Thursday, October 09, 2008

I didn't write that but thank you

It’s Friday question time!

rob! went to the comment section and asked:

How do you handle it when someone compliments you on a line from a particular episode from a particular show that you didn't happen to write? Has that ever happened to you?

It’s happened quite often. I always thank them and say a lot of people contributed to the writing of that script. Which is usually accurate.

I’ve written with a partner for my entire career. Often someone will say to me, “I saw your show last night and that joke about (whatever), that was yours, wasn’t it? It was so you. It had to be your joke.” Invariably they’re wrong. It was David’s joke.

Or they’ll say, “Y’know that joke about not being able to get it up? That had to be your joke. It had you written all over it.” What? You think I’m impotent?

Most of the time I will tell people that I don’t remember who wrote what joke. And that’s not being coy, it’s the truth. David and I volley jokes back and forth. One of us will pitch something, the other will say, “Okay, but what if we changed this word?” Before you know it the line changes five times until we arrive at the final version. And both of our fingerprints are on it.

When you’re on staff you learn to check your ego at the door. The best joke you write all year might be for someone else’s script. And likewise, one or two gems may come your way.

On year three of CHEERS to hide Shelley Long’s pregnancy they created a story arc whereby she and Frasier go to Europe. All of the scenes were filmed at once and shown the end of the season when Shelley was showing. So I’m watching an episode on the air one night and this scene appears. Diane and Frasier are shown into a hotel room and Frasier overtips the bellboy. I thought, wow, this sounds so familiar. Is this a re-run? No, because I haven’t seen the rest of the show. And then it hits me – David and I wrote that scene. It got lifted from our episode for time and was inserted into someone else’s show.

Lots of sitcoms today are room written (“gang banged” as the delightful expression goes) and writing credits are just arbitrarily assigned. So you may be complimented on a script you didn’t even know you supposedly wrote.

So the bottom line is to be gracious, just thank the person for the compliment, and in my case remind them I’m not impotent.


Dzof said...

My producer and I constantly have mini-arguments about who wrote what line, especially if it's for an episode that aired more than a year ago.

But it's hard to make people understand that a producer is also a writer, so usually I just say lots of people contribute (including actors and directors and whichever smart-alec prop guy happened to be on set that day).

Except for the really cheesy lines. He's quite happy to take those ones for himself.

Anonymous said...

Only one comment? Hmmm. Guess I better step in.

I find it interesting that on a sitcom only one writer gets credit when the script was written by 10 writers or more ... but in movies many writers might get on-screen credit.

So if everyone knows the sitcom was "gang banged," why doesn't the WGA just say that everyone in the room gets credit? Seems simple to me.

Anonymous said...

A feature film script may go through just as many writers as a sitcom room and only have one or two writers attached to it. The difference is that TV writers are usually all credited in the episode, just not with "written by" credit, where as script fixers in movies don't get any credit. It obviously varies by show and can be anything one writer wrote the bulk of the episode and gets credit to the entire thing written round-table style and picking one guy at random.

Anonymous said...

Ok, maybe I can ask the question more clearly.

If the episode was written in the room, why not just give all the writers credit for being the writers who all wrote the script?

rob! said...

thanks for answering my question!

there's line in the MASH episode "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" (SSN 5) that makes me laugh every time i hear it (and i've watched that episode A LOT), but i've always been hesitant to mention it to you, for fear it wasn't yours.

(the line in question is when Hawkeye is explaining to BJ what its like being temporarily blind. he says something like "...And you have no idea how funny it is hearing someone slip and fall in the mud. Had to be Burns."

By Ken Levine said...

That actually WAS my line. That MASH episode was a rarity. I'd say 95% of our original draft made it to air.

That blind speech took us two days.

Thanks for remembering it.

Anonymous said...

Off-topic, but FYI:

A review of Volunteers from 1985 apparently contains the first ironic reference to the song "Kumbaya":

"Tom Hanks and John Candy make war on the Peace Corps in Volunteers, a belated lampoon of '60s altruism and the idealistic young Kumbayahoos who went off to save the Third World." (Rita Kempley, Wash. Post).

The whole story is here:

Anonymous said...

Does the gang-bang writing approach ever lead to awkwardness on Emmy night? I'd feel weird if I won the industry's highest honor primarily because my name was picked out of a hat. Or is the network careful not to submit gang-banged episodes for consideration?

rob! said...

"That actually WAS my line. That MASH episode was a rarity. I'd say 95% of our original draft made it to air."

boo-yah! that made my day.

that episode is in my top 10 favorite MASH episodes, ever.

Anonymous said...

In the Europe scenes from year 3 of Cheers, where were the outdoor scenes filmed from the season finale 'Rescue Me'