Review: The Hobbit, Parts 1 & 2
Underground Reading: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

'Writing for Television' by Rod Serling (1972)

Rod_Serling_photo_portrait_1959[The following interview is extracted from The Monster Times (November 30, 1972)] 

Rodman Serling was bom in Syracuse, New York on Christmas day in 1924. He grew up with his older brother Bob in the atmosphere of a quiet suburban town, experiencing a childhood reminiscent of that of the boys in Ray Bradbury's book Something Evil This Way Comes. Rod found something evil soon enough, though... something called prejudice, when he was barred from a non-Jewish high school fraternity. Shortly after this, he discovered the terrifying evils of World War II when he served as a parachute jumper in the Pacific, making over 40 jumps into a very real kind of hell.

In 1945, his father passed away and Rod was forced out of what he remembers as a "safe but dull job" at a small radio station in Cincinnati. For a few weeks Rod tried psychoanalysis in an effort to cope with this pile-up of personal problems. Even though he gave up the sessions, their effect on much of his writing is clearly in evidence....

Rod has several impressive distinctions to his credit. He is the most oft-decorated playwright in the business, having won six Emmys for such works as "Requiem for a Heavyweight", "Patterns", "The Comedian" and other gems from the long lost days of live television drama.

Mr. Serling was also the narrator and executive producer of The Twilight Zone, a fantastically popular series of half hour offbeat dramas. Of the 26 episodes for one of the show's seasons, Rod wrote 21 of them... 11 of them original scripts.

Twilight of the Rod

About Twilight Zone Rod has been quoted as saying: "Toward the end I was writing so much that I felt I had begun to lose my perspective on what was good or bad."

He is now at work on a movie about World War I aviators. "Movies offer several advantages over TV writing," Mr. Serling declares. "For one thing, a writer has more time to prepare and polish his script and can avoid the pressures and compromises imposed by TV. In addition, while TV continues to impose restrictions over the themes that its writers may explore, the motion-picture business has opened-up. You can really say things now in the movies."

This new-found freedom, he believes, was clearly demonstrated in Seven Days in May, for which he prepared the script. The movie was allowed to say some provocative things about extremism and the military. He becomes fervent when talking of the handicaps imposed on writers under the current set-up of TV. These restrictions, he pointed out, are not merely trade matters affecting a few writers. Just what do these restrictions mean to the average writer? He can, for the most part, write only about things that are bland, conventional, safe and completely uncontroversial. Before his script goes before the cameras, the networks, the sponsors, the ad agency men censor it; so that by the time it's seen on the home screen, all the message, all the quality has been squeezed out of it.

As a case in point, Serling was asked to write a play for Playhouse 90 about racial prejudice. He wrote it and was paid. All except one of the sponsors rejected the play. At the moment Serling has grave doubts that it will ever be produced.

Mr. Serling says he isn't allowed to see the scripts of Night Gallery, sit in on the casting sessions or participate in any of the decisions involving the new half-hour episodes due on Sunday nights in September. Although he owns the show, Serling says he hasn't been able to "sell" a script to the series. "They," he maintains, referring to NBC and Universal Studio executives in Hollywood, "apparently want to make it a predictable thing, a formula series."

Serling wants to deal with occult themes in an intelligent, thoughtful way which the networks presume would be unsuitable for their viewers.

Sterling Serling

Rod was considered one of the "whiz kids" of live TV, a coterie of dramatists who often turned out as many as three live dramas a week. When live television drama quietly went the way of steam automobiles and oldtime radio. Rod was forced to make the transition to television series writing. Fortunately, for him and for millions of viewers, the series be came to write and engineer was the Twilight Zone, and it earned him the fanship of hordes of fantasy buffs, in addition to three more Emmys.

One of Rod's quirks is his fear of losing what he has. Recently he made his first parachute jump in over 15 years just to prove to himself that he wasn't getting too old for such activities. He also makes it a point to write something every day for fear that his talent will get rust otherwise. He never slackens his creative pace and is currently at work on several pieces for Night Gallery and a few movie scripts. We might do well to remember that it was Rod Serling who wrote the screen treatment for Planet of the Apes.

He also wrote a script called Doomsday Flight, a controversial story about a bomber who extorts money from an airline by phoning in bomb threats. The film had such impact on network television that a few unbalanced viewers began emulating the tactics of Serling's hero, a turn of events that led some stations to refuse to carry the film. Serling apologized but later rescinded his apology because he felt that he had no responsibility for what he termed "the pathology of idiots."

Rod is by no stretch of the imagination a one-trick magician. In addition to his movie and television scripts, he has also edited and written paperback volumes of the best of his Night Gallery and Twilight Zone episodes. He Is also well known on the lecture circuit and is a frequent talk show guest. And let's not forget the commercials. Those one minute films which expound upon the "virtues of everything, from soup to nuts, from deodorants to detergents. And Rod does most of this while simultaneously attending to his duties as president of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for two years. Whew!

Mr. Serling also has very definite opinions. Here is a sampling:

About Night Gallery

This is going to be the last season for Night Gallery. The show is going to a half hour format like Twilight Zone did. They are, in fact, making it another Twilight Zone which is not what I intended it to be. I am being alienated from the show in that I cannot sell them any scripts for this season.

The first week I worked on the show, I felt that the network was twisting it around from what I had told them I wanted it to be. I intended to go beyond Twilight Zone and expand into a type of show with more than fantasy. I wanted it to have social significance and the networks don't go for this in entertainment shows. They like excitement and action with no time to think it over. That rules out a lot of the occult stuff I had envisioned. I don't think that after Twilight Zone I have to go through this mill again.

On the new trend in sci-fi

I dislike the new trend because of its pessimism. I got that feeling the days I worked on the Planet of the Apes script. The point of view of a lot of the new sci-fi is disaster and the inability of man to conquer his basic destructive self.

I think we have had only a few good science fiction films in past years. Kubrick's 2001 was one of them. Silent Running was another. Also some of the Bradbury pieces. It isn't hard to do good contemporary science fiction with a social point of view if you take the time to do it. Most sci-fi writers are chasing the buck and copying each other. I prefer to do it my way.

This is the Serling formula for science fiction and I think it works well.

What caused the change in Rod Serling from drama writer to cinema writer? 

I think the change in the medium and the audience demands. You don't have any more live TV drama so there is no demand for it. Even the TV movies are just that - movies. Occasionally there is a TV drama special but usually it is a classic revival, not an original piece like "Requiem for a Heavyweight" was. Also the costs of live drama as opposed to to tape or film make a big difference. Producers want to make a whopping good profit. TV live drama is not a profitable medium any more.

Do you like doing commercials?

I like eating. I also like not having to slave over a hot typewriter producing less than my best to make a few dollars. At least the commercials pay well so I can write what I like when I like. I never do one that I don't believe in. I do credit myself with honesty even though I admit commercials are a bit undignified. If people like my voice I feel they should have it. Right?

What is your advice for anxious writers?

For one thing they can be aware of what they have to cope with in television. I learned and it was rough. The censors will butcher the best idea you have and for that reason many dramatists got out of live TV and even TV films.

Legitimate playwrights, you know, have no censors. Also, the market for original stuff is getting smaller. Every series is not new. They are adaptations of old movies and books. Pre-censoring your own stuff cramps your freedom and style. I think new dramatists should look to films or the legitimate theatre first and then feel their way through the industrial briar patch.


This interview first appeared in The Monster Times (November 30, 1972). It has been slightly edited for punctuation, spelling and grammar.