Thursday, January 05, 2017

The value of research

In an earlier post I mentioned how my writing partner, David Isaacs and I traveled with the White House Press Corps for a few days while doing research for our erstwhile pilot on the same subject. It was the highlight of that particular pilot experience. (It was the only thing GOOD about that pilot experience.) 

But it points out something worth noting. Research is an invaluable tool when you’re writing a script. Any script (except maybe for a SON OF ZORN script because that show is just completely idiotic). But for pilots especially (and agents and studios want spec pilots today from young writers), the more authority you have over your world the better.

And the good news is, many writers are lazy and don’t bother to do research. It’s a way that your script can shine.

Any writer who has been on staff of a show can tell you the hardest part of the process is coming up with stories. Research, in many cases, eases that problem. Instead of having to dream up stories out of thin air, they’ll fall right into your lap. And they’ll be richer and more true to life.

On MASH, Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart began a policy where doctors, nurses, corpsmen, soldiers, anyone who was in the Korean War were interviewed. We had thousands of pages of transcripts from these interviews and during our tenure we interviewed many more. We even flew to Phoenix to spend a day with the doctor "Hawkeye Pierce" was modeled after.   Each episode of MASH contained between two and three different storylines. So over eleven years that’s roughly 600 separate stories. We could not have done the show without that research. Ironically, some of the stories we took from those real life interviews were so bizarre we had to tone them down otherwise no one would have believed us.

CHEERS of course was the best. I wrote off my bar tab for eleven years.  Donald Trump would be so proud. 

Obviously, you don’t always have the time or funds to do extensive research. If you’re writing BRAINDEAD you might not be able to fly to Washington DC for a week or spend any quality time at ant farms, but there’s plenty of literature and research material just a click away.

And if the subject of your pilot is accessible – let’s say you’re writing a pilot about the Department of Motor Vehicles – take a day or two to just go there. Observe what happens. Talk to employees during a break.

If your show centers around an AA group go to an AA meeting. How exactly are they conducted? What really goes on there? What does AA mean to the participants? And like I said, most writers won’t bother. So their AA scenes will seem very surface, stereotypical, or wrong.

It’s worth the time and worth the effort. And if you’re writing about subject matter that interests you (which you should), doing the research should be fun.

Being in the White House Press Corp. was way cool. We went on a campaign trip with President Carter and wound up in someone’s backyard in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Who says writers don’t lead romantic lives?


Jim S said...


Great column. This reminds me of the phrase "write what you know." It's famous, everyone knows it, but they don't know the whole idea behind it or where it came from.

It originated in Sherwin Cody's 1894 book "How to Write Fiction, Especially the Art of the Short Story" where Cody laid down some writing rules,

What he really said was, and no this is not an exact quote, write what you know, do go out and know stuff i.e. do your research.

That's what made "Lou Grant" a good show. It was TV, so not 100 percent accurate, but as a journalist it seems to me that they got the essence right.

Dennis Farina called "Barney Miller" the most true-to-life cop show because it was about police writing reports. Exciting things happened, but not every day. Mostly it was about what happened between the exciting things.

That's the challenge of the TV writer, making the every day stuff worth watching.

Andrew said...

One of the best things about the original Law and Order was Lenny Briscoe's wisecracks, usually after seeing the victim's body for the first time. The writers interviewed and trailed real homicide detectives, and found out that a dark and morbid sense of humor was part of the territory. It was how they coped with their job.

ChipO said...

One of my very few brushes with your world:
An attorney friend grew up in Pacific Palisades (a very nice neighborhood adjoining the Pacific Ocean) and spent his young summers as an LA County Junior Lifeguard. He enjoyed it and continued on weekends well into his adult life.
He and his buddies were invited to meet some "Hollywood Writers" to tell the writers about fun, interesting, or different experiences encountered as lifeguards and how their own lives intertwined. He told his story of working part time lifeguard and full time attorney. Thus Parker Stevenson's role on Baywatch was developed.
My friend, single at the time, noted he did not have the white vette, nor the beautiful wife.
The review of the first show noted the T & A, and said (paraphrasing) "but the most unbelievable aspect is the lifeguard/attorney".
Thus, Ken is right (again) - research gives you much better stuff than you'll ever make up, and, the courage to use it.
Cheers all.

Carol said...

Sort of apropos of the subject: can I make a general appeal to anyone who is writing for, or anyone who may write in the future, a show/movie/book that revolves around 'nerd/geek' culture? Can you, for the love of Zod please remember that plenty of woman-folk are geeks of varying levels, so it is totally 100% not funny to make jokes about geek/nerd guys never being attractive to women and that women never set foot in a comic shop.

For research, go to a con, notice how many women are there, being geekily excited at the various booths and special guests. Make a note of how many women like various geeky type things, such as Star Trek and Doctor Who. (and Buffy, and Xena, and Star Wars, etc.)

Thank you. I return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

daniel in cherry hill said...

how can you tell if a DMV employee is on a break?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

THe AA mention was something my spouse brought up just a few weeks ago. We were watching MOM on CBS, and she wondered if they went down to meetings just to get the atmosphere "right". I said they probably did and maybe even got a few storylines for future episodes, though they might have to change them because the real stories might be TOO depressing.

CRL said...

If the President isn't going to fly to Washington for a week then why should I?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...


BTW, Look at how low NBC is. Probably because they don't do 1/2 comedies and rely too much on special events

Pizzagod said...

You mentioned Son of Zorn, and that brings up something I'm curious about; do you watch shows like that (or endure 5 minutes) because you're an objective professional and want to keep abreast of anything new, or because of masochistic tendencies? I'm from the generation that had three channels (four if you count the CBC's offering on Channel 9 in Detroit) and now there are so many choices that I settle into a routine that is a little lighter since Justified and Leverage and Breaking Bad are gone.

But I see shows like Zorn and I think "I'm going to die in a certain number of years. Do I REALLY want to waste my precious time with THIS?". I have seen two episodes of Angie Tribeca and one Scream Queens (well, almost one-I think I bailed after 20 minutes).

So since you know good writing, and you know good craftmanship, what is the motivation to see a show like Son of Zorn? Is it like watching a train wreck?

VP81955 said...

At the "Mom" Facebook site, I've seen relatively few complaints about how the series handles the AA-type meetings Christy and Bonnie regularly attend, so I suppose that show, and its writers, did their research. (Hasn't Chuck Lorre publicly admitted at one time he had problems with alcohol?)

Michael said...

Your writing off your bar tab reminds me of a great ad the Chicago Tribune did where Mike Royko is sitting at a bar working on his column, and people around him help him decide which punctuation is best. I could just see Woody and Cliff doing that.

VP81955 said...

BTW, Ken, happy #NationalScreenwritersDay!

Bob K. said...

Ken, a possible Friday question that I've wanted to ask for awhile that ties in neatly with this post:
When writing for shows like "MASH" and "Frasier", where some jokes are directly related to specific technical areas (in this example the medical or psychiatry fields) is the writing process different? Would you consult with a field expert on a comedic storyline or specific jokes? Or do you let the comedic elements just come from the research and/or your writing sessions- leaving the comedy, so-to-speak, to the experts?

gottacook said...

Upper Darby (a western suburb of Philadelphia where, in 1981-82, I spent a few hours) does have one distinction - it's Todd Rundgren's home town.

Greg Ehrbar said...

There's a book about such jingle companies like PAMS called -- get this -- "The Jingle Book." My copy has a neat CD inside. Amazon seems to be offering the Kindle for free.

Johnny Mann also was the musical director for THE ALVIN SHOW. The theme was brilliant and very jingle=y.

He also wrote a Christmas song that the Chipmunks recorded called "Hang Up your Stockin'."

Debra said...

Did you pay anything to these people that you interviewed for stories? You made money off their stories right? Still residuals are trickling in.....

Steve Bailey said...

I'm an ex-teacher who worked for a few months at a "testing center" where we scored standardized tests that had been taken by local students. It was a farce. And I ended up *writing* a farce about it, a two-act play that was produced locally twice. It got huge laughs, and audience members who had actually worked at such centers made a point of telling me how authentic the play seemed. For absurdity, you can't beat real life.

gottacook said...

Greg, thanks for pointing us all to the Alvin Show theme with that wonderful brass section. This is actually the version heard on the Alvin Show LP (yes, of course I still have my copy from 1962, scratched-up as it is), with the two interruptions by "Clyde Crashcup, the Great Inventor" that apparently weren't in the TV show version.

Professor said...

There are so many universities in and around L.A. And many writers often mention teaching a course now and then. And yet I have never seen anything remotely realistic about the real world of the full time U.S. faculty and administrators. Aside from portrayals as if violations of ethics codes are the norm, they don't even get the terminology right on faculty jobs, job titles, or even the process involved in hiring or tenure. Whether the university is a location for an episode or the work life of core characters, they are so far from reality that I can't watch. A colleague once told me that her non-academic husband sees her or her colleagues in various characters of "Big Bang Theory," she also notes the script stupidity whenever the scene moves to their campus.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Re MOM: yes, Lorre has said publicly he has had substance abuse problems, and in fact during the Charlie Sheen meltdown it came out that he runs AA meetings on the set because many of those he works with have also.

But Lorre has also noted that he did a lot of research on the lives of single moms when he did GRACE UNDER FIRE that proved relevant to MOM, particularly I assume in the first season when the kids were around more.


Johnny Walker said...

Wow. Great comments today. Some amazing anecdotes and some really funny one liners.

Ken, when you talk about approaching (for example) someone at the DMV, how do you go about it? And how do people generally react? I'm guessing you would say, "Hi, I'm a writer and I'm trying to research what it's like working in the DMV. Would you be free to answer a few questions?"

I've never approached a stranger in this way, and I'd be scared of coming across like a fruitcake if I ever tried. Do you use your credentials to prove to them you're not a flake, or are people just happy that someone is asking their thoughts on things?

Tom Michael said...

Re: Upper Darby - Tina Fey is from there, too.

Re: agents and networks wanting young writers - perhaps a Friday question - can an older guy (50's) have any chance of breaking into the business today? Or does he have to do something like the film The Front, and hire a millennial to submit his scripts for him? (If memory serves me right, a few years ago an English band - The Fixx? - wasn't getting airplay because they were deemed too old, so they made a video under another name with younger musicians lip synching the song, and then revealed it was them after the song became a hit. So there may be a precedent of sorts.)

Charles H. Bryan said...

Why did I not know that B.F. Pierce was based on an actual doctor? If I knew it, I've forgotten it. FRIDAY QUESTION: Who is he?

Storm said...

@Carol: Sister, I Reach you, and grok you in fullness! Here, have a Jelly Baby!

People act like nerdgirls are something weird and new, or non-existent. These absurd stereotypes about girls "not liking nerd stuff" or that females at a con is a New Thing come from NON-NERDS that have no clue. Painful as it is for me to admit, I'm coming up on my 35th anniversary of convention attendance; 25 of those years were spent at Comic Con (quit in 2009; WAY too many people!), including 10 years with Disabled Services. So I wasn't born in Minsk or Pinsk, I know my way around. Back then, sure, there were only a fraction of the number of female attendees there are now; when I started at 14 in '82, there was a fair amount of Grown Women Over 30, but a lot more who were 15-30. We were a new breed of fangirl, as enthusiastic and effusive as the guys. We also often found being one of the few females there to be a mixed blessing; some guys were dismissive and incredulous that someone with a vagina (I was gonna say "with boobs", but have you SEEN some of the dudes at cons? SPORTS BRA, STAT!) could know as much or more about fandom then they did, which made some grumps grumpy, or they were awesome about it and became great friends/occasional lovers. I can honestly say that I was never made to feel unwelcome by any segment of male fandom, but I know some who have. We wouldn't be discouraged; we took our place and owned it!

Some of us went on to be writers and artists, influencing fandom in general and giving representation to young women just starting out in fandom now. You could walk around Comic Con in '84 and pretty much count all the women; now there's thousands of them, the next line of Fangirls, with a glorious tradition that goes back even farther than Bjo Trimble herself-- OWN IT, LADIES.

Shit, that turned into bleedin' manifesto.

Cheers, thanks a lot, and Qapla'!

Storm (the Klingon)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: It would depend what you were looking for. I would say that in a busy DMV you don't try to engage anyone in extended conversation in the middle of business - it's not fair either to the DMV employee or the person waiting behind you. But you *can* ask a few casual-sounding, chatty if curious questions while your own transaction is underway, and you can observe other people's transactions, the way the people in the line behave and interact, and the general goings-on without being disruptive. To get a longer conversation, I think you'd have to wait for a quiet time, then approach someone who looked sympathetic, explain what you're there for, and ask them if you can buy them a cup of coffee after work. Personally, I'd try to strike up a conversation first, so they didn't think I was a psycho.

Striking up conversations is a skill you can practice in daily life. A friend always tells me, "You accost people", and it's true. I see a guy with the world's biggest watch on his wrist, and I stop to ask him what the watch is and whether it doesn't get uncomfortable (it was a diver's sealed chronograph he was hugely proud of, and he seemed delighted to be asked). When the postmaster told me yesterday he couldn't take cheques because his official date stamp was expired, I inquired what happened (it's a 12-year date stamp, and he misread when it would expire; he applied for an "emergency" replacement and was told there were so many such requests they were out of stock; no cheques for six weeks!). While plane-delayed, I chatted with a guy I'd recognized from the same flight and learned about his job, something I never knew existed. Like that. I remember you as a bit shy; but I bet even so you do this all the time without really thinking about it. Well, that's how you get people to tell you stuff you want to know: interviewing as a skill is really about making people feel they're in a comfortable conversation with a friend, not about having the right list of questions for them to answer. The reality is, most people enjoy talking about themselves to someone who is listening attentively.


404 said...

As a teacher, it always bugs me when sitcoms focus on a school and get it so WRONG. There was a recent episode of AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE where the PTA was in charge of the school budget and the hiring and firing of teachers. I know schools across the country are different, but I can pretty much guarantee that there is NO school that would let its budget be dictated by the PTA. It completely irked me, because it took me right out of the show and made it impossible to enjoy the story. Pretty much most school-related shows, or episodes of a show, mess up things that would just be obvious if the writers would spend any time in a school.

Andrew said...

The writers of Zootopia obviously did their research on the DMV. Their depiction of the sloths was exactly right.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Wendy and VP81955:

thanks for the answer.

MikeN said...

If the story is good, does research matter?

I Dream of Jeannie, Suits, Lost, etc.

On The Practice, an early episode had each jury member stand up to say 'Guilty'
at the request of the lawyer.

Kaleberg said...

This works for all sorts of authors. I was at an Air Transport Association conference in Nashville, and the place was full of serious technical sorts selling the kind of stuff you need if you are running or building an airport or airline. There were radar rigs, weather systems, anti-icing gadgets, logistical services and so on, all being presented by and looked at by men and women wearing serious business attire. The hot new item was a system traffic lights controlled by the tower for your runways. We were selling a radar display. Potential customers were the Turkish government of the some folks from Hong Kong. That kind of show.

Over on one wall there was a totally different booth. It was decorated with hearts and flowers and a pretty cloth draping. One woman was sitting there looking her feminine best. She was a romance writer working on a book set in the exciting world of air traffic control, and she was collecting air traffic control, airline and airport stories for her next book.