Thursday, October 04, 2012

A look into the creative process

Yesterday’s piece was purely for laughs. But today I want to use it for instructional purposes. The scene could easily be the opening of a pilot (albeit a premise pilot). Now that you’ve read it and (hopefully) found it amusing (one reader said it was very stereotypical. I prefer to view it as recognizable legitimate behavior. But you decide), let me walk you through my thought process on how I wrote it. This is the kind of thing we do in my Sitcom Room seminar.

Start with a funny premise. Give yourself a situation ripe for comedy. The Superman legend is so white bread middle-America. I thought a Jewish couple would put a good spin to it.  If the premise is funny, the ideas and jokes will easily come.  If the premise is not, you're passing kidney stones for forty pages. 


I chose 1990 so that if I want to continue this series and put Superman in the present day, this is when this scene would occur. When I settled on the year I went to Google and looked up events, movies, and TV shows of the era. The more specific the better.

A rocket hurtles out of the sky and lands with a crash, a plume of smoke trailing behind it.

A 1988 Kia comes down the road. Inside are Yetta and Morris, a middle-aged Jewish couple.

What would this couple drive? It’s just the two of them so a small car. They probably don't buy a new car every year. And of the small cars out there Kia seems the funniest.

YETTA: Morris, stop the car!


YETTA: What do you mean why? Didn’t you just see that?

MORRIS: Let’s not get involved.

To me this one line tells you exactly who this character is. Every line, besides being funny, needs to better inform us of who these characters are. They tell us by their attitudes, their decisions, their language.

YETTA: Stop the car or so help me I’m taping over BAYWATCH.

BAYWATCH – cheap thrills for repressed middle-aged men.  They don't even watch porn.  They watch BAYWATCH.  And this shows Yetta knows how to get to him.

MORRIS: Alright. Alright. I’ll stop the car. Leave it to you to want to examine every little object that falls out of the sky.

Mission accomplished.  But he needs to save face, hence the little dig at her.

YETTA: You know that's a terrible show, right?

He made a point of quickly changing the subject away from BAYWATCH. She gets back at him for the little dig by bringing it up again. And it suggests that they’ve discussed this topic before and perhaps he defended it, which has to be the most transparent defense in history.

MORRIS: Look, I stopped the car, okay?!

Again, he doesn’t want to talk about it. She knows how to push his buttons.

YETTA: Let's have a look.

She gets out of the car.

MORRIS: What? We're getting out of the car? Aren’t we trespassing?

It always helps to have two people with differing attitudes. So if she is gung ho to explore this, you have more to play if he doesn’t.

YETTA: Oh shut up.

He follows her across the field.

MORRIS: Who knows? Someone may come and think we did this.

You have to cover their crossing the field. He offers lame justifications for his position.

They arrive at the scene.

YETTA: It’s some sort of rocket.

MORRIS: Great. You happy now? It’s a rocket. Let’s go.

YETTA: Aren’t you even curious as to how it got here?

MORRIS: No. It’s a rocket. Who shoots rockets? Kids. Skinheads. For all we know there’s a Hitler Youth group in Smallville and it's der Fuehrer Air Power Day.

He wants nothing to do with this. His assumption is that it’s anti-Semites. And he exaggerates for comic purposes.  If the scene were today the first guess would be terrorist.  And if it was set in 1962 the suspected culprit would be Russia. 

YETTA: That’s ridiculous.

MORRIS: You haven't been to the Dairy Queen lately.

Yeah, like that's proof. 

YETTA: (examining closer) Wait a minute. Morris, I think there’s a baby inside.

MORRIS: Okay. Now we’re leaving for sure.

YETTA: I swear I'm erasing all eight episodes of BAYWATCH.

Pushing his buttons. For all his bluster, this is a woman who gets what she wants. We see the dynamic of the relationship.

MORRIS: Well then just kill me!

He gives up.

YETTA: Who do think would do such a thing?

MORRIS: I told you, the skinheads. There's probably a new chapter -- Hitler Toddlers.

The one explanation they don’t consider is that it’s a rocket from outer space. Rational people tend to consider the more logical, plausible explanations. But what if two teenagers found it? They might jump right to a UFO. So again, how characters rationalize something they don’t understand tells us who they are.

YETTA: Well, we’ve got to get the poor thing out.

MORRIS: I’ll call the Auto Club.

He doesn’t want to do it himself.

YETTA: We can’t wait forty-five minutes. Give me a hand. We’ve got to get it out ourselves.

She’s clearly the person who drives their relationship. At this point we have to cover some business. We need them to open the rocket, which will take some time and preparation. How can we do that in an entertaining fashion?

MORRIS: What? Us? Are you crazy? That thing is hot. What if I order a pizza? They’ll be here in thirty minutes or less. Let the pizza boy open the rocket. I'll tip him.

YETTA: I should have married Saul Gazin.

A good tip: Go off topic. There are ways of getting him to do something without being on the nose – “You’re so lazy. You never do anything.” Etc. She’s pushing his buttons again. Guilt.

MORRIS: Oh, again with the "Saul Gazin". Mr. Perfect. He’d get the baby out. He probably has oven mitts right there in his glove compartment just for an emergency like this.

This must be a card she uses all the time. He tries to show that he’s immune to it with a sarcastic remark. Actors talk about each line having an “objective.” Whether conscious or unconscious, that’s something good for all screenwriters to keep in mind. His objective: “Oh stop throwing Saul Gazin in my face. I’m tired of it!”

YETTA: My mother and the entire congregation was right about you.

She won’t let it drop. We saw her do that before with BAYWATCH. She’s essentially saying, “I don’t care that you’re tired of it. I’m going to keep harping.” And why does she keep doing it? Because she’s a horrible person? No.  She's the one who wants to save the baby.  It’s because she knows it works.

She takes off her sweater, wraps it around her hand for protection and begins pulling at the latch. Out of guilt he wraps his jacket around his hand and joins in.

MORRIS: Move away. I’ll do this.

Sure enough. She has guilted him into it.

YETTA: Thank you. You're such a prince.

Subtext: You should have offered in the first place, asshole. 

He yanks and pulls and strains.

We’ve got to cover this activity. It’s unrealistic to think the hatch would just pop right open.

MORRIS: If my back goes out, good luck getting the Nazis to pay for my medical bills.

Call-backs – always a good comedy staple.

YETTA: Maybe if you exercised more than once every fifteen years.

She returns his volley.

MORRIS: Do YOU want to do this?

He calls her on it.

YETTA: No. Fine. Keep going.

She backs down. It’s nice to see him get a victory once in a while.

MORRIS: Stop nagging. I’ve never broken into a rocket before.

Telling the audience why it’s taking so much time. And again, all these messages are best delivered through jokes.

YETTA: Sorry… but you really do have no muscle tone.

A trait now well established – she can’t let things go.

Finally, the latch opens.

MORRIS: There!

YETTA: Oh thank God!

She sweeps the baby up into her arms.

YETTA: He is so cute.

MORRIS: He? Then that rules out China.

Another call-back. Still searching for an explanation to this. And it seems amusing that that's what he's thinking about.  A baby is pulled from a spacecraft and he's still mulling over how it got there?

YETTA: Why would anyone do this to a precious little baby?

MORRIS: You’re looking for answers? In this crazy world? Why can't they solve the Middle East? How could a thing like the Exxon Valdez oil spill happen? How did Rick Dees get a national television show? I think the real question here is what are we going to do with him? Does Protective Services have a UFO division?

Google helped here in finding specific events. And it was my chance to take a gratuitous shot at Rick Dees. That one was for me. Now comes a tough turn we have to make:

YETTA: Morris, why don’t we keep him?

MORRIS: What?!

Bear in mind that characters have to react to news they weren’t expecting. It may seem like just extra lines to have characters say “What?” or “Pardon me?” but the actors need them and you need them to make your scene flow.

YETTA: We always wanted a baby.

MORRIS: Yetta, that’s insane. We also want a time share in Hawaii.

I could have ended the line with “that’s insane” but it’s an opportunity for a joke.  When you go back through your script, look for these.  I bet you find four or five... or twenty.  

YETTA: We talked about adopting. Y’know, after learning that your sperm count was low.

Again, she pushes his button, this time hitting below the belt, as it were.  

MORRIS: You gotta bring that up, don’tcha? I bet Saul Gazin could repopulate the world!

He pushes back.

YETTA: I’m just saying.

MORRIS: Look, you can pull the cable out of the wall. I’m not keeping this child.

The BAYWATCH ploy is not going to work. She’s got to come up with something else.

YETTA: Don’t you see what this is? It’s a sign from God, Morris. It’s like when Bithiah found baby Moses floating on the Nile and raised him. Change boat to guided missile and it’s the same thing. Morris, this child – I just get the sense he’s… special in some way. And there’s a reason we found him. These things are not by accident. If that had landed five minutes earlier maybe Martha and Jonathan Kent would have found him and fifteen years from now he’d be selling dope.

She appeals to his sense of fate and heritage. And the Kent joke is saying, “We’d be better parents” – appealing to his ego and sense of humanity.

MORRIS: (softening) Well… I always did want a son to take over the Woolworth store. But what if his real parents do come after him? What if we see a milk carton and there is the baby or a picture of the rocket?

He’s not just going to turn on a dime. It’s too big a decision. So bring him around slowly. Let him soften. Why might he always want a son? How about to take over his business? So what business should he be in? Generally, Jews who live in non-Jewish cities own stores. I thought Woolworth’s seemed right. It was a little quirky and for irony (that no one would get), I looked up businesses that went out of business in the ‘90s. Woolworth’s was one of them. So Morris is projecting this future that won’t be there.

But he still has reservations. What if the baby's real parents show up is a question I believe they’d ask. But tag it with a joke.

YETTA: Then we’ll call Protective Services.

She has a good answer.

MORRIS: This is so nuts.

He still can’t bring himself to say yes. It’s too big a commitment.

YETTA: Morris, I won’t ask you for another thing for months. Not even a new garbage disposal that if you have a nose you know we need desperately.

She bargains now… but still has to press him on the garbage disposal. You know this is a promise she can’t keep.

He considers, then finally:

MORRIS: Alright. We’ll take him.

YETTA: Seriously?

Another one of those “character needs to react” lines.

MORRIS: Yes, because my life isn't stressful enough.

He doesn’t want to show that he’s a softy. Plus, he wants brownie points for this.

YETTA: Oh, darling. I’m so happy.

Genuine emotion.

MORRIS: What do we name him? And if the answer is "Saul" then the deal's off.

You know she got into his head by bringing up “Saul” so he can protest all he likes that it means nothing but we see that it does.

YETTA: How about Zvee? After my grandfather.

MORRIS: A perfect name for a kid growing up in Kansas. Zvee Sugarman.

Funniest, oddest name I could think of at the time.  And Sugarman for Superman.

YETTA: I love you.

MORRIS: Yeah yeah. Let’s go eat.

That’s what Jews do. They make life-changing decisions then they go eat.

Next week I’ll feature another Superman scene but won’t analyze it after. Still, as you read it, try to think along with why I made the choices I did.

Hopefully this little exercise was helpful.   If nothing else, you can see that a lot more thought goes into each line than just writing jokes.  


TF said...

That was great Ken - cheers - I mean, thanks (I often say cheers as thank you, can't do that with you now can I - it's just confusing - anyway... )

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I thought the scene you wrote was excellent; the line-by-line breakdown is even better.

Thanks so much. Happy Sitcom Room!


David Schwartz said...

Boy, is this a valuable lesson for anyone thinking of writing sitcoms. Wish I had it 30 years ago when I first started writing spec episodes! I could have strengthened my scripts just by examination and asking the right questions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this, Ken. I've been struggling for a while with my spec pilot, so this is going to help look at every line from a new angle.

Tom Schneider said...

That is the BEST show that I have never seen.

Well done.

Mark said...

It's like a Pop-Up Video for writing!

Great post, thanks!

HourOfLead said...

Hey Ken,
Next time, could you take the story and do it from the perspective of a black couple living in Atlanta finding the rocketship?

I'd love to see a white Superman raised by a black family in a Wayans sort of way. Maybe the S on his chest is blinged with Swarovski crystals?

If you've ever seen The Jerk, you know there's gold to be mined there.

God I love stereotypes.

Ted said...

Wow! This is one of your best posts ever!

Robert Pierce said...

Well, this may be slightly off topic, but I was sitting at work today thinking about last nights debate, and then read your take on Superman... So I came up with this:

Ext. 123 Sesame Street – Sesame Street – Day (January 21st, 2013)

Big Bird, The Grouch, Bert, Ernie, Elmo, and the rest of the Sesame Street cast stands in a line on the street. The Count can be seen talking to Mitt Romney in the background. The conversation ends, Mitt Romney walks away while The Count walks towards the cast.

THE COUNT: Bad news everyone.

BERT: What is this? A Futurama episode?

ERNIE: Oh Burt, just shut up.

The Count hands a pink slip to Big Bird and goes down the line.

THE COUNT: 1 pink slip, ha ha. (starts crying)

BIG BIRD: But, but, but… Where the fuck am I going to work now?

OSCAR THE GROUCH: At least you’re popular; people just throw trash at me you 8 foot twit.

THE COUNT: 2 pink slips. (really crying)

SNUFFLEUPAGUS: You’ll be fine freak, what about me? I’m an invisible friend!

THE COUNT: 3 pink slips. (sobbing uncontrollably)

PLACIDO FLAMINGO: I’m screwed too, no one listens to opera now. I mean, no one wants their kids learning the damn classics anymore. It’s always, “that’s great Placido, but could you do that Gangnam Style?”

THE COUNT: 4 pink slips. (sobbing)

ELMO: You know, when I’m not getting paid to be tickled it’s just weird.

OSCAR THE GROUCH: Tickle whore.

ELMO: I’ll mess you up bitch.

OSCAR THE GROUCH: Just try tickle whore.

ELMO: Bitch!


THE COUNT: 5 pink slips. (wheezing from crying)


BIG BIRD: No C.M., not anymore?


BIG BIRD: I’m sorry but no, Food Stamps don’t pay for cookies.


THE COUNT: 6 pink slips. (slouching and crying)

KERMIT: Just great! Just fucking great! Miss Piggy files for divorce and now this?

Paul Duca said...

Fascinating look at the creative process, especially your effort in researching the details that are to add to the sense of time and place. But I am one of those who are hyper- vigilant about finding anachronisms.

Some are factual...Kia wasn't in the U.S. market in 1990. "Yugo" certainly would have worked, and "Hyundai"--then people would have understood, as the cars were only a modest step up from Yugo, but not to people today who only know the world-class product they offer.

Same thing with 1990 NBC had just cancelled it--more little kids watched FULL HOUSE. It wasn't until David Hasselhoff took it into syndication, with eyes on the international market, that the show became the cultural phenomenon it did.
(thanks in part to the lower budgets that precluded lots of action sequences, and more focus on the babes and hunks of the beach. NBC wanted and paid for EMERGEHCY! in the sand--the globe fell in love with a live-action MAXIM magazine.

Eric J said...

Very instructive, Ken. It's always interesting to see how others approach their craft or job. And great homework about Sesame Street, Robert.

Johnny Walker said...

Great concept, Robert!

Ken, you didn't think to this level of detail when you wrote your first draft, right? I personally find this is a great way to analyse what you've written to make sure it flows and make sense, and that you've not missed opportunities for jokes, but it would get in the way of how the scene flowed if I stopped after every line I wrote. Just clarifying.

MikeN said...

Have you ever changed a script in response to criticism?
I think without your post, Moneyball would have had a Danny.

Ed said...

This breakdown was great!

Some questions from a beginning writer (that I Ken can answer later but I'd welcome responses to other pros that I know read this):

I'm wondering how much of the creation of dialouge comes natural the first time through the writing process. You said "go back through and find places" where the jokes in the back-and-forth can fall and I'm sure I will in stuff I'm drafting. And I can clearly see this is where a writing team / partner comes in handy. Once you've written a few hundred episodes, does this process come more naturally? Or are you constantly thinking through the details here like you showed us? How much or how vivid do you see a scene in your head as you put it on paper? Or do you see / hear a line or two of dialouge and then think it through to the next line?

ScottyB said...

@HourOfLead kinda touched on what I was thinking when I read the initial post and then today's instructional followup. In both cases, I wondered whether today's audiences would really get "the whole Jewish thing" that was a big part of a lot of older sitcoms back when there was just network TV and radio (1950s-mid 1960s). I'm a Catholic who grew up on TV early '60s thru '70s, and I understood Ken's references, but I'm not entirely sure anyone under 50 (or my teenage kids) would, today. I mean, Christ, my kids don't even think 'Green Acres' is funny in the least. Philistines.

So I'd concur with @HourOfLead: Could be funnier if it was some older black or Mexican couple instead of Jews. Better character contrast with a bigger field to mine, methinks (as he mentioned with 'The Jerk').

ScottyB said...

Given today's breakdown post, here's a Friday Question for Ken *and* David Isaacs: Much has been made (here and elsewhere, and rightfully so) about the quality of writing as the basic foundation of a damn good sitcom. Lately, I've been catching 4am reruns of 'Make Room For Daddy' (which predates me by several years) on Me-TV, and it reminds me a LOT of the kind of writing that made 'Cheers', 'Frasier', 'Wings' and 'Becker' so damn good -- quick, snappy, concise, but above all, raising the art of subtly stabbing the heart out of someone or something. 'Make Room For Daddy' makes me laugh even today, and it really makes me appreciate what guys like you are able to do week in and week out.

Thing is, back in the day we never really knew -- or paid that much attention to -- who was writing these shows. If it wasn't for 'The Dick Van Dyke Show', we'd probably still be thinking show stars were writing their own material. So OK, here's my question: Have either of you ever met any of the really great regular-Joe writers from TV's Golden Age shows that you grew up with in the late '50s thru the '60s? And if so, did you learn anything from them that has made you a better sitcom writer?

ScottyB said...

Maybe even better: Old-school ITALIAN couple (think 'Everybody Loves Raymond' Frank and Marie Barone) find Baby Superman. Old-school USA Italians are more emotional than Jews, but have that same underlying current of guilt and sarcasm with their children.

Might be awfully hard to pull off since Peter Boyle's dead and Frank & Marie were one of a kind, but not completely impossible, methinks.

kingcooky said...

Great scene and commentary there. Anyone trying to write an original sitcom could learn from it.

RJB said...

I am really new to this reading about TV stuff as I mostly follow Ken Levine because of the great work he does on Mariner's radio broadcasts, so this stuff is really informative. My basic question is how is the physical comedy worked in. Seems plenty of room from the driving the car and the opening of the rocket for physical jokes. Is that a directors or actors addition or can it be written in?

Chris said...

Friday question: Looking at this list

you can see how many shows has each network canceled and how many new shows they have, CBS the fewest and NBC with a huge number of cancellations and new shows. Is that an indication of how well a network is doing or is it just a coincidence?

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, great scene and breakdown. Hope your participants in this year's SITCOM ROOM will be able to appreciate and utilize some of the more general guidelines you mentioned, especially the rule that every line needs to have some importance and contribute to moving the story forward.

Regarding someone posting the day before on the scene being a stereotye which he found distasteful, sometimes in an opening scene the writer finds he or she has to do a little stereotyping in order to make the audience understand who the characters are; then in successive scenes it's easier to back off on those stereotypes since the viewers now "get" the characters, so to speak. I think that if people watch the first scenes of any comic movie or sitcom pilot, they'll usually find the characters to be a bit more cartoonish and stereotyped than they ultimately turn out being.

Joel Spezeski said...

I'm a long time reader and I've learned a lot. The insights contained in this post are a master class. Thanks!

Nick said...

Good post and good analysis Ken but a couple of notes...

For an international audience the Woolworths reference is jarring - in Australia and New Zealand (and English too I think) Woolworths is a corporation running one of the largest supermarket chains in the country along with a range of other stores. Handing over a Woolworths to your son would be the equivilent of handing over a Walmart to your son in America.

Which leads to an obvious Friday Question: As Television becomes more international (like movies already have) and the overseas markets become more important - do you think television writing in America will need to take into account the international audience?

Chris Garcia said...

So how is the Bioshock movie going, Ken?