It’s funny. If you look at most of the great television writers and showrunners now, most of the comedy writers at one time had stints on The Simpsons, Seinfeld or Saturday Night Live, while many of the great dramatic writers passed through the writer’s rooms on Sopranos, The X-Files, and … Nash Bridges. More than most industry professions, writing gigs are still based on meritocracy: You have to earn your way up the the ladder, and for many writers, that means starting at the lowest of low.
Sure, there have been plenty of showrunners who got lucky with their first gigs: Joss Whedon started on Roseanne, Jason Katims was on My So-Called Life, and David E. Kelley cut his teeth on L.A. Law. Still others, especially now, start in film (David Benioff) and work their way to television. However, there are quite a few television showrunners and writers who started at the bottom in projects that maybe they wouldn’t be so proud to put on their resumes today.
Here’s a look at the embarrassing very early work of some of the better known television writers today.
Shawn Ryan/Damon Lindelof, Glen Mazzara — I had no idea that Nash Bridges — the silly cop show starring Don Johnson and Cheech Marin that ran on CBS for five years — was responsible for elevating so much talent. Shawn Ryan got his start there, along with Glen Mazzara, who Ryan would take with him to The Shield and would later end up as showrunner for The Walking Dead. Meanwhile, the show was created by Carlton Cuse, who many know as one of the showrunners, along with Damon Lindelof (a staff writer on Nash) of Lost. Before Nash, however, Lindelof was a writer on MTV’s Undressed, a late 90’s/early aughts television that featured early nearly-naked appearances from Christina Hendricks and Katee Sackhoff, among many others.
Vince Gilligan — Vince Gilligan, as most know, was one of the major voices on The X-Files, as well as The Lone Gunmen. But before The X-Files, Gilligan wrote a movie starring Dennis Quaid and Debra Winger called Wilder Palm, a comedy about two brothers who could start fires with their minds. The film holds a 25 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and made a whopping $84,000 at the box office, and one look at the trailer should tell you why (Gilligan’s feature-film follow-up, Home Fries — starring Luke Wilson and Drew Barrymore — wasn’t much better).
J.J. Abrams — Most people know that J.J. Abrams was the creator of Felicity, and the guy who is now directing the next Star Wars, gets enough crap for that. But, before Felicity, J.J. Abrams was a very bad screenwriter behind movies like Taking Care of Business starring Jim Belushi (0% on Rotten Tomatoes), Regarding Henry starring Harrison Ford (44%), Gone Fishin’ starring Danny Glover (4%) and Mel Gibson’s Forever Young (54%, which is very kind), as well as Michael Bay’s Armageddon (39%).
Matthew Weiner — Before creating Mad Men, Weiner was a writer on Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and gained the credibility that would lead to Mad Men as a major writer on Sopranos. But back in the early days of Weiner’s career, Weiner was a staff writer on the not-so-bad The Naked Truth on Fox (starring Tea Leoni) and the animated series Baby Blues, starring Julia Sweeney and Mike O’Malley, which EW described as a “bummer, and a bummer packed with talented actors going to waste.” More than anything, it offers quite a contrast to Weiner’s work on The Sopranos and Mad Men.
Seth MacFarlane — Network television’s king of animated fare (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and the guy behind the 7th highest grossing R-rated movie of all time (Ted) had to pay a fair amount of dues before finding success. MacFarlane started out as a staff writer on Jungle Cubs, a kind of Muppet Babies version of The Jungle Book and The Ace Ventura: Pet Detective TV series, a cartoon based on the movie that ran on CBS in the mid-1990s.
Greg Garcia — Garcia is the creator and writer behind Raising Hope NBC’s Jason Lee comedy, My Name Is Earl, and Yes Dear, quirky comedies known for wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Given how sentimental those sitcoms can often get, it’s not terribly surprising that Garcia got his start on the cheesy 90’s sitcom Family Matters. Garcia also once worked as the board operator on Tony Kornheiser’s radio show. (Fun Fact: Back in his days on My Name is Earl, Garcia also engaged in an ongoing feud with Alec Baldwin, calling him “psychotic”).
Alex Gansa — Gansa, the guy behind Showtime’s Emmy-award winning Homeland, as well as one of the major writers on Fox’s 24, also spent some years on The X-Files. But before that, he was a staff writer on Spenser for Hire, an OK cop show starring Robert Urich that hasn’t held up well at all, and Beauty and the Beast, the terrible CBS drama starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman, recently remade on The CW.
Terence Winter — Terence Winter, the current showrunner and creator of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, was another one of the major contributors to The Sopranos, but before that, Winter bounced around as a staff writer on a series of not very good shows, like Diagnosis Murder and Xena: Warrior Princess (no offense). Perhaps more embarrassing was his first project ever, as a writer on Cosby Mysteries, Bill Cosby’s first post-Cosby Show role (also starring Mos Def) that People magazine called “a flimsy vehicle.”
Graham Yost — Yost has bounced around the industry, getting his first big break as the screenwriter for Speed, although Christian Slater’s Hard Rain a few years later effectively ended his feature writing career. Fortunately, Yost was able to get involved with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks on Band of Brothers and The Pacific (which is why you’ll see so many of those guys show up on Justified). Yost was also a staff writer on Fox’s underappreciated Herman’s Head, but he got his start on Hey Dude, a not terrible show only “embarrassing” because of the wild contrast between the Nickelodeon kid’s programming and the harder-edged work he’s done on the World War II dramas and Justified.
Dan Harmon — Before becoming the genius behind Community and the screenwriter of Monster House, Harmon was the creator of the television network/website Channel 101, which was responsible for — among other things — Computerman starring Jack Black, which looks terrible. On the plus side, he was also the creator of Heat Vision and Jack</i>, a pilot directed by Ben Stiller and starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson that was never picked up, but gained a cult following (honestly, it looks pretty terrible, too).