Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"What" writing partners argue over

Readers always ask if my partner, David Isaacs and I have fights when we’re writing. Sure, but the trick is to never make the fights personal. We can have a heated argument over a story point and then just go to lunch and discuss baseball. If we disagree on a joke pitch we’ve found it’s way easier to just toss it out, come up with something new, not waste a half hour on the argument, and result in someone being unhappy.

That said, we have had one disagreement that has been ongoing for literally decades.

I think characters should say “what?” occasionally when they hear a big piece of information and David thinks it’s unnecessary.

“I want a divorce.”

“There’s a tank coming.”

David thinks I rely it on too much.

“These apples are good.”

Okay, maybe he has a point there. But I contend that people say “what?” in daily conversation way more than they even think they do. And to support my point, if so many people didn’t say it, then the expression would never have evolved to “What the fuck?” I’d like to think that through our scripts I helped coin and popularize that now-treasured phrase.

And I also exercise some discretion.  I never pitch "say what?"

So how have we resolved this sticky matter?

We barter.

David will say, “I’ll give you a ‘what?’ for two ‘so’s’.” Yes, this leads to other arguments (“I have a ‘what’ banked from Thursday.” “No, you used that ‘what’ Monday.” “But we cut that speech.” “It still counts.”), but on the whole this has gotten us through hundreds of scripts. And it’s an example of the kind of stupid shit partners bicker about all day.

And don’t get us started with when to use and when to use --.  The police were once called.

Update: I'm not alone it seems. Don Draper says "what?" a lot. Thanks to reader F.Rumsen for finding this.


Mark Stout said...

I was at a Technical Writers Society dinner once, and the speaker referred to another night when the topic was punctuation and fights almost broke out.

ScottyB said...

Everyone gets in a rut. Maybe shake things up with "Huh?" instead.

You're welcome.

Carol said...

Did you secretly work for Doctor Who when David Tennant was the Doctor? Because he said 'what' several times per episode. :)

F. Rumsen said...

Scooter Schechtman said...

"What?" was used extensively in Monty Python writing, especially the films. Crucial to the hilarity.
"We are three wise men."

Johnny Walker said...

I completely agree. I find myself using "What?", and I feel it's perfectly valid! I suppose it should be used sparingly, though.

What does David propose as an alternative?

Dan Ball said...

Friday question:

How do you feel about writing story arcs (for whole series, just a season, several episodes...any arc) versus stand-alone episodes? Is there one you prefer?

It always seems like story arcs are the best way to go since they involve more complex storytelling, but what might be some writing/production advantages to doing stand-alones?

Katherine @ Grass Stains said...

About a year ago, my neighbor called me while I was driving home from work. She said, "Hey, I hate to tell you this, but a tree just fell on your house."

I said, "What?"

Hamid said...

I guess "say what?" is the more urban variant, as in "Say what? Oh damn! Fo' sho!" etc etc.

My personal favorite is the episode of The Simpsons where Homer sees an advert for a free trampoline and yells out "Tramapoline! Trambopoline!", to which Bart responds: "He said what now?"

Hamid said...

By the way, no one in the history of film or TV has ever said "what?" cooler than Clint Eastwood. He is the absolute master of delivering the perfect "what?" in the Dirty Harry films. My favorite is when the District Attorney says "You're lucky I'm not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder", to which he says in that classic Dirty Harry way "What?"

Rick said...

Don Draper's use of "what" on Mad Men is the stuff of legend .. Don Draper Says "What?" ... I see F. Rumsen sent the link too.

Dodgerdog said...

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) gives an actor's master class on how to deliver the same word to express many different emotions. Very clever.

Brian Phillips said...

Were I your writing partner, I'd give you all of your "whats" if I felt it would purge "Really?" or "Seriously?"

Wendy M. Grossman said...

People do say "What?" a lot, and I respect that. That said, I do notice the frequency with which it's said in many TV shows, so I think taking some of them out makes sense.

I'll trade you a "what" for an "OK".


Igor said...

Ken, I think you're close on this. But...

Eve: These look like good apples.
Adam: What?
Eve: You wanna fuck?
Adam: What is "fuck"?

And then, back in the 1100s, as Maimonides was writing his interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve - of course it was brilliant. But wow, did he ever have terrible handwriting. (It's said that his Hebrew looked like Aramaic.)

And so, when his secretary typed up his notes, she typed Adam's second reply as, "What the fuck?"

And it's stuck that way 'til this day.

(With apologies to "Fractured Fairytales".)

Jerry Krull said...

People really do say "What" in real life a lot. I noticed in the last few years a new phrase that I hear often and it's appearing in many shows (although I don't understand how it started in the first place);

"I know, right?"

Phillip S said...

They also say "That's True" A LOT on Mad Men.

What/That's True would make a good drinking game. Do people still do TV drinking games?

benson said...

Ken, you can appreciate this, but after almost 40 years in radio, my hearing is shot. I do say "what" a lot, along with "say that again?"

I love hearing the British "whot". Dame Judi Dench on "As Time Goes By" in some of the Lucy-flavored later episodes says it great.

Eric J said...

"What" is clearly the second most expressive word in the English language.

Tod Hinter said...

As a longtime member of the Magic Castle, I can tell you that if I had a nickel for every time a twenty-something reacted to an effect with an outraged "Whut?" I could give up my day job. And so could my kids. And their kids.


Tod Hinter said...

As a longtime member of the Magic Castle, I can tell you that if I had a nickel for every time a twenty-something reacted to an effect with an outraged "Whut?" I could give up my day job. And so could my kids. And their kids.


Tod Hunter said...

Hey! The machine said the first one didn't go through!

Anonymous said...

It drives me insane when a character begins a conversation with "sooooo......" If they just started with the information it would still work. I see TV and film with a lot of money and great writers who begin every conversation with "Soooooooo..... i heard you were late for work today" Just use your facial expression then start the line "I heard you were late for work today" If you really pay attention you can hear it in every TV show and every movie. It's awful to hear.....and now that I said that it will bug you too.
Paul S

Rich Shealer said...

This clip is based up a dramatization of a Levine & Isaacs "What" usage disagreement.
Approximately 4:45 into the clip.

(Pulp Fiction came to mind immediately)

Rich Shealer said...

Sorry make that 3:45.

Wallis Lane said...

Ill give you a what, but then you've got to include a who.


No, who. And it has to be first.

What has to be first?

No, who has to be first.


Right, who!


No, what's second.

I don't know.

That'll be third.

-bee said...

One could say in real life people say 'what' too much too, like "um", or like "like.

These are usually placeholders for the thought process - the translation may be "I am having a hard time mentally processing that information" or "I am having a hard time figuring out how to put this into words". It's actually, I think, a good tool for actors because ideally, we as the audience often want to see the wheels turning in a character's heads, and these filler words allow actors to do that in an oblique and non-expositiony way.

Writing naturalistic-style dramatic dialogue is not the same thing as writing a speech.

Would be interested in the argument about "--"!

Smurch said...

Here in Cincinnati, people often say "Please?" instead of "What?" Supposedly this traces back to the high concentration of German immigrants here - Germans say "Bitte?" when they don't hear someone clearly. I've always been a little disappointed that WKRP didn't feature this verbal 'signature' in their scripts.

katherine said...

…and then there is the new (soon to be old) variant, "Wait - what?"

What Said Fred said...

I was about to take David's side on the "What" debate, but after seeing the Don Draper compilation, it proves that it's not the word but how it's said.

James said...

Hey Ken - Question for Friday: How would someone with experience writing for national radio and touring stand-up comedians get into TV writing? I'm fine starting as a PA in a writers room and working my way up. I just honestly don't know where to start because I got into comedy writing a few years after college. I'm not a 22 yr old graduate that can join an intern program, so it is hard to get into the loop. I have been cold calling and emailing random ppl but most writers' contact info is an agent that doesn't care about some PA. HELP!

Pat Reeder said...

I'm used to "what?" because my wife has a hearing problem. My sitcom cliche pet peeve is "Unbelievable!," often delivered by an angry wife to a doofus husband as three separate words: "You are un!... BEE!... lievable!" Some sitcoms, like "Til Death," couldn't get through a single episode without someone saying this.

I often wonder why sitcom wives find their spouses' selfish/clueless/dumbass behavior so hard to believe when it happens every week.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

The next time you feel the need to use "what", substitute "pardon", and see if David notices.

Langley said...

@Pay Reeder: I figure those sitcom wives find their husbands' behavior hard to believe for the same reason that Ralph Kramden never seemed to expect those fat jokes wife Alice hit him with every week, even though he masochistically persisted in giving her screamingly obvious set-ups for them. ("Alice, I'm gonna be a biiiig man someday.")

Hamid said...

Further to my comment above, here is, in my opinion, the greatest "What?" in history!

Johnny Walker said...

Friday question for you, Ken: Have you read DIFFICULT MEN? It's an fascinating expose of the rise of the cable drama, and the showrunners behind those shows.

I'd love to know your thoughts on it. Is it too sensational? Is it accurate?

You can read more about it here (if you've not read it).

Barry Traylor said...

Actually Ken I have had to come up with alternate ways of saying "what" whenever my wife talks to me from 20 feet away (with her back turned no less) then accuses me of being hard of hearing. 203

Eileen H. said...

We used to fight about punctuation and room temperature. Now it's down to just temperature.