Friday, August 13, 2010

How we write

Only two Friday questions because they require long answers and in one case, a visual aid. The theme is how we write. What’s your question?

To start us off, here's Matt:

What is your process of writing a script with David? You once posted that during the writing of a Cheers episode you had an assistant write everything out on a steno-pad while you dictated to him.

Is this the way you and David work most times?

Yes. Writing teams all work differently but we write head to head and as you said, we dictate the script to a secretary who takes great shorthand. There are advantages to this method, at least for us.

We never actually see the script while we’re writing it. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. It forces us not to obsess over a line. It frees us to pitch out a whole run knowing we can just go back and clean it up. We can juggle beats, move things around more easily. This process also allows us to volley lines back and forth. When people ask if a particular joke was mine and I say I don’t remember I’m not being coy. We shape practically every line together.

It now takes us four or five days to write a half hour. Two or three if we have to. When we started it took two weeks. That’s where many years of experience comes in handy.

We work off of an outline, talk out what we’re going to do then just take a shot at it. Next day we see the typed version of what we wrote, proof it, blame the medication, and keep going. After the rough draft is finished we each take a copy, make notes, joke suggestions, cuts, etc. and reconvene for one more pass. Once that’s completed, more often than not we turn it in.

Lou H. wonders:

I imagine you pretty well hash through all the story's bits during the table reads - Cheers, especially, seemed very well polished - but did you ever make any last-minute changes to the script based on the audience reaction at the rehearsal or taping because something you thought would work didn't?

Only all the time. I’m speaking of multi-camera shows shot in front of a live audience. They’re there for feedback and it behooves us to listen to it.

We will always do at least two takes of every scene. Often times between takes we will replace jokes that died horrible deaths with new ones that hopefully evoke actual human laughter.

There’s a lot of huddling that takes place between the writers, frantically searching for new better lines.

If too much of a scene doesn’t work we’ll huddle in the corner, rewrite the whole scene, and then shoot it during pick-ups once the audience leaves.

We’ll also go back the following week sometimes to reshoot something that either didn’t work or shoot a whole new scene.

We’ll substitute new lines in post production. The only time we don’t tinker with the script is when it’s on the air. And even then, we’ll come in the next day and have thought of a better joke to button scene B.

Here’s an example. From the first season of CHEERS. This is an episode David and I wrote called “Any Friend of Diane’s”. The last scene fell flat. I don’t remember what the original scene was but we came up with something completely different two days later. We wrote it and they shot it after the following week’s show, keeping the audience. The new scene worked like a charm. It got big laughs even though the audience didn’t know the set up. Here’s the final eight minutes of the show:


dgwphotography said...

Ken, As usual, this is great stuff. One question - Is there a provision to bring a guest star back for a later reshoot? What if Julia Duffy wasn't available for the next week's taping?

mac said...

More importantly, um, how short is she actaully?

By Ken Levine said...

dgwPhotography: If Julia wasn't available we would have been screwed. No, there's no provision that we can bring them back in for re-shoots. If she was off to Alaska to ice fish with Sarah Palin we would have been shit out of luck.

mac: She's attractively short.

Mark said...

Is it just my imagination or did Sam give Diane the finger when he said "scratch that thought" near the top of this clip?

(or was it Ted to Shelly...?)

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Another related question: if you shoot a scene after the audience has gone home, what do you do about the soundtrack? Do you add pre-recorded laughs or show the completed scene to another audience later?

(That's not even getting into shows like Barney Miller which did so many pickup scenes that they eventually dropped the audience altogether.)

Also, I like that Cheers gave guest roles early on to actors who were in contention for the leads and didn't get them, like Julia Duffy (who of course landed on her feet by being so brilliant in a guest spot on Newhart that they made her a regular) and Fred Dryer.

Michael T said...

Ted is great in Bored To Death.

just wanted to say that.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

This scene completely sums up why "CHEERS" was such a great show. It still holds up today. It's not dated...funny is funny.

Anonymous said...

I can remember wanting to BE Diane Chambers. The way she dressed, the way she talked, her hair. Heh.

D. McEwan said...

Watching Julia Duffy contemplate becoming a nun reminded me that a few years ago on NBC's loony daytime soap Passions, she played a Mother Superior, so she did become a nun.

"Rebecca" Good name. Ever use it again? Oh, right.

Tiffany Weiss said...

Hi Ken,
My question is a bit off topic. I'm in need of some professional advice. I've done a bunch of internships at talent agencies and one on a soap opera. Now I really need a paying job for financial reasons by January 1st. If I don't I'll have to go home to Chicago. I don't want to do that because I have a lot to offer in this industry. My goal is to become a staff writer on a drama show, or work in casting. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.


Alyson said...

Just watched this episode today. I remember it was one of my favorites when I first started watching Cheers, but didn't realize you wrote it. Great job. Was the Russian poem real or did you guys make it up?