TV writer talks “Breaking Bad,” writers strike and the toxicity of the “auteur genius showrunner”

To describe Patty Lin’s TV writing resume as enviable undersells her achievement. Within the space of a decade, she’d racked up a list of credits that includes some of the biggest titles of TV’s golden age, including “Freaks and Geeks,”Desperate Housewives,” “Breaking Bad” and The One She Refers To as the “F” bomb, “Friends.

In case the title of her recently released memoir “End Credits: How I Broke Up with Hollywood” isn’t sufficient enough of a hint, most of those writers’ rooms were tough to bear for an Asian woman who was frequently the only non-white person on staff.

Not all of her experiences were negative. “Freaks and Geeks” fans will be relieved to know that she has nothing but admiration for its creator Paul Feig and producer Judd Apatow. Other bosses she names in the book do not come off nearly as well for an array of reasons. (You may or may not be shocked to hear that “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, for example, was a challenging, or that James Cromwell is . . . a bit particular.)

Despite these surface details, and early coverage slinging dish about say, a youthful crush on Jason Segel or how tough it was to join the “Friends” writing staff long after the blush was off that rose, the soul of “End Credits” champions the single most undervalued commodity in all of showbusiness: respect.

Lin’s book was released on Day 120 of the Writers Guild of America strike, which surpassed the 100 days of the 2007-2008 strike on Aug. 9. (Salon’s unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.) Lin walked the picket line with her fellow WGA union scribes back then. Now she’s been out of the industry for 15 years, spending the time between then and today recovering from punishing work schedules and ruthless bouts of being strung along by, among other things, sewing.

“The job ended up kind of killing that creative spark in me, so I had to actively find ways to reignite it because it had been so stamped out by the business of Hollywood,” Lin explained in a recent Zoom interview, adding that eventually she was able to enjoy writing again. “But that took a lot of work, you know. It took a lot of therapy to get to that place.”

In “End Credits” Lin recounts her time in TV writing with the type of candor to which anyone working in a pressured corporate environment can relate — especially people of color. We spoke about those experiences and how they inform her view of the ongoing strike, along with the current state of the industry that seems to be faring far worse than she is.

The following interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

A couple of major themes in the book hit home for me. One is that whole idea of being the only person of color in the room how that relates to imposter syndrome. I don’t think a lot of folks understand what that does to a person, especially if you’re in a demanding creative field where you’re surrounded by people and you have to be on a team. It can be absolutely daunting. 

Yeah. Well, you might be able to relate to this. When you grow up in an environment, a community that is majority white you’re not constantly thinking about, “Oh, I’m a person of color.”  It wasn’t on my mind all the time, it was sort of just the water that I swam in. And the same thing happened when I went into television; I wasn’t thinking about my race. Most of the time, I was just trying to survive. I was just trying to make it as a writer and fit in and do good work, you know.

I definitely thought about more afterwards and especially lately, because there’s been much more awareness of lack of diversity and the sort of imposter syndrome, that that can result from being one of the few people of color. I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself to do a good job. And I honestly don’t know how much of that . .  . I can’t parse out how much of that was this feeling that I had to prove myself because I didn’t look like everybody else. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to parse that out.

And I think that that goes into the larger conversation that you mention it in the book about feeling like the affirmative action hire. You said “It’s a mindf**k” because on the one hand, you got the job placing you in a rarefied position that most others would never be.

On the other hand, you have thoughts like, “Was I hired because of my race and not because of what I can do?”  I wonder about that, especially now where we’re in this time when not only on a national level, there’s a huge push to get affirmative action abolished, but in Hollywood right now . . . many shows that where either written by, created or featuring people of color are being canceled. Or DEI initiatives or teams are being eliminated, or those execs are leaving in force and seemingly of their own volition. What’s it like to see all these conversations going on, and know that you lived them in these forums where you weren’t in front of the camera, but people would recognize the show or the product?

Yeah, the whole diversity hire thing is a tough one. Because, like I said in the book, I believe in affirmative action policy. I think that it’s necessary; things are not going to change unless there are some policies in place to make that change happen. But it’s a deeper cultural issue.

And when I say cultural, I mean the culture of Hollywood. There’s just so many problems with Hollywood that are just so ingrained in the culture that . . . I don’t know how to change that culture.

You know, the last time I worked in Hollywood was 15 years ago. So now I’m looking at it from a consumer’s perspective. And when I watch shows like “Beef,” I’m blown away – I am so happy to see a show like that, that shows many Asian American experiences, from a point of view where it’s not pandering to a white audience, it’s not explaining itself to a white audience, but it’s telling stories that are that are universally relatable, right?

The only way you can get great material like that is if you put it in the hands of the people who lived those experiences. The problem is, the people who are greenlighting projects, generally are mostly not people of color. So when they hear a pitch or they watch a pilot, they’re bringing their own life experience to it, they’re bringing their own lens to it.



Steven Yeun as Danny and Ali Wong as Amy in “Beef” (Andrew Cooper/Netflix)So for them it might not resonate when they see something that is very culturally specific. Or they may have their own idea of what is culturally specific. Like, I pitched a show that was an adaptation of a novel that was written by an Asian American woman, and the whole book was about an Asian American family. All the characters were Asian. And if I were to write that show, if I were to be the creator of that show, I would be writing from the point of view of an Asian person, and I would hope to hire other Asian writers and other Asian people to work on the crew.

And yet, the response that I got in the pitch was essentially, “This doesn’t sound Asian enough to us.” And I was so confused by that reaction, I honestly didn’t know how to address it. And it wasn’t until much later that I sort of reflected back on this and realized that I think the reason they didn’t think that it was Asian enough is because it didn’t fit their stereotype of what an Asian show should look like and what stories Asian people should be telling. So that’s the kind of problem that’s inherent in the system. And I honestly don’t know how to solve that.

This a little bit facetious, but I’m guessing you didn’t plan for this book to come out in the middle of a huge writers’ strike that has now dragged on longer than when you were on the picket line in 2007 and 2008. Another book recently came out by Mo Ryan, “Burn It Down”

I watched your interview with her, by the way, and . . . the whole time I was both shaking my head and nodding because I could relate to so much of it. I just kept wanting to be there with you so I could jump into the conversation. Her book was great, and it shed light on so many of the things that I’ve been thinking about and that we’ve been talking about.

Right. So what this all comes back to, and what we’re talking about, is that this is an industry where it’s so easy to treat people well. It’s so easy!  One of the best examples that you had your experience writing for “Freaks and Geeks” You talked about working with Paul [Feig] and Judd [Apatow] and how that was a great experience all around. Any set could have been like that.

But what I find really interesting about this is that there’s something about the added part of just the trauma of being in these rooms that people don’t quite understand.

Whatever happens with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, that’s probably not going to be solved. Right? Yeah. But it’s all part and parcel of this industry and these demands. So what has it been for you to watch that from the outside?

Well, it’s really disappointing that 15 years after I left, that the writers have to go on strike again. Obviously things have changed a lot in the last 15 years. Streaming has taken over, and that has changed the landscape a lot. It’s changed the day-to-day experience of writers, and I can only imagine how hard it is for them. Because back when I was working in TV, you would go through some really hard times, but then in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “Well, at least I’m making decent money.” And now that’s not the case. Writers are having to take side jobs just to pay their rent, so I feel for them. And also with AI around now, which is not something that we had to deal with in the in the last strike? Oh, boy.

That’s a whole other level of dehumanizing, isn’t it?

Well, yeah. I mean, you’re talking about companies that if they could cut the writer out of this whole process and still get a product that makes money for them, they’ll do it in a heartbeat. They don’t care.

And I know you didn’t specifically ask me about AI. I’m not one of these Luddites that’s like, “Oh, all new technology is bad,” or “Save people’s jobs just for the sake of saving jobs.” But when you’re talking about AI creating scripts, I have a very hard time imagining a day when a script that was created by AI is going to be something that I’m really interested in watching.

And by the way, the way that something like Chat GPT works is it scours all of this previous material to generate something new. And that previous material was written by writers. So they need to be compensated, they need to give consent. It’s a copyright issue. So these are things that we didn’t have to deal with in 2007.

I just feel like the companies need to understand that this great material that makes entertainment marketable, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes from human beings that need to be compensated fairly, that need to work in safe workplace conditions, that need to be treated with respect, essentially. That’s how you get people to create great art.

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” (Ursula Coyote/AMC)This is completely what I’m talking about. I think of those situations that you gave, in your book – those are very specific situations people can relate to just in terms of being treated with respect on an individual level. If that level of respect is not being given to you as an individual, then when there’s larger forces at hand, of course, that disrespect is just going to be kind of amplified.

Let’s discuss another part of this. You wrote for “Desperate Housewives.” You wrote for “Friends.” You wrote for “Breaking Bad,” and you wrote for “Freaks and Geeks,” all of which, in some capacity, have been running in repeats. “Friends” is going to run until the sun burns out, right? And you say in the book that you’re thankful for the residuals. That’s a big discussion topic right now.

Hopefully people understand that you’re also talking about living a writer’s life from a different era in Hollywood, just in terms of your ability to support yourself and to still reap the benefits of your work long after you’ve left. And I think that’s something that people are still struggling to understand. Do you think that that the coverage of strike is enabling people to understand that better?

Possibly, I hope so. I think in general, we live in a gig culture, and that’s why we’re starting to see labor coming together and saying, “We can’t live like this.” As a TV writer you go through long stretches of time where you’re not working, and the residuals are very important to just keep you afloat.

And here’s a hot take for you: There’s been a lot of talk about how, in the streaming era, the seasons now tend to be 10 episodes or something, and it used to be on network television, you would get a season of 22 or 23 episodes, and that was much greater job security for the writers who were on those shows.

And some writers would be on a show like that for years and years and years, and they could send their kids to college on that.  A lot of people are talking about that aspect of it, and I get that.

But when I was a TV writer during that era, I never had that job security, because I worked on shows that got canceled after one season or I was let go. So it’s not a stable, steady job. It just isn’t.

And I’m not saying that it should be. I’m not. There’s been talk about . . . essentially mandating that every show hire a certain number of writers. I don’t know how I feel about that, and here’s why. If you take a showrunner who doesn’t want to have a staff, and you force them to hire a staff, I don’t see that being a good situation for those writers.

I had this experience, kind of, on “Breaking Bad” where the creator was very much, you know, had very much like an auteur kind of attitude. And to be on a staff where you are essentially being sidelined because the showrunner has no interest in training you how to write that show, that is a terrible, terrible experience. Nobody wants to go through that.

So that’s why when I hear, “We should make sure that all these shows have a minimum number of [writers],” it’s just not going to work.

And in terms of shorter seasons — again, now, as a consumer of entertainment, sometimes I’m thrilled that they’re only 10 episodes, because I go, “Wow, they got out before they had to jump the shark.” . . . There is a natural lifespan to every show. And that has to be determined organically. To say, “Yeah, we’re going to do seven seasons of this show,” it just doesn’t make sense.

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This is interesting view, because I’ve been watching the conversations on social media about the mandated minimum staffing roles, and it seems that the pervading wisdom is that that way, newer writers can get in experience. It actually should be more pro diversity.

And I understand your thinking, having read your book. For instance — you didn’t say this name, but I will — I don’t think I’d want to work for Taylor Sheridan. Because if I did, I’m pretty sure I’d just be chilling in an outhouse while he was inside his cabin writing “Yellowstone,” you know what I mean? And I’m using his name because he’s actually said something along the lines of, “I don’t want to be told how many people to bring on to write my show.”

But that’s a unique perspective that you bring in, in that you have this experience now that you’re out saying, I don’t want to be sidelined, not only professionally, but because you had traumatizing work experiences in a number of these situations and that’s not helpful for writers creatively. I wonder if there a happy medium that can be achieved.

Again, I don’t have the solution to this problem, unfortunately. I really wish I did. But all I can say is that there are showrunners out there or creators out there, who are interested in true collaboration. I mean, like, you know, when I worked on “Freaks and Geeks,” Paul and Judd were showrunners who knew that if they opened up the room to collaboration and created an environment where everybody felt like their ideas were welcomed and taken seriously, that they knew that was going to create a better product in the end. So we know that it can be done.

But there are always going to be people who aren’t interested in that. So I don’t know what the solution is, but I know that the solution is not to force those people to bring a staff on, who they are going to then ignore and traumatize and completely rewrite their scripts and not tell them. That’s not going to be good for those writers.

But I do think that this idea of everybody heralding the “auteur genius showrunner,” we’ve got to get rid of that. That sort of worship is part of the toxic culture in Hollywood. I think it makes a great story. It’s very simple and clean, and it’s not as shiny as a story about a bunch of people in a writers room who are all collaborating and making each other feel included. That’s the problem: Hollywood creates stories about itself. And those things just get perpetuated. There are books written about it, right?  You know, “Difficult Men.” Ooh. So yeah, we need to get rid of that sort of hero worship.

Freaks And Geeks

Freaks And Geeks

The cast of “Freaks And Geeks” (Getty Images/Chris Haston/NBC)What are you hoping that people will take away from reading “End Credits”?

I guess what I hope is that they realize that there’s more to life than work and career. You know, we live in such a work-obsessed culture. And I just hope that people will realize that they don’t have to rack up all of these showy, conventional achievements to feel like a worthwhile person or to feel like a creative person. There are just so many different paths to happiness. And when we just focus on that work part of our lives, we’re just missing out on so many other things that can bring joy.

I spent a lot of time with that tunnel vision. And it took a while before I realized I just didn’t want to live that way anymore. So if anything, I just hope people that this book gives them the permission to stop defining themselves by their jobs.

“End Credits: How I Broke Up with Hollywood” by Patty Lin is available now.

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