Ever heard of J. Michael Straczynski? Well, if you haven’t you should have. Straczynski, (JMS to his fans) has a long history as a writer for print and TV. His CV includes work on the Twilight Zone (syndicated TV series), Captain Power (that toy oriented Saturday morning show), Jake and the Fatman (a little beyond some of the younger PC readers I’d imagine), and Murder, She Wrote. Somewhere in there he found time to create some show called Babylon 5. His many short stories, one anthology, and two fantasy/horror novels have garnered him nominations for Writers Guild, Bram Stoker, Ace and Gemini Awards, the Inkpot Achievement Award from the San Diego Comic Convention and an Emmy for Best Animated Series.
That series (and this is why you should have recognized the name) was The Real Ghostbusters. JMS worked as writer and story editor for RGB during the first network season and some of the subsequent syndicated seasons, before quiting the show after the suits “knocked all the edges off the show”.
The episodes he worked on read like an RGB fan’s top ten episode list.
* “Russian About”
* “Mr. Sandman, Dream Me a Dream”
* “Chicken, He Clucked”
* “The Haunting of Heck House”
* “The Halloween Door”
* “Take Two”
* “No One Comes to Lupusville” (my personal favorite)
* “Citizen Ghost”
* “Ragnarok and Roll”
* “Doctor Doctor”
* ” The Thing in Mrs. Faversham’s Attic”
* “Janine, You’ve Changed” (an episode he regards as a personal favorite)
* the primetime special , “Xmas Marks the Spot”
* and dozens of others
JMS has been online almost as long as he’s been a writer. In fact, he makes it a point to hang out online with the fans of his shows, answering questions and hearing what they have to say. Many an astute fanboy has asked him about his work on RGB and (thank god for industrious webmasters) most of his replies can be found online.
I’ve taken all of his comments regarding RGB and Ghostbusters in general and digested them here. I’ve tried to leave his comments as is, but occasionally they need a little context. Sometimes he’s discussed the same thing a number of times and in such cases I’ve merged his comments. This removes the chronology of his posts, but gives his responses a bit more focus. Therefore, all errors are likely mine.
JMS ON RGB
The Real Ghostbusters…that show was a great deal of fun to work on. I’m pleased that it continues to get mentioned and noticed by people. (And the number of SF people who worked on it is actually quite interesting… Richard Mueller, Michael Reaves, JM DeMatteis, John Shirley, Arthur Byron Cover and others, in addition to the aforementioned David Gerrold.)
[It was the] first opportunity I had to just go nuts and do anything I wanted to do, and the producers stood by me, however nuts I got. It was a show we were all free to go totally gonzo with, and it was a ball, occasional fights with suits notwithstanding. We got away with some amazing stuff. The bunch of episodes I wrote for TRGBs was pretty much the end of my involvement in animation, and I kinda wanted to go out with a bang. It was a hoot, and it’s one of the things I’m still very proud of.
JMS ON WRITING
The advance plotting on the series [Babylon 5] has made the show neither more nor less difficult. It’s mainly just…*different*. In addition to threading the arc through many episodes (sometimes in a big way, sometimes in very small, subtle ways), you’ve often got an A and a B story, plus we’ve got 14 regular and recurring characters (though not all 14 appear in every episode), all of whom have their *own* individual character arcs…and that’s a LOT of balls to keep up in the air at any given moment. What it HAS done is to enrich the texture of all of our individual episodes. You get a) a genuine sense that there are PEOPLE in your story, each with his or her own life, agenda, problems, and b) that these people are GOING somewhere, that there’s a submerged thread that ties them together that is slowly, gradually coming into view.
This is a trick that I’ve learned to do on earlier shows, in different ways. On Captain Power, we had an arc for that series, though less complex than this one…and we learned how to drop in just a reference here or there, continuing the feeling of a spider at the center of the story that, when it moved, caused the whole web to vibrate slightly. Also, on the animated series The Real Ghostbusters, I had to write/story edit on two levels…making sure the show was understandable to non-adults, while at the same time slipping things in that only adults could appreciate. The younger audience wouldn’t get the references, but they’d go by so fast that they wouldn’t notice, and that wouldn’t get in the way of enjoying the story. (And we got REAL obscure…an episode story requiring the presence of a specific small group of eskimos in order to conduct a ritual was explained to someone as “sort of an Inuit minyan.” Probably only five people on the planet caught that one, but hey, why not?)
One thing that tends to be true of TV writing in general, not just my case, is that once you know who’s running and writing the show, you have a fairly good idea of the kind of show you’re going to be getting, because shows tend to be direct outgrowths of the personality of that writer. You can use phrases like “a Chris Carter show,” which calls up one kind of show, or a “Carl Reiner kind of sitcom,” or “a Rod Serling kind of show.” A jms show falls into the same category. I like sharp, witty, in-depth writing; always have, always will. So that can be counted on as a constant.
JMS ON WHY HE LEFT THE SHOW (THE MAN PART 1)
It [RGB] was a great deal of fun to work on, until they messed up Janine, which is why I left. Later, when they realized that had been an error, they asked me to write some more with her pretty much as she had been, and then to fix the continuity error in an episode called “Janine, You’ve Changed.”
The first network season of The Real Ghostbusters, and its only official first-run syndicated season, the show was a monster hit. Major league numbers, #1. Naturally, as soon as that happened, everyone started to try and figure out how to “fix” it. Everyone starts protecting his investment. They want to play it safe. Which inevitably leads to the show getting screwed up, but that never stops them.
So the network brought in consultants, who said that this is a kid’s series, so you have to have *kids* in it (this after steadfastly refusing to diverge from the desire on our part to continue the tradition of the movie, using only adult characters). The Junior Ghostbusters, one of the lamest ideas in TV history. Then they started on Janine…who was much to their dismay a strong female character. They felt that she should be changed to a more warm, nurturing character, that her dry sense of humor was too aggressive, and that she should be made more into a “mommy figure” (to use their terms).
Her clothes, eccentric and personalized, were deemed “slutty,” and had to be replaced by dresses and soft blouses. She should be made more deferential to the male characters. She had to lose the pointed glasses she wore, replacing them instead with round glasses because “sharp objects frighten children.”
Janine was a strong, forceful, independent character who could take care of herself, and you didn’t mess with her. She was sharp, and funny, and just a real kick to write for. This was the kind of character I’d fought to preserve, and it had proven to be a hit…and now they wanted to turn that upside down and turn her into a mommy. Ain’t nothing wrong with mommies. But there’s plenty of mommy-figures in cartoons; why not provide an alternative view…a working career woman who is generally satisfied with her life? Leaving aside the role-model question for the moment, I happen to really, really, *really* love writing strong female characters. I love strong female characters in general. Most of my relationships have been with strong-willed, independent, very bright women. I love it when I’m outsmarted or one-upped; it makes me work harder.
So when they did *this*…I shot back a very loud “Not a chance.” Not on this show. I went to meetings. Got into huge arguments with these so-called consultants. Finally, I said that if they were going to do this, they’d have to do it without my participation; I refused to participate in the lobotomy of that show, or that character. So I resigned. Later, when their new “approach” to the show began to nosedive, I was asked if I’d return. I was then working on [Captain Power], and couldn’t…but agreed to write some episodes on the following conditions: 1) the new story editors were not to so much as *touch* my scripts, or the deal was off; 2) in my unverse the Junior Ghostbusters did not exist, and would not appear in any of my scripts; and 3) I wrote the old Janine, not the “new” Janine, and that was with all of her attitudes intact. They agreed.
I walked off the show when they a) decided to emphasize Slimer, and b) make Janine a “mommie” character rather than the hard-as-nails, sharp, sarcastic person she’d always been. It wasn’t a show I wanted to do anymore.
I’ve actually walked off a *lot* of shows in my time, something I only really realized lately. Walked of The Real Ghostbusters when they softened it down and knocked all the corners off; walked off aptain Power when the toy company got too much control over the stories; zipped off Jake and the Fatman when my exec producers got screwed over (if they went, I went); finally left Murder, She Wrote to do B5. All but the last were over story control/story integrity. My agent is frequently driven to distraction over this. Money doesn’t work to hold me. If it ain’t right, it ain’t right.
As for Janine…the change bothered the hell out of me, to go from a strong, smart, fashion-aware (in a weird way), independent woman…to a mommy-character. And, in time, they kinda realized that I was right, and the consultants were wrong…mainly when the mailbags filled with angry letters from mothers and young girls raising ten kinds of hell.
But by then they didn’t have any solution except just change her without explanation *again*…which is when I chimed in and said, “I can fix this. But you’ve got to let me do this MY way.” They did, and it was done.
I was somewhat disappointed by Ghostbusters II. It took an awful long time to get going, and then just fell back on much of what it had done in the first movie. It made the producers nuts when they got audience responses from lots of people saying that they like the TV series better than the movie, and that the movie was “just for kids.”
One of my favorite moments from that was writing an episode called “Take Two,” in which Hollywood producers come to the guys and say they want to make a movie about the team…so they go to LA, have a little adventure…and the episode ends with actual footage from the first movie…with the result that millions of kids were convinced, totally conVINced, that the series *preceded* the first movie.
It was one of the more wonderfully sick things I’ve done.
JMS ON THE NAME THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS
The “Ghostbusters” story, in brief, is this: Filmation did a live-action kids show with Forrest Tucker (it was really awful) some time before Columbia Pictures/Ivan Reitman did their movie. Both the Filmation series and the projected film were called “Ghostbusters,” a situation that developed when the title failed to show up on a title search. With the film about to be released, Filmation made a considerable stink, and won the rights to a) a lot of cash, and b) the right to do an animated series called Ghostbusters.
And, in time, that’s exactly what was done, much to the chagrin of Columbia/Ivan Reitman. In turn, they decided to do their OWN animated series, and just to pink Filmation, called it “The REAL Ghostbusters.”
JMS ON YOUNGER TEAMS (THE MAN PART 2)
When they did the second season without me, they introduced the odious “Junior Ghostbusters,” and at one point asked me if I’d be willing to write a script using them.
“Only if I get to drive a truck over them,” I replied.
They never asked me again.
[RE: EGB] Dunno…they revived it, I heard about it, they dumbed it up, that’s all I know.
[RE: returning to animated shows] Only if it were my show, top to bottom, and no toy company creative input. In TRGBs we just ignored whatever the toy company wanted.
When I was working with ABC on The Real Ghostbusters, a consulting group came in from one of these groups, to help the network avoid accidental satanic references, and to keep an eye on this stuff. They gave the network execs their breakdown of the signs that a kid was getting into satanism. Some of them (and this is verbatim): “He’s curious. He’s sometimes sad. He’s easily pressured by his peers. He’s into heavy metal rock and roll. He can sometimes be rebellious.” By their lights, those are guaranteed signs of satanism.
JMS TRIVIA AND ANECDOTES
[The RGB episode]”Take Two” ended with actual footage of the movie.
The wonderful part about that episode of TRGBs — and this is something I kinda aimed at while writing it — is that there are now whole bunches of kids out there who are absolutely *convinced* that the animated series came first, THEN the movie based on it.
The only thing better than messing with somebody’s sense of reality is messing with a whole LOTTA people’s sense of reality…
I knew Lorenzo Music while we were doing the show, but not afterward; we never really hung out or anything. He’s a roundish, friendly kind of guy. We always had to separate him from Frank Welker and Maurice LeMarche in the sound studio, because if they were *ever* in close proximity, all kinds of hell would break out.
One day they got into a competition to do celebrity farts… little Doris Day squibs, a George C. Scott roller… we managed to keep it together until Frank let fly with his version of a William Conrad thunderer …which went on and on and on… windows blew out… buttons flew off shirts… and when it finally came to its conclusion, *no one* was able to do *anything* for about twenty minutes. Shut *everything* down. No one could keep a straight face or get a line out. And Frank just sat there, smiling innocently.
All JMS quotes and comments were taken from these posts.