It’s Friday. You have questions. Let’s go.
Les leads off.
You have mentioned in the past you cast Aaron Paul in a pilot (and Kat Dennings I believe for the same pilot). I do not recall if the network requested his part be re-cast or whether the show just did not get picked up but in any event, now I am sure every network exec would die for just a meeting with Mr. Paul. If/when you are casting for a new show and an executive gives you push back on one of your choices, do you ever just say -- 'hey I discovered "insert-name-here" years before and know what I am doing" or does it even matter?
To set the record straight: the network had reservations about Aaron Paul. But we were very insistent. The pilot didn’t go because the star of the show didn’t deliver, and he was the network’s call.
But to answer your questions, you could try to persuade the network to go your way based on your past discoveries but that rarely (if ever) works. Even though it’s an actor you found, brought to them, and they didn’t like, if the show is successful they think they discovered him, not you. Yes, it is maddening.
What exactly makes a really solid and funny pilot? It's quite astounding that writers can (sometimes) achieve this, it sounds like it's an incredibly difficult task!
You're right, Marianne. Pilot writing is a real art. In only 22 minutes you need to establish the premise, introduce all the characters, establish all of the relationships between them, get us to care about them and their plight, reveal any backstory, set the tone, tell a story, be consistently funny, clearly tell us where the series is going after the pilot and why we should come back.
And that’s just the script. You have to cast it perfectly, get the right director, and fend off network interference.
Little wonder there are so few good ones.
Stephen Robinson asks about writing jokes that depend on the actors’ delivery.
That's always inspired me as a writer when working on a play to write lines that I know could kill but will depend almost entirely on delivery. I think it results in a naturalism that doesn't feel like a sitcom where the cast is comprised of Henny Youngmans delivering one-liners. Do you do that intentionally? Or are you surprised as the audience by how the actor nails the line? I've always found it incredibly brave of a writer to trust so much in the actors and director (especially if they're not directing the script themselves).
That’s always the way I write because I write for characters. Most of the laughs come out of attitudes and the interplay between actors. Very few joke “jokes.” So I’m always at the mercy of actors. Their interpretation can either lift lines or kill them.
Yes, it’s treacherous. There are lots of reasons for souffles not rising. But when it works, it’s soooo much more rewarding.
For most of my career I’ve been super spoiled. Getting to write for actors the caliber of Tom Hanks, Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Alan Alda, David Hyde Pierce, Nancy Travis, John Candy, Kelsey Grammer, Harry Morgan has made me seem like a way better writer than I am.
In the past you've reference several pilots you and your partner penned that didn't get picked up...
Was there one that didn't go that bothered you?
Yes. It was called MIDNIGHT and took place at a funky colorful all night diner. All of the stories were to take place between midnight and six. We had some very funny characters and unique situations. It had great potential.
But I’m more upset that ALMOST PERFECT and BIG WAVE DAVE’S didn’t get longer runs. I’m very proud of both of those series and still feel they would have been hits if given a fair chance.
That said, you’ve got to move on. Dwelling on past disappointments does no good. Every writer has projects that didn’t go or were cancelled prematurely. You just look ahead and hope that the next one clicks.
And finally, Jeff asks:
What are your thoughts on the usage of cliffhangers?
I’ll tell you next week.