Sunday, June 26, 2016

Writing advice you might not want to hear

Since I can't think of an appropriate photo...
This is one of those Friday Questions that deserves a separate post. It’s from Chad (even though he admits that that is not his real name).  

My question is about crafting and selling scripts. You mention that story credit goes to the person who submits the episode outline. I realize this is a necessary part of the process in getting each story told...but I'm not really an outline kind of writer. I jot down some relevant notes/lines/jokes and then head into the first draft, which is where the story really takes shape. Writing the entire story in advance always throws me off because I know that when I get in the groove, it's gonna shift directions easily. So the basic question is, is this practice frowned upon and if so what's your advice on how to amend it?

Chad (or whoever you are) – how can I say this nicely? If you want a career writing for television throw out that shit and become an “outline kind of writer”. Outlines are mandatory.

Let me walk you through the process.

First off, you only have a limited amount of time to tell your story. And you have to tell another story next week. And the week after, and the week after that. You have no time for seeing where the Muse might want to take you.

TV episodes are highly structured. As a showrunner, this is my method and thinking:

Working with the staff, we arrive at a notion we feel would make a good story. We then construct the beats – usually not in a linear way (first this happens, then this, then this, then that, the end). I want to know the act breaks first. I want to know the ending. I want to know where the fun of the story is. I want to know the characters' attitudes.  Then we work back from there and fill in the rest.

Then we revise. Is there a better act break? Is there a more inventive ending? Are we getting the most bang for our buck comedy-wise? Is the show too plot driven? Are all the characters well served? Does part of the story work but part still feel undercooked?

In the interest of efficiency and good story telling, I make sure all these questions are answered before someone goes off to write the draft.

Once we’re all happy with the story I ask the writer to give me an outline. Each show is different but I like detailed outlines. 8-12 pages, complete with a lot of suggested jokes.

I give the writer notes on the outline. Sometimes minor, sometimes throwing out whole sections or subplots. If the story changes significantly I request a new outline.

Once the outline has been approved then the writer goes off and does the first draft. Usually under time constraints. But he’s got the story all worked out, the block comedy scenes all in place, and a lot of good jokes.

When my partner and I set out to write an episode, even if we’re the showrunners, we take the time to write an outline for ourselves. We just don’t have the time to feel our way around blind alleys. We can’t count on finding “our groove”.

And now more than ever, outlines are mandatory. Because now stories have to be approved not only by showrunners but by the studio and network as well. I’m not saying that’s a good thing (in fact, it’s not) but hey, that’s the new reality.

I don’t know how Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley (pictured right) work. I know they’re very prolific and write scripts very quickly. I suspect they may not work off outlines as lengthy as ours but (a) they still work out the story in some detail first, and (b) they’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve developed internal mechanisms to guide any mid-course corrections. But that comes after years of experience and extraordinary God given talent.

Look, here’s the bottom line: constructing stories is the hardest part of the process. It’s much easier and more fun to just go off writing. So human nature would suggest that if you can skip the hard part why not do it?

Because that method is fraught with traps. It’s inefficient, it’s unreliable, and it’s not collaborative in an industry that is built on collaboration.

So my advice? Learn to outline, and more than that – accept the process. It’s here to stay. And you know what? It’s a bitch, but it works.

This is a re-post from over four years ago.  But the points can't be emphasized or repeated enough. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

RIP Stu Nisbet

There are actors you’ve seen a thousand times but have no idea who they are. One was Stu Nisbet.

He passed away this week at 82. You won’t see a thousand Facebook tributes. There won’t be a TCM retrospective. I doubt he’ll even appear in the Emmy’s “In Memoriam” section this year. His credit was often in the closing titles, so squeezed or sped up. But if you go to his imdb page you’ll see he’s been in practically every television series that’s ever been. 172 of them are listed and that’s only a partial compilation. It only begins in 1960 and he did dozens of series in the ‘50s including multiple episodes of the original DRAGNET. He was a semi-regular on THE VIRGINIAN, he was in the classic “Plastics, Ben” party scene in THE GRADUATE, Martin Scorsese’s CASINO, MISTER ROBERTS, and even PROJECT UFO.

I knew him because at 82 he was in the improv workshop I attend every Wednesday night. He was actually one of the reasons I did attend because I loved watching him work. His mind was quicker and funnier than folks half his age. And talk about spry – even in his 80’s if he had to play an elderly character he put on an old man voice. He never thought of himself as old (probably because he never was.) 

Characters were his forte. My favorites were clueless classical thespian Chester Darby and a senior citizen stoner (“Dude!”)

He was self-deprecating as well. At the end of class the instructor, Andy Goldberg, always asks if anyone has an announcement (an upcoming appearance, etc.). Stu would raise his hand and proudly announce that “As of tonight my likeness has not been committed to celluloid for 247 weeks.” (Of course that was not true.)

To me Stu Nisbet was an inspiration – someone that age still eager to learn, to improve his craft. And no one was more supportive of the younger members of the group. He had a loud easy laugh and thoroughly took joy in the success of other performers.

He will live on through his work. I bet if you tuned to MeTV or TV Land right now, there he is as a bartender, doctor, banker, policeman, technician, judge, or storekeeper – and that’s just on DRAGNET ’67.

He loved people and especially loved entertaining them. RIP Stu Nisbet. You are forever “aces.”

Friday, June 24, 2016

Friday Questions

It’s that time of the week again….

Joseph Scarbrough starts us off.

What about episodes where guest/one-shot characters are the main focus and the main characters are reduced to secondary roles? We were discussing "The Nurses" on a M*A*S*H site earlier this week and, to me, with the main focus being on the one-shot nurse whom Margaret confines to quarters, but tries to spend a romantic night with her husband, a passing foot soldier, and the other nurses as secondary characters in her corner for support, it felt less like an episode of M*A*S*H, or more like an entry in an anthology series.

Showrunners do this at their own peril. Unless you have a very gracious and secure cast, you do run the very real risk of causing acrimony or even mutiny on the set. MASH had a pretty remarkable cast, and that episode was several years into the series run. It also helped that it was a terrific episode.

Personally, I try to avoid doing them.  If my cast can't carry a show then I'm in big trouble.  

Over the years when I was on staff I’ve had a number of extras give me spec scripts they’d written for that series. Invariably, THEY would be the featured actor that week and not say, Ted Danson or Alan Alda. But I’m sure they took their cue off of episodes like “the Nurses.” By the way, when writing spec scripts, DON’T DO THAT.

From Brian Phillips:

Harlan Ellison said that a person wrote him a letter about one of his stories saying that reading the story helped give him further insight on Ovid's poem Metamorphoses, because of the parallels between the story and Ovid's poem.

The catch was, Ellison, to that point, had not READ Metamorphoses!

Have you had anyone notice references that weren't there to any of your work?

Someone once wrote a thesis on all the classical references and symbolism in an episode of MASH David Isaacs and I wrote called “The Billfold Syndrome.”

It was very impressive and we sure came off looking scholarly except for one small thing: None of it was true. I didn’t even know half the references.

You have to take yourself waaaaay too seriously as a writer to even attempt to do shit like that.

One line I vaguely recall had us “clearly” comparing Hawkeye to the Anti-Christ when in truth we were just looking for a joke so we could go to lunch.

Jeff Alexander asks:

There is a Ken Levine who is credited with six versions of a video game titled BioShock. Has there been any confusion -- has he gotten job offers that should have gone to you or vice versa?

No job offers but there has been confusion. When I did my famous Kickstarter rant against Zach Braff (it went viral and I got one million hits in one day), he had to post something saying it wasn’t him. And when he laid off a bunch of employees a few years ago I received many angry emails and Tweets.

At one time someone was trying to put together a panel on creativity for some tech convention and wanted to get both of us to be the panelists. That would have been awesome, but the timing didn’t work.

There’s also another Ken Levine who I know has taken credit for my work. Avoid that Ken Levine. The Bioshock guy is pretty cool.

And finally, Jahn Ghalt wonders:

Ken, you described your "firsts" on MARY in 1985 as a first-time show-runner and first-time director - the latter as a crisis-response on short notice.

Your role was to block the scene, then the original director blocked the cameras.

For Mad Men Matthew Weiner hired his own first-timers (without the crisis) - Jon Hamm, John Slattery, and Jared Harris.

These "rookies" started preparing at least two weeks before shooting. Hamm and Slattery prepared on the same days that they acted on earlier episodes (Harris was already "dead" when he directed his episode).

So my question - how much of the usual director's chores would go to others for the rooks? For instance I suppose they would lean on the DP for camera blocking. How are the decisions (and the "labor") divided between Director and DP?

First time directors do get a lot of help. A good DP is not going to let a green director plan a bad shot or shoot a scene that can’t be edited correctly. Ultimately though, it's the director's decision. 

In our case with MARY, it was meatball surgery. We were just looking to get through an emergency situation.

But this does bring up a big pet peeve of mine. Especially on multi-camera shows, the camera blocking and shot selection can be very complicated. You have four cameras all filming simultaneously, moving during the scenes, changing actors, changing sizes, etc. First-time directors can easily be overwhelmed. So they rely on the camera coordinator to do most of the work.

But ultimately the director needs to learn those technical aspects to where the camera coordinator is just there for support. It takes time and experience and most importantly, the willingness to learn.

There are some “directors” who know nothing about cameras and just expect the camera coordinator to handle that. To me that’s not right. The director is getting paid a lot more than the camera coordinator. Assigning shots is part of the JOB of being a director. If you’re a surgeon you need to know how to make incisions. You can’t just say to the nurse, “You do the cutting and I’ll be over at the craft services table.”

Also, you need to know cameras to efficiently block the actors. Otherwise you may have blocked one actor upstaging another, or two actors too far apart, or an actor totally in profile, or action in a corner of the set you can’t shoot. So not only do camera coordinators have to do the director’s job, the director has made it way more difficult. And of course if a shot looks bad, who gets blamed? Of course. The camera coordinator. It doesn’t seem fair.

Okay, enough of my ranting.  What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

More credits confusion

Yesterday I discussed how difficult it is to assign proper recognition on screen credits. You can find that post here.

Today I want to discuss “gangbanging,” which is the delicate slang term writers have for room writing drafts.

A moment to discuss the difference been “and” and “&.” If used correctly (which is not always the case), an & between two names means those two are a team (and considered one entity). For example: “Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs.” If a writer does a draft and another writer later comes in and rewrites it enough to share credit, this is what it will look like on the screen: “Written by Gore Vidal and Ethel Mertz.”

The WGA tries to limit the number of writers who can share credit. Only two writing entities can share “written by” or “teleplay by” credit. And the same for “story by” credit.

So the very maximum number of writers would be eight – but that’s four teams of two (lots of &’s).

If you want to change that you must get a waiver. The WGA insists that each entity receives at least half the Guild minimum. In the case of ALMOST PERFECT when Robin Schiff co-ran the show, whenever the three of us wrote a script together the studio had to agree to pay each of us one-half Guild minimum.

Still with me?

A growing trend is to now “room write” scripts. All of Chuck Lorre’s shows are written that way. No first drafts are assigned. Eight or ten or twelve writers all sit around a table and together they write the first draft. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was like that too.

So who should get credit? In truth, they all should. But that’s against the rules. Ironically, on variety shows, all writers can be listed. What “gangbanged” sitcoms usually do is rotate the credit, and put people together as teams, and give some writers story credit and others teleplay credit – however they can squeeze in the most names.

The point is, when you see the writing credit on one of these shows it’s utterly meaningless. And to me, this is wrong. The credits committee needs to address this new form of writing. More and more shows are doing it and you could argue the pros and cons of such an approach, but I think we’d all agree the people involved deserve to be recognized.

Another problem is that even if the Guild did allow everyone to get credit, the screen time allotted for the writing credit is so short you’d never be able to read all the names. The producers could hold the credit longer but the network would scream bloody murder.

And finally, you might ask, “So what? If names are being rotated you’ll get yours on a few.” True. But what if one of the episodes wins an Emmy? And it just happened to be one you’re not credited for? And you wrote that big poignant speech that put it over the top. If you’re listed as a solo writer the Academy requests that you only enter your episode if you indeed wrote most of it (let your conscience be your guide), but gangbanged scripts are a different animal. So again, in the name of fairness, some new ruling should exist to cover this form of television writing.

I don’t have the solution. But I’m one person. Maybe if ten people approached this problem together…

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Credits should stand for something

Screenwriters have only one means of recognition – credits.

And the WGA does its best to ensure proper recognition. But things can get very complicated.

I’ll just deal with television here. The feature world has its own tangled web. There were something like sixty writers involved in THE FLINTSTONES movie (and look how great that turned out).

Even though a scribe may write a draft, in almost all cases the showrunner and his staff will polish or rewrite the script. Even if the original writer is on staff.

That can still mean that 90% of the original writer’s script makes it to air, but it’s also possible that 0% of his draft is left. Should the 90% writer receive the same credit as the 0% scribe? And if not, who among the rewriters deserve credit and how much? And is the original writer entitled to something because he wrote the first draft?

You start to see where it gets sticky.

And that doesn’t even address the issue of “story credit” vs. “teleplay credit.” All of a sudden the Mideast Crisis becomes easier to solve than an episode of DR. KEN.

If any writer other than the original writer wants to share credit the script must go to the WGA for arbitration. This protects the original writer from showrunners just attaching their names.

And this is important for two reasons. The recognition obviously, and also, residuals are determined by credits. So if a showrunner shares screen credit with you he will also share in royalties.

The WGA has a Credits Manual, or as I like to call it: “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It tries to specify how to determine each writer’s contribution. But in most cases it’s a judgment call. That’s why, when scripts are being arbitrated, there are usually more than one arbiter. Credits are determined by committee.

Each showrunner has a different policy regarding credit for rewriting. Some, like me, never take shared credit. I’m getting paid nicely as the showrunner. Improving scripts is my job. Whoever does the first draft gets sole credit. I would say that most showrunners subscribe to that policy.

So how do you know if the name on the screen really contributed most of the script? You don’t. But if you keep seeing the same name pop up you figure he routinely gets a lot of his stuff in.

Other showrunners feel that if they legitimately change enough to warrant credit then they are entitled to share the recognition. Matthew Weiner did that frequently on MAD MEN. He wound up sharing credit on a lot of scripts. My guess is that by the time the script aired, Matthew’s contribution was close to 100%. You could argue he’s hogging credits. But you could also argue he didn’t have to assign the script to another writer in the first place. The original writer got paid for a script and shares in the royalties. In that sense, Matt was being generous.

This is getting long so I’ll pick it up tomorrow. But I want to discuss a new challenge for determining fair credits – scripts that are room written. How’s that for a cliff-hanger?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Can a multi-camera sitcom ever win an Emmy?

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole post even though I don’t really have an answer and went off on a tangent.

VP81955 asked it.

In last week's "The Envelope" in the L.A. Times (which included a conversation between Norman Lear and Chuck Lorre), it was noted no multi-cam sitcom has won a best situation comedy since "Everybody Loves Raymond" in 2005. What do you think will be the next one?

Whatever it is, it’s not on the air yet.

An argument can be made for MOM, but the Academy seems to resent Chuck Lorre so I think it would be an uphill battle. And that’s unfortunate because MOM is certainly deserving. Over the years it has deepened and gotten sharper.

It seems silly to me that THE BIG BANG THEORY has never won. Say what you will, it is the most popular sitcom on the air by a large margin and has been for years. Shouldn’t that account for something? There may not be a lot of depth there, but it is funny and at least one year deserves recognition. But then you have the Chuck Lorre factor.

Other than those two, I can’t think of another serious contender. Multi-camera shows are no longer in favor so networks are putting fewer on the air. And the ones that do make the schedule seem to fall into one of two categories: mainstream family fare or low road raunch.

CBS has two new multi-cams premiering in the Fall. They’re the same show. Former sitcom star plays a dad who must now take care of his kids, and big shocker, the kids are more of a handful than he expected. Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc are the two former sitcom stars. I don’t think the ultimate goal is Emmys.

Although the genre is in a rut now, there’s no reason why the next groundbreaking hit comedy can’t be a multi-camera. Over the last sixty years the overwhelming majority of best written, most loved, and most admired sitcoms have been multi-camera. You don’t have to do 2 BROKE GIRLS. You can do FRASIER. Or SEINFELD. Or FRIENDS.

And one day somebody will. It will seem like a revelation. A well-written intelligent comedy that’s actually funny, is relatable to young audiences, and is about something – why didn’t anyone ever think of that before?

Emmys will follow. And television, being what it is – the star of that show will come back ten years later in a new show about a father having to wrangle three kids.

Monday, June 20, 2016


Trying to be a good responsible TV Academy member I’ve been watching a lot of the screeners provided “for my consideration.” Shows and networks I’ve never heard of. It’s the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” of ION programming.

A lot of the comedies, in particular, are disappointing. Show after show of Millennial Romy & Micheles blundering through Manhattan encountering “kooky” things. Or shows that try so hard not to use any comic tropes that they’re painfully unfunny and boring.

But I continue to screen, always looking for that hidden gem. And huzzah! I found one.


First off, how many of you have even heard of it? It’s on Hulu.

Disclaimer #1: This show is not for everyone. It’s very non-PC and depending on your sense of humor, the stars are either wickedly funny or reprehensible assholes who deserve to die. I like ‘em. You may not.

The show stars Billy Eichner (who also does those hilarious ambush interviews on the streets of New York) and Julie Klausner (the tolerable version of Kathy Griffin). They go through life providing a running commentary of snark on everything and everyone they see. What makes them sort of/kind of/a little redeemable is that they’re both losers in their careers so you can see where the bitterness originates from and they pay a price for the snark – they often go too far and shoot themselves in the foot.

But the snark is funny. The show is funny. Hey, I’m just excited that the show WANTS to be funny. Julie Klausner created it and does a lot of the writing. What impressed me most is that she also tries to tell actual stories. In some cases they’re absurd, but there are even episodes with A and B stories that share a common theme or come together at the end. This, in contrast to “Hey, wasn’t that fun dropping my keys down a sewer line? Oh wow, there’s a construction site. Let’s see what mishaps we can get into here.

There are some fun supporting players too, notably Andrea Martin as Julie’s equally narcissistic mother, and James Urbaniak – Julie’s bizarre roommate.

There are no sacred cows. Disclaimer #2: Any show that takes potshots at Chelsea Handler is a show I’m going to love. But no one is spared, not handicapped people, not religions, not even BLACK-ISH.

Not all of the jokes land and because of the myriad of pop culture references this show will have a shelf life of eleven minutes. But Billy & Julie are a winning comic pair with a somewhat unique relationship, and they hate Chelsea Handler. So what the hell? If nothing else, it’s a potential guilty pleasure.

The big question is: If you don’t subscribe to Hulu, is it worth shelling out the money? I’m sure Billy & Julie would agree: Just binge during the free trial or see if there are bootleg clips on YouTube.