With THE SITCOM ROOM coming up this weekend, I'm reminded of my craziest rewrite room experience.
My friend asked if I would attend the table reading. He was assembling a few professional writers to join in on the rewrite. I was happy to help. They had an existing script, but it was from a British sitcom and he thought it might need some “Americanizing.” Fair enough.
Then I learned the script was from FAWLTY TOWERS. (They had secured permission to do it.) Okay, that was weird right off the bat. I was going to be rewriting John Cleese? “Hey, Mozart, I think you need some quarter notes here.”
But again, no one was going to see this so what the hell?
I arrived at their “campus,” which was several floors of a high rise in Hollywood. There was a big lecture hall. All of the students from the university were invited to attend regardless of their division. A table was set up in the middle of the cavernous room with individual desk/chairs surrounding it, several rows deep. Imagine a boxing ring or theater-in-the-round.
I’m guessing close to a hundred students filed in for the reading. Professional actors had been hired and although they were far from the originals they weren’t “Waiting for Guffman”either.
My writer friend worked on hour-dramas in his day and the other writers he had assembled for the rewrite were also drama veterans. This was going to be an interesting punch-up. FAWLTY TOWERS was so similar in style and jokes to STAR TREK VOYAGER.
The reading went fair. There was some work to do. The actors left, everyone took a break, milling around. I asked my chum where were we going to go to do the rewrite? He said we were going to do it here at the table. “Okay,” I said, “Then let’s clear everybody out so we can go to work.” “Oh no,” he said. “The students are staying.”
Oh yes, this would be a great learning experience for them.
Now understand, writing rooms are the ultimate Las Vegas. What happens there, stays there. It’s a unique environment where people are forced to be creative on demand under extreme pressure. The staff must feel free to say anything no matter how appalling, politically incorrect, or stupid. Add just one outsider to the room and it’s like turning off the tap. Writers become very inhibited. There are certain activities you don’t do for an audience. Even though you can’t go blind doing rewrites they are one of them.
So if one looky-loo can squelch a room, imagine a hundred.
All the kids returned to their seats and for us it was like conducting a rewrite on the set of THE VOICE with a full audience (but at least there was no Carson Daly).
So there I am, rewriting a classic show I have no business touching, working with writers who devise grisly murders while two-hundred eyes were trained on us.
The only good thing I found about doing a rewrite under these conditions was that when I pitched a joke that got a big laugh there was no argument as to whether or not it should go in. There were even a couple of times I drew applause. It was like I was doing a magic show. And I thought to myself : what was once a highly-sought-after unique professional skill has now been reduced to a parlor trick.
I’ve had strange rewrites before, but never one where it felt like an audition to open for Tom Jones in Vegas.