How to write 'Mad Men' and other great television shows
The television writer Lisa Albert enjoys the kudos shows such as ‘Mad Men’, which she works on,
have brought to the medium, writes SINEAD GLEESON
‘I REMEMBER SITTING around with my family, watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They were happy memories, but I also recognise it as some of the best writing ever done, for anyone, on television.”
Lisa Albert couldn’t have known then that she would end up working in television. A writer on Murphy Brown, The Cosby Show and Mad Men, she got her start in television by writing a “spec script” – a test script for an existing show – for Family Ties and landed her first job at 27.
Then came the baptism-by-fire experiences of working on pilot scripts that didn’t get made. “Routinely you work on pilots that don’t get commissioned, which can be both frustrating and a relief, but it’s how you learn.”
For all the nearly-ran pilots there are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, too, and Albert is now working on the show Mad Men. Her writing for it has earned her three Emmys, four Writers Guild awards and a Peabody.
“I worked in comedy writing for 20 years; in 1998 I met Matt Weiner. We became friends, and I read an early draft of Mad Men before Matt went to work on The Sopranos. I couldn’t have predicted how successful Mad Men would become, but I knew it had something.”
Television often tackles important social issues, but it must also remember its remit as entertainment. Viewers may crave quality and realism, but they also want to be distracted. To avoid polemics, Albert believes, shows should “just tell the truth”.
From distribution to the devices we watch it on, television as a medium has changed hugely during Albert’s career. On the third season of Mad Men nine of the 11 writers were women, but she admits the industry is far from having parity when it comes to the amount of women working within it.
Long-narrative-arc shows such as The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos have given television a gravitas it lacked for years. “A lot of the stigma that TV writers had to endure once has gone. You can write TV with pride now.”
Albert recently ran workshops at the Mountains to Sea book festival in Dún Laoghaire. “I always tell people to get their script in really good shape. Not first-draft shape but perfect. ‘Work-in-progress’ is a euphemism for ‘not good’. When I was writing the script that got me my first job I was on to my sixth draft and really worked hard on it. I asked a writer friend how I’d know when it was finished, and she said: ‘You’re finished when you’d rather die than write another draft.’ ”
Albert enjoys public events and is generous with her advice – “If it’s boring it’s wrong: you just haven’t figured out where the conflict in the scene is” – and believes TV writers must have conflicting skills. “You have to have an incredibly thick skin and also have open-hearted empathy. Those traits shouldn’t actually exist in the same body, because it’s hard to be emphatic enough to write the truth of human nature but be thick-skinned enough to take getting hammered with criticism. That’s just the way it goes, especially on a high-pressure show, with deadlines. I’ve been doing it for over 25 years, and I still struggle with it.”