Saturday, June 28, 2014

Writing our first real script

Here’s another chapter on how David Isaacs and I began our ersatz career. In the last installment I explained how we wrote a pilot together despite neither of us having the faintest idea how to do that. You can read that post here. To the surprise of no one (even us) the pilot didn’t sell.

But it did attract the attention of an agent at a very small firm. Okay, it was just her and a telephone. And okay, it attracted her attention because David knew her daughter. But she agreed to take us on and claimed she knew people in the business. We didn’t bother asking who. It’s not like we had any other options.

We decided to take a writing class at UCLA extension. Wait, it was the UCLA experimental school, which is probably one step down from extension. Our teacher was a real character. We’ll call him Ron. He claimed he had written for BARNEY MILLER and quite a few variety shows. He was particularly proud of his comedic contribution to CHER. Those were the days before imdb. Years later when we did check all the BARNEY MILLER credits and his name wasn’t listed he said he ghost wrote the episodes. Uh huh. The thing is – if you’re going to lie, why lie and say you wrote for Cher?

Anyway, he really made his living playing in a high-stakes weekly celebrity poker game.

But his class was very valuable. We learned we had to write spec scripts from existing shows. David and I were both huge fans of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW so that’s the one we decided to write.

Ron wasn’t big on really “teaching”. If you had a spec script he would read it aloud and then we’d all critique it, which was valuable… but only up to a point.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was on CBS Saturday nights at 9. Believe it or not, Saturday night used to be a big night for television. Now it’s a dumping ground for reruns or burning off UGLY BETTY episodes.

Since David and I basically had no social life we got together every Saturday night, held a small microphone up to the TV and recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder that night’s episode of MTM. We’d then replay it several times, analyze it as best we could, and write a detailed outline. We did that maybe eight weeks in a row. And eventually patterns emerged. We figured out how they approached a story, how many scenes, the types of stories, the tone, etc.

We came up with a story of our own and were ready to write. Tomorrow: that story.

14 comments:

Roseann said...

Boy, Ken, you guys were pretty smart to record MTM shows and analyze those scripts. Inch by inch you learned your craft. EXCELLENT!

RANDY COLEMAN said...

too funny...hey Ken, I just read about Ernest Hemingways reading list for your writers and was curious if you had one? Yes, his was in 1934 and i'm sure many other books have been written but was just curious.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Surely your career isn't *ersatz*. That would mean it was fake.

I hope you don't mean "erstwhile", either.

Derrick said...

In the '70s I was in high school with a guy who had a huge collection of cassette tapes, all containing soundtracks of TV episodes. I remember that his "hobby" was considered eccentric, at best.

Mark Stout said...

I was the nerdy photographer in high school. I spent many Saturday nights working in my darkroom while listening to MTM on a radio that picked up TV programs. Audio conveyed 98% of the story.

Michael said...

Some TV shows work surprisingly well without the visuals. To this day, BBC Radio continues to air Steptoe and Son TV soundtracks.

There's a pilot floating around for an I Love Lucy radio series. Basically, they took a TV soundtrack and tried to turn it into a radio show by making some minor adjustments to the track and adding some narration by Desi. Given the very visual nature of the show's humor, though, it just didn't work.

Another early TV sitcom favorite, My Little Margie, did make the leap to radio, though they did shows especially for that medium rather than just airing TV soundtracks.

JIm said...

@Michael

The episodes of Steptoe and Son that you get on BBC Radio are special adaptations of the TV scripts. The same's true for Dad's Army and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. SImilarly there are quite a few shows that started out on the radio and were later filmed for TV, often with pretty minot tweaks to the script. That list runs from Hancock in the Fifties, right up to The Flight of the Conchords and Count Arthur Strong in recent years. Always close, but never quite identical.

Johnny Walker said...

Awesome. I can't wait to read how this progresses. Don't skimp on the details!

Paul Gottlieb said...

Richard Benjamin's commentary tracks for both "The Sunshine Boys" and "My Favorite Year" are terrific. They're full of wonderful little details and personal anecdotes. He really loved his work, and he makes you feel it

mmryan314 said...

Ken- Nostalgia is overtaking me right now. I remember Saturday night TV so well. Huddled under a blanket against a Wisconsin winter and watching Mary Tyler Moore followed by Carol Burnett. Pre- DVR- I almost resented social plans.

Janice said...

Oh yeah, there was a period when Saturday night on CBS was as good as television got. One thing that always annoyed me, though. Carol Burnett used to go off for the summer, after airing just a few repeats from that season. That always annoyed me and I never understood it. I remember, though, that my dad told me it was very common for shows to do that back in radio days and on early television.

Kosmo13 said...

For an audio-only sitcom, check out the Get Smart LP. Most of it consists of audio excerpts from various Season 1 Get Smart episodes, strung together to create a new storyline. Buck Henry wrote some new connecting material.

To me the album is funny because I can picture the scenes as they appeared in the TV episodes. I'm not sure they'd sound as funny if I didn't have remembered visuals to draw on.

VP81955 said...

I think at one time the CBS Saturday lineup was "All In The Family," "The Bob Newhart Show," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "M*A*S*H" and "The Carol Burnett Show." That's the TV equivalent of the 1927 New York Yankees.

Carl said...

I didn't realize until I looked online, but that particular Saturday night line-up, with M*A* S*H as part of it, lasted only one season: 1973-74. The other four shows were together on Saturday night for three seasons.