Monday, October 11, 2010

Comedy Writing 101 is back in session

I posted last night's SIMPSON'S opening but YouTube took it down.  So I took down the post. I hate when I can't post stuff I don't own

Thanks again to Aaron Sorkin for sharing his insights in the making of SOCIAL NETWORK.  Compared to that a half hour episode of comedy seems a little minimal but that's what I got.

Saturday I posted another episode of ALMOST PERFECT, the series I co-created with David Isaacs and Robin Schiff for CBS in 1995 and 1996. I’d like to think of it as “Cancelled but Helpful to Young Writers”. Here’s how “Overly Meditated” came to be.

Our best stories were the ones that serviced our overall theme – how does a young woman juggle work and a relationship when both are fulltime jobs? If you’re writing a spec of an existing show first determine its theme. Does your story address it? If no then toss it.

Contrast within a relationship helps create conflict so we made Mike very down-to-earth and Kim a bit of a princess. That also gave Nancy Travis (Kim) something to play. We had been looking for a story that explored this dichotomy when one fell right into our lap.

Robin had dinner one night with a friend, a high-powered executive in the television industry. This woman had been to a meditation retreat, which we all found astounding considering “the Lifestyle of the Rich & Famous” was her blueprint for life. I think six people in the room came up with same idea at once. “What if Kim went to a weekend meditation retreat?”

When we settle on a premise the next thing we do is figure how to get the most bang for our buck. What are the funniest obstacles we can create?

In this case: It’s very Spartan. No creature comforts. It’s in the high desert so it’s freezing. There’s no electricity. Everyone has to eat macrobiotic mush. They all must do chores. There are two-hour breathing exercises. These all seemed good but they weren’t enough. We needed a couple of things that really tested Kim’s resolve and gave us plenty of room for fun. I don’t remember who in the room came up with what but ultimately we arrived at two great things: There’s no talking for 48 hours, and there are no bathrooms. She would have to use an outhouse. Knowing this character, those were the two most impossible tasks she could ever face in this situation.

The thrust of the story was Kim being put to a test. And again, your main character must want something; want it very badly. Kim HAD to survive this weekend, both for her own well-being and to prove to Mike that she wasn’t a princess.

So we had a character with a strong motivation, a funny venue to put her in – we were now ready to plot out the story.

We never minded if a story was simple as long as the subject matter seemed fresh. If you’re doing a spec, dazzle them with how well you write not how well you can plot SLUETH. A big question we had here was what to do with the other characters? Should we have a B-story with the writers? We tossed around a few and decided just to bag it. Once you went to the retreat we felt you’d want to stay there and not jump back and forth between stories. Also, we wanted to take our time with the retreat story and not have to jam things in quickly to accommodate a B-story. So this week the guys were light. The cast understood that if they had little to do one week we would make sure they were heavy the next. If you’re writing a spec 30 ROCK or MODERN FAMILY you can get buried trying to service everyone. If a side character or two is light so be it. Also, the best specs center their stories on the stars. If you’re writing a COMMUNITY, don’t do a big Shirley story and give Jeff four lines.

Okay, time to beat out the story.

We thought we’d open at the office and establish that Kim is super stressed. Drop the problem in right away. The reader doesn’t want to read eight pages before he knows what the dilemma is. We looked for a way to do that visually so Kim didn’t have to just say what her issue was. The neck brace is actually a call-back to a previous episode where she got a stiff neck making love to Mike in a car. So we got some jokes out of that. We felt we needed two steps to get her to the retreat. None of the guys would ever suggest such a thing. But they would recommend a chiropractor. They convince her to go and there’s a little twist at the end where we see they had an ulterior motive for getting her out of there.

Then it’s off to the chiropractor’s office. Our first question is always “what’s her attitude?” We decided to have her enter very apprehensive and once the chiropractor works on her she does a flip and suddenly loves it. We made the chiropractor very New Age. Even if you have guest roles in your spec take a few minutes and give them personalities. Once the chiropractor has proven himself Kim is very receptive to his suggestions. We keep underscoring that this stressful lifestyle she is living will lead to serious problems if she doesn’t address it.

But why a retreat? Why would a princess who wouldn’t dream of doing something like that agree to it? These are the questions we are always asking. “Why would she do this?” “Wouldn’t she do that instead?” Be tough on yourself here. The key was that she wanted the fastest possible solution. So one weekend instead of weekly classes and changing her diet was ideal. Even though she was warned. This was important. If she went there and was surprised it wasn’t a luxury spa she’d just leave. Better that she knew it was going to be rugged but embraced that (or so she thought).

Okay, so now we had to get Mike on board.

We go to Kim’s kitchen that night. He enters. She’s already eating healthy food. Her attitude is enthusiasm. His is dismissive. He has no time for some tree hugging bullshit. To convince him to go we wanted to avoid guilting him into it, or pleading, or Kim getting angry. We’ve seen that a billion times. Instead she uses a little cunning.

Now we go to retreat. Figure it’s a Friday night. Right from the get-go Kim is freezing. Mike is being the good soldier. When “Dave” (remember him from HEROES?) lays out the agenda Mike is suddenly amused. He’s going to enjoy watching Kim try to be silent and use an outhouse. This only strengthens her resolve. Now she wants to complete this weekend even MORE.

Not being able to speak also allowed us to do some silent bits, something you don’t often see on sitcoms.

After a quick dinner scene we move to their room. Mike no longer finds this fun. They’re both really uncomfortable. At this point we wanted to start putting pressure on Kim to crack. The couple in the next room is already breaking the rules. They’re making love, adding temptation. By the way, the offstage couple is me and Robin.

From there we go to a series of scenes showing the next day’s activities, looking for fun silent moments in each. And all the while building Kim’s frustration.

Things finally erupt back in their room that night. More temptation as the couple in the next room are not only having sex but they’re eating McDonalds. This escalates to a fight. Dave asks them to leave. Kim pleads to let them stay. She can do this. After only one minute of trying she bails. It seemed funny to have a character so committed giving up after one minute.

Back to Kim’s kitchen. Kim is mad. On the surface she’s angry with Mike but really she’s mad at herself for not being able to hack it. So when Mike disarms her by goofing on the weekend, she’s really just letting herself off the hook. We thought it would be funny and real to have them just break up over the experience. But there was a lot of discussion about this. We worried that it would look very self-congratulatory to have characters say how funny they thought elements of the show were. Ultimately, we went with it, arguing that it was such a universal reaction we could justify it. The laughing jag leads to a nice moment between them. We tried whenever we could to get at what the episode was really about and have them open up a little to each other.

David, Robin, and I wrote this over a long weekend but all the real heavy lifting had been done before we wrote FADE IN.

Good luck with your spec. Hopefully you’ll take from this discussion the need to really be tough on yourself… although I’m sure there will be a few who now write Liz Lemon goes to a meditation retreat spec 30 ROCK.


Tiago said...

Great as always. Thanks for this!

SLH said...

Completely OT, I was wondering if you saw the couch gag from last nights "The Simpsons", and I wonder what you thought about it:

I'm amazed Fox allowed it to run, as it's both both brilliant and darker than anything I've ever seen on the show.

Rory Wohl said...

"The couple in the next room is already breaking the rules. They’re making love, adding temptation. By the way, the offstage couple is me and Robin."

Now that's a good job.

Oh, wait, were you only pretending to make love offstage?


Mike said...

To be honest, Liz Lemon at a meditation retreat would probably be really funny.

If Tina Fey wrote it.

Thanks for this; great advice for any writer, not just those hoping to write a spec script. I really appreciate all you do that way.

The same chris said...

Hi Ken,

you spelled Slueth wrong. I dont want to be a spelling nazi but since I love that movie so much, I have to tell you it's actually spelled Thlues. But I dont really mind. Reading your blog is always fun!

Thomas M. said...

Mr. Levine

I've been reading this blog for about 4 months now (backtracking through the archive).

These 2 episode breakdowns are absolutely fantastic. Great fun and very informative.


DirkJohanson said...


Thanks for the post, but of more pertinence to my own life, being 47

- and following up on your answer to Anonymous at and my ensuing comment/question -

any chance you had any luck today hooking me up with some cyanide or hemlock around Tampa?

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, a great breakdown. Having never written any specs in partnership with anyone other than myself, I can see where having three people working on it helped to answer all the questions that came up while working out the beats... Questions that I myself would have overlooked had I been writing a similar story (and probably did overlook in writing some of the specs I did write which didn't impress anyone)..

BB said...

Did saw the Simpsons new intro with Bansky stuff in it.
Too bad YOUTUBE took it down.

Phillip B said...

LA Times had the same problem with the Simpson's clip on YouTube, and now has a link to the full episode on Hulu.

So a potential question for Friday - Is Fox being a good sport or are they painted into a corner by defiant humor? Did NBC enjoy the depiction of their executives on Seinfeld, or they just have to swallow hard and take it?

Paul Duca said...

Even pretending to have sex off-camera sounds more fun that doing some play-by-play in the background.

(did you at least have real McDonald's?)

Ashley said...

This is random, but it seemed like for a second you had a blog post about the Simpsons opening couch gag, and now it's gone...Did I imagine that or did you take it down for some reason?

Paul Duca said...

I'm sure the guys didn't mind that the B story was light that week....


they were casting hookers!
(any personal experience on that, Ken?)

Steve said...

I have to say, I enjoyed the first Almost Perfect episode you posted a good deal, and it made me wish I had seen more of this series. But this one seemed very sitcommy and I found the characters annoying, and it turned me off to the show. I understand the conflict you were going for, but it just struck me as the characters were really whiny and immature rather than amusing or original. For example, how much glee Mike had when Kim couldn't stay in the outhouse. It seemed both a little too mean and too sitcommy (counting to 3 both times).

Kim trying to cook the meal in the first episode could have been a sitcom cliche too, but, as Ken pointed out, it was done in some fresh ways, playing on Nancy Travis's excellent acting. Nothing seemed fresh or as an example of her charm in this one, sorry to say.

Tracy Smith said...

My friend Tim posted your Sorkin reply on his facebook page. I have not been able to stop reading your stuff since. Your advice to writers regarding specs is fabulous.

Years and years ago, I was writing a spec of "Everybody Loves Raymond". I had a bunch of "Raymond" scripts to use as examples, but for me they were crippling and intimidating and I found I could not get started. I told my problem to a successful writer friend of mine and his words untangled me and got me going. He said "You are not going up against these writers you who's work you are using as an example. You are one writer who's trying to get her first job and those are twelve of the very best writers in television. Start writing your script. Re-write your script, and quit thinking that it has to be an Emmy winner right out of the gate."

Thanks for your blog.

Lou H. said...

Here's a Friday question:

I haven't seen a lot written about how a sitcom's supporting characters (and cast) are designed/chosen. Hope you can shed some light on this.

On Almost Perfect, what were you thinking as you were developing the personalities of the guys at the office? Were they always supposed to be mildly antagonistic toward Nancy's character and to each other? Was one going to be a potential love interest down the road? Did you have the characters fairly precisely defined by the time you started casting? What influence did the people you ultimately cast have on the characters? And will you back me up on my belief that David Clennon was for a decade and a half just about the most versatile TV actor out there?

Sharon said...

I loved ALMOST PERFECT. I was quite unhappy when it was added to my extensive list of great television shows for which it seemed that I was the only viewer.