Thursday, July 30, 2015
The Sitcom Room is where I lock 20 brave souls into “writers’ rooms” for an entire weekend so they can experience for themselves what it’s really like to write for a TV sitcom.
The last time I held this event, we sold out all 20 spaces in one hour.
If you're on my Alert List, we'll let you know 24 hours before the rest of the world the exact date & time that Registration will be open...and Registration will open one hour early just for the people on the Alert List.
Rashad Khan leads off:
In a previous blog post, you mentioned the pilot episode of "The Phil Silvers Show" to your comedy writing class at USC. If you haven't covered this topic before: which OTHER sitcom pilots would you show to anyone as good examples (provided, of course, they were available for viewing)?
I used to say the COSBY pilot but no more. I didn’t necessarily show pilots to the class, just great episodes. The series I chose besides Bilko were THE HONEYMOONERS, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, FAWLTY TOWERS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, and SEINFELD. I didn’t show them any recent pilots since I figured they’d seen them already. MODERN FAMILY is a pretty great pilot though. So is 30 ROCK. And MY NAME IS EARL.
From Jack Terwilliger:
Loved this (DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) exercise. Learned so much from it. Mr. Persky's comments on story structure and character raised a Friday question: is writing for the stage closer to writing for television than for film? It seems as if lots of playwrights write for TV. Maybe that's just where the work is, but I'm wondering if their skills transfer more readily to one medium than the other.
Playwrights write for television because there’s way more money in it. TV tends to be very dialogue-driven. And, I might add, more nuanced and well-written than most features. Hollywood wants comic book blockbusters while television offers sophisticated dramas and comedies that don’t require the Griswolds or Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy.
The irony is in the ‘50s the reverse was true. TV writers all aspired to write for the theatre. That’s where the quality was. Now Broadway means ALADDIN.
Longtime friend of the blog, Howard Hoffman asks:
The DVD experience made me wonder when and why producing/writing/directing credits got moved to the top of the show rather than at the end.
The first credit after the show has to be the director. Or the last credit at the top of the show. If you do the writing and directing credits up front then you can end the show with the showrunner’s card. That’s one reason. Another is that over time front loaded credits just became the standard. VHS won out over Betamax. (I wonder how many readers have no idea what that reference means.)
Glen K. wonders:
If there is a scene where an actor is required to drink or eat something in a large quantity, how is it done if multiple takes are required? Doesn't the actor get full, maybe even sick?
It’s a really good way to get back at actors who are difficult. (Just kidding… sort of) Most times actors will not actually eat much. They’ll push food around the plate or pick at it.
Multiple takes also requires multiple portions of food. If someone is eating a three-pound lobster you need three or four three-pound lobsters. What that sometimes means is a feast for the crew when the show is wrapped.
My heart goes out to actors doing food related commercials. They DO have take big bites of those juicy Big Macs take after take after take. Although, in some cases I think they just spit the food out. In the case of Big Macs that’s probably wise anyway.
And finally, Jon H wants to know:
I've noticed, from attending tapings myself, that a lot of sitcoms now seem to have a lot of prerecorded scenes, a lot of the warmup guy telling the audience to "look at the monitors" for the next scene. Do you find that prerecorded scenes help or hurt a show? Is it hard to get the timing right, in case the audience laughs too long or too short, or can that all be controlled in post-production now?
Here’s how they help a show: The audience doesn’t have to stay there till 2 in the morning. The crew can film outside scenes or scenes with complicated stunts or on sets not visible to the audience. The bad news is those scenes never play all that great on the monitors.
When I direct, if there’s a scene in a car. I’ll preshoot the scene, but for the studio audience, instead of showing that to them, I put two chairs on the set, tell the audience to imagine they’re in a car, and have the actors perform the scene. I don’t film it but I do record the audio. The laughs are always way better when the audience can see the live actors.
What’s your Friday Question or whatever day you want?
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
This is not uncommon.
It’s always tough coming up with names and always fun to send little shout-outs to friends. Or work in inside jokes that only eight people will get.
In one of the Castle novels there’s the PR firm of Levine & Isaacs. I don’t believe I screw anyone over in that one.
Isaacs and I have worked in a lot of friends, acquaintances, and pets into our scripts. In the DANCIN’ HOMER episode of THE SIMPSONS, the minor league announcer (voiced by me) was Dan Hoard who was my broadcast partner in Syracuse in 1988 and is now the voice of the Cincinnati Bengals and U. of Cincinnati Bearcats. The major league announcer was Dave Glass, my partner in Tidewater the following season. Dave Glass also shows up in an episode of AfterMASH.
One of the happiest married couples I know is Bill & Sherry Grand so we used them in a CHEERS episode as a married couple trying to kill each other. Norm’s original boss was Darrell Stabell. Darrell Stabell gave me my first job.
Our tributes are not confined to people. In the movie VOLUNTEERS we needed a name for a Chinese warlord. So we chose Chung Mee, which was a Chinese restaurant in downtown LA that we frequented until health inspectors shut it down.
I’ve mentioned this before but on MASH we were always looking for names since so many patients and military personnel passed in and out of the 4077th. One year we needed four Marines for an episode so named them after the-then California Angels’ infield (Remy, Solita, Chalk, Grich). The following year (season seven) we just went down the Los Angeles Dodgers’ roster. You’ll notice Garvey, Rhoden, Lopes, Cey, etc. By the end of the year we were down to announcers (Scully) and owners (O’Malley).
And then there was the time when we were producing a series. We went down to the stage for a runthrough. One of the regular cast members took exception to a name we had given a guest cast member. “Lana Lewis is a joke name,” he said. “It’s not real. You’re just going for a cheap laugh by using a goofy name.” We nodded then introduced him to our writers’ assistant, Lana Lewis.
Now who’s the asshole?
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
First: some of my observations. Whenever I write a TV script I always visualize the final product on the air. I don’t pictures the actors on the stage with cameras and crew hovering. Imagining the final product helps me think of the characters, not the actors who play them. Doing the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW I realized this was the first time I had ever pictured a script in black-and-white.
I also felt that the tone was very different if I was writing a scene in the Petries’ house vs. the office. At home all of the humor is character-based. The laughs come from attitudes and behavior. At the office, however, because of Buddy and Sally and the nature of what everyone’s job is, there are lots of jokes.
So later in my script, when I had Buddy and Sally in the house, it was like a hybrid.
When Bill Persky said I captured the style and rhythm of the show, that’s what he meant. Especially at the house where writers couldn’t just rely on “jokes” to get their laughs. A home scene can be extremely funny but it requires constructing a situation conducive to comedy. For me, I was careful to make sure everyone had an attitude and a point-of-view. Otherwise, it’s just talking heads firing off one-liners. At the office however, Buddy could take shots at Mel, Sally could rattle off self-deprecating quips, and everyone could chime in with jokes and schtick as if they were pitching for the Alan Brady Show.
Finally, I asked Bill, “If this were just a spec you read on a pile of specs, what would your reaction be?” He said he would call me in, they would either send me out with a revised version of my story, or they would give me another story. So either way I would get an assignment. Now, for me that’s like winning the Triple Crown, an Oscar, and the Espy Courage Award. The number one goal for any spec script is to get you work. Too bad my timing was off by only 50 years.
Bill said that he and his partner, Sam Denoff broke in the same way. They wrote a spec DVD Show. Carl did not like the story but did like their writing. He invited them to come in with ideas. One they pitched was based on a real life experience that happened to Bill. When his child was born there was a mix up at the hospital over flowers. That led to the THAT’S MY BOY?? episode – a genuine classic. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but the payoff produced the longest laugh ever. And that was their FIRST episode. Yikes. You can see it here if you haven't already.
We speculated on how they’d do the show today. I said first of all there would be no Buddy Sorrell. Former Borscht Belt comics no longer exist – except for maybe Billy Crystal. Bill thought today they would have to go diversity for Buddy. I said Sally would become “Amy Schumer.” She wouldn’t be talking about all the losers she dated; she’d be talking about all the losers she slept with. Mel would be openly gay. And there are no primetime variety shows – Alan Brady might be a late night talk show host. Laura would be a working mom. And the Army flashbacks would be in Afghanistan.
For me this experiment has been a huge success. I always wanted to write a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode, and talking to Bill Persky, batting around ideas – for a few precious moments it was like I was in an actual DVD Show story conference. So how cool was that? And my fingers are crossed that Carl Reiner will weigh in at some point and it’ll get even better. I hope it was fun for you guys too (and God forbid educational). My sincere thanks to Bill Persky for his time and wisdom. And to everyone associated with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. You provided a lifelong inspiration, a career path, and more laughs and exploding hormones than an impressionable wise-ass teenager should be allowed to have.
Monday, July 27, 2015
I’m still waiting for Carl Reiner’s reaction. When I receive it I will share it with you immediately, even it means delaying a post where I again plug one of my damn books.
Okay, so first off Bill sent me this email:
Reading the script was like a time machine transporting me back to the 60's; Obviously you capture the rhythm, style and sound of the show and characters, and the jokes were great and in character- you really had Alan cold. As to the story, we probably would have handled it differently. I'd be happy, with or without Carl to have a conversation about it, Another thing that I have thought about, and is clear in what you did, is how innocent we were, and how narrow the boundaries we functioned in- even though we were tough on some issues. I don't know that you could do the Van Dyke Show today without the episode of Rob getting caught watching porn in the office. Just let me know what you would like to do, and I'll be happy to do it. Bill
Is he a mensch or what? I then arranged for a phone conversation, which lasted probably a half an hour.
When I turn in a first draft I EXPECT there will be lines, or jokes, or moments that the powers-that-be will request be changed. But I’ve found that when you’re always second guessing yourself, wondering what will please the showrunner instead of writing what you think is good, you’re going to turn in a tepid draft.
I also should mention I’m much more receptive to doing the notes given by the showrunner because it’s his show. He knows it better than anybody. If he thinks a character wouldn’t say a particular line there’s no debate. He’s right.
Very semi-briefly: This was my thought process on how I broke the story. I thought it would be fun to have Alan Brady be an unwanted houseguest. Selfishly speaking, I wanted to write that character. I think my all-time favorite scene in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was the Alan-Laura scene in COAST TO COAST BIG MOUTH. (If you haven’t seen that episode you really need to. It's on YouTube. Go and come back.)
I created the car accident to establish Millie as a blabbermouth so she would ultimately pose a threat.
I needed a reason for Alan to hide out at Rob’s house. I wanted it to be scandalous but 1960s appropriate. And I wanted it to be a funny situation. So I thought of him being caught with strippers. Still, it needed a comic spin so that’s when I came up with the funeral angle.
Once Alan got to the house I wanted to introduce a flip. The audience would be expecting the obvious – he’s pushy, overbearing, obnoxious. I wanted to do something unexpected and yet plausible. That’s why I structured it that he cooks them dinner, is nice to Ritchie, will sleep on the couch. The twist is Laura sees he left the kitchen a mess and is not a good houseguest at all.
And what seemed like a nice gesture to Ritchie is actually corrupting him and by sleeping in the middle of the house Alan's snoring is keeping everyone awake. I also had Rob explain that Alan must be in real pain having to keep up this facade. So Alan’s niceness is not out of character, it’s a conscious choice.
To make matters worse, Buddy and Sally were summoned the next day. More upheaval and another chance to write Buddy and Sally.
I was building to Laura having to make a tough decision – sacrifice her reputation or throw Alan under the bus? The new car was to help make her feel more guilty. Always make it harder. I personally love constructing stories where characters have to make tough choices. They're relatable predicaments (which is why a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode still connects with viewers decade after decade) and their decisions really help define who they are.
It also tied into the other storyline because Alan knew their car was heavily damaged in the accident. Back in those days it was almost customary for the star to give people cars as a way of thanks. Desi Arnaz used to do that all the time. Producer Danny Arnold would give a writer a car if he had to write a script quickly and didn’t sleep for two days. So Alan Brady giving Laura a car seemed justified to me.
I wanted Alan to have to make a big decision too. Let Laura take the fall or fess up? That's why I had Rob lay out the consequences of Millie thinking their marriage was in trouble.
Would Alan step up and let Laura off the hook? He let her off the hook in COAST TO COAST BIG MOUTH. Judgment call – I thought he would.
Okay, so that was my game plan. Now let's see how much better it can be.
As Bill said in his email, he had problems with the story. He felt the car accident didn’t really pay off. I used it as a device, but he felt I could have done more. I can't argue with that. In fact, he thought it could be expanded into a whole episode.
He said, what if Laura was driving somewhere and Millie was following her? Then the two of them get into an accident and the issue becomes which of them is at fault? Put Rob in the middle. The show becomes about two best friends who have a falling out. Could Ritchie still play with their son? It's simple but universal. Who hasn't had a falling out with a close friend? And again, the star of the show is in the middle of it. Much better than what I had.
Another option is to keep the accident as part of the Alan Brady story but let Alan get involved. Let him have some take on the accident and argument.
Bill said they probably would have let me say that Alan was having an affair. That’s the advantage of working out the story with the writers. As a freelancer I would not have known that. But then again, unless they’ve established that already as part of his character, they would not expect me to know that. Oh, he thought the funeral/stripper angle was funny.
Bill felt I didn’t need the scene in the writers room. Alan could have just barged in on Rob & Laura and announced he was staying for a few days. This would have amped up both Rob & Laura’s reaction and given Rob less time to prepare. It would have been a more fun surprise for the audience too. He’s totally right. If I went in that direction, however, I would like to find an alternative scene in the office. Those office scenes are always fun.
I mentioned to Bill that the character I had the toughest time writing was Rob. Did he and the writers feel that way too? He said, no, not at all. And if I had trouble it’s because I didn’t give him enough to do. Providing him that little physical (choking) routine wasn’t enough. Putting him in the middle of an argument between Laura and Millie would be better. Or, in the Alan story, let Rob be the one to do all the dishes and try to clean up Alan’s mess. As he was saying all this I thought to myself, “Jesus, of course that’s better. Why didn’t I think of that?”
You're never too old to learn.
MORE TOMORROW including his final thoughts on my script and the age of innocence that this series was produced in.
Sunday, July 26, 2015
Some background to put these notes in perspective: We spend hours, maybe even weeks, working on the story. Is it interesting enough? Are the stakes high enough? Where is the fun? What are the emotional beats? Are the emotional beats earned? How can we tell the story in a fresh new way? Can we put in some unexpected twists so it’s not predictable? How do we get out the necessary exposition in a way that’s not dry and boring? How do we service all of the characters? How do we do this while still staying within budget… and time? Every beat is discussed, every motivation.
A draft is written. Then is carefully scrutinized. Can this line be funnier? Does this scene feel too long? Is there a nice flow? Does each actor have enough good things to do in the scene? Are the jokes spread around equally, or is one character primarily asking questions or laying out exposition? Are the payoffs big enough? Is the story easy to track? Is there still a better way of telling this story? Will the actors be happy? Is there any repetition? Is the act break strong enough? Is there enough physical comedy and movement or do we just have talking heads? Is it too predictable or cliched?
And after all of that discussion and polishing when we feel we’ve produced a well-crafted script that satisfies all of those conditions, we send it to the stage… and network… and studio.
And these are the notes we get:
It all rings true - except in the early 60s, I think Ritchie would have said "Hi" instead of "Hey"
Does anybody actually say "brunt" in everyday conversation? To me, it's one of those words that people occasionally write, but sound awkward when spoken informally.
People did not say "My God" in 1965 sitcoms.
Most of America is probably unfamiliar with haggis.
Pretty sure that kaddish would not have been mentioned back then, either.
I also query the insurance rates comments: my recollection is that they didn't go up as promptly or as much back then.
I don't get the line when Alan says to Mel :I don't like it when you speak normally. That doesn’t have the right ring to it.
I never remember Buddy getting off less then a fast 2 or 3 shots at Mel as soon as he appeared. A single shot seems lame for him
"Breaking out of Alcatraz" though time-wise right, is also too detailed a reference.
I think "Canada", rather than Poland seems more from Laura's world.
Do you think they would have used the term exotic dancers instead of strippers?
About the bagel thing, if this is going by 1965 lifestyles, would "plain Bagel" be a term that would be used and did the "goyim" even know about bagels?
The part with Alan making dinner rings untrue.
Wouldn't a motel room be cheaper than a car?
How do you buy a car and have it delivered early in the morning, before you make your bed/couch?
Wouldn't the racket of destroying a kitchen to make french toast wake her up earlier?
Alan Brady never once wrote with the gang.
I think Alan's joke at the end is anachronistic.
One clunky sentence I would change: "She's going to ask for all the things you borrowed back." Would change it to: "She's going to ask you to give back all the things you borrowed."
And my favorite, where they’re actually rewriting jokes:
The dollars left over from the funeral, while a great joke, still seems post-60s. Maybe "I got a bunch of singles from the funeral. I sold autographs during the eulogy." Or "I didn't tip the pallbearers this time." Or "They passed the plate for his favorite charity and I took change."
Now put yourself in the writer's place. Makes you want to order a big drink or write plays, doesn't it?
Tomorrow: Bill Persky. You’ll see the difference.
Saturday, July 25, 2015
For the first time in 2 years, I’m strongly considering holding another Sitcom Room. That’s where I lock 20 brave souls into “writers’ rooms” for an entire weekend so they can experience for themselves what it’s really like to write for a TV sitcom. This is not two days of lectures. It's hands-on experience. And you get to see professional actors perform your work.
I haven’t quite finalized the dates, but most likely it will be in October. It definitely will be in Los Angeles, as always.
If you want me to notify you when I’ve nailed down the dates and the venue (a hotel near LAX), make sure you’re on my Alert List.
was walking through a mall recently and there was a radio station
doing a remote. The disc jockey was in the corner of this store,
sitting in front of a microphone, the station’s call letters on a big
sign above his head. All of the music, commercials, everything else
was back at the station. So it was just this poor schmoe, pleading for
listeners to stop on by. Of course, that’s when he was on the air.
Most of the time he was not. A song or spot or promo was playing so it
was just a poor schmoe sitting alone under a sign. It’s like when
you give your kid a “time out”. A few shoppers crossed back and forth
but no one paid attention. I passed by and a arctic breeze went right
up my sphincter.
In an ideal world remotes would lure more people into the store (for which the station receives a healthy fee up front). It’s kinda like when Jiffy Lube has a grand opening and schedules Greasy the Clown to make a guest appearance so bring all the kids.
Also, the broadcast is supposed to sound more fun to the listeners because it’s unpredictable, the D.J. can interview folks who are there, it’s a big party.
Most of the time no one shows up and the ones who do don’t give a shit. The disc-jockey (thinking it’s a rare chance to be a big celebrity) is pretty much reduced to that crazy guy with a pinwheel hat who talks to himself on the subway.
I’ve gotten roped into a number of these remotes during my checkered radio career. Frequently (i.e. 90% of the time) the equipment doesn’t work, it sounds awful, there’s loud feedback, headphones that don’t work, I never know when my mic is actually on so over songs you hear me saying, “Hello? Is this crap working?” “When I get back to the station I’m going to kill Lenny for setting this damn thing up.” Weather is occasionally an issue. I’ve done outdoor remotes in the rain (“If you’re coming folks would one of you please bring an umbrella?”), the heat, and mostly the wind. All of my commercial copy gets blown onto a freeway.
Usually I’ll have prizes to give away. But they’re always weenie, and I sound so pathetic begging people to drive twenty miles to get free station bumper stickers and kitchen magnets.
The few stragglers that do stop by usually say, “Who are you again?” or tell me how much they hate me or my station. And then they still ask for one of the prizes. “You want this fucking kitchen magnet? Bend over. How about a station ballpoint pen? Let me give you one of those, too.”
I’ve done them in hardware stores, tuxedo rental shops, record stores, a Denny’s, and an exclusive country club. That was fun, telling the thirty-five people in Los Angeles who were even eligible to come on by.
One time when the Dodgers were on XTRA 1150 I co-hosted a pre-game show from a tire store in Torrance. But since it was a day game from the east and we were on west coast time, the show started at 8:00. The store wasn’t even open until 10:00. We sat there alone in the parking lot.
And later that same year we did our broadcast from a car dealership in Anaheim, again set up in the parking lot. The dealer also happened to have his gardener there that day. All the listeners heard for a half an hour was a deafeningly loud leaf blower.
On the other hand -- at least they're LIVE.
They're local. They're unpredictable. All the things that radio used to be before networks, syndicated shows, voice tracking, satellites, simulcasting, and automation took over. Give me a leaf blower over Sean Hannity any day... although that has nothing to do with my views on remotes.
This is a re-post from four years ago.
Friday, July 24, 2015
Klee gets us started.
Do you know if they ever used Nicholas Colasanto's TV directorial expertise in Cheers? I recently watched a Logan's Run episode directed by him.
No. Nick primarily directed one hour dramas. His directing resume is impressive and extensive. BONANZA, HAWAII FIVE-O (the good version), IRONSIDE, COLUMBO, and even THE MISADVENTURES OF SHERIFF LOBO.
I’m sure he also felt he was in good hands with Jimmy Burrows directing all of the CHEERS episodes.
I live in New Jersey and I go to a Video Production School in Maine. My ultimate goal is to write comedy. Does it make more sense to find a crew job on the East Coast while I continue to work on my writing and submit spec scripts?
Absolutely. Take a crew job (or any job) and write at night. The beauty of writing is that all it requires is your time. It’s not like directing where you have to shell out a lot of money to mount a production to direct, or acting where you either have to be hired to practice your craft or attend that classes that cost you money.
J. D. Salinger was one of the soldiers who stormed the beach on D-Day. In his backpack was a few chapters of the book he was writing in his spare time – CATCHER IN THE RYE. A crew job has got to be better that than gig.
Richard is next.
Hey Ken, I loved your book on growing up in the 60s. I found it very relatable even though I grew up in the 80s and 90s.
Would you ever do one on your experiences in the 70s? You've shared a ton of great stories from being in radio and I'm sure you have a ton more.
Maybe at some point. Perhaps if more people bought the ‘60s book I’d be more motivated to write the sequel. Hint hint. You can find it here.
Steve Mc wonders:
When writing a pilot, which has many regular characters (whether a 1 hr drama like Mad Men or a sitcom like The Office), do you submit a separate sheet introducing each character? If so, how much do you write about each?
Do you mean, do we submit them to the network during a pitch? No. We may write a separate profile page on each character for our own use as a way of better defining the character (and it’s a practice I highly recommend), but we don’t submit that… for several reasons.
It’s way more info than the network needs, wants, or can digest. They have sixty pilot projects they’re juggling with. (Each one has a character named Sam -- half are men and half are women.) They want a quick concise definition of the characters, period. The other thing is that if a network does read an entire page they will invariably have notes. “Did she have to attend Stanford?” “Could one of the parents not be Jewish?” etc.
When writing the actual pilot, a lot of writers like to add an introductory page listing all the characters and a brief description of each. We don’t do that. We’ll quickly define each character as he’s introduced in the script. We feel it’s annoying for the reader to have to keep flipping back to the intro page every time someone new is introduced.
For us it’s all about helping the reader visualize and quickly grasp who the character is. We often give prototypes even though we know we’ll never get them. We’ll say “For Sam picture: George Clooney” “For Sam picture: Emma Watson.”
And finally, from Michael:
When actors on hit shows renegotiate their contracts, is it common for them to request some say in their character's story lines? I'm wondering if this could explain how on BIG BANG THEORY, Penny went from unsuccessful actress/incompetent waitress to successful pharmaceutical sales rep practically overnight.
Actors ask for all kinds of things, from creative say to trailers with windows. Whether it’s in their contract or not, actors want a say in where their character is going. Trust me, you do not want to send a character down a path the actor hates. That actor will make your life miserable. Personally, I don’t believe in forcing actors to do things they’re not comfortable with. There may be long discussions where I try to convince an actor to do something, and sometimes they'll come around. But if they vehemently oppose doing something I’m not going to make them regardless of whether I can contractually.
What’s your Friday Question?