Friday, July 18, 2014

Catching Up with Janet Iacobuzio (Part 3 of 3)

Nelson Aspen and Janet Iacobuzio talk soaps past
and present, including fun nights watching Dynasty.
Okay, Janet and I are sufficiently wine-fueled, so it's time for the Main Course. A fascinating Insider's look at how Soaps are written. Bon appetit!

In case you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2.

NA: Having worked on so many different shows, you're the perfect person to answer this. How does one show differ from another or is there simply a basic formula for writing Daytime?
JI: The basic formula is this: head writer(s) write the story arc, not so much in advance anymore (they used to write these huge documents which of course no one ever followed, but they wrote 'em. Usually!). They break it down into a "thrust" for a week of air shows. All head writers are different. Some write bullet points, some write the whole thing, basically. This goes to the breakdown writers who then break the beats down to scenes, written in prose form. This doc is usually 18-22 pages, double spaced. Days is a teaser plus seven acts. Every show is a bit different, depending on the commercial structure of the program (figure around 39 minutes of air time, maybe a little less. Used to be 42 or 43). The breakdowns then get noted by production and the network.

Back when there was a Procter & Gamble, we had notes from the execs there as well. Once they are revised, the breakdowns then go to the script writers who write the dialogue from the outlines/breakdowns, 85 pages or so. Then an editor reads all of the scripts, tries to make them all sound like they come from the same brain and adds or removes anything the head writers or producers have told him/her about. These days, 7 scripts a week get written/produced. In the old days, maybe 4 or 5. It's all about saving money now. There were something like 20 shows on the air when I was interning at Edge. There are 4 left.

(Sad Faces!)

NA: Chris Goutman described each show as having its own personality and fan base. Speak to that from your experience on so many different shows.
JI: Soap fans are true blue. There aren't enough of them, but the ones that do exist are usually pretty passionate. Some people used to say things like: "I was an ABC person" or "I was a CBS" person and never mixed, never worried. Everyone I meet, when they hear what I do, either says: "OH, MY GOD! I was a huge General Hospital fan during Luke and Laura!" (Then I tell them I was in high school when Luke did a very bad thing to Laura). Or they say, usually looking like they smell something bad: "OH. I never watch those." And then they ask me about Luke and Laura. Liars!

NA: We've been pals for almost 30 years and now happily back in each other's orbit. Who are some of your other your closest buds from your work in Daytime?
JI: M.K. Weir (nee, Rodden) is one of my best friends. She is now a producer on GH and is the hardest working person in daytime TV. And you can quote me on that. The Cullitons, Richard and Carolyn, I've known forever and are two of my dearest friends. I remember when Carolyn had Kate, her younger daughter. Kate is now a reporter for The New York Post and her older daughter Emily is also a writer who is about to get her PhD. Most of my oldest and closest friends are from the soaps. We were really like a big, old dysfunctional family. And we still are.

NA: Do Daytimers (including writers) get pigeon holed in the genre?
JI: In general, yes. I was unemployed once by choice, once not, and went to LA to try and get work in night time TV. The first time I tried, I was in my 30s. The second, I was 42. I couldn't get arrested. A few people have transitioned. It's not impossible. But it's super hard. It's hard for actors, too - and of course, a lot of people have made the transition but far more have not.

I was shopping an original series and a spec script in LA in 2004. I had an agent, he liked me. He got my stuff to someone at Showtime, someone in development.They liked what they read and called him up and said: "Who is this? I don't know her?" Because of course, they know everyone, so who could this person who wrote something they seem to like possibly be? And then my agent told them my background (which at the time was like almost 20 years of experience, I'm now approaching 30) and suddenly they weren't so interested in meeting me. Interesting.

NA: Dummies! If you could go back and rewrite any storyline you worked on, what would it be?
JI: I wish when I had a little more say in it all, that I'd been a little more aggressive about getting my ideas accepted. You back down because you have to. The turnaround is too close. You can't fight too hard for too long because there is too much to do. There's no hiatus, there's no real stopping the train. I am not in a position now to tell my own stories but I was at one point. I wrote a long term document for AW that I thought was damn good. P&G would not go near it with a hazmat suit. There are many, many stories that I would have told differently if it had been my place to change them, but I tried really hard to enact the vision of whomever was head writing the show I was on while staying true to the characters I loved and personalized every scene I could. By that I mean, I may not know what it's like to be held in a dungeon by my lover's jealous girlfriend, but I sure as hell know what the prisoner feels to be on the end of someone's jealousy and what the captor feels to be so insanely out of their mind with jealousy that you don't even recognize your own behaviors. TMI? (Laughter)

NA: Who were the most fun characters to write for?
JI: SO many. On Another World: Absolutely everyone. I mean that. Mac and Rachel, Sharlene and John, Felicia, Lorna, Jenna and Cass and Donna and Michael and of course, Marley and Vicky and Jake and Ada and Matt and Amanda and Grant ... I mean, come on. That show was amazing.

NA: Don't forget Aunt Liz! (near perfect imitation of Irene Daily:) "Sam Fowler is Mitch Blake's brother!" (More Laughter)
JI: On All My Children, I loved Brooke and Adam. Dixie and Tad. Erica and everyone. The Bianca gay story, as I said, was so great to write. On One Life to Live, I loved the Buchanans and Lords. Dorian was a hoot, obviously. On GH, the Quartermaines. Oh, I could write Edward and Tracy and the lot of them all damn day. As the World Turns had great characters, too. Barbara was delightful to write. Henry. Dr. Bob. Carly and Jack. That was another stellar cast, both times I was there. I can honestly say that the Dear Masha characters were impossible to write for. And not because they only spoke Russian.

NA: We laughed about who we'd be at a "RIP Soap Character Costume Party." Of course, I would be Jo Tourneur circa 1984. Who would you be and why?
JI: I loved Nancy Carr on Edge of Night! Redhead, elegant, superstar. I am nothing like her! I'd probably do better as Ada. I wanted to be Lorna. But that could be because I adored Alicia Coppolla and who wouldn't want to be her...AND Linda Dano's daughter?

NA: You're currently at Days of our Lives. What's fun about that show for you as a writer?
JI: I love that the older characters are woven in all of the time with the new. There is definitely a nod and a caring for the audience to their old favorites. Some of the longer term, super popular people have left and the show has done a really stellar job of adding new characters and storylines pretty seamlessly. There are some great, strong women characters on the show and some great, demonic (and I do not mean possessed by the devil) women characters who I love to get in my days. I like to write the women, clearly. Or the cross dressers, like Cass Winthrop. (laughter)

NA: Days in particular seems to shoot very far in advance and have a lot of writing staff. Is that tough for you?
JI: It can be. But there are people who are much better at continuity than I ever was who are there to help answer any questions you have or track anything you might have missed. The staffs are bigger now, it's true. And there isn't as much meeting in person or collaboration on stories as there used to be. That's just the way it is now - it's streamlined. Script writers were always out of the loop, though. That's not new. I knew an exec who said being a scriptwriter on a soap was like being locked in a dark basement. Once a week, the door would open, they'd throw down the breakdowns and slam the door shut and a week later, they'd open it and you'd throw a finished script back up. It's sort of always been true. But a lot of us are really good at it and the thing we throw back up the stairs is usually pretty special.

NA: What can you tease us with at Days?
JI: I will get in big trouble if I tease anything to anyone. As a matter of fact, my mother is an extremely loyal fan who schedules her day around the air time of the show. No matter what she does, I will not tell her anything before she sees it. And HER friends call her and say: Come on, Janet must have told you what's going to happen to the priest! And she's like: Janet hasn't told me ANYTHING!

NA: Do you watch all the other soaps and which are your faves?
JI: There are so few left!! I'm not watching anything regularly. I used to skim around all of them, but not anymore. My dad's in a nursing home now and they always have GH on at 2 when I go there. A lot of former colleagues of mine write for the show. It's got a very specific style and it's interesting for me to pop in on it and see what's what every once in a while. Honestly, I have big feelings about it - I had gone back there after ATWT and before Days and was thinking I'd found a home but alas, the home had been invaded, so I was escorted out. It's a tough business. It's been incredibly, consistently, amazingly good to me - but it's also broken my heart more than once. So it's hard to watch other shows sometimes. But I am ALWAYS curious what those of us fortunate enough to still be working in the business are doing. BTW, there are many, many, MANY extremely talented writers who are not working now because there just aren't enough shows with enough slots. David Levinson, Lisa Connor, Garin Wolf. These are people who didn't just write for soaps - they invested themselves in it. They're my friends but they're also extremely talented people and I wish they were all still working. It's a sad thing for the business.

NA: Lots of folks think GH is dishonoring its history with its new "instant" family. How important is maintaining a show's legacy?
JI: I think it's very important. I also think you can't only rely on the past. So the best shows integrate history and new stories and characters. I know they try to do that on GH and so does everyone on every other show. Sometimes it works and sometimes it really doesn't. I see some people screaming about GH on line. I also see people talking about how much they love the show. That's called success, I think.

NA: I do love that GH worked in a Ryan's Hope character from decades ago! (Ilene Kristen's "Delia") If you could resurrect a character from a Soap-Gone-By, who would it be?
JI: Did they do that with Ilene? That's a hoot. I also loved Delia. Who's next, Bucky?? Wow. Who would I resurrect? Well, I think the world would be a better place with Felicia Gallant and Cass Winthrop making trouble. And I would love to see Sharlene trying to keep her grandchildren from finding out she turned tricks and had an Alter while she was canning peaches on John's farm. I could go on with this one!

NA: Do you write other things besides soaps?
JI: Not for profit. I have a book idea, I actually have three book ideas. I've written original series scripts. I've never written a screenplay. I am also everyone's go-to editor for anything they have to write, ever. Everyone I know. Everything. I have two stepsons, both in their 20s, both looking for work in two very different industries. I am always helping them craft cover letters and thank-you emails and a thousand other things. I'm a really good editor. I may have liked that job best of all of them. I like working with existing words and moving things around and cutting and pasting. I help my partner edit things for work all the time. I'm always writing, it's just not always the soap.

NA: Do you follow any online soaps?
JI: I wrote for Venice, season 4. They're writing season 5 now. I think it's a great wave of the future. When they figure out how to monetize it, it could take off.

NA: I remember so fondly how addicted we all were to Dynasty. Do any shows grab you like that, these days?
JI: Oh, it is the golden age of series TV now, all of which are serials, all of which could be described as soaps, right? Here's my short (long) list of current and former brilliant shows: Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Orange is the New Black, Nurse Jackie. I happen to think Masters of Sex is amazing. Like, super amazing. I'm completely besotted with it. I'm depressed that Boardwalk Empire is ending. I think it is one of the most beautiful TV series, ever. I was a late-comer to Mad Men but I truly adore it now. My friend M.K. yells at me at least once a week to Netflix Breaking Bad, so I have that on my list. I loved The Good Wife this year.

When I was young, I loved Family. And James at 16. I clearly have a type! I think Shonda Rhinmes is amazingly successful but Scandal drives me a little batty. I loved The West Wing and I know most people won't admit it but The Newsroom totally hooked me in. I was a huge Six Feet Under fan. My spec script was a Six Feet and it remains to this day one of the things I am most proud of writing. And in terms of our old viewing days, Dynasty!!! OH, Dynasty!!! We did so enjoy those nights all together. And I loved thirtysomething, too. I could go on here!

NA: Describe your "Writer's Room." I'm sure it's a far cry from the days when we were in our little apartments with "White Out" and electric typewriters LOL!
JI: Every room I have been in is very different and the make up of every one can be destroyed at any moment. I'm not "in" one now. As a scriptwriter, we just wait at the bottom of the stairs for the breakdowns. But the last one I was in at OLTL was pretty collaborative and we took notes by hand and by computer and on a white board. And sometimes we screamed and stormed out. I think that's how it's supposed to be.

NA: I'm going to have one more Chardonnay. How's the Malbec?
JI: It was very REFRESHING. Just like you! xo

(That was an Inside Joke, ha ha!)

Author's Note: We had such a smashing time together that I completely spaced out and left my credit card behind...the tab unsigned and without a tip for our long-suffering server. I made a hasty return to the scene of the crime later that evening and made amends! It was just like old times. "You are my wayyyy, to Another World!"

Nelson Aspen is a regular contributor to We Love Soaps and popular broadcast journalist around the world. His new book, "My Prime Time" will be released this fall. You may visit him at or follow him on Twitter @nelsonaspen.

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