Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lazy writing

I know. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. There are many writers who disagree. Many writers I respect. So this is one scribe’s opinion. One lowly scribe with a blog.

But I am not a fan of narration. Unless it’s in prose.

And lately there seems to be a plethora of narration on television, especially among new shows.

What’s my issue? For the most part I think it’s lazy writing.

The hardest part of telling a dramatic story is doling out the exposition. Backstory tends to be dry. Actors hate to say it. And for good reason. It’s just briefing the audience; a data dump of facts the writer feels are important. The trick – no, the art of storytelling is finding clever ways to either show the audience what they need to know or communicate it through entertaining dialogue.

Unless narration is integral to the premise of the series (like in HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER where the entire conceit of the show was the father talking to his kids), or a Bullwinkle cartoon (where the narrator was not just a character but did the comedy heavy lifting) it’s generally not necessary. 

When I hear “This is the story about Sarah and Skippy….” Or “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys…” I zone out. Anybody can write “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys,” but a good writer can create a character (who by her actions) shows us that in a fresh and funny way. He relies on behavior and attitude and the situation. Just saying it is the bald on-the-nose easy way.

And just who are these narrators anyway? Why are they there? Why do we need a narrator to guide us through the story? Another big offender of this is Woody Allen. The first five minutes of VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA is all flatfooted narration that tells you who the heroines are, what their personalities are, what they’re desiring, and why they’re there. LAY-ZEEEE.

Then there are shows where one or more of their characters provide narration. Unless there’s a real good reason for it I don’t know why it exists. Often it’s used to wrap up the show or tell us that week’s theme or life lesson. I like to think I’m smart enough to determine that on my own. I don’t need to be spoon fed.

I suspect one reason shows employ this device is so when scenes they’ve shot turn out poorly they can just scrap them and have the narrator cover the information.

On MASH we occasionally used narration to frame episodes by having a character write a letter home. First off, you knew who the narrator was writing to and why. And secondly, we used this technique very sparingly. It was a way to break the format. And even then, by year seven when David Isaacs and I were heading the writing staff we felt the device was wearing thin. We devised an episode where a Korean spy was writing about the MASH unit and the fun was hearing how he misinterpreted everything he (and we) saw. We never used it as a crutch.

Some shows break the fourth wall and have their lead characters talk directly to the audience. In some cases it works. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF would be one shining example. But that’s because the narration was less about relaying info and more about philosophizing. And I like it in HOUSE OF CARDS. But in that show the narration is part of Kevin Spacey’s character. He uses it to justify his behavior and toot his own horn. And he uses it very sparingly. I love the episode in season two where he doesn’t talk to the audience for almost the entire show, and then at the last minute he turns to the camera and says, “Did you miss me?”

But other times it feels like characters are talking to the camera just to be stylistic. There’s always the danger that you’ll take the audience out of the moment by shattering the reality. So the question becomes – is the device really necessary?

I find this less concerning in the theatre where stories are generally told stylistically, but the reality of film and TV makes it harder to buy… at least for me. JERSEY BOYS is an example where narration worked on the stage, not on the screen.

Some may argue that a narrator is necessary because there are so many facts and the exposition is very dense. The audience would be confused without it. If that’s so I question whether the story itself is too complicated.

Another problem with narrators is that they often just drop out after awhile. You hear them at the beginning and maybe an hour into a movie for three sentences and that’s it. If you establish that the narrator is your vehicle for telling the story then stick with him. To have him just pop in when you need a hole patched is again, lazy writing.

I have no conclusion here. It’s not like writers are going to stop using narration because of this post. Or Woody Allen is going to send me an apology. But if you’re an aspiring writer I want you to challenge yourself. I want you to avoid shortcuts. I want you to rise above. Or I want you to just say screw it and write a novel.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What movies do you hate that everyone else loves?

Doesn't it make you crazy when there’s a movie out that’s real popular and all your friends love it but you don’t? It’s like you're totally out of step with pop culture – and is there a worse fate than that? I’ve listed some movies that were boxoffice dandies and zeitgeist zeniths but just didn’t do it for me. You’re going to look at this list and be outraged over a couple. But that’s the whole idea. I KNOW you and most everyone in the world likes these movie but for whatever reason I hate 'em.   Sorry.  I do.   I’ve also left out films from genres I just don’t care for, so it’s unfair to dump on SAW III. And I won’t go to see a Katherine Heigl or Nancy Meyer romcom. Just loathe ‘em.  I know what I’m going to get. And I’m never not being disappointed in being disappointed.

So this is my partial list. I’d be curious. What’s yours? And I’ll make you a deal. If you don’t rip me for not liking LINCOLN I won’t attack you for not liking AMERICAN BEAUTY (although, seriously, what’s wrong with you?).

Last Batman movie
Last Superman movie

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The pros and cons of networking

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post when I drifted off and started talking about something else.

It’s from Jim S:

Networking. I've noticed that many writers often work on each other's projects. Do you ask Mr. X after seeing his show for job?  I recall reading about a showrunner who would give one assignment a year to his old mentor who had aged out of the business so that the mentor could keep his health insurance from the writer's guild.

Is that kind of loyalty common?

I don’t know if it’s common, but we gave our mentor an assignment in his later years. We were thrilled to do it. And we were rewarded with a great script. It’s not like athletes. Talent doesn’t fade with age.

Showrunners will often hire writers they’ve worked with and trust. It only makes sense. That said, openings do come up that require showrunners to hire people they have no history with. Lots of time these positions will be lower level thus allowing the showrunner to groom and mentor the new scribes.

One way that new writers can “audition” is to offer their services free to showrunners when they have a pilot in production and are looking to put together a temporary staff to help rewrite and punch up.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this practice. First of all, I feel the young writers are being taken advantage of. It’s one thing to ask a friend to help. We have a relationship, and I also feel I can reciprocate by helping out on his pilot somewhere down the road. But to ask someone I don’t know to come in for eight hours, help out, with no guarantees at all seems unfair. I would feel too guilty. I’m getting paid a lot of money; he's getting nothing but a lovely parting gift and cold Chinese food. It doesn’t seem right.

Yes, if you’re a young writer and you’re offered a chance to participate in a rewrite for a showrunner you don’t know I would say jump at it. You never know. You might impress him and ultimately get a job out of it. I will just say this tough: the odds are against it. Lots of things have to fall in place. But it does happen.  And even if chances are low, you gotta take it. 

My other concern is that when I have a pilot in production it is no time to break anybody in. I much prefer to surround myself with a smaller group of All-Star writers I know. We move quicker and more efficiently. We all have the same comic sensibility. No one is going to waste our time pitching completely inappropriate jokes. Everyone is rowing in the same direction.

I was in a room a couple of years ago for a pilot rewrite. I kid you not, there was no less than twenty writers – probably more. High level, mid level, newbies, maybe even a few people from the studio tour who just happened to wander in. And before that, at the table reading, there were five to ten more writers in attendance. It was nuts.

I’d say most of the writers in the rewrite never spoke a word. I don’t know why they were there other than to eat lunch or maybe hide out from the cops. Others were pitching drivel. Maybe four of the writers actually got jokes in. And they were primarily veterans. Most of the stuff came from the two showrunners themselves. And here’s the irony, they’re both terrific writers. If we had a pilot I would invite just the two of them to help. That’s all we’d need.

So for young writers, not only is it hard to stand out in normal circumstances, you’re trying to be noticed in a room of twenty. Depending on when you enter the room you might be stuck in the back corner – like having the farthest booth in the county fair.

What was the original question? I’ve gone off on a tangent and forgot what he asked. Oh yeah. Networking.

Networking is important. Showrunners help their mentors, friends who are down on their luck, writers’ assistants that have earned a shot, staffers they’ve worked with before, and newbies that dazzle in pilot rewrites.

The trick is getting in. And if free labor is one way then you’ve got to do it. But make no mistake -- you’re doing the showrunner a favor as much as he’s doing one for you.

Somewhere in all that I hope I answered Jim's question.  Or at least touched on it.

Monday, October 20, 2014


We’re now up and running. Here’s the latest installment on mounting my play, A OR B? – now playing at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

When we last left our heroes… tech work had been completed. Now it was time to prepare for the first preview, which was last Wednesday night.

The actors pretty much have the script memorized although more changes were expected once I heard preview audiences. The thing I’m stressing now is to hold for laughs (assuming there are any). When actors don’t hold for laughs two things happen. First, the audience misses the next line or joke because they’re laughing through it. And secondly, after that occurs a few times the audience will just stop laughing for fear of missing something. Of course it’s hard to know just what will get laughs so previews are very helpful.

We had a full dress rehearsal on Tuesday night for an invited audience of maybe 15. With that small a group I was pleased to get a few big titters. As I expected, it was also the NOISES OFF runthrough. In other words, there were wardrobe malfunctions, props not being where they were supposed to be, missed light cues, lines jumped, etc. Best to get all of that out of the way now.   Do you know there’s such a thing as zipper oil? If you’re doing a play with costume changes make sure you have some.

It’s amazing how you can watch rehearsals for four weeks and everything looks great but then you see it on its feet and there are moments you go "Yikes!"  So my routine this last week has been this: show up at the theatre at 4:00. Actors rehearse trouble spots or new material. The show at 8:00, notes at 10:00, and then I go home and rewrite until 2:30.

One thing I miss about being on staff on a TV show – writing material and seeing it performed the next day. Serving it while it’s hot.

Each night gets better. In fact, a new joke I wrote Thursday might get the biggest laugh in the play. And then of course there are the “Bono’s” (see yesterday’s post for explanation). There are a couple that I think I’ll be wrestling with until opening night. The actors are good sports, gamely delivering the new lines without complaint (at least within earshot).

Another difference between the theatre and TV: In TV I go down for a runthrough that consists of about 22 minutes of content. I then go back with seven or eight highly trained comedy writers to fix the script. Here it’s 90 minutes of material and just me. But I will say this – the TV training has been INVALUABLE. You learn to be facile and attack problems. There are a lot of excellent playwrights who happen to write very slowly. This is like catching a moving train. There’s also the temptation for thoughtful (i.e. slow) playwrights to keep things that should go because it took so long to write them in the first place.

I had one scene that felt too long. I couldn’t wait to get home and chop the shit out of it. Jokes I liked a week ago I couldn’t wait to cut. The next night the scene played sooo much better. That’s what often happens. You have a scene with say ten jokes and they all play okay. You cut five and the ones you keep get even bigger laughs. Don’t be afraid to cut.

I generally go into runthrough with some ideas of cuts I’d like to make. Same has been true with the play. There was one joke I was thinking of cutting because I’d like the scene a little shorter. But it got a good laugh. My first reaction was “damn, it worked.” And then I thought, “You idiot. It WORKED.” I’ll find a trim somewhere else.

We also made some lighting and blocking adjustments that quickened the pace.

The Wednesday and Thursdays previews played pretty well. The weekend was better. What’s always odd is that certain jokes that work one night don’t the next and vice versa. And from time to time straight lines will get laughs. Don’t ask me why. I’ll take it.

Something was nagging me however. I couldn’t put my finger on it until the weekend, but a lightbulb went off and the answer was clear. But it will require major light and sound cue adjustments, some new blocking, new wardrobe, and two existing scenes being intercut. It sounds more radical than it is, but still, it will take a little coordinated rehearsal time so we'll put it in this week. It’s not fair to the actors (or crew) to just throw them out there without proper preparation. Especially since I like them. But I’m excited to see the new stuff that goes in starting Wednesday.

Another problem we had to address was costume changes. Our actors, Jules Willcox & Jason Dechert, have to make some quick ones. They do it under 30 seconds, but that’s still a long transition on stage with nothing happening. We tried covering it with music and visually interesting things going on on stage, but it wasn’t enough. Our director, Andy Barnicle, came up with the fix – voice over funny dialogue. So I went off into a corner, wrote them, and they were recorded that night.

So a few more days of tinkering and previews, and then Friday is Opening Night. I think we’ll be okay… as long as we have enough zipper oil.

It’s been a blast meeting some blog readers who’ve attended the previews. Thanks so much. Here’s where you go for tickets, and if you do attend a performance please flag me down. I’m the one in the corner of the lobby just rocking back and forth.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What's a "Bono?"

In between the time Sonny Bono wore fur vests and became a US Congressman he owned an Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave. in LA named “Bono’s.” He picked a bad location. Within months it went belly up. Since then, every time I drive by that place it’s something else – Japanese, Indian, American diner, etc.

When we’re in production on a show it seems that every week there is that one nagging joke that doesn’t work. It’s replaced on Tuesday. That joke doesn’t work. Wednesday, same story. On and on throughout the week.

That joke is called a “Bono”. And like I said, there’s ALWAYS one (at least one). The term was coined by Denise Moss, a fabulous writer on MURPHY BROWN.

What it teaches you is to stick with it, never settle, try new areas. And never just go for the easy joke…which is why I’m refraining from any reference to skiing.

This was a re-post from God knows when. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What words kan't you spell?

Thank God for spellcheck. There are some words I just can’t spell. For whatever reason my brain refuses to learn the correct spelling of a few words – words that are fairly common and you dear readers have no problem with at all.

One is jeopardy. Even as I typed it just now the squiggly red line appeared underneath. I keep putting a’s where there should be o’s or o’s where there should be a’s. And again, it’s not an obscure word. I watch the TV show all the time. The word is displayed in giant letters.

Another is privilege. I don’t even come close on this word. At any given time I may write privlige, priviledge, priveledge, privlige, privelige. None of these look any more wrong that the actual spelling.

For a long time I wrestled with guarantee. Somehow I mastered it. And I’m afraid to list the ways I misspelled it for fear that that will confuse me again and I’ll be back at square one.

In the case of pigeon, I want to always write pidgeon. And don’t get me started on pidgin.

I’d like to think I’m not alone in this brain cramp. So let me ask you – what are words that you can’t spell?

Imagine losing the final round of the National Spelling Bee over jeopardy?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Questions

Previews continue for my play A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.  Get your tickets and reward yourself with reading Friday Questions.  Thanks. 
First, my hold-over question from last week.  From Jeff:

What are your thoughts on the usage of cliffhangers? 

For the most part I think they're a waste of time.  Especially in sitcoms.  It's not like these characters are in any real jeopardy.  

One problem is that this convention has now been done to death.  Whatever impact it used to have has been greatly diminished by over-use.  Everyone's doing cliffhangers.  Plus, shows do limited series of six or eight episodes and then go off the air for nine months.  Who can keep track of what? 

And the real problem (that most showrunners are unwilling to accept) is that the audience is not nearly as invested in your show as you think they are.   To the showrunner and writing staff the show is the center of the universe.   Unless you're working on a series that is riding the crest of the zeitgeist, viewers don't really give a shit.  Out of sight; out of mind.  

We've come a long way since "Who killed J.R.?" on DALLAS.  

Dene 1971 asks:

Do you consider sitcom to be less artistically valid, for one of a better term, than a 1-hour drama? I recall reading an interview with a (brilliant) English TV/radio comedy writer, responsible for a first class sitcom which had come to an end: he intimated that he wanted to 'move on' from the 30m sitcom form to the 1hr comedy-drama.

Obviously it depends on the show. I would consider THE WIRE more artistically valid than TWO BROKE GIRLS. But there are quite a few comedies far richer than one hour dramas. And in many ways it’s much harder to do a quality comedy. To explore emotions, create characters and situations that are real, relatable, compelling, AND funny is much harder to accomplish than straight drama. Plus, in comedy you don’t have the luxury of just playing a song under a scene that expresses the emotion you’re trying to convey.  (a standard movie cheat)

But artistically speaking, I don’t think there are many hour dramas that come close to MASH. Maybe BAYWATCH.

Someone who wouldn’t leave his name wondered:

Ken, when writers do a script that includes unflattering jokes about a character's appearance, do you ever worry about how the actor or actress will personally react?

I recall episodes of MASH where Hawkeye insulted Hot Lip's weight, and an episode of All In The Family where Gloria came right out and said she was fat. More recently on Will & Grace, there were many jokes about how flat-chested Grace was.

Do actors just accept this as part of the game, or are there ever situations where the actor is too touchy about something and it's off-limits for the writers? And how can you know this until you've already ticked them off?

It really depends on the actor and how good a sport he is. No, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of the phone call I’d get from Loretta Swit if we did Hot Lips fat jokes. On the other hand, Danny DeVito was fine with short jokes. And the great Jackie Gleason had no problem with fat jokes at his expense.

It’s best to diplomatically ask the actor how sensitive he might be to jokes about his appearance before he reads the script aloud in a room full of people.

The irony on CHEERS was that every character took shots at Lilith for how cold and severe she was, and off camera and out of costume Bebe Neuwirth (pictured at the top of this post) was the hottest woman on that set.

And finally, Jrge sent in this question from Spain (where they love this blog).

I've just started to watch the second season of Frasier on DVD (I know i'm late, but I was four when it went on TV).

That’s still no excuse!

I've realized that you appear as "creative consultant". Could you explain what was exactly you function?

Generally that title is assigned to a writer who comes in once a week, usually for rewrite night. Other names are “punch up guys”, “script doctors”, and “clients of agents who make sweet deals”.

They come to the runthrough then help the staff rewrite that night. Sometimes it’s very helpful to have a fresh set of eyes. A writing staff can get too close to a story and it’s great to get an objective opinion from someone you trust…AND can help actually solve the problems he identifies. That last part is the biggie. Anyone can say “this doesn’t work, go fix it”.

Ideally, the best creative consultants can also help you with jokes.

A good creative consultant is like the cavalry riding in to the rescue. A bad one is someone you’re paying a lot of money to eat your food.

I’ve worked with some great ones, notably David Lloyd and Jerry Belson. But bar none the best creative consultant that has ever been is Bob Ellison. I’m going to do an entire post on him soon. At one time he was working on four different shows a week. And not coincidentally, they were the four funniest shows on television.

What’s your question?