Harlan Ellison on Getting Paid

Harlan Ellison being roasted, sometime in 1986. photo by pip lagenta.

Harlan Ellison being roasted, sometime in 1986.

Transcribed from this video, taken from an upcoming documentary called Dreams with Sharp Teeth. Harlan Ellison is a well-known science fiction and fantasy author—you’ll have seen his work on SyFy. His anger about being paid to work kinda echos our own industry’s frustration. Just replace the word “writer” with “designer.” Same difference.

I got a call yesterday from a little film company down here in the valley, and they’re doing the packaging for Warner Brothers on Babylon Five, which I worked on. I did a very long, very interesting on-camera interview about the making of Babylon Five early on. So she calls me and she tells me they’d like to use it on the DVD, and can that be arranged?

And I said, “Absolutely, all you gotta do is pay me,” and she said, “What?” And I said, “You gotta pay me!”

She said, “Well, everybody else is, just, you know, doing it for nothing.”

I said, everybody else may be an asshole, but I’m not.” I said. “By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing? Do you get a paycheck?”

“Well yes—”

I says, “Does your boss get a paycheck? Do you pay the Telecity guy? Do you pay the cameraman? Do you pay the cutters? Do you pay the Teamsters when they schlep your stuff on the trucks? Then how—don’t you pay—would you go to a gas station and ask me to give you free gas? Would you go to the doctor and have him take out your spleen for nothing? How dare you call me and want me to work for nothing!”

“Well, it would be good publi—”

“Lady, tell that to someone a little older than you who has just fallen off the turnip truck. There is no publicity value in my interview being on your DVD. If you sell 2000 of them, it’ll be great. And what are people gonna say? ‘Oooo, I really like the way that guy gave that interview! I wonder if he’s ever written a book? Lemme go and buy the—’”

“There’s no publicity value! The only value for me is if you put money in my hand. Cross my palm with silver, then you can use my essay.”

And she says, “well, alright, thank you,” and she hangs up. I’ll never hear from her.

“They want everything for nothing. They wouldn’t go for five seconds without being paid. And they’ll bitch about how much they’re paid, and want more. I should do a freebie for Warner Brothers? What, is Warner Brothers out with an eye patch and a tin cup on the street? Fuck, no. They always want the writer to work for nothing. And the problem is that there’s too goddamned many writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something. They do it for nothing! Look at me, I’m gonna be noticed! You tell me, are they any less the media whore than am I? I think not, it’s just that nobody’s offered to buy their soul. I sell my soul, but at the highest rates. I don’t take a piss without getting paid for it.”

“I get so angry about this because you’re undercut by all the amateurs. It’s the amateurs who make it tough for the professionals. Because when you act professional, these people are so used to getting it for nothing, to mooching, and to being able to pass off this bullshit, and they don’t even send you a copy of the DVD!

You have to call them and say, “Where’s the DVD?”

And they say, “Well it’s been out, you know you could go to the store and buy it—”

You go to the store and buy it, motherfucker. You send me the goddamned DVD or I’m gonna come to your studios, to your offices, and I’m gonna burn it to the ground, how about that?”

5 thoughts on “Harlan Ellison on Getting Paid

  1. patric king

    thank you, pip. it’s not attributed (i just fixed) because i lost the page it was on shortly after i grabbed it, then never found it again. there was nothing in the image file’s meta-info with your name.

  2. donovan

    Coincidentally, I saw this about 2 years ago before I graduated (while doing research for a scifi project I was illustrating). At the time, I thought it was really harsh.
    Now, post graduation, I think it may not even be harsh enough. It only takes 1 time not getting paid for your work, and you understand completely where he’s coming from.

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