Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The madness to our method

Here’s the thinking that went into the episode I posted yesterday. Did you watch it yesterday? Okay, I’ll wait.

Dum de dum… check it out now, funk soul brother, check it out now, funk soul brother… dum de dum de dum… movin’ on up, to the eastside…

Done? Great. Here we go.

Again: the task (see Tuesday’s post) was to break up the central relationship, reintroduce the other characters, work everyone into the story somehow, be funny and hopefully touching. And we only had one half hour to do it. We could not do a two-parter or an hour. I’m sure there are better ways to achieve this goal, but here is what we (me, David Isaacs, Robin Schiff) did.

We didn’t want to go for with a big argument. That seemed the easy path. Also, we didn’t want a long shouting match. That would get old and tedious, and we’re not doing WHO’S AFRAID OF VIGINIA WOOLF:THE SITCOM. Kim & Mike could have a fight and it could get heated but it had to be short and somehow motivated. And most important, we didn’t want the audience to hate either one of them. Or us, but still better us than them.

It was nice to see that you guys didn’t guess it on Tuesday.

Anyway… the discussion led to “what triggers arguments?” We thought, if there was one universal sentence that kicked off major arguments that would be a great device to get us going. And we could use it to break up other characters’ relationships too. Great! Just one little hitch: what is that question???

Several days and many blind alleys later we landed on this: “Any couple could break up in five sentences, no matter how committed they are, if the first sentence was ‘if that’s the way you feel then what are you doing with me?’”

We would use it for comic effect twice and then have Kim & Mike unconsciously fall into the same trap.

Where we left the series after season one: Mike & Kim had vowed their undying love (we sure shot ourselves in the foot with that one, didn’t we?), Gary was divorced from his wife Patty but still was smitten by her, and young Rob had a party girl, Shannon, who drove him insane but the sex was unbelievable so of course he stuck it out. Insanity is a small price to pay for nookie.

The one thing we had going for us was the finale of the first season was the wrap party of the fictional show they all worked on. That gave us like a two month hole before they returned to work. We could fill it with whatever necessary backstory we needed. One of you astute readers picked up on that.

To break up Gary & Patty we first had to get them back together again. We decided to have them re-marry. That allowed for a big wedding scene. Lots of room for fun and interaction with our characters. And the Gary/Patty split would occur right at the altar. We could exploit some quirk of Shannon’s to push Rob over the edge and they too could break up at the wedding. We needed to set a pattern. It had to happen twice before Kim & Mike.

Device aside, at the heart of Mike & Kim’s break up had to be the fatal flaw of their relationship. Opposites attract but they also repel. We had established that she was a Type-A workaholic and he was more laid back. For the most part he catered to her schedule in the first season. So during the hiatus we said she catered to him. And hated it. It drove her crazy. She was bored out of her skull. But he loved it. That felt like a good place to start.

So now we went to the greaseboard and beat out the story.

For the teaser we needed to reintroduce Kim & Mike to the audience. Kim wanted to have sex on the balcony. The more conservative Mike didn’t. Right away you see how different they are.

The first scene takes place in the office. We catch up on what’s been going on and set up the wedding. Rob enters in dreadlocks. I don’t know if any sex is worth that but still. You can see it’s starting to get to him. By contrast, Neil is studying the Kabbalah (I like to think Madonna got the idea from US.) and wants no human contact. We thought it would be a fun payoff to have Neil be the only one in a relationship at the end of the show. We love that ironic shit!

Then we go to the wedding. Establish the fatal flaw in the Gary/Patty relationship – she’s a materialistic bitch. And I should mention that Lisa Edelstein was GREAT. It’s not easy to pull off an unlikable character like that and still be so funny and likeable. Lots of jokes about Patty’s extravagance. Oh how we loved that marble staircase! Patty's fall down the stairs was my favorite gag from the series. I've seen it a hundred times and it still makes me laugh every time. (That was a stunt double, by the way, we who did the fall. One take.) However, the reform joke is truly one of my favorites.

Gary & Patty split, Rob & Shannon split, and Mike & Kim get out while they’re still a couple. Act break.

We also re-up Mike’s conservatism. With every joke in some way we try to better define our characters.

Now we go back to Kim’s house for the party post mortem. Their discussion offhandedly leads to their relationship issues. Many big arguments just seem to evolve and escalate without the participants realizing it.

By the time Kim utters the trigger sentence hopefully we’ve brought them to a place where there’s no turning back. They each want different things in life and it’s clear they’ll never be able to accommodate the other. Kim says “Can we just come in again and start over?” and Mike says, “What would be different?” They both realize it’s over.

We follow that with a scene the next day. Kim, Gary, and Rob are alone lamenting their fate. We say that Kim & Mike talked all night but got nowhere. We wanted to establish that ultimately their break up wasn’t a five minute conversation and that was it. We also wanted to establish that this was the new direction of the series – our lovable test-friendly characters each finding their way alone. And then button the scene with Neil showing up with the rabbi.

For the tag we often would try to callback something from the show. Nothing seemed funnier than Patty falling down the stairs so we constructed a way for Gary to fall down them as well. (Again, we used a double. No actors or animals were hurt during the filming of this show.) I love the last line. Patty asks if he’s okay and he says “No, you crazy bitch!” It’s not a constructed joke. It’s just an attitude line. The best laughs come from character.

So that was our game plan. It might be fun to watch the show again now that you know how and why we constructed it that way. I actually think it’s the best show I wish we never wrote.


Ollie said...

Watching it for a second time, the structure is the absolute best you can ask for given the demands. In my mind, this was the best way to do it, while staying within the sitcom genre (it would have been a lot easier in a drama I suspect).

It is just very disheartening how much sway networks and focus groups have over the show, and its artistic direction.

P.S. Or you should have just had her wake up really mad at him for something he did to her in her dream (women do this). Then they break up. Saves a lot of brainstorming.

Anonymous said...

This blog post was like "How It's Made" for scripts. And it was probably the most interesting article about the entertainment industry that I've ever read. Thanks!

(It would be neat to read a similar article about Cheers or M*A*S*H, since the characters are much more familiar...)

Corinne said...

I was wracking my brain trying to figure out where I'd seen the actress who played Patty. Then I realized, when I saw her picture in this post, she's Dr. Cuddy on "House." I'll have to share this episode with my husband; he thinks she's gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ken!
Great sitcom writing lesson.
I think you are on to something here with this problem/solution/motivation cliff hanger structure.
Keep'em coming!
Vänlig hälsningar
Peter in Sweden

Anonymous said...

I noticed a little thing in the episode that I liked a lot -- it might have been an actor choice. Each of the several times Kim fell on the marble stairs, Mike was right there graciously helping her to her feet. If there had been an extensive future for Kim, I think she might have realized how much she had taken Mike's routine chivalry for granted...

Tom Quigley said...


A great insight into how hard writers have to work to construct a story given the parameters and limitations of the medium (not to mention interference from studio and network executives), and the thought processes and brainstorming you go through to create something that both makes sense and is entertaining and funny.

Anonymous said...


Your husband is completely correct.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

After reading this, my love for Lisa Edelstein continues unabated.

It was great to read about how this episode came together as well.

CarolMR said...

I watched this show every week. I remember Bonnie Franklin played Kevin Kilner's mother in one episode and wanted the Nancy Travis character to convert to Catholicism (I think).

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Great insights, great episode... the real decision being that you didn't want to do a long drawn-out discussion scene.

But I d feel you did sacrifice the character. To make the break-up work, you really had to play up the fact that she was a work-a-holic... and she is not even repenting. In the end, she justifies her actions by saying that he wasn't right for her and then jokes that she was 'the one that got away'. I think if you had turned that around, it could have been a painful moment for the character.

Still, that is reflection of the times. These days, no showrunner would have any trouble on pinning it all on the guy. She is a stroing woman, who knows what she wants and he messes things up by demanding she bends to his rules. It's there in your stuff as well, but we get the feeling it's her fault.

In the end she is not a character I would like to spend many more seasons with... and I didn't have to.

My God what a shame. Not only were you some of the best writers to come out of Cheers, this was also your best bet at a hit series. The best set-up for a comedy I have ever heard. The day she gets her dreamjob, which will take all of her time, she also finds her dream man. How will they make it work? You could dust if off, update it and sell it again. I absolutely love the first season of that show. I loved the characters, the actors, everything. I still want to go back and kill some network executives. Where do we go to nominate this series for an honorary dvd release?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ken, I've really enjoyed this blog the last three days, learning how you tackled a problem that you should never had to deal with in the first place. The show's cancellation weeks later may have been the ultimate proof of what a bone-headed decision it was in the first place. Even though I don't think it all worked out as far as believability with the two characters, it was a pretty funny episode in it's own right, and probably was the best that could have been done given the unfair parameters you had to deal with.

Anonymous said...

Oh, how these clips of Almost Perfect make me long for that series. I didn't realise I missed Nancy Travis on tv as more than I thought I did till I saw her in these clips. Thanks for posting them.

Also, was that Maura West (Carly Snider from As The World Turns played the ditz with pointless stories??

Anonymous said...

Ken: If you really want me to read, follow and understand a post like that, DON'T lead off with a photo of Lisa Edelstein.

I'm only human, man!

Anonymous said...

I agree that the episode was a pleasure to watch and that today's post is a fascinating lesson and great fun to read.

Am I the only one, though, whose jaw dropped at “No, you crazy bitch!”? I'm male and I'm not old-fashioned, but I thought it was grossly un-funny and even offensive.

Maybe if I'd seen more episodes and knew the character better it would have worked for me? Help me out here.

Anonymous said...

Ken - great post, and great solution to your writing problem on that episode!

One observation from a NON-TV writer: when I figured out where you were going (after the SECOND occurrence of "the Question")...I thought the ending was going to be basically like it actually was, EXCEPT that you'd have the other 2 couples "make up" and stay together. Not only would this have been a "true-to-Sitcom" humorous ending, but it also would've implanted into the viewers' minds, "Well, I guess Mike & Kim really weren't meant to be together after all."

Or...I could be full of it...

JAC said...

"One of you astute readers picked up on that."

Wow, I guess that was me? I, a mere music professor, am an astute reader! That'll keep me going for days.

Craig McNamara said...

I have to say, I thought the same thing about the "crazy bitch" line. Incredibly off-putting. Especially after the Patty character shows real concern over Chip Zien's character.

Anonymous said...

This whole "series" has been very interesting and a great read.

Anonymous said...

I always felt we were supposed to see Zien's character as kind of an asshole, so I didn't mind.