This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The average TV showrunner has a thousand decisions to make on any given day, from script and costumes to casting and music. Some handle it with grace, others with … well, less than grace. But one thing is certain: If you mess with their lunch, you will get stabbed in the neck with a Sharpie.
Spending 16 hermetic hours a day in a writers room easily qualifies as one of the most stressful jobs in Hollywood. So the arrival of lunch can be the alpha and the omega, the carrot and the stick, its own little holiday wedged in the middle of every day. "Food is very important to these people," says Torrey Speer, a writers production assistant on NBC's Parenthood. "When you mess it up, it kills your soul."
The way it works is pretty simple: The writers production assistant is usually the Keeper of the Binder, a nigh-holy collection of menus from restaurants near and far. Every day, around late morning, the sacred text is brought into the writers room and negotiations begin, often coming down to the midday wire with vetoes, counter-offers and cataloging of special requests. "We would deliberate that as hard as any storyline or joke," says Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, who kept two whiteboards on the writers-room wall, one for ideas and one for menu choices. He even named his production company Where's Lunch.
"I've been on staffs where it's a salad staff," says The Carrie Diaries co-executive producer Henry Alonso Myers. "Then there's the sandwich staff. The worst is when you're on a staff where the preponderance of people resent food." According to Body of Proof co-executive producer Krystal Houghton Ziv, "At any time in a writers room, it seems like there is one person who has a meal that comes in the mail, whether it's for cholesterol or diet or somebody giving up sugar."
When Jane Espenson, a consulting producer on Once Upon a Time, was running the room on the Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, she dared to buck the system … all in the service of getting lunch there on time. "I made the writers order their lunch for the next day," says Espenson, "so there would be no delays and debates that might delay the order on the day of."
Myers remembers rooms where writers got so burnt out on certain restaurants, "people would come in and dramatically rip a menu out of the menu book," and NCIS: Los Angeles co-producer Joe Wilson recalls Survivor-like alliances to ban certain restaurants.
"Writers can be a bit Pavlovian about the whole thing," says Touch co-executive producer Barry O'Brien, who once suggested placing a GPS tracker on the PA so they knew exactly where their food was.
For all of this heightened ridiculousness, there is a real benefit from the daily lunch wars. "How do you create a family spirit on the set and in the writers room?" says Rosenthal. "I found that it was through food." And the Raymond room spared no expense: Special occasions called for having sandwiches shipped from Katz's Deli in Manhattan and deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati's in Chicago. Once a year they'd transform the writers room into a crab shack, with the whole crew swinging hammers at claws from Joe's Stone Crab restaurant in Miami.
According to New Girl creator Liz Meriwether, sharing a meal around one big table can simultaneously engender trust and be productive: "It's the time of day when you're not working directly on anything and you're talking about your life, and everyone gets caught up with each other. Sometimes the best stories can come from those moments in people's lives."
It's also just smart management. "There's that old saying, 'An army runs on its stomach,'" says Robert Hewitt Wolfe, co-executive producer on Syfy's Alphas. "It might sound a little mercenary, but it's a relatively cheap, easy way to build morale. You fill some bellies, and people will happily write even harder."