Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became a whole topic. I talked recently about the exercise to thin down your scenes. Well, what happens when you can't?
I can imagine that you have been in situations where a script simply ran too long and you needed to cut something out, but the task seemed impossible because every line was integral to the story. Do you have any suggestions for how to identify what to remove? Would the same advice apply to other forms of writing, such as a short story or an essay?
You are right in that the one thing to preserve at all costs is the story. That sounds obvious, but it’s not. Sitcom writers will fall in love with jokes and trim story beats, hoping the audience will make the connection and still be able to follow the story.
If the audience is confused or is not involved in the story you’ve lost them. Jokes are just lipstick on a pig.
But that’s one of the reasons why I prefer stories that aren’t too complicated. Sometimes we writers can get too clever. We construct stories with four more twists than it needs. And what happens is you have so much story to tell that you leave yourself precious little room for fun.
I like my stories to be clever. I don’t want the audience to be able to predict the ending. But I also want to leave room for the show to breathe. I’m sure part of that is my belief that the best comedy comes out of characters. I want to see them interact. I want to be able to throw a topic in the air and have characters come at it from different points of view.
When I do a multi-camera show I hope that by the time it is filmed in front of a live audience it’s pretty much to time. Then ideally I get a two or three minute laugh spread. That allows me to go into editing with some room to play with. I can tighten things up, remove jokes that don’t work, etc.
But sometimes you get a bigger laugh spread or you find yourself still thirty seconds over after you’ve taken out everything you want, and then it’s tough. You occasionally have to lose good jokes. It’s a killer, but as the saying goes: sometimes you have to kill your babies.
David Isaacs and I faced a situation with the pilot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S that was somewhat unusual (for us). It was a nice problem to have. The show was to time when we brought in the studio audience. But the filming went through the roof. We ended up with a ten-minute laugh spread – on a twenty-minute program. That's great until you have to cut it.
There comes a point where you can’t edit out too many jokes because characters will suddenly jump all over the room.
In this case, we whittled it down to seven-minutes over and decided to turn it into CBS. If they picked up the show we would just go back and re-film a couple of scenes, reblocking to accommodate the lifts.
The next day we got a call that Jeff Sagansky, the president of CBS, wanted us in his office. Uh oh. We called our agent saying, “I think we’re going to be handed our heads. Do you know if Orange Julius is hiring?” He said it was a good thing that CBS summoned us. If they weren’t happy with the project they wouldn’t bother. They only had time to concentrate on the show they felt had promise.
It turns out he was right.
Jeff said he loved the pilot but of course, it was too long. He offered to screen it with us and help suggest further cuts. So we watched it together. Along the way there were times when David and I would chime in that you could cut this bit or lose that joke, and Jeff would always say, “No, I like that line.” After the show ended we had another thirty seconds in cuts. He said, “Screw it. Just turn it in as is.”
We did. The show did get picked up. And we did reshoot a couple of scenes to get the show down to time. This was before anyone had come up with the idea of “Super Size” shows. And even then, that was a privilege reserved for big hit series like FRIENDS, not summer tryout pilots like ours.
It’s a problem all showrunners face, but today it’s worse because networks insist shows be shorter (to accommodate more commercials and promos). You’d think that would make it easier for writers because they had to write less, but it’s actually harder because it’s more difficult to tell good stories in a more condensed period of time.
So that's how we attack the problem. Then there are those mysterious editors hired to trim shows for syndication. They use a different method. They just hack indiscriminately. Or at least that's how it seems. I'm so glad that you can now see MASH episodes in their original form. Some of the syndicated episodes were absolutely butchered. At times they would just lift entire scenes. All of a sudden nothing made sense. For years I couldn't watch MASH reruns because I got so furious with the editing.
That's why it's best to do it first. Don't let "them" fix it.