Clearances: Sucking the Fun out of Life

MCMSunday, March 1, 2009

I wrote this post back in September 2007 for my old blog, and realized I hadn't moved it over. It'll probably be referenced a lot while discussing RollBots this season, and if nothing else, it will give you a bit of insight into how frustrating life was, back during the scripting phase of the show. You can FEEL my sanity coming apart as you read it...

As a show creator, you are given great freedoms to invent elaborate plot lines, character arcs and other devious things to make the audience wet themselves with glee. It's what you're hired to do. And once you get into it, it's actually a lot of fun trying to blow the minds of the other people on the production. It's a wonderful world to be in, except for...

Script Clearances.

Script Clearances are there to protect you in the same way that root canals are there to make your mouth happy. The logic behind them is a bit convoluted, but bears some examination:

You've completed your outline, done your first and second drafts, and now the script is in good enough shape that the Line Producer thinks it's ready to be reviewed for legal concerns. Since you're writing fiction (and thus have no facts to check), the only thing to worry about are lawsuits regarding creative turf-treading. To avoid this, the script is sent off for clearance.

In the Script Clearance dungeon, a thousand little elves are chained to desks and whipped regularly until they Google every single person, place, or thing in your script. What are they looking for? They're trying to figure out if anyone ever used your ideas before you did. If you write "hey turnip-face!" they will search for "turnip-face", and discover that it's the name of a little animated GIF on deviantART. And the elves will then try and decide if there's a good chance that anybody is going to sue you over the use of the word. They will weigh all the evidence, and usually decide you're screwed.

But the elves are also helpful. Rather than just telling you "95% of your ideas aren't going to fly", they send you recommendations for "safe" alternatives, which they dutifully check ahead of time. So rather than "turnip-face", you are told to use "penny-ear". Or instead of "chromotron", you get "fairyhop". "Excalibur" becomes "twinklestick".

How do they come up with these wonderful suggestions that obviously keep the tone and theme of your original work intact against all odds? Well, nobody knows for sure, but it's assumed that the elves are semi-literate inbreds whose constant exposure to unshielded magnetic radiation has distorted their appreciation of reality and made them incapable of assembling any thoughts more complex than a search query.

So the Clearance Report comes back to you after much nail-biting and anxiety, and you discover your cool show about metal and action and mind-blowing tension has been reduced to something that reads like Cinderella enacting Care Bears after being kicked in the head repeatedly with a steel-framed boot. And a little part of you dies.

And you say to the Line Producer, you say: "Please, please let us ignore all these changes. Let's just leave it the way it was and pretend we never asked the elves at all. Can't we do that?"

And the Line Producer, who has just finished his lunch of Kitten McNuggets and virgin blood, sadly informs you that there is no way to ignore the Script Clearance. The Script Clearance is the Word of God.

This is why: let us suppose you wrote a script with a character named Indiana Jones. Let's assume that there's a good reason you're doing this, because otherwise you seem kinda dumb. But this character name somehow slips in, and it survives to second draft, and you've grown attached to it etc etc. Let us suppose that THERE ARE NO ELVES to tell you that Indiana Jones is a bad choice for a character name, and so the show goes into production, airs on TV, and is watched by half the world.

You get sued. You not only get sued, you get sued so badly that a collection agency invents a time machine to go back in time to steal pennies from your piggy bank, to be sure that they leave no stone unturned. You will never work in this town again (whichever town it is) and furthermore, the Line Producer is unemployed and suddenly free to prowl the nighttime streets in search for fresh victims. It's like Old Marty seeing Young Marty wearing inside-out jeans, and Christopher Lloyd crying out in a quavering voice. Those elves are damn important.

Now there's this stuff called Insurance which protects a production against space-time paradoxes, but the Insurance Masters have rules that suggest they won't insure a production that has not had Script Clearance done. But they're nice about it: you can defy the elves and use a term like "turnip-face", and the Insurance Masters will cover you on all names EXCEPT that one, thereby maintaining your creative freedom.

Not that you can really do it, because everyone else on the production is staring at you with wide, fearful eyes, pleading silently for you to just tow the line and help them keep their jobs and houses. So "penny-ear" it is.

There are some other side-issues such as appealing to the Lawyers for permission to ignore the Elves, but as most of you know, the Lawyers charge nearly $9 million per hour, and as such every single question you ask them reduces the number of episodes in the season by 4. It becomes a question of: "Do we want these five principal characters to have these names, or do we want to have any screen time for them to appear in?"

When you experience Script Clearances, you start to realize how amazing it is that anything ever gets made for TV. And yet, it also helps explain what appears to be the creative retardation of the entertainment industry. It's not that they don't have good ideas, it's that they can't get the good ones past the damn Elves.

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