TGIQAAD – Thank God it’s Questions and Answers Day.
From Jim S:
I am curious about how decisions are made and you've written extensively on how some, not all, networks suits can make the process of creating a new show every week difficult with their "helpful" suggestions.
I wonder about the other side of the coin. What happens when a showrunner gets a vision of a successful show that just appears bad to everyone else. Heroes after the first season comes to my mind as a show that was hurt by its own producers. Can the suits actually save someone from making a huge mistake?
That’s what networks point to – examples like HEROES. They’ll argue that if they aren’t around to steer the show in the right direction it will go off the rails like HEROES. And in fairness, sometimes they’re right. But more often than not the showrunner has a better grasp on the show he’s writing than executives who have never written a show. And most network notes are of the “safe” variety. Make the characters more likeable. Spell things out over and over again.
Rarely will you hear a network say to a producer, “Take a bigger chance. Really go for it.” They’re usually nervous whenever a showrunner wants to do something very bold. But again, to be fair, just because an idea is bold doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. And networks have a big financial investment in these shows now. I imagine there are instances when they save shows from taking really bad turns. I just hate to admit it.
What do you do on days when you're stuck for jokes, or having an off day?
It depends. If you’re on a show and you have to complete the rewrite that night you just suck it up. Take a few breaks. Start riffing on other subjects. Once everyone is laughing, even if it’s over something horribly inappropriate, you start feeling funny again, and the jokes for the actual show start to come.
If you’re just writing a script and you’re not up against a deadline crunch, then just walk away for a few hours.
Relax. Sometimes a way to jump start your brain is to watch some funny videos or a movie you find particularly hilarious. VOLUNTEERS springs to mind for some reason. Read humorous essays (or blogs, hint hint), go to a comedy club, listen to the comedy channels on XM. Maybe you’ll get lucky and catch Kathleen Madigan.
For me, a great help has always been improv class. Teachers like Andy Goldberg can help you free up your mind, learn to be spontaneous, and all the while you’re having fun.
Finally, this is one of the reasons why it’s good to write in teams. One partner can carry the load on a day the other is just feeling dry. When I write with David Isaacs, often I find that there are days when he’s particularly hot or I’m particularly hot. I really love it when he’s hot.
Every writer is different and every writer develops tricks that seem to help him. But recognize that there are days your mind is molasses. That's normal, it happens to everyone, so just roll with it the best way you can.
Phillip B has a question about ethnicity.
Is it strictly forbidden or just strongly discouraged? At least Lilith got to be Jewish
While many people were complaining that there were no black characters on Happy Days, for example, I was among those wondering how you could portray Milwaukee - then or now - without Polish people. Lenny and Squiggy of Laverne and Shirley were perhaps the most Polish of any characters since the cast of Sgt Bilko -- but it was all subtext.
Can't recall any jokes about Irish Catholics on Cheers, but rich people were usually portrayed as excessively Protestant...
You mean they aren’t?
Certain groups go in and out of favor. In the ‘70s Jews were fashionable. You could have a character like Rhoda. Now I suspect you’d have a hard time getting that character to star in a network sitcom. Of course, in this case, it might be Fran Drescher who killed it for all Jews.
I used to love how Jason Alexander’s character in SEINFELD was so clearly Jewish but they gave him an Italian name. Same with Doris Roberts on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. I don’t care that her name was Barone. That was the most Jewish mother on TV since Nancy Walker played Rhoda’s mom.
I know it’s not an ethnicity, but for a long time you rarely saw gay characters. Now they’re in vogue. The Irish Catholics’ day will come.
And finally, Anonymous has a question. Please leave your name.
Do you feel that syndication and the associated editing to put in ad space is killing reruns? I'm specifically wondering about Becker. I used to think it was very good, one of the few shows I made appointments to watch. Now I watch it and find it not funny, with characters issuing one-liners that make no sense why they would say that. I'm wondering if maybe there's been some stuff edited out.
That’s the Faustian contract you make when you go into syndication. The studios and hopefully the creators make a lot of money. But the shows are hacked up to fit in more commercials. Actually, I don’t think BECKER has been that severely compromised. Certainly not as bad as some.
On MASH it’s a different story. Because we had two to three storylines going in every episode and there were a multitude of small scenes, sometimes the edited-for-syndication versions make absolutely no sense. Set-up scenes are gone and you have no idea why characters are acting the way they are. I believe the Hallmark Channel restored them to their original lengths. If so, thank you. The best way… no, the ONLY way, to see MASH is to watch the DVD’s.
What’s your question?