It’s October 6, and a crowd of TV enthusiasts has gathered at the Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan to hear “Outside the Box: Television Masterminds.” The panel, part of The New Yorker Festival, features the creators of some of the edgiest shows discussing the occupational pleasures and hazards of writing for the small screen.
The 400-seat auditorium is sold out, each red velour seat occupied by the kind of audience member that only New York can attract. There are brassy matrons with Upper East Side accents wearing garishly patterned blouses and bright lipstick, and pale, thin 20- something guys with wild mops of hair and retro T-shirts – apparently the cultivated look of aspiring screenwriters. And there’s a smattering of vaguely familiar actors, including Sex and the City’s Stanford Blatch, Carrie’s best guy friend, with a real-life coterie of four gal pals.
The empty stage projects the pretentious vibe of James Lipton’s Inside the Actors Studio: black floor, black walls, tables with black tablecloths, even black director’s chairs – the entire mise en scène as dark as a blank TV screen. Then, like a set flicked on, a colourful gaggle of writers and producers enter and take their seats. The panel is stacked with HBOers, who exist on the frontier or hinterland of the TV world, depending on your viewpoint. There’s Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds – the show about the travails of a suburban mom who doubles as a pot dealer. (“Jenji,” snickers a nearby 20-something guy. “Like, ganja.”) David Milch, a dissipated-looking character in a rumpled brown blazer, is the panel’s provocateur and the swaggering renegade writer behind HBO’s Deadwood. Outer-space guru Ronald D. Moore developed a version of Battlestar Galactica for the Sci Fi Channel, and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon pens the HBO crime drama The Wire.
Sandwiched in the middle is David Shore (LLB 1982), a U of T Faculty of Law grad and the lone representative of the TV networks. Shore is the Emmy Award-winning writer, creator and executive producer of House – the Fox medical drama featuring the misanthropic Dr. Gregory House, a brilliant diagnostician who thrives on solving the most baffling medical puzzles. Shore looks like conservative Network TV Guy with his sharply pressed dark suit, polished black shoes, distinguished grey hair and self-confident demeanour. He takes a little good-natured ribbing from Kohan of Weeds, who jokes that The New Yorker bought Shore the expensive seat on the plane, while forking out less for her ilk. (House fetches 18-19 million viewers per episode, while Weeds weighs in at less than one million.) But when Shore recounts a story about an earlier writing gig, he displays an unconventional, subversive bite not usually associated with network types. “When I was writing for Law & Order, someone asked me, ‘How come they always arrest and convict the bad guys?’ I said, ‘They don’t.’ He said, ‘Name three [episodes].’ I went back and counted three. They were all the ones I wrote.”
The conversation winds its way to the issue of network control – how much say executives have over writers’ scripts – and the agenda of networks versus cable. Battlestar Galactica’s Moore maintains that “cable pushes me to go further, networks reined me in.” Deadwood’s Milch argues that “the network is selling Massengill douches” and, clearly an advocate for no one, later adds, “Cable is selling ‘It ain’t TV – it’s HBO.’” Shore counters that network execs exert little control over House, and freedom comes partially from viewer numbers. He points to an episode in which Dr. House gives the hospital administrator, Dr. Cuddy, an injection in her, ahem, posterior. They clearly couldn’t show a rear view, but they could be a little cheeky from the side. “When you’re getting a 19 share,” he jokes, “it’s OK to show more ass.”
David Shore and Hugh Laurie on the set of House
Later Shore adds that network control “tends to be about nudity and words – not about politics, not about the stance the character takes.” Good thing, given that House, played by Hugh Laurie, is possibly one of the most contentious characters that network TV has ever seen. A Vicodin-addicted malcontent, House walks with a limp (his cane is painted with flames, he says, to “make me look like I’m going faster”) yet metaphorically dances on the edge of a surgical blade. He can diagnose the most confounding conditions (29-year-old woman suffering from seizures? Have you considered the ham in her fridge? Tapeworm in the brain, anyone?). His methods, however, range from unorthodox to overtly illegal, such as sending hapless employees to break into patients’ homes to find clues to their illnesses. House holes up in his office to avoid dealing with all of humanity – he believes patients always lie but symptoms never do – yet emerges long enough to alienate roomfuls of people, smiting them with acerbic lines that would send lawsuits flying onto lesser men. (He orders a Mormon doctor to stay away from a patient, or the patient will “start singing Osmond songs and proposing to five nurses at once” and tells a female colleague that her hair colour makes her “look like a hooker. I like it.”)
‘‘I like to think that he is a bigger asshole than I am. I like to think that I’m not an asshole,” quips Shore, 48, over breakfast at Bryant Park Hotel’s Koi Restaurant the next morning. Shore doesn’t look like Network Guy anymore. He looks more approachable, like a hip, laid-back writer, with youthful looks, tousled hair and dark brown eyes suffering slightly from the shadows one possesses at ungodly Sunday morning hours. He’s sporting topnotch Nike sneakers – a Dr. House trademark and Laurie’s gift to the staff during the third season’s wrap. “And House is smarter than I am, which allows him to get away with stuff. If he was of average intelligence with that same attitude and if he was wrong 50 per cent of the time, he would just never be tolerated. The only reason he’s tolerated is because he’s right, invariably. I don’t think I fall into that category. But his attitudes, his outlook toward the intellect versus emotions, his outlook toward almost everything comes from me.”
In 2004, Shore and executive producers Katie Jacobs and Paul Attanasio pitched House to Fox as a medical detective show, a hospital whodunit in which doctors sleuth their way through symptoms until they find the medical culprit. It was after the show was sold that the idea of a human touch – House – was added. His name is a twist on the granddaddy of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes. Shore found inspiration in Holmes’ cold analysis, his search for an objective truth and his fascination with puzzles – “although he was kinder than House,” says Shore. The writings of the late Berton Roueché, The New Yorker staff writer who chronicled intriguing medical cases in a gumshoe style, inspired the plots for some of the show’s early episodes.
House writers consult regularly with physicians to ensure accuracy, and Laurie, who hails from Britain, takes great pains to deliver tongue-twisting terminology with an impeccable American accent. (“He does a great job with it…but as he says, he’s playing tennis with a salmon instead of a tennis racquet,” says Shore. “He’s got to fake an accent and act at the same time. And, it’s tough.”) But unplug the heart monitors, wheel away the gurneys and yank out those IV tubes, and Shore maintains you’ll still find a healthy storyline with general appeal. “In many ways I don’t consider this a medical show…. The things that interest me in the show are the philosophical things. When House goes on, it’s rarely about medicine, it’s about the nature of right and wrong.”
“There is a philosophical bent to the show, an opportunity to speak about life and how to live life,” continues Shore, who is married with three children. “I think good shows always deal with ethical dilemmas and ethical questions. Good dramas are usually about throwing your characters into situations where, do you turn right or do you turn left? And something bad will happen if you turn right and something bad will happen if you turn left – which one’s worse? This show has a lot of these moments, which is a great opportunity, but it also has chances for my personal perspective on the world.” He pauses. “God, that sounds terrible.”
Since debuting in November 2004, House has taken off in the ratings and now holds steady in Nielsen’s top primetime TV shows of the season. For the week of November 5, House ranked number six. In 2005, Shore won an Emmy in the “Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series” category and a 2006 Humanitas Prize, both for his episode “Three Stories,” in which House presents three narratives to a class of medical students, ultimately revealing the story of his own medical struggle.
Shore grew up in London, Ontario, the eldest of three boys. (His younger twin brothers are now rabbis in Israel.) An avid TV watcher, he loved comedies and The Rockford Files detective series. But writing, for any medium, wasn’t a career goal. After studying math for two years at the University of Western Ontario in London, he entered U of T’s Faculty of Law. “I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was 12 years old until the second week of law school,” says Shore. “I didn’t like law school. I liked it socially; it just wasn’t right for me. I made good friends there, but academically I just kind of drifted through.”
What he did enjoy was working on the Faculty of Law’s student newspaper, Hearsay, which he edited with Mark Gray (LLB 1983) and David Hoselton (LLB 1982). (Shore succinctly summed up his take on law school in one issue of Hearsay, writing: “Law school, by design, is not fun. We have the rest of our lives to be boring.”)
“Dave definitely pushed the envelope and still does today,” says Hoselton, who is now a co-producer of House. “When we took the paper over it was called the University of Toronto Law School Newsletter – which was very imaginative. And it was filled with University of Toronto law school news. After changing the name to Hearsay, you can imagine what it was filled with. And we got into a little bit of trouble for trying to make it a little less reverent. It was always about amusing ourselves and taking chances with the material and going as far as we could possibly go with it.”
The newspaper featured plenty of offbeat, often sophomoric, humour – usually lobbed at faculty members and classmates. One “Fun with the Faculty” department invited readers to match profs with their likeliest method of committing murder; open-party announcements included the home addresses of unsuspecting students; and in the “Ask the Daves” column, the editors answered their own fake letters. (Sample question: “Dear Daves: Everyone knows the Chipmunks were Alvin, Theodore and Simon, but what the heck was their manager’s name? You know, the human guy? Dave.” “Dear Dave: Dave.”)
“There was some fallout from the same stuff I get fallout from today – the standards and practices department, which back then was the dean,” says Shore. “If we did anything that was a little off-colour, we would hear about it.” Frank Iacobucci was the dean at the time, but it fell to student liaison and Shore’s close friend Lorne Cameron – now a screenwriter in L.A. – to relay the dean’s directives. Says Shore, “I remember Iacobucci basically asked us to make fewer masturbation jokes. We didn’t get that directly from the dean. In a way, for us, it was more fun that it came from Lorne.” (Indeed, a tongue-in-cheek note from Cameron appears in one issue: “The buck stops here. Thus as vice-president and chief returning officer, I must take full responsibility for Dave Shore’s incompetence. There, I did it. Now leave me alone.”)
Shore also found creative outlets on stage. He hosted the first annual Law School Follies and did standup gigs at clubs such as Yuk Yuks. He entered a comedy contest in his hometown, and his standup skills earned him the title The Third Funniest Person in London. (“One day, hopefully, I can fulfil my dream of working for the first funniest man in London,” jokes Hoselton.)
After completing law school, Shore articled for one year in London, Ontario, and then practised corporate and municipal law for almost five years at a Toronto firm, where he made partner. His friends Cameron and Hoselton had moved to Los Angeles to write movies shortly after bar exams – and the idea of making a similar move was brewing in Shore’s mind. In 1991, he readied to take a leap, with an initial plan to write comedy scripts and possibly do some standup. Shore recalls breaking the news to his law partners. “I announced, ‘I’m leaving in three or four months to go to L.A. to be funny.’ And it got the reaction you’d expect from everybody. They thought I was insane. They said, ‘You’re not that funny.’” Shore negotiated the opportunity to return to the firm if things didn’t work out within two years.
At 31, Shore rented a tiny one-bedroom apartment, one block from Hollywood Boulevard and not far from Mann’s Chinese Theatre. He didn’t take writing classes; instead, he read plenty of scripts. His first writing attempt was a film screenplay. “I showed it to my friends who were down there, and then I didn’t show it to anybody else. It wasn’t very good,” he claims. Then he wrote a spec episode of Seinfeld – which his friends did like. He found an agent based on the strength of that and a spec L.A. Law script, and continued to develop his knack for TV writing. And approximately two weeks past his two-year deadline, he was offered a freelance writing gig for the TV show The Untouchables.
A year later, Shore landed his first staff-writing job, on Due South, the comedy-drama that followed Canadian Mountie Benton Fraser (Paul Gross) through his investigative exploits. Shore moved back to Toronto for the show, and in 1996 picked up a Gemini Award for Best Writing in a Dramatic Series for his work. That same year, Shore became head writer on and supervising producer of the Canadian show Traders. He then headed back to L.A. and wrote for some of TV’s biggest hits, including NYPD Blue and the first season of The Practice. After garnering two Emmy nominations in 1998 and 1999 as a producer on Law & Order, he served as executive producer on Family Law and Hack. House came along in 2004, and Shore has been putting caustic lines into his main character’s mouth ever since.
Writing for television is a pressure cooker. Consider, the average film shoots two pages of a 100-page script a day and takes months to complete, while a weekly TV show shoots six to eight pages per day – and wraps up in eight days. The House crew works on multiple episodes at once: while one is being shot and another prepped, writers are completing the next script.
Ninety per cent of Shore’s job is writing – and rewriting. He heads a team of 13 writers, who work individually or in pairs on an episode. Shore meets with them about the stories they’re working on, then provides extensive feedback on their initial outline and first draft. On the second draft, he polishes or rewrites – a process that takes one to four days. Before an episode is shot, Shore walks the director through the script, telling him what each scene is about and the moments he wants to capture. And about half-a-dozen times a day, he’s called to the set to watch a rehearsal and give his input before the shooting takes place. So, even though Shore’s name may not be on the script, it always contains his voice, ensuring the show has a consistent look and feel.
And, of course, the character of House has its own particular challenges – such as creating those outrageous House moments without being gratuitous. “The audience is expecting, ‘What crazy thing is he going to do that’s going to shock me this week?’ And how am I going to shock somebody who’s expecting to be shocked? I’m hiding in the closet about to jump out and yell ‘boo,’ and the audience is standing outside the closet waiting for the door to open. But you’ve got to keep it organic, it’s got to be true to the character. Internally, what I say is, ‘The punishment may not fit the crime, but there’s always a crime. If House is giving somebody crap, there’s a reason he’s giving them crap.’” Otherwise, laughs Shore, “he becomes a jerk as opposed to an interesting jerk.”
Despite the inventive writing in many shows, TV is vilified in a manner that other creative mediums are not. Perhaps it’s because shows get lumped together with the lowest common denominator – if, say, Dancing with the Stars is accruing the highest audience numbers, people tend to link TV with Marie Osmond lurching around in tights. Or, perhaps it’s accessibility that breeds contempt. As Shore says, “It’s a mass medium, and I think there’s a tendency for us to dismiss anything that, ‘oh well, everybody’s enjoying it, it must not be that good. It’s not just for us smart people.’”
Shore recalls a dinner party at his brother’s house, where a guest announced he had sworn off television. “It was a big dinner party, I was just sitting there and nobody knew what I did, and he said, ‘I got rid of my TV. I haven’t watched TV in six months.’ And everybody around the table was like, ‘Good for you! Excellent! Oh God, I know how hard that is!’ It was literally like the guy said he had given up heroin. And I’m sitting at the end of the table, the guy who is outside the schoolyard, going, ‘Hey kid, come here.’”
Despite the analogy to TV writer as dealer, Shore believes that perceptions of TV are changing – partly because it has become so diffuse, with so many channels and shows targeting niche audiences. “I do think television is storytelling. I’m in the storytelling business, and when did that become bad? Why is TV somehow worse than books – OK, because books make you use your imagination. Well, why is TV worse than movies? Why is TV worse than plays? You know, theatre – my God, you’re a playwright, that’s so tremendous. But if it’s something that’s getting filmed, somehow you’re a hack.” And House, with his inherently rebellious nature, offers plenty of fodder for a storyteller. After all, he’s the guy with the chutzpah to say everything you think – and much, much more. Does Shore share some of the same rebelliousness as his fictional creation? “I’m a rebel in the sense that I do look at things and, like anybody does, go, ‘Oh God, give me a break,’” he says. “I am just in a situation where I’ve got a pulpit to actually say ‘give me a break’ to 19 million people.”
Stacey Gibson is the managing editor of U of T Magazine.
Click here to watch a video of David Shore talking about how he came up with the House character