I first heard the term on a chilly Friday night in 1986. I was working on my first television series as a staff writer, a Canadian series called “Adderly” sold to CBS as part of its late night slate.
The practice of American networks buying cheaper Canadian programming is older than some people realize.
We’d been on the air for a few weeks and were doing well; so well that a couple of executives from our American studio partner had come up to hang out and offer input.
We were shooting in the studio we’d built downstairs from our production offices in the old King Street West Massey Ferguson plant. The place was always cold and damp, the crew bundled in jackets and sweaters even under the hot banks of film lights.
I was on set that night because I’d already begun to realize that having a writer close at hand was sometimes helpful and because I’d learned that one of the skills of effective television production was quick and efficient problem solving. I had gotten most of my initial education in these skills from the two very experienced ADs we had on the series.
The execs came back from dinner, had obviously had a few and hung on the fringes kibitzing with the crew as they prepared to shoot the final scene of the night. One of the California guys wondered at our ability and willingness to keep working in the cold. We were like the illegals in LA who’d just grit their teeth and do whatever job was offered without complaint. His partner chuckled and pointed at me.
“They’re Mexicans in sweaters.”
The Crew froze. The AD I was shadowing keyed his walkie and said, “Ten minute break.”
As most of those present wandered to the craft table and coffee urn, he turned to face our Executive Producer and his studio friends, speaking very softly.
“When they come back, somebody’s going to apologize for that. Because if you don’t, I’m leaving and they’re leaving and the entire cast is leaving and nobody will be back on Monday morning.”
Like most of the crew, that AD had worked through a decade of “Runaway” American production during the crazy, tax-credit years of the late 1970’s and 80’s when the mediocre casts of failed American TV series and writers whose lone credit was the premise for a Looney Tunes cartoon starred in and wrote movies made in Canada while far more talented Canadian actors played bit parts – and Canadian writers simply wished somebody would return their calls.
Back then, cinematographers and sound recordists and people with talents at lighting, wardrobe and make-up all took a back seat to those, often far less skilled, who were flown up from Hollywood. To have the opportunity of being close to their crafts, these Canadian artists endured being called “Mexicans in Sweaters” and “Ice Niggers” or “Frostbacks” when they went to LA to try to wring a career out of their hard won secondary credits.
The odd thing about the tax credit years was that the tax credits that defined them had evolved out of an exploding Canadian independent film industry. But instead of lifting all boats on that tide of financing, most of the local ones foundered as the money was sucked up by the siren call of the fabled American market and what you “had to do” to open those doors.
Canadian writers weren’t in large supply before or during the tax credit years. On the first season of “Adderly” I didn’t take pitches, I called every writer I could think of and held mass meetings in the production office, where I pitched the show to them.
The bulk of our early scripts came from guys in LA who were often Canadian by only the most corrupt immigration lawyer’s definition – and I knew we could do better if given the chance.
The writers left those first “Pitch” meetings with big binders containing a bible, some sample scripts and details on the ideas and arenas we wanted to explore. If they had better ideas I wanted to hear them. In order to continue succeeding, the show needed to hear them.
In the words of my Russian Grandfather, “If is better is better. If is no better is no better.”
By Season Two, all of our scripts were written by honest-to-God Canadian writers. And that pool grew as more series came through town. And some of those writers went on to create their own successful shows here and in Hollywood and Australia and New Zealand and England and South Africa.
Our writers gained confidence and experience, realizing they were just as good as (and maybe sometimes even a little better than) the writers who had dominated their trade in the past. And that confidence grew all through the 1980’s and 1990’s. Right up until 1999, when some political bagman blessed with a plumb post on the CRTC decided Canadian drama wasn’t that essential after all.
Many of our good writers left. Others stayed, believing their credits and experience could help recover what had been lost.
And those that stayed and those who graduated into the craft from all the new film schools all struggled against a growing tide that valued the ability to fill out government forms over the ability to conceive and create drama.
Many worked really hard at creating shows that were different and good and definitively Canadian. Shows like “Intelligence” and “Corner Gas” and “Trailer Park Boys” and “Flashpoint”. Television series any writer in this country would be proud to call their own or have had a hand in writing.
But along the way, they saw their efforts compromised and countered by others who felt they knew what was better for Canadian broadcasting. No matter how many times the Writers’ representatives would appear before broadcasting commissions and no matter how many times their predictions on the negative outcomes of changing regulations would come true, they were marginalized and ignored and berated.
And like a lot of peoples who feel marginalized and abused, those writers began to become the “Uppity Ice Niggers”; the ones who weren’t going to just shut up and do what they were told when they instinctively knew there were ways to make something better.
And even as our networks fail and the shows they’ve “sold to American networks” actually sit unscheduled on those Southern shelves and return a pittance for trading away their creative control; the CRTC chooses to believe what truths (or lies) they hear in private over the openly raised voices of those who actually create the programs.
It’s as if the same myths perpetrated to keep waves of immigrant communities from becoming empowered are now being used against writers.
Different eras have seen different signs at the employee entrances of Toronto factories.
And one of the first things the powers that be did to all those people was find derogatory names for them. Niggers. Kikes. Bog Trotters.
When they were not maligned as a group, they were debased individually by malicious gossip, where the physical racism or cultural xenophobia could be justified by what “one of them” or “some of them” were or were doing.
Nobody calls Canadian writers “Mexicans in Sweaters” anymore. Now we’re “complainers” or we’re “difficult” or we’re “snobs”. Like the creeds and nationalities and races before us, it’s easier for some to snigger that somebody thinks they’re Hemingway or Shakespeare or Frank McCourt than to figure out if they, perhaps, just might be.
It’s always easier to be arrogantly dismissive than to engage those who don’t share your world view as possible equals.
I’ve run shows and hired writers in a half dozen countries over the last 25 years. Hundreds of writers. And unlike some of our current successes, many of the shows I ran were pure, unadulterated crap. ‘Cleavage and Dinosaurs’ as I’m wont to describe the formula.
But even if the shows I was working on demanded vivid decapitations, misogyny or ridiculous leaps of logic, I’ve never had a single writer turn me down because they thought they were better than the show.
They turned me down because they were busy, absolutely hated the show or didn’t think they could write a good script for it.
Not one ever gave the least impression the material was beneath them.
That’s because good writers know that nothing is an unworthy subject nor is there a title that might not come in handy on their resume someday.
Good writers also know that what they deliver will never be as good as it could have been if they had more time, or were smarter, or blessed with more talent, or the kids and the dog weren’t being so demanding.
No script is ever happily handed in at deadline. They escape. They thud over the transom heavy with regret. They arrive with apologies and suggestions and calls the next day to ask, always genuinely, “Are they happy?”
And be they HBO Special or run-of-the-mill gun drama, if you’re Canadian the money is exactly the same and rarely, if ever, does the work put you in line for something more prestigious.
Sometimes it feels like there’s a new myth being developed. A myth that we writers are the ones not delivering ideas for popular entertainment to the networks or that we’re the reason some over-hyped shows aren’t breaking through the way their makers have predicted they would.
I know all that’s false because those cool ideas cross my desk every single day and in the past months I’ve seen two picked up by American networks right in the room after failing to get one single return call from a long list of Canadian networks.
For those who don’t like this new breed of “difficult” writers, who seem to be digging in their heels more and demanding better of those outside their writers rooms, I’ve got one thing to say.
It’s gonna get worse for you.
Because of some writers who blog and run discussion groups and facebook pages, and because of a Guild that isn’t afraid to speak truth to power, we’re all talking to each other more than we used to. And we’re discovering how much we’ve been lied to and played and patronized – and betrayed.
Call us “snobs” if you must. Or “The Prawn Sandwich Brigade” or whatever turn of phrase gives you comfort among your peers or secret personal glee. Before we were writers, many of us were “Spaghetti Benders” and “Chinks” and “Wagon Burners” and “Spear-chuckers” and “Rednecks” and “Newfies” and “Chix”.
And remember that in the short recent life of television in this country we’ve always been right about what should have happened and what was best for the industry.
We know that no matter how you want to characterize us, we’ll just keep going and eventually come out on top.
Because we’re the ones who are really trying to tell the stories of this country.
And we know who has to succeed so there can be a happy ending.