This is part two in a series of interviews I’ll be doing for a new segment on Budget and the Beach called Cool Careers. You always hear how you should follow your passion and do what you love. I happen to know a few people who I think are doing just that. Maybe you’ll get some inspiration for your own career.
I first met Sarah around four or five years ago through the beach volleyball community, which is how I meet most of my friends these days. Well, that and blogging.
We’ve had some good times singing karaoke, swinging through the air with the greatest of ease at a trapeze class, and participating in a Lady Gaga flash mob.
What’s been cool about knowing Sarah is watching how her hard work has led her to an amazing career as a television writer. I even got to be an extra on the TV show in the first season (although my scene was cut). And she’s just getting started!
In addition to Parenthood, she’s also writing About A Boy, which will premier after the Olympics on NBC in February, and has a pilot she is developing for ABC.
Oh, and did I mention her boss at Parenthood, Jason Katims, just happened to be head writer of one of my all time favorite shows, Friday Night Lights? And yes, she’s even met Taylor Kitsch (aka Tim Riggins). Two words: insanely jealous!
How did you land your job with NBC/Parenthood?
My agent! Yes, TV writers have agents. He lines up all my meetings (we don’t say “job interview” in TV, it’s always “meeting”) and negotiates my salary and title. I read Lean In recently and am so thankful I don’t have a traditional career where I have to go out there and advocate for myself. Just the idea of having to negotiate my own salary and title makes me want to curl up fetal and drink a glass of wine. Which is what I generally do while I’m waiting for my agent and lawyer to finish a negotiation.
I’d been working steadily in TV for a while but not on any shows that had managed to make it past a first season. This is totally normal in Hollywood and I’d had some amazing experiences and worked with some incredible people, but it’s still frustrating to jump from show to show.
I was living in New York at the time, wrapping up on a short-lived ABC cop drama called The Unusuals. I still remember the conversation I had with my agent when we were discussing my next move. He said his goal was to find me a home; a show where I could hang my hat for a while.
I read the pilot for Parenthood on the flight from New York to Los Angeles and sobbed so hard that a flight attendant had to ask me if I was okay. When I landed, I told my agent that Parenthood was my top choice. Really, it was my only choice. The writing was so beautiful and the characters were so deep and real. I’m a huge fan of the show’s creator, Jason Katims, who was also the head writer on Friday Night Lights. (Clear eyes, full hearts, anyone?) My agent “leaned in” for me and hustled to get me a meeting with Jason. Even though we don’t call it a “job interview”, it’s totally a job interview, and I was so nervous going in. But a few weeks after our “meeting” I was back in New York at Momofuku Noodle Bar when I got the call that I was getting an offer. Five years later, Parenthood is still my home.
You have a fairly high profile job. How have friends/family reacted to what you do for a living?
The parents are quite proud and like to brag about me to random people like the grocery store checker or the dude stuck sitting next to them on the airplane. They stay up late every Thursday night so they can watch Parenthood when it airs. I’ve tried to convince them to buy a Tivo, but my mom thinks that watching live will help our ratings. It doesn’t actually work like that, but you try explaining the Nielsen rating system to your mom and see how it goes. They call me every week after the show is over to tell me what they liked about it. Even though I’m asleep half the time, those phone calls mean a lot to me.
I don’t know if my friends are nearly as impressed by what I do. You’ll have to tell me. Every once in a while I name a character after someone I know and people seem to dig that. Erica Mannard (a mutual friend) got a special shout out on The Middleman, and I named a character on Parenthood after my high school English teacher. I didn’t really think it was that big a deal until my friend, Kerry, who created Bates Motel, named Norman’s teacher after me. I love hearing my name every week.
How does the process of writing a show work? Just you? A team, etc.?
On Parenthood we have nine writers. We meet every day to “break story”. This means coming up with the story structure for the episode. Every show is different, but on Parenthood we do very detailed story breaks. Once the episode is broken, one writer takes what we came up with in the writers’ room and turns it into an outline and then a script. It’s a nice blend of teamwork and individual writing.
Can you tell us about any times you might have used something from your own life in an episode of Parenthood?
Um, basically every episode. My dad is convinced that everything out of Craig T. Nelson’s mouth is ripped off from his life. He’s sort of right. The show is incredibly personal for all of us on the writing staff and it’s impossible not to use our own experiences in the writing. My dad really did battle a backyard possum like Peter Krause’s character did in the first season of Parenthood.
Describe a scene or episode you’re most proud of?
I’m particularly proud of the n-word episode in which Crosby and Jasmine have to explain the n-word to their biracial son. I received so many nice letters and comments about it. One of the best critical reviews I’ve ever received was for that episode and I thought it was funny that the critic Googled me or something so that she could point out in her review that the writer of the episode was white. I’d never had my whiteness called out in a review before.
But honestly, I’m so proud of every episode. It really is an honor and a privilege to be a part of show that touches people on such a deep level. It’s not often in a TV career that you get to say that.
I was in a grocery store once and a woman basically accosted me in the cereal aisle when she noticed my Parenthood crew jacket. She has a daughter with Autism (the character, Max, on the show, is also on The Spectrum) and told me that she keeps episodes of Parenthood on her DVR because when she has tough days she likes to watch the show. It helps her feel like she’s not so alone. By the time she finished telling me her story we were both hugging and crying in front of the Cocoa Puffs display. Stuff like this never happened to me when I was writing on Lipstick Jungle.
What is the best part of your job?
It would be absolutely impossible to pick one “best” part. But since this is a financial blog, I’ll say that getting paid to do something that I love is pretty amazing.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Getting cancelled. You get so deeply invested in each show. You fall in love with the characters. The other writers become your family. It’s tough to say goodbye. I’m still not over The Middleman getting cancelled.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to break into TV writing?
Write, write, write. Write every day. Rewrite. Then write something new. Then rewrite that. You’ll get better with every script. So many people tell me they’re ready for their first TV gig but haven’t really taken the time to hone their craft. There’s no one single way to break into the TV industry and everyone’s success story is different. The only thing you can control is how ready you are when you finally get your break.
Any other cool/funny stories related to what you do?
I’ve met so many interesting people and been to so many cool events over the years. But what I really love are all the random experiences that I’ve had because of my job. I’ve watched a police roll call in the 42nd precinct in Brooklyn, paddled out with world class surfers in Makaha, been inside the LA Crime Lab, fired a Glock, landed on an active US aircraft carrier in an undisclosed location somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and held a koala.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us Sarah! I’m really amazed and proud of your success, and if you ever get to meet Tim Riggins again you better freakin’ call me!
Be sure to check out Parenthood on Thursdays 10/9c on NBC!
Cool Careers Series: