Sunday, October 04, 2009

A handy writing tip

Just saw one of my favorite DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episodes, “100 Terrible Hours”. It’s the one where Rob was a disc jockey and had to stay on the air for 100 straight hours just before interviewing with Alan Brady for a writing job. I love that episode for many reasons but first and foremost is the structure. I imagine Carl Reiner and the staff thought it would be fun to see Rob’s initial job interview and of course it had to be a disaster. But how?

The obvious ways: he was drunk, he got in an accident and was all disheveled, he spilled something on his crotch, he had laryngitis, he had a bad cold and Alan Brady was a germ freak, he barged in at the wrong time, etc. You get the idea.

But they found a totally fresh device instead. Have him loopy because he’s sleep deprived. And concoct the best comic way to get him sleep deprived. Radio marathons were a staple of early Top 40 radio so making him a disc jockey was not only ingenious, it was also real. The best comedy always comes from reality. Plus, it gave Van Dyke a lot to play as you saw him get progressively goofier.

This is called getting “the most bang for your buck”. Find a good comic premise for a scene and then maximize the possibilities. In this case, not only was the payoff great but the set-up scenes leading up to it were terrific as well.

Give this some thought when plotting out your spec script. Once the wakeathon story was laid out I’m sure it was much easier for the writers (Sam Denoff & Bill Persky) to fill in the funny dialogue. They had so much to work with.

The hardest comedy writing in the world is when you have characters just standing around with nothing really dynamic happening. You have to manufacture jokes out of nothing. The characters start talking in forced one-liners. When viewers say that sitcoms sound predictable and bogus that’s usually what they’re referring to.

So do the heavy lifting first. Construct a story that lends itself to great comic possibilities. Easier said than done, you say? Yep, but that’s why YOUR spec might sell and the others don’t.

By the way, in the early 60s a San Bernardino radio station held one of these wakeathons. By the end the disc jockey was hallucinating, thinking that a giant Mickey Mouse was coming to eat him. I don’t know whether it was the city that had to issue a permit or the union, but somebody insisted that medical supervision be provided to lend assistance and monitor the d.j. throughout. He would be on the air for 50 minutes each hour and get ten minutes to use the bathroom, stretch his legs, eat, whatever. The medical staff would check his vital signs and ensure he was in no health danger.

A tent was set up near the broadcasting site (a store window I believe, just like in the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW). Every hour the disc jockey would disappear into it to get his examination. What the city or the union or whomever didn’t know was that the around-the-clock nurses that were hired were actually hookers. That probably kept him going another twenty-four hours.

Now if they had done that on the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW the title of the episode might have been changed to “95 Terrible Hours and 5 Great Ones”.

23 comments :

Craig Playstead said...

Great post and an even better writing tip. God I miss radio ...

Matt said...

When I was 9, I broke my leg and arm in a playground accident. I had to stay home from school for a week. During this time I saw a syndicated "Happy Days" episode called "Richie's Flip Side" where Richie had to go on-air as a DJ. Richie The C.

From this episode was born a radio career now in its 23rd year. Your post reminded me of this.

YEKIMI said...

I was with a friend years ago who was attending a seminar at the University of Toledo. I was bored and walking around and stopped in at the campus radio station to see what it was like [my friend and I were both DJs at a station further east of Toledo]. I was talking to the DJ and he said his relief had not shown up could I watch the place for 15 minutes while he went to find him, he had everything carted up and all I had to do was punch this button and that button and everything would be fine. The 15 minutes turned into 4 hours, I was sweating bullets as I had no clue what to play so I just ended up grabbing whatever music I could find and played it, did top of hour IDs and a few PSAs. No idea if anyone was listening, no one called. The next shift student DJ showed up, did a double take, asked who the hell I was and I had to explain what was going on. He just laughed, I ended up having a blast and never heard if anything happened to the guy who "abandoned ship".

Pat Reeder said...

Don't know if you've seen this, but it's an interesting, if lengthy, essay on structuring screenplays, inspired by a lobby card for Chaplin's "The Kid":

http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/rdvonch/2009/10/03/heroic-hollywood-charlie-the-kid-and-the-cop/

l.a.guy said...

So the moral of the story is when working extended hours make sure to have plenty of hookers around. I'm going to try and employ that whenever possible... just as soon as I get my wife to sign off. ("But Ken Levine says...")

That DJ marathon was a great episode but to me the best one, and to my mind one of the best half hours in sitcom history, was when Laura accidentally reveals Alan Brady wears a toupee.

Anonymous said...

Liked the story...but, didn't get the last part at all. He usd hookers "to keep going"?? So he was the polar opposite of 99.999% of us and didn't get relaxed and want to sleep after sex?

LouOCNY said...

Anonymous said...

Liked the story...but, didn't get the last part at all. He usd hookers "to keep going"?? So he was the polar opposite of 99.999% of us and didn't get relaxed and want to sleep after sex?


The anticipation alone.....

WV: ingene - apparently where these 'nurses' were....

Dimension Skipper said...

In keeping with the general theme of how to develop a script or even a whole show concept here's a NY Times piece by Edward Wyatt on the evolution and ratings rise of The Big Bang Theory...

The Big Surprise of 'Big Bang': The Bigger Audience

. . .

The cast and crew of "The Big Bang Theory" are enjoying their success all the more after surviving two near-death experiences. The show's first pilot was rejected by CBS, but the network asked Mr. Lorre and Bill Prady, his co-creator, to retool their script and try again. The first version featured the same two male lead characters — Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist, and Johnny Galecki as Leonard Hofstadter, an experimental physicist — but also included a female lead character who was "very damaged and very tough," Mr. Prady said.

"We had a really hard time casting the role, and in retrospect it was obvious that the problem was not the actresses but the conception of the character," he said. Focus groups that watched the original pilot were left with protective feelings for the two naïve, socially awkward scientists, and they did not like the prospect of a bitter, manipulative woman taking advantage of them.

"What we all liked was the relationship between these two guys, one who wants his world to be bigger and the other who wants his world to be smaller," Mr. Prady said. "I think that’s what everyone looked at and said, 'This is worth trying again.'" The creators decided to keep the male characters and to persuade Mr. Parsons and Mr. Galecki not to take another series in the year between the two pilots.

. . . .

Jeff said...

I was at a tribute to a famouns musical arranger, and his bio listed many tv shows, including MASH. Do writers get involved with the music used on the show? Or is that more of a producer/director thing?

Twilo said...

"IT MAY LOOK LIKE A WALNUT"

Anonymous said...

"The hardest comedy writing in the world is when you have characters just standing around with nothing really dynamic happening. You have to manufacture jokes out of nothing. The characters start talking in forced one-liners. When viewers say that sitcoms sound predictable and bogus that’s usually what they’re referring to."

*****

Sounds like you're describing the pilot of Hank. I was astonished to see Kelsey Grammer in something so bad.

Anonymous said...

Don't be coy. It was almost 50 years ago, so it's safe to name letters. Was it KFXM or KMEN?

Kirk Jusko said...

You're both a comedy writer and a radio personality. Rob Petrie, even though he's fictional, is a radio personality who became a comedy writer. Is that common? Are a lot of comdy writers also DJs?

John said...

What the city or the union or whomever didn’t know was that the around-the-clock nurses that were hired were actually hookers. That probably kept him going another twenty-four hours.

Now if they had done that on the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW the title of the episode might have been changed to “95 Terrible Hours and 5 Great Ones”.


As long as Rob had Laura waiting in those capris at home, I don't think the hookers would have been used (Maybe if Buddy had been doing the DJ thing with Pickles at home, or even with Jerry and Millie, but not Laura in 1960, even if she would become a problem to deal with for future comedy writers...)

denparser said...

Nice post. I thought that was Mr. Bean on the picture, :-)

http://mystery.weborglodge.com said...

Great post! I love the old Dick Van Dyke show. I'd stay up at night, watching old reruns. Such original comedy writing!

Doug DeRoo said...

Hey Matt, I didn't realize that Ron Howard has been a DJ for 23 years....

You get the idea (thanks Ken for this worn-out phrase that you've been using over & over lately)

Bob Oscar Johnson said...

Anonymous, it was KMEN r=that did all the "thons"...

Anyone who wants to hear a real radio station today, try www.147kxoa.com

Just like the old days

Matt said...

You must one day tell us how perfect feels, Doug. Until then, the struggle continues. You get the idea.

Anonymous said...

this show sounds like everyone who made it is dead and so it's out of copyright.. is there a youtube link? not that I don't love reading about tv show instead of watching it.

Kirk Jusko said...

Anonymous, Dick Van Dyke is still alive, as is Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, and Ann Guilbert. Plus, the guy who created and produced the show, and who played Alan Brady, Carl Reiner, is still alive. I imagine there are others. The show is availiable on YouTube, and on DVD. It was on cable not that long ago. It's a very famous show and most people have heard of it.

Anonymous said...

I've heard of a joke where the punchline is "penis van lesbian", but not of this show.

Lawrence Fechtenberger said...

Also for Anonymous: There is no rule that something goes into the public domain once the people who made it die. John Updike's novels, and John Hughes's films, are all still under copyright.