Michael Lee Simpson
PROFILE OF TV WRITER & AUTHOR HAL ACKERMAN (PART 2)
Part 2 in the series about Hal Hackerman.
Which TV shows now do you think grip the viewer best nowadays?
I never try to impose my tastes on anybody else, but the ones that have touched me most lately—I mean, of course, The Wire and The Sopranos, which are not current anymore, I think changed the whole tide of television and gave creative people the creative control that movies still have not done. That has allowed the possibility of great shows, and instead of putting them in the network executives’ hands, the hands of the creative people who had to be trusted. I loved Better Call Saul. One of my favorite screenwriters at UCLA, whose name is now Marion Dayre, was one of the writers. She’s now been named head writer of a new show called Echo. The Crown I think is just this stupendous piece of work. The Queen’s Gambit I thought was really terrific, The Kominsky Method, Fleabag—those are definitely among my very big favorites.
Can you talk about the structure of sitcoms and how they’ve evolved over the years?
Well, the basic thing about sitcoms has never changed and that is they have to be funny. If they aren’t, you don’t have a sitcom. As situations and as the world changes and levels of sophistication change, of course the content within sitcoms is going to change, even if they’re behind the times a bit. Obviously, the family changed the way in which sitcoms thought of themselves. As far as structure, what’s changed that the most is the plethora of new platforms that are available, the absence of the necessity of commercials, and breaks. The fact that an entire series can be dropped at one time rather than having to wait. Those changes, which are very important, I shouldn’t say they’re only business changes because they do change the way in which audiences approach a story. If an audience can go down an entire series in one sitting, the way in which they are written is going to have to change a little bit. You can’t write with the mindset of a writer, “Well, they’re going to have to wait a whole week and they’re only going to get one shot at being able to see this unless they wait until summer when the reruns would come.” What is permissible—in fact, what is almost demanded—is a new level of relevance. Of course, the permissible language can sometimes get a little bit out of hand, but being able to deal with social issues that affect society, I think, manifest themselves in comedies as well as in what we call “serious drama.” I thank Norman Lear for that, All in the Family was the changing factor for what is allowed. You still have Seinfeld. The structure of Seinfeld was really, really interesting. They had three and four storylines that were woven through every single episode. That’s not easy. Curb Your Enthusiasm has a lot of that. Larry David’s personality manifests itself through the George character pretty much, he’s still a cranky guy, but the things that can be said on that show probably go beyond what was allowable on Seinfeld, but the structure still has three and four stories that wind their way through. He’s quite masterful at creating all that stuff. But at the core of it, you have to be funny. If people aren’t laughing, the show is not going to last too long. There have been over the years some really strong comedies, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and way back to I Love Lucy. The core of it all is putting characters into comedic situations, making characters be the underdogs, trying to succeed and being defeated in comedic ways and having the comic outlook and the comic voice and the comic way of looking at the universe. That’s always going to be at the core of things no matter what changes.
What do you foresee in the next twenty years for film/TV?
Wow. Well, I think that whatever anybody thinks is only based on what has happened. I think that almost always the thing that changes everything are things that don’t follow the norm. I remember reading a biography of Steve Jobs which was a really, really wonderful book. In the book, he was asked what he thought about the idea of having focus groups and really derided the whole idea of focus groups. He said, “People only know what they have known.” He said that when Henry Ford was asked a similar question about transportation, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” In a kind of way, that’s the limitation that most people have because until a visionary comes, all people can know is what they already know. Whether it’s sports or the stock market, the future of the world or the future of television, there’s going to be something right now that doesn’t yet exist. That’s going to change everything. I mean, who ten years ago could have envisioned streaming? They were still talking about DVD rights. I truly don’t know. I would not even begin to try to venture a guess about what it’s going to be. I wish I had that information, then you and I would both be rich because we would make sure we bought stock in it or created it before it happened. The one thing that’s true from the beginning, when people sat around campfires talking about battles or talking about the hunt for meat, the notion of telling stories has been part of the human experience all of those thousands of years. I think that platforms might change in the ways of communicating and telling those stories might change. The one constant is that we’re going to want to tell stories, we’re going to want to hear what happens. We’re going to want to be entertained, surprised and delighted and taken out of our own small world and brought into worlds we can only imagine, or can’t even imagine.
We need storytellers, people who can imagine things outside of our own lives to tell those stories to us so that we can sit and listen to them. It’s a blessing to have the people who are going to be reading this magazine because those people are the people who are the imaginers, are the people that take the civilians to places that they can only think about, can only read about, hear songs about, watch on TV and movies about. I think that we do a hell of a good service to humanity.
-Creative Screenwriting Magazine