Monday, March 07, 2016

Comedy 101 is back in session

Welcome to another chapter of Comedy 101. Yesterday I showed you an episode of ALMOST PERFECT. Today I’m going to turn back the curtain and discuss the thought process that went into the story.  It'll give you some idea of what we writers go through -- sometimes 25 times a year.

The staff worked out the story and writer Sue Herring did a great job of writing the actual script.

This was season two. After CBS made us lose her steady boyfriend after season one, we were scrounging around for good single dating stories for Kim (Nancy Travis). We established the character of Jack Chenault, her boss, the Canadian Ted Turner, and a former lover. Kim was hoping to rekindle that flame.

One comic trope we always loved was misdirection. One character mistakes a situation and suddenly everything they say has a double meaning. When structured correctly, every seemingly “straight” line can get a big laugh.

The key is the audience has to be in on it, and that requires that you deftly set up the confusion.

We thought it would be funny if Kim mistook a porn star for a distinguished actor from a PBS series. She tells Jack he is her date for the Emmys and that lie leads to one problem after another. All the while, everyone who encounters him also thinks he’s a classic thespian thus opening the door to more misdirection.

Okay, now here’s what we need to set up: Where does this takes place?  How do we show who Steven Chatwyn (the British actor) really is?  How does Kim think she’ll be sitting next to him?  Why does Kim lie to Jack and say Steven is her date? What does Jack ask her to do that jeopardizes the whole ruse?  How and when do we switch the British actor with the porn star?  During the payoff scene, what various elements threaten to blow Kim’s crazy plan? And ultimately, how does Kim solve the situation? Remember, she’s our lead character so she actively has to orchestrate the solution.

We thought a good venue might be the Emmys. She could logically meet this actor there. There are also seat fillers, so he could leave and a seat filler could take his place. If he had the same name and people weren’t familiar with his work, we could justify the switch.

So let’s get started.

First scene – the writing room. Establish that the Emmys are coming up. Give everyone an attitude towards the Emmys. Make them different points-of-view. Rob is excited. Neil thinks they’re bullshit. We needed to establish that Kim wasn’t going. Easiest way was to see who everyone else was going with. Rob was taking his over-sexed airhead girlfriend, Shannon. We needed her for later (she’ll possibly recognize the porn star). We were looking for the most unlikely date for Gary and someone came up with a cop that let him out of a ticket.

We also needed to remind the audience of who Jack Chenault was and what his relationship with Kim was. Once all of that was set, we brought him in, learned he’s going alone, and he enlists Kim’s help if she’s going. She says she is. Clearly, it’s because she’s interested in Jack and if he’s going alone she feels they maybe can rendezvous during the evening. Farcical situations are built on lies.

Now we go to the Emmys. Ironically, our line producer snagged some random footage of people arriving at the Emmys and the night this episode aired I realized that I was in that establishing shot (down at the bottom). What are the odds?

Next scene in the lobby. More setting up was required, which we tried to deflect with good jokes. We used their assistant Denise to establish who seat fillers were. She also told Kim she’d be sitting next to Steven Chatwyn. We then were able to establish who he was and that nobody watched PBS.

Quick note: inside joke – Rob (Matthew Letscher) is wearing a brown tuxedo with peach ruffled shirt. David Isaacs and I were talked into wearing that combination for the Don Kirschner Rock Awards one year and looked like total idiots.

Jack enters and Kim is surprised he’s with a date. She doesn’t want to look like she doesn’t have one. We even have a line saying “that’s just sad.” So Kim lies and says she’s with Steven Chatwyn. Lie number two. And they’re romantically involved to make Jack jealous. Lie number three.

In farcical situations you’re always looking to tighten the vice. Jack wants an introduction.. Kim has to lie to avoid that. Jack wants him to guest on Kim's show. Kim has to lie her way out of that. Keep the pressure applied.   Jack then says he wants her to arrange a party. Gulp. Now Kim is stuck.

Note: We also had the line where Jack says, “I’ve heard the name six or seven times tonight. Who is this guy?” We needed to establish that he doesn’t know Steven Chatwyn -- certainly can't identify him by face.

So the audience now thinks Kim's problem is she has to convince a noted British actor she doesn’t know to come to a party at her house and pretend that they’re involved. How is she going to swing that?

But wait!  There's more!  The big twist.

We go inside the theatre (we shot this in the large Paramount theatre on the lot – I directed this episode), establish the real Steven Chatwyn, make the switch, and (very important) establish that the new guy is a porn star.

Now Kim comes down the aisle and we are all set for fun. Misdirection aplenty and he agrees to go to the party. Of course he does.  And remember, you're not writing "jokes."  You're writing straight lines that, due to the circumstances and misunderstanding, should get good laughs. 

Act two is the party at Kim’s house.

This was a creative choice on our part – we felt we needed to take the curse off the story. We needed a character to question why Kim was going to all these extraordinary lengths. So we had her justify why this was important. Could we have lived without it? Sure. But these were intelligent characters and if they’re doing extreme things we felt we needed to ground them in some reality. Audiences will accept intelligent characters going to outlandish lengths if they can buy their reasons for it.

So more misdirection and laughs. Fun for the audience is seeing whether Kim will get caught, so the tougher we can make it for her, the better. That’s why we had Shannon in this episode. Is she going to ID this guy and blow the ruse?

At some point we needed to up the ante. Someone had to request to see him in action. We also needed to get Jack out of the room for the reveal.

Another great opportunity for laughs is everyone’s reaction to seeing Steve in action. The confusion is cleared up, but Kim still has a problem. This whole elaborate charade was to make Jack think she was going out with a great guy. She would be humiliated if he knew the truth and he’d be furious that he offered a network gig to a porn star.

Quick aside: In several episodes we had characters watching off camera porn and in each case we used the same music. Maybe five people in America got that inside joke.

Kim pushes Jack into the kitchen because we needed to keep him from seeing what was going on. Now it is up to our leading character to somehow get out of this mess. More fun as Kim offers up more lies.  Always keep the pressure applied.  From inside the living room we hear everyone reacting periodically to the porn they're watching.   This requires more lies to deflect and makes it harder for Kim to keep him from entering that room.  She seemingly gets away with it but at the expense of her possible relationship with Jack. She’s hoisted on her own petard.

We still had a few loose ends. Kim had to bribe Jack’s date to keep her silent. And then we made another conscious choice. If we’re keeping this even somewhat real, at some point Jack would logically get wise. He’d see the real Steven Chatwyn in People Magazine or on the next Emmys or whatever. So we felt the need to essentially say that. It makes Kim smarter than Lucy.

The tag was a bit of a problem. What we usually do is call back something from earlier in the show. We decided to reprise the cop, bring him in for one more joke. Not our greatest tag, but the show was really over at the end of act two.

So that’s the story behind this story. And the amount of discussion and crafting that went into this episode went into every episode (at least on our shows). The trick is to make the stories seamless. They should have a nice flow along with built-in surprises, solid structure, hidden but clear exposition, lots of laughs, and stakes high enough for an audience to care.

Again, thanks to Sue Herring for a wonderful script. Sadly, Sue passed away a few years ago. How nice that she can be remembered for the laughter she brought to everyone who knew her... and now you.


LouOCNY said...

Porn on sitcoms can be very funny, when done right. Barney Miller had a great one where Harris was assigned to make a porn flick to infiltrate the business - and we get to see it...rather we get to see the squad - and perps and victims, including a blind man - watching it. It's funny because Harris took the opportunity to massage his ego (surprise) by making an EPIC, and so when they're watching it, its an hour of stilted dialogue and over the top exposition. ( BARNEY: Harris....where's the sex?? I want FILTH I want (the porn music swells) Oh my..... )

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I can buy the possibility that "Steve" had an actual VCR tape of his exploits in his car. He seems to have enough ego and pride in his work to show it around.

However, it took exactly 8 seconds for him to go out the door and back into the set with the tape onhand. It would take me at least five times that long to go outside, open up my car, find and fetch the tape, lock everything tight and come back to the house.

Either there was some scene trimming during the Jeffrey Nordling beeper bit or Steve is truly the Flash of porn stars.

Kosmo13 said...

Hilarious and brilliantly done. Now More than ever I want to see the rest of the series.

Hamp said...

It's great to see what goes on in the creation of a show. Thank you Ken.

Linda G. said...

Love that theme song! Terrific show, very entertaining. Nice to see the young Tom Verica working his way up the casting couch, so to speak.

VP81955 said...

Jack Chenault...Ken, you didn't have the cojones to name the character Drake Chenault?

Horaceco said...

Is every network executive on a TV series named Jack? Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, Jack Rudolph on Studio 60, Jack Chenault here. Although, to be fair, I guess you were first.

Edem K said...

Hi Ken,

A Friday question for you:

Say you're a new writer fortunate enough to get a job on a new TV show. What are your chances for future success if the show you're on is critically panned and commercially a dud? (Examples from last season include the Don Johnson vehicle Blood & Oil, and a sitcom called the McCarthy's.)

I'm hoping the industry forces-that-be wouldn't hold being on a bad show against new writers, but that hope is small.


Brian said...

I like these two-part posts. Very funny that nobody actually knew who Steven Chatwyn really was. Friday question: They really had a nice writer's room on Almost Perfect. Is that typical? It makes the writer's life seem easy and fun. Lounge around on some nice couches, sip a decaf mocha latte, joke around, and boom - a TV show pops out. Of course I know from reading your blog for years that the life of a writer is far from that, but is a nice room.

Jeannie said...

Thanks for doing these Master Classes in comedy writing for us, Ken.

Anonymous said...

"She’s hoisted on her own petard."

I think "by" or "with" - not "on""Hoist_with_his_own_petard."

Keith said...

One character mistakes a situation and suddenly everything they say has a double meaning. When structured correctly, every seemingly “straight” line can get a big laugh.

The plot of every episode of "Three's Company."

Diane D. said...

Outstanding episode! I love these amazing characters. In the episodes I've seen, Neil seems to have the smallest part, but every word that comes out of his mouth is laugh out loud, fall on the floor hilarious. This one did not disappoint--"I can get Angela Lansbury's autograph; she's in my gun club." His delivery is also hilarious!