Sunday, October 04, 2015

Writing under less than ideal conditions

When my partner and I started out we would lock ourselves in a room whenever we wrote. We couldn’t have any distractions. Most of the time that meant working in one of our apartments so it was easy to do… except for the neighbor across the courtyard who kept playing the Jethro Tull WAR CHILD album over and over. But we eventually killed him so that problem was solved.

When we finally went on staff of a show and got our first office we would always keep the door closed. Just the idea of people going by or our secretary answering a phone was too distracting. How could we be funny if we saw two people walking down the hall?

Then we stepped into our first writing room. The showrunners were the great Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, two of the funniest men I’ve ever known. The writers sat around a kitchen table and just dictated the script. There was a writers’ assistant right there in the room taking shorthand. Yes, an actual intruder! Besides that, the door was open and there was always steady traffic in and out of the room. The casting director had questions, the prop guy needed to show us crossbows, the P.A. dragged in a new foosball table.

At first this was very intimidating. Like in the seventh grade when I first had to shower with everybody in gym class. And unlike school, I had to get over it in under two years.

What you learn real quick is that part of the skill of sitcom writing is the ability to concentrate and perform on demand. You’re always under pressure. You’re never going to be able to control the conditions. So you just have to deliver.

By the end of that first week I was starting to feel comfortable enough that I could pitch a joke now and again. One, I remember, actually made it in! I was so proud of myself – coming through under the toughest of all conditions.

Or so I thought.

Then came show night. This was a multi-camera series (THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM if you’re scoring) and the writers all stand around the floor behind the cameras looking important. During a scene one of the jokes bombed. After the director yelled, “Cut!” Tom and Jay got us all in a huddle. We needed a new joke NOW. Holy shit! There were two hundred people in the audience waiting, another hundred crew members waiting… all on the clock. All looking at us. This was like having to shower in front of a school assembly.

I was frozen while the more experienced writers, Gary David Goldberg and Hugh Wilson fired joke suggestions at Tom & Jay as if it was nothing. One was selected, the scene was re-shot, and the new joke got a huge laugh. Yep. This was the Big Leagues. And I was a rookie.

Through trial by fire I eventually felt comfortable contributing in that aspect of the job as well.

The next season we moved on to MASH. That’s a single-camera show. No audience. So you’d think it would be easier, right?


The first day of filming every episode was a rehearsal day. The cast would move from set to set on Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox and rehearse their scenes. Once they were satisfied, David and I were summoned to come watch the scene and then go off and do any rewriting that was necessary. But since it made no sense to keep schlepping back and forth between our office and the stage every half hour, we just did our rewrites right there on the stage. We commandeered a table in the mess tent and that’s where we worked – with actors, crew people, extras, God-knows-who walking by. And in some cases just sitting down and joining us. We’re trying to fix a scene and some extra plops himself down at the table and begins eating a burrito. We eventually killed him, too.

Again, it’s a skill that most writers have to learn. But schools never teach it. That was one of the reasons why I started the Sitcom Room. Sure wish I had had the chance to experience what room writing was like before I was on a network show.

I have no plans however, to start the Shower Room seminar.

This is a re-post from four or five years ago.


Johnny Walker said...

Ha! Loved this post! I bet there's tons of gems like this waiting in the archives.

In case anyone missed it, TALKED SALAD's interview with Ken is really great:

I hope they talk to more of the cast and crew in the future.

AlaskaRay said...

>>This was like having to shower in front of a school assembly.

My worst (or maybe best) dream while in high school.

MikeK.Pa. said...

"This was like having to shower in front of a school assembly."
Funny. Lot of awkward memories from 7th grade. Eeeeeeeh.

Canda said...

Ken, in your opinion, when a joke is rewritten on the fly by the writers, and inserted in the script immediately after the audience has heard the old line, how many times do you think the new joke was actually better and funnier, and how many times do you think it got a big laugh just because the audience was surprised by the new joke (expecting to hear the old one again)?

Greg Thompson said...

Once (but hopefully only once) at a sitcom taping a joke I wrote got no laughs from the studio audience. Not the weak smattering of polite chuckles that most jokes that die get, but ZERO laughs -- silence -- bupkis. The audience simply didn't recognize the sequence of words as a joke. Since I had been standing in the wings eagerly waiting for my joke to come up, this was a soul crushing moment.

But I've been on the other end of the spectrum too, pitching the new joke at the taping that gets the big laugh (and the audience does laugh more at new jokes partially out of surprise, but they're almost always better too). And it's as thrilling as writing the crummy jokes is soul crushing.