Saturday, June 13, 2015

The most difficult character to write for

Recently I spoke at a UCLA writing class and a student asked, “Of all the shows you’ve worked on, which character was the most difficult to write?” I had to really think. Finally, the answer I gave was Fay from WINGS.


But first, understand that I love the actress who played her, Rebecca Schull. She’s both a wonderful person and actor and did a remarkable job with what she had to work with.

But Fay, the character was hard to write for. Why? Because she was so NICE. She was sweet and kind and cheerful and wise, and those traits are all death to a comedy writer.

If you’re writing a sitcom pilot or comedy screenplay, take care when you’re creating characters that you give them flaws. The more, the funnier. They don’t have to be unlikable, but you’ll find you have a lot more comic ammunition if they’re not perfect. They can be vain, selfish, suspicious, cowardly, stingy, forgetful, neurotic, immature, untruthful, love sick, dim, cocky, opinionated, bossy, verbose, jealous, insecure, obsessed, or a hundred other traits.

We’d sit in a WINGS rewrite and need a joke for Fay and be stymied. We had little to draw upon. The best we could do was give her the element of surprise; have her say something unexpected. And if I may say so, I thought the WINGS writers did a fantastic job servicing that character. Fay had a lot of great lines, but it was like pushing a basketball through a garden hose.

Again, Rebecca was a joy, and a total gamer. She was willing to try anything. So she does not apply to the next paragraph.

But a lot of actors will balk at their characters having flaws. They don’t want to be seen in a bad light. They don’t want to appear vain, or foolish, or an asshole. What they don’t understand is that they are shooting themselves in the foot. Being Captain America or Mother Teresa doesn’t automatically make you likeable. What does? Being interesting. Funny. Relatable. Not taking yourself too seriously. Being a good sport.

Networks sometimes don't understand this either.  You'll frequently get the note, "Gee, he was mean.  I don't like him when he says that."  And if you bow to their notes and pressure from the image-conscious actors you'll wind up turning your show into a nice, lovely, bland rice cake.  This is one battle worth fighting.   Comedy is edgy.  Comedy is subversive.  You're not writing THE WALTONS.

I had the solution for Fay, but the producers never bought it. I said, have her be as sweet as you want. Just make her an ax murderer. I lobbied for this for years, always to no avail. It would be midnight. We would be struggling for a Fay line, I would pitch something, no one would laugh, and I’d say, “Okay, now picture her saying it with an ax in her hands. Suddenly you have comic gold!” Like I said, the producers never bit… although there were a couple of times at 2:45 in the morning when I could swear they were wavering.

This was a repost from many many years ago.

23 comments:

Boomska316 said...

Well their was the one episode where Brian thought she was trying to poison him. I always thought Fay's flaws were her kind of ditzy personality and her occasional ultra-competitiveness. She could also be petty like when she made Joe feel guilty over chewing her out for a mistake. I wish more people would appreciate Wings. As far as I'm concerned it's right up there with the best sitcoms.

Oat Willie said...

I've seen sitcom characters with Afterschool Special flaws which pop out of nowhere and disappear after the episode. If Herb Tarlek had had a pain pill addiction instead of alcoholism his character would have been killed off. Really; until the 90s the weird Hayes Code of TV required it.

MikeK.Pa. said...

WINGS is one of my favorite all-time sitcoms. Fay would deliver killer lines with that sweet smile. The string of husbands she had - all named George - was a nice touch, too.

Mitchell Hundred said...

Are you implying that pushing a basketball through a hose is difficult? Seems pretty easy to me: just make a big enough loop in the hose and you should be able to fit lots of stuff through there.

Craig said...

You guys are to be commended for working so hard to come up with funny lines for Fay. Too often, with characters like that, it appears that at some point a decision gets made that generating jokes for them isn't worth the effort, so these characters end up being trotted out only when they're needed to help with the exposition.

I think WINGS is underappreciated. Sort of bugs me that on DVD it's been dumped from Paramount to a budget label (Mill Creek Entertainment), but at least it IS out there on DVD, which cannot be said for some other worthy series.

Eric J said...

Wings was one of the best. Outstanding characters and Fay was one of my favorite. Sweet, but don't cross her. Great writing, and Rebecca Schull played her beautifully. I even liked the opening.

Diane D. said...

I can see how a character without flaws would be difficult to write for, but it is apparently worth the effort, because Fay was hilarious. I loved that character, and I also thought WINGS was a terrific show.

Regarding characters being mean, I can thoroughly enjoy a mean character (Roy in WINGS, Carla in CHEERS). What I can't handle well is when a favorite "good" character is purposely hurt by another character. In some episodes of CHEERS, Sam was very cruel to Diane. I can (and do) watch most episodes of CHEERS over and over, but not those. It seems strange to me to feel the kind of attachment one often feels for fictional characters, but I have read many times that it is PERFECTLY NORMAL :)

Hamid said...

That was so funny that Faye touched every first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. If she's still alive, I can't imagine her wanting to get within ten feet of Michelle.

Cat said...

Diane D, Sam and Diane are quite cruel to each other in season 3, and it's difficult for me to watch. His cruelty in season five isn't justified, but there is a reason for the character to be angry and Ted does a fantastic job with it.

Mike said...

Just make her an axe murderer.
Friday the Thirteenth spoiler.

DBenson said...

Favorite Faye zinger: The airport is closed by foul weather and everybody's getting cabin fever. Faye starts a cheery story of once spending a long layover on arts and crafts or something similarly juvenile.

Roy, fed up: "Don't you EVER have a bad day?"

Faye, sweetly: "When I do, I'm sure you'll be there."

Don't know if this would be sustainable in a sitcom, but I always like well-intentioned characters in movies and plays who throw a situation into chaos with some small, kindly action. A favorite example is a cartoon where Sylvester barely escapes a yardful of vicious bulldogs. As he stands panting against the fence, an elderly man limps up and pets him.

"Poor little kitty locked out of your yard. I'll put you back!"

He clumsily hoists Sylvester over the fence and calmly goes on his way, not hearing the mayhem from the yard.

Diane D. said...

You're right Cat, it isn't just Sam being cruel to Diane. It goes both ways, but I always feel more sympathetic to Diane. I'm not sure why because I love both characters, but it is hard for me to watch those episodes. I'm glad I'm not the only one!

Mike B. said...

The Showtime series Dead Like Me had a sickly sweet character. They solved this dilemma by giving her a past as a cocaine addict, giving her the weirdest non- sequiturs.

Hamid said...

Is Roy gay? I think his homophobia was a giveaway. He's the type of guy that would take a cheap thrill wherever he could get it. Why pay for it when there are all those eager, anonymous men funneling through Nantucket?

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine Jon Cryer's career in Two and a Half Men if he was going to try to keep his character clean, nice and so on. There's an actor who went full-on into whatever the latest attribute was.

Bert said...

Ken-
You've frequently provided insightful advice for aspiring TV writers. What would you suggest for a young high school kid, a sports buff, who wants to be a sports broadcaster?
Thanks,
Bert

MikeK.Pa. said...

Re: Bert.

In high school, one of my friends used to regularly go to NHL games and bring his tape recorder and do play-by-play. I actually did color - very badly - for one of his "broadcasts." When he went to college he got in the rotation of students who called football, basketball and baseball games on the student radio station. Today, he's an NBA play-by-play announcer. Not sure what his step was between college and NBA other than I know he got a job on one of the local cable stations (back when there were local cable stations) in their sports dept. As they were acquired and the new cable company acquired local sports TV rights, he did some pre and post-game shows until he got a shot at play-by-play. Hope that helps.

Johnny Walker said...

I was watching an early episode of WINGS the other day and I felt that the writers were aiming for Rose Nylund. Indeed I could just imagine the lines being delivered perfectly by Betty White's character -- but I think that performance, much like Shelley Long's Diane, was probably an incredibly tricky balancing act, and so extremely difficult to pull off convincingly. I'm not trying to point the finger at Rebecca Schull; I think she brought something else to character that made her a lot less sweet and naive. Fay felt like she had an acerbic edge, and I think as the show went on they moved away from the idea that she was impossibly upbeat and dumb (an early episode has Joe literally say: "Fay, you don't have to thank me every day for giving you this job!"), to someone who was grinning through gritted teeth (like when she'd complain about her pay or the customers), and was actually very savvy and underhand when she needed to be (like when Sandpiper was taken over and she immediately and unapologetically switched allegiances to the new boss).

But for me they never really gave her a clear enough archetype, and I think the notion of giving her a darker side -- if not literally making her an axe murderer -- was a good idea, and ultimately where they ended up leaning.

MikeN said...

See, the Queen of Hearts, the death card!

Everyone knows the Ace of Spades is the Death Card.

...Oh.

VP81955 said...

The Big Ten Network uses many student crews for soccer, field hockey and other "non-revenue" sports. If you go to one of those colleges, contact the BTN about working with them.

Also, see if you can get recordings of some of the masters at work in the sport you're interested in -- MLB, Scully, Kalas, Harwell, Enberg, Miller; NHL, Mike Emrick; NBA/college basketball, Marv Albert, Enberg again; football, several fine announcers, including the late Bay Area legend Bill King; and so on.

Anonymous said...

Oat Willie: Actually, Herb Tarlek's alcoholism did get mentioned once or twice after the "very special episode"--in passing, to explain why he was the only one in a scene not drinking.

Unknown said...

Before we shed a tear for the "under appreciated" Wings, remember it was on 10X a day on those "T-" cable channels for a few years. So I think it burned out in syndication, but will probably pop up again, since it was a great show. It had THE BEST opening sequence of any show. Think how that would look today in HD.

Tom Quigley said...

One of the impressions I always had of WINGS was that the characters seemed to have had lost aspirations about how they could have made something more out of their lives -- except for Fay. She seemed to be the steady rudder in the middle of the swirling waters there and was perfectly happy to be so. She certainly must have had some disappointments in her life, but it never kept her from being true to herself. We didn't see much of that and if that aspect of her (which was certainly more than being just the nice old lady behind the counter who was politely sweet to everyone who came into the terminal) had been revealed and explored a little more, I think it might have been easier to write for the character.