Monday, October 29, 2007

The CHEERS script that could have ruined us

With another Writers Guild strike looming, I thought I would add one more day to my Sitcom Room seminar next weekend. I’d give all the participants signs and have them march around the hotel.

One byproduct of a writers strike is that studios may shoot existing scripts but may not change them. So jokes can’t be fixed, lines can’t be tailored to actors, locations can’t be changed (too bad if an exterior gets rained out – you can’t move inside to a new location), and special effects have to be executed just as described (whether they’re possible or not).

In 1985 there was also the possibility of a work stoppage. Back then our contract ran out March 1st, which was idiotic. We’d strike right as the TV season ended. So we’d be out for four months before the producers even knew it. All signs pointed to a peaceful resolution so life went on as planned. NBC asked for a last minute additional episode of CHEERS and David Isaacs and I were asked to write it. There was a big time crunch, the show needed to start filming the following week, so we had three days to write the script. The idea was we’d bang out a draft, turn it in on Friday, we’d all polish it on Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday it went into production.

We turned in the script on Friday afternoon and on Saturday negotiations blew apart. An immediate strike was announced.

So now they had to film our very first draft, as is, no changes. This was the first BAR WARS episode. Needless to say, show night was one of the most terrifying nights of my life. I thought, “this is where we’re discovered as frauds”. Amazingly, the show played well. Not as well as it could have, don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of places where jokes could be improved and turns could be better finessed. But on the whole the show worked and there was no noticeable drop in quality.

I’m sure several writers find themselves in that spot today. The lesson here is that even if you’re only given three days to write a whole script, don’t just knock it out. Give it your best, treat it with the same care and hold it to the same standards you would anything bearing your name. Because you never know.

And the good news is, for maybe the only time in your career, the actors will HAVE TO say your words, as written. It’s almost worth taking the assignment just for that.

13 comments:

Nat G said...

Sigh.

And here I thought that what the strike would do to the Sitcom Room Workshop was like that SNL sketch during the baseball strike years back, where a baseball fantasy cruise ended up having every MLB player... you know, have the room peopled by every working sitcom writer along with us wouldbes.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, they have to read the script EXACTLY as written? Sounds like a fun time to "accidentally" include some obscene typos...

"But my character's name is Buck! I can't introduce myself as..."
"Sorry, gotta read it as written."

Bitter Animator said...

Out of curiosity (and vaguely related to this) does it happen that scripts can get overworked? Is it like stocks where there is a risk that your work can get worse as well as better?

Diogo said...

Ken, since you talked about the sitcom room in your post, and remembering that you sent your teleseminar attendees a survey regarding the best hour to do another one, I wondered when and if that seccond one is going to happen.

As sad as it will be to see recorded dramas and comedies have a shortage of episodes, the more imediate effect must be felt on things like SNL, where I assume there's not many sketches in a drawer somewhere. Considering the state of the show now, I guess it could be seen as an improvement to have guest hosts just mumbling through it. like "hummm... door" "and "So, that Bush huh...."

RAC said...

Ken,
Forgive my ignorance, but what does "turns" mean in "turns could be better finessed?" Not knowing this basic jargon could hurt my chances to become a highly paid scab during the strike....

Robert Rouse said...

Excellent story!

I always wondered how that worked and now I know.

Doug Walsh said...

I'm rather excited about the impending writer's strike. Now there will be no more excuses to miss Kid Nation. I mean, that is if CBS decides to run that 24 marathon I've been hoping for.

Fingers crossed!

A. Buck Short said...

Checking in late and out of sequence as usual, but just wanted to say Dirty Watah was wicked wonderful. Including the newspaper photos.

I thought it would be kind of lonely as a transplanted Sox fan down here in the ague belt. Turns out we are legion, at least in the Dallas area. We just spend most of the year tryn’a pass.

Sunday night I broke open the 30 year-old loaf of Yaz Bread that we bought at Sotheby’s and I’ve kept securely in the freezer wrapped in a J. Peterman catalogue for just this occasion.

In college, with binoculars, from my posh but not overly ostentatious 15th floor dorm room, we could actually see the Fenway grass in a corner of left field below the Monsta’. Occasionally we could even catch a play. Of course we could have caught many more plays if we had just opted to stroll down the hall and turn on the TV set. But there’s just somethin’ ‘bout getting’ in fer free.

Just one request for your son, Ken. I happen to be red-green color blind. Not much of a handicap, although it did keep me out of the Texas Air National Guard. Also unknowingly sported a brown tie on 3 consecutive Boston St. Patrick’s Days. BTW, that’s the celebration -- where the city justified giving all the kids a day off from school to watch the St. Patrick’s day parade by concocting a simultaneous bogus holiday -- Evacuation Day – allegedly commemorating the date the British departed Boston during the Revolutionary War. Right.

I think red letters on black background is hard for even a normal person to read. Could be mistaken but I believe I may have seen that somewhere in the same article that informed the easiest might be black letters on yellow. Can’t be certain, because I think that information was conveyed in black-on-red. On second thought I wouldn’t wish those Bee-Movie colors on anybody’s blog. Let's just live with the black/red.

The Crutnacker said...

Okay, I just had to post my verificaton word, Opnah. Opnah Wirfrey.

Ken, I've noticed that TV Land seems to be turning into the Ken Levine network. In the past week, they've show several shows you've been involved in, including M*A*S*H, Cheers, Wings (which I believe was also the original name of USA Network), your expert location work on Jurassic Park, and three Mariners games.

It must be exciting to open those 75 cent residual checks.

Max Clarke said...

A big lesson here: don't assume there will ever be the second chance to fix a script. Do your best work when you have the chance.

VP81955 said...

I thought it would be kind of lonely as a transplanted Sox fan down here in the ague belt. Turns out we are legion, at least in the Dallas area.

Assuming he means Red Sox and not White Sox (the presumptive arrogance of Boston fans!), hey, you can't get rid of the yuppie vermin. They've become the baseball equivalent of Dallas Cowboys fans.

Mike Rinaldi said...

So it seems like the better (and more fun) strategy this week would not have been rushing to finish scripts... but turning in scripts with arbitrary humor and locations and effects that would border on the impossible. Not bad scripts-- because one still doesn't want to be accused of bad writing-- just scripts that are unfilmable. Every show could turn into "Night Court."

Leo Edwards said...

Are you talking about From Beer to Eternity in Season 4? I'm pretty sure that's the first BAR WARS episode. If so, that episode is actually one of my favorites out of the whole series. Your absolutely right that there was no noticeable drop in quality because that episode is really funny. I never would have guess that this episode wasn't fully edited.