Monday, January 09, 2006

Writing questions & the singing bird

From Alex Epstein of Complicationsensue (see link right column) comes these questions based on my post listing all the goofy credits of the SOPRANOS writers:

Alex: Obviously these writers didn't suddenly become good writers. They were either good writers writing crap on those other shows, or they were crap writers and David Chase taught them all how to write, or he has a Magic Singing Bird that sings the good stories.

Ken: The Singing Bird.

Seriously, I suspect they were good writers who just had to make a living. Comedy scribe Darrel Vickers once observed “you can either write what you want or eat what you want”.

And because a show isn’t listed among the elite (i.e. EW likes it) doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad gig. The show could be fun to write, the environment pleasant, nice people on staff, free action figures, etc.

And you can always write your way out. Alan Ball was on staff of CYBILL (finding ways to justify Ms. Shepherd’s insistence that she sing). He wanted to write something more personal, so at night he would go home, probaby drink a big Scotch, and peck away at a spec screenplay called AMERICAN BEAUTY.

Alex: I thought maybe you could blog a bit about what went right in the Sopranos writing room that makes the show so good. Is it all David Chase? Or was it chemistry? Was it HBO letting them alone to do their work? Etc.

Ken: Hard to really say since I’m not on staff of the SOPRANOS. I don’t believe that any one writer is solely responsible for the success of a series although I will grant you a creator with a strong vision is probably the single biggest factor. The SOPRANOS is clearly David Chase’s baby. He’s set the template for every facet of that show.

But he’s also put together a terrific staff and given them a lot of creative say. Unlike sitcoms that often get group rewritten (there’s a reason the expression for that is “gang banged”), if you write an episode for the SOPRANOS most of your script is what’s filmed. Additionally you do the casting and are on the stage supervising the week your script is in production.

Among David Chase’s many gifts is trust.

How important is a good writing staff? Just look at ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. After two inspired seasons the writing staff (save for the creator) left. And the show was awful this season. Same creator, same vision, sucky results.

HBO leaving Chase alone is also a big factor. Do you think in a million years a network would let him cast James Gandolfini and Edie Falco as the leads? No way. It would be Dennis Farina and Paula Marshall.

And the SOPRANOS also benefits greatly from not getting network notes. “We don’t like it when Tony kills people, cheats on his wife, smokes cigars, runs a strip joint, eats over the sink. It makes him unlikable”, “Does he have to keep the money he steals? Couldn’t he donate it to some charity?“ And the inevitable: “Please change the name of the character Pussy. We feel Russy or Gussy works just as well.”

The SOPRANOS was originally developed for a network. Lucky for all of us they passed…probably for a show starring Paula Marshall.

18 comments:

Rob said...

How important is a good writing staff? Just look at ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. After two inspired seasons the writing staff (save for the creator) was replaced. And the show was awful this season. Same creator, same vision, sucky results.

Wait a minute, seriously? Maybe I'm still reeling from the effects of the genius that was Seasons 1 and 2, but this season has been the same comic gold I expected from those. At least in my mind. Episode #03 and #09 (last week's) were probably my favorites of the entire series.

Ken, am I going insane or did that episode of Two and a Half Men I saw this summer ruin my brain's comedic barometer?

Whaledawg said...

I was about to say the same thing Rob. I think this season is the best ever, and my friends who are also fans agree. It seems to have really gotten sillier this year, but I had no idea they changed the entire writing staff.

p.s. I like silly

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Juancho said...

I agree with you, Ken. Some of the shows listed as writing credits were quality stuff. BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES revitalized the Batman character as a brand, let alone what it did for animation.

With how you feel about AD, I feel similarly about FAMILY GUY. When the show was on originally, it was on the brink of cancellation so often that a lot of the original writing staff left, especially before season 3. I still feel the show has been uneven since it came back. They used to rely on Stewie too much, now it's too little. And they always go for a cheap Meg joke, Simpsons gag, or (shudder) a leer from Quagmire.

Ken Levine said...

Sorry. I stand by my statement. I think ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT went way off track this year. And judging by the even worse ratings they received I'd say I'm not alone in my thinking.

FAMILY GUY still makes me laugh harder than anything on TV. Even when they're uneven there are usualy five or six truly laugh out loud jokes or bits. Which is five or six more than any other comedy on the air.

Rob said...

Any idea what the AD guys that left are up to this season?

Lee Goldberg said...

Who is Paula Marshall???

And count me among those who doesn't get ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. I know the critics tell me I am supposed to like it, my fellow writers demand that I like it, but after watching all of season one, I wasn't wowed.

Whaledawg said...

Sorry. I stand by my statement. I think ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT went way off track this year. And judging by the even worse ratings they received I'd say I'm not alone in my thinking.

That's not fair and you know it. It went to a worse time slot and it's never been a high rated show.

I actualy haven't seen the first episodes of this season though, and some have told me that they were off. I'm kind of a late convert to the AD cause(Firefly all over again) but you can't see Mole man vs. Rocket boy and tell me this show doesn't have good writers.

William said...

I think a big part of why THE SOPRANOS is so successful has a lot to do with Chase and his crew being left alone. It seems like he's got a very tight-knit group of writers who, for the most part, are well informed in the world they are writing about. Take that, put them in room without the Gestapo tactics, add great actors and you have a very nuanced, extremely well written show.

Chase wanted it to be a film but dropped that idea after listening to the advice of his agent at the time. Then he was to develop with Fox, they passed, HBO picked it up. The rest is history.

I'm on a SOPRANOS bender right now, going through each season on DVD leading up to season 7 in March on HBO.

I obviously need help....

Ken Levine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Westacular said...

The way FAMILY GUY stopped taking Meg seriously as a character and instead now makes her (almost exclusively) the butt of cheap jokes was a good decision. (And, notably, somewhat the opposite of what happened with Lisa on the Simpsons).

She's an unlikeable character, and it's as if the writing staff woke up one day and realized there was no value in pretending otherwise -- instead, they now milk her character for all the schaedenfraude they can get.

So what's the whole story behind ARRESTED's writing staff leaving? I've heard *of* it in a couple other places, but never anything resembling a story. I'm of the opinion that ... this season has been uneven, and a lot has underwhelmed, but there have been some great episodes.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Whaledawg - the man said "I think".. that makes anything following perfectly fair.

Lee - I don't get Arrested Development either.

Ken - I covet the genius of Seth McFarlane.

Westacular - Good points on Meg.

Whaledawg said...

Point 1) I wasn't saying he's not entitled to his opinion. I was saying it was unfair to state that low ratings are an indication of quality. I thought that was quite clear, if not I appologize.

Point 2) What is unlikable about Meg? She's the only character with no obvious obnoxious or immoral traits.

Point 3) She was actualy the focus of a B plot in the last episode, so I don't think they wrote her off.

Point 4) The reason she is often the butt of jokes in scenes is that she is a one sided character in a comic sense. That is, she has almost no comic perspective(her world view is a typical teenage daughter) with huge comic flaws(unattractiveness and loserdom). You need a character with a strong comic perspective to drive most scenes. This show has so many others I actualy consider her a nice change of pace.

BENth said...

Aw, I thought that AD actually got better third season, in a Firesign Theatre-like way that rewards repeated watchings, or that sneaks up on you the day after.

b

Matt Reynolds said...

Finally, some AT naysayers.

I found the whole of the first season underwhelming and just never understood what all the fuss was about.

AT in nutshell: a unremarkable show that tries to pass itself off as groundbreaking and unconventional, but really isn't. At all.

I mean, Ron Howard does the V/O for God's sake.

Bob said...

To all ye AD naysayers, I sayeth "Good on you." The critical concensus has been deafening and obnoxiously one-note.

But you're wrong.

The thing about AD is that the SITUATIONS/PLOTS AREN'T FUNNY. They are 'wacky,' out-there...funny-like--Tobias as BMG understudy, Buster losing his hand to a loose seal, etc. But the overtly funny-type--or funny-like--stuff almost never actually is funny. What IS funny--richly, addictively so--is all the wordplay, double-entendres, punning, etc. It's incredibly, mind-bendingly dense. All the unfunny zaniness is overplayed, but it's actually just a Trojan Horse for the--underplayed--genius of the subtler gags.

Not to mention the fact that 80% of said gags are all variations on incest humor. Literally. A network comedy about incest. And I'm not just talking George Michael and Maeby.

Matt Reynolds said...

I should note that by AT I meant AD. Just for anyone who wondered what the hell I was going on about...

Rashad Khan said...

Lee: "Who is Paula Marshall???"
Me: TV actress, mostly. Currently, PM is a regular on "Out of Practice." However, she has a reputation for starring/co-starring in series that die unusually quick deaths. "Victims" include "Hidden Hills," "Cupid," "Snoops," "Chicago Sons," and perhaps fittingly, "Cursed."

Television Without Pity doesn't call her "Back! Show Killer!" for nothing.

(And I hope you were being serious when you asked that question. Otherwise, I've just made myself look like the ultimate doof.)

I'm comforted knowing I wasn't the only one who felt AD was uneven this year. I can't explain why I didn't enjoy the show as much, except, maybe, I felt as if Hurwitz was repeating the same jokes he had been telling for the past two seasons.

As for the original writing staff:

Hurwitz, Jim Vallely, and (I think) John Levenstein remained w/ the show...

Brad Copeland and Barbie Adler joined "My Name is Earl"...

Abraham Higginbottom (sp?) went to "Will & Grace" (and enjoyed a nice promotion to producer)...

And Richard Rosenstock joined "Kitchen Confidential" as a consulting producer.