Bill Bryan’s Keep It Real is one of the funniest and best books of the year. It is utterly vicious in it’s humor and smart as hell in it’s satire of L.A. life, Hollywood, and the Reality Television industry. Not a page goes by where there’s not something incredibly offensive, and if you have a working sense of humor, you’ll be laughing pretty damn hard as Bryan takes you through a behind the scenes tour of the way reality works when filtered through Hollywood. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the book before you watch the next episode of America’s Fattest Fatty or Who Wants to be a Whore for Money.
Are you still part of the WGA?
Yes, although I haven’t worked in movies or TV in quite a while, and have no plans to do so again. I never played all that well with the other children and advancing age hasn’t made me any cuddlier. I’m sort of a one-man guild – and yet the union politics are still ugly.
What’s their beef?
We writers totally missed the boat on the last technological revolution, with the result that for every $20 DVD that gets sold, the studios clear about $9, while all the writers who worked on it collectively share 3 cents. I’m not kidding – 3 friggin’ cents. Everyone knows that distribution is soon going to migrate to the internet and its cousins, i.e. cell phones. So the WGA leadership is quite properly determined not to make the same mistake again.
So far the studios have been painted as evil and greedy, so do they have a valid point too, like the writers?
No. Hell no. Absofuckinglutely no.
Was a novel always the plan while working in T.V.?
It was more of a daydream than a plan. Like every other writer who’s ever worked in the entertainment business, I spent a great deal of time wishing I didn’t have to jump through so many hoops in order to connect with an audience. Some of those hoops – like seeing your work performed by brave and talented actors – can be pretty fun, and make you look a lot smarter than you are. Some of the others – like dealing with studio and network executives – are a lot less fun, but at least remind you that you’re not the dumbest person in the world. Anyway, I used to think about how great it would be to write directly for actual people, and eventually I had enough time and money (which, as we know, is actually the same thing) to give it a whirl.
When writing a novel, what did you bring to the table from writing so much T.V.?
During the sitcom years I accumulated a fair number of comic tricks, i.e. how to liven up a basically expository scene, where to put the funny words in a sentence, etc. I also learned what actors generally can and can’t pull off, and I think the dialog in Keep It Real is snappier because of it. The biggest thing I learned is not to fall in love with something just because I wrote it. That’s the biggest difference between the amateur and the professional. The former tends to hang on way too tightly, while the latter knows it can always be better.
When writing for a sitcom with a laugh track, how can you tell what works and what doesn’t when everything is guaranteed a laugh?
I’m not going to claim that nothing I ever wrote or produced got juiced up in post-production. But I never had anything to do with the laugh-track process – called sweetening. I always left that to the line producer, and my instructions were to add laughs only when a joke didn’t get a fair shake in front of a live audience. (That was often because there was no live audience, for example when a scene either had to be pre-shot for some technical reason, or redone after the audience was gone.) I had the good fortune to work on shows that actually induced laughter, and didn’t really need to fake it. Another way to answer your question is “I just know.” That is in fact the gift of which – I’m most proud – I know where the laughs are. Sometimes I’m wrong and a joke (or sometimes an entire show) that I don’t think is funny gets laughs. But I hardly ever err in the other direction.
Where did Keep it Real come from?
I knew I wanted to write in the first person, and use the narrator’s voice to comment on things I don’t like about the world. So I made a list of cultural grievances – which got pretty long pretty fast – then started prioritizing them, and seeing which ones fit best with each other, and generated story possibilities. Reality TV and Gangsta Rap soon emerged as the Best of the Worst. The whole process took maybe a couple of hours.
How did you research the reality T.V. industry?
My wife used to work in Reality, and several of our friends still do. I grilled everyone who would talk to me, and while many of them were very helpful, nobody wanted any public acknowledgement or other connection to the book. The major Reality producers have taken an extremely hard line against anyone who reveals their trade secrets or criticizes them, and their employees are all scared shitless. God, how I wish I was Mark Burnett.
How long has Keep it Real been in the works?
I wrote the first draft in about four months, during early 2005. It took me quite a while to find the right agent – Al Zuckerman, of Writers House. Al acted as my editor as well, and I spent another month or so addressing his excellent notes. But it took the better part of a year after that for us to find a publisher. We seemed to be close several times, with a number of the big houses. But they all ultimately told us they didn’t know how to market it. (That’s code for “Women buy 80% of all novels, and they’re gonna hate this motherfucker” That turned out not to be true – women are among the biggest fans of Keep It Real, although there does seem to be an age issue – women over 50 are less likely to enjoy it.)
What’s it been like working with a small independent like Bleak House Books?
Excellent. Ben Leroy has become a great friend, and I have had the opportunity to participate in every aspect of the publishing process – which I’m told is very rare for first-time novelists. Some people have suggested that Keep It Real could have reached a bigger audience, and been more widely reviewed, if it was published by one of the majors. I have no way of knowing whether that’s true, and I frankly don’t care. You can’t really make a living from this racket anyway, so I’d rather work with people I like and who will pick up the phone when I call. The only gripe I have with Ben is that he doesn’t drink – what kind of a publisher is that?
What was your favorite episode of Night Court?
I’m not much of an archivist, so the only ones I remember are the ones I wrote and produced. There was a two-part episode in which Dan Fielding – the prosecutor played by the brilliant John Larroquette – gets temporarily disbarred and has to work as a waiter in a snooty French restaurant. It was a nice combination of Frank Capra populist speeches and Three Stooges pastry fights, which pretty well sums of the appeal of Night Court.
What T.V. show would you have really liked to work on?
The Simpsons. There’s been more smart writing done for that show than for the rest of TV comedy put together. I was working on another show (Anything But Love) on the Fox lot when The Simpsons began, and we shared the same small office building with their writers. I remember loving the show, but feeling sorry for those guys because animated comedy was obviously such a dead end.
What’s next for you? More books, I hope.
Yes, I’ll write more books. But right now I’m putting most of my energy into an internet video project, which I promise you’ll be the first to hear about when it launches. Here’s a hint: I have a remarkably large penis.
Do you think reality T.V. will ever die?
Depending on how you define it, Reality could be considered the original video format – the first thing people did with movie cameras was aim them at stuff that was already happening. And many of the greatest things ever put on TV have been documentaries, which could also be called Reality. So no, it will never die, and I wouldn’t want it to. My beef is with the falseness of many of the more recent hits (and misses). They set up contrived conflicts, manipulate every aspect of them, and then call them “Real.” As audiences get wise to the tricks (and grow weary of seeing the same ones used over and over again), I have to believe that the current lamentable vogue will fade.
Has anyone working in reality television told you what they thought since the book came out?
A few of my wife’s former colleagues have stopped talking to us. I guess that’s a way of telling us what they think.
Has Donald Trump had anything to say about your satire of him in Keep It Real?
Mr. Trump is a man of action, not words. I’m hoping someone will start a Bill Bryan Legal Defense Fund soon – otherwise, my kids are looking at lumps of coal again this Christmas.