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Ex Cheers Writer Rob Long And His Latest Book

At 30, Rob Long was earning millions of dollars as one of the writers on the hit sitcom Cheers, which called time in 1993 after 274 episodes and 11 years. Viewed from the outside, Long's career path seems effortlessly smooth. When he and his college friend and collaborator Dan Stanley decided to switch careers from teacher and ad man respectively, to sitcom writing, they simply mailed their two speculative scripts to one of LA's top agents. Beth Uffner, who took them on, happened to represent most of the staff on Cheers. Within weeks, Long and Stanley were hired. And when the show finally came to an end, the pair, now executive writer/producers, were offered wads of cash for their next projects.

In "Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke", Long revisits material from his previous "half-true" book, Conversations With My Agent, which he freely acknowledges. He takes us on a journey as he and his writing partner Stanley try to come up with ideas for a new sitcom, then face an anxious wait first for the studio to pick up the script to be made into a pilot and then through to its eventual screening. As Long notes, "Uncertainty is just bad news that's taking its time."

The book is peppered with insider gossip and the kinds of horror stories we have come to expect from Hollywood: the twenty-something actresses who offer themselves up to the surgeon's knife; the network executives who blow hot and cold; the studio head whose sexual shenanigans end up being the talk of the town. Long seems unable to handle the fact that the excess of the Eighties is over; he is overly concerned with money, continually fretting over whether or not other writers are getting paid more than he is. He is self-obsessed, almost pathologically insecure - but, as he amply demonstrates, in Hollywood he is in good company.

Long takes an abnormally long time to get to what the title of the book suggests - the inner sanctum of the writers' room on a comedy. But when he does get there, it is worth the wait. "The whole thing is so nerve-shattering that your first week on staff is spent sitting in cold sweaty clothes and seeing through a red fog, " writes Long before going on to "The Rules". These are: Never pitch a joke twice - if it doesn't get a laugh the first time, you lose; and never pitch a problem in a script. "That, " he says, "is like pulling a loose thread in a cheap sweater...you will be mercilessly abused by your colleagues for the rest of your career, which promises to be deadly and short. For to be branded 'bad in a room' is a sure way to get kicked out of the system."

As Long takes us through the whole painful process, he paints an eyebrow-raising picture of what it is to be a writer in Hollywood - at the mercy of a revolving door of studio executives and, worse yet, other writers. The writers' room on a US sitcom is shown to be a testosterone-driven arena where you're considered "old" if you're over 40; Hollywood's obsession with youth is apparently all-pervasive. It's a precarious business where you can be hot one minute and banned from the studio lot the next. But there are nuggets of wisdom to be had. He explains not only how the whole "pilot season" operates but why US networks are slavishly reliant on ratings, yanking a show from the schedules in a matter of weeks if it fails to deliver especially in that all-elusive 18-24 demographic. "Young people, " writes Long, "tend not to have settled on a few key brands and can thus be persuaded that doctors have indeed recently created an ointment that makes pimples disappear, that switching soft drink preferences increases opportunities for casual Sex, and that certain fast-food restaurants are merry places filled with laughing young people."

There's a hysterical account of a test screening for a new show in which the Ivy League educated Long makes clear his disdain for the average American viewer.

As in his first book, there are laugh-out-loud funny exchanges with his agent, a razor-toothed shark who speed-dials Long with irrelevancies. Take this, for example:

AGENT: I have a thought for the title of your show.

LONG: We have a title.

AGENT: I mean a better title.

LONG: What is it?

AGENT: Call it "Here They Come".

LONG: I don't get it.

AGENT: It's about a young guy and his dad, right? Who are also friends? Get it?

LONG: I'm not sure America will get it.

AGENT: But I'll get it.

For anyone who has read Conversations With My Agent, this will all seem like familiar territory as will Long's account of the obligatory sending of gift baskets and goodies to contacts and others who, in a more normal city, would merit a humble thank-you. Occasionally, other agents will hit on him attempting a poach, which Long never mentions to his agent but which she invariably hears about anyway.

For British writers hoping to crack LA, there are some gems here - including where to hang out in order to meet agents and studio executives, and the best address in town (the Riviera section of the Palisades, apparently). "Be nice to everybody, " Long advises, "because you never know." He describes running into a studio executive who, it transpires, once came to Long for advice when he was new in LA. "We had breakfast together, apparently... and I, according to him, had been nice and encouraging. Lucky for me I was..."

By ALICE CHARLES - I have worked as a freelance journalist for eight years for a number of newspaper, magazines and websites such as InStyle. I have written a number of scripts and I am currently working on my first novel.  

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