Sunday, September 15, 2013

A handy writing tip

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”.


John said...

Hey, I know you didn't have the greatest time working with Mary in the late 1970s, but looking at her wearing Capri pants in 1962, even if there was a hooker tent available, do you really think Rob Petrie was going to cheat on that?

Serious question though off of this -- when you're writing for a new show, how long does it take for the staff to adjust to write to the strengths of its talent? One of the Dick Van Dkye Show's greatest advantages was the ability of its star to do physical comedy (i.e. -- It's hard to see this same episode being done if Carl Reiner had remained in the starring role).

Do the writers of a new show going in have a general idea of what their new group of actors can and can't do well in terms of doing more than just reading forced one-liners, based on their previous work, or is that something the develops as they and the actors get more familiar with each other?

Johnny Walker said...

I'm currently re-watching The Simpsons and it's interesting to see the incredibly zany ways they get to their first plot point.

For example, the episode where Homer is unfairly charged with sexual harassment of the babysitter starts with him and Marge stealing gummy bears from a candy convention. Watching that episode, you'd never know where it was going to end up. It starts in unfamiliar territory and THEN takes a left turn.

I'm not sure if David Mirkin's penchant for zaniness is appropriate for every show, but it's certainly helps illustrate how entertaining it can be to watch creative paths to situations you've seen before.

Michael said...

Did The Dick Van Dyke Show EVER miss? Some are better than others, of course. But that show was consistently, brilliantly written and acted.

Scooter Schechtman said...

How about the one where Dick was hypnotized into feeling drunk whenever he heard a bell? Stupid premise, absolutely hilarious.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: not quite along those lines, but still, one of my favorite pilots is the one from NEWSRADIO, where the plot is really very simple to set up the series to come - guy's awful first day at his new job in a new city - but the way the situation escalates and just keeps adding more pressure and more problems always seems to me really brilliant.


Ellen said...

"So do the heavy lifting first. Construct a story that lends itself to great comic possibilities."

This goes for novel writing, too ... and not just comic novels. Once the architecture is in place, you can create something wonderful.

Bob O'Brien said...

If only the show could've gone for a couple more seasons. Imagine the possibilities.

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: Aren't the first 5 minutes of most Simpsons' a completely different plot to the rest of the episode?
Simpsons fans will have chapter & verse.

I'm currently re-watching The Simpsons and it's interesting...
Let me guess. You're incarcerated in the Emerald City in Oz (the prison) and you're waiting for Miss Sally's Schoolyard to come on.

YEKIMI said...

Sadly, a "wakeathon" nowadays would consist of how long a voicetracking computer would last before breaking down.

Mike in Seattle said...

Anybody ever been on a production crew pulling a lot of all-nighters where they sent around a "doctor" who gave everybody "vitamin B-12" shots?

I don't know what was in that hypo, but I don't think it was vitamin B-12.

Breadbaker said...

My guess is that it's the workers comp insurer who insisted on the medical staff. Though not the little twist.

What makes this work is of course that we know eventually Rob gets hired by Alan Brady, yet we feel disaster coming. That is what happens when you trust how you have created concern for your characters.

Terrence Moss said...

Dick Van Dyke was just brilliant in this and so many other episodes. What a classic coming together of a consistently high level of writing and acting.

Paul Duca said...

"Petrie, take your vitamins!'

"You should have heard him announced that Congress had adjourned...he went COMPLETELY to pieces!" the book DR. FEELGOOD and learn the story of those "Vitamin B-12" shots, the man who gave them--and the people they affected, like John F. Kennedy.

Jim said...

If only the show could've gone for a couple more seasons. Imagine the possibilities.

CBS wanted The Dick Van Dyke Show to continue, but Carl Reiner, Mary Tyler Moore and, in particular, Dick Van Dyke were all hearing the call of Hollywood. Don't know what it is that makes actors want to leave a successful series to try their hand at the movies.

CBS aired reruns of the series on their daytime schedule from September 1965 until September 1969. Trivia about the daytime run: CBS amended the series title to The Dick Van Dyke Daytime Show. They similarly altered the title of The Andy Griffith Show to Andy of Mayberry for daytime. CBS had a policy in those days of standardizing the opening titles of daytime reruns of prime-time series. For Dick Van Dyke, every episode of the CBS daytime run opened with Rob tripping over that ottoman, one reason why fans who watched in those years have that opening burned so deeply into their memory. The episode titles weren't seen in the daytime reruns, either. CBS dropped the series from its daytime schedule and put it into syndication in 1969, not because ratings for it were down, but because the network established a policy that year that all of their daytime programming would be in color.

fred nerk said...

I heard a recent interview with Dick Van Dyke and he said he would have been happy to keep doing the show and would be happy to still be doing it.

Johnny Walker said...

Don't worry, Mike, I'm oinly watching the first 10 seasons. I have no desire for permanent brain damage.

fried chicken said...

you can watch in on youtube:

Stephen Robinson said...

JIM: Don't know what it is that makes actors want to leave a successful series to try their hand at the movies.

SER: Because fame is fleeting. I think we focus a lot on stars who leave TV shows and then flop in film or solo projects and point to that as evidence that they never should have left (McLean Stevenson, Shelley Long, David Caruso), but at the time, did the actors make a sensible move? It worked for George Clooney.

The entire business is a gamble really.