The Spotlight InterviewJennifer Heath/TV Script Writer/Screenwriter
In 1992, as a staff writer for one of the all-time great TV sit-coms, “Roseanne,” Jennifer Heath was Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Comedy Series.
This was around two years after Heath and fellow 20-something Amy Sherman, whose father was a Catskills comedian, began collaborating on TV scripts after a chance meeting in an improvisational comedy class at the famous Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles.
“We were two short, Jewish, annoying women that no one wanted to deal with, so we dealt with each other," Sherman once told a magazine.
The duo, with no professional writing experience, shockingly landed fulltime-writing gigs on Roseanne soon after the temperamental star suddenly fired her entire staff.
“She needed female writers and we were cheap,” Sherman said in a recent print interview.
Since Roseanne, Heath has co-created two other TV comedy series, “Mr. Rhodes” and “Dave’s World,” sold screenplays to Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Universal and Miramax, and had a feature film, “Ella Enchanted,” hit theatres in 2004; Sherman (now Sherman-Palladino) went on to write scripts for “Veronica’s Closet” and create the wonderful TV series, the “Gilmore Girls.”
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The following is the first part of my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Heath:
Mike: How did you get your start writing professionally?
Heath: Actually, it was pretty much by accident. My goal was never to be a writer, but an actress. But I needed to make money and I partnered up with another actress I met, Amy, to start writing a two-woman play for ourselves, because we weren’t getting hired. It didn’t go very well, and we finally said, “To hell with it,” and began writing a little spec script together for a “Roseanne” episode.
At the time, I was, strangely enough, teaching something called “Comedy Traffic School” in L.A. on the weekends (which simply was a funny version of traffic school for people who got tickets but didn’t want to lose points off their license) and also working as a waitress. Well, as luck would have it, it just so happens that a guy in my class was a major development executive in the TV business, which I found out when I’d go around the room asking people what they did for a living.
I eventually said to the guy, “Ok, I have your home address and I’m going to come to your house unless you read my Roseanne script.” I was being aggressive but I was kidding, of course.
The thing is, it’s very difficult to get people in the business to read stuff, and they don’t want to read stuff, because most of the stuff is crap.
But, believe it or not, one day after class, he told me he would read it. And he really did! And he said it was great and needed another one, written for another popular half-hour sit-com, that one could be a fluke and he wanted another sample.
So my friend and I wrote another script, this time for another popular show at the time called “Anything But Love,” which starred Jamie Lee Curtis and Richard Lewis.
We both liked Richard very much.
It ended up that TV executive said he knew a lot of top agents and we could use his name at the biggest agencies in town, like the William Morris Agency and CAA and ICM.
Then I met another guy in traffic school, a producer on another TV show, and he let us write a freelance episode.
The truth is, before that one play and that one spec script, I’d never written anything in my life—that is, other than for the school newspaper. I mean, really nothing. And I never studied writing either, to this day. I learned by looking at other scripts.
Call it beginner’s luck, my innate talent for being funny, who knows what it was. But with those two specs, we got an agent at William Morris and in a matter of months got on Roseanne as staff writers—which was a miracle, since we were completely brand new to the business.
There were 15 guys and us two girls on the staff. We were referred to as the “Go-Gos,” had an office with a pinball machine and everything. It was a dream come true.
I was there for two years before they didn’t renew me.
Mike: Talking about that, what about the high rejection rate in your business?
Heath: You have to deal with it almost every day and have to adopt an attitude of not caring about it. It’s part of the deal. It’s like dating. It doesn’t work, so you move on. I’ve gone up for many jobs and didn’t get them. It’s never fun. It’s never nice to be rejected. And it’s especially disappointing when it’s a job you really wanted. You have to just say to yourself, "Ok, what’s next?”
There are always ups and downs, and freelance work is especially hard. It’s feast or famine. You make a lot of money one year and none the rest. And I have no answer for the difficulty of getting read.
Since Roseanne, I haven’t had a regular job, but I’ve written a lot of screenplays. I sold one to Warner, two to Miramax, one to Paramount, one to Universal, and two to Disney. We’re still hoping to have them made into movies.
But the fact is the percentage of having your work made into a movie is very low. It’s very frustrating. Sometimes a director wants to do it, but the studio that owns it won’t let it go.
You can wait years and years and years for something to happen, and sometimes the writer tries to buy the thing back.
Still, a lot of people make a very good living just selling screenplays that never get made into movies. The minimum is around $70,000 for a screenplay, but you could make as much as a million dollars. It depends on your reputation and how strong the material is and how many studios want it.
You can also make money doing re-write work and script doctoring of existing material (which is quite lucrative, though you won’t get a screen credit; Carrie Fisher has made a ton of money script doctoring).