Thursday, September 06, 2007

How we write

I received some great suggestions from readers responding to Sunday's post. You are ALWAYS welcome to ask me questions. I will even devote a post to answers if I get enough of them. Also, people want to know my feelings about current shows, especially comedies. So from time to time once the new season begins I will take a specific sitcom episode and critique it. I'll give you a heads-up on which one and when. I do this in my Sitcom Room seminar and the students find it very helpful. But I will only do this for shows I like. To just bash someone else's sitcom has no allure for me.

One question I've received repeatedly is just how my partner and I write? What is our process? It's a little wacky but it works for us.

I’ve been lucky enough to be in the same partnership for 34 years. Some time ago I got a letter from a young writer named Ken Levine saying, since we had the same name, could I give him any advice? I said, “Yes, find a partner named David Isaacs.”

Writing teams all work differently. Here’s our M.O. A lot of teams will split up the script – one takes one scene or act and the other takes the other. Then they switch. We write head to head and we dictate the script to an assistant who takes great shorthand. We never actually see the script while we’re writing it. This forces us not to obsess over a line. It frees us to pitch out a whole run knowing we can just go back and clean it up. We can juggle beats, move things around more easily. This process also allows us to volley lines back and forth. When people ask if a particular joke was mine and I say I don’t remember I’m not being coy. We shape practically every line together.

It now takes us four to five days to write a half hour. Two or three if we have to. When we started it took two weeks. That’s where 34 years of experience comes in handy.

We work off of an outline, talk out what we’re going to do then just take a shot at it. Next day we see the typed version of what we wrote, proof it, blame the medication, and keep going. After the rough draft is finished we each take a copy, make notes, joke suggestions, cuts, etc. and reconvene for one more pass. Once that’s completed, more often than not we turn it in.

Do we have arguments? Sure. But we never let them get personal. And if we ever have a disagreement over a particular joke and can’t reach a consensus quickly we just toss it out and write something else. It takes less time to come up with a new line than to argue and have one of us ultimately pissed.

And you can't be defensive. The best idea wins even if its the other guy's, that bastard.

We’re also not afraid to throw stuff out – a line, a run, a whole scene. And scripts can ALWAYS be trimmed. No matter how long our rough draft is we always look for and find cuts.

Although the head to head process works well for us (which isn’t to say it works for everybody) early on in our career we began a practice whereby once a year we took an assignment and divided it up. The purpose was to feel confident that we could write on our own if we had to. We’re partners out of choice not dependency. And it’s amazing – we’ve been writing together so long that when we do split up a script I defy anyone to tell who wrote which act. They’re equally in need of major work.

There are many advantages to having a partner. The obvious ones you know. It’s more social, you have someone to share the burden/blame with, and it’s nice to get feedback (especially in comedy) – in our case not only from each other but our assistant, Lana. On more than one occasion we’ll laugh uproariously at a pitch, I’ll say to Lana, proudly, “Put that in” and she’ll say “Really???”

But here’s the biggest advantage to being in a team -- when you have to bring your car into the shop you know you can always get a ride.

A good partnership is like a marriage except you give up half your money BEFORE you get divorced. And the amount of sex is about the same.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have a question I think is related, or if not, please answer anyway: What do the credits mean in sitcoms? There was an older sitcom I was watching recently, and it occured to me the more bankable name was not listed as "starring", not alphabetical, and so on, but in the end, as "with", and not in the "Big Valley" series way with "Ms.Barbara Stanwyck" sort of add on. I know consultants and producers titles are a dime a dozen nowadays, but how does "starring", "with" and "guest star" work...

Diogo said...

I would like to know something as well. You explained in previous posts about Jay Thomas somewhat peculiar exit from Cheers. what I wanted to know is, how did he come back for the 200th interview special, where he sort of heckled the cast for having him taken off the show. I assume that was premeditated, because, well, if they didn't want it to be there they could have just cut it. I wonder if they had already "kissed and made up" by that point. Any thoughts you can give on this would be much apreciated. it's like having commentaries on your favourite shows, to make up for the cheap DVD releases. ;)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Great last line, too. What a privilege to have found each other. And in the Army, yet.

Max Clarke said...

Ken or somebody,

Please define "a beat." I've seen it used several ways regarding writing. I even saw Frasier use it once on Cheers, "Everybody take a beat!" I think he spoke it out of passion, maybe made a mistake, but they left it in. Frasier had to stop a battle between women -maybe his Mom with the gun and Diane, or Liluth and Nanny G.

Thanks.

blogward said...

'Beat' is used in screenplays to describe a short pause, usually for an actor's reaction to occur, or to let a piece of dialogue sink in. It's a cue to the actor not to speak the line in an unbroken stream, and can be overused!

estiv said...

This is good stuff, Ken. It reminds me of two biographies I've read, of George S. Kaufman and William Shakespeare. In both books, one point emphasized over and over is that neither writer sat at home and churned out finished work. Every work was created in a collaborative process as part of an ensemble, with lots of revisions, even if only one name (or, in Kaufman's case, usually two) was on the final product. This is not to say that, in Shakespeare's case in particular, there were other hands penning dialogue (although we do know of some plays he co-wrote)--it's just that every line, really every scene, was up for evaluation and feedback from colleagues, and could be rewritten. Not how the Bard is usually perceived, but that just says something about perceptions.

Some Random Guy said...

Um...pretty sure that's not what "beat" means in the context of Ken's article.

In script parlance, "beats" refer to a specific story point, scene or event which drives the plot forward.

So when Ken said he could juggle beats with his partner, he meant rearrange the order and sequence of events in the plot of his script with ease.

Not just figure out when to have an actor pause before giving a line.

Mary Stella said...

Ken, I love hearing how your writing process works with your partner. Now, I think we also need the perspective of your partnership from the third person in the room.

Can Lana guest-blog? *g*

TheDennisMorganShow said...

Truly fascinating stuff. And big fun (the Ben Gazzara piece was priceless). I’m still awestruck at the whole process of creating a sitcom.

Back in the day, my late wife Lydia worked at CBS/ Comedy Development for Dwayne Hickman and the late Roger Miller. I fondly remember overhearing at a cocktail party that an American version of the British sitcom, Fawlty Towers was being pitched to the networks. Have to shake the cob-webs out on this one, but I think it aired briefly (re-titled) on ABC with Bea Arthur in the role of Sybil Fawlty (I could be wrong).

How tempting it must have been for the writers to adapt this British comedy for the North American market (I bet it looked like a smash hit on paper).

BTW thanx for mentioning HBO’s second season of the Kiwi, ‘Flight of the Conchords’...#1 fav on my Tivo.

alan said...

I second the need for Lana to guest blog. Your partnership just sounds a little too easy. I wanna hear about all the times you fight.

Dwacon said...

I started out with a partner. We wrote the same way you and Ken did... except without somebody doing shorthand.

We optioned our first screenplay to a guy who was dating the top starlet of the mid-80's. The film never got made, and we are eternally grateful for that.

We since went our separate ways... and I found the occasional needle in the haystack of rejections, but thinking of another partnership... this one with a creative nymphomaniac who types 300 words per minute.

If you can refer somebody, Ken, we'll name our first character after you.

jbryant said...

Hey, thedennismorganshow, that Bea Arthur version of "Fawlty Towers" was called "Amanda's," and it did run for a bit in the early '80s. I never saw it, but I remember catching an episode of a late '90s attempt called "Payne," which despite the presence of the great John Larroquette, didn't really come off and didn't last long.

Ken, I generally write solo, but about six years ago took on a partner for certain projects. We tend to hammer out the basic plotlines together, then divvy up scenes or sequences, write them up solo, then rewrite each other. Then we go through the complete draft together, nitpicking and rewriting for as long as it takes. Occasionally, one of us will knock out a first draft solo, then hand it off to the other for a rewrite, then team up again for subsequent drafts/polishes. We're definitely one of those teams with similar sensibilities but different strengths. We take turns at the keyboard -- I can't imagine having a non-collaborative assistant there, but it would be fun to try.

blogward said...

my bad, somerandomguy.

Anonymous said...

"Amanda's", the Bea Arthur version of "Fawlty Towers" was actually pretty good - it's biggest problem was that it wasn't "Fawlty Towers". Bea Arthur wasn't playing the Sybil Fawlty role; she was actually Basil.

As for actors' billing - it all depends on how good your agent is. With a few exceptions (Barbara Stanwyck on "Big Valley"; James Arness on "Gunsmoke"), the lead star is listed first. Second billing is pretty good; last billing with the "And...as" tag is very good as well.

alan said...

Don't forget about Judd Hirch getting his name before the title in Taxi

Gail Renard said...

On one series I wrote, the actors and I wanted to take the credit, "but."

Max Clarke said...

AND THE BEAT GOES ON.

Thanks, some random guy, that makes sense in the Ken Levine use. As Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, Those guys have a language all their own.

Diogo said...

hey Gail, were you a writter on the "Doctor" series in the 70's? as a kid I loved that show, particularly the "in the house" and "in charge" seasons. I have purchased several DVDs that have recently started to come out, and I'm loving it (a bit cheesy now, but still...). some great moments throughout. I believe you wrote the episode "the godfather". isn't that the one where they all end up fighting for the ring and, as a result they end up wet during the ceremony?

Gail Renard said...

Hi, Diogo, yes that was the first telly series I ever wrote and I was a teenager at the time... honest! But I wasn't aware it was out on DVD yet... as usual, they neglected to tell the writer, so thanks for the info. Where's my agent?

Diogo said...

oh yes it is. if you go on Amazon.co.uk. they are up to series 2 of doctor in charge, which is, I believe the 5th series overall (2 of doctor in the house, one of doctor at large, and 2 of doctor in charge). there are still a few to be released, so I would call your agent in a hurry! lol

Diogo said...

also an add to my previous comment, that series (or several series, depending on how you look at them) had some truly fantastic soon to be stars writers. Apart from Gail here there were a couple of writters that you might know as Monty Python's Graham Chapman and John Cleese, and another couple of writters you might know as "the goodies" Graeme Garden, and Bill Oddie. Also, Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister.