Sunday, August 19, 2012

Now you can talk like a real sitcom writer!

You gotta know the lingo. Sitcom writing rooms have their own terms and expressions and if you ever plan on being in one (either by choice or force) you might want to know a few of them.  I'll sprinkle in more in the weeks ahead but this should get you started.   The only other thing I would add is swear more than in GIRLS. 

Callbacks -- Doing a joke based on something already mentioned in the scene.

Hey May – Supposedly from Carl Reiner and the old DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. It’s an act break so great that a husband yells to his wife in the kichen: “Hey, May, you gotta get in here!”

Swinging in on a rope -- A side character enters the screen, delivers a joke, then leaves. We used to do that a lot with Carla on CHEERS. Sam and Diane are having a discussion. She swings in, takes a shot at Diane, and keeps moving.

Button – Final joke of a scene.

Blow -- Same as button but sounds more “street”.

Pipe – Exposition. We had a character on ALMOST PERFECT whose basic function was to come into the room and deliver pipe. So we named her Piper.   She eventually quit.

Clam -- Overused joke.

Sheboygan – A joke too over-the-top.

B story -- A subplot. Often ensemble shows resort to these to give cast members not involved in the main story something to do in the show and keep them off the writers' backs.

Beats – events that occur in a scene.

House number -- Supposedly from the Norman Lear days. Pitching an idea or joke that’s more of an example than the actual pitch you intend to go in the script. You use it to preface your pitch. It’s a good disclaimer in case everyone in the room thinks it’s a stupid idea and you’re an idiot.

Savers -- Damage control jokes right after your real joke pitch dies a horrible death. It was Johnny Carson's best friend.

Captain Obvious -- Pointing out a problem that even the craft services guy could identify.

Grammar police -- Writers whose only contribution in rewrites is correcting grammar. You want to dangle their participle over a lake of snapping alligators.

Proofer’s Challenge – Some technicality you come across during a rewrite that’s not worth everyone’s time to settle. What food should be on the table? What was the year of that Superbowl? It’s left to the person proofing that night.

Throwing a bone -- Giving an actor a joke because he doesn’t have much to do in a scene or you don’t think he’s very good but have to service him anyway. Usually it's the actor the network forced you to take.

27 comments:

Michael said...

I don't know whether the second story below will make it past my internet censor, but ... you're not alone in having a language of your own.

I live in Las Vegas and most out here don't know gambling lingo. A crossroader is a dealer who moves from place to place, stealing from the house. The casino is the store. If it's flat, it's crooked. Years ago, an old casino guy here said, "Our county commission is a flat store." Most people had no idea; those who understood it thought it was a great commentary.

Baseball umpires have a lingo and it reminded me of this. Years ago, I read where an umpire described a close play that led to an argument and ejections: "I had a banger, it turned into a shithouse, and I had to run a few." I've always wished you could say that on the air. I've always wanted to hear The Vin say it. Supposedly, Jon Miller does "Obscene Vin" off the air. I'd love to hear it, if it's true.

Johnny Walker said...

Is it bad to talk only in "House numbers"? I remember hearing some of the writers on Frasier talking about how the showrunners only wanted fully formed ideas... So everyone would sit in silence for 20 minutes before they pitched anything.

Chris Marcil said...

Some of these must be room-specific. I've never heard "Hey May" or "Sheboygan," for example. And the only person I ever heard use "button" was David Lloyd, usually like this: "You call that a button?" "Blow" is near-universal. On NewsRadio we had (half-jokingly) the term "coconut drop," for when a character suddenly behaves in an uncharacteristic way for a specific reason (think Gilligan suddenly being smart because of a coconut falling on him).

Personally I think you're being unkind to B-stories to describe them so dismissively. Often they're funnier than the A-story, because you don't have to turn the story to an emotional climax. And I find they're often what people remember from shows. I mean, on Frasier, Eddie's stuff generally didn't rise to the level of even a B-story, and yet the dog was almost always the first thing your relatives mentioned when you said you worked on the show.

Kirk said...

On the episode of ALL IN THE FAMILY where Gloria gets raped, there was a subplot, or as you call it, B-story, involving Archie Bunker buying some homemade hot dogs from the Jeffersons next door. I didn't get the sense it was there to give the actors who played Louise and Henry Jefferson (this was before George) something to do--they were semi-regulars, anyway--but to provide some comic relief to the mains story, which was quite dramatic. It's also a reminder that even when something serious and heartbreaking occurs in a person's life, that the trivial stuff--like the purchase of homemade hot dogs--goes on anyway.

-bee said...

Chuck Lorre might as well just cut to the chase and set his next show in Sheboygan.

Dr. Leo Marvin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr. Leo Marvin said...

I assume "savers" are for when the joke dies unintentionally. Is there a word for jokes you hope will fail so you can use your scripted savers? I'm thinking of the Carmac routines, in which the audience groans seemed intended, so Johnny could come back with "may a Tazmanian stink worm lay its eggs in your sister's Easter bonnet" (or words to that effect).

Tom Reeder said...

Danny Arnold had a contemptuous phrase for exposition he considered too bald: "Here we are in sunny Spain."

He used it when one character was telling another character something they both already knew (but the audience didn't).

It could be something like "Hey, Todd, that big shot from the main office is coming today to evaluate our performance and decide who gets a raise." "Right, Leo. Or who gets fired."

When Danny saw anything like that in a draft, he'd say, "Here we are in sunny Spain." Then the offending dialogue would get rewritten to make the exposition sound more natural.

Andy Ihnatko said...

My favorite bit of lingo is from "Lost" (via an interview with the writing staff). Any time they were faced with a completely impossible situation that nonetheless HAD to be happening, and couldn't work out a way to explain it rationally, they'd "hang a lantern on it." As in:

"We've traced the source of the transmission. It's coming in from about two miles offshore."

"That's impossible! The transmitter would have to be underwater...and radio waves don't MOVE through water!"

"Maybe so...but that's where's it's coming from."

After trying and failing to come up with a clear, brief technical explanation of how this could be happening, the writers realized that this isn't a documentary about radio and that merely noting the anomaly and moving on was good enough.

I happen to be reading Phil Rosenthol's memoir about being the creator and showrunner for "Everybody Loves Raymond." He explains some of the rules he set for the scripts and "No B-stories...ever" was a big one.

I don't like B-stories at all. They steal time away from the "real" story (and it's never a question that one of these is the "real" story) and are almost never any good. "But enough about these seven people stuck in an elevator in a burning building. Let's see how Lenny, Junior is getting by, trying to make and deliver eleven pizzas to seven houses before his boss gets back in an hour!"

Ane said...

So, a good act break is when something surprising /funny happens right before a commercial break ? I need an explanation for the lingo used to explain the lingo ;)

Laurie Gelman said...

I'd like to add Nokimura to the list.
It's when you're so sure a funny name is going to get laughs, you weave it through the entire script. Then it dies. Every single time.

The next time a writer tries to insert a funny name more than once, the table rejects it out of fear that it's going to be a Nokimura.

I think the reference goes back to a Laverne and Shirley episode, but I'm not sure.

D. McEwan said...

"Ane said...
So, a good act break is when something surprising /funny happens right before a commercial break ? I need an explanation for the lingo used to explain the lingo"


How so? What's unclear there? Which word do you not understand?

Anonymous said...

"Ane said...
So, a good act break is when something surprising /funny happens right before a commercial break ? I need an explanation for the lingo used to explain the lingo"

McEwan said:
"How so? What's unclear there? Which word do you not understand?"

Hey Mae! C'mere, quick! McEwan just said something ca-raaaa-zy! We gotta see what that condescending arrogant dumass does next!!

-Captain Carl

Anonymous said...

I think dismissing the B story as a throwaway is, at best, lazy, and at worst hack.

Watch this episode of the IT Crowd, and watch what a great writer can do with TWO subplots. A lot of his episodes have subplots, and they're rarely "filler." There's no argument about this episode. It's brilliant:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITU4fjSwTc0&feature=BFa&list=PL0F77E4C99F9708D1

Ane said...

D. McEwan said...

"Ane said...
So, a good act break is when something surprising /funny happens right before a commercial break ? I need an explanation for the lingo used to explain the lingo"

How so? What's unclear there? Which word do you not understand?


Act break.

Nick said...

Interesting post... love to learn some of that lingo and use it in day to day conversations... :)

Which leads to (terrible segway here)

Friday Question for you: On a sitcom a show runner is basically the executive producer and is pretty much in charge over all... right? Well in a mini series like Boardwalk Empire or Band of Brothers - something HUGE and epic that I might buy on DVD years later after totally missing it when it screened... anyway... if someone like Martin Scorcese or Steven Speilberg is attached as an 'Executive Producer' to these shows does it mean they serve the same role as a show runner in a sitcom? Or are they more like a producer busy with fifteen other projects who recieves emailed updates every other day about the progress of the show... How exactly does it work with big names like that?

Anonymous said...

Oh, I finally thought of a Friday question! As a huge Star Trek nerd (I got married on the bridge of the Enterprise-D, while dressed as a Klingon. On purpose!), my favourite moment on "Frasier" has got to be when Frasier gives the speech (blessing?) at Freddie's Bar Mitzvah, not realizing the Weird Nerd Guy has translated it into Klingon, not Hebrew. According to my friends with even less of a life than I, it was accurate, proper Klingonese. Just wondered if you guys had help from the Klingon Language Institute, or did some poor schmoe have to sit down with the Klingon-English dictionary and work it out? Every Trekker and/or Klingon I know LOVES that scene.

Cheers, thanks a lot, and QAPLA'!

Storm

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Chris Marcil: Pardon the digression, but may I just say how much I loved NEWSRADIO? What a brilliantly funny show.

On the original topic, I can't help wondering of Sheboygan somehow comes from SOME LIKE IT HOT, where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon claim to have studied at the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music, and Sweet Sue frequently calls them collectively "Sheboygan" and demands that they "goose it up a little".

wg

Wendy M. Grossman said...

P.S. I don't understand the hate on B stories. Lots of B stories are great. Even Shakespeare used B stories. (Or what was all that comic relief in ROMEO AND JULIET?)

wg

Charles H. Bryan said...

I like to listen to Tigers manager Jim Leyland during the radio pre-game shows. Whenever he wants to give a player a day off, he says that they "needed a blow".

And like a twelve year old, I always laugh.

Paul Milton said...

LOL, Captain Carl, now that was something that definitely needed to be said!

VP81955 said...

I happen to be reading Phil Rosenthal's memoir about being the creator and showrunner for "Everybody Loves Raymond." He explains some of the rules he set for the scripts and "No B-stories...ever" was a big one.

That worked for "Raymond," which was a very insular sitcom (how often did one see the titular character in a work environment), but I doubt it would success with other series.

I don't like B-stories at all. They steal time away from the "real" story (and it's never a question that one of these is the "real" story) and are almost never any good.

At the other end of the spectrum from "Raymond" was "Seinfeld," which often had as many as four separate stories concerning the primary characters. Usually Jerry's story was the "A," but if that didn't grab you, perhaps the stories involving George, Elaine or Kramer would. And, of course, the stories would all tie together at the end. "Seinfeld," the "Intolerance" of sitcoms.

c said...

The swearing part I have down.
Now about the writing...

BigTed said...

"Danny Arnold had a contemptuous phrase for exposition he considered too bald: 'Here we are in sunny Spain.' He used it when one character was telling another character something they both already knew."

That happens constantly on police procedurals, where one character tells another how to do his job, even though he's supposedly a skilled professional: "We should run this bullet through ballistics. It could tell us what kind of gun was used to shoot the victim." "Ah, thanks for the tip, Captain Obvious."

chuckcd said...

I always liked that about Seinfeld episodes.
So, is that really a B-story? Or a fractured A story?

Wait, here comes more swearing...

Andy Ihnatko said...

I like episodes with more than one story (like so many eps of "Seinfeld"). It's those "A" Story/"B" Story structures I dislike. It seems like the "B" story is only there to cover scene changes in the prime tale, or was done as a political gesture to prevent other castmembers from feeling like they're being shafted out of screen time.

"Joe and Cathy confront the possibility that Aunt Bethany's Alzheimers disease has progressed to the stage where they can no longer adequately care for her. Meanwhile, Gus and Stu must transport a life-sized stuffed elephant across town during rush hour."

cadavra said...

"Sheboygan" is also a funny-sounding word. Many words with "oy" in them sound funny. Especially when spoken by Jerry Lewis. Try it:

"Glucosamine ConDROYtin!"

See?