Former TV writer Patty Lin has written a memoir, titled End Credits: How I Broke Up with Hollywood. Before Patty retired from show biz in 2008, she wrote for Freaks and Geeks, Desperate Housewives, Breaking Bad, and Friends. A very impressive resumé. Now, in an excerpt published in Time, Patty dishes on her not-so-great experience working on the seventh season of Friends (the one that ends with Monica and Chandler’s wedding).
Patty says she was “stunned” when her agent told her the Friends team wanted to meet with her. At that point, she only had two years of television writing under her belt (she describes working on Freaks and Geeks as “a positive experience”), and she didn’t consider herself a joke-writer. But her agent told her Friends wanted to hire “someone who’s good with story and character.” Still, Patty was intimidated and uncomfortable, especially because NBC had just launched a diversity program. As an Asian-American woman, she didn’t know whether they were interested in her because of her talent or her race.
After she was vetted by eight people, including creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane, Patty got the job. She began in July 2000. At the time, there were 14 writers, 5 of whom were women. Patty was the only person of color. She compares the cliquey writing staff to “the preppy rich kids in my high school who shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch and drove brand-new convertibles.” She confirms the claims that the writers never stopped talking about sex.
Patty describes David Crane as “an impossible-to-please workaholic” and Marta Kaufman as “the Oscar Madison to David’s Felix Unger”. As an “outspoken liberal”, Marta took the NBC diversity program seriously, and Patty suspected that she had more to do with hiring her than David did.
After each script was completed, the writers, producers, execs, and cast would get together in a Warner Bros. conference room for a high-pressure table read:
Table reads at Friends were a big deal and served three purposes: (1) for the actors to judge the script (so they could gripe about it later), (2) for the showrunners to decide what didn’t work and needed to be rewritten, and (3) for the writer of the episode to feel both bloatedly important and sickeningly self-conscious.
Patty writes that, at first, she was excited for table reads cuz there was a catered breakfast buffet and she got to be in the same room as the cast. Unfortunately, the novelty of “seeing Big Stars up close” quickly wore off. Patty says, at that point, it seemed like Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and Lisa Kudrow were totally over their jobs:
The actors seemed unhappy to be chained to a tired old show when they could be branching out, and I felt like they were constantly wondering how every given script would specifically serve them. They all knew how to get a laugh, but if they didn’t like a joke, they seemed to deliberately tank it, knowing we’d rewrite it. Dozens of good jokes would get thrown out just because one of them had mumbled the line through a mouthful of bacon. David and Marta never said, “This joke is funny. The actor just needs to sell it.”
After the first rewrite was finished, the actors would rehearse on set. Then they’d sit around Monica and Chandler’s apartment and discuss the script:
This was the actors’ first opportunity to voice their opinions, which they did vociferously. They rarely had anything positive to say, and when they brought up problems, they didn’t suggest feasible solutions. Seeing themselves as guardians of their characters, they often argued that they would never do or say such-and-such. That was occasionally helpful, but overall, these sessions had a dire, aggressive quality that lacked all the levity you’d expect from the making of a sitcom.
After more rewrites and rehearsals, the show would finally be taped in front of a live studio audience on Friday night. Patty says filming would start off fun, but, after six hours of sitting in one place, the crowd would eventually become exhausted and stop laughing at jokes:
Which is why it made no sense that we had to rewrite jokes based on the studio audience’s response. During the taping, the writers sat in a tense cluster off to the side of the bleachers. Between takes, we would huddle around David and Marta to pitch new jokes when the ones in the script didn’t get a big enough laugh. And when I say big enough, I mean uproarious—the kind of laughter that is impossible to elicit after someone’s already heard a joke. The element of surprise is crucial. A joke might get a hearty laugh on the first take, but on subsequent takes the laughter would taper off, sending David and Marta into a tizzy.
Patty hated the on-the-day rewrite huddles. She says David Crane would drop “the pretense of diplomacy” and only listen to pitches from his three go-to joke writers, “all of whom happened to be men.”
Patty says she felt like an outsider during her time on Friends. For a long time, she blamed her imposter syndrome on the fact that she was “a drama writer working in comedy.” Later, she realized it also had to do with being the only Asian writer in most rooms. Not long after Season 7 wrapped, David called her and let her know she would not be hired back for Season 8. Her agent explained, “they need a joke writer for next year.”
The same year Patty was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for penning the Breaking Bad episode, “Gray Matter”, she made the decision to leave showbiz. Her reasons for retiring were complicated:
Where would I even begin? There were the grueling hours, the egotistical bosses, the politics and dysfunction, the ways in which TV writing is more like making widgets than creating art—there’s everything that the Writers Guild of America is currently fighting against with their ongoing strike, and the issues have only gotten more complex since I retired in 2008.
Before Patty got the Friends gig, her Freaks and Geeks boss, Judd Apatow, had warned her about taking the job. He told her that the show was already “a well-oiled machine,” and he didn’t think she would learn much. Ultimately, Patty realized he was right. Her biggest takeaway from Friends was that she never wanted to work on a sitcom again.