In the glamorous world of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, there are the stars, the producers and the highly skilled effects-technicians who collaborate to bring entertainment to life. But, there wouldn’t be any Brad Pitts, Morgan Freemans or especially not any Homer Simpsons without people like Reid Harrison ’82, a comedy writer in Hollywood.
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Harrison writes for many popular shows, and some that could have been popular over the past decade or so, including some work on a certain Sunday night staple, which is the longest running prime time animated show in television history.
“I moved to Denver right at the time when the oil industry went under, and I really didn’t know what to do next,” says Harrison. “So I did stand-up comedy for eight years.”
Though his stand-up routine was a success, he felt like he was going nowhere, and that stand-up was a dead end. But his sense of humor led him to contacts who were former comics who became writers in Los Angeles.
“I was very fortunate to get a job out in L.A. while I was still living in Denver, writing for a show on Comedy Central,” said Harrison. “I moved on out — but these shows rarely last more than a year, and this one was one of those cases.”
Harrison says that many television shows are cancelled in the blink of an eye, especially on the four major broadcast networks. It is the luck of the draw for a TV writer to catch onto the next Seinfeld or The Office, shows that will stay around for more than a few years, and that have second lives on TBS or in syndication.
After that Comedy Central series was cancelled by the network, Harrison started writing spec scripts, which are samples that writers put together to show to producers.
“Those people who are running the shows, which are on the air, would have something to look at and say, ‘OK. This guy is good,’” Harrison explains. “I wrote a bunch of spec scripts and I wrote one that was pretty good. A friend of mine read over the script and made a few changes, and gave it to some producers at The Simpsons.”
With the help of his friend, the Simpsons producers read his script, and welcomed Harrison in to pitch more ideas for another animated series, The Critic.
“I did that, but I was horribly nervous,” admits Harrison. But the producers must have liked what they heard, because they gave Harrison an episode of The Critic to write. But unfortunately, the show was cancelled by FOX before his episode aired.
“I wrote a script and I was paid for it and everything, but it was never made because the show never got that far,” says Harrison. But, thanks to his efforts for The Critic, the producers told him that they really liked his work, and offered to help get his scripts read by The Simpsons.
“I wrote one episode with those guys and I helped them on three other episodes,” says Harrison. That 1997 episode was entitled “The Springfield Files,” and featured the voices of Leonard Nimoy and David Duchovny. Ten years later, Harrison wrote a second episode, called “Papa Don’t Leech.”
In the years between the two episodes of The Simpsons, he has written for another animated show, Pinkie and The Brain, for the WB network. Harrison has also written for the shows Men Behaving Badly and then George and Leo, which turned out to be Bob Newhart’s last sitcom. Both of those shows lasted a season. He worked on Eddie Murphy’s animated show, The P.J.s and a “whole bunch of other little shows.”
“In some ways, it is really great that I have kept working,” says Harrison. “But in other ways, it kind of sucks because every year I have to look for a new job. I have friends who have worked on Everybody Loves Raymond and they get a nice run for eight or nine years, but I am much more the rule than the exception [as far as writers go]. Those guys are the exception.”
Currently, Harrison is developing an animated pilot episode for the Disney Channel, which could evolve into its own series. He is also writing for another show being animated in France, and working on a lot of freelance work for other shows.
But Harrison believes that the real key for survival in Hollywood is to be creative. Many shows get into a rut and have difficulty coming up with fresh ideas. He notes that some are referred to as “scorched earth” after a few seasons. One way to do this, is to think beyond the script and create something in the real world to test.
“I thought it would be really cool to showcase the world of minor league baseball,” says Harrison. “I think that it’s really funky and weird and entertaining and there are a lot of great stories. But I knew that they were going to be a really hard sell. The [networks] just won’t buy baseball shows.”
Harrison let his creative juices flow and started writing fake news articles about a minor league baseball team in Jersey City, N.J. He doctored the articles to make them look like they had been cut out of a newspaper and sent them around to a few friends. He then created a Web site about the team, and updated it daily with news, statistics and audio interviews from the team’s “players.”
“I was having fun doing this,” says Harrison. “I called my friend Bob Odenkirk, who is an actor and writer and very funny, and I asked him if he would do one of these audio clips with me.”
Odenkirk immediately jumped at the idea and the duo created a TV pilot based on the Web site and its collection of oddball players. The network FX bought the pilot script, but never developed the idea into a series.
“You never know what can happen,” says Harrison. “That sort of thing doesn’t always work, but you have to be creative and catch someone’s eye. As hard as it is — and it is a hard job when you have it — you have those good days when you are writing funny or meaningful stuff, you think that this is what it’s all about. I made it more through persistence than talent.”
When he gets away from the scene in Hollywood, among his favorite activities is when he zooms into Williamsburg to resume his role as bass player for the Dimeslots, which has played at Homecoming each of the past few years.
“I sit between the two drummers and try not to go deaf,” laughs Harrison. “I love playing at Homecoming and we’ll be back this year as well.”