Friday, October 22, 2010

The writing process on MAD MEN

Time for Friday questions.  The first one is answered with the assistance of Matthew Weiner.

It comes from Ted:

I love Mad Men, and I've always thought that, like The Sopranos, the sharp writing comes from a staff in a room. But Matthew Weiner does a lot of publicity for the show, and he doesn't seem to mind if you think he creates every word, character, and storyline. So what's the truth? Is Mad Men room-written or not?

No. Matt comes up with the general arc and direction of the season. The staff works together with him on breaking stories and then write individual scripts. Matt then takes his pass at every draft. That’s not to say that a lot of the original writer’s draft doesn’t make the final cut but everything passes through Matt first. And that's in addition to the scripts he writes by himself. Hey, he’s the real deal, folks.

To confirm all this I double-checked with Matt, who added this:

I have had a lot of writers come through the show. And the story process in that room is very collaborative and essential. I do not and more importantly can not do it by myself.

Thanks, Matt. Also worth noting, whenever he’s interviewed he always makes a point to mention and thank his staff and crafts people and it’s very often not published.

Jose asks:

How would an actor find out that they're fired from a show for bad behavior? From who and how would they get the news?

Like if it was a young actor on a cable show who didn't take his job seriously and they just had a supporting role that could easily be written out of the show without them appearing again.

Uh..Jose, are you by chance on a cable show and feeling a little insecure??

When actors are fired it should be the showrunner who tells them but often times that thankless task gets pawned off to the agent or manager.

Most times it’s not because of bad behavior per se. Actors are often fired for reasons that are not their fault. They tested poorly. The network has someone they like better. Or the network has a deal with an actor and needs to stick him somewhere.

A few years ago a showrunner was ordered by the network to replace an actress with another of their choosing.  The new actress was terrible.   After several of her episodes aired the showrunner walked into a gym and there was the actress he fired on the treadmill.  She sees him and calls out across the entire gym, "Yeah, BIG improvement!"  

Shows also get rewritten and parts are dropped.

So in most cases, it’s like being the victim of a sniper. You never hear the bullet coming.

But there are also times when the actor knows he’s not cutting it. Getting fired is usually painful but it can also be a relief.

As for bad behavior, we really need to define just what that is. Some actors have a maddening process that drives everyone around them nuts. Is that bad behavior or bad work habits? If the performance is ultimately great it’s just the process; if it’s not you shoot him week four.

The only incident of real bad behavior I encountered was a guest actor who made a totally inappropriate sexual advance on an actress. When I found out about it later in the day I walked right down to the stage and fired him on the spot.

So be careful Jose. Work real hard, take your job seriously, and no hanky-panky with series regulars.

Here’s a question that all America wants answered. It’s from Ian:

How does Phoef Sutton pronounce her first name? I suspect it's something like "fuff," but I'm dying to know for sure.

It’s pronounced “Feef”, just like it’s spelled.

Warren Z. wonders: 

If you were to write for a show like Modern Family, where every episode is based around a theme (sometimes loosely, sometimes not so much), would you start by determining the theme, and then work out each of the storylines from there? Or would you figure out the plots first and tweak them, if you need to, to fit a particular theme?

Theme FIRST. Always. It’s the spine. This also applies when creating a series, movie, play, novel – any dramatic enterprise. The best stories are ABOUT something.

To not have the theme first is like an artist painting something at random and then deciding what it looks like.

And finally, from Armando:

Are you not having a Sitcom Room seminar this year? I missed out last year and have been kicking myself since.

I’m taking a break this year to finish two books I'm writing.  But I will do the Sitcom Room again soon. Stay tuned.

What’s your question???


Jeff Greenstein said...

Phoef is not a "her."

Richard said...

Do writers for a series have a list of special talents of the actors, or do they ask around when they need something special for a scene?

There was an episode of Modern Family that centered around Cameron playing drums, an episode for which the actor really had to know how to play, and not just fake his way through it. I can't imagine even starting such a script before you knew it was possible to pull off.

Were there any cases in your shows where you used such a special talent, and if so how did that come to be?

Richard Carpenter
Milwaukee, WI

Gina Gold, Los Angeles said...

As Phoef's former assistant (many years ago) I say with confidence that the only person who has ever had to spell and pronounce his name more than I have is Phoef himself. :)

And thanks to his mentorship and ongoing support, I am a working TV writer. Thanks, Feef.

Mr. Stinkfinger said...

I don't expect the controversy to be resolved over night. But in time, with patience, open dialogue, and mutual respect, I think we can come to accept differing opinions on Phoef's gender.

Dana Gabbard said...

Richard Carpenter, actors include special talents in the resumes they hand out along with head shots at auditions. That would be one way production staff are aware what skills cast members have.

tb said...

Hey, how's your eye doing, Ken?

Britta said...

I was about to ask what a showrunner was, but then used Google.

Mel Cooley said...

Watching the Dick Van Dyke show the other weekend I marveled at the talented cast and how they worked together. Some other TV shows remind me of an explosion at the Exposition Factory--the minor characters move the plot along but they don't get to do much else.
What struck me also was the star didn't always have the funniest lines.
The Petries have a son (maybe not a threat to Freddie Batholomew, Jackie Coogan, etc etc) but he's seldom the center of the action and he's not the obnoxious kid that became a staple of subsequent sitcoms. That made me wonder who launched the Smart Alec kid trend--I could only think back as far as Danny Partridge. (He was good in that role, tho, so I can see why the writers would keep going with that.)
On a related note, I have read that in some shows, the minor character kids were hired last (and thus paid the least as the balance of the money went to bigger stars). That would explain some of the really awful acting seen on some shows. Did you ever direct any kids and how did it go? (Some say the director elicits the performance, telling the kid what to do, etc.)

BigTed said...

According to Wikipedia, his given name is Robert Christopher Sutton.

So is Phoef really pronounced "Bob"?

Tom Quigley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Question Mark said...

Re: the 'BIG improvement' anecdote. I have no proof to possibly back this up, but as soon as I read Ken's words, there was no doubt in my mind that this was Angie Harmon referring to Elizabeth Rohm.

Tom Quigley said...

Mr. Stinkfinger said...

"I don't expect the controversy to be resolved over night. But in time, with patience, open dialogue, and mutual respect, I think we can come to accept differing opinions on Phoef's gender."

... Except for Juan Williams, who still feels uneasy whenever he sees Phoef getting on the same plane with him...

Ted said...

Thanks Ken, and Matt too, for taking my question. Long live Dodger Talk, and Mad Men too.

Max Clarke said...

Matthew Weiner was the Elvis Mitchell guest at KCRW's "Up Close" interview.
It's at

Ran about an hour, fascinating stuff. Weiner seemed very genuine. He had smart observations about the Midwest U.S. and how that influences the show. Elvis drew parallels between Mad Men and the movie, "Carnal Knowledge."

Anonymous said...

Why don't TV writers ever use the wisdom of the crowds by publishing and taking comments on a script before the script was shot? Fans could even vote on which jokes worked.

Jim Miller
South Deerfield, MA

emily said...

Wisdom of the crowds? Great. The bus pulls in from Racine, they check out the script, and suddenly you have 21 minutes of cheese jokes.

D. McEwan said...

"Theme FIRST. Always. It’s the spine. This also applies when creating a series, movie, play, novel – any dramatic enterprise. The best stories are ABOUT something."

I must disagree. Not about "The best stories are ABOUT something," but about starting with theme first.

Every writer's process is different, so one can't say this is right and this is wrong, but it's sure not how I work.

I say start with an idea or a situation: "Tallulah visits a small town to do a play, and creates havoc," "Frankenstein puts a female brain into the body of a male monster," "A hen-pecked banker is haunted by two fun-loving ghosts." Work out your story, and let the story tell you what the theme is. Then go back on the next pass, and emphasize your theme, and eliminate irrelevancies. Start with theme first and you run the risk of writing didactic dreck like, well, all the works of Ayn Rand.

And allow me to haul out a big gun to support my thesis. Here is Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing, page 208:

" Starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always starts with story and progresses to theme; it almost never starts with theme and progresses to story. The only possible exceptions to this rule that I can think of are allegories like George Orwell's Animal Farm (And I have a sneaking suspicion that with Animal Farm the story idea may indeed have come first. If I see Orwell in the afterlife, I mean to ask him).

escalante blogger said...

That's a perfect show for me. Love to watch it. :-)

The TV Stream said...

I love to watch Mad Men too, one of my favorite shows.

Michael in Vancouver said...

Since the topics of product placement and Mad Men have come up lately, here's a question I've been meaning to ask for some time.

Are all or some of the products mentioned on Mad Men paid placements? On the one hand, I'd guess not. There's no way you can write that show without having realistic mentions of real products. Not to mention that some of the products are defunct or seen negatively (Pete's dad perishing in an American Airlines crash, etc). But on the other hand, with product mentions having so much commercial worth these days, I could not imagine a network allowing so much free advertising on their schedule.

So, I wonder, for example, when a cigarette company had to be placed into the script, did AMC go to Marlboro, Lucky Strike, etc, and give the role to the highest bidder? Or, on the contrary, does the show have to seek legal protection from getting sued by companies who don't want their products mentioned in an unflattering context? (ie, was permission sought from the Hilton family to portray their patriarch in fictional situations and/or as a loon?)

Part of what piques my interest was your own post about how you incorporated Coke into your script for Volunteers (which really did read like an advertisement) without any realization of how it appeared to others. My brother's justification for downloading Mad Men and other shows is all the product placement he has to watch, which he thinks is the networks' real bread-and-butter. Is that valid?

Maybe you don't have all the inside knowledge on these questions, but your thoughts would be interesting to have.

Cap'n Bob said...

The earliest smarmy kid I remember is Rusty Hamer on Make Room For Daddy (The Danny Thomas Show), which debuted in 1953.

gottacook said...

This evening my family and I, quite by accident, saw Mannequin 2 (on "This," a network that arrived when over-the-air digital broadcasts began and apparently shows only MGM and Orion films). I've read your old blog entry about how you and David got involved in it, but still I am compelled to ask: What on earth was that?!?

I guess what I'm wondering is: When you finally saw the movie, did you feel that the people involved in producing the script did the best they could with what they had? Or might it have made a more respectable movie in other hands? (For example, I'd imagine that someone like Larry Miller or Jason Alexander as the department store manager would have elevated the script considerably.)

I realize you probably stopped caring about the project even before you started working on it, but what the hell, I thought I'd ask.

(In any case, it was nice to revisit the John Wanamaker store on Market Street, which was still in business in those days; I lived in center city Phila. many years ago.)

DJ said...

In terms of Mad Men's choice of product, I doubt it was put to the highest bidder. For example, Marlboro was probably out because the Marlboro Man character was conceived by Draper Daniels of Chicago-based Leo Burnett, the real-life person that served as the initial inspiration for the Don Draper character. Initial inspiration only -- what you see on TV is not Mr. Daniels's life story.

I think they chose Lucky Strike because it had all but disappeared from the public consciousness by the mid-to-late 70s, emphasizing the fact that an ad agency so dependent on tobacco was in a very, very precarious situation.

Paul Duca said...

First...may be presume the picture next to the question about Phoef Sutton is in fact that of MISTER Sutton?
Now the question is--what was the path from "Robert Christopher" to "Phoef"?

Mel--your comments about smart-aleck TV kids reminded me of the words of the (then unsigned) TV column in TIME. In his review of the new shows for the fall 1970 season, the critic stated Danny Bonaduce gave the best supporting performance among the debuting programs.
He certainly preferred it to another new show's costar that he dismissed as "cliched"...Ed Asner as Lou Grant.
Ken...he wasn't thrilled with the rest of the show, either. Sleep well tonight.

Michael in Vancouver...that was an actual crash of an American Airlines flight in March 1962, so it is less of a product placement and more of a historical fact
(in the Believe It or Not file--Richard Nixon was scheduled for that flight, but obviously missed it).

DJ...Lucky Strike did have a higher profile in the MAD MEN era. My TV commercial collection features a spot with Frank Gifford and his wife--Maxene, his first one (whom he divorced after she developed multiple sclerosis). They also used a slogan that did exactly what Don told the Cancer Society tobacco companies liked (and needed) to do--attract young people:

"Lucky Strike Separates the Men from the Boys....But Not from the Girls"

Stephen said...

What are your thoughts on product placement? Have you ever been asked to plug something completely ridiculous or out-of-place in one of your shows? (For example fashionable cocktail dresses on M*A*S*H?)

Ajjjj said...

I've been reading your site, and I apologize if you've answered this, but how do you recommend choosing what show to spec. You mention 30 Rock, but since it's in its fifth season, is it maybe getting long in the tooth?

I guess to sum: Is it wiser to write for a young show with promise (Raising Hope, Modern Family) or to write for a show that might be too stale in a year or so (Always Sunny, 30 Rock?)

Thanks, and I'll take my answer off the air.

Harriet said...

I don't know if "Jose" is reading these comments, but I know a few actors who've been in this situation and I think there's another option Ken didn't mention.

Sometimes actors don't come back because the show is going in another direction. "Mad Men" lost a slew of charming performers when SC closed their doors -- Michael Gladdis, Benjamin Batt, these are guys who did nothing wrong. But they weren't needed for the story.

steve macdonald said...

I don’t know if you saw the Simpson’s recent episode about baseball (“MoneyBART” and it’s still on Hulu if you didn’t), but you should read Joe Posnanski’s blog post about it. Joe is a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, and according to the Associated Press, the best sports columnist in Americe. Link: