This is the second part of three articles recapping my time on the writing staff of the TV show Roseanne. If you haven't read Part 1, I suggest that you do, as this article assumes you have. The point behind this three-part column is to share with you an important moment in my life, one that had a huge influence on who I was as a person and—because I believe in viewing life holistically—who I am as a designer. The lessons I am sharing are ones that have all had a big impact on how I design Magic cards.
Last time I talked about how I got my job as a staff writer on Roseanne. Today I am going to talk about what it was like to have the job. While the experience had plenty of downs, today's column is about the ups. (A hint at what to expect in Part 3.)
- Lesson #4 – Beware of the Impact Others Have on How You See Yourself
One of the oddest things about my time on Roseanne was the contrast between my old life as a "runner" (aka production assistant/gopher, check out my article Tales of a Runner if you want some sense of what that life was like) and my new life as a writer. A runner is the lowest person on the Hollywood ladder while a writer, at least in television, is on one of the higher rungs.
To get a better sense of this, let me share with you a conversation I had my first day as a writer on Roseanne. Remember, that the last day I had worked just six weeks earlier, I had been a runner, meaning that I would have had to go do the task that this conversation led to. The other person talking to me was someone from the office staff whom the runners of that show reported to. I'll call her Sally.
Sally: Mark, I hope you're settling in.
Me: Yes, everything's been great. Everyone's so nice.
Sally: That's wonderful. We're excited to have you here and we want to make sure that you have everything you need.
Me: Don't worry about me. I'm pretty easy.
Sally: We have your office set up. Are there any supplies you need to write?
Me: I'm good. I don't need anything special.
Sally: Mark, you're on Roseanne now. You're a writer. We're here to make sure that you get what you need.
Me: I'm just so excited to be here. I don't want to be any trouble.
Sally: It's no trouble. Our job is to help you write great scripts. Surely there's something that you need.
Me: Okay, a pad of paper. And a pencil. I write all my scripts out longhand before I type them.
Sally: That's great. What kind of paper do you like?
Me: Anything will be fine.
Sally: But what do you like to use?
Me: At home I write in a notebook.
Sally: Why don't we get you a notebook?
Me: If you have one, that would be great.
Sally: We'll get you one. What kind do you use?
Me: Like a five-subject notebook. The kind kids use for school.
Sally: Wide ruled or college ruled?
Me: Wide ruled.
Sally: Any color preferences?
Me: I guess black.
Sally: What kind of pencil do you need?
Me: Do you guys have any mechanical pencils?
Sally: We can get them for you. What kind do you use?
Me: I usually use Pilot.
Sally: What kind of lead?
Me: 0.5 millimeter.
Sally: Great, we'll get it for you.
When that conversation started, if I was given scrap paper and a crayon I would have been happy. I had no interest or investment in making demands. I was just excited to be there. What I didn't really take into account at the time was that I was allowing others around me to shape how I was functioning. Some poor runner, which was me just six weeks earlier, probably had to go to five stores to find a black, five-subject wide-ruled notebook and a Pilot .5mm mechanical pencil.
At the time, I remember feeling like I hadn't changed at all. I was just "runner Mark" now writing on staff at Roseanne. Looking back, though, I believe that I did not understand that the change was not as much a function of me acting differently as it was one of everyone acting differently to me.
This lesson is especially relevant to design, because I think many designers do not understand the impact that others have on their designs. Because designers spend so much time internalizing what they are doing, it's very easy to miss the influence that others have. For example, during design I interact with numerous departments. The reaction each of them has subtly shapes how I do my design.
For example, during Zendikar it was clear that the main drive for me, tapping the rich vein of mechanics involving land, was not a selling point to other people in the company. Because of that, I spent a lot of time pushing other aspects of the set, knowing that I had to create an expansion I could sell internally. This pressure really pushed me towards the adventure world aspect of the set. Note that I'm not saying that this influence was a bad thing—just that I had to understand the impact it had on me.
Looking back at my Roseanne days, it was clear that I would have a much better sense of where I stood and what I needed to accomplish if I had a better grasp on what was shaping my reality. It is very easy now with hindsight to see my blind spots, but had I been able to see them at the time, it's quite possible my time at Roseanne would have ended differently.
- Lesson #5 – Be Careful of "The Shiny"
Whenever my time on Roseanne comes up (and believe it or not, it's not something I actually talk about all that much; no, really), everyone always wants to know the same thing: what were all the actors like? My next lesson plays right into this fascination. Just as everyone wants to know about the stars of the show so was I intrigued by these celebrities whose world I had been let into.
The fact that I'm going to spend a large chunk of today's column talking about the actors shows how easy it is for the splashy aspect of life to take center stage. Yeah, I could talk about my office or about how scripts are laid out or what the weekly schedule was like, but in the end I wouldn't be delivering what the majority of the readers wanted to learn about.
The shiny is a real issue in Magic design. Certain aspects of the set are just splashier than others and, as such, they are going to pull focus, not just with you but with anyone who deals with the set. A designer has to take extra time with the shinier aspects of the design because the same things that draw attention internally will draw attention externally. My lesson here is not that's it's bad, but that you have to be extra vigilant about it to make sure that you're spending the proper time on the shiny parts of the set.
When I look back at my time on Roseanne, it's clear that I was a little too taken by the shiny and that it was definitely one of the things that kept me from focusing as clearly on the things I needed to. As we will see in two weeks, this pattern of behavior would come back to haunt me.
But enough internal monologuing—what was the cast of Roseanne really like? I'll tell you while providing life lessons along the way.
- Lesson #6 – Sometimes Your Greatest Successes Come From the Places You Least Suspect
Michael Fishman (D.J.)
Of all the cast members on Roseanne, Michael Fishman was the one I had the least interaction with. Michael was a little kid and he spent most of his time in school while on the set. Looking back though, I had a very important relationship with Michael, one that arguably got me my job on Roseanne in the first place.
For those not familiar with the show, let me quickly recap. Roseanne was a "blue-collar comedy" about a lower-middle-class family struggling to get by. The main characters on the show were Roseanne, her husband Dan, their two teenage daughters Becky and Darlene, their young son D.J. and Roseanne's sister Jackie. (Roseanne had a fourth child later in the series, but I like to pretend the later seasons don't exist, as they lessen what I believe is one of the best sitcoms of all time.)
When the show first began, D.J. was a little kid (three or four, I believe). As such, the actor who portrayed him was picked more for his visual similarity to Roseanne than any other factor. As he grew older, one thing became clear: he was the weakest link when it came to acting (although to be fair to Michael, he was on a show with a very strong cast, and I include Roseanne in that assessment. She could only play one character, but it was one she was very good at).
The reason this would become important is that one of the things that the head writer, a guy named Bob Myer, really liked about my pitch is that I pitched some good D.J. stories. In other words, I had a knack for finding ways to make D.J. important without requiring Michael to stretch too much as an actor. The idea that I believe Bob loved best and that I think directly led to me getting hired was a story that was actually used during the fourth season. The pitch: D.J. stops talking and no one notices.
The lesson here was that my affinity for Michael and his character proved to be invaluable to me. It's not something I would have guessed walking into my pitch, but it was something I figured out along the way. Once I did, I played it up as I understood it was a strength. Design is very similar. You need to get a grasp on what is successful even if it isn't the thing you planned to have the focus. Remember, good designers learn from their work. They have the ability to let their design tell them what it needs rather than forcing what they think it needs upon it. Your design will tell you what's important. Listen to it and respect the fact that the best of ideas don't always come from the obvious places.
As for Michael, I wish I had some insight into him, but all my stories about him are basically about him acting like the young kid he was.
- Lesson #7 – There Are Many Ways to Learn About Something
Laurie Metcalf (Jackie)
I walked away from Roseanne with a real good sense of Laurie Metcalf. She is a very dedicated actor who loves what she does. She is funny and friendly and a loyal friend. The interesting thing is that I spent very little time interacting with her. So how did I get to know her so well? Through one of her best friends. You see, one of the writers I hung around most with was dating the head costumer for the show. She had gotten her job through Laurie as they were good friends. The two of them had come up through the business together in, if memory serves me correctly, Chicago.
While I had always liked Laurie as an actress, I gained even more respect for her as I learned all about her background. There is a very compelling argument that she was the strongest actor on the show (with her big competition being John Goodman). The more I learned about her the more I liked her.
The lesson here is that education doesn't have to always be so direct. When I'm trying to understand my latest set, I often try to get a different vantage point than I've had before. I'll have new people play my set or I'll try a format I hadn't tried before. Just as there are ruts you can fall to in design, so too are their ruts in how you come to understand your design. Part of growing as a designer is branching out to find new ways to educate yourself about your set.
I did have a few chances to actually interact with Laurie, and she was always extremely nice. She was approachable and very down-to-earth.
- Lesson #8 - There's Always Room to Be Surprised
Lecy Goranson (Becky)
My memory of Lecy was that she was very fun-loving. I got some chance to spend time with her and of everything, I most distinctly remember her laugh. She was always very happy and fun to be around. If you had told me that one of the cast was going to stand up to Roseanne, I'm pretty sure Lecy would have been my last pick. (Yes, even after Michael.)
The event in question didn't happen during my time on the show but a few years later. Lecy wanted to go to college and Roseanne wanted her to stay on the show. Lecy volunteered to fly in from time to time and appear on a certain number of episodes a year, but Roseanne wasn't interested. She was in or she was out.
Lecy walked away from the number-one show on television to get a college education. This, by the way, is why Sarah Chalke (later of Scrubs fame) became "the other Becky." Yes, Roseanne replaced Lecy with another actress.
The reason I bring this up is that I remember how stunned I was when I heard the story, mostly because I had gotten a chance to know Lecy and I didn't realize she had that in her. I was quite impressed.
The lesson here is that it's important in design not to make assumptions. You have to be prepared for things to surprise you, because if you don't you can miss out on wonderful ideas. Buyback, as an example, one of my favorite all-time mechanics, was created by Richard Garfield as an idea for a card or two. He didn't even pitch it as a mechanic. But playtests soon showed that these few cards had a little something special about them and we quickly came to realize that we had an awesome mechanic hiding out in our set.
In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time getting to know Lecy, because I would have liked it if that story hadn't surprised me.
- Lesson #9 – There Is Always Good Among the Bad
Sara Gilbert (Darlene)
Of all the cast, Sara was the one I got along best with. She was extremely mature for her age (while she was six months younger than Lecy, you would have never guessed that from meeting her), and she and I got along wonderfully. Sara and I would occasionally have lunch together even after I left the show. She is quite intelligent and was fascinating to talk with. Of all the connections I made during my time on Roseanne, my friendship with Sara was probably the one I have the fondest memories of.
During this three-parter I am bringing up many things I did wrong. I feel it's important to stress, though, that I did some things right. It's very easy to see things in a white or black light with everything being good or bad. While I made plenty of mistakes during my time on Roseanne, there are a few things, like my friendship with Sara, that I feel I did right.
In the context of design, it is always important to recognize that there's always good and bad mixed together. You need to figure out what worked in the playtest that went horribly awry, just as you have to figure out what still needs improvement in a set that gets high marks during devign (the design development overlap stage).
- Lesson #10 – Don't Judge A Book by its Cover
John Goodman (Dan)
One of the things my time in Hollywood taught me is that there is often a big difference between an actor's persona and his or her actual personality. John Goodman plays such vibrant characters that I always assumed that was what he was like. It turns out the opposite was true. John was pretty quiet and tended to keep to himself. He was very nice, but he wasn't the kind of person to open up to just anybody. The one exception to this was after each taping, the cast and crew would go to a restaurant across the street. John would get a few drinks in him and then he'd start telling the most amazing stories. That was when his charisma came out and I soaked up every story I could. John was the actor I wish I could have gotten to know better, because he seemed like a fascinating person. And, as a quick aside, he has the largest head of any person I have ever met.
This lesson carries over very easily to design. The most common way is when we revisit a theme that we've visited before. It's very easy to just assume that this set will be just like last time we tackled the same theme. As an example, when we started Lorwyn design, I was amazed how many people in the company just assumed we were going to make Onslaught II. A good designer has to look past assumptions because the most amazing discoveries come when you're ready to expect the unexpected.
- Lesson #11 – Taking No Risks Can Be Even Riskier
Roseanne amp; Tom (Roseanne amp; Arnie)
Let me start with Tom. I actually got to spend a bit of time with Tom. The reason was that some of the writers were friends of Tom's. In fact, they were writing on the show directly because of Tom. Many of these writers were the junior writers on the show so they were the ones I hung out with (along with Amy Sherman and her writing partner Jennifer). As such, I not only got to interact with Tom, I also had the pleasure of writing some stand-up jokes for him. (I have no idea if he ever used anything I wrote.)
For those that think I have energy when I'm interviewed, you should see Tom on a daily basis. Tom had a lot of energy. Talking to him was hard sometimes because he would bounce around from topic to topic, sometimes mid-sentence. I found Tom pretty likeable although a little intimidating. He had a manic energy that was hard to handle for too long a period of time. All in all, though, a nice guy—well, at least to me. (There are a lot of famous stories about Tom's wild antics. For example, according to stories he once attempted to strangle the head writer I'm going to be talking about in a second for questioning Tom's power to edit scripts.)
Finally, we get to Roseanne. Before I talk about my one and only encounter with her, let me give you some background. For those who don't know much about the show Roseanne, let me bring a few key points up. First, it was the number-one show on the air in America at the time. Second, Roseanne had a reputation for being, let's say, very headstrong (and a little crazy). In her defense, I think she's quite talented and did have a lot to offer to the show. That said, Roseanne had a reputation of being a madhouse, churning through writers.
The most famous story involved a man named Jeff Harris who was the head writer for the show's second season. Here is the letter that he published in Variety (the Hollywood trade paper) announcing his retirement from the show:
The point I'm getting to is that I came into Roseanne well aware that it was a show with a tornado of turmoil with Roseanne at the epicenter. In fact, the one piece of advice given to me the day I started was "The less Roseanne knows who you are, the better off your life will be."
There were stories aplenty floating around about staff members Roseanne fired on a whim, so the last thing I was planning to do was initiate a conversation. Here is the full recap of my one conversation with Roseanne.
On every stage, there is a section called the "craft service area." This is the area where the food is. Hollywood stages are notorious for being stocked with food, and Roseanne was no different. I had stopped in to grab something to eat when I heard a very familiar voice from behind me: "So you're the new writer?"
I turned around to see Roseanne. While I knew not to initiate a conversation with Roseanne, I also knew that I didn't want to do anything to raise her ire. That meant I was going to be in this conversation as long as she wanted to have it. I thought of what I knew about being approached by a bear and tried to apply it: Seem meek and harmless. Don't threaten it in any way.
"Yes, I'm the new writer."
She looks pauses and looks at me. "How old are you? You look pretty young."
"That's pretty young."
"Yes, it is."
And with that, Roseanne turned and walked away.
It's funny looking back that I worked so hard for her not to notice me. While there was some risk in her knowing who I was, there was also a pretty big risk in her not knowing me at all. I wonder what would have happened if I had bothered to get into her good graces. Perhaps she would have stepped in to keep me. I have no idea because I took the safe path, which in the end did nothing to make me any safer.
This applies very directly to Magic design. The greatest risk, I say to my designers, is taking no risks. The one thing surest to kill Magic the fastest is us not being willing to try out new things. Magic's lifeblood is its evolution and its ability to constantly surprise the audience. Not every idea works out, but ideas that aren't tried never work out.
- A Roseanne Is a Roseanne Is a Roseanne
We've gotten to the end of Part 2, and I haven't even started writing a script yet. Join me in two weeks as I explore my Roseanne episodes, share some more stories from behind the scenes, and explain how it all came to an end. Join me next week as we visit a world nine layers deep.
Until then, may you enjoy the shiny, just not too much.