Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Writing in the Mess Tent
When we finally went on staff of a show and got our first office we would always keep the door closed. Just the idea of people going by or our secretary answering a phone was too distracting. How could we be funny if we saw two people walking down the hall?
Then we stepped into our first writing room. The showrunners were the great Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, two of the funniest men I’ve ever known. The writers sat around a kitchen table and just dictated the script. There was a writers’ assistant right there in the room taking shorthand. Yes, an actual intruder! Besides that, the door was open and there was always steady traffic in and out of the room. The casting director had questions, the prop guy needed to show us crossbows, the P.A. dragged in a new foosball table.
At first this was very intimidating. Like in the seventh grade when I first had to shower with everybody in gym class. And unlike school, I had to get over it in under two years.
What you learn real quick is that part of the skill of sitcom writing is the ability to concentrate and perform on demand. You’re always under pressure. You’re never going to be able to control the conditions. So you just have to deliver.
By the end of that first week I was starting to feel comfortable enough that I could pitch a joke now and again. One, I remember, actually made it in! I was so proud of myself – coming through under the toughest of all conditions.
Or so I thought.
I was frozen while the more experienced writers, Gary David Goldberg and Hugh Wilson fired joke suggestions at Tom & Jay as if it was nothing. One was selected, the scene was re-shot, and the new joke got a huge laugh. Yep. This was the Big Leagues. And I was a rookie.
Through trial by fire I eventually felt comfortable contributing in that aspect of the job as well.
The next season we moved on to MASH. That’s a single-camera show. No audience. So you’d think it would be easier, right?
The first day of filming every episode was a rehearsal day. The cast would move from set to set on Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox and rehearse their scenes. Once they were satisfied, David and I were summoned to come watch the scene and then go off and do any rewriting that was necessary. But since it made no sense to keep schlepping back and forth between our office and the stage every half hour, we just did our rewrites right there on the stage. We commandeered a table in the mess tent and that’s where we worked – with actors, crew people, extras, God-knows-who walking by. And in some cases just sitting down and joining us. We’re trying to fix a scene and some extra plops himself down at the table and begins eating a burrito. We eventually killed him, too.
Again, it’s a skill that most writers have to learn. But schools never teach it. That was one of the reasons why I started the Sitcom Room. Sure wish I had had the chance to experience what room writing was like before I was on a network show.
I have no plans however, to start the Shower Room seminar.