Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Breaking CHEERS stories

Okay, I’m in a CHEERS mood. So for the next three days my posts will be CHEERS related. Today I’ll answer a reader’s question on how we broke stories for CHEERS. Tomorrow I’ll discuss how much and what we included in our outlines, and Friday I’ll answer another reader’s question about where the various CHEERS writers are today.

Breaking stories was easily the hardest thing we had to do. Believe it or not, writing the jokes was comparatively easy.

Breaking the stories was always a group effort. The entire writing staff would gather to pitch ideas. A good many of them would stem from personal anecdotes that happened to one of us. Something about a writers room, in two days you find yourself revealing the most embarrassing incidents and traumatic events that ever happened to you to a group of still virtual strangers. But anything for a story idea. And the personal ones tended to be more real and certainly more bizarre.

I always loved when an actor would say “no one would be that stupid to do this” and it was something I had actually done.

For every story we used there were always twenty or thirty we threw out. The core of every story had to present a substantial problem for one or more of the characters. And it had to have some comic spin. When an idea is on the table and the writers are able to come up with possible scenes and twists and jokes that’s a pretty good indication that we may have hit gold. And very often a story will evolve into something completely different from what you started with. You begin with Sam has to hire a new bartender and an hour later it somehow becomes Lilith’s pet rat dies and she keeps it in her purse.

A point of pride on CHEERS and FRASIER was that they wouldn’t do any story that another show had done. If you pitched something and someone said, “Oh, I saw something like that on TAXI we’d junk it.” Same with the actual story telling. We were always looking to tell stories in a fresh way.

Once we had an area we liked this is how we generally broke the stories: Our first question was always “what’s the act break?” Then “what’s the ending?”. Then "when's lunch?" Once we had the big midpoint turn and the ultimate conclusion we’d go back and fill in the acts. Sometimes we would lay out a story and see that two or three characters would be excluded. So in order to service them we would do a B story that usually could be told in two or three scenes.

We also tried to make sure each character got a few central stories each season – even Norm and Cliff. We tried to mix up the stories – not all romance related, not all work related. But early on, especially in the first year, we always tried to have at least one Sam-Diane run to keep their relationship alive. It might only be a few lines but we knew that their dynamic was at the heart of the series.

Stories took anywhere from a couple of hours to several days to we still haven't solved it.

Which brings me to my final point -- storytelling is a very inexact science. Some weeks the stories played great and other weeks we wrestled the damn thing to the ground every night. The learning curve only takes you so far.

But somehow the series managed to tell over 200 of them (many I'm quite proud of), which to me is a testament to how good the premise was, the actors were, and the vision set forth by creators Glen & Les Charles and James Burrows.


Anonymous said...

I'll second that. Thank you very much.

Very helpfull as I try to hammer out my own story this evening.

Anonymous said...

I imagine the troll has you feeling vulnerable. So I wanted to write to say how much I love this blog. I love reading it every day. Your latest Cheers post is a shining example of why I click here even more than you post, which, with your prolific rate, is saying something.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, Ken . . .

MaryAn Batchellor said...

"which to me is a testament to how good the premise was, the actors were, and the vision set forth by creators Glen & Les Charles and James Burrows:" ----

It wouldn't be egotistical to add "and how good the writing was". It was brilliant.

Julie Goes to Hollywood said...

Hi Ken, how about some inside dish on how "Cheers" got spun off into "Frasier?" I read somewhere he is the longest-running character in TV history. And I heard somewhere that you and David became the accepted experts on "Lilith."

Anonymous said...

Thanks. That post was really interesting and greatly appreciated.

Boltron said...

"Okay, I’m in a CHEERS mood. So for the next three days my posts will be CHEERS related."

You just made my entire day... maybe my entire week, too.

By Ken Levine said...

David and I did write most of the Lilith appearances on FRASIER and also the episode in which she and Frasier appeared on WINGS. What can I say? When it comes to uptight clenched women who better to write them than Levine & Isaacs.

Anonymous said...

They always say "Write what you know"

Eyes front, blog boy....

Anonymous said...

That comment about Lilith is intriguing, when one realizes that it was during Ken and David's stint on M*A*S*H that the uptight and clenched Hot Lips evolved into the more human Margaret Houlihan.

Frank Strovel III said...

James Burrows was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air about three weeks ago. He mentions Cheers was so smart, it could've been done on the radio.

Anonymous said...

hi there

I'm the chap from singapore who asked about how the cheers writers broke each story down. Thanks, Ken, for a most enlightening read!

A few more questions.

You mentioned there were some stories you had to wrestle to the ground. What were the stories? I'm watching the dvd collections now and am up to season 5 - would be great to know.

how hard was it when diane left the show? did you and the writers ever think that the show would survive without diane chambers?

how did you come up with the character for woody?

was it the writers intention to create a character in the vein of Coach?

and lastly, which cheers episode were you NOT happy in terms of the ending?