Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rookie mistakes

Everyone has to start somewhere. For me and my writing partner, David Isaacs our first paid writing assignment was for an episode of THE JEFFERSONS. Prior to that we had been writing spec scripts, schlepping down to the Writers Guild to register them for protection, and then we peddled them to anyone who would read them.

Our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (which had already been rejected by THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and RHODA) found its way into the hands of Gordon Mitchell, one of the story editors of THE JEFFERSONS. He liked it well enough to invite us to come in and pitch story ideas for the show. One hit the mark and we got the assignment.

Now came the hard part. Not the writing – but covering the fact that we were both utterly clueless of the process.

Step one was breaking the story. We met with Gordon and his partner, Lloyd Turner and worked out the beats of the story. Gordon then asked how long we needed to write the outline?

The outline? You have to write an outline?

I didn’t say that, but that’s what I was thinking. David and I wrote outlines for ourselves but they were usually handwritten scribbles on a couple pieces of notebook paper. I didn’t think that’s what he meant.

So we were on the spot. We didn’t want to say a week and have them say, “A week? It should take you two days.” Or we say two days and they say, “What? You’re just going to dash it off? It should take a month.”

We asked to see a copy of one of their outlines because we said, “every show has its own preference.” Even this was a stretch. They do vary, but we didn’t know that. There could have been one standard outline format used by every television show since Shakespeare’s day – how did we know?

They provided an outline. It was about seven/eight pages. We glanced at it and figured about three or four days. “Perfect,” they said. Whew. We navigated that minefield.

Once our outline was submitted and approved we were turned loose to write the script. Only hitch was that they needed it in two weeks. Normally that would not be a problem. But David and I were in the Army Reserves and those happened to be the two weeks we were ordered to report for active duty. Fortunately, we were in the same unit (we met in the Army Reserves) and were able to write the script at night at Fort Ord. Of course, that was a little strange. Picture one of those large barracks like in FULL METAL JACKET that houses fifty or sixty soldiers. It’s the evening. Guys are blaring the radio, smoking pot, drinking beer, playing cards or nerf basketball, and we’re sitting on a bunk saying things like, “Weezy, get over here!”
Script completed. Duty to country served. Monday morning upon our return I call Gordon to tell him we were bringing in the draft. “Great,” he said, “When can I have it?” I said, “Well, it’s 9:30. The Guild doesn’t open until 10. We’ve got to go over there and register the script, so I guess about 11:00.” He stopped me. “Schmuck!” he said. “You don’t have to register the script. I bought the script. You’re protecting yourself against me.” Oops. Didn’t know that. “Oh,” I said, “Then we can be there in twenty minutes.” “There you go!” he replied.

We hand-delivered the script and they were still laughing when we arrived.

Down through the years David and I have given a number of young writers their first assignment. And learning from our experience, we spell everything out. For you aspiring scribes, hopefully you too will get that first elusive script assignment. And hopefully you’ll get showrunners who will walk you through the process. But if not, don’t be proud. If there’s something you don’t know – ask. You may save yourself a lot of laughter that won’t be yours.


Carol said...

Do you still have that script? I'd love to read exerpts (or even the whole thing) on your blog.

Do you keep all your scripts in some kind of memory box or anything? Frame them and hang them in your study?

John said...

So you got your first instruction in part from one of the former writers of Warner Bros. cartoons (Turner) during their Golden Age of the late '40s. One degree of separation between Daffy Duck and Niles Crane.

(Also, when you and David were working on the script at Ft. Ord, did you let any others in your unit in on what you were doing? Or was that something that could have produced too many distractions, with others trying to contribute their own ideas to the story?)

Angry Gamer said...

Great story and great advice

You paused when asked a question you could not answer due to experience.

AND you asked for an example document.

It's great that these show runners were on the ball enough to help you with structure (beats, outline).

Possible Friday question: Did you ever end up in a situation (script, outline etc) where the reviewer would reject the product but not give you any useful feedback? In my business we call this "polishing the rock"... you know where the guy says "not right" but can't tell you what is "right". (slushpile question probably :)

Hamid said...

A Friday Question:

Have you ever had someone tell you he'd read a script and he thought it was so amazing that he urged you to read it right there and then, and when you read it, it stunk worse than a restroom used by Rush Limbaugh after a double chili burrito?

I saw a British-made documentary years ago about Hollywood and one funny bit I remember was a producer, I think it was Lawrence Gordon, talking about being woken up in the middle of the night by an industry friend telling him he'd just finished reading one of the greatest scripts ever and urging Gordon to read it right now. He agreed to have the script sent over and he sat down to read it at like 2/3 in the morning. Gordon said it was the biggest pile of shit he'd ever read in his life! :-D

In the same documentary, another producer said he got sent a script about a man who turns into a hamburger. "There was no story. He just turns into a hamburger!"

BizGrowthCoach said...

Ken i love the image of two young guys in the Army Reserve barracks in the early 70's with pads of paper acting out The Jefferson's.

Reservist: What are you guys doing? You keep repeating the same sentences out loud.

David: We're writing a script.

Reservist: For what, a racist play?

Ken: No, a TV show.

Reservist: Really? Which one?

David: The Jefferson's.

Reservist:(beat) You expect me to believe two white Jewish guys in the Reserves are writing for "The Jefferson's"?

Ken: You're not from LA are you?

Ok Ken pitch the better joke you would have actually answered with.

Jesse said...

Did the script you and David wrote change much by the time it got on the air?

thomas tucker said...

Hm. Why does Levine's name come before Isaac's name?

Anonymous said...

Seems like "Two Comedy Writers in the Reserves" would be a decent pilot premise.

Philip Morton said...

Ha ha, what a great story. And it had a great tag! My first screenplay assignment, insanely, was writing one for Eddie Murphy when I was 26 with my partner, a stand up comic. we had both come out of comedy, he performed it, I wrote some, I was working on SNL. talk about clueless. We brought every screenwriting book there was, which was...one. Syd Fields. We lived in the cheap holiday in on highland, having flow out from NY, now the towering one above the holiday walk of fame, tore our hair out for 10 weeks, put it on paper until it felt like other movies we liked, and handed it in. Paramount didn't make it, but it started my career. An amazing and strange experience.

BigTed said...

Too bad Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Silverman are too old to play you guys in the Neil Simon production of this story.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Not that there's anything wrong with this blog post, Ken, but I've been waiting breathlessly to see if you're going to say anything about Sunday night's THE GOOD WIFE.


Ken Levine said...


I'm still in Hawaii and haven't seen it. When I do I still will wait in case others haven't caught up yet.


The script got rewritten extensively. We were told they did that to all freelance scripts. What ended up on the air was very different from our draft. But we got our first MASH assignment based on OUR draft of the script. So how bad could it have been?

Paul Duca said...

When you were working with them, did you get 85 suggestions from Turner, but only 23 from Mitchell?

Johnny Walker said...

I'd also like to know if told the other guys what you were up to. It would be awkward to lie, but at the same time, if word got around you'd probably have been distracted by someone -- meaning you couldn't have met your deadline.

What do you do during the day in the Reserves anyway? Were you crawling through mud thinking of funny lines?

Anonymous said...

Bizgrowth Coach said:

"Reservist: What are you guys doing? You keep repeating the same sentences out loud.

David: We're writing a script.

Reservist: For what, a racist play?"

The term "racist" wasn't used in the seventies. We also never said, "you're worse than hitler," and many other cherished vague words and cliches taken for granted by the deep thinkers of the present day.

Know your subject before showing off.

Alan M. said...

Hi Ken, this doesnt necessarily qualify as rookie mistake but I don't know if you have done a post about continuity errors?

I find that they were quite egregious particular in sitcoms from more than 15-20 years ago. The Golden Girls which I love were notorious for them.

Examples....birthdates; ages; number of children; things that couldnt possibly happened based on what had been already said in other episodes; number of family members; guest stars who already had appeared in other roles on the same show, etc.

For example, based on discussions during the show, Dorothy was born in around 1930 and frequently talked about getting pregnant as a teen, which would mean she had a child in the mid to late 1940's, yet her children were only in their 20's in the late 1980's, etc.

Did sitcoms then, or now, not have some sort of chart or book or wall where these basic background of a character would be posted? Even if the writers change? Would a writer not look for this basic data when writing an episode into a show.

Sorry if it's off topic but I have long been very curious!

Gary Theroux said...

A footnote to that story is how heavily reworked Ken and David's fist "Jeffersons" script was by the show's staff writers. I vividly recall sitting next to Ken during the taping of that episode. Every once in a while he'd nudge me and say, "I think I recognized one of our lines." I wasn't long after that when no one in their right mind would dare alter a comma in a Levine & Issacs script.

Lansing said...

Not a comment, but rather a Friday question. I’m curious if my perception is correct that Seinfeld was a comedy series that was somewhat outside of the seemingly small world of the sitcom industry? I’ve been reading your blog, almost since its inception, and really appreciate your recounting of interactions with a wide cross-section of writers, actors, directors and showrunners that give insight into the world of TV comedy. In your four decades in the industry, you appear to have had intersections with people that were or would become associated with almost all of the great sitcoms of this era with one significant exception – Seinfeld. Is this just an incorrect perception on my part or is there something to this?

There are some aspects of Seinfeld that do seem to take it out of the traditional sitcom mold. Its showrunners (Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld) did not come from a sitcom background and had absolutely no prior experience running a TV series. The writers and actors were more closely associated with talk shows and sketch comedy (particularly Letterman and SNL) that seems out of the norm for Hollywood produced sitcoms. Was Seinfeld truly unique and groundbreaking in this manner or am I seeing distinctions without a difference?

Johnny Walker said...

@Lansing. I can't possibly answer your question, but I can steer you in the direction of Fred Stoller's account of working there:

My Seinfeld Year by Fred Stoller

It's brutally honest and very captivating.

One very unusual thing about that show: They didn't have a writers room. People would pitch story ideas directly to David, and if he liked yours, you'd get to write it. After you turned it in (presumably to an acceptable quality) David and Seinfeld would re-write it/edit it themselves.

(Stoller described it as a very lonely experience.)

I really think someone should compile stories and ideas on how to run sitcoms from showrunners. There must be so many different takes on how to do it, and it would be the first attempt at cataloguing the different ways to look for useful trends and techniques.

Jesse said...

Thanks, Ken. Extensively rewritten or not, I can imagine what a rush that must have been seeing "Wriiten by Ken Levine and David Isaacs" on the screen for the first time.

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous said...
The term "racist" wasn't used in the seventies. We also never said, "you're worse than hitler," and many other cherished vague words and cliches taken for granted by the deep thinkers of the present day."

Excuse me. I was certainly using "Racist" in the '70s," and "You're worse than Hitler" dates back to around 1945.

I'm sorry; I didn't catch your name...

Marc said...

Alan M.: I've read that WKRP IN CINCINATTI maintained a "bible" of factoids about each of the show's characters. Whenever any little detail was mentioned, it went into the book.

I love THE GOLDEN GIRLS, too, but yeah, that show was pretty bad about continuity. There didn't seem to be any established fact about those women, their lives or their pasts that the writers weren't willing to rewrite on a dime to suit the latest script.

I finally decided that part of it was that a decision was apparently made early on to keep the ladies' ages roughly the same throughout the run of the series. In their mid-to-late 50s. For this reason, it was necessary to keep moving important dates in their lives forward. They were always consistent, for example, about how Dorothy and ex-husband Stan had divorced after 38 years of marriage. In a 1985 episode, it's made clear that they had been divorced for two years at that point, meaning Dorothy got pregnant and married Stan in 1945. In a 1991 episode, though, Dorothy's pregnancy and marriage were motivated by Stan's fearing he was about to be drafted and sent to Korea.

RCP said...

Marc said...

I love THE GOLDEN GIRLS, too, but yeah, that show was pretty bad about continuity. There didn't seem to be any established fact about those women, their lives or their pasts that the writers weren't willing to rewrite on a dime to suit the latest script.

I noticed this too. In one episode, it takes three days for The Girls to travel to St. Olaf; in another, someone flies out of St. Olaf and arrives in Miami the same morning. Sometimes logic suffered within a single scene: When the heat gives out and they end up crowded into one bed, Blanche enters the room complaining that her bed has never been so cold - especially on a Saturday night. Two minutes later, Dorothy tells everyone to shut up because she has to get up early to go to work. No big deal, ultimately, since the show always delivered the laughs.