Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Network" notes on my DICK VAN DYKE SHOW script

I may get some angry comments but so be it.  I list these not to embarrass anybody but to illustrate what it’s like to get network and studio notes. I do appreciate all of your comments, I really do. And these serve to give you some idea of what TV writers face. On the surface it may seem absurd, but trust me these are exactly the kind of notes writers receive. That’s why I’m doing this. These notes are a perfect example of what we must address on a routine basis.

Some background to put these notes in perspective: We spend hours, maybe even weeks, working on the story. Is it interesting enough? Are the stakes high enough? Where is the fun? What are the emotional beats? Are the emotional beats earned? How can we tell the story in a fresh new way? Can we put in some unexpected twists so it’s not predictable? How do we get out the necessary exposition in a way that’s not dry and boring? How do we service all of the characters? How do we do this while still staying within budget… and time? Every beat is discussed, every motivation.

A draft is written. Then is carefully scrutinized. Can this line be funnier? Does this scene feel too long? Is there a nice flow? Does each actor have enough good things to do in the scene? Are the jokes spread around equally, or is one character primarily asking questions or laying out exposition? Are the payoffs big enough? Is the story easy to track? Is there still a better way of telling this story? Will the actors be happy? Is there any repetition? Is the act break strong enough? Is there enough physical comedy and movement or do we just have talking heads?  Is it too predictable or cliched? 

And after all of that discussion and polishing when we feel we’ve produced a well-crafted script that satisfies all of those conditions, we send it to the stage… and network… and studio.

And these are the notes we get:

It all rings true - except in the early 60s, I think Ritchie would have said "Hi" instead of "Hey"

Does anybody actually say "brunt" in everyday conversation? To me, it's one of those words that people occasionally write, but sound awkward when spoken informally.

People did not say "My God" in 1965 sitcoms.

Most of America is probably unfamiliar with haggis.

Pretty sure that kaddish would not have been mentioned back then, either.

I also query the insurance rates comments: my recollection is that they didn't go up as promptly or as much back then.

I don't get the line when Alan says to Mel :I don't like it when you speak normally. That doesn’t have the right ring to it.

I never remember Buddy getting off less then a fast 2 or 3 shots at Mel as soon as he appeared. A single shot seems lame for him

"Breaking out of Alcatraz" though time-wise right, is also too detailed a reference.

I think "Canada", rather than Poland seems more from Laura's world.

Do you think they would have used the term exotic dancers instead of strippers?

About the bagel thing, if this is going by 1965 lifestyles, would "plain Bagel" be a term that would be used and did the "goyim" even know about bagels?

The part with Alan making dinner rings untrue.

Wouldn't a motel room be cheaper than a car?

How do you buy a car and have it delivered early in the morning, before you make your bed/couch?

Wouldn't the racket of destroying a kitchen to make french toast wake her up earlier?

Alan Brady never once wrote with the gang.

I think Alan's joke at the end is anachronistic.

One clunky sentence I would change: "She's going to ask for all the things you borrowed back." Would change it to: "She's going to ask you to give back all the things you borrowed."

And my favorite, where they’re actually rewriting jokes:

The dollars left over from the funeral, while a great joke, still seems post-60s. Maybe "I got a bunch of singles from the funeral. I sold autographs during the eulogy." Or "I didn't tip the pallbearers this time." Or "They passed the plate for his favorite charity and I took change."

Now put yourself in the writer's place.  Makes you want to order a big drink or write plays, doesn't it?

Tomorrow: Bill Persky. You’ll see the difference.

58 comments:

Jonathan said...

Not an angry comment, but a curious one. Isn't "Alan Brady never wrote with the gang" in a different category from the others? Established character behavior seems to be a relevant consideration in a long-running show. Wouldn't actual show runners be concerned with that kind of thing? If a spec writer had Charles Emerson Winchester participating in a camp limbo contest, wouldn't you have given that writer a note about it?

Carol said...

This reminds me a bit of the story about Terry Pratchett's book Mort being considered for a movie way back when. The plot is about the personification of Death taking on an apprentice. Apparently the Hollywood Powers That Be said they liked it, but they wanted to lose 'the death angle'.

Regarding 'Alan writing with the group' I just got the impression since he couldn't be in the office he brought the office to him. He would always have to approve the script, and this way, sitting right there, he could get it done right away.

rchesson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rchesson said...

I have, in the past, done a lot of writing (not for entertainment) subject to "official" comments (think notes). Many of the comments are downright stupid, not unlike the notes on scripts. I usually write some polite but subtle snarky response to the comment when I can get away with it. How do you generally handle these types of notes?

Oat Willie said...

Bill Persky? That bum's going to note my notes?!? He still owes me an apology for "That Girl"!

Pat Reeder said...

I didn't leave any picky notes. I was just glad to have a new DVD Show script to read. I did spot a few things that seemed a bit anachronistic, but I just assumed that if you were writing a new DVD script, then maybe you were writing one that could be produced if the show were on now. It's your fantasy project, and you never said it had to meet CBS's 1963 Standards & Practices.

thomas tucker said...

But of course. Why would you expect different from people who aren't professional writers? We bumpkins don't know about all of those sophisticated concepts that underlie a successful script! We only know if something doesn't make sense or doesn't sound right. And believe me, the same thing happens in every profession. I understand it sounds like nitpicking to you, but thats the way life is. It happens to everyone.

kent said...

Alan cooking was a little surprising but not beyond the realm. People have hobbies or maybe Alan worked as a chef before he made it in comedy. It reminded me, though, that they did an episode where Buddy was a house guest who snored loudly and insisted on cooking breakfast , wrecking the kitchen in the process. So I guess my note is that your s story is too similar too a previous episode. Funny though.

A. L. Crivaro said...

Too many example questions. Just get to the post next time.

kent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

When I read that line in the comments, "I didn't tip the pallbearers this time.", I laughed. Good joke.

Michael said...

When the Smothers Brothers were having fights with CBS censors, they did a skit about censors in which something like "she felt the lurch and halt of her heart in her breast" because "she felt the lurch and halt of her pulse in her wrist." CBS censors weren't terribly pleased about it for some reason.

Frank said...

I thought it was great Ken and found it amusing you have so many comedy writing critics.

Stephen said...

Jonathan, I don't think the limbo craze had caught on yet during to Korean war.

Clyde King said...

Ken, Thank you for sharing this. You captured the voices of the characters and expanded on them in an entertaining manner, as one would hope new stories would. Did the original sixty year old episodes establish every nuance or hobby of all the characters? Of course, not. Did they take elements from previous episodes to establish beats. Of course, they did. What's wrong with you doing the same? What do people want... you to reprint an old script? It's amazing that the people who nit-pick and criticize you for sharing a fun exercise are critical and defensive of you poking fun at their criticism. ** Hey people, as good as the original series were, some episodes and many lines laid eggs. Some of the people commenting admit they have never seen an episode, but question if the references are either too modern or too dated. Shall, Ken custom-write the episode for different age groups and sensibilities?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

You and David write brilliantly and some schmo from network who can barely write a check critiques YOU. Because they can. Because their job makes them responsible for the success of the network's schedule, so they have to do "something." That's absurd and sad.

You've told us how independent you and the staff were during M.A.S.H. production - almost never receiving notes. That must have been wonderful.

No wonder you don't want to hop in the shark tank again under today's circumstances. You're right. Life's too short.

YEKIMI said...

Hmmmmm....you used one of my "notes". Does that mean I can get a job as a network or studio note writer? Where does one apply for that position? Have to whip up a resume with some of my best "notes" now. ;-P

Mike Barer said...

But you left out the comments how about how much I enjoyed reading it.! On the whole, it was a lot of fun!

BIll Persky said...

I can't wait to see how I come off...

John said...

There is a slight difference in the posted critiques between "They wouldn't have said that" and "If you were writing this script in 1965, you wouldn't have used that term." A minor quibble, but is does differentiate between the someone saying the line is wrong for the character because it doesn't fit who they are, and the line simply never showing up the the mouth of the character in the first place, because if this was 1965, some euphemism would have been inserted that would have met censor approval.

Mike Barer said...

I do understand the point you are making. I would guess this license was taken in 1965 when writing Westerns and other period shows.

Ken Levine said...

Bill,

You come off GREAT.

Steve said...


Just one note...

Re every line in the script: A Martian wouldn't say that.

(Masterful job)

Steve said...


Bill,

Don't worry, they'll be critiquing your notes too...

Jonathan said...


Stephen said...
Jonathan, I don't think the limbo craze had caught on yet during to Korean war.

A blog commenter spends seconds, even minutes, coming up with a comment that makes his point, gives an example, creates a funny image, but isn't offensively sarcastic, and then someone makes a perfectly reasonable objection to it?! This will be tomorrow's blog post.

Peter said...

I enjoyed your DVD Show spec enormously and the best compliment is that as someone who's never seen the show it made me want to watch it. I'm going to line up some episodes on Youtube.

On a different topic, I hope you'll be reviewing Ant-Man. It's a terrific movie and I think you'll enjoy the comedic aspects.

Robert Forman said...

Just out of curiosity, did you ever get back notes that you thought were helpful? Did you ever get back a script that said something like "Wonderful, don't change a thing"? If you did, would you feel good about it or think "Uh oh...."?
Just FYI the movie "The Stripper" starring Joanne Woodward came out in 1963, so the use of the term was not an anachronism.

KING OF JAZZ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ken Levine said...

This is my position on notes: the best idea wins. Yes, if someone has a note that I feel will make the script better I gladly take it and thank them profusely.

When I write something on spec I always give it a few writers I trust and ask them to be tough on it. I may not agree with all of their notes but will surely address the ones I feel are valid.

For my play, A OR B? I threw out the entire second act of the first draft based on readers notes. I wrote an entire new (and way better) second act.

Someone could say "don't change a word" and that's fine until it gets on the stage. Invariably there are words to change, usually a lot of them.

KING OF JAZZ said...

This is totally irrelevant, but be on the alert for the DVD episode with Godfrey Cambridge. He's a government agent using Richie's room (a rare set) as a lookout. On the wall are images of The Addams Family! An interesting touch given no production connection between the shows (as far as I know). And I'm glad it wasn't The Munsters.

thomas tucker said...

I'll give you an example of how it happens in my field: I see a very challening patient with unusual symptoms, comb the medical literature, come up with a brilliant diagnosis, and an effevtive treatment plan. Then the patient complains that I don't smile when I first walk into the room. It's like getting that note from the network. Yeah, it's irritating, but it happens. And they don't understand all the behind-the-scenes work, and challenges. Like I said, that's life and everyone deals with it. In the meantime, I'm really looking forward to seeing how a professional in that industry critiques the script. Stay tuned, right?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Thomas Tucker...

Totally agree. I'm a science fan, skeptic and general pain in the butt to some folks and I have never understood the arbitrary b.s. criteria that patients use to critique doctors. What the f*** do THEY know about medicine??? And don't get me started on "natural" cures, homeopathy and divine intervention...but I digress...

...now, back to your regularly scheduled blog...

Mark Raymond said...

Dear Ken,
Maybe a Friday question if you think it might be interesting. There always seems to be a few comments that "have been removed by the author." I'm not asking what they said, since I understand if you wanted us to see them you would have left them stay as a comment. I guess I'm just wondering what the tone or tenor of these comments are that gets them removed? If my comment gets removed I guess that will give me my answer as well.

Donald Benson said...

As one of the presumers suggesting replacement jokes, I'll admit I was acting out my own fantasy. As an advertising copywriter (nowhere near Mad Men level), I'd get notes involving not-quite-there puns, strained "hip" references ("How about 'hip-happy'?") and miscomprehension of marketing terms ("Costs less is a feature. Can you make it a benefit?").

It was fun to place myself on the other side of table.

Kirk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk said...

@Mark Raymond--I believe when it says "removed by the author" that it's not Ken but the person who left the comment originally who's doing the removing. I imagine usually for some innocuous reason, like they just wanted to rewrite the comment. That's why I do it. If Ken himself removes the comment, it should say "This comment has been removed by the Blog Administrator"

The above is what I wrote a few minutes ago. Just to test it, I canceled the comment, and, sure enough: "This comment has been removed by the author."

Tammy said...

Hey Mark, I'm not 100% sure, but I think "removed by the author" means the person who wrote the comment deleted it (I'm guessing this is usually due to double-posting). I think when Ken deletes them it says "removed by a blog administrator". Your question still stands, of course; just letting you know that it probably happens less often than you thought. From comments I've seen left in, it seems you'd have to be *very* offensive to get deleted.

Tammy said...

Ah, Kirk beat me to it, and provided proof as well :)

Greg said...

Sounds like show business is like the rest of business, whether it's called "writer notes" or "project feedback" or anything like it. Activity expands to fill the bureaucracy. As long as people perceive they are in a position to pass judgment, they will. (If they don't, they could be viewed as "not adding value" and they could be laid off.) What gets frustrating is when they contradict each other, and it's especially frustrating when they contradict THEMSELVES in subsequent rounds of notes. Thankfully, I bet studio execs never do THAT. (grin)

AAllen said...

By pure chance, I was a fellow student with future best-selling author Sherman Alexie at a short story creative writing class at Washington State University in 1990. After we submitted our stories, the professor would copy them for the class to critique. Sherman's stories always jumped off the page. Even though I was reading a manual typewritten manuscript, they were engaging, professionally written stories. I couldn't think of any way to make them better, but another student could. This was during the Housing and Urban Development scandal, and Sherman had included the term "HUD house" in a description of his neighborhood in the Reservation. One student didn't like the term "HUD house", perhaps because it seemed too much like a topical reference. Sherman responded with, "That's what we called them." He must have known what he was talking about, and I haven't heard back from the other student since the end of the class.

KING OF JAZZ said...

I deleted a recent post only because I wanted to rewrite it.

Rashad Khan said...

This is probably because I didn't actually write the script, but reading the "notes" didn't affect me as deeply as I thought they would.

Mark raymond said...

Tammy and Kirk, thank you for taking the time to address my question. It makes complete sense. It was always confusing to me. Thanks again. Mark

H Johnson said...

I read your blog frequently. Having written a blog everyday for two years I know the effort that goes into finding something interesting to write everyday. You've been doing it for much longer than that. I can't praise you enough nor thank you enough for sharing your stories and anecdotes from your life and career.

This latest project writing a new Dick Van Dyke Show script has been terrific. But I must say I've been a bit taken aback by your sensitivity to your regular reader's critiques. The comments are half the fun with your blog and you've always had a terrific and varied group of characters to say the least. I for one felt as if you invited comments in the past.

Granted, some of the latest comments are goofy, but quite a few were thought out and on the money. The new script is great but isn't perfect. Your readers are by and large respectful and insulting them as inferior to the great and powerful Oz is off-putting. Perhaps next time you should turn off the comments, or instruct the readers to only praise thee and hold thy forked tongues.

You've been a contributor to some of my favorite television shows in the past, and your love and admiration of Vin Scully is enough to always keep you in my bookmarked reads, but the next time you get sand in your vagina, keep it to yourself.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I was painting all weekend and just catching up. First, to be a writer, as you well know, you 1) really need to have a thick skin and 2) be willing to compromise on your material at times. That said, I didn't think the comments were nearly as bad - as again, you would know - as what you'd get from network executives (something I certainly don't know). I even agreed with some and, don't shoot me, I thought some of the Alan lines were actually funny. Accept them in the vein of 1) almost all of the readers giving them have an almost reverent affection for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and 2) respect the hell out of you and only wanted to make the script that much better.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I agree that the notes picked out and posted above are tiny details that are easily changed if the story, structure, characters' voices, etc. are right. (I think I said something like that the first day, and then stopped posting after picking out a couple of those details of my own.)

For me, it's all about stages in the work. I feel sure those details would get worked over in the process of reading, staging, and shooting the script. At an earlier stage, where the script is being submitted for acceptance, what matters more are those bigger issues, and someone picking on individual jokes is about as helpful as someone complaining about the commas and hyphens being wrong.

The problem with saying Alan Brady never cooked is that we don't really know that: we just know we've never *seen* him cook (and it seems absolutely in character that if he does cook it's a big-deal signature dish that he has down perfectly and that creates havoc for whoever has to clean up after him). (I still wonder how the team got from the office to New Rochelle in rush hour before Laura started dinner and managed to fit in making Coq au Vin, which probably takes an hour to make, and still have time left before Richie goes to bed, but this is my issue, not yours.) Someone mentioned the episode where Buddy stays over when Pickles is away and makes a disaster area of their kitchen; it's "The Boarder Incident" in season 1 - I went and rewatched it.) But I don't think that's the point, especially in 1965, when I bet Bill Persky never imagined people would be rerunning episodes and discussing them 50 years later! Even in real life, people are terrible judges of these things: they say "he'd never do that" when their relative/neighbor/friend/lover is indisputably caught doing something awful.

The thing is, with a show that everyone loves, everyone who watches it has their own idea of who the characters are, what they would do, how they speak, the kinds of jokes they make. I thought the amount of agreement that Ken had gotten the characters' voices right was remarkable, and is largely due to the fact that we all know how those actors deliver those roles. I read once that Jane Austen remarked after seeing a picture someone else had made of their image of Elizabeth Bennet Darcy along the lines of "Yes! I thought she'd like to wear yellow." I agree with Austen! And then the BBC or some filmmaker comes along and makes Austen's lively, sharp, athletic, witty character into a languid simperer, and this is why I never watch adaptations of Austen's work: they don't see the characters right. That is, they don't seem them MY way. Which in my head is right.

I think this is also the sense in which after four or five years shows eventually become imitations of themselves. The personnel in the writers' room shift, and the new writers have different images of the characters. Ken has written about this as a good thing, and maybe sometimes it is. But in many shows it winds up with straightforward character destruction - Robin on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER being a really obvious example. The DVD show managed to save itself from that awful fate - and doing 39 episodes a year! (Today, those five seasons would actually be eight years.

wg



Wendy M. Grossman said...

Jonathan: doesn't it depend how and why Winchester got into the limbo contest? Maybe it's to get some absolutely essential thing to keep a child patient from dying. Maybe it's because he lost a bet to Hawkeye and BJ without really knowing what he was going to have to do. Maybe someone had drugged him...

wg

Barry Traylor said...

It made me laugh Ken, that is what I expect from comedy, I for one ain't much of a nitpicker.

Jonathan said...

Very true, Wendy! I didn't mean that all character notes had to necessitate change; just that they were worth being taken seriously and answering. If the writer has a plausible explanation for behavior that appears out of character, then that solves the problem. In this case, I thought that some of the comments about Alan Brady behaving differently from the way we have come to know him were worth addressing. (He comes across as a slightly dense, avuncular sweetie here, rather than a mercurial egomaniac with occasional scruples.) Ken may have good reasons for making him so, or he may just disagree with our interpretation of the character. But either way, I feel that those "notes" really are in a different category, and worthy of more serious consideration, than some of the other comments and I wondered why Ken seemed to lump them all in the same category of useless interference.

Mike said...

This blog now has two rules for commenters:
1) Sign your name.
2) Wear a suit.

AAllen said...

Mike: I'm wearing my birthday suit. Does that count?

Steve Pepoon said...

Just a FYI, in case anyone is interested, if the network tells you they don't like a joke or a story beat and they pitch to you a "fix" that is horrible, it's not a good idea to dig in and (rightly) say you're joke or take is better and then leave it as is. Come up with a third joke or story beat, one you can better live with. That usually satisfies the suits and in short time they'll come to believe that your fix was their idea.

Steve Pepoon said...

Your. Not you're. Next time I'll preview.

Diane D. said...

Wendy, I've always felt the way you do about adaptations of Austen's novels, they never get them right (or I should say, my view of right). I've never seen a portrayal of Mr. Darcy that does not seem ridiculous. Austen creates a character who is taciturn and proud, but he is not totally without charm or humor (although Elizabeth Bennet is needed to help him learn to govern his temper and become more gracious), but I have never seen a BBC production or movie that does not portray a character who is much more absurd than the sardonic character Austen created. I can never understand how it's possible that the British, of all people, can't get it right.

cadavra said...

A swell job, Ken. Like you, I believe that TDvDS is the best sitcom of all, and that second act of CTCBM may be the funniest ten minutes ever. The anachronisms did stick out to me, especially as I have to really fight hard to resist them on the Biffle & Shooster shorts (which are supposedly made in the 1930s), but Chuck Jones always felt that the narrower the discipline, the better the work would be. And besides, that's what God invented erasers for. So what's next? A Bilko episode, maybe?

cadavra said...

Oops, ignore my final comment above. I read these last two posts in reverse order.

Johnny Walker said...

Provided you could ignore most of these notes, that would be fine. One made me laugh because it's kind of a valid point:

"Wouldn't a motel room be cheaper than a car?"

Of course, a simple line about motels could deal with that.

Another one stuck out:

"Alan Brady never once wrote with the gang."

This is pretty true, and actually changing things based on this might have been funny(?): Rob wasn't about to leave Alan alone with Laura (she'd never forgive him), so he had to work from home -- enter Sally and Buddy. Alan wants to get some work done, however, while hiding out, enter Mel.

Of course, a simple line about how Alan is enjoying working with the writers for a change would quell this note, too.

Serious question: How would you deal with each of these notes?

Unknown said...

Having everyone's feed back was also part of your experiment. Surprised you seemed so taken back by it. I'm sure you've gotten a lot more stupid responses when you did a show, ones you had to respond.