LOS ANGELES—Once upon a time—say, around 1995—one of the most coveted occupations in all the land was that of situation comedy writer. Ivy League grads traded in their Heidegger and Foucault for jobs staying up all night, cracking jokes and devouring Twizzlers. Work, if you could call it that, was abundant. Money flowed, in the form of exclusive network deals. “It was like Berlin before the war,” said Jeff Strauss, a former writer for Friends. “We got to be part of a party that we thought would never end.”
But end it has.
At one point in the 1990s, NBC had 16 half-hour sitcoms on the air. This fall, it has four. And two of those four—The Office and 30 Rock—though critically beloved (both are up for Best Comedy Emmys on Sunday, Sept. 21), are struggling to be embraced by mainstream audiences.
CBS’s Two and a Half Men, also nominated, is one of the most successful show on televisions, but it’s an anomaly: sitcom scribes have become such an endangered species that it’s not even clear that the job title exists anymore. “‘I’m a writer’ has become very prevalent.” said Howard Klein, executive producer of The Office. Or, alternately, “I’m a comedy writer.” And seven months after the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike settlement, “comedy writers” have turned into a kind of lost tribe, which one such displaced person described as “a lot of depressed people wandering around Silver Lake.”
Sitcom writers are “suffering from malnutrition, and they’re actually getting shorter,” joked Dan O’Keefe, a former Seinfeld and Drew Carey writer who makes a living selling pilots and screenplays (“nothing big,” he admitted). “We’re devolving into a species of Morlocks. As the work continues to vanish, we’ll vanish as well.” In his typical uniform of black-framed glasses, untucked dress shirt and jeans, Mr. O’Keefe still looks the part of the Hollywood scribe. But “I’m a lot skinnier, because people aren’t bringing me lunch every day at one o’clock,” he said.
Nowadays, to be a TV comedy writer means, essentially, to be a diversified dilettante: to pawn your wares on the Internet in “Webisodes,” and, perhaps, to host radio shows or dabble in theater. “My partner and I are working on some pilots; I have a play and a musical I co-wrote. I write a blog, and I’m hosting Dodger Talk on KABC,” said Ken Levine, a Cheers and Frasier alumnus. With his considerable residuals, Mr. Levine doesn’t exactly need to break a sweat to pay his bills. “I’m lucky in that I don’t have four ex-wives and seven homes that are going to go into foreclosure and stuff like that,” he said.
But even younger writers are feeling pressure to “be flexible right now,” as Maggie Bandur, a former Malcolm in the Middle staffer currently in between jobs, put it. Ms. Bandur said she is “branching out” by applying to late-night shows and yes, working on a screenplay. She also spent six months in England working on a comedy, Clone, starring British actor Jonathan Pryce, which will debut on BBC Three this fall. The show was created by Adam Chase, a former Friends writer. “It used to be that England was nowhere near the money here,” Ms. Bandur said. “It’s still not as good, but it’s getting better in comparison.”
As networks have readjusted their lineups in favor of more cheaply produced reality and game shows, TV money has plummeted from levels described by one writer as “sick” (1994-1998) to “crazy” (1999-2003) to “appalling” (2004-2008). Writers’ per-episode quotes have been cut in half, and far less people are drawing seven-figure salaries; these days half a million is considered a coup. As for the once not-unheard-of $10 million development deal plus a cut of syndication profits? Forget it.