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Writers’ muse still low-tech

'Net still key to research

The adventures of Rob, Buddy and Sally on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” cemented the outsider’s perception of how TV writers work: Pacing around an office, ordering sandwiches and coffee, tossing lines at one another and hurriedly typing and retyping in a mad dash to make each week’s deadline.

So how much have things changed in this era of e-mail, faxes, modems and sundry high-powered data delivery systems?

An informal survey of top TV writers finds that technology hasn’t had much effect on the essence of their craft, whether they pound it out in longhand or on laptops. But e-mail and the Internet have become invaluable tools for research.

“I have doctors sending me story ideas and advising on other things” via e-mail, said Nicholas Wootton, a writing Emmy-winner for “NYPD Blue” who’s now supervising producer of Steven Bochco’s new medical drama “City of Angels.”

The fabled “writers’ room” most certainly still exists, but how often it’s used for group think sessions varies widely from show to show.

“I’m a big fan of the room,” said Steve Levitan, creator of NBC’s “Just Shoot Me” and the upcoming comedy “Stark Raving Mad.” “The funniest ideas often come from someone saying something that gives someone else an idea and it just keeps building on itself.”

Chuck Lorre, co-creator of “Dharma & Greg,” also thrives in the writers’ room, working with groups of four to five plucked from his entire staff of 12.

“It keeps us more consistent and gives us our special tone to each episode,” said Lorre.

An assistant takes the dictation down into a central computer, while the individual writers can watch the script’s progress on their own individual computer screens.

“I was originally taught to write the way it’s done on most shows, where writers work on a script for two weeks, and then the exec producer throws it out and starts all over again and everyone’s heart is broken,” said Lorre, who also created the sitcoms “Cybill” and “Grace Under Fire.”

On the question of writing longhand versus punching a keyboard, Lorre quips, “I don’t even know how to hold a pencil anymore.”

Early start

Like many of his ink-stained brethren, “Just Shoot Me’s” Levitan said he does his best solo work by getting into the office in the early ayem, especially now that he has three kids at home.

“I like to get into the office before anyone else does, before the phones start ringing — that’s the most productive time when you’re doing pure writing,” Levitan said.

For sure, most scribes agree that the telephone is the most devilish distraction — next to network and studio execs.

“I ripped the phone jacks out of the wall in my office so I can’t receive any calls in that portion of the house,” said Chris Brancato, creator of the Sci-Fi Channel’s “First Wave,” whose earlier writing credits range from “The X-Files” to “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

But when instant communication is vital, e-mail has been a godsend for hyphenates like Brancato, who divides his time between Vancouver, where the show is shot, and the Hollywood apartment that houses his lean, cable TV budget-sized writing staff of four.

Same as it ever was

Even in its austere conditions, “First Wave,” which has a three-season, 66-seg commitment from Sci-Fi, operates like many other shows. When it’s time to start a season or move the show in a new direction, Brancato and the writing team huddle to “break” a story, a brainstorming process that begins with fleshing out the basic concept and outline of an episode or story arc. Eventually, all of the visual elements are broken down into “beats,” essentially a scene-by-scene blueprint of the seg.

From there, on many shows, it’s time to divide and conquer. Writers divvy up the episodes and set off to create the first of many drafts of a teleplay, usually over a two-to-three-week period in series TV. More often than not, showrunners say, writers work “off campus” — away from the production offices — when they’re attacking a specific script.

“You have to fight against writing by committee,” said Maria Semple, exec producer on “Suddenly Susan,” which is undergoing an overhaul in its make-or-break fourth season. This season, “Susan” has a writing staff of eight, not including freelancers.

“It’s the death knell of creativity when people say, ‘Let’s just knock this out in the room,’ ” adds Semple’s exec producer partner Mark Driscoll, an Emmy winner last year for the famed coming-out episode of “Ellen.”

Writing habits

Barbara Hall, an exec producer of CBS’ new drama “Judging Amy,” said her writing habits have changed dramatically since she became a showrunner.

“I used to write on regular business hours, but now it has to be nights and weekends because I’m doing everything else in the world at the office,” said Hall, an alum of “Northern Exposure” and “Chicago Hope.”

Not surprisingly, many scribes have favorite hideaway and getaway spots to escape to when it’s time to hammer down.

“When I was on ‘Homicide,’ I lived in Baltimore and I had a lucky room in a nearby hotel,” said Henry Bromell, a veteran TV scribe who’s now supervising a staff of seven writers as an exec producer on “Chicago Hope.”

“The only way to get writing done is to get out of the office, where there are 8 million distractions. Sometimes I’ll just go to a coffee shop that nobody knows about and sit there surrounded by truck drivers,” said Bromell, who also has an indie pic, “Panic,” being readied for release, and a novel due out from Knopf next year.

For Les Firestein, an exec producer of the upcoming NBC sitcom “The Mike O’Malley Show” and an alum of “Drew Carey” and “The PJs,” sometimes the ticket to inspiration is a “good sweaty hike” in the Hollywood Hills near his home.

“The only problem is, if I come up with stuff and I don’t have a pen on me, I wind up scratching ideas into my arm,” Firestein said.

Distraction, procrastination

While such self-mutilation is hardly the norm, writing is a messy business for many.

“No matter where I write, in a very short period of time it starts to look like my dorm room in college,” said writer-producer Aaron Sorkin, who is dividing his time next season between “Sports Night” and the new NBC drama “The West Wing.”

Judd Apatow, exec producer of NBC’s upcoming “Freaks and Geeks,” rents a small office above a pizzeria near his home in the Pacific Palisades. Trying to work at home while his 1-1/2-year-old daughter is around “gives me too many excuses not to write,” he said.

Apatow and others say procrastination is the Achilles’ heel of many successful writers.

“Procrastination is a symptom of the perfectionist. When you sit down at the computer, you know you’ll have to judge yourself as soon as you type anything. One way to avoid that is not to write,” said Apatow, a veteran of “The Larry Sanders Show” and the co-creator of “The Ben Stiller Show.”

“The advice I give to every writer is to just write like crazy,” Apatow said. “Don’t worry if it’s good or bad, just get something down.”

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