Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Phantom of the Oprah

A recent Friday Question reminded me of one of the craziest rewrite nights I ever experienced. It was on WINGS. I was the Thursday night punch up guy. They had a two-parter called “The Gift.” Both episodes were written by the great David Angell. He was back east in New England writing the scripts. He sent us part one and continued to work on part two while part one was in production.

The plot was very complicated. Most of gang was rehearsing a community theater production – “Phantom of the Oprah” (that title always makes me laugh). And Joe mortgaged his house to buy Helen a cello for some reason. I think she was trying to get a job in an orchestra. You’ll understand why I’m not clear on the details.

David pretty much worked out the story himself. When he sent in part one we really didn’t know what was going to occur in part two. But we all trusted David so didn’t worry about it.

Unfortunately, when we got part one on its feet there were a lot of unforeseen problems. We walked back to the office resigned to a pretty long night. It happens. No matter how well you prepare there will always be one or two scripts a season that are just problematic. You roll up your sleeves, wrestle them to the ground and move on.

But there were extenuating circumstances here. There were story problems but we didn’t know what we could change because we didn’t know what was going to happen in part two. Are we lifting a beat that sets up something pivotal in the second part? Does a story fix screw up a similar scene later?

Of course, the first thing we tried to do was reach David Angell. But he wasn’t home. He was out for the evening. How did we exist before smart phones?

Meanwhile, we had to write something. The actors would be on the stage in twelve hours. Thus began the goofiest rewrite I’ve ever been in. Talk about flying blind.  This was the Rubix Cube of comedy.  I remember we pumped tons of jokes into it, hoping they might mask the iffy plot points.  I think eventually we just made changes we felt were necessary and David would have to adjust the remaining script accordingly.

That’s what he did. Part two worked better but along the way during that rewrite night there were a number of places we would have done something if we could have gone back and set it up in part one. But of course, by then part one was in the can.

It’s been years since I’ve seen those episodes but I seem to recall that somehow they all came together. But truly kids, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.


John said...

I kind of remember that episode, which IIRC, was that Helen needed the cello because she finally had a tryout in New York for a major orchestra, which was her life's dream. Not a bad one as things turned out, since again IIRC, this was an early episode where the characters were still being established.

I also remember (less vaguely) reading an article on how, during the final season of "The Odd Couple", they had some sort of guest scheduling conflict which resulted in Howard Cossell and opera singer Martina Arroyo being booked on the same show. That must have been a jolly rewrite session.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Great story; that must really have been a nightmare.

And I hate to be nitpicky, but...it's Rubik's cube. (Today I'm being a proofreader...)


Pete Grossman said...

As always Ken, thanks for your wonderfully great stories.

FRIDAY QUESTION - How are full length scripts presented today? Are they still submitted on paper? Printed on both sides of the paper to be environmentally friendly? Or, have paper scripts gone the way of the dodo - submitted electronically and being read on computer screens, tablets, etc,? Then if liked, printed out and delivered to clients, talent, etc? Thanks!

Toledo said...

Both Parts One and Two are posted on YouTube

Part One:

Part Two:

Michael said...

How unusual was it for the writer of the episode to be on other side of country when the episode was being filmed? Were there other writers in that era besides David Angell who were allowed to have that arrangement?

ScottUSF said...

Hi Ken,

Probably a Friday question:

I've been re-watching "The West Wing" on Amazon Prime and just finished Season 4, Episode 13 "The Long Goodbye". This episode goes way off the normal story line and takes CJ back to her hometown for a high school reunion. There we pick up the story of her father who is suffering from Alzheimers...along the way she picks up with an old boyfriend of course.

I did a little research on IMDB to find out that Jon Robin Baitz is credited as writer for this episode which make a lot of sense really, its a family-based story line which he excels at I think [Brothers & Sisters, etc].

Here is my question: when a series spends an entire episode outside the normal story line...where do these come from? Are they spec scripts that the producers picked up? I notice that Jon Robin Baitz doesn't have any other West Wing credits. Are they existing stories that have nothing to do with a series but the producers think they can just change some characters and weave into a storyline?

I'd be really like to know the back story on this one if you know anyone who was involved in The West Wing.

Michael Stoffel said...

How about a stupid Friday question...
Would you prefer to completely wrap a season before it even starts airing ala the upcoming season of "Community",
Or have the flexibility to change course after public input, like "The Good Wife" did this season when they had to dump Kalinda's husband because the storyline was so detested.

Justin Murphy said...

Here's a Friday question:

Was AfterMASH really as bad as the critics say it was?

Mike Schryver said...

I hadn't heard that story about Cosell and Arroyo's ODD COUPLE episode.

They handled it well, in any event. The writers made Cosell a huge fan of Arroyo and had Felix and Oscar use that to get a favor out of Cosell. It didn't seem forced at all to me.

Steve Catron said...

My goat knows the bowling scores. hallelujah

Johnny Walker said...

"But there were extenuating circumstances here. There were story problems but we didn’t know what we could change because we didn’t know what was going to happen in part two. Are we lifting a beat that sets up something pivotal in the second part? Does a story fix screw up a similar scene later?"

I remember having discussions about this sort of problem about a year back on a weekend in LA...

Wendy: I don't know if you've given up on HIMYM, but it actually improved dramatically after the first few shaky episodes of Season 8. Maybe give it another shot?

Satnam Khalsa said...

I have a Friday question. How is sound recorded on multi-cam sitcoms? It seems that operating a boom would be very difficult because there is always at least one camera recording a wide shot with a lot of headroom.

Do the sound guys use lav mics or some other type of device to record sound?