Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Writing our first real script

Here’s another chapter on how David Isaacs and I began our ersatz career. In the last installment I explained how we wrote a pilot together despite neither of us having the faintest idea how to do that. You can read that post here. To the surprise of no one (even us) the pilot didn’t sell.

But it did attract the attention of an agent at a very small firm. Okay, it was just her and a telephone. And okay, it attracted her attention because David knew her daughter. But she agreed to take us on and claimed she knew people in the business. We didn’t bother asking who. It’s not like we had any other options.

We decided to take a writing class at UCLA extension. Wait, it was the UCLA experimental school, which is probably one step down from extension. Our teacher was a real character. We’ll call him Ron. He claimed he had written for BARNEY MILLER and quite a few variety shows. He was particularly proud of his comedic contribution to CHER. Those were the days before imdb. Years later when we did check all the BARNEY MILLER credits and his name wasn’t listed he said he ghost wrote the episodes. Uh huh. The thing is – if you’re going to lie, why lie and say you wrote for Cher?

Anyway, he really made his living playing in a high-stakes weekly celebrity poker game.

But his class was very valuable. We learned we had to write spec scripts from existing shows. David and I were both huge fans of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW so that’s the one we decided to write.

Ron wasn’t big on really “teaching”. If you had a spec script he would read it aloud and then we’d all critique it, which was valuable… but only up to a point.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was on CBS Saturday nights at 9. Believe it or not, Saturday night used to be a big night for television. Now it’s a dumping ground for reruns or burning off UGLY BETTY episodes.

Since David and I basically had no social life we got together every Saturday night, held a small microphone up to the TV and recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder that night’s episode of MTM. We’d then replay it several times, analyze it as best we could, and write a detailed outline. We did that maybe eight weeks in a row. And eventually patterns emerged. We figured out how they approached a story, how many scenes, the types of stories, the tone, etc.

We came up with a story of our own and were ready to write. Tomorrow: that story.


Gary said...

Get this Ken: In losing 9 of 11, recently, Mariner pitchers gave up 83 runs. While winning a season-high 5 in a row, currently, the M's have scored a total of 11 runs, giving up 2. Average score: 2.2 - .4. To bring everything into perspective, even tho they've won 5 straight, they've LOST 4 games in the standings cuz TX has won 9 in a row. Don't ya wish you were still here, jabbing Sims and imploring the team to hit the damn ball!!!!!

Jeffrey Leonard said...

There was a journalism teacher (who will remain nameless) at Valley College in North Hollywood who wanted everyone in his class to write a T.V. script and he would critique it. Mind you, this teacher was a total a**hole. A friend of mine decided to record an entire episode of "The Dick Van Dyke" show on a reel to reel tape machine. Then, he transcribed it verbatim (and didn't leave a thing out). Well, the teacher ripped the script apart and said it was poorly written, juvenile humor. That tells you a little more of where the teacher was coming from.

Paul said...

Perhaps this is good for a Friday question: When starting out, how did you know where to send the scripts you wrote? How does one find lists of agents or managers, or of showrunners to send spec scripts?

Matt said...

Your post made me smile, Ken.

As a kid, I used to tape episodes of MASH to figure out how those writers wrote episodes. I also did this with The Odd Couple, but by far my biggest collection was MASH.

Max Clarke said...
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Dana Gabbard said...

Paul, the WGA has now posted online its Agency List.

Perhaps a good question for Ken is what should a newcomer look for in an agent? And what should raise alarm bells to avoid one?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Correct me I'm wrong (were more unnecessary words ever typed online?), but didn't CBS' Sat night lineup at one point include All in the Family, MASH, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett? Wasn't it for a while the greatest night of television ever?

Damn you, cable tv.

Baylink said...

Hey, Ken?

Has it yet occurred to you that this is a pretty salable book, too?