Hello from Beijing. Where are all the Olympic athletes? Did I miss it? Oh well. It’s Friday question day. What’s yours?
Damian J. Thomas wants to know:
Why do TV series waste my time with retrospective episodes? Some episodes simply show parts of the same stuff I’ve already seen. Was someone, such as the head writer, on vacation that week?
Retrospectives are a cheap way to fill out a season’s worth of shows. They generally do well in the ratings. And networks promote the crap out of them.
One of the most horrifying experiences in my life involves a retrospective. I was taking an MRI (already a heart pounding endeavor). Mirrors were set up in the tube that allowed patients to watch a television. So there I was, claustrophobic, not allowed to move even an inch, for 45 minutes, forced to watch the NANNY retrospective.
Years ago I pitched a sitcom pilot to NBC. When it was time for questions one network whiz asked (in a straight face yet): “What’s the first episode of season seven?” I picked my jaw off the floor and said, “The clip show featuring all the classic moments from the first six years.” I wanted to add but didn’t: “What the fuck do you think is the first show of season seven? How the fuck would I know that? Are you insane?” They didn’t buy the show.
Retrospectives are great for writers. They get royalties for any clips used from their episodes. My partner and I cleaned up on MASH and CHEERS. I think on CHEERS they used something like 25 of our episodes. After that, anytime in the writing room we were stuck on a story at CHEERS I would say, “Let’s just scrap this and do another clip show!”
We were there during the MASH retrospective and although it was cheap to produce it required five times the effort on our part to put it together. For a month every night after we finished our writing we drove to a production house in Hollywood and screened episodes until midnight or 1 AM. Then came the impossible task of culling seven years of great highlights into one expanded episode.
An additional problem is determining the format for the clips. There is the wraparound approach. This can be real dicey. I remember one series got around this problem by having their characters being robbed. While tied up together in the kitchen, to pass the time (as all bound families do) they started reminiscing. “Hey, remember the time you wrecked the car?” And then they’d show the clip. Smooooth.
Nowadays shows tend to steer away from that artful device. On CHEERS we took the cast out of character and put them on a panel. They answered a moderator’s questions and we used the clips to support those answers. Other shows use just strictly clips tied together by graphics or voice-overs.
One trend I’m noticing lately – these retrospectives are appearing sooner and sooner. It used to be you wouldn’t even think of doing a clip show before 100 episodes. Now it’s getting to where the clip show comes as a celebration of getting picked up for the back nine.
Someday I’ll have to put together a clip show of this blog. Various sentences from different posts. Wait a minute. I could say I’m doing that right NOW. Yes, welcome to my retrospective post.
Is there an etiquette among scriptwriters, both inside and out of the writers' room, of how to let your colleagues know that you don't get the joke, or even worse that you get it but you think that it stinks? Or does everyone else just quietly move on and let you work it out for yourself? And is there a further etiquette for when you think that you've just come up with the funniest line ever, all these other fools want to move on but you refuse to give up so easily?
Each showrunner is different of course, but I’ve always tried to be as diplomatic I can when rejecting a pitch. I’ll say stuff like, “Yeah, it’s getting there” and “it’s funny but I’m not sure it’s right.” If you really shoot the writer down you run the risk he’ll clam up and then he’s worthless to you. On the other hand, I know showrunners who rule strictly by fear. You pitch something he doesn’t like and he’ll take your head off. You might say, don’t they realize they’re only stifling creativity and shooting themselves in the foot? And I would say, yes, but they’re assholes. I’m lucky. I’ve worked for showrunners who had their quirks and I wanted to kill them but I’ve never served under one of these tyrants.
There was a showrunner who would say, “How the fuck is that funny? Explain to me how anyone is going to laugh at that.” Needless to say the writers’ testicles retreated so far up his body he needed tweezers to find them.
Comedy writers need to develop a thick skin and often times showrunners are under tremendous pressure so they may not be as gracious as you would like. But I’ve always felt one of the showrunner’s jobs was to create a safe fun environment in the room so every writer could produce his best. To me it’s a complete win-win.
As for the second part of the question, this is more than etiquette. This is pretty much a RULE.
If you pitch a joke, even if you think it's the greatest joke ever conceived, if it’s rejected the DROP IT. It makes no difference if you’re right. The fastest way to get yourself fired from a show is to belabor joke pitches. You get one shot. If it doesn’t go in then move on. Don’t pout, don’t bring it up a half hour later, don’t say “we’d be home by now if you went with my joke”. And for godsakes, if the line that did go in didn’t work on the stage DO NOT say your joke would have killed.
Hey Ken, where in LA do u think most first-year TV writers, and then show runners, tend live?
Wherever they can find something reasonable. And most recently, not underwater. There’s an area of West Hollywood that’s unofficially known as “First Stop L.A.”. It’s around Melrose and La Brea. There are older apartments and small houses and duplexes. And lots of young single people. The older single people (generally they go by the nickname “divorced”) hole up in the Oakwood Garden Apartments in the valley. So avoid that.
New Los Angeles arrivees also gravitate to the Silverlake district. It’s kind of artsy and bohemian and if you don’t mind the fact that it can also be a little dangerous you might consider roosting there. Hey, I can see Silverlake from the Great Wall!
Burbank is another haven. I’m sure some of my readers can suggest other neighborhoods for newbies.
From Paul Duca:
…And speaking of "off the top of your head", is that how you do those play by play voiceovers, or do you watch an actual game clip?
It depends. I’ve done it both ways. Usually there is no picture but I have to tailor the play-by-play to the screen because often a character will react to something on the TV so I have to time the commentary to fit. Most of the time I’ll be watching the scene while doing my spiel.
There have been times when we do see the action on the TV and then it’s a snap because I just call the play-by-play of what I see.
Sometimes I’m asked not to use actual names or teams. That’s a little trickier. It’s easy to make up names for the players (usually I just use members of the crew) but it’s hard to give the score when you can’t identify the teams. I’ll do something like “And the Good Guys lead 4-2.” Yeah, I know... pretty lame.
My favorite experience was for the show BROOKLYN BRIDGE. I got to call the 1955 World Series. I wonder if it’s too late to get a ring.
What’s your Friday question? Leave it in the comments section.