Monday, July 27, 2015

Bill Persky's notes on my DICK VAN DYKE SHOW script

I am truly honored that Bill Persky (far left) agreed to read and comment on my spec DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Along with his partner, Sam Denoff, Bill wrote many of the classic episodes of the series including COAST TO COAST BIG MOUTH and THAT’S MY BOY?? and he rose to the position of showrunner later in the series’ run. (In case you’re coming late to the party, I wrote a spec DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, which I posted in four parts last week. Check it out.)

Quick aside: When I starting out, writing spec scripts, there was a book on writing sitcoms. In it was printed the entire script of COAST TO COAST BIG MOUTH (in proper format even). I was in awe. That script was my gold standard. I’m still trying to live up to it. So for one of its writers to respond to my script – you can understand what a thrill it is for me.

I’m still waiting for Carl Reiner’s reaction. When I receive it I will share it with you immediately, even it means delaying a post where I again plug one of my damn books.

Okay, so first off Bill sent me this email:

Reading the script was like a time machine transporting me back to the 60's; Obviously you capture the rhythm, style and sound of the show and characters, and the jokes were great and in character- you really had Alan cold. As to the story, we probably would have handled it differently. I'd be happy, with or without Carl to have a conversation about it, Another thing that I have thought about, and is clear in what you did, is how innocent we were, and how narrow the boundaries we functioned in- even though we were tough on some issues. I don't know that you could do the Van Dyke Show today without the episode of Rob getting caught watching porn in the office. Just let me know what you would like to do, and I'll be happy to do it. Bill

Is he a mensch or what? I then arranged for a phone conversation, which lasted probably a half an hour.

He seemingly wasn’t bothered by the prostate or stripper reference. But here’s the deal with that and it’s why I keep saying “think of the big picture” – if I had turned that script in and was getting second draft notes, Bill or Sam or Carl might’ve said, “not sure we could get away with prostate,” I’d say, “no problem I’ll do something else,” and we’d move on to the next note.  Done. These are not big deals.  My spec would not have been tossed into the reject file because the prostate reference was too jarring.

When I turn in a first draft I EXPECT there will be lines, or jokes, or moments that the powers-that-be will request be changed. But I’ve found that when you’re always second guessing yourself, wondering what will please the showrunner instead of writing what you think is good, you’re going to turn in a tepid draft.

I also should mention I’m much more receptive to doing the notes given by the showrunner because it’s his show. He knows it better than anybody. If he thinks a character wouldn’t say a particular line there’s no debate. He’s right.

Very semi-briefly: This was my thought process on how I broke the story. I thought it would be fun to have Alan Brady be an unwanted houseguest. Selfishly speaking, I wanted to write that character. I think my all-time favorite scene in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was the Alan-Laura scene in COAST TO COAST BIG MOUTH. (If you haven’t seen that episode you really need to.  It's on YouTube.  Go and come back.)

I created the car accident to establish Millie as a blabbermouth so she would ultimately pose a threat.

I needed a reason for Alan to hide out at Rob’s house. I wanted it to be scandalous but 1960s appropriate. And I wanted it to be a funny situation. So I thought of him being caught with strippers. Still, it needed a comic spin so that’s when I came up with the funeral angle.

Once Alan got to the house I wanted to introduce a flip. The audience would be expecting the obvious – he’s pushy, overbearing, obnoxious.  I wanted to do something unexpected and yet plausible. That’s why I structured it that he cooks them dinner, is nice to Ritchie, will sleep on the couch. The twist is Laura sees he left the kitchen a mess and is not a good houseguest at all.

And what seemed like a nice gesture to Ritchie is actually corrupting him and by sleeping in the middle of the house Alan's snoring is keeping everyone awake. I also had Rob explain that Alan must be in real pain having to keep up this facade. So Alan’s niceness is not out of character, it’s a conscious choice.

To make matters worse, Buddy and Sally were summoned the next day. More upheaval and another chance to write Buddy and Sally.

I was building to Laura having to make a tough decision – sacrifice her reputation or throw Alan under the bus? The new car was to help make her feel more guilty.  Always make it harder.  I personally love constructing stories where characters have to make tough choices.  They're relatable predicaments (which is why a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode still connects with viewers decade after decade) and their decisions really help define who they are.

It also tied into the other storyline because Alan knew their car was heavily damaged in the accident. Back in those days it was almost customary for the star to give people cars as a way of thanks. Desi Arnaz used to do that all the time. Producer Danny Arnold would give a writer a car if he had to write a script quickly and didn’t sleep for two days. So Alan Brady giving Laura a car seemed justified to me.

I wanted Alan to have to make a big decision too. Let Laura take the fall or fess up? That's why I had Rob lay out the consequences of Millie thinking their marriage was in trouble.

Would Alan step up and let Laura off the hook? He let her off the hook in COAST TO COAST BIG MOUTH. Judgment call – I thought he would.

Okay, so that was my game plan.  Now let's see how much better it can be. 

As Bill said in his email, he had problems with the story. He felt the car accident didn’t really pay off. I used it as a device, but he felt I could have done more. I can't argue with that.  In fact, he thought it could be expanded into a whole episode.

He said, what if Laura was driving somewhere and Millie was following her? Then the two of them get into an accident and the issue becomes which of them is at fault? Put Rob in the middle. The show becomes about two best friends who have a falling out. Could Ritchie still play with their son?  It's simple but universal.   Who hasn't had a falling out with a close friend?  And again, the star of the show is in the middle of it.  Much better than what I had.

Another option is to keep the accident as part of the Alan Brady story but let Alan get involved. Let him have some take on the accident and argument.

Bill said they probably would have let me say that Alan was having an affair. That’s the advantage of working out the story with the writers. As a freelancer I would not have known that. But then again, unless they’ve established that already as part of his character, they would not expect me to know that.  Oh, he thought the funeral/stripper angle was funny.

Bill felt I didn’t need the scene in the writers room. Alan could have just barged in on Rob & Laura and announced he was staying for a few days. This would have amped up both Rob & Laura’s reaction and given Rob less time to prepare. It would have been a more fun surprise for the audience too. He’s totally right. If I went in that direction, however, I would like to find an alternative scene in the office. Those office scenes are always fun.

I mentioned to Bill that the character I had the toughest time writing was Rob. Did he and the writers feel that way too? He said, no, not at all. And if I had trouble it’s because I didn’t give him enough to do. Providing him that little physical (choking) routine wasn’t enough. Putting him in the middle of an argument between Laura and Millie would be better. Or, in the Alan story, let Rob be the one to do all the dishes and try to clean up Alan’s mess. As he was saying all this I thought to myself, “Jesus, of course that’s better. Why didn’t I think of that?”

You're never too old to learn.  

MORE TOMORROW including his final thoughts on my script and the age of innocence that this series was produced in.

39 comments:

Mike said...

If the book on writing sitcoms was written today, how different would it be?

Clyde King said...

Thanks for sharing Bill's notes. Looking forward to seeing tomorrows follow-up.

Danny said...

Let us get back to you on this, Ken. We're all busy compiling 75 pages of notes on how to fix "Coast to Coast Big Mouth," and right now there's a heated discussion going on about whether or not Alan's toupees and wigs were all authentic to 1965.

RockGolf said...

Persky is spot on. Dick Van Dyke cleaning up in the kitchen while wearing a neck brace could be as or more funny than the classic Niles ironing scene.

I can picture rubber-limbed Rob writhing in silent agony then instantly pretending he's fine when Alan walks through the swinging doors with a question only to go back to soundlessly screaming again the second Alan leaves the room. Tell me you can't see it too.

The scene hasn't even been sketched out yet and its funnier than almost any sitcom episode I've watched this year.

Oat Willie said...

"there's a heated discussion going on about whether or not Alan's toupees and wigs were all authentic to 1965."
And so the internet was invented...

Lloyd said...

Now I'm waiting for forty people to post and claim that they were all thinking exactly what Bill Persky wrote.

Vickster said...

Very interesting. Thank you for sharing this process.

Carolyn said...

the creative talent floors me -

Michael said...

You don't need me to say how fascinating all of this is, but it is--not just the script, but the process that goes into it. It really gives those of us on the outside a sense of how these things get done.

Breadbaker said...

Not enough Rob was one of my thoughts, too. Persky's solution is perfect. I've tried bending down with a neck brace; I only wish I had the flexibility and comic chops of Dick Van Dyke when doing it.

Kirk said...

I can't remember the title, but there is a Dick Van Dyke episode where Alan Brady's extramarital affair comes up. The characters are all about to be fired (I don't remember why) when the affair is revealed. Oh, the look of satisfaction on Mel Cooley's face. THAT I remember!

Janice said...

Kirk, I believe you're referring to "Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac, Etc."

Mel tells the gang they won't be fired because when Alan was asleep he said, "Kiss me, Lillian", but his wife's name is Margaret.

GS in SF said...

Here's a Friday question tie-in: How different do you think the process would have been had you worked with your writing partner instead of handling the task solo? Would he have offered similar comments? Or, does having a partner give you more "distance" that maybe you would have come to some of these helpful insights on your own? This may offer an excellent opportunity to dissect the pros (and cons?) of writing with a partner??

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Bill Persky: Thanks for taking the time to provide the insights and for posting here. I hope you know that we all, as well as Ken, appreciate it.

Lloyd: No, I didn't think of what Bill Persky wrote. But I think I *should* have. :)

wg

Mister Charlie said...

Micheel is right, this has been a fascinating look at a real script writing and thought processes. Thank you Ken and Bill (and Carl) for doing all this, totally illuminating why our notes fell far short.

Sorry about dinging you for the car, that was the only jarring thing to me. But your explanation makes sense (especially as I am old enough to remember when cars were big gestures by stars).

Chester said...

This was a really interesting and enjoyable exercise, Ken. Thanks for the hard work you put in writing the spec script... And thanks to Bill Persky for being kind enough to comment.

OT Friday question: Ken, you recently wrote a stage play, you just completed the Dick Van Dyke spec, you mentioned another comedy you and David created and pitched, and you keep up a fairly detailed and time-consuming daily blog. My question: Where do you find the time? I'm amazed at your output. Don't you sleep? (Okay, that's a second question. You can answer either or both.) Thanks.

Johnny Walker said...

Agh. *shields eyes from Persky's comments!* I can't believe I still haven't read your script -- how time flies when you're busy! Sob :(

Gregg B said...

Bill Persky is 83 years old and still has the chops to come up with situations that are funnier than what we see on TV today. He is amazing.

Peter said...

Notes from a network today would probably say:

"Too many jokes. Needs pop culture references. Also need a role for a celebrity guest star. We've promised Ariana Grande a guest spot. Write a character who licks donuts in a store. It's the perfect synergy of pop culture reference and guest star."

Unknown said...

I think DVD is talented enough that you could just add "Rob works with neck brace", and would have produced pure physical humor gold.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Loved reading your thought process in the development of the script. Equally as enjoyable were Bill's alternatives including the Laura/Millie crash and subsequent feud. He took a kernel and made a field of corn (the vegetable, no pun on the writing) out of it. Pure genius. He could be consulting on any of a dozen sitcoms right now and immediately upgrade the quality of the shows, if he's not doing some of that already. Ditto for you.

Andy Ihnatko said...

He flagged the one thing that bothered me as a "viewer" while reading the script: the episode kicks off with Rob and Laura arguing about a semi-serious car accident but we never find out what happened or who was at fault. It felt like you lit a fuse that was left burning, noisily, all throughout the episode and then the story ended without resolving it.

Kirk said...

@Janice

Thanks, Janice, I believe that is the episode I'm thinking of.

Wayne said...

Rob cleaning kitchen in neck brace could be physically funny.

Slippery soap is always accident ready to happen.

Maybe Laura had removed her wedding ring to wash dishes and it's on the ledge over the sink and Rob knock it into garbage disposal and then he leans down to look and his tie gets snagged.

Roger R. said...

This trip to yesteryear is a rare and unique treat.
Are you thinking about a "Bilko"?

Ken Levine said...

If Nat Hiken were still alive, yes. Otherwise, no.

Mike Schryver said...

I don't want to let all this Persky talk go by without mentioning his work on KATE AND ALLIE, Which I thought was a fine show.

Matthew Kugler said...
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Matthew Kugler said...

Really enjoyed your script and was just as thrilled to hear Mr. Persky's incredible insight and continued creative wisdom as you probably were.

While I don't know if you directly addressed this with Mr. Persky in your conversation - but you would certainly know from your own experiences - when writing specs and getting notes back from showrunners, don't you find the expert eye always has the advantage in finding the better storyline/conflict/joke/etc. when they may not have found it own their own?

I've endured so many "Of course!" moments after getting notes and find myself giving better notes and ideas to others when I may have not come up with it on my own if I didn't have the foundation/jumping off point already in front of me.

My long-winded question being - since you weren't under a deadline for this script and it was greatly for pleasure, at what point did you feel you had done your best attempt? How many drafts/revisions did you go through? And did you still feel pressure or nervousness knowing that you'd be submitting it to Mr. Persky and Mr. Reiner?

Matthew Kugler said...
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Matthew Kugler said...
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Barry Traylor said...

"Bill said they probably would have let me say that Alan was having an affair. That’s the advantage of working out the story with the writers. As a freelancer I would not have known that. But then again, unless they’ve established that already as part of his character, they would not expect me to know that."

What a coincidence, I just happened to watch "Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac, Etc." last night where at the end Mel says they won't be fired the next day over the script they attempted to get back from Alan while he as asleep due to the fact that Alan mumbled a woman's name not his wife in his sleep. So one would assume Alan was playing around.

BrettJ said...

Hey Ken, as "DVD" is one of my favorites, perhaps I am nit-picking, but I noticed two things you likely wouldn't have seen on the show. They almost never made references to products or people that would date the show - so "Buick Skylark" and "Osterizer" might not have made the cut. Time-frame references were few and far between which is why, with some modern-tweaks, many of the shows would work today. I hope I'm not being too nit-picky and it's all in the spirit of fun.

Anonymous said...

This script is not authentic. DVDs were not invented until 1998.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. So many brilliant ways to improve the script. My idea of bringing Millie into the end of Act 1 would have turned it into a Mille/Alan debate, with the focus on Millie -- who wants that?

Bill's idea of having Alan turn up unannounced was sublime. If you re-wrote it, you'd definitely have to include that scene, and then maybe set-up elsewhere in the show how obnoxious he is, and maybe how Laura doesn't like him. Then suddenly you don't even need the Millie/car accident story -- it's all about Alan vs Laura with Rob in the middle (which is surely stronger than Millie vs Laura with Rob in the middle -- he's going to side with Laura, and you'd probably end up with different story anyway: Rob vs Jerry vs their allegiance to their wives).

What a sharp mind to still come up with such great stuff at 83. Wow.

Johnny Walker said...

Hmm. I wish I could edit my comment about Bill's age. Rats. I'm just amazed that he effortlessly added so many brilliant ideas after not working on a show for so long.

Julie Deaver said...

Loved the script! And so wonderful to read Bill Persky's note. And I still have the book you mentioned with the Coast-to-Coast script (Writing for Television by Max Wylie).