Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The pros and cons of gangbanging

How's that for a provocative title?    Actually, this is a post about TV comedy writing.  Sorry.  It stems from a Friday Question that's worth an entire post. 

Dana Gabbard asks:

Recently you noted that while in the past show staffs were small and freelance writers were a source of most scripts (at least first drafts) now most shows are room written. Can you describe why? What are the pluses and minuses of having a show staff written versus using freelancers?

The biggest advantage of room writing is efficiency. Drafts can be slapped together fairly quickly. Perhaps that’s why the delightful nickname for this practice is “gangbanging.”

Some showrunners just prefer this method, but primarily the need for it comes from the increased interference producers now endure from network and studio executives. These days almost every step of the process has to be approved by seven departments. That means story notions, detailed outlines, and first drafts are submitted to everyone short of postal inspectors. Getting responses can take days or even weeks. Meanwhile, valuable lead time evaporates. By the time everyone has weighed in there’s no time to send a writer out to do the draft. The next best option is to gangbang.

Advantages: It is more efficient. When you send a writer out with a draft you need a day to go over the story with him and a few hours to go over and revise his outline. Once the draft comes back it generally still needs work. You have to make notes and go over them with the writer. That’s another afternoon or more. The second draft comes in and is closer but still not there. So more time is needed to get the script ready for production. That rewrite can require as little as an hour or two, or it can take days.  And then there are times it's decided that the story doesn't work.  The staff must now still gangbang it, except now weeks have been wasted.

The other advantage is that everybody is on the same page. If you have a good staff the writing can move fairly quickly and there are generally a lot of laughs in the room. It’s a much more social process than writers all off in their individual Starbucks.

Further advantage:  you’re never second-guessing the showrunner because he’s running the room.

For the most part, shows that are joke-oriented (like BIG BANG THEORY) lend themselves better to gangbanging than more character-based shows like MODERN FAMILY.

The disadvantages: You lose any individuality. You’re not a writer in the real sense. You just pitch jokes. It’s a very specific skill and doesn’t always suit the best writers. Some writers craft wonderful drafts but are shy and uncomfortable just pitching jokes in the room. Neil Simon and Woody Allen fall into that category. Imagine having them in their prime and not being able to utilize their talents.

Also, writers I know who have worked in this system for several years start feeling insecure about writing scripts on their own again. To combat that I always suggest that room writers have a script of their own they’re writing in their free time. Keep those muscles strong. Retain your individuality. And who knows? Alan Ball did that while working on CYBILL. He wrote a spec screenplay called AMERICAN BEAUTY.  So another perk of writing specs is that they give you Oscars.

Clearly, there are plusses and minuses. Personally, I prefer to let my staff write drafts. They feel more valued and the scripts are often richer. But if I only have two days to write a first draft I’m going to circle the wagons and room write.

Now blogs, on the other hand, should probably not be gangbanged.

18 comments:

Terry said...

You know, I was legitimately hoping that this would be an article on the McGangBang, the disgusting and budget-sensitive custom burger that some folks are into.

http://www.eatmedaily.com/2009/03/the-mcgangbang-a-mcchicken-sandwich-inside-a-double-cheeseburger/

MikeBo said...

Ken, I find your insights into the process fascinating, and frustrating. How can a writer survive in an atmosphere like that, with all the people involved and all the layers of approval to get through? Sorry, but its stifling, and in my humble opinion, is the reason network TV is in the sorry state that it is. If someone wants this kind of creative environment along with job security, health benefits and a pension, he or she should get a job with the government. No wonder you've moved into sportscasting and self-publishing.

Chris said...

I was under the impression that most shows are a mixture of both. After an outline has been finalized the writer goes to do a first draft and then the draft is re-written by the room.

iain said...

Huh, an unfiltered google search for "gangbang blogs" resulted in Ken's entry & a whole lot of other things completely unrelated to a communal writing process.

John said...

It seems like gangbanging (I'd shorten it to GBing, but then it would sound like a room full of writers is horrifically trying to imitate Glenn Beck) would be OK if you're already in an established situation with a veteran show-runner who's had past success, like a Chuck Lorre with TBBT, but that for a new show and new people in charge, doing it that way requires that you make the right decisions about your staff from the start, because you're not going to get any outside input from anyone besides the network suits.

Mac said...

That's exactly why "Asian Gangbang 3" appeared on my hotel bill. I thought it was the heartfelt story of Cantonese room writers facing personal heartache and a looming deadline.

Anonymous said...

I don't think "gangbanging" comes from the sexual act, but from the term "banging" out a scene (on a keyboard) and then doing it as part of a group or "gang."

Anonymous said...

Not to make sound even weirder, but when gangbanging, how is the writing credit determined?

Charles H. Bryan said...

First, let me commend the users of English for once again creating a colorful (and rhyming!)term like "gangbang", whose origins I can't possibly imagine are anything BUT sexual. Secondly, let me also commend the users of English on then taking a phrase that decsribes orgiastic excess and applying it to a sandwich.

It's a great time to be alive. It's a great time to be fluent in English.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Seriously, how do those writing credits get assigned? I was listening to a Buffy commentary from Jane Espenson who said, essentially, that most of the stuff people really liked on the show came from either Joss Whedon or Marti Noxon but it was nice to take the writing credit. I'm sure, given the names and the other credits of the staff on that show, that she was being modest, but whenever I see individual writing awards in a medium that's so group-written, I always think "Well, maybe that person pitched the story first."

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, I don't suppose you could give a rough breakdown of a typical "gangbanged" show?

I believe it goes like this, but I'm not completely sure:

1. The room "breaks" the story. (They create an outline of the episode down to individual scenes.)

2. A writer is assigned that story and goes away to write that script, based on the outline created by the room.

3. The assigned writer and the show-runner (or headwriter?) go through their draft, making changes as needed.

4. Repeat step three until script is finished, or you've run out of time.

5. Run the script past the room one final pass.

Is that about right?

Dana Gabbard said...

Ken, thanks for the VERY informative answer. We folks on the outside looking in see what is happening but are often at a loss at the explanation why it is so.

ally said...

Holy crap, Ken! My blog reader temporarily posted your MASH article, but by the time I got to your page it was already gone. I was all set to scream "NOOOOOOO!" only because I vividly remember the MASH finale because it was (and is) my birthday, and today is not that day. Anyway, I'll look forward to it next week. I was always happy to share my birthday with the finale. Other than the end of MASH, nothing notable really happened on that date. But now that the Pope is resigning on that same date, I am somewhat miffed that he's intruding and stealing the spotlight.

I'm sure there's got to be a joke in there somewhere.

Ken Levine said...

ally,

Yes, I screwed up (or blogger screwed up) and posted it when it should have saved it. But it will appear its correct timely spot on the 28th. Happy birthday.

Ken

Chris said...

Friday question: I think that in the last few years, single camera shows (especially on cable where they tend to have bigger budgets for music) have turned into this weird indie radio station kind of thing, with a lot of unknown bands getting a lot of attention due to song placements in popular television shows.

Any youtube search for any song you hear in a tv show will almost always have top rated comments like "Thumbs up if you heard this on [show name]" or "Thumbs up if [show name] brought you here".

You wrote a lot about radio turning into this huge corporate business where every station plays the same 10 songs over and over again. How do you feel about (cable) TV being the new indie radio?

GC said...

Hi Veteran Writer,
...If you can write somewhere: how long a small staff (of two or four writers) takes to write an entire script of a multi-cam/single-cam shows. That would be helpful, thanks again for your insight

chuckcd said...

I have found that when writing in a group, things are said that trigger new ideas in my head. Things I would not have come up with on my own.

John Murray said...

Hi Ken -

Somewhat new to your blog so perhaps you have already addressed these questions:

Isn't freelance writing (any writing?) presented to the show by the writer's agent?

Does the standing of the agent determine whether a spec script is read?

How much good material goes begging because it is never read?

I want to believe the best scripts will make it through the process.

Thanks.