Sunday, June 22, 2014

I had a bizarre dream last night

I was at some party and bumped into Allan Burns, one of the co-creators of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. It was the final year of the show (in my dream). I asked if David and I could write one of the last episodes. Our dream had always been to write a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. He was thrilled we wanted to do one. I guess in the altered world of my dream we had a track record (or I just have the world’s most inflated ego).

Now we flash to the filming of our show. David and I are on the floor. That’s the beauty of dreams – you can skip the actual “writing” part. In INCEPTION everyone dreams elaborate action sequences and fantastical adventures. I dream filming nights.

The episode we came up with, I have to say, was pretty damn good. Someone filed a sexual harassment suit against Murray. So to prove his innocence he came out of the closet. This set up some fun reactions from his co-workers. Mary couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe she sat right next to a person for years and couldn’t detect that he was gay. Lou was unfazed. He knew it all along. Ted started asking Murray questions about what it was like. Too many questions and way too detailed to just be out of curiosity. Sue Ann came in and said something so offensive I can’t even repeat it but it did get a big laugh and clearly there were no CBS censors in my dream world.

What struck me afterwards was this: how different the storytelling is in sitcoms now as opposed to back then. No, this isn’t one of those “back in MY day we knew how to tell a story. Not like these young pissants today” rants. Just an observation. Comedies today are much faster paced. They’re usually jammed with story. Quick scenes, multiple plots. Or in the case of BIG BANG THEORY – just a barrage of jokes.

Storytelling in the 70s and 80s was generally a little more leisurely. I say “generally” because MASH was just as fast paced as today’s shows (or faster) and maybe that’s one reason why it still holds up so well.

But as a rule series used to be constructed differently. You’d have a collection of colorful characters that all had very disparate points of view. You would toss some issue into the middle of the room and watch as they all had their takes and interacted with each other. You allowed room for the characters to breathe, to just have discussions. The downside was the stories moved slower but the upside was you got to really learn more about these characters. And hopefully you would make a connection and start to truly care about them. So their plight in stories took on an added importance.

Now that’s great when it works. When it doesn’t you’re left with a boring half hour where nothing happens and nothing’s funny. Even that the industry got away with for awhile, renaming them “dramedies”.

Anyway, that was my dream. The REAL dream would be if I got residuals from that episode. (Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Johnny Walker for creating the writing "credit.")

24 comments:

John said...

I had a similar thought before, but it was a variation on the Season 2 episode of "Frasier", where the new station manager thinks Frasier is gay. Only in this case, it would have substituted a clueless Ted for Frasier.

Klee said...

I always knew Murray was in the closet, so was Captain Stubing, coincidentally.

Michael said...

Interestingly, Ken, your other profession is similar. Not long before he died, Red Barber was on with Bob Costas and told him that he couldn't have been the broadcaster he was if he came along today. He said when he started you didn't have all of the bells and whistles, and so you had time to develop a personality while doing the game. If you think about it, most of the "characters" on sports broadcasts are older. The celebrities in sportscasting today tend to be the hosts or commentators. Well, today's comedies really don't give the storytelling time that the older ones did. Including MASH, by the way, which had a fast pace but still was rooted in the characters.

Michael said...

Interestingly, Ken, your other profession is similar. Not long before he died, Red Barber was on with Bob Costas and told him that he couldn't have been the broadcaster he was if he came along today. He said when he started you didn't have all of the bells and whistles, and so you had time to develop a personality while doing the game. If you think about it, most of the "characters" on sports broadcasts are older. The celebrities in sportscasting today tend to be the hosts or commentators. Well, today's comedies really don't give the storytelling time that the older ones did. Including MASH, by the way, which had a fast pace but still was rooted in the characters.

Anonymous said...

I always felt Becker has that collection of one-liners problem.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

A doubt I always had regarding writing credits (not sure if it counts as a Friday Question).

When multiple writers get credited on the same script, they usually get divided by usage of the "&" ampersand, but I've seen cases where the actual "and" word is used, and sometimes even both with three writers or more.

Ex: Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs

Ex2: Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs

Ex3: Teleplay by Jane Espenson and David Benioff & D B Weiss

Is there a criteria involved in separating multiple writers which requires using both cases? Is there a reason? Were they writing separate scripts that got joined together somehow?

Eileen H. said...

Very true. Especially the throw an issue into the room and see everybody's take on it. We used to have a room joke on Murphy Brown for a not too artful transition, "Jim, you've been quiet for a while." -- to make fun of the fact that everyone would have their take on the given subject. Bizarre that comedy now is faster with more story, but you have about three fewer minutes to tell said story -- as the network running time is now barely twenty minutes.

B. Kelliher said...

There was an episode on Mary Tyler Moore in which it was revealed that Phyllis' brother was gay. It was considered quite controversial in its day but it wasn't in the script. It was actually something that Valerie Harper improvised on the set.

The actor who played Phyllis' brother was actually gay and Valerie felt that came through in his performance. Having recently seen that episode I don't agree with her. It may have been something that she felt on the set but I didn't see it in his performance.

In actuality the writers had painted themselves into a corner. The gist of the episode was that Phyllis was upset that her plan to match Mary with her brother had gone awry and that a genuine romance developed between Rhoda and her brother. The original script would've left their romance unresolved.

tb said...

Sounds like a good episode. I can picture it. I can pretty much guess what Sue Ann said, too!

Marty Fufkin said...

Ken, I think the main reason we don't see as much storytelling today is the number of commercials that are squeezed into 30 minutes. The average Dick Van Dyke episode, for instance, ran 29 minutes. In the 70s and 80s, sitcom episodes were whittled down to 25, 24 minutes. Today it's 22. How much story can you cram into 22 minutes? It can be done and it's done well, but it's harder, and it's more tempting to take the easy route and just slam jokes at the audience in the fastest pace possible.

Cap'n Bob said...

So, Ken, in your dream was MTM a sweet woman or the monster some people claim her to be?

Johnny Walker said...

Eduardo: I´m no expert, but I believe the WGA uses "&" to denote "with" (i.e. two people wrote the script together), and "and" to denote when someone has written separately (i.e. a second draft that had nothing to do with the original writer).

That said, for MTM, even writing teams were credited with "and". Not sure why. Maybe the "&" rule hadn´t been implemented yet. Either way, that´s what I did for Ken and David´s credit.

Re: The blogpost. It makes we wonder if comedy will ever slow down again. After I adjusted to the slower pace, I LOVED the first season of Cheers (and still do). Will it ever come back?

B Smith said...

I once dreamt I was at the taping of a local sketch comedy TV show. It was very funny. Upon awakening, it took me about 30 seconds to realise that I had just dreamed a half hour's worth of original material. You think I could remember any of it?

Richard Hatem said...

First of all -- that's an AMAZING idea for an episode of MTM. But I'm really struck with how much the whole thing makes EVEN THOUGH IT WAS A DREAM. Usually when something is funny in a dream, the minute you wake up you realize it makes no fucking sense. But Jesus, you dream in B and C stories... I have trouble doing that awake.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

@Johnny Walker

It could be, but I also think "and" might refer to rewrites, where multiple drafts by different writers are credited on the same episode.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I used to like when a sitcom would open with a day-to-day kind of banter before the story would kick in. The first few minutes might or might not tie back in with the plot but it gave you a few "real" moments with the characters.

No kidding - last night I dreamed I was in the cast of "Good Times." We were all told by the director to laugh hysterically at something J.J. said. I don't remember even knowing what it was he said, but we laughed hysterically.

Mort said...

that's an AMAZING idea for an episode of MTM

Some of you people are such suck-ups.

Johnny Walker said...

@Eduardo Yes, that's exactly what I was trying to say:

"&" - co-written
"and" - separate draft

Rockgolf said...

@Mort: That's exactly what Sue-Ann's line was!!

Anonymous said...

What did Sue Ann say? Something about missing Crisco from the Happy Homemaker set?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

A couple of years ago I was asked to have lookto see if the Mary Tyler MoreShow could not be adapted for Dutch TV. In fact, that would have been the second time, as I worked n an adaptation twenty years ago as well. Only this time the way to do it seemed to be to combine two episodes into one. Now, in Holland we still have 25 minutes for each episodes and he adaptation would have been a one camera job instead of the classic four camera sitcom format. That made it easier to have more and shorter scenes. But the point is, it actually worked because the characters were still there and their stories were well chosen and grounded. I wish it would have been picked up, if only to be able to work with that great material. Oh - a recent one on one Cheers remake (not by me, I wouldn't dare - and they didn't ask me) failed miserably.

Carolyn said...

I was just having this conversation today with someone. Where did all the good writers go? Very few sitcoms pass as comedy these days.

Steve Bailey said...

I remember in 1979 when the magazine Film Comment devoted an entire issue to American TV and referenced "MTM's" Murray as a character "whom many suspected of being a closet queen." I'd never even considered that thought until they mentioned it.

Steve Bailey, moviemovieblogblog.wordpress.com

Johnny Walker said...

Now I've been watching Mary Tyler Moore I can say that this was a great idea for a show! Damn, I can't believe Ken *dreams* great stories!