Monday, August 13, 2012
How we break a story
Quick disclaimer: The way we plotted shows back then might be a little different than today. The importance we placed on certain aspects like character motivation are less of a priority on most of today’s sitcoms. Not all but a lot. But the more you’re exposed to dramatic structure the better storytellers you’re going to become. And even if you have no desire to write, you’ll still gain a greater appreciation about what goes into telling a good story.
Here’s how this episode came about. At the start of the season we put together a list of possible story areas. We compiled as many as we could and during the season we just kept adding to the list. Probably 70% of the ideas never get used. But we had some for each character, many for the Kim-Mike relationship (that was our money), some for the office, some for home. A number of these ideas could sustain an entire episode, others could be told in two or three scenes.
So when putting episodes together we would mix and match and try to assemble something that would service all the characters.
We had the notion: Kim has to cook for Mike. We thought this was a valid story. Kim is a career woman and probably couldn’t cook. There’s always fun in watching someone flail around in the kitchen. Logically, that story takes place over two days. Kim decides to cook for Mike on Day One and Day Two she does. Since her cooking would take up much of the episode we needed a show that took place over two days with most of it unfolding the second night.
Then if it’s a Kim and Mike story we needed to find something for the guys in the office. Was there a story at work we could switch back and forth to? This would accomplish two things: service the guys and allow for time lapses in the cooking story.
So we went through the workplace ideas. One idea we had was They blow up a building. And that wasn’t even really an idea. Our line producer Larina Adamson found a stock shot of a building on the New York set being blown up. We could show the building, go to the stock footage, and then just dress the building to look post-explosion. And it would seem like we spent a fortune. How many sitcoms blow up buildings?
The only trouble is: there was no story. We came up with this: We had already established that Gary (Chip Zien) resented that Kim was the showrunner instead of him. What if he’s in charge for the night (because Kim is home cooking), the show is going to blow up the building, and he gives the signal at the wrong time so it blows up before the cameras are rolling? Talk about a fuck up. Not only will we get the benefit of showing a big explosion, we’ll get a big laugh out of it.
Sound good? Are we ready to plot it out? No. Not yet. It wasn’t enough for us to just have two parallel stories. We wanted them to have some theme tying them together. (This is where a lot of sitcoms today say, “Who gives a shit?” and just starts slapping scenes on the board. But to us it’s important.) What we came up with is that this is an episode that shows that people are talented in one area but not in others and have to accept that.
Now we’re ready.
Establish the premise. Kim wants to cook for Mike. Why? Why would someone who can’t cook decide to do that? Because it’s funny is not an answer. At least to us. She’s needs legitimate motivation. How’s this? They bump into an old girlfriend of Mike’s. She’s married, happy, with kids, and is a great cook. Kim knows that Mike admires that, and is maybe a little envious. Mike assures Kim he’s fine that she’s not that person but it’s unsettling. Where to stage the scene? Instead of constructing another set like a restaurant we decided to go out and shoot on the lost. Paramount has a theater. Perfect. They’re coming out of a movie. We establish that it was a horror movie and Kim loved the gore. Not your typical suzy homemaker. They meet the ex and a seed is planted.
Scene two: that night in bed. Kim still haunted by this. Mike had said the ex was a great cook so Kim decides to make him his favorite meal. What should it be? Something difficult and could give us comedy mileage. Fried chicken. It’s tricky and messy – comic gold.
Scene three: Next day in the office. Establish the building will be blown up the next night. Kim gets the fried chicken recipe. This allows the guys to razz her and reinforce to the audience that she just can’t cook. She leaves putting Gary in charge. Remind the audience that he feels entitled to that job. Makes it funnier when he fucks up.
Scene four: That evening. Kim tries to cook. Again, different from today – we were content to take our time and just enjoy Kim fumbling in the kitchen. Now sitcoms insist on short scenes, blackouts almost. As for the scene itself: we wanted something fresher than just seeing someone screw up a recipe. Lucy did it better. We came up with Kim doing voices and having the food items talk to each other. She gets punchy so it’s believable, but the fun is seeing her being silly. And Mike catching her.
Scene five: Back to the office. Gary must make a tough decision. Blow up the building tonight or take his chances that the weather will hold tomorrow. Tomorrow means Kim is back in charge. Tonight he’s at the helm. He chooses tonight. His co-workers are nervous.
Scene seven: On the set. Establish Gary acting like a big shot. The more full of himself he is, the funnier it is when he fucks up. Just having Gary walk on the set, accidentally give the signal and boom doesn’t give you the most (pun included) bang for your buck. So the building blows up and the cameras weren’t rolling. Sounds like a pretty good act break to me.
We come back and see the rubble. It’s not so much fun to be in charge now. Gary has to do some serious tap dancing. Now the fun is watching him try to salvage the situation.
Back to Kim’s kitchen for scene nine. The second batch of chicken is black. Kim needs to salvage a situation too. She calls Mike’s mother for advice. This device allows us to explain to the audience how you really make fried chicken. That way everyone is up to speed. Hey, I didn’t know how to make fried chicken before that script. So what does Kim do now? She races out to buy some.
Scene ten: The set. We see Gary’s plan-B. It’s incredibly weenie. The vice tightens for Gary.
Scene eleven: Kim returns. Mike catches her. At this point we decided to slow things down and just have a real conversation between the two of them. We sprinkled it with little jokes, but we wanted Mike’s reassurance to really land. Still something was left unresolved. Just telling her she’s terrific at other things isn’t enough. We needed to see it in action. Kim gets the call from Gary.
Scene twelve: Kim and Gary on the set. Kim comes up with a good solution right off the top of her head. She is good at this. Meanwhile, we're told that Gary is a great writer. Do we need to see an example of that? No. The story’s over. I think you buy it. A few jokes to get you out of the show and we’re done.
Okay – extra credit. Go back and watch the show again. Do you see things differently? Lots of thought and care goes into each minute, doesn’t it? And for us the trick is to slide it all in in such a way that you don’t notice. There’s a flow and a logic with surprises and good laughs.
And we try to do that twenty-two separate times. Clearly, it’s hard, which is why a lot of today’s sitcoms don’t do it. They get okay ratings with very sloppy storytelling so for them it’s good enough. But for you as a young writer, strive for better. Seriously, did you really want to get into this business so you could write 2 BROKE GIRLS? If so, please transfer out of Comedy 101 and see what shop classes are still open.