Sunday, October 04, 2015

Writing under less than ideal conditions

When my partner and I started out we would lock ourselves in a room whenever we wrote. We couldn’t have any distractions. Most of the time that meant working in one of our apartments so it was easy to do… except for the neighbor across the courtyard who kept playing the Jethro Tull WAR CHILD album over and over. But we eventually killed him so that problem was solved.

When we finally went on staff of a show and got our first office we would always keep the door closed. Just the idea of people going by or our secretary answering a phone was too distracting. How could we be funny if we saw two people walking down the hall?

Then we stepped into our first writing room. The showrunners were the great Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, two of the funniest men I’ve ever known. The writers sat around a kitchen table and just dictated the script. There was a writers’ assistant right there in the room taking shorthand. Yes, an actual intruder! Besides that, the door was open and there was always steady traffic in and out of the room. The casting director had questions, the prop guy needed to show us crossbows, the P.A. dragged in a new foosball table.

At first this was very intimidating. Like in the seventh grade when I first had to shower with everybody in gym class. And unlike school, I had to get over it in under two years.

What you learn real quick is that part of the skill of sitcom writing is the ability to concentrate and perform on demand. You’re always under pressure. You’re never going to be able to control the conditions. So you just have to deliver.

By the end of that first week I was starting to feel comfortable enough that I could pitch a joke now and again. One, I remember, actually made it in! I was so proud of myself – coming through under the toughest of all conditions.

Or so I thought.

Then came show night. This was a multi-camera series (THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM if you’re scoring) and the writers all stand around the floor behind the cameras looking important. During a scene one of the jokes bombed. After the director yelled, “Cut!” Tom and Jay got us all in a huddle. We needed a new joke NOW. Holy shit! There were two hundred people in the audience waiting, another hundred crew members waiting… all on the clock. All looking at us. This was like having to shower in front of a school assembly.

I was frozen while the more experienced writers, Gary David Goldberg and Hugh Wilson fired joke suggestions at Tom & Jay as if it was nothing. One was selected, the scene was re-shot, and the new joke got a huge laugh. Yep. This was the Big Leagues. And I was a rookie.

Through trial by fire I eventually felt comfortable contributing in that aspect of the job as well.

The next season we moved on to MASH. That’s a single-camera show. No audience. So you’d think it would be easier, right?


The first day of filming every episode was a rehearsal day. The cast would move from set to set on Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox and rehearse their scenes. Once they were satisfied, David and I were summoned to come watch the scene and then go off and do any rewriting that was necessary. But since it made no sense to keep schlepping back and forth between our office and the stage every half hour, we just did our rewrites right there on the stage. We commandeered a table in the mess tent and that’s where we worked – with actors, crew people, extras, God-knows-who walking by. And in some cases just sitting down and joining us. We’re trying to fix a scene and some extra plops himself down at the table and begins eating a burrito. We eventually killed him, too.

Again, it’s a skill that most writers have to learn. But schools never teach it. That was one of the reasons why I started the Sitcom Room. Sure wish I had had the chance to experience what room writing was like before I was on a network show.

I have no plans however, to start the Shower Room seminar.

This is a re-post from four or five years ago.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Dance Me to the End of Love

I LOVE this video.  Leonard Cohen's great "Dance Me to the End of Love" with a montage of Cary Grant dancing.  Maybe the coolest guy EVER. 

Friday, October 02, 2015

Friday Questions

The Friday Questions of October begin this week.

Andrew starts us off.

Did the cast and crew of Frasier and Seinfeld get along, since they were always in competition for Emmy's, etc.? Was their attitude mutual respect, friendly rivalry, or disdainful competition?

I never got the sense that the actors felt they were a “team” in competition with other “teams” from other shows. I’m sure there are some actors who bristle that they always lose Emmys to some other actors, but for the most part I think actors appreciate the good performances they see from their peers.

It’s the same for writers. When I would watch a “competing” sitcom (notably SEINFELD) I was thrilled when it gave me some genuine laughs.

From Powerhouse Salter:

What current drama series would you say has a good sense of humor? By sense of humor, I guess I mean a relaxed and subtly comic air that relieves the overwrought drama and succeeds in doing so without resorting to one-liner jokes or a wacky supporting character.

THE GOOD WIFE to be sure. I get more laughs from THE GOOD WIFE than most comedies. SUITS provides some hearty chuckles as well. I don’t watch CRIMINAL MINDS but I’m guessing they’re not a laugh riot. In fact, I don’t watch a lot of current hour dramas so I imagine there are a few that do employ humor that I just am missing.  Is WALKING DEAD funny?

In the recent past I’d say JUSTIFIED (Dewey Crowe was the funniest character on television period), MAD MEN, and particularly BREAKING BAD.

Ike Iszany asks:

Watching Cheers on line I notice they put a title card in where the first commercial break would be. When you write and direct a show do you use the breaks to your advantage or are they something that gets in the way? When I watch some sit-coms on DVD I feel like they suffer without the breaks. You can feel the show changes tempo a bit in the second segment without the break.

I finally found a person who likes having commercial breaks.

Actually, we design our stories around the commercial breaks and try to build to our act break. We want the moment of greatest suspense to come right before the commercial. That way we (in theory) hold the audience through the ten minutes of endless spots.

If there were no commercials (e.g. our show as on AMAZON) we probably would break stories differently.

DwWashburn has some observations and questions about MASH:

In my opinion, the only two "missteps" that the series took was the introduction of Loudon Wainwright III as the camp's minstrel and the marriage of Margaret. Since you were there during the latter, can you give any behind the scenes insight for this storyline. Did they know from day one that this was a mistake? Was it dropped quickly because of fan reaction, network notes, realization that storylines were limited, a combination of these or other reasons?

The Loudon Wainwright balladeer idea was an experiment in the early Larry Gelbart/ Gene Reynolds years. It didn’t work but I love them for constantly trying to think out of the box and stretch the form.

The decision to marry off Hot Lips came the year we were writing freelance for the series. So we were not in on the reasons for the decision.

We just inherited it. The problem was we were dealing with a long distance relationship and could only see one side. And it meant Hot Lips couldn’t be interested in anyone else. It cut down on her storylines. 

Plus, any value there was to a long-distance relationship we were getting from B.J.

We tried to do some one-sided stories, and those resulted in Hot Lips screaming at unseen-hubby over the phone. It just made her a shrew. So we quickly abandoned that.

We even brought her husband in for an episode. If memory serves we had to cast a different actor because the original Donald Penobscott wasn’t available. There wasn’t much chemistry.

The storyline just didn’t work so we bailed the beginning of the next season and broke them up.  That was our decision.  We received no pressure from the network or studio. 

Oh well. Some things work and some things don’t. But you gotta try.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Help me Rhonda, or anybody

I’m not alone.

I’ve been hearing this song my entire life and have never figured out what the opening lyric meant. It’s from “Help Me Rhonda” by the Beach Boys. The thrust of the song is that a guy is hoping his new girlfriend Rhonda will help him forget about his old girlfriend who dumped him. (Or, some suggest “Rhonda” is actually his new car. Seems a big stretch. but the song is included in an album of their car songs so who knows? But that’s for another deep esoteric blog post.) For the moment let’s assume “Rhonda” is a girl. (It could also be a pet. STOP IT! It’s a girl!)

Here’s the first line of the song:

Well, since she put me down I’ve been out doin’ in my head

The second line is:

Come in late at night and in the mornin’ I just lay in bed.

Okay, I get line two, but explain line one.

Pat St. John, a great disc jockey, who hosts the midday show on the Sirius/XM ‘60s channel, also was confused and tried to get an answer. He went to Al Jardine, one of the original Beach Boys and he too was not completely certain. He gave Pat a vague explanation and Pat tried to communicate it on his show recently, but I’m still totally baffled. (This is like the original movie version of THE BIG SLEEP. I defy anyone, even Raymond Chandler who wrote the book, to explain the plot.)

So what’s your take? If you have an explanation I’d love to hear it (or read it in the comments). If I find one that’s really clear I’ll pass it on to Pat.

Thanks. And here’s the song itself.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Andy Ackerman's approach to directing

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that not only became a whole post, but required a guest blogger to answer it.

Andy (not Ackerman) asked:

What is it like for someone (such as Andy Ackerman) to work on two shows simultaneously with such different approaches to comedy?

Andy directed FRASIER and SEINFELD simultaneously, among others.

For those who don’t know, Andy Ackerman is an Emmy winning director who directed 87 episodes of SEINFELD. He has also directed pretty much everything else. He directed the pilots of both ALMOST PERFECT and BIG WAVE DAVE’S, and directed every episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S – all six of them.

Oh, and he was one of my mentors. I learned directing by watching him on WINGS.

Anyway, I reached out to Andy to see if he would answer the question and he graciously did. It’s a great answer and also tells you a lot about his personality and approach to life.  Here's his answer:

That's an interesting question from your reader. Here's a possible thought:

I've never really approached a given show as being that different, even though they are different. I suppose, for me, it would be akin to my approach as a parent. Meaning, I've four children, all with their own individual voices, sensibilities, tones, styles, personalities, etc. I may adjust to each one accordingly, when dealing with them one on one. But in the end, regardless of that individual child, I'm still the same parent/guide/coach/director. 

So, to very loosely use that analogy, I basically approach either given show the same way, because I am, well, me. In other words, I just jump in, be myself, and implement whatever contributions I can to help the script, actors, and final product be the best/ funniest it can hopefully be. Whether I'm a parent, or director, or just dealing with day to day life, I rely on my instincts. Frankly, your instincts can be your greatest tool.

It seems to have worked out. My kids are pretty funny.

Again, my thanks to Andy Ackerman. One day we’re going to reboot BIG WAVE DAVE’S and he’ll be my first call.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Uh oh, another rant

As I figured, yesterday’s post generated a lot of discussion. Let me respond to one comment, from reader Jim, that I thought was particularly well written and insightful. Jim wrote:

The scene you described struck me, when I saw it, as belonging to that contemporary school of comedy writing that has no use (for) gags in a comedy scene. In fact, this approach to comedy avoids anything that might make the audience laugh out loud. Anything that could be clearly identified as "a gag." That's old-fashioned and hackneyed. To write this kind of scene, you never have your characters say or do anything that might come off as funny. Instead, the laughs are supposed to be inherent in the situation itself, not in how the characters react to the situation or how they deal with it. This style of comedy writing is all set-up and no payoff.

I do understand that writers want to avoid having their characters speak in zingers and one-liners. Too many sitcoms fall into that trap, and it's annoying. (My wife has been working her way through THE GOLDEN GIRLS lately, and I swear, that show needed a drummer just offstage, playing rim shots.) But, you know, it's entirely possible to have your characters saying and doing funny things, in finding funny angles to your situation, without everyone coming off like Morey Amsterdam or your script like an episode of I MARRIED JOAN.

Thanks again, Jim. Very thoughtful comment. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to use it as a springboard for today’s old retro guy’s rant.

I totally agree that filling a script with zingers makes a show feel tired and old fashioned. And trust me, there’s nothing harder to write. When you have two characters sitting at the breakfast table and there’s nothing going on but you have to give each one funny line after funny line, it’s torture. And unreal. And forced.

But that isn’t to say funny lines are to be avoided. There were funny lines in SEINFELD and funny lines in FRIENDS, and FRASIER and ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA and 30 ROCK. There are funny lines in ARCHER and BROAD CITY. Millennials will, in the privacy of their own homes, laugh at funny lines.

To me, when a writer is justifying not making a scene funny it’s just a smokescreen for lazy writing. The message I get is that he is incapable of writing a funny scene. He doesn’t have the chops to make someone laugh.

Anyone can come up with “inherent” comic situations. Comedy writers make something of those situations. Prove to me you’re really funny first and then discuss style.

Here’s what I find really perplexing? Why would anyone want to become a comedy writer if he’s embarrassed at making people laugh? If he thinks that presenting something genuinely funny is somehow beneath him, somehow compromising his principles? Why go into boxing if you’re opposed to violence? If you think sugar is bad for people why become a sous chef?

I’m sorry but to me, self-aware characters who observe situations instead of being forced to act upon them are dull and uninteresting. Irony is worse than “gags.” Equating situations with pop culture references instead of reacting with strong attitudes and emotions is a crutch.

Call me old and a hack and out of touch – that’s fine. I’m proud to be a COMEDY writer. I’m proud to have made people laugh for many years. I’m not saving lives but it’s a noble profession. I’m providing joy to millions of people. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing to apologize for.

Baseball analogy (oh no!): There are some hitters who have “warning track” power. That means they don’t have the strength and ability to hit the ball far enough to go over the fence for a home run. Instead they hit long fly outs. Imagine these players saying, “Home runs are passé. Sure I could hit them, but I don’t want to. Home runs are showy and seriously, haven’t we all seen enough home runs? Why should I stoop to that level?” Turn on many of these new TV comedies. That’s what you’re seeing – 300 foot fly ball outs, except instead of the hitter being shipped off to the minors where he belongs, he’s pumping his fist in triumph.

There is but one truism in comedy -- regardless of the style, year, or sensibility:


It is not:




Monday, September 28, 2015

How to begin a pilot

Let’s say I’m given a pilot to write. And for whatever reason, this has to be my first scene: Young guy brings the girl he’s recently dated back to her place. She invites him in the for the first time. He’s excited because he figures he’s going to get laid. But when they step inside he learns that her ex-fiancé is on the couch. He still lives there.

Okay. That could be funny.

Actually, it better be. Pilots are much harder to write than normal episodes and the first scenes of pilots are the hardest of all. Why? Here’s what you have to do: Establish the premise, introduce the characters, begin a story, forge the tone, and make it really funny. As the expression goes: You only have one chance to make a first impression. That first scene has to hook the audience. Viewers have to feel they’re in good hands; that they will be rewarded for spending their precious time sampling your pilot for thirty minutes.

So that’s my assignment.

First, a disclaimer. I realize I’m old school, retro, out of touch, whatever. My approach is based on experience, a certain sensibility, and principles I believe to be universal and timeless. Feel free to seek other approaches.

My initial thought is: who are these characters? How can I make them interesting? How can I give them traits or behavior that is fun, identifiable, and sets up an intriguing dynamic between them? For now I’ll call the young couple Matt and Colleen.

And in concert with that, how can I make the situation as funny as possible? Not just amusing, not just wry – this is the opening scene of my pilot, maybe the only scene a viewer will watch – I can’t afford for it to be anything other than laugh out loud funny. It’s always best to give characters strong attitudes or goals and for this particular situation I would think it would heighten things if Matt really needs to get laid. He hasn’t had sex in awhile so he is champing at the bit. Guys will go to great comic lengths to get sex (so I've been told).  Now the scene becomes one of frustration and my job is the construct the funniest cock blocking scenario.

So I consider possibilities. What if…?

What if they get in the house, the ex-fiancé is there, and he’s really belligerent? “This is the ferret you left me for?” The couple get into a fight and the poor Matt is in the middle, all the while being belittled. Maybe. Matt could be somewhat insecure and this feeds into his neurosis. But he still tries to work things out and get the ex-fiancé to leave.

Or they get in the house and the ex is crying? Matt has to console him.

Or the ex goes on an on about what a bitch Colleen is. He shatters any illusion. Matt is torn between wanting desperately to sleep with her and to run.

Or the ex is not there when they get to the house. Things heat up quickly. Matt is practically undressed on the couch when the ex comes home. Puts Matt in the most compromising position possible. (Comedy writers are evil, aren't we?)

Or it doesn’t appear that the ex is home. Matt & Colleen are in bed and Matt hears crying from the other room. Learns that the ex still has the adjacent bedroom. Matt desperately wants sex, but can he perform under these weird circumstances?

Or Matt & Colleen arrive to find the ex is there with another girl. How does Colleen react? How does Matt react? Is there a big fight? Does the ex want to do a four-way?

Or Matt & Colleen are making out on the couch and then the ex arrives with another girl. Is Colleen mad?  Jealous?  Is there fun in her double-standard attitude?

Or Matt knows the ex.

Or Matt knows the other girl the ex is with.

Or Colleen knows the other girl the ex is with.

Or the other girl is Matt’s sister.

Or the other girl is Matt’s ex-fiancé.

Or something else. You may have a better one.

And then some specifics. What’s the funniest Matt reaction to learning the ex is still in the house? It could be a great “What the fuck” moment. Colleen obviously knows there’s the complication of the ex still living in the place. How does she explain it? How did she think she was going to finesse the situation?

You get the idea.

I would bat around all of these ideas and see which one gave me the absolute most bang for my buck. I’m always imagining the audience and saying to myself, “Would they laugh at that? Would they REALLY laugh at that?” A lot of times I might say, “No. They’d smile, maybe they’d chuckle, but they wouldn’t laugh.” So how can I make it funnier so they would laugh? (Note: I may be wrong in my prediction but at least in my best professional judgment I’m striving for the maximum reaction.) So I would arrive at the scenario that was most promising, would even have a number of sample big laugh moments or jokes and then try to write the best scene I could.

That’s me.  Old veteran me.

LIFE IN PIECES premiered last week on CBS. It has a likable cast and slick look. I wish it well. I missed the debut on the air but caught up with it a few days later ON DEMAND. Since it was on  ON DEMAND, a lot of my remote features didn’t work and I had to watch it straight through. So I only saw this scene once and am describing it by memory (which may be as faulty as my computer ability).

But here was the opening scene:

Matt (Thomas Sadoski from NEWSROOM) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral from ENLISTED) come home from a date. She invites him up to her place. Once there they find her ex-fiancé sitting on the couch. Matt is just kind of frozen. The ex is mildly annoyed. The ex still thinks he has a chance with Colleen. It’s just an awkward moment. And the characters are AWARE they’re in an awkward moment. (Again, this is “me” thinking – this isn’t funny enough. This is really tepid. And I’m also wondering -- do the writers think this is hysterical? Do they think an audience is really in stitches over this? Or do they not even put the scene to that mental test?)

So what does Matt do? Characters need to actively address a situation. Matt does nothing. What does Colleen do? She offers some wine. There’s a little cutesy banter. The ex comments that they’re “bantering.” Everyone in this scene is totally AWARE of the conventions they’re using. It’s like they’re all too cool to have any strong emotions or reactions. The humor has to come from them merely realizing they’re in a potential comic situation. As a result there’s a real distance. And for me the scene loses its comic edge.

The scene ends with them deciding to go to his place instead. The big joke then is that his place is occupied… by his nutty parents. Awk-ward.

Old school, retro Ken believes if you’re doing a comedy you’ve got to own it. Characters finding themselves in awkward comic situations have been a staple for years. We find ourselves in awkward comic situations in our real lives.

They really happen.

But we don’t step back and observe; we ACT. I’m hoping that LIFE IN PIECES succeeds. It’s just the pilot and they’re finding their way. And I present this post as a learning exercise, not a knock on them. It’s a way to illustrate other possibilities. And a lot of you are aspiring writers currently crafting your spec pilots. Think of the audience and ask yourself the hard question. “Is this FUNNY enough?” And if not, no matter what your age or sensibility, or how cool you are, go back and make it funnier. And don’t apologize.