Tuesday, February 03, 2015

How to develop a TV show

Got some interesting comments on a piece I posted last week about visiting the DMV. You can read it here if you missed it or repressed it.

A number of you suggested the DMV might be a good setting for a sitcom. You talked about all the wacky people the staff could encounter, etc. There must be plenty of goofy anecdotes that a writer could draw from. It’s an arena ripe for comedy.

You’d think it was a natural.  And it might be.

But it's also a big trap.

What you’ve developed is a setting not a series. Good shows start from characters.

So how would I develop this? I keep a file of interesting settings, funny possible characters, fragments of ideas – a lot of stuff I’ll end up never using. In that file, among the crap, will be the DMV.

Let's say that some time later I’m developing a series about a character who feels trapped. How does a person cope while trying to escape the chains of his life? I need to give him a job. What’s an arena that’s soul sucking and suffocating? Well, there are many to choose from, but that too is a trap. You need a boring job that won’t be boring for the audience.

Probably a good start is a work environment where he has to deal with the public. That also distinguishes it from THE OFFICE. So now I’m running through situations where the public is involved. A bank? A store maybe? But it’s conceivable there is advancement in either of those scenarios. It’s also conceivable that the employee could enjoy the job. If he sells used cars he could be a car freak. He could have a foot fetish and love selling shoes. I need a job that no one would want. When you think of a bank your first thought isn’t “nightmare.” I want a job that’s immediately identified with Hell.

This thinking would lead me to a government position, probably in civil service. First thought: Post Office. And since it was my first thought and the most obvious I immediately discard it. Besides, how much could I do in a Post Office? There’s one line of people. I’d want a venue with more activity. I’d also want a venue that most people can relate to. How many people in America have been to the Bureau of Consular Affairs?

I go to my file and voila – the DMV. To my knowledge there’s never been a series set in the DMV so that's another big plus.   (There may have been pilots but nothing that got on the air.)

But my next thought is how can I use this venue to best promote my theme? What if my lead guy has an aged mother? Her license is up for renewal but she can’t pass the eye or driving test. He has to fail his own mother. And since she can no longer drive he has to more or less become her chauffeur. And she’s bitter about it so that strains their relationship. Thus, he’s even more trapped and it’s his own fault.

I would next think about his co-workers. What would the dynamics be and what would his relationships be with them?   Might there be a character who has just checked out? Or one who has big plans?

At this point I would contact the DMV and see if I could spend a week there. I would talk to the employees, find out their real frustrations, and gather anecdotes. The more real I could make the world, the better.

After all of that had been assembled, then I would turn my attention to the possible wacky people who walk through the front door.

But the point is it’s a show about desperation, feeling trapped, spinning wheels – not a show about the DMV. And because the setting is filled with comic possibilities and my lead character has a strong drive, the series could be very funny.   See what I'm saying?  Same venue, different approach. 

Now if you steal it, I want shared credit.


RockGolf said...

At what point would you select a series title? (Yes, I'm already thinking "Taking License".)

Hamid said...

I want a job that’s immediately identified with Hell.

Sound engineer on a Miley Cyrus album?

PA to Cybill Shepherd?

Disposer of chewing gum for Mariah Carey? (I'm not making that up, she does have someone whose job it is to take gum from her fingers and throw it away)

Wait. I've got it. The PA who has to inform Oprah she hasn't been nominated for an acting Oscar again.

MikeK.Pa. said...

We don't want to steal it. We want YOU to write it. Sounds like there's some germination going on. Water daily and get plenty of sunshine and see what sprouts up in six months.

Speaking of post office. Right out of college I got stuck - eh - got the opportunity to do jury duty. Back then it was three weeks. Today it's one day/one trial.

I was fortunate to get on a murder trial (not so fortunate for the victim, but for me better than spending my days reading and waiting to be en-paneled). One of the jurors was a mailman.

He was fretting because the USPS twice a year evaluates the carriers routes. Unfortunately for him, the evaluation was happening while he was on jury duty. He had built in two hours of leisure time on his route and was concerned the eager beaver kid filling in for him was going to breeze through in record time, thus the inspector would only be too glad to add more homes for our postman to deliver. I'm sure things have changed for the better at USPS since then, but might explain why Cliff had so much time to visit CHEERS.

The only other recollection I have of that jury duty more than 30 years ago (we spent two weeks together going out to lunch every day) was the most senior member, a man in his 70s, warned me never to order fish from a steakhouse or vice versa. I never have.

Oat Willie said...

The DMV stories in "That 70s Show" were not funny. But these were after the great first season of that program, and we got to see comedy gold transmuted to lead for several years.

Chuck said...

There's plenty of room for feeling trapped at my... uh... a bank.

Chuck said...

Mike K.:

My dad was a fill in mailman in Chicago in the late 50's. When an inspector followed him, he purposely slowed down the route so as not to get the regular guy in trouble.

How did he do it? He delivered junk mail to the Chicago River bridge tenders. The guy in the bridge house kept looking at my dad as if to say, "Mail? Here? WTF, Kid."

Kept the regular out of trouble.

Anonymous said...

I'd be more than happy to give you shared credit. What a boost to a career to say that you stole...er, shared an idea with Ken Levine. Would work for me.

Pam, St. Louis

Hank Gillette said...

Workplace shows usually involve jobs where the employees can leisurely interact with clients or the other employees (Cheers). My experience with the DMV is that the employees try to get the people through as quickly as they can and have very little interaction with their coworkers.

You could have the series spend a lot of time with the characters when they are not at work (as the first season of Barney Miller tried to do), but then it’s no longer a show about the DMV.

Of course, with great characters, the environment is almost irrelevant. If anyone could make it work, it would probably be Ken, but I just can’t see the DMV being rich with comedy material.

Anonymous said...

This sketch for _The DMV Show_ (_Taking License_, perhaps?) lines up fairly well with the original concept for Parks and Recreation, no? Only they based their show on putting one cheerful public employee amid a bunch of cynical ones.

Hamid said...

I just read the breaking news that Harper Lee is going to publish a second novel in July, 55 years after To Kill A Mockingbird. Not even Kubrick took that long between films.

Johnny Walker said...

How about making him even more trapped? His ex-wife is his boss, and she hates him :)

All his friends left town, moved elsewhere, and became relatively successful. He stayed to be with his sweetheart. It didn't work out. Then she got promoted.

You've got your lead, Ken, but wouldn't you also need to figure out the other characters, and get their dynamics locked down before external stuff? I always think of CHEERS and the central dynamic that made the first seasons work so well: The ultimate womanizing himbo falls for a smart educated, albeit pretentious, lady (and vise versa). It's THE ODD COUPLE with sexual attraction keeping them together.

The broader characters could come out of your research, but who is he going to have normal/interesting conversations with? Who's his Diane? His Felix Ungar?

Also, now that I think about it: If the guy hates his position at the DMV so much, and all we're seeing is how miserable it is, when will the audience get fed up and scream, "just quit already!"?

This is one of the many reasons that I think the situation is very secondary to character dynamics in creating a comedy.

Barry Traylor said...

Not sure if this is a Friday question? Just an observation I suppose. There is a local TV station that shows reruns of the Dick Van Dyke show and in the upper left corner they have the PG symbol. I find this quite amusing as Rob and Laura sleep in separate beds for crying out loud.

Johnny Walker said...

Re: Harper Lee.

Aw crap, it's a sequel to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Apparently she wrote in the 50s, but her editor told her to put it aside. Warning bells. The worst thing would be that it somehow damages the magic of TKAM. (Maybe Scout grows up and marries Boo?)

Still, I guess HOME SCHOOL didn't damage THE GRADUATE.

Markus said...

The job you describe there is called "TSA Employee" ...

Sam said...

But can't you also start with the setting?

CHEERS started with the bar. And then the alcoholic ex-pitcher who owns it is a perfect fit for that setting, as is a waitress who aspires to intellectual ideals. I don't think they started with how do we get an ex-ballplayer and an intellectual together.

From Wikipedia:
"The concept for Cheers was the result of a long process. The original idea was a group of workers who interacted like a family, the goal being a concept similar to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The creators considered making an American version of the British Fawlty Towers, set in a hotel or an inn. When the creators settled on a bar as their setting, the show began to resemble the radio show Duffy's Tavern. They liked the idea of a tavern, as it provided a continuous stream of new people, for a variety of characters."

I'm not saying this to be argumentative. I'm just saying that if you did want to set a show in the DMV, you could develop a character that would make the DMV interesting.

Igor said...

Please, Ken, reply to the post by Unknown.

I get every point you made about DMV only being a setting. And that a good show is rooted in its characters.

But when you write, "Good shows start from characters" - I can see that on a list of what's important, that characters are #1 on the list, but you make it sound like the genesis has to unfold that way. Really?

bryan near seattle said...

And you call it ... Night Court

Johnny Walker said...

Unknown said: "CHEERS started with the bar. And then the alcoholic ex-pitcher who owns it is a perfect fit for that setting, as is a waitress who aspires to intellectual ideals. I don't think they started with how do we get an ex-ballplayer and an intellectual together."

I'm not sure I follow your logic here. Why is an ex-athlete a "perfect fit" for a bar? Same goes for an intellectual. If anything, you'd start with a character like Norm, surely?

I'm sure there was a bit of both: The characters informed the setting, the setting helped shape the characters, but it does feel like you're ignoring the central character traits that generated the main storyline: Ultimate womanizer falls in love with his opposite.

He didn't need to be an ex-alcoholic. He didn't need to be a pitcher. It didn't need to be a bar.

You could have set it in an office, and it probably would have worked... it just would have been harder to come up with the same stories. It could have been a hotel. It could have been an airport (WINGS). They could have been roommates. It could have been just about anywhere that brought Sam and Diane together.

The bar just turned out to be a good fit for generating other stories.

Look at this way: If CHEERS changed its setting halfway through Season 1 to a hotel, you might have given it a chance. If it changed its characters, it would be a completely different show.

Nobody sticks around for the setting.

That said, I do believe THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW did start off with the location first. Shandling worked as a guest host on THE TONIGHT SHOW, and thought the setting would be a good place to generate stories.

By Ken Levine said...

Actually, the Charles Brothers initial thought was to do a Tracy-Hepburn relationship. At first they thought of a hotel setting, a la FAWLTY TOWERS, but decided there was more happening in the hotel bar. From there the notion of the bar expanded. But from what I remember, it was that relationship that came first. They wanted to write a romantic comedy.

But even if that wasn't the case, if a setting came first, the way to proceed is the way I did in the article. Who would the characters be that populate the arena? Once you have those you may find that the setting changes. It's all part of the process.

SER said...

CHEERS didn't start "with a bar." It started with a theme. UNKNOWN even quotes from the Wikipedia entry that states that the series creators wanted a "group of workers that interacted like a family." That is starting with a *theme," which is how they got to the setting. They didn't start with the idea of "show set in a bar."

This is something I see a lot in what I call "copycat" or more generously "bandwagon" programming. FRIENDS is a hit so we get a bunch of shows with attractive white 20somethings in New York. It's as if the producers of these new shows never watched FRIENDS or even did the research of reading the interviews with the creators, who have repeatedly said, "It's about the period in your life when your friends are your family." FRIENDS is about a family (CENTRAL PERK and Monica's apartment even function as their "home" together). The copycat series were, well, about attractive people in New York.

SEX AND THE CITY was another example. Now, I'm not sure what the intent of the show was (as I think the book was quite different from what the show later became) but what I think made it click early on was that it was about a "family" or more specifically a group of women who interact like siblings (in fact, the sibling theme works better to explain why a Samantha would even be friends with a Charlotte). The many copycat series that turned up in the late '90s were... hot young women in New York who date one-joke male characters. That is *superficially* what SEX AND THE CITY was about but it's not what made most of their viewers tune in each week.

Shows that are nothing more than a setting also don't know how to make their characters work because they didn't start with characters and theme. There was a period when every workplace sitcom had a "Frasier" character or a "Sam" or a "Carla." But it was superficial -- the smart professor character, the handsome womanizer, and the ethnic wisecracker. How they related to each other or fit together as a family was never considered.

JUST SHOOT ME, for example, was about a woman who was so desperate that she wound up having to go to her estranged father for a job. OK, there's a premise. Where's the conflict? OK, maybe she really hates what her father does and that it's in direct conflict with what she believes. What type of workplace setting would sustain this conflict? You could go with outright politics (a liberal who has to work for a conservative) or maybe something lighter that allows for more storytelling opportunities... a journalist who has to work for a "fashion" magazine.

An interesting example for JUST SHOOT ME is that Maya's roommate vanished after the first season mostly because he served no real point in the larger theme of the show. It's an interesting exercise: Check out series with "vanishing" characters (Brother Chucks, as they're called). Sometimes it's a matter of that character not fitting into the theme or the show not having a theme at all, just a setting and then all the characters are flailing around.

Igor said...

Thanks, KL.

Michael said...

Maybe the set for this sitcom is the offices of the DMV, the cubicles you see behind the agents. That way you can isolate the distraction of the people in line and focus on the main characters. It allows you to bounce back and forth whenever you want.

Igor said...

Lots of great stuff here today addressing issues that have been puzzling me.

@SER, your comments about Friends, Sex and the City, and Just Shoot Me. If you know Barney Miller, could you describe that show with the same sort of analysis? IOW, was Barney Miller about something?

Cat said...

Don't forget, Cheers was also going to be set in Barstow, so do with that what you will.

Johnny Walker said...

Great analysis, SER. Thanks for sharing that insight. You put across what I was trying to say much better than I managed, and added a ton of keen observation.

Anonymous said...

Most shows will tend towards 4-5 core characters (who can carry an A plot) even if they don't start out that way. For comedy/drama you need conflict, so those characters have to have 'abrasion' yet have a reason to keep on abrading week after week instead of just walking away to find a more peaceful life. The family is the most obvious situation where that happens, and you see a family-like dynamic in most sitcoms especially.

Ron said...

Can't believe no one has mentioned Reverend Jim's DMV test on "TaxI".

What does a yellow light mean ?


Todd Everett said...

I swear, you can't make this stuff up:

“Cheerleader Death Squad” comes from “Desperate Housewives” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” producers Marc Cherry, Neal Baer, Dan Truly and Sabrina Wind.

The one-hour pilot follows a former CIA agent-turned-teacher who realizes that his elite students at a Washington, D.C., prep school have high level access through their personal connections — and trains them to be his eyes and ears in the world of international espionage so he can make his way back into the CIA.

James said...

But what about the sitcom TAXI? Didn't that start as a setting, the creators populated it with characters who would be found in that setting? Initially it was the setting that gave them something in common (I'm a TV writer/producer who drives a cab on the side while I try to get my big break), and it was the nexus that brought these characters together who wouldn't otherwise socialize with each other.

Same with M*A*S*H. You don't start with Hawkeye, you start with the M*A*S*H and then put in characters who can exist there.

Anonymous said...

There was an episode of Frasier where a writer writes a new novel after his original hit novel. Frasier and Niles read through his draft and love it, but the author throws it away because of their comments.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I was thinking the DMV story could be like the Love Boat, each week a different set of over-the-hill actors could star in little playletes as they wait to be served.

"Will love develop in the photo booth?" The Late Ernie Anderson would intone.

VP81955 said...

I should note that in recent years, the term "the DMV" has become a phrase referring to the Washington, D.C., area (the District, Maryland and Virginia). Perhaps a TV series could be set at a motor vehicle agency in the D.C. area; call it "DMV in the DMV" (groan).

Interesting that channel 9 in Washington, the CBS affiliate, initially shared WTOP call letters with the radio station, then after being sold changed the calls to WDVM (District, Virginia, Maryland). Currently channel 9, now a Gannett property, has the call letters WUSA (not to be confused with the right-wing New Orleans radio station in the 1970 Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward movie). Of course, Gannett owns USA Today, and IIRC, its Denver TV station is KUSA.

404 said...

Johnny Walker: take heart. The "sequel" Harper Lee is releasing was actually written first, according to the article I read. Which really makes TKAM a prequel.

I for one am really excited about this.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I'm sitting on about nine different show concepts, but the problem is, as you've said many times, Ken, is that networks take over control of the shows that you create, they tell you what your show will be about, they tell you who your characters are, they tell you what their personalities are, they own all the rights, and you don't get a say in anything... so basically, you try to create a show, the network will pretty much hijack it, mangle it up into a different show, and you can't do anything about it.

Will Partridge said...

Thanks Ser, that was a thought-provoking comment.

DBenson said...

On trapped characters, I'm still waiting for somebody to do a more thoughtful take on Thurber's "Secret Life of Walter Mitty". The original short story was just a middle-aged man being dragged around by his wife while shopping. His little fantasies, lightly parodying pop fiction, helped him get through the day. Period.

Adaptations (two movies and a Broadway musical, so far) drag Mitty into "real" adventures. Danny Kaye's version made the daydreams into freestanding comedy skits and musical numbers (who fantasizes about being a women-hating hat designer?), although putting him in the daydream business -- pulps and paperbacks -- was a nice idea.

What if our trapped DMV guy had a wild and reckless imagination? Not (just) romantic or revenge fantasies, but a sort of alternate universe he uses to analyze, comment on and improve the people around him, who don't suspect he has any opinions or interests at all.

Once in a while he'll take some small, unnoticed action pushing somebody towards or away from their position in his secret life. Handing a loser a tiny triumph, getting the fun girls to embrace the wallflower, causing someone to catch another's lie. In his secret life he's almost a superhero with power over his environment; the tiny but telling influence he has over real life comically mirrors that.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Reading all the comments on this post, I'm really impressed with the brainstorming and creative ideas being pitched. It's like being in a virtual writing room.

Hamid said...

I can see it now...

Coming Next Summer


Directed by Michael Bay

Carmen said...

What I enjoyed best about your DMV lead is that he is such a dedicated employee, and believes so much in the need to play by the rules and keep our roads safe that he fails his own mother.

Obviously, he's also concerned about his mother driving, and this backfires on him. I imagine there is a sibling or siblings who don't help with the mother's errands, because they're selfish, and the lead gets stuck with it.

Louie DePalma, as a DMV boss, might have passed his Mom in the eye test, to avoid the hassle, and then consequences from that would have occurred. I think Sam Malone would have had others try to convince the Mom to stop driving, while pretending he's all for it. Not sure what he would ultimately do, but maybe he ends up agreeing to pay for her to have a driver/assistant, and lo and behold the Mom hires a beautiful grad student to drive her, and Sam is interested in her sexually...which causes a problem with the romantic interest in the office

Personally, I think DMV is a great title. I also think it's more interesting to have a character who DOESN'T hate his job. It's also a good work area, that no matter who he is, whether he's an Ed Asner-type, or a Bob Newhart-type, that he has to deal with various personnel issues, as well as driver complaints, not to mention a boss or bosses above him.

RockGolf said...

I understand that in the "new" Harper Lee book, Scout grew up to be a vampire dominatrix.

Anonymous said...

What I enjoyed best about your DMV lead is that he is such a dedicated employee

This is one of the reasons why the risk is that it would become pretty much the same show as Parks and Recreation.

Headache said...

Maybe I'm just hungover but I think this kind of ideas almost killed sitcoms in the 90s. "He is trapped in his job"? And the job at the DMV sucks. Cliché. And by the way he should definitely fail his mother before she runs over and kills a guy. But then it is revealed that the guy was black and she gets free but the black guy's kids now have to live with him at the DMV. And Johnny Walker has the shittiest idea of them all: Make his ex wife his boss. Come on!? Do they get back together? oooh such a sweet story. Horrible nightmare. (The neighbour above me plays the drums by the way)

SER said...

But what about the sitcom TAXI? Didn't that start as a setting, the creators populated it with characters who would be found in that setting? Initially it was the setting that gave them something in common (I'm a TV writer/producer who drives a cab on the side while I try to get my big break), and it was the nexus that brought these characters together who wouldn't otherwise socialize with each other.


SER: I love TAXI because it's a very *New York* show. The characters are all -- with one exception -- people who are trying to "make it." It's the American dream as actively fought in New York. The slight tragic element is that we know most of them won't. To tell this very New York story, cab driving would be the best profession -- the hours work, and unlike waiting tables, you can justify more diverse personalities.

Alex as the wise older "brother" character is the glue that keeps them all together, but he's also a sober reminder of what might happen to them, as he's "accepted" his fate. Like he says in the pilot, he's the "only cab driver in the place."

Randall Carver as John Burns was, I suppose, the "identification" character but he didn't really work. I've read that it was thought he was too similar to Tony Banta (I presume in the sense that he's slightly naive).

Jim was a brilliant addition because he was the "weird, burned out" cabbie, and his story added a lot of tragedy in addition to comedy.

But what about the sitcom TAXI? Didn't that start as a setting, the creators populated it with characters who would be found in that setting? Initially it was the setting that gave them something in common (I'm a TV writer/producer who drives a cab on the side while I try to get my big break), and it was the nexus that brought these characters together who wouldn't otherwise socialize with each other.

Same with M*A*S*H. You don't start with Hawkeye, you start with the M*A*S*H and then put in characters who can exist there.


SER: I think you'd have to start with Hawkeye to get a strong show or at least that *specific* show. M*A*S*H, as a setting alone, could be anything from ER to HOUSE to GREY'S ANATOMY. What distinguished the series were the characters. Here I'm focusing on the TV show rather than the movie, both are which are very different. Here you have a brilliant surgeon who has to function as a necessary part of something he deems horrific -- war. He patches kids up and then sends them back out to get injured again or even killed. To maintain his sanity, he constantly resists the military mindset, which provides the ongoing conflict (as the military mindset is personified by Frank, Margaret, or whatever officer of the week shows up). This type of character and his conflict requires the M*A*S*H setting to work. When they put Hawkeye type characters in other settings, he just comes across like an immature jerk or the class clown. You lose the nobility of Hawkeye. I loved the moments when Alan Alda showed you the type of person Hawkeye was when *not* in an insane situation. A calm, personable Doctor. You got that he probably wouldn't show up wearing a Groucho Marx mask or pull practical jokes on people back in Crabapple Cove.

DBenson said...

I just want to say I still think AFTERMASH was a valid and enjoyable show. The problem was timing: MASH lasted so long, AFTERMASH didn't reach the airwaves until long after the issues of freshly returned vets had been swept out of the public consciousness.

Ironically, AFTERMASH would be a more relevant show right now.

Johnny Walker said...

M*A*S*H started with a book... about the characters and stories the doctor who worked at real life M*A*S*H unit experienced. Everyone, including Radar, was allegedly loosely based on someone (or a composite of someone). The location made it interesting, but it was the people he met, and the things they did, that inspired the novel (at least according to the foreword).