Wednesday, September 01, 2010

How NOT to give notes

Here are some ways not to give notes. I screwed up and posted part 2 first. The first half of this helpful constructive rant will be posted tomorrow. The point is how not to give notes. Tomorrow will be centered more on network and studio executives.

Think through the ramifications of your notes. Don’t just say, “let’s do this instead”. Your suggestion may solve one immediate problem but screw up everything else that follows. Remember, every story beat, every line has been discussed (usually to death) and is there in that form for a reason. I’m not saying it can’t be improved but take a moment to appreciate the logic process first.

You know what really enrages us? When you ask for something in the script that’s already there. Please read the damn thing. We worked very hard on it. When you hear us respond to one of your notes by saying, “It’s right there on page 8!” know that when we get back to the office you are the target of moron jokes for a week.

Another sensitive area is giving notes on jokes. If they’re notes on a runthrough there is no need for you to point out which jokes didn’t work. We’re trained comedy writers. We can recognize silence.

If it’s just a joke on a page then it gets trickier. You’re making a subjective call. Here is where tact comes in again. A well-known producer with a shocking lack of tact used to challenge the writer when he didn’t like a joke. He’d say, “How is that funny? Explain to me why anyone in the fucking world would laugh at that?” It’s hard to rewrite comedy when your testicles have been removed.

Contrast that to Gene Reynolds when he was producing MASH. He’d merely say, “You might want to take another look at that joke”. That’s all you need, isn’t it?

Don’t – I repeat DON’T ever vote on jokes. Don’t ask for a show of hands among the executives around the table as to whether they liked a particular joke. That’s like us taking a poll as to whether your dick is long enough. And trust me, you don't want to hear the results.

Actors: We writers don’t take kindly to you throwing the script on the floor and yelling that it’s “shit”! Call us over-sensitive. You can go over to us and say, “I’m having a little trouble with this.” That we’ll listen to. “I could use a little help here”. We’ll respond positively to that too.

But “My character wouldn’t say that” – we hate that a thousand times more than “this bumps me”. An actor once said that to producer Steven Bochco. He said to the actor, "Maybe your character wouldn't say that, but he's not your character, he's my character, and he's saying it right here." He pointed to the script.

Nick Collasanto (the Coach on CHEERS) was the smartest actor I’ve ever worked with when it came to giving writers notes. He would always start off by saying, “I’m happy to do it just the way you have it here, but…” and then he’d go on and express his concern. The fact that he said he’d do it as written we ALWAYS changed it to his satisfaction.

Dear actors, think of us as collaborators not mules.

Again, it all boils down to respect. It may not look it but we put a lot of time and effort into these scripts. In some cases we pour out our hearts and souls (not so much on episodic but still). And even though we don’t like them, we appreciate thoughtful notes and only want the script to get better. If you present your notes well I can almost guarantee that we’ll take the script from here to here… or at least here.

24 comments:

Rockgolf said...

Is this the opposite of History of the World Part I?

I don't see the "Part I" of this on the blog.

joecab said...

Then I guess you're grateful that Edward Norton never became a regular on a sitcom.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Like some notes, this is completely irrelevant to the topic at hand, but do readers here know that they can subscribe to the Dodger Talk podcast through iTunes?

Sometimes I like the 21st century.

Sal Monella said...

Note to Ken: Part One is invisible.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I'm happy to read the blog exactly as written, but I need a little help here with the numbering of the parts. If part 1 of the rant had a lot to do with the Emmys, the connection may be too subtle.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this a rerun? I remember it from way back when.
-MW

Simon H. said...

I can't wait for Part 4 tomorrow.

KEN LEVINE said...

It's not a rerun. I post these via a timer so I don't have to get up every morning at 6. But I screwed up the dates. Part one is tomorrow.

David Schwartz said...

Ken, everything you said is spot on. Truthfully, it all seems like common sense to treat people with a sense of decency. Everyone is almost always trying their best and when people disrespect their efforts or don't take the same care with their comments that you've taken with your writing, the moron jokes are definitely justified! Nobody has to act like Ari Gold to make their point. On a side note, I wrote animation for years and I actually heard the comment, "Scooby Doo wouldn't say that." Honest!

daniel in cherry hill said...

just a note-

its funnier if you post part one first. we took a poll.

Cherry said...

Excellent post - it made me laugh :)

Note Giver said...

Dear Mr. Levine - unable to find part 1; please refund my money from your blog.

Mr. Snrub said...

During a rehearsal for a stageplay I co-wrote, we had an actor snipe, "Who says stuff like that? I mean, who actually talks like that?"

My wife, who was also in the play, piped up - "Your character does. Just shut up and do the lines."

You can see why I stay married to this woman.

Tom Quigley said...

David Schwartz said...

"Scooby Doo wouldn't say that." ...

Actually, in order to make his or her point, the person who spoke those words should probably have said "Rooby Doo rouldn't ray rat."...

Scooby Doo pulling the star thing aside, the writing staff at HOME IMPROVEMENT used to kind of do a pre-emptive strike against network and studio notes by bringing a small audience into their midweek rehearsal and gauging their response to the story and jokes, then going to work immediately afterward on the re-write. The benefit is that you got some immediate reaction from outsiders, and whatever mental or written notes the writers made to themselves were still fresh. In addition, everyone could see what worked and what didn't, so the there was a lot less basis for debate. I'm surprised that more shows didn't make use of that practice.

Mac said...

Thanks for an excellent post, Ken.
There's a comedian in the UK (who used to have prime-time shows) who was notorious for constantly telling his writers how unfunny they were. The writers jumped ship at the first chance they got, and his shows' quality plummeted. He hasn't had a show on TV for several years now.
Be Nice!! It makes business sense.

Ralph Hitchens said...

Re. actors & directors, I always loved that Spike Lee anecdote reportedly from one of his early movies. A young black actor asked him, "Spike, what's your vision here?" Lee answered, "My vision is, I pay you money, you act."

Mike Barer said...

The picture of Coach,reminds me of the terrible curse NBC has of characters dying in the middle of the runs of their shows.
Cheers, Hill Street Blues, and Night Court lost major characters at the same time.
Suddenly Susan and Night Radio both had characters passing about the same time as well. Not to mention SNL.

Jim said...

"every story beat .... has been discussed"

You've spoken about story beats before, but this is the first time I've realised that I don't actually know what you mean. What is a story beat? How many beats an act? How many a half hour show? Is there some sort of story rhythm that you have to keep in your head when writing an episode of a sitcom? Do different shows have different beats? Or have I just missed something very obvious along the line.

Max Clarke said...

Nick was also a capable director.

He directed an episode of Columbo, "Swan Song," with Johnny Cash. Did lots of tv shows, but that's the one where I saw his name on the credits when I had always thought of him as simply Coach.

Anonymous said...

The actor he's referring to regarding the Stephen Bochco comment is Daniel J. Travanti. Ken used that example before in an October '07 post.

5cent said...

#1 rule for me as an actor, if I don't think my character would say what's on the page... I've obviously built the wrong character. That won't keep me from collaborating with the writer, but that line is part of the characters heart.

Pat Reeder said...

I've worked more in radio than TV, where you have to create comedy bits in recording studios and just hope that what you've created will strike other people as funny once you've finished it. My partner and I did occasionally run tests, though, to make sure the laughs were there before airing bits. We would grab any passing stranger out of the hall, play them the bit and watch their reaction. We called this the "M.T." We had everyone believing that it was a high honor to be chosen to help with an "M.T." We never told them that "M.T." stood for "Moron Test."

BTW, a question for Friday: Kelsey Grammer has recently been through two failed sitcoms and is apparently facing an expensive divorce. I don't know if this is related to reports that he's been Tweeting about possibly doing a "Frasier" reunion, or a spinoff about Frasier and Niles' sons with the old cast doing cameos. I usually find reunion shows to be sad and depressing, but with that level of talent, maybe they could pull it off. What do you think of this idea, and if asked, would you want to be involved in it?

jbryant said...

Colosanto directed a second COLUMBO, too, ETUDE IN BLACK, with John Cassavetes as an orchestra conductor (and written by Bochco from a Levinson/Link story). Another goodie.

TATI said...

I'd really like to read this second part of your post, but...if you'd publish the first, maybe I would read it with better disposition. Everybody is with me ? Let's vote !