Monday, September 27, 2010

Comedy Writing 101: how we break a story

Last Saturday I posted an episode of ALMOST PERFECT. As (hopefully) a fun experiment, I thought today I would break down the thought process that went into it. This might be helpful to young writers learning how to construct stories and for non-writers it might be fun or a giant snooze. I’ll try to be funnier tomorrow. This episode was written by me, my partner David Isaacs, and co-creator Robin Schiff. Stan Daniels did a terrific job directing it.

If you haven’t watched it yet, you can see it here.

The core of the series was the relationship between Kim (Nancy Travis) and Mike (Kevin Kilner). She had a high-powered job as head writer of a TV cop show. He was an assistant DA. Watching Kim juggle her career and relationship was our money.

Perfect characters are no fun so we wanted to give Kim some flaws. She was good at her job but she was also a little narcissistic and bossy. So we wanted to do an episode where she went out of her way to do something for Mike and it was something very hard for her to do. We came up with cooking. She tries to make Mike’s favorite meal.

You might be thinking, gee that sounds like a simple story. You’re right. But that’s okay if it’s really about something. This wasn’t just watching Lucy fucking up a chicken, this was about an insecure person desperately trying to prove her worth in a relationship. And along the way there was fun to be had.

Two problems: One – we had to find a B story to involve the other characters since the cooking story was primarily just Mike & Kim at Kim’s house. And this all had to take place over one night. Ideally, we could use the B story to cover the passage of time while the chicken was cooking.

Earlier in the season our line producer Larina Adamson had uncovered some stock footage of a building blowing up. We could recreate the building, dress up a structure on the New York street and make it appear that we’re blowing it up. We thought that might serve us at some point and this was the point.

It’s always good to have conflict or rivalries between characters. One of the dynamics we set up between Kim and co-worker Gary (the brilliant Chip Zien) was that Gary resented Kim for getting the job he felt he deserved. To Gary, she got it because she’s a woman. He was the voice of anti-feminism, which was a nice balance to Kim’s pro-feminism stance.

Anyway, we thought what if Kim puts him in charge that night while she goes home and cooks? And on their cop show they have to blow up a building. He winds up supervising and accidentally gives the cue blowing up the building while the cameras are off. The actual brainchild for that story came from Mike Teverbaugh, who along with his wife Linda were INVALUABLE members of our staff. 

So we began plotting out the episode.

The objective of the first scene was to establish Mike’s appreciation of certain qualities Kim doesn’t possess. How about if they bump into an old flame? That would freak Kim out. But where do they meet? We decided it might be fun outside a movie theater. We establish that Kim loves gory horror movies and thinks romcoms are lame. Right away we see she’s not your usual moviegoer.

Mike’s old girlfriend passes by. We wished to avoid introductions, boring dialogue, etc. So we had Kim get a call while Mike was chatting with his old flame. This call achieved a second purpose. We set up there’s a big stunt to come and Kim is clearly in charge of all decisions.

Mike returns and Kim learns this girl had a high-powered job (like hers) but gave it up to raise her children. She’s very nurturing and a great cook – qualities that Kim lacks.

Scene two: That night. They’re in bed. Kim can’t sleep. Decides to cook his favorite meal. Ends the scene by saying, “Hunh, I must really like you.” For Kim making fried chicken is a big deal.

And this is important: your characters must really WANT something. The tougher the task and the more they want it, the better your story will be. Even if that desire is seemingly trivial.  For Kim this dinner isn’t just for pride. She believes in some warped sense her relationship depends on it.

Now we go to the office and set up for the audience what this stunt is and why it’s a big deal. Kim is dealing with the director and special effects guy. Again, she’s comfortably in charge. We also wanted the guys to razz Kim for trying to cook. This lets the audience know that this relatively simple task is Herculean for her.

Kim wouldn’t reveal her plans to them because she knows they would give her shit. That’s why Rob enters with the fax. At the end of the scene Kim puts Gary in charge for the night. He collapses on the ground. We wanted a funny reaction to this gesture. Gary mocks her, like she’s doing him such a favor when in fact he’s more qualified (in his mind) than she is.

Off to the kitchen. Kim struggling. But what attitude to take? Anxious and apprehensive seemed familiar. So went against that. Made her manic – masking her fears by getting a little silly. We also wanted to showcase Nancy’s comedic skills. Yeah, it’s a little slapstick but she’s very cute pulling this off. And we get a big joke when Mike enters and sees what she’s doing.

Back to the office. The director enters and says that due to impending rain they either have to do the stunt tonight or tomorrow as planned but hope for the best. Gary in charge now has a big decision. Tough decisions help drive stories. Gary opts to blow up the building that night.  His co-workers think he's making a big mistake.    Look, the audience KNOWS there's going to be some fuck up.  They just don't know what.  Hopefully you can exceed their expectations. 

We return to the kitchen. The chicken is done and looks great. They go to the dining room. This was fun for us because we had never used the dining room before. It gave the show a new look. Unfortunately, it was hard for the audience to see the dining room because it was way up in the set.  We had monitors but we knew we would not get the same response had the dining room been in full view.  Sometimes you have to make that choice -- studio audience or home audience?  We opted for the latter in this case.   Sometimes we forget that the show we're making is for the millions of viewers, not the two hundred people in the bleachers.

Back to the story:  The chicken is terrible and so are the mashed potatoes. More decisions: Does Kim give up or start again? Does Mike tell her to stop or let her go, knowing full well she can’t cook worth a shit? What these characters decide informs us of who they are. Kim will try again; Mike will support her.

Next up we go to the New York street. We have fun with Gary trying to be the big shot and the other two writers amused by it. Everyone in every scene has to have an attitude. Otherwise you’re just writing one-liners that feel very unreal and forced. I think we devised a pretty clever way for Gary to accidentally give the signal to blow up the building.  If a building exploding on a multi-camera sitcom isn't an act break, I don't know what is. 

Come back and see the rubble. Instead of making Gary suddenly panicky and fall apart we thought it would be more fun to see him try to maintain control. Again, a character has to make a big choice. Meltdown of salvage the situation somehow? Sheer damage control mode seemed more ripe for comic possibilities.

Back to Kim’s house. We return to the kitchen.  Having had one scene in the dining room we didn't want to push our luck.  And when we get to the important stuff we want to do it within easy view of the audience.  Kim's next batch is black. We wanted to avoid seeing any more of her cooking. We've already been to that well. Kim calls Mike’s mother, which has to be a tough and humiliating call to make. Yet she does it because this means so much to her.  Plus it helps set up a future episode where Mikes' mom thinks Kim is a dingbat.

Back to set to watch Gary’s solution. It sucks. Should he call Kim? He still resists and tries coming up with alternate solutions.

Back to the kitchen. Mike finally puts a stop to this. We have a nice scene where they really delve into their relationship and what the future might hold. Choice on our part: there are not a lot of jokes. The discussion feels real and relatable to a lot of people so we just let it play out naturally. Finally Gary calls.

Last scene – back to the set. Kim and Gary. We see that even in crisis she’s cool and in control. She comes up with a solution on the spot, which is a talent every bit as remarkable as cooking fried chicken – and instead of taking Gary’s head off she comforts him. Would a man in that position be as compassionate? Gary is grateful and gains a little more respect for Kim.  

David, Robin, and I wrote this over a weekend after plotting it out with the staff for several days. The writing went quickly because we knew what each scene was about and why it was there. We had comic situations and attitudes already built in. I also had one of my wife’s cookbooks since none of us knew how to make fried chicken either. “Colonial pine stain” comes right from that recipe.

One final note: The power of suggestion – after writing the first few cooking scenes we broke for lunch and had to go to Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles for fried chicken.

And now that I write this, I’m getting in the car and heading right back to Roscoe’s.


Unknown said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing.

Parker said...

Very cool post. I always love finding out how episodes came to be. It's easy to believe that comedy writers are all jokes all the time, so I like being reassured that even in the world of comedy, story matters most.

Dudleys Mom said...

GREAT post. Thank you so much for writing this up. I'd love to read more of these from you. And maybe you could have some guests do something like this on their shows?

**cough** book idea **cough**

Mark said...

A lot of writers like to keep the process mysterious. I guess it's good for their image. I hate that. I want to know about the craft, how the bolts meet the nuts, what pulls the plow. Knowing how it's done makes it look harder to me, not easier. So thanks for this.

Lauren Tuerk said...

This is so great, Ken!
Question: the opening and ending music sounds a lot like the Modern Family theme - is it the same composer?
Lauren Tuerk

mac said...

Great post. As a (no longer) young writer I'm always fascinated to hear how you got to the end result.

Joseph C. said...

Very interesting read. As others have said, thanks a lot for posting this. It was really helpful to know about all the thought that goes into the scene before you write a word.

Anonymous said...

Did you bring us any chicken?

benson said...

Oh, thanks a lot. The guy in town who made the best chicken and waffles went out of business a few months ago.

Aidan said...

I've got a book called "The Best of Frasier" which contains the script to "Room Service". I've always loved the direction at the end of act one:
However, every time I see it here in the UK the ad break comes before that scene!

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Loved it. More please.

Debby G. said...

That was really educational. Thanks.

So THAT'S why you got paid the big bucks.

kellygaines said...

I've never been to Roscoe's Chicken And Waffles, Ken.
I will now. Gonna take my copy of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, order a meal and think of you. I adore you, Ken. And LOVE your blog.

blogward said...

Thanks for posting this. Not that I don't love the funny stuff, but this is what makes your blog unmissable.

WV: mariati = moriati's Filipino wife

escalante blogger said...

so far, I never write a story like this, I hate about writing stuff. :-)

Anonymous said...

It must gratify you that TROPIC THUNDER stole your "the cameras were off during the explosion" bit. It may be true that the only originality is undetected plagiarism.

WV: noweate = couldn't have been more perfect if you made it up!

Lou H. said...

One thing I'm curious about is how you edit a dialogue-heavy show like this to fit into its allotted time. If despite your best efforts, it's a minute too long after the taping: Yikes, that's almost 5%. Do you cut out sections of scenes? (That's essentially what happens on Letterman's talk show; they tape 5 minutes long, then cut out the parts of the interviews that didn't work.) Trim a particularly long sequence of audience laughter? Re-shoot a scene to be a bit faster paced?

If appropriate, can you use this particular episode of Almost Perfect as an example, since the finished product is still fresh in our minds? Thanks.

selection7 said...

Ken, this blog post was like a written DVD commentary...the good kind where "why" is always covered rather than just "how" (many commentaries have neither unfortunately). And I'm not a writer.

Pamela Jaye said...

finally got to read this - yay!!

hope to see the ep where Mike is an extra. those are my two favorites. (did you write an ep where Marie Osmond is running around the lot for some reason? I have a vague memory -but Mike as an extra was awesome)

Helpful hint for Kim - my mother once made a lemon cream pie and didn't know to bake the pie crust before putting in the filling...

Anonymous said...

Hack writing at its best. We've seen these scenarios a million times in crappy sitcoms since the 1950s. The reason it was so easy to write is there is nothing clever or original about it.

David said...

Way to go Anonymous! You're awesomeness is awesome (and original!)! Stay being awesome!