Just saw one of my favorite DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episodes, “100 Terrible Hours”. It’s the one where Rob was a disc jockey and had to stay on the air for 100 straight hours just before interviewing with Alan Brady for a writing job. I love that episode for many reasons but first and foremost is the structure. I imagine Carl Reiner and the staff thought it would be fun to see Rob’s initial job interview and of course it had to be a disaster. But how?
The obvious ways: he was drunk, he got in an accident and was all disheveled, he spilled something on his crotch, he had laryngitis, he had a bad cold and Alan Brady was a germ freak, he barged in at the wrong time, etc. You get the idea.
But they found a totally fresh device instead. Have him loopy because he’s sleep deprived. And concoct the best comic way to get him sleep deprived. Radio marathons were a staple of early Top 40 radio so making him a disc jockey was not only ingenious, it was also real. The best comedy always comes from reality. Plus, it gave Van Dyke a lot to play as you saw him get progressively goofier.
This is called getting “the most bang for your buck”. Find a good comic premise for a scene and then maximize the possibilities. In this case, not only was the payoff great but the set-up scenes leading up to it were terrific as well.
Give this some thought when plotting out your spec script. Once the wakeathon story was laid out I’m sure it was much easier for the writers (Sam Denoff & Bill Persky) to fill in the funny dialogue. They had so much to work with.
The hardest comedy writing in the world is when you have characters just standing around with nothing really dynamic happening. You have to manufacture jokes out of nothing. The characters start talking in forced one-liners. When viewers say that sitcoms sound predictable and bogus that’s usually what they’re referring to.
So do the heavy lifting first. Construct a story that lends itself to great comic possibilities. Easier said than done, you say? Yep, but that’s why YOUR spec might sell and the others don’t.
By the way, in the early 60s a San Bernardino radio station held one of these wakeathons. By the end the disc jockey was hallucinating, thinking that a giant Mickey Mouse was coming to eat him. I don’t know whether it was the city that had to issue a permit or the union, but somebody insisted that medical supervision be provided to lend assistance and monitor the d.j. throughout. He would be on the air for 50 minutes each hour and get ten minutes to use the bathroom, stretch his legs, eat, whatever. The medical staff would check his vital signs and ensure he was in no health danger.
A tent was set up near the broadcasting site (a store window I believe, just like in the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW). Every hour the disc jockey would disappear into it to get his examination. What the city or the union or whomever didn’t know was that the around-the-clock nurses that were hired were actually hookers. That probably kept him going another twenty-four hours.
Now if they had done that on the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW the title of the episode might have been changed to “95 Terrible Hours and 5 Great Ones”.