Thursday, June 24, 2010

Our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW

Yesterday I discussed the process David Isaacs and I employed to come up with the story for our MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW spec. This is what we arrived at:

In the first scene we’re in the WJM newsroom. We establish that Murray is unhappy and unappreciated. Things get worse when Lou comes out of his office and chews Murray out for something. Things escalate. An uncomfortable Mary is in the middle trying to be the peacemaker. Laughs ensue. Murray mentions that a rival channel has an opening and Lou tells hi fine, go for it.

Murray comes in the next day and hands in his resignation. He got the job. Mary is sad to see him go. Murray takes the opportunity to let Ted have it.

A few days later. Lou is interviewing candidates for Murray’s job. Fun with goofy applicants. Mary meanwhile, is trying to do her job and Murray’s job and is frazzled. We give Mary a chance to really show off her physical comedy chops.

We go to Mary’s apartment that night. Murray enters. We learn he’s miserable in the new job. Act break.

Act Two: Continuous. Mary’s apartment. Murray wants his old job back but felt he burned his brdge with Lou. Asks Mary to talk to Lou for him. Mary is uncomfortable being in that position but agrees to accompany Murray.

Next day. Lou is in his office. A sheepish Murray enters the newsroom. Mary knocks on Lou’s door. He says come in and they enter to find both Lou and Ted. So now Murray has to try get his job back in front of Ted to make things even more humiliating. Murray is tongue-tied and Mary winds up doing most of the talking. It results in negotiations and Mary becomes a tough bargainer on behalf of Murray. He keeps wanting to say I’ll take it but she says no, hold out. It’s ultimately resolved and everybody’s happy. Some tag I now forget and that’s it.

It felt like a good story for them. It centered on their characters and put Mary in the middle. We tried to construct it so that the jokes could come out of the characters and the tough situations we put them in.

A couple of months later we saw that they did a similar story. Murray was unhappy and decided to leave. But here’s what they did different: Instead of going to a rival station, Murray went to work for Sue Ann. There’s a scene where Mary and Lou go down to Sue Ann’s set and see first-hand that this new job is sheer hilarity hell. (Great moment where Lou punches out a puppet.) Mary then helps Murray get his newswriting job back and the story again resembled ours.

But we learned a great lesson. They took the same premise and did it better. They SHOWED Murray in the nightmarish new job. We just had him talk about it. Always better to see rather than to have off-camera exposition.

Our UCLA experimental school writing teacher Crazy Ron had a MARY TYLER MOORE night. Four of us had MTM specs and he read them all aloud. Two were God awful, ours and one other were very well received. We asked the girl who wrote the other good one how long it took her to write it. Two years. Okay, she was no competition.

So armed with a script that had been well-received (by fifteen writing students) we set out to conquer Hollywood. Stay tuned for future installments.

19 comments:

Jason said...

Ken, you've written in the past about going through a final draft with the aim of taking out pages and adding jokes. I am always in awe of a good joke with a solid set up. How do you come up with jokes? How do you make them better? Is there some kind of practice you can do to write jokes?

Tony Roletti said...

I can tell you from my experiences for coming up with new funny material. Once you come up with the punchline, the rest is easy. It's always easier to build the joke around the punchline.

Dennis Hartin said...

My recollection is that the "Lou punching the puppet" scene came from an episode where Sue Ann's show was cancelled. Rather than quit, she determined to work out her contract, which involved working on a kiddie show dressed as a daisy and talking to puppets.

Mary convinces Lou to hire Sue Ann on the news staff, I think.

But, I could be wrong about this.

Somersby Creek said...

Ken, did the MTM folks see your Murray script before they wrote their own? I'm not asking for ownership reasons, just wondering if you had already made connections with their writing room. Either way, it's a great compliment. You and David were obviously on the right track.

Chad Garland said...

You've got me on the hook, Ken. I can't wait for the next installment.

Cynthia said...

Hi Ken! I'm a new reader to your blog. Thanks for this wealth of information. Forgive me if this q has already been answered in the past (I haven't gone back too far into your archives yet), but what was it about the two scripts that made them god-awful? Were they clunky? Bad jokes? Dialogue too short/too long? All of the above? I wonder if there are things I should look out for when rewriting my first spec.

A. Buck Short said...

All Murray really needed was to go on a cruise or two and find Jesus. Just catching up on back posts. I couldn't tell from the scoreboad photo, but in the closer two-shot your son Matt is a dead ringer for Manny Rarmirez. Incidentally, the great thing about where your future inlaws live is if you decide to follow your dream and run the Boston Marathon next April, it still looks like a spectacle by Natick, but the pack thins out enough there that when your angina kicks in, they can hand you a paper cup of water without being entirely trampled.

Mary Stella said...

A. Buck Short said:
All Murray really needed was to go on a cruise or two and find Jesus.

Much easier on a cruise to find a bar.

phb21 said...

Of course he got his job back. Had he handed in his resignation, instead of his recongnition, it might not have ended as well.

gonzalo losada said...

I'm a chilean sitcom writer and i love all the material you've got in your blog!! we study all this with our writing staff!

l.a.guy said...

We asked the girl who wrote the other good one how long it took her to write it. Two years.

By the way, she just finished her third draft of that script and I hear it's great.

Dana Gabbard said...

Ken, here are two potential Friday questions:

Thanks to you I have been peeking in on Earl Pomerantz's blog from time to time.

He recently had an interesting post that touched on something I am curious about: the end of having outside freelancers contribute scripts to programs. From your experience can you pin-point when the staffs of series started to "ballon" as he puts it. The same thing happened to drama sometime in the mid to late 80s and now almost all television series are staff written in the main.

Is there a danger of a creator becoming overly protective of a character and that creating a roadblock to storytelling?

I ask because on the writer's blog for Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes has confessed that she got upset when the season finale originally included Bailey being shot until she changed the script. And in a previous episode she turned thumbs down to Bailey's boyfriend flirting with other woman and telling her they weren't exclusive. It was adjusted to be a mis-understanding.

Rhimes seems to strongly identify with the Bailey character. Doesn't that mean the staff become timid at what they are willing to risk in using her even if that reduces dramatic possibilities? Sort of like how bland Mickey Mouse became as time wore on and Walt Disney was overly posessive of the mouse who helped launch his kingdom...

David Anderson said...

Ken, would you be willing to post your and David's draft here? Your UCLA draft, warts and all. In addition to being potentially helpful and insightful, I think it'd also be fun (for us) reading.

KEN LEVINE said...

Happy to post the script... if I can find it.

Michael in Vancouver said...

I asked a Friday question a couple of months ago (unanswered -- not a criticism, just a statement), asking if it was possible that writers/producers would ever "steal" -- ahem, rewrite -- spec scripts sent in by unknowns. A lot of commenters said that it was an absurd thought. Of course they never would! Well, I guess this is proof it has happened in the past. So, those unknowns who sue the studios saying they created Indiana Jones or Shrek -- entirely possible?

Toby O'B said...

Jason was right - it was two different episodes....

Toby O'B said...

Oops - sorry. I meant Dennis.....

Robert said...

Ken: Can you or anyone else name the woman wearing the white head covering who appears within the crook of "Mary Richards'" arm when Mary throws up her hat in the freeze-framed part of the opening of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"? This un-credited female must have signed a waiver granting use of her picture. I've always been curious who this passerby extra actually was/is because she so promanently stands out in the visual image of this opening
sequence.

Mr. E said...

Do you know where I can find a video clip of the scene where Lou Grant punches the puppet? I think it is one of the funniest things I have ever seen and I cannot find that clip anywhere. Could you e-mail a link to it please (if it is out there)?
english.me1967@gmail.com