it to happen – this is very much a town where you’ll be forgotten if you wait for people to love your work. People that write it know it’s great, but they assume that people reading it will think it’s great and they assume it’ll be read – which is a terrible misapprehension on their part. It’s not going to be read if nobody nags people to read it. In every office, a pile of scripts goes unread.
Any more parting advice?
Meet people– assistants, agent assistants– buy somebody a drink somewhere, shove scripts in that hand. It’s just so highly competitive. And I will tell you, too, at some points I was down to my last nickel. It’s all perseverance. A lot of people get into the business for the wrong reasons; the truth is 98% of you won’t make a fortune so you’ve got to have the passion for it.
Find out what you can write well – what you really enjoy writing. We sadly live in an age of branding and you need a brand. You need to be known for something.
Write what you’re passionate about. The market will come to you.
Interview by Lucas Kavner
Photo courtesy of the artist