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.
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.