Monday, November 15, 2010

Comedy 101 is back in session

You could probably sign up for an on-line course in sitcom story construction from the University of Phoenix or the DeVry Institute but those will cost you. I’m offering it for free but it means the sample show I use is ALMOST PERFECT and not GOOD TIMES. The choice is yours.

If you haven’t seen the episode I’m about to discuss, you can watch it here.

This was from the first season; probably show 16 or 17.

There were two factors we ideally tried to get into all of our stories: we wanted them to speak to the theme of the series, and we wanted them to be unique to our series.

The theme was: How could a young woman balance a career and a relationship when both were fulltime jobs?

Since Kim (Nancy Travis) and Mike (Kevin Kilner) worked in different arenas (she in television, he as an assistant DA), finding ways to tie them together in work-related stories was a challenge.

Often times, stories evolve. Someone pitches something, you bat it around in the room. It begins to change and eventually you land on something completely different but that becomes the story. In this case, during a staff brainstorming session someone thought, “What if Mike becomes a technical advisor? He’s on the set and wreaks havoc by making a ton of suggestions.” That seemed promising, but a little static. It’s just a guy standing off to the side. There was nothing funny for him to do. But we liked the area.

Someone then suggested, “Well, what if he was in the show? And he made suggestions.” This seemed intriguing. But we had established that Mike was not at all star struck and never envisioned himself an actor. Still, if we found a reason to justify it, he could be an extra. Maybe even have one line. Who wouldn’t want to say one line?

All of this was interesting but there was still no story. Sure, he could make suggestions, and Kim, as the show runner, would have to deal with them. It would create some tension between them, but it still didn’t feel strong enough.

The breakthrough came when someone suggested, “What if Kim had to direct the episode?” Eureka! And to make it even better, we decided it should be her first directing assignment. So there was more on the line.

Remember, the more your main character wants something, the better the story. And the harder you make it for them to achieve it, the better the story.

Having this be Kim’s first time added a level of nerves, inexperience with dealing with problems, and the need to prove herself. Plus, it created conflicted between her and Mike.

This fit perfectly into our theme. And it was a story they couldn’t do on GRACE UNDER FIRE.

So now we were ready to plot it out.

The logical first scene was in the office. The director for the show that begins tomorrow takes sick. Quick aside: when you have to come up with names, don’t spend all day. Use friends or family members. You’ll notice that the fallen director is named “Dave Niehaus”. He was my broadcasting partner in Seattle who just passed away last week.

We open the show with Rob coming in nervous about his script. This gives him an attitude for later when Mike proposes a lot of changes. When we first meet Rob in the pilot, he’s all wide-eyed. By this episode, he’s sitting off to the side grumbling and smoking.

The secretary comes in to deliver bad news. This was the second actress we used in this role. The first one, understandably, quit. It was the most thankless role ever devised. She comes in, delivers exposition, and leaves. The slang expression for giving exposition is “laying pipe” so we just named her Piper. After a few episodes the actress wanted out to pursue other things. Like I said, I couldn’t blame her. But we needed a person to perform that function. So the next time we made sure the secretary had a comic attitude. She relished giving bad news.

Now comes the question of who is going to direct the show? Gary is the only one who’s done it and we see that it traumatized him. This gave us a very funny run and also spelled out how difficult the task was. Kim decides to do it herself. Partly, she want to, and partly, there’s no one else.

Now we go to Kim’s house and she’s preparing. This is how I used to prepare when I first started directing. I’d use little plastic men and decide where to place my cameras. I didn’t get goofy with them like Kim but I didn’t star in a sitcom either. This also provided exposition for the audience on just what the scene was going to be. You try to hide all of that through jokes but especially in early scenes, you’re setting up a lot of things for later.

She appears very confident and then we do a quick flip to later that night and she’s having a panic attack. We call back Gary’s experience and milk a few more “Fat Man” laughs out of it, and show Mike being calming and supportive. He even offers to come to the set tomorrow. Remember, our task here is to find a way to get Mike in place. Kim is so grateful she suggests he be in the scene. We end with him practicing his line and get a glimpse that this might not have been a good idea.

Next we move on to the set. There was a big internal discussion of what Kim’s attitude should be. Should she be overwhelmed, still have residual nerves, snap at people because she’s under such pressure? We decided to make her confident and capable. This story aside, it is extremely difficult for women directors to get the respect they deserve. It’s still an “ole boys club” and women are unfairly placed at a disadvantage. The last thing we wanted to show was a woman director frazzled.

And having things go smoothly with Kim at the helm only benefited our story because you see that the ensuing problems are all Mike’s fault.

First thing he does is say his whole family back in Baltimore is excited; they’re going to have a party when the show airs, etc. The purpose: make it even more impossible for Kim to fire him. Guilt is a Catholic Priest’s and comedy writer’s best friend.

And now we have some fun. We tried to include every possible way an extra or one-line actor could kill a shot. I love Kevin in this show. He’s very funny and very real.

So the dilemma seemed clear. Kim has to maintain order. She has to prove herself. She’s on the clock. There’s a near mutiny. Her boyfriend is the cause of all of her problems but she can’t fire him. What does she do? Her career and relationship hang in the balance.

Hopefully, all the gags along the way are funny, but without the context of a good strong dramatic story, they’re just sketch bits.

For endings, we always try to come up with some twist; something you can’t predict. We’re more successful at times than others, but we try.

The script was assigned to George McGrath who did a great job. Technically, this was a very complicated show and we were lucky as hell to get Jeff Melman to direct it.

All the crew people you see standing around, those were our real crew members. Fortunately, none of them had lines, nor were they sleeping with any of us.

And finally, here’s what I remember most about this episode. We shot it in front of the audience but after they left (around 10:00 PM), Jeff had lots of pick-ups to get. He worked quickly and efficiently but the clock was approaching midnight. Everyone was beyond tired. Nancy asked how much longer he would need, and Jeff apologetically said, “About another hour.”

This was a crossroads moment.

Nancy, as the star, could have had a tantrum. The tension level would have shot through the roof. Anyone who’s been in the business for ten minutes has seen that.

But that’s not Nancy. She said, “Great. Let’s do it.” She became the cheerleader for everybody else. Her positive energy was infectious and they all blasted through the rest of the pick-ups. I don’t have to tell you how much the crew loved this girl. We talk about actors needing to “take responsibility as the star”. They set the tone. And when Nancy chose to be up and spirited, everyone else followed suit.

Okay. That’s all I have. Any questions? Alright. Read Chapter 7 by Friday!

And on a related note:  I'll be conducting another free teleseminar, answering your writing questions.  Did I mention it's free?  You can submit questions and sign up here.  


Mac said...

Very interesting, educational, and free.
Many thanks, my hat is off.

Ref said...

It continues to be beyond me why Nancy didn't become a major star. What's not to lie about beautiful, smart, and sexy?

Phillip B said...

Agreed. I had such a crush on Nancy Travis that I endured episodes of Duckman just to hear her voice...

Breadbaker said...

Ken, I noticed you also used the name of Kevin Cremin, Dave's longtime producer/engineer. Made this old Mariners fan smile.

RCP said...

I very much enjoyed reading this.

Thomas M. said...

Very educational. And that series is very funny. I've never seen it before (I Think they never aired in The Netherlands).

These posts are my favourite.