Monday, December 10, 2012

Do rewrites always make shows better?

As kind of a fun experiment, Earl Pomerantz, over on his fine blog, and I are both going to write today on the same topic – whether rewrites really improve a project. In our particular field – a half-hour sitcom.

The first script my partner, David Isaacs and I ever sold was for THE JEFFERSONS. We were told going in that the staff routinely did a lot of rewriting. We didn’t care. We were just thrilled to have the assignment. They were true to their word. The script they shot bore little resemblance to our draft. Personally, I still like ours better. And when the producer of MASH wanted to see a sample of our work, we gave him our draft of that JEFFERSONS episode. It proved good enough to get us a MASH assignment.

But for what THE JEFFERSONS were trying to achieve, and how their producers saw those characters, I suspect the rewritten draft was more on the money. They would claim their draft was better and even though I didn’t like it as well, maybe they were right. But in my heart of hearts, had we submitted their draft to MASH I doubt whether we would have gotten that assignment. So in this case an argument can be made for either side.

Our first staff job was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM in 1976. It was my first experience with multi-camera shows, where you see runthroughs every day and rewrite every night. Here’s what I observed: We did pretty much the same amount of rewriting every week. If the script at the table reading was weak we fixed it. If the script was in good shape we ruined it.

I think the answer has more to do with who is doing the rewriting and what their objectives are. As a general rule, if good writers are at the helm, rewriting should in fact make a show better.

I’ve been on shows, either as a writer or freelance director, where the producers were hacks. They just tried to pump more jokes into the show – often jokes that were at the expense of the characters, so jarring they took you out of the story, or so mean you stopped rooting for the character. As Earl points out, you can make a show “funnier” but not necessarily “better.”

You can also make lateral moves. Swapping one joke for another just because you’ve heard the first joke too many times. You forget that the audience will only hear the line once. Often the new joke is not as good as the original. Rewriting did not make the show better.

There are some producers with such inflated egos that they feel they must put their own stamp on every line. I worked with one of these too. You’d pitch a joke, everyone in the room would laugh, but he would have to change one word just to make it his. And honestly, his changes were lateral at best. Many times he killed the joke. Rewriting did not improve things there.

And finally, you have network, studio, and actor notes to contend with. Changes are made for political reasons, often begrudgingly. Add another check in the rewriting does not make the script better column.

When I’m the showrunner I have a specific approach to rewriting. First, I realize that I have five full days. Everything doesn’t have to be fixed at once. The first few days my number one priority is the story. Does the story track? Do I believe all the turns and all the attitudes I’m asking the characters to play? Are all my actors being well served or is one or two being short-changed? Is the story too slow? Too rushed? Is there a better, more clever way to tell that story?

For the first day I also have the luxury of time. I can throw in a wild idea or scene and if it tanks I still have time to jettison it. But if it works it could be inspired.

If by day three the story works and all we need are jokes then I consider us in great shape.

I know I’m biased but I think these scripts get better as a result of rewriting.

And I’ll also admit that scripts we’ve done for shows where we weren’t running the room were always enhanced by the likes of the Charles Brothers, Casey, Lee, & Angell, the Steinkellners & Sutton, Chris Lloyd, Sam Simon & Ken Estin, Jim Brooks, and Larry Gelbart. There may have been a joke I missed seeing or a new line I didn’t like but overall the scripts were “better.”

Again, the key is who’s doing the rewriting?

I often thought it would be a great exercise to get the writing staffs of eight or nine shows and have them all rewrite the same episode. How different would the BIG BANG THEORY staff’s version be from the one turned in by THE MINDY PROJECT crew? Each staff would probably maintain that there’s made the show better. But depending on your sensibility, I’m guessing you’d think four made it better, two made it the same, and three fucked it up completely. And another viewer would disagree completely.

So I’m not sure even that experiment would yield us anything conclusive but wouldn’t you just LOVE to see it?

I think the bottom line is this: Freelance writers generally feel showrunners ruin their scripts (sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re not). And I say to them work hard, stay at it, play the game, and eventually you too can become a showrunner and ruin other writers’ scripts. If nothing else, it’s a lofty goal.

20 comments:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think the original question is a little too on-the-nose. Can you rephrase?

---
All of this happens in non-fiction journalism, too. Often, the in-house copy editor (sub-editor, for Brits) whose job it is to ensure consistency of style is perfectly correct in judging the audience and what they need to have spelled out. Often, the fact-checkers (these do not exist in Britain, IME) will turn up a mistake that needs to be fixed. But sometimes you'll have an editor who is terrified of snakes and deletes all references (if you're lucky enough that said editor doesn't summarily fire you) to them (which is difficult if you're writing a piece about a reptile zoo) or who for no discernible reason hates the word "albeit".

I was once threatened with a suit because a sub-editor had removed an explanatory paragraph, leaving the rest to incorrectly describe a company's products.

It all comes down to your definition of "Better". Higher ratings? More magazines sold? More laughter (even if it betrays the characters)? Or just not getting sued...

wg

Anonymous said...

"I wrote a script for a guy, and he said he liked it but he thought that I need to rewrite it. I said, $#@% that, I'll just make a copy." - Mitch Hedberg...one of the best! RIP

-Sammy

Roger Owen Green said...

I was going to rewrite this blog post, but realized it was perfect. Perfect!

Sheldon Coopers Brain said...

Change "there's" to "theirs"...

(And nice post, btw).

Pat Reeder said...

My particular pet peeve is the people who remove jokes because they've heard them too many times before. I once wrote a humorous corporate video project and came in the next day to watch the rough edit, only to discover that the other people on the team (all younger and less experienced) had removed every single joke. They explained that they decided they just weren't as funny as they originally thought they were.

I explained to them that that was because from the storyboarding through the shooting through the editing, they'd heard them all about 400 times. So I racked up the original, unbowdlerized version and asked the CEO of the company to come watch it for the first time as they observed from the back. He laughed in all the right places. The rest of the staff were stunned, but they agreed to put the damn jokes back in.

That's why my partner and I started our policy of dragging someone in from the hallway occasionally to watch the video and insure it was getting the right reaction. We told them we were doing an "M.T." and it was a high honor to be chosen. We didn't tell them that "M.T." stood for "moron test."

Mac said...

Or you write a joke that goes down a storm, then you come to shoot it and the lead decides it wasn't as funny as he thought it was. Also he's got a hangover and his anti-depressants are wearing off, so you need to rewrite on the spot - something that makes a bi-polar cokehead laugh at 8:15 on a wet Monday morning.

Happy days.

DBenson said...

In my humble experience in amateur theater, I learned there was such a thing as the rehearsal joke. That's the one that reliably kills the cast and crew, but just lies there in performance. And the same audience roars at what we didn't even know was a laugh line.

Guessing one secret of being a pro is sensing those.

Cap'n Bob said...

I had an assignment to write a very short article for a reference book. They sent me a 20-page guide for this 250-word piece, and when it was finally published it bore no resemblance to what I'd submitted.

PS: I was never paid.

Johnny Walker said...

Oh, man! I wish there was some way you could make that experiment happen. It would be absolutely fascinating!

Ashley said...

Random question:

Since you own "ByKenLevine.com" - why don't you mask your blogspot address with that when people come to the website? It's slightly easier to remember and looks simpler. Just curious.

Love your blog! Have an amazing day.

Anonymous said...

I think I once saw you write that "writing is rewriting."

Nothing is perfect so anything can be rewritten better, but that also means everything can be rewritten worse.

But at some point to get something published somebody must make the call and say "this is good enough." It is probably even more urgent is a time driven environment as a weekly sitcom. AT some point if you want to be a perfectionist, nothing will get done.

Nick said...

Ken I have a Friday Question for you... and I apologise if this has already been covered in the past.

I know that you doing a lot of commentary work with Baseball at the moment - but are you still involved with the sitcom industry anymore? Or not so much? To be specific, are you still involved in writing/ rewriting/ pitching scripts etc... or are you out of the game now? And if so... why?

benson said...

Going through my personal VCR archives last night, I watched another episode of Ken and David's Mary series from 1985. It's an episode where John Astin's character finally writes and finishes a play. And since Mary inspired him, he asks that she write/sign the final line.
"Curtain"....
no, "the end" would be less hackneyed.
No, finis would be good.
Just a short little back and forth, but it was funny and it reminded me of this post.

Mike said...

But what if you'd submitted the on-air edited script? Would they have rewritten it to be what you did submit?

Trish said...

Are you still actually working in television, or are all these blog posts based upon your memories?

Greg Ehrbar said...

It's a much more endurable (and often beneficial) to have your writing rewrote and/or edited by a genuinely talented writer; when you work for a hack, it's horrible.

A good editor carefully tries to keep the "voice" of the piece, even if there are major changes. A hack seems to see no other style that "works" but his/her own and twists writing into that narrow -- and usually painfully bad -- focus.

It can be ego, political aspirations or just lack of talent, but it's sheer misery to have to hand in work to these people.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Oops, I mean "rewritten." See? Editing can be a good thing.

That brings to mind another point -- typos and minor goofs in early drafts don't equal bad writing, or writing that needs major surgery. I'm not saying you should hand in messy, thoughtless mistakes in a final draft, but many writers think as fast as they type and really cannot see their typos.

That's why good proofers can help. Just like a fine actor who needs more than one take, a writer isn't necessarily a bad one because of typos, but sometimes we are led to believe that because of those schoolroom nightmares so many of us are still having.

Ken Levine said...

I am still involved in television although not attached to any one show.

Chicago Pinot said...

Ken, do you think writers are like baseball pitchers, i.e. the best ones are specialists? Are there "starter" writers who are awesome at coming up with the first draft, but shouldn't be in the room when it comes time to touch it up, and at the same time, writers who couldn't come up with an idea from scratch but are perfect for tweeking that Third Act and bringing the story home?

Jill Pinnella Corso said...

Yes, I would LOVE to see that experiment.

For the record, I'm still shooting for the lofty goal of being able to sell a script that can then be ruined.