We got a chance to ask Ed Valentine some questions after his latest round of Emmy awards. The guy is a workhorse, with talent to back it up. The fact that he’s also giving of his time and experience makes MFAVN damn lucky to have him as a faculty member. We talked about writing for Sesame Street, winning awards and getting. Things. Done!
Q: Your career is pretty amazing and diverse. You’ve written TV shows and plays and have your hand in puppets (pun intended) as well as teaching. With such diverse interests, how do you ever get any sleep?
A: Ha, how did you guess sleep is a problem? (But it’s one I’m working on.) You know, early on in my career I was told by people in “the biz” that the only way to succeed is to do just one thing and put all my attention into that single, solitary focus. I think the world has changed in just a few years, and some fluidity in interest and ability is a now a strength, not a detriment. Good thing, too, because it seems I’m constitutionally incapable of working on just one thing at a time – or writing for just one age group. (My TV work is mostly for preschool through age 11, but my plays are generally decidedly, um, not for children – and you may be surprised to hear this, but a lot of my puppetry isn’t for kids, either.) I find that one project often informs – or leavens – the others. Today, for example, I finished and turned in a script for MY LITTLE PONY, then went to rehearsal for my new night of one acts. The work for kids is intricate and highly visible, but it won’t be seen for, oh, probably a year or more, with the way animation production goes. The grown-up plays, on the other hand, are going to be in an intimate, 100-seat theater in NYC, but theater by its nature has an immediacy so it’ll reach its audience right away. (Plus, I’ve gotten a lot of creative control there since I’ve chosen directors and had a say in casting and production. That’s rarely the case in TV.) So as you can see, those two events sort of stretch me out – they satisfy different sides of me in different ways. And I can sleep when I’m dead, I guess.
Q: Our readers are always interested in how pros manage their creative lives. Along those lines, do you have representation? And, if yes, do you have support for different kinds of writing or one person “to rule them all”?
A: I do indeed have representation: an agent and a manager. The reasons for that duality are too boring to go into, but in effect my reps work together get my work out into the world. Both my agent and my manager pretty much represent my writing work alone for TV and other media – I don’t have anyone but me speaking for my playwriting or prose work at the moment. It’d be great to have “one [ring] to rule them all” someday, but that’s not where I am at the moment. As I’ve found, though, having representation doesn’t mean I can lie in a hammock and wait for the work to roll in. (I wish!) I still have to stay proactive, engaged, visible (and voluble) – and I still have to generate new work and make sure I do a good enough job that I’m recommended for other work by the people I work for. But I’m especially grateful to my reps for doing stuff I’m not particularly good at: opening doors I wouldn’t know to knock on, and negotiating fees and working out the terms of the contracts. (And when the contacts sometimes run up to – no joke – two hundred pages, I’m really glad to have lawyers in my corner to scour this stuff for me.) Having representation is super helpful in many ways, but it’s not the only way – there are lots of opportunities for self-publication and self-advancement now. In the end, every artist needs to be the CEO of his or her own career. As far as managing time… SVA took over quite a lot of my professional life this year, especially since this was the first year of the thesis class. Luckily, I was co-teaching with brilliant visual artist and splendid human being Jonathon Rosen, and together with Nathan and Joan and Carrie we developed a program of which I’m extremely proud. It was quite a busy year, and I’m glad to move forward to year two with the first year of the program under our collective belts. Visual Narrative is a fantastic program – one of a kind, actually – and I’m so thrilled to be a part of it.
Q: Also along those lines, do you find yourself these days following the money or the art in your career? Tell us you’ve found a wonderful middle-ground and we’ll take you to lunch. Your choice on the restaurant.
A: See, now if I say “wonderful middle ground” it sounds like I’m just angling for a free meal… But it is, for the most part, true! Money vs. art… I don’t think it’s an either / or proposition. I’d put it this way: I’m trying to follow my interests, and find the joy in each project. Whenever possible, which is most of the time, I actively take on projects that spark my interest and give me pleasure in some way (and leave behind the ones that don’t). I’ve sought out shows like SESAME, ODDPARENTS, PONY, and DOC MCSTUFFINS that are visually stunning, narratively inventive, and super funny – and that manage to do some good in the world (inciting laughter is a good in itself, I maintain). The bottom line: whenever possible. I try not to take on projects in which absolutely nothing resonates for me (…and there have been one or two, though I won’t name them here – you can ask me which ones over lunch).
Q: Congratulations on your Emmy win! Was it for a specific show, skit, or for the entire season of Sesame Street? Tell us more about the award and include any dirt, gossip or tall tales around it.
A: Thank you for the kudos! I am very proud to be a part of this particular show. It’s the show that taught me to read in the first place, so to get to write for it is… well, beyond words, actually. The way this award works is that the whole writers’ room is nominated together for our contributions to the entire season, and we win or lose as a group. The funny thing with this is that these are the Creative Arts Daytime Emmys… So the writers for kids and animation stuff are honored not at the ceremony with the celebrities and the mucky-mucks… but rather at a separate ceremony months before. The setup is a little odd, but I take pride in the fact that the work I do is considered workmanlike, in a way – and is thus nominated among other craftspeople and hands-on categories like “Best Set,” “Best Hair” and “Best Lighting on a Daytime Talk Show.” Instead of “artsy” it feels… artisanal, in a way, and I think that’s just as it should be. (There’s a reason “playwright” is spelled with the same last 5 letters as “wheelwright” or “shipwright.”) I can’t tell you about this year’s ceremony, because, alas, I haven’t been able to attend any of the ceremonies in which I won! This year I couldn’t get a flight on short notice. Last year I was running a Sesame Street writing workshop in Delhi, India during that time. The year before I was building and directing a puppet play called “AmericaLand: 50 Plays for 50 States” at the O’Neill Festival of Puppetry. I did attend the one year I was nominated for Oddparents and didn’t win, and I imagine that being there and winning would be more fun – though I did look dashing in an emerald green tux and green cummerbund and tie. My favorite part of the night was when the Muppets presented an award. I’m a huge Muppet fan and whenever they perform live… well, I’m 8 again, and helplessly star-struck. (Yes, even when I’m working on the Sesame set.) No dirt or gossip, I’m afraid, but I could make up a story about how I had a weave-pulling fight with Oprah – would that help? (She won the fight, of course.) Let’s see, what else can I tell you? I can tell you about the award itself: its wings are particularly pointy, and the statuette is exactly the right size for Barbie clothes.
Q: Many of us are familiar with the image of a room full of TV writers hammering out the story. Is that how it works on Sesame Street?
A: The Sesame room works a little differently than other rooms I’ve been in – each room has its own character, quirks and ways of doing things. Since Sesame’s a show with a heavy educational component, there’s a curriculum seminar at the beginning of the writing season in which we all soak up the knowledge of the researchers and producers about the curricular goals for the coming year. Then we talk the shows over together as a group and then formally pitch to our brilliant head writer, Joey Mazzarino (who also plays Murray and other characters on ‘The Street’.) Then we go off and write each episode ourselves, coming together pretty often to hash out problem spots or character needs. So there’s a nice balance of togetherness and solitude, and plenty of time to do your job. It’s probably a little less of what people commonly imagine a writer’s room to be (and less like, say, the room of Fairly OddParents, where more people got their hands in your work more frequently, for better or for worse).
Q: We’re in the middle of the interview so that, of course, means we’re at that point in every story where my plodding plot may put you to sleep. So to keep things interesting…Where do you place awards in your psyche? Is revenge anywhere in there?
A; Oh my God, I’m not asleep, but I hope my answer doesn’t put anyone to sleep. It’s not as juicy as you hoped, perhaps, but I mean this sincerely: I try to look at awards as a mysterious gift from the beyond – one that may or may not be granted for tangled reasons unknown to us mere mortals. Certainly, I’m proud to be part of Sesame Street and delighted that it’s receiving honors – but I find it’s not healthy to place awards in too high a place of importance, or want them too much. There are so many great shows out there and so many great people working in the industry, how can any one be truly THE Best? For me, putting too much emphasis or importance on awards gets in the way of the work. If one cares too much about that stuff, you become a monster. I really don’t want to be a monster. So I try to keep them in perspective. I keep grateful, and glad that they help me do my work and do more of it – and then I just get back to work. Heck, if I wanted to get revenge, I’d get it not by winning an Emmy, but by using the award as a weapon. (The wings are really sharp and pointy, and the heavy base could do some serious damage to a skull if applied at just the right angle.)
Q: Great answer! Where do you place awards in your house?
A: The first two, nicknamed ‘Emmy’ and ‘Clemmy,’ live on top of my writing desk in my living room out of reach of my dog – though they’re currently menaced by a pair of dinosaurs. (See photo.) The third one hasn’t arrived yet. I need a name for her.
I also have little hats that fit on their little heads for the different holidays – Santa hat for Christmas, witch hat for Halloween, and bunny ears for Easter.
Q: What tool could you not work without?
A: Hmmm…. I start each day by writing freehand in an old black-and-white composition notebook, and I like to start writing projects longhand because I think there’s something great about the connection of head to heart to hand to pen to paper… So I like to think that if the grid went out or a comet hit I could still manage to scratch something out by hand… But an actual modern tool that I suppose I COULD live without but would really like NOT to live without is Paolo, my iPad. (Okay, its name isn’t really Paolo, I just made that up). I was a late iPad adopter, and was a bit grumbly since I’d just shelled out money for an iPhone… but once I succumbed to Steve Jobs’ siren song I now use that machine for pretty much everything. I type on it, I read on it, I research on it… I Tweet, blog, Facebook, and run my SVA class on it. And reading / editing PDFs of scripts on an iPad is so, so much better than printing out multiple scripts and lugging them across the country on planes in a canvas bag or briefcase. So it makes my work – not to mention my class – extremely portable. I’ve done work in the Met Museum, at the Cloisters, on the bus, on the subway, on a lounge chair on the High Line – and in midair, in a cramped seat on a 15 hour flight to Bangladesh… This thing really has revolutionized my work habits and my work life. I kinda love it.
Q: When do you do your best writing?
A: For me it’s not exactly a when – like, “I write every day exactly at 5:15 AM, when the birds are singing and the wind is north-by-northwest.” (I wish it were that easy, in fact – I’d just make sure I was at my desk at Magic Hour and voila!) No, for me it’s more of a state of mind: I do my best writing when I’m able to clear away (or block out) duties, chores, taxes, deadlines, responsibilities… all the jabber, so I can hear the things that want to be written down. I wish I were a bit more workmanlike and regimented – so many writers insist that’s the only way to get any work done… but I haven’t been able to quite manage the same-time-every-day-no-matter-what grind / regimen. More often than not, I’m stealing writing out of the jaws of time. I guess I’m working on that too! The next step for me is to write and create more of my own original work and get more of it out into the world – and the only way to make that happen is to give more time to it, no matter when in the day I can make that time.
Thanks for talking to us, Ed! Your work and career are an inspiration.
To see Ed’s work, check out this list: