Q&A: TV Writer Ethan T. Berlin

When I told Ethan T. Berlin that I was thinking about interviewing him in a Borat accent, which I thought was a great idea since he used to work on Da Ali G Show, he suggested that I make doing interviews in a Borat accent my new “thing.” Ethan knows his stuff—he’s an Emmy-nominated TV writer who has created and/or produced a few game shows (Bunk, Paid Off) and worked on other shows that defy categorization (Billy On The Street, Crank Yankers, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell). I called him to talk about his upcoming workshop at Good Good (How To Get & Keep Jobs In TV), continuing to make stuff after failure, and how the TV industry is about more than just who you know.

What was your first job in TV and how did you get it?

When I moved to LA, I [got a job] as a video logger, which was a super weird job. I was on a studio lot so when it was done, someone told me I should just walk around with a resume. I did that and I walked into a Comedy Central show called Strip Mall and they were hiring for a production assistant.

There was a woman there who I became friendly with and she gave me a submission packet for The Man Show and said I should submit for it. I was not hired. The producers were the same people who were doing Jimmy Kimmel Live! and they asked me to submit for that show and they did not hire me. Then they interviewed me to be a writer’s assistant and they did not hire me. Then they interviewed me to be a writer’s assistant at Crank Yankers and they did not hire me. Then they interviewed me to be a script coordinator at Crank Yankers and they did not hire me. Then they allowed me to do a writing submission for Crank Yankers, and that was my first writing job.

It seems like rejection is a huge part of the process. Can all of the advice about getting a job in TV be boiled down to “don’t give up”?

People will think, “Oh, this is The Thing. This is the job. This is the show. This is the writing packet that is gonna make my career or get me to the next level.” But none of those are true. It’s not The Thing. You’re gonna have lots of little things and they’re all gonna add up, and the things that you thought were The Thing are going to evaporate and fall apart in your hands. Meanwhile, while you were making That Thing, you met somebody and that person was impressed with you and now they are going to hire you for a show. It is never a straight path or a straight line. You have to continue to do the work, and work is really the only part of the process that you can control.

Ethan T. Berlin picking jokes on TruTV’s Paid Off

Knowing how the industry works—knowing the food chain or domino effect—is a huge part of getting a job in TV. One way to learn how to navigate that is by taking a workshop like yours but are there any other ways that you can speed up the process of learning?

There’s a pill you can take! [laughs] No, I don’t think so, because you’re trying to do two things at once. You’re trying to become a better writer and you’re trying to get to know people. It’s really just about making stuff and sharing it because when you meet people, they’re gonna wanna see what you’ve done. It’s a constant cycle of making stuff and meeting people and it kind of just spreads out like a spider web.

Which TV show about working in TV most accurately depicts what it’s like to have a TV job: 30 Rock or The Larry Sanders Show?

Larry Sanders is pretty accurate, at least on late night shows. Random things will happen and suddenly the content of the show you were making is changing—such-and-such celebrity can’t make it and now you gotta put on this other person and all that work you did goes out the window.

There are a lot of books and blog posts floating around the internet about how to get a job in TV. What makes your workshop better than these books and blog posts?

We’re gonna do actual exercises. We’re gonna run through what a job interview is like for a TV show, which is a very unique event—very different from other job interviews. We’re going to work on helping people figure out what their possible individual projects are to get attention as writers. Also, I failed a ton and fucked up a ton so I will be sharing stories and lessons from years of mistakes that have caused me much suffering with other people, in hopes that they can avoid those same mistakes.

Ethan T. Berlin’s workshop on How to Get & Keep Jobs in TV is happening on Saturday, September 21st. You can enroll right here.

You can also check out info about Good Good’s Diversity Scholarship here.