Saturday, August 15, 2020

Is It Time to Rethink Using Traditional Writers' Rooms?

Traditionally, television shows, especially comedies, were written by groups of (mostly) men in the same room cranking out material. To see this dramatized, check out LAUGHTER ON THE 23RD FLOOR or the classic THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, which inspired me to be a comedy writer (mostly to marry Laura Petrie).

Benefits: YOUR SHOW OF SHOW was a sketch program featuring the genius performer Sid Caesar and had one of the all-time great writing staffs, including Mel Brooks, Neil and his brother Danny Simon, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, and many others.  Woody Allen worked on the follow up series with Sid.  So, bringing together an A-Team of writers to top each other and provide maximum laughs.

But Carl Reiner would go on to write DVDS's entire first season. He eventually got a writing staff and contributors. The characters, situations, and series was put on rails completely by Reiner. 

Downside: The downside of a group of writers in a room and let's call this TABLE BOUND APPROACH: 

1. Lack of a single creative voice. Yes, the head writer and/or show runner is in charge. But you've got a group creation situation.  Are lines being added because they are good or is it that person's 'turn' to get in a joke? 

2. Time killing. How productive is a 50-60 hour work week at any office? These aren't legal briefs where hours spent = $. Spending more time isn't going to make an unfunny person funny. It's okay to camp at an office in your 20s. When you've got a family and other obligations that's a price being paid. 

3. Unhealthy habits. Lack of exercise, food grazing, sitting for hours, irregular sleep. All of these have fallout on personal lives leading to ... less productivity. Mike Reiss in his wonderfully entertaining book Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime of writing for The Simpsons said he gained 30+ pounds in the first few years of that classic series stuck in a room eating crap all day. (Note the triple in his title, btw.)

4. Costs. Offices costs money. Housing and feeding people costs money. Travel in traffic costs time and money. If coronavirus has shown us anything, it's that Zooming works. Less risk of accidents traveling. Less risks of lawsuits over sexual harassments. Less affairs.

5. Politics. Hour after hour with a group of people there'll be office politics. You see many series tank a few seasons in as the person running errands is 'graduated' to the next level as staff writers.  Here's what really matters: FUNNY ON THE PAGE. Don't matter if someone is obnoxious, has body odor, never paid a dime of 'dues' to get there.  Can they deliver? If so, hire them and keep them. If not, don't hire them or replace them. 

The current system rewards folks that can kiss butt, be "pleasant" to be around, and suck up to the bosses. Are those skills consistent with the best writers?  Or are great writers incapable of normal human interaction?

Do these rooms negatively impact persons of color and traditionally marginalized groups? Yep. LGBTQIA marginalized by the process? Just look at the stats on minority participation on television. If they speak up are they "that loud one" or that "pushy one"? Do women face these problems as well?

What about those that are "aging out" of the business. Your career is done at 40 or so unless you've moved up to EP. People remove old credits from resumes or use headshots from 10 years ago... or 20 years ago. I've seen it. Why? Younger writers don't want to be in a room all day with their mom or dad. Of course, young people with zero life experience or skills are exactly the last people you'd want working for you but the current system lets them 'pay their dues' and move up. Good for them to catch breaks but that's inefficient.

6. Creative space. Show up to an office like a regular job and be creative on demand. That's not how creatives work. I have my best ideas swimming, walking, driving, or doing something OTHER than sitting in front of a computer writing. Comedy especially comes to you as your brain processes characters and a situation with conflict that spark comedy. PERFORMING comedy in a room may generate laughs, but doesn't mean that person can WRITE comedy. 

7. Lack of funny TV or films. Very rare these days to see a funny TV show or movie. Why? Whatever we are currently doing isn't working. So, perhaps it's time for a different approach. Yes, The Office and Community are quite funny and did the table approach. What show in the last five years is funny? Not a lot... If you're a top writer, would you rather work from home at your own pace and have a life (or time to write your other material), or go in a bunker for months at a time and never see your friends or family? Assuming you have any. 

So... maybe there's a different strategy.

What approach might it be? Well, Carl Reiner (RIP) showed the path. One person creating and then bringing in others to collaborate. I'm not sure this would work with 24 episode paced regular network TV. But for ten episode seasons on streaming?  It absolutely would.

Here are the steps and some of these could carry over from present practices and I'm dubbing this the ROUND ROBIN APPROACH. It's actually done with animation feature films as I understand from a guy who got paid $100,000 to write jokes for one character. Nice gig!

1. Episode writer would pitch 2 or 3 ideas to the head writer and show runner (may or may not be the same person). One idea is picked. The writer will get credit for that episode. Period. No other writers (and not the show runner!) will get credit for that episode. If they can't deliver an episode, replace them.

2. Writer then does a detailed episode outline. Gets notes from head writer.  Does a revision.

3. Writer goes to script. Writes the episode.

4. Writer sends the script to a staff writer and there's a turntable going on. Each staff writer will do one pass on each script.

5. The staff writing gig can be done ANYWHERE. Need not be in Los Angeles and need not show up to any office. Just take the Final Draft file and do a punch up.

6. Script goes back to the original writer (the one getting credit) and she's got the duty to go through it and adopt whatever improvements work and ignore the rest. The collaborator of the book on the musical version of THE PRODUCERS said Mel Brooks was at his best "10% of the time."  So if the punching up involves 30 or 40 suggestions, if 3 or 4 jokes are solid keepers = great job.  If the writer bats 0.000 a couple times with suggestions, replace them.

7. Turnaround time? Give the staff writer 3-4 days to do a punch up. If it takes them 2 hours, so what? The ONLY issue is: are they funny?  Good suggestions make it funnier.

8.  The original writer goes through the suggestion. Edits and adds. Then hands it off to staff writer #2. That staff writer may be working on her own original script for that season.  A punch up may take two passes and a couple hours for a half-hour script.  But the ORIGINAL WRITER of the episode makes the call how to improve.

9. End of the turntable revisions the script goes to the head writer. If there's a problem, the head writer can go through the various revisions and see if there were good jokes not used and add them. Head writer may have to do more rewriting but does NOT step on the credit. 

10. Process is over. Move to the next script. Complete the season.

Who would hate this?

People who aren't funny. If you can't write jokes and improve the script, you're out. This exposes who is funny on the page and who is not adding anything useful. It's fairly brutal but efficient.

Who would love this?

All writers. More free time and time for family. Get sole credit. Still paid as a staff writer. EVERYONE would want to work on this show and it'd attract the best writers.  Families of writers.  Studios and producers that save money.

Shy people. Don't have to yell and scream in a room or be a performer. That's great for the socially awkward. ADD, Asperger's, irritable bowls, can't move to Los Angeles, or don't want to stay there?  Helping a sick parent in Flyover Country? Burnt out. Feet smell? Bad dental hygiene? Don't play well with others? A misfit toy?

That you? You got the gig if you deliver on the page. 

It's time to rethink the way comedy is being written. This might work. If I get the chance, I'll use it and do a post on how it works out.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

How a Bad Financial Manager Led to a Classic TV Series

Watched a YouTube clip with Roy Clark. He was one of the investors in Delorean along with Johnny Carson. He says he and Carson were in several business ventures together, all of which failed.

The investment counselor to go with was Wayne Rogers -- yes Trapper John from M*A*S*H. Supposedly he began making investments in HS, and that's how he supported himself as a struggling actor when one of his roommates was Peter Falk.

Later Falk's business manager (NOT Rogers) embezzled all his money and left the country. Falk then went to Rogers for help. Rogers got him a TV deal with NBC and invested his money in NorCal wine vineyards -- he was one of the first H'wood people to do that. Smothers Bros/Coppola came later, they may even have been Rogers clients. I know Paul Newman was one. I'd always wondered why WR shows up in so many PN movies (CHL, WUSA, Pocket Money).

Donald Crisp (the coal miner father in How Green/Valley, won an Oscar) was on the board of the Bank of America, who decided what/how much to loan movie studios. And you wondered why he kept getting such great parts? But I digress.

Re Peter Falk's TV series: it was a little thing called Columbo. And we owe TV's most beloved cop to a crooked business manager.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Sitcom Creation: Center and Eccentrics

One way of creating a sitcom that works is to have a "Center & Eccentrics" show. The first example of this I can think of is the ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Small-town sheriff Andy Taylor was the anchor character. He was the normal / eyes of the audience character and we entered the show through him. Griffith told home spun stories and the writers faced the problem that he's just not that funny a guy. By the way, folks that worked with him said, "Don't confuse Andy Griffith with Andy Taylor." His FACE IN THE CROWD character may have been more accurate than his fans would like to admit.

Back to the series creation, facing a fairly dull lead they surrounded Andy Taylor with a list of oddballs. Each of them had a defining characteristic. Don Knotts at the deputy was overeager. Otis was the town drunk. Jim Nabors played the dense mechanic. Floyd the barber was.... deliberate. Think of Andy in the center of this solar system of characters with the loons orbiting. And Aunt Bee was the sun.

Mary Tyler Moore was a talented comedic actress but she likewise was a "normie." So for the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW they surrounded her with very sharply defined characters. The dense Ted Baxter was one of the all-time great sitcom characters, played wonderfully by Ted Knight, and again the formula worked. Lou Grant was the gruff boss. Murray the friend who loved to insult Ted. Rhoda the perpetually single. Phyllis provided a mirror character to Mary as she was married to a dentist and miserable.

TAXI had Alex Reiger in the anchor role surrounded by not one but two of the all-time great eccentric characters: Andy Kaufman at Latka and Christopher Lloyd as Reverand Jim. The crazies basically took over that series and account for the best episodes of the series.

CHEERS had Sam Malone as the center character. Around him were the "dumb guy" characters of Coach and later Woody. Cliff Claven was Mr. Factoid, most of which were inaccurate. Norm was the bar guy everyone liked. Frasier the intellectual. Diane the love interest who aspired to be an intellectual but found herself attracted to Sam in a HIS GIRL FRIDAY-style romance. Great series.

This is one approach if you're creating series pilot. Create a layered main character and then toss in the supporting characters to provide the laughs.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Fiverr for Script Coverage

I've got a link that gives both me and the person that uses it a discount for Fiverr. Great providers (just look for the top rated) for script coverage, editing, etc. etc.

Check it out. Thanks.

Rare Veronica Lake Photo

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS is one of my top 5 films and I came across this unique autographed photo of Veronica Lake on eBay last month - way out of my price range but I saved the image.

It must have been to someone she knew (family or a friend pre-stardom) as she signed "Connie" (her real name was Constance Ockelman) under her stage name.

Sadly, Lake would die young at 51 after struggling for years with alcoholism.