Thursday, July 28, 2011

The inside story on DREAM ON

Here's another Friday question that deserves a whole post... and a guest to write it. The question is from Chris, who asks:

Do you have any idea how they used to write Dream On? It had these old movie/tv sequences in between characters' lines to make things more funny. Did the writers come up with the jokes based on old tv shows/movies they remembered or did they have people to help them with those/come up with better ones?

To answer this I went to one of the writer/producers of DREAM ON, Jeff Greenstein. Jeff went on to produce obscure shows like FRIENDS, WILL & GRACE, PARENTHOOD, and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.  He more than graciously fills us in. 

The short answer is both. Here's the long answer.

Before the Dream On staff convened for our first season, we spent hours watching tapes of old anthology series like GE Theatre and Jane Wyman Playhouse (yes, there were tapes in those days, chilluns), painstakingly logging intriguing clips into our notebooks. Sometimes stories would emerge from these sessions—for example, when creators Marta Kauffman & David Crane noticed the startling number of times people offered each other coffee: "Would you like some coffee?" "More coffee?" They concocted a story where main character Martin Tupper has to kick caffeine, only to be plagued by "Getcha some coffee?" "Have another cup," and so on.

Over time, however, the writers came to depend on a research staff whose job it was to watch the old shows and log them into a computer database. (Some of these researchers, notably Greg Malins, later became successful writers in their own right.) Stories were broken without much regard to their clip content; we always believed an episode should work without them. But then, once we were off writing the draft, we'd reach an emotional moment in a scene and say something like "CLIP TO COME: A single tear rolls down an Indian's cheek." The script would then be reviewed by a researcher who'd tell us, "Well, I don't have a crying Indian, but I do have a clip of a guy playing a a tiny violin." So we'd rewrite the script accordingly.

Every once in a while, we'd come across a clip that was so delightful we'd build an entire sequence around it. Jeff Strauss and I wrote an episode where a marathon sex session was intercut with dry narration of a rocket launch: "Yes, the big rocket was off, climbing into the atmosphere with a tremendous thrust of power." And then we'd cut to Martin, well... thrusting. You get the idea.

My favorite of these was an episode called "Calling the Kettle Black," which won us the coveted and defunct CableACE award. Martin finds a joint in his son's sock drawer and gives the kid the "just say no" speech. Cut to an old clip of Nancy Reagan saying "Good for you."

There was also an entire post-production phase where exec producer Kevin Bright would insert or alter clips to punch up a scene. Hence, in a way, the writing process continued all the way through editing.

So to return to the short answer: sometimes the clip tail would wag the writing dog, sometimes vice versa. It lent an additional level of difficulty to the scripts, but it also saved us from having to write subtext. And I think we can all say hurray for that.

Thanks, Jeff.  Both for the answer and some GREAT shows over the years. 

18 comments:

Mac said...

Thanks Jeff. Dream On was excellent. Very interesting to hear how it was put together.

Rob said...

Brilliant show!
I used to laugh my arse off watching Dream On, and I only knew one other guy in my group of freinds who watched it so we'd always meet the next day and sit around quoting chunks of it at each other.
Then his Mum bought a VHS machine ans we were made up!
Those were the days.

David Schwartz said...

I really enjoyed that show. The clips brought an extra level of cleverness to it creating a unique feel. I didn't realize it was created by the same folks who did Friends! It's a shame that Dream On is not airing regularly (or at least not airing regularly that I've seen)!

RCP said...

Watching old shows as a job? Not bad. I have the feeling Jane Wyman's Playhouse was nothing like PeeWee's.

Chris said...

Feeling starstruck you took a whole post to answer my question. Thank you. Also, loved Wendie Malick in that show as Martin's ex-wife, she's in Hot in Cleveland now and she's doing a fantastic job, she's incredibly funny.

Johnny Walker said...

Speaking of usual "gimmicks" (sorry if that's the wrong word), after I moved to LA and learned more about the industry I began to wonder about Home Improvement, and in particular the character of Wilson as played by the late Earl Hindman.

I can't imagine any actor agreeing to have their face never revealed throughout an entire show. Actors are always trying to improve their profiles and get better known, and then a part comes along where the "gag" is that the audience never sees your face.

Of course as an audience member it never crossed my mind that this amusing gimmick was anything other than, well, amusing, but knowing more about the industry I can only imagine it was an incredibly tricky idea to sell to an actor.

Laura said...

Awwww my first job as a casting associate on a series! I miss this show and my co-workers, thanks to one of the Jeff's for the visit back in time......

Monty B said...

Why, oh why hasn't HBO ever seen fit to release the rest of this series on DVD? They put out Seasons 1 & 2 (combined) many years ago, but since then, nothing. I don't think it's a rights issue with the clips - their having the rights was the whole impetus for the series from the get go.
I used to record this every week to watch with friends. It was hilarious. I know you can see some (edited) episodes on Hulu, but I want the whole series.

jbryant said...

Johnny: I don't think a weekly paycheck from a major network is an incredibly tricky idea to sell to an actor. :)

Great guest article from Jeff, but I'm a little surprised he didn't mention anything about rights. I assume HBO or some parent entity had rights to the old shows up front; otherwise, every episode would be a potential legal quagmire (I don't think any of that stuff would've been public domain at that point, but I don't know for sure).

normadesmond said...

"dream on" was a wonderful show. thanks for reminding me of how much i liked it.

Eric said...

I never really cared for Dream On. I think I stopped watching halfway through the first season, once it became clear that I wasn't going to get to see Wendy Malick naked.

I would assume that just like with music rights, broadcast rights to old TV shows negotiated in the 70s and 80s did not include repackaging and sales rights. (See also, MST3K)

cshel said...

Jeff -

Thanks for the post!

On a peripheral note, one of my favorite Will & Grace episodes ever was the one where Jack is trying to kick caffeine. Hilarious!

Anonymous said...

As a pubescent teenager, I knew I could count on that show for naked ladies. Loved it! I suspect that was the fist nude scene for many an actress (except, sadly, Wendie Malick)

jbryant said...

DREAM ON was the first time I ever saw Salma Hayek, and plenty of her!

LouOCNY said...

Speaking of long awaited DVD releases, I just found out that Shout! Factory will be putting out a COMPLETE Barney Miller set in October (FINALLY). And they are doing it in style too - 32 page booklet, commentaries by Hal Linden and the surviving cast, even including the first season of FISH, plus the long buried original pilot.

Like so many shows Sony controls, Barney had been neglected, abused, and never treated right, and thank God for Shout!

Jeff said...

Earl Hindman spent years on the daytime soap "Ryan's Hope" and got lots of facetime then. I'm sure he was happy to escape the daytime histrionics and do a primetime sitcome, regardless of whether his face got shown. Most long-term soap players never do anything but daytime (the most successful ones leave after a few years before they get labelled as a soap actor).

normadesmond said...

how hideous, now we've got
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Rob W said...

All of the old clips in Dream On were part of the originating studios' library ( I believe it was MCA/ Universal ) so there would be no issues with clip rights holding up the show. If I recall correctly, the show was created to exploit MCA's huge backload of old footage which was not generating a lot of revenue at the time.