Thursday, April 19, 2018

Earning moments

Nothing elevates a sitcom episode like a big emotional moment.  It gives the show depth.  The audience doesn't just come for the jokes; they become invested in the characters.  They start to really care about them.   Their problems are meaningful and you root for them to succeed. 

Shows that can pull that off tend to have staying power with audiences.   Especially if the problems are universal.   That's why you can watch a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW from 50 years ago and still identify with it.   The issues are the same.  We're just no longer in black-and-white. 

But those emotional moments need to be earned.

Some sitcoms will do 20 minutes of broad burlesque and then take a huge left turn and have a super sappy moment.   And it feels bogus.  Your teeth rattle.  You throws shoes at the screen.  All it succeeds in doing is reinforcing that sitcoms can be lightweight and disposable.   In those cases, the moments only make the show worse. 

So how to avoid that?

You ground the show going in.   The tone has to be realistic throughout.  When a character says something and another character says something no normal human being would ever say but it gets a laugh, there goes your credibility.  When characters act like idiots or two-year-olds and sacrifice any shred of dignity for the sake of a joke you do so at the expense of true emotion. 

What world do your characters live in?   If it's heightened and cartoonish, fine.  Just don't switch gears and suddenly become WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?    At this point, some readers will race to the keyboard to point out exceptions.  Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part this is the rule and it behooves a writer to try to do it right.

The litmus test we have in the writers room is that the moment must be earned

And as for the moment itself, generally speaking, the more economical the better.  Avoid cliches.  Avoid going over-the-top.   Often times the best moments are one or two sentences, not long overwrought speeches.   When David Isaacs and I wrote GOODBYE RADAR for MASH we purposely designed the story so that there were casualties arriving when Radar had to leave.  So his final goodbyes were all on the fly.   Each character got a sentence or two.  To me that was way more effective than long heart-to-heart speeches where each character revealed how much Radar meant to them.  

In short, beware of sentimentality.   Like a good spice, you need just a pinch. 

Usually I find the shows that do moments that aren't earned are also the shows that do the least artful moments, which is not surprising. 

Emotional moments, like I said, are worth striving for.  But they require effort.   Along the way, don't settle for jokes that compromise characters.  Don't do stories so silly that they can only be called sketches at best.  It's the difference in being a sitcom writer and a writer writer. 

41 comments :

Jeremiah Avery said...

I agree on how rewarding an earned moment can be. A few seasons back on "The Big Bang Theory", there was a running bit about how Penny had never told Leonard she loved him and was causing a few issues now and then. Towards the end of an episode, they're in the hallway having a slight argument about it and Penny blurts out "You know I love you. So will you please relax, because you're driving me crazy." and you could hear the audience gasp and then it was silent and the looks on the actors' faces really sold it on how significant it was.

Likewise, when Niles told Daphne how he felt about her, similar reaction from the audience.

Some look down upon multi-camera shows but with the right writing and cast, I'll take them over an irony-laced pop-culture referencing single camera show.

Andrew said...

Great post, Ken.

I think both Cheers and Frasier pulled this off magnificently.

E. Yarber said...

The emotional aspects of a story have to be structured as clinically as the plotting. That sounds like the thinking of a sociopath, but I've found that inexperienced writers tend to get very fuzzy when trying to express feeling in their work. You have to care about your characters, but you also have to develop the detachment to be able to step back and see them as the audience will.

I met a few times with a USC graduate who was trying to expand his student film into a feature screenplay. It didn't work out because the short was basically a series of flashy moments that looked good in a superficial way but didn't hold together as a plot. The first few minutes of the film were effective because we were drawn into a crisis with a sympathetic lead, but just as this opening situation collapsed into a series of very unlikely coincidences, the audience was asked to keep caring about the character apparently out of habit, as the tone switched to increasing self-glorification.

The filmmaker only got defensive when I tried to draw more depth from both aspects of his story, unwilling to move past the limits of his previous work. In the end, I was the only one who learned anything from observing this vivid example of how the heart and head are equally connected in the need for careful dramatic development.

ScottyB said...

"Tonight ... on a very special episode of Blossom ..."

Terrence Moss said...

I LOVE LUCY was very good at this. I submit "Lucy and the Dummy" as a great example -- especially when she had to choose between her dream and her family.

Gary Glasscott said...

I've always thought the last episode of Blackadder got this right. There are laughs of course - some of the best in the series - but the episode gets more tense as the minutes tick down to the final push, resulting in the emotional payoff at the end.

J Lee said...

I always hated it when a network would hype a sitcom episode as a 'major event' because there almost always seemed to be the problem that the episode then tried too hard to create memorable moments and ended up not doing that.

Over-hyping something as being memorable is far less effective than a regular episode which simply created a memorable scene/story line because it naturally evolved out of who the characters were (and the 'major event' sitcom episodes were a little different from the 'A Very Special Episode' category -- those also tended to be over-hyped, but screamed out in advance the show was going to jam a serious message somewhere into the comedy. Those types of episodes tended to stop dead in the water when the serious part arrived, unless everything was set up perfectly and flowed out of who the characters were normally, while the 'major event' ones could still be all comedy, but feature a major turning point in one or more of the characters' lives).

VP81955 said...

Over the course of its five-year run (soon going on six), "Mom" has had plenty of these moments. They rarely feel jarring because they're grounded in the very premise of the series: Women doing their darndest to overcome addiction and other challenges thrown their way. While it's a comedy and Christy, Bonnie and friends have plenty of humorous quirks (often drawn through their backstories as addicts), their struggles are the undercurrent of the series. Its writers aren't afraid to end a segment -- or an episode, for that matter -- with a poignant scene.

A semi-related Friday question: Some here have wondered why "Mom" has yet to do an ep focusing on nurse Wendy (Beth Hall), as it has with Jill and Marjorie. (Of course, since Christy and Bonnie are the show's primary characters, one or the other would have to be worked into a Wendy-related, either as an A or B story.)

When you wrote for a series, at what time did you know a supporting cast member now warranted inclusion into an episode storyline? On the average, how long did it take for his or her character to warrant such attention?

Covarr said...

I always felt BOY MEETS WORLD did a phenomenal job balancing goofball comedy and sentimentality. While there's no denying it could be cartoonish at times, it usually toned it down when it was building to something a little more emotional. (Only usually, though. There were times in the final season where it tried to jump straight from slapstick to sap near the end of the episode and fell completely flat as a result. But this was all near the end of the show's run, so I suspect writer burnout may have been a factor.)

Man, thinking back on that one makes me really sad for the current state of family television: it pretty much doesn't exist at all. These days it seems like there's kids shows that most adults wouldn't want to watch, and adult shows that at best are uninteresting to kids and at worst inappropriate. And I'm not saying that these kinds of shows don't have their place, but I really do wish there were more shows filling that in-between zone, that families could watch together.

I suppose that's a more difficult advertising demographic, though, so networks are uninterested.

Matt said...

A comment:

In "Goodbye Radar", Gary Burghoff's acting was unlike any other Radar performance. It almost seemed like Radar was playing Gary Burghoff rather than the other way around.

Glenn said...

Hawkeye's salute (while operating) to Radar was the perfect good-bye.

Daniel said...

As far as jarring changes in tone are concerned, the hands-down best example of this was on WKRP in Cincinnati on an episode when Andy the station manager reunited with this estranged father. The father was a jokester and always embarrassed Andy. Finally, after repressing his emotions for years, Andy yells at his father and tells him to b serious, just once in his life. The audience gets silent. The father pauses and say, "Son, I'm dying." There may have been an audible gasp in the audience. Andy is speechless. He says, "Dad, I'm not sure what to say..." Then the father bursts out laughing and says, "I'm just kidding!" Big laugh from audience.

Then Andy yells at him. Tells him this is the problem. He's never serious. Another big, emotional, dramatic moment. Father gets quiet again. Then he says very softly and contritely, "Son, I really am dying." Another audible gasp from the audience. Again, Andy stammers. "Dad, I'm so sorry..." A beat. Then the father starts laughing again. "I'm just kidding. I'm not dying!"

Perfect example of exploding audiences' expectations for the maudlin moment.

Other Ken said...

The entire premise of Mom is this.
What is the old saying that comedy is based upon tragedy, I am sure I just mangled that.
And what is more tragic, in a sense, then the history of those women that they are rising above.
Larrequettes series about being Night Manager of a Bus station was in the same vein ( AA included)
The only exception to this is 2 1/2 Men where it seemed to be nothing but a string of penis jokes, well done, but none the less.

None of the successful ones seem to sink into shock tragedues just to get a "sugar" high hit to their ratings.

Hey but what do I know.

Anonymous said...

Have tried watching the Roseanne re-boot. It is not at all funny. More pathetic and depressing. They have to be using a laugh track, 'case none of is worthy of even a snicker....

Buttermilk Sky said...

The underlying premise of the show is important. On both MASH and SCRUBS, people die and the doctors and nurses can't do anything about it. All their carousing, practical joking and sometimes regrettable sexual activity is a way to help them cope. Usually the patient who dies is someone we've met only momentarily; SCRUBS let us get to know Dr. Cox's brother-in-law (Brendan Fraser) so that when he died, the audience mourned along with the staff. I thought that was a brave move on a show that often veered close to the cartoonish. There were a few others: Dick Van Dyke as the lovable doctor whose skills haven't kept pace with the times; Carla dealing with her mother's death; Cox going on a bender after several organ recipients died because he failed to test the donor for rabies. It truly was a half-hour dramedy (I hate that word -- let's think of a better one).

Dr Loser said...

There are two things, I think, to a successful TV sit-com. You've talked a lot about the crafting of the jokes, the timing, the writers' room where (in the ideal case) anybody can shoot down a joke and say, "Make it better!"

That's probably good enough for a middling sort of sit-com. I haven't watched many recently, so at a guess, Big Bang Theory. But it isn't actually good enough for a proper sit-com. For a proper sit-com, you have to raise it to the next level:

"When a character says something and another character says something no normal human being would ever say but it gets a laugh, there goes your credibility."

Didn't happen in M*A*S*H or Cheers or Frasier. Didn't happen in Fawltey Towers or Porridge or Only Fools And Horses.

That there, Ken, is where you nailed authentic comedy on the head.

Gary said...

The final episode of Everybody Loves Raymond struck a perfect balance. It started out like "a very special episode" with Ray struggling to come out of anesthesia, but that was a false alarm. The rest of the episode dealt with the family coming to grips with such a scare, showing they really cared for each-other. But it never got too sappy, and there were great jokes throughout. For example, Robert to Ray: "I was thinking that with your nose, you'd need an open casket."

Arthur Mee said...

Daniel, your memory is playing tricks on you. The WKRP character who reunited with his "dying" father was Herb Tarlek, not Andy. Still a great scene though, and Frank Bonner and Bert Parks play it perfectly.

Edwina said...

Ken,
Schitt’s Creek is flying under the radar but is a huge hit in Canada and is gaining a devoted following in the US. It’s written by Eugene Levy and his son Dan and has a stellar ensemble cast, including the comedy legend, Catherine O’Hara. Google it and you’ll see that there are numerous complimentary articles out there encouraging people to watch the show because it’s funny, clever and surprisingly heartfelt. It perfectly exemplifies what you are discussing here, the emotional moments are earned and not tagged on. It’s a delightful show, I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s on Netflix.
Cheers, (pun intended)
Edwina

Penelope said...

OT, but...

"A few seasons back on "The Big Bang Theory", there was a running bit about how Penny had never told Leonard she loved him and was causing a few issues now and then"

Chuck Lorre recycled this storyline directly from Two and a Half Men, right down to one character (Charlie/Leonard) saying to the other (Chelsea/Penny) "I love you," and the other replying, "thank you" instead of the expected "I love you, too."

I can't be the only one who caught it. Maybe he didn't mean to, or doesn't care.

Amy KB. said...

Family Ties failed at this. All their very special episodes were very heavy handed. The two with Tom Hanks would've failed completely without...well Tom Hanks. "A My Name is Alex" was particularly bad. It was so pretentious with it's, Our Town-like set and so saccharine I think I still have a tooth ache from it.

MikeN said...

A good example is Monk when he adopted a toddler for a few days and is considering keeping him permanently.

Donald Benson said...

I remember getting annoyed when an obvious heart-tugging episode comes almost out of nowhere.

"Family Ties" had some genuine feeling and earned moments, but one very showy episode -- staged like a play on an abstract set -- centered on Alex coping with the death of his best friend. Fine, but the best friend was somebody we'd never seen or heard of before, and his death left no after-effects. A much more ordinary episode had Alex upset that another best friend was Breaking Up The Old Gang by getting married. Again, we'd never seen him before and never saw him again.

I will allow that shows, especially in their early seasons, will float something and decide to forget about it. Even "Cheers" sinned a few times. I was disappointed we never saw or heard any more of Coach's daughter. Likewise waited in vain for Sam's offscreen brother to make his presence felt again, or for Rebecca's starlet sister to reappear (even if only mentioned to tick off Rebecca with her success). But with the qualified exception of Sam's brother, none of them was presented as having life-changing importance. Coach's daughter's life changed (for the better), but Coach remained Coach.

I could accept it on "MASH", where it was a fact of life that people would come and go swiftly, and the war forced a resilience on the regular characters (recently caught a memorable episode where the complete professional Margaret chews out a nurse for getting emotional. Then Margaret falls apart when a stray dog is hit by a jeep; the grief was bottled up and waiting). But anywhere else you had a character suddenly announcing that this was the most important person / event / breakable object in his / her life (unless it's plausibly coming from the past), involuntary eye roll.

Leilani said...

Cheers was the master at this. Even if you didn't support Sam and Diane's relationship and was overjoyed to see her leave at the end of season 5, (I happened to be on the opposite end of the spectrum,) the whole episode, especially the ending, made you ache for Sam. You could see he really didn't want her to leave, and then dancing at the end was a glimpse at what was behind Sam's tough, jock image.

On a different note, on a lot of Cheers episodes and a few Frasiers, I see Ken Levine and David Issacs as creative consultants. What does the title actually involve?

Thomas Mossman said...

Amy KB,

"A, My Name is Alex" also commits the sin of using (if not creating) the "super-close very best friend whom the audience has never seen before who exists solely to be killed off" trope.

Mike Bloodworth said...

As much as early 70's shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY and M*A*S*H revolutionized the sitcom they also ruined them. That is, by essentially creating the "dramedy" subsequent sitcoms couldn't be satisfied with just being funny. But most couldn't execute it as well as A.I.T.F and M. did. I agree with the previous examples of how it goes wrong when a comedy tries to get serious. Another example was THE FACTS OF LIFE. Too often the show took a dramatic turn that seemed out of place. And they just came off as preachy and self indulgent. That's one of the things that made SEINFELD so brilliant; their "No hugs, no learning." philosophy. They brought back the idea of funny for the sake of funny.
M.B.

Y. Knott said...

AmyKB: I always found Family Ties to be a B or B-minus sitcom, elevated by some great casting. Michael J. Fox, of course -- it's easy to see why he became a star -- but the parents also had a quirky charm and could really sell some otherwise 'meh' material.

But the actual writing on the show? Sometimes amusing, but rarely memorable and frequently contrived. And agreed on "A My Name Is Alex", which was clearly their "we gotta get an Emmy this year" show. Guess the 1987 Emmy panel consisted of junior high school drama students bowled over by its "meaningful" and "risk-taking" nature.

Mark Murphy said...

Speaking of "I Love Lucy," I remember being very moved by the episode in which Lucy keeps trying to tell Ricky that she's pregnant, but circumstances get in the way. This leads to a very touching scene in the nightclub where Lucy performs.

I've also always remembered the "Racy Tracy Rattigan" episode of the old Van Dyke show. Richard Dawson, then not well known, played a womanizing comedian/actor who guests on the Alan Brady show and then starts going after Laura. I still remember the last scene, where Rob, Buddy and Sally decide to write their best show ever for Rattigan because they feel sorry for him. I was just a kid, maybe too young to completely understand what was going on, but I knew it was something special. (Directed by Sheldon Leonard, too.) Possibly the best thing Dawson ever did.

Anyway, Ken, thanks for your essays on writing, especially your recent ones. I can't help wondering whether I should send you a tuition check.

J Lee said...

Blogger Mike Bloodworth said...

As much as early 70's shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY and M*A*S*H revolutionized the sitcom they also ruined them. That is, by essentially creating the "dramedy" subsequent sitcoms couldn't be satisfied with just being funny. But most couldn't execute it as well as A.I.T.F and M. did.

If you look at M*A*S*H's first season, and what CBS originaly wanted the show to be, it actually did have a "very special episode" towards the end of the season. with "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet", where Hawkeye's writer friend visits as part of a trip to Korea to do a story on the war, and ends up being shot and dying on the operating table at the 4077.

As the show went on for the next decade, that particular episode became less and less out of the ordinary. But there were a lot of early M*A*S*H episodes that were only slightly more serious in tone than some of the 60s military comedies, so that particular episode was a major change of pace that reminded viewers that people get killed in wars (and apparently was a show Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds had to fight CBS to get on the air in 1973).

Johnny Walker said...

The first season of Cheers still has the best balance of grounded stories and laughs for my money. The drama is as brilliant as the comedy. So many earned moments that you’re really invested in, even the small ones. I think a lot of comedies try to balance their absurdity with intelligence - making clever statements. They’re satisfying, in a way, but not anywhere near as much as (earned) drama, in my opinion.

ChicagoJohn said...

I'm an improv director. We are constantly trying to remind our performers of this basic idea; that you can go waaaay out there, as long as you start with reality and ground the living shit out of the scene first.
I'm also big on moments, which leads me to the clip I just watched from "Frasier's Edge", which proves your point.
With that in mind, thank you for not only re-iterating that point, but for all of the writing that you and the other writers did on Frasier to make the characters so relatable. Particularly in that scene at the end of "Maris Counseler". Which was earned, and told you everything you needed to know about the Crane boys.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Mossman said...

I know! If they REALLY wanted to do this plot line couldn't they done in Skippy or even better, Mallory's one-note, one-line but somehow ubiquitous boyfriend.


Anonymous Y. Knott said...

Yes. This won so many awards and I don't even want to look to see who else was nominated that year. On these Very Special Episodes the writing is schlocky. I blame the head writers because there were good writers were on this show like Jace Richdale.

Also I agree on your analysis of Family Ties...except I might grade in lower..well maybe on a curve compared to worse sitcoms in era like Full House and Growing Pains.
Michael J. Fox is precisely why that show remained popular and on the air for so long and ironically Gary David Goldberg didn't want him. Fox had to try out more than once and that only happened, I believe because the show's casting director kept prodding Goldberg to hire Fox.

Jason Roberts said...

A show that hit home runs time after time i this regard was Taxi. Especially the episode "Jim's Inheritance" from season 5.

PS: I'm filming on Stage 9 at Fox at the moment. Can't help but think of you Ken while were here.

MikeN said...

The opposite of earned moment was when All in the Family decided to have Edith get raped for laughs.

Myles Warden said...

No laugh track. Real audience.

DetroitGuy said...

I hadn’t seen many episodes so I had no real connection with any of the characters...but watching the final episode really packed an emotional punch. Just thinking about the final shot has me tearing up as I write this.

DwWashburn said...

My nephew, born in 1976, watched a lot of television growing up. One day at the age of six he looked at his Mom and asked her in all seriousness "Mom, was the world in black and white when you were growing up?"

Unknown said...

This reminds me of that "Very Special" episode of Gilligan's Island. It had the usual slap stick antics, but they had the chance to be rescued. But Gilligan screwed it up, so they were still stuck on the island. But in the end, in a touching moment, they all forgave Gilligan. I don't think a series since, has matched the number of coconuts used during filming.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Seriously, there actually was at least one Gilligan's Island episode with astonishing prescience.

GIlligan found a little tree with seeds that allowed the castaways to read each other's minds. Very soon the they found out, to their horror, exactly what they thought of each other and it wasn't nice. Gilligan ends up burning the tree to stop his friends from eventually hating each other. Gilligan waits to be yelled at for being an idiot, but the Skipper tells him it was a smart thing to do.

Today we have social networking so millions of people can say what they think and look at the consequences. Sure, Gilligan's Island was a silly show, but there have been broadcasts of far less wisdom that have been falsely passed off as great television. Just saying.

Coram Loci said...

Did Harry Anderson's passing prompt this entry, Ken? I seem to recall you mentioning how Night Court had a tone problem, making genuine emotion hard to convey. One minute there are four dwarves on a unicycle, pleading not guilty to looking up women's skirts, the next minute Judge Stone telling an orphan why life is worth living.

Jabroniville said...

This is why I could never get into the cartoon ADVENTURE TIME, even though a lot of the people I know love it. It went for a lot of "sad moments", and "I feel bad for this guy" moments, but the show is 100% absurdist "boy humor"/"we did drugs while writing this" comedy. It's completely contrary to the general feel of the show, and to me it always feels un-earned. And that's why it annoys me when nerdy guys cry tears into their beards over "the time we learned the backstory of The Ice King".