Monday, September 28, 2015
How to begin a pilot
Okay. That could be funny.
Actually, it better be. Pilots are much harder to write than normal episodes and the first scenes of pilots are the hardest of all. Why? Here’s what you have to do: Establish the premise, introduce the characters, begin a story, forge the tone, and make it really funny. As the expression goes: You only have one chance to make a first impression. That first scene has to hook the audience. Viewers have to feel they’re in good hands; that they will be rewarded for spending their precious time sampling your pilot for thirty minutes.
So that’s my assignment.
First, a disclaimer. I realize I’m old school, retro, out of touch, whatever. My approach is based on experience, a certain sensibility, and principles I believe to be universal and timeless. Feel free to seek other approaches.
My initial thought is: who are these characters? How can I make them interesting? How can I give them traits or behavior that is fun, identifiable, and sets up an intriguing dynamic between them? For now I’ll call the young couple Matt and Colleen.
And in concert with that, how can I make the situation as funny as possible? Not just amusing, not just wry – this is the opening scene of my pilot, maybe the only scene a viewer will watch – I can’t afford for it to be anything other than laugh out loud funny. It’s always best to give characters strong attitudes or goals and for this particular situation I would think it would heighten things if Matt really needs to get laid. He hasn’t had sex in awhile so he is champing at the bit. Guys will go to great comic lengths to get sex (so I've been told). Now the scene becomes one of frustration and my job is the construct the funniest cock blocking scenario.
So I consider possibilities. What if…?
What if they get in the house, the ex-fiancé is there, and he’s really belligerent? “This is the ferret you left me for?” The couple get into a fight and the poor Matt is in the middle, all the while being belittled. Maybe. Matt could be somewhat insecure and this feeds into his neurosis. But he still tries to work things out and get the ex-fiancé to leave.
Or they get in the house and the ex is crying? Matt has to console him.
Or the ex goes on an on about what a bitch Colleen is. He shatters any illusion. Matt is torn between wanting desperately to sleep with her and to run.
Or the ex is not there when they get to the house. Things heat up quickly. Matt is practically undressed on the couch when the ex comes home. Puts Matt in the most compromising position possible. (Comedy writers are evil, aren't we?)
Or it doesn’t appear that the ex is home. Matt & Colleen are in bed and Matt hears crying from the other room. Learns that the ex still has the adjacent bedroom. Matt desperately wants sex, but can he perform under these weird circumstances?
Or Matt & Colleen arrive to find the ex is there with another girl. How does Colleen react? How does Matt react? Is there a big fight? Does the ex want to do a four-way?
Or Matt & Colleen are making out on the couch and then the ex arrives with another girl. Is Colleen mad? Jealous? Is there fun in her double-standard attitude?
Or Matt knows the ex.
Or Matt knows the other girl the ex is with.
Or Colleen knows the other girl the ex is with.
Or the other girl is Matt’s sister.
Or the other girl is Matt’s ex-fiancé.
Or something else. You may have a better one.
And then some specifics. What’s the funniest Matt reaction to learning the ex is still in the house? It could be a great “What the fuck” moment. Colleen obviously knows there’s the complication of the ex still living in the place. How does she explain it? How did she think she was going to finesse the situation?
You get the idea.
I would bat around all of these ideas and see which one gave me the absolute most bang for my buck. I’m always imagining the audience and saying to myself, “Would they laugh at that? Would they REALLY laugh at that?” A lot of times I might say, “No. They’d smile, maybe they’d chuckle, but they wouldn’t laugh.” So how can I make it funnier so they would laugh? (Note: I may be wrong in my prediction but at least in my best professional judgment I’m striving for the maximum reaction.) So I would arrive at the scenario that was most promising, would even have a number of sample big laugh moments or jokes and then try to write the best scene I could.
That’s me. Old veteran me.
LIFE IN PIECES premiered last week on CBS. It has a likable cast and slick look. I wish it well. I missed the debut on the air but caught up with it a few days later ON DEMAND. Since it was on ON DEMAND, a lot of my remote features didn’t work and I had to watch it straight through. So I only saw this scene once and am describing it by memory (which may be as faulty as my computer ability).
But here was the opening scene:
Matt (Thomas Sadoski from NEWSROOM) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral from ENLISTED) come home from a date. She invites him up to her place. Once there they find her ex-fiancé sitting on the couch. Matt is just kind of frozen. The ex is mildly annoyed. The ex still thinks he has a chance with Colleen. It’s just an awkward moment. And the characters are AWARE they’re in an awkward moment. (Again, this is “me” thinking – this isn’t funny enough. This is really tepid. And I’m also wondering -- do the writers think this is hysterical? Do they think an audience is really in stitches over this? Or do they not even put the scene to that mental test?)
So what does Matt do? Characters need to actively address a situation. Matt does nothing. What does Colleen do? She offers some wine. There’s a little cutesy banter. The ex comments that they’re “bantering.” Everyone in this scene is totally AWARE of the conventions they’re using. It’s like they’re all too cool to have any strong emotions or reactions. The humor has to come from them merely realizing they’re in a potential comic situation. As a result there’s a real distance. And for me the scene loses its comic edge.
The scene ends with them deciding to go to his place instead. The big joke then is that his place is occupied… by his nutty parents. Awk-ward.
Old school, retro Ken believes if you’re doing a comedy you’ve got to own it. Characters finding themselves in awkward comic situations have been a staple for years. We find ourselves in awkward comic situations in our real lives.
They really happen.
But we don’t step back and observe; we ACT. I’m hoping that LIFE IN PIECES succeeds. It’s just the pilot and they’re finding their way. And I present this post as a learning exercise, not a knock on them. It’s a way to illustrate other possibilities. And a lot of you are aspiring writers currently crafting your spec pilots. Think of the audience and ask yourself the hard question. “Is this FUNNY enough?” And if not, no matter what your age or sensibility, or how cool you are, go back and make it funnier. And don’t apologize.