Wednesday, February 09, 2011

My most difficult character to write for

Recently I spoke at a UCLA writing class and a student asked, “Of all the shows you’ve worked on, which character was the most difficult to write?” I had to really think. Finally, the answer I gave was Fay from WINGS.

But first, understand that I love the actress who played her, Rebecca Schull. She’s both a wonderful person and actor and did a remarkable job with what she had to work with.

But Fay, the character was hard to write for. Why? Because she was so NICE. She was sweet and kind and cheerful and wise, and those traits are all death to a comedy writer.

If you’re writing a sitcom pilot or comedy screenplay, take care when you’re creating characters that you give them flaws. The more, the funnier. They don’t have to be unlikable, but you’ll find you have a lot more comic ammunition if they’re not perfect. They can be vain, selfish, suspicious, cowardly, stingy, forgetful, neurotic, immature, untruthful, love sick, dim, cocky, opinionated, bossy, verbose, jealous, insecure, obsessed, or a hundred other traits.

We’d sit in a WINGS rewrite and need a joke for Fay and be stymied. We had little to draw upon. The best we could do was give her the element of surprise; have her say something unexpected. And if I may say so, I thought the WINGS writers did a fantastic job servicing that character. Fay had a lot of great lines, but it was like pushing a basketball through a garden hose.

Again, Rebecca was a joy, and a total gamer. She was willing to try anything. So she does not apply to the next paragraph.

But a lot of actors will balk at their characters having flaws. They don’t want to be seen in a bad light. They don’t want to appear vain, or foolish, or an asshole. What they don’t understand is that they are shooting themselves in the foot. Being Captain America or Mother Teresa doesn’t automatically make you likeable. What does? Being interesting. Funny. Relatable. Not taking yourself too seriously. Being a good sport.

Networks sometimes don't understand this either.  You'll frequently get the note, "Gee, he was mean.  I don't like him when he says that."  And if you bow to their notes and pressure from the image-conscious actors you'll wind up turning your show into a nice, lovely, bland rice cake.  This is one battle worth fighting.   Comedy is edgy.  Comedy is subversive.  You're not writing THE WALTONS.

I had the solution for Fay, but the producers never bought it. I said, have her be as sweet as you want. Just make her an ax murderer. I lobbied for this for years, always to no avail. It would be midnight. We would be struggling for a Fay line, I would pitch something, no one would laugh, and I’d say, “Okay, now picture her saying it with an ax in her hands. Suddenly you have comic gold!” Like I said, the producers never bit… although there were a couple of times at 2:45 in the morning when I could swear they were wavering.


Holt said...

Y'know, that was actually my 'take' on Fay by the second season. I'd swear that Rebecca was playing that as her 'history' or 'secret', that just was never told -- I always thought her next line could be to tell everyone to get in line and get their tickets before she chopped them up and fed them to her poodle.

Okay, not quite, but really, the way she played it, I often thought we were going to find an ax murderer-history out about her. She was the first Dexter without the ongoing internal monologues...

Sarah said...

Isn't there an episode of Wings where Brian thinks that Fay was an ax murderer?

joe said...

This take on Fay reminds of a great (albeit "little") British film from 5-6 years ago, called Keeping Mum where the sweet, wise, kind, etc. character (played by Maggie Smith) also happens to be an unrepentant axe murderess. Highly recommended.

Matthias said...

Sarah's right. I didn't see Wings often, but I saw that one, and it had enough hysterically funny beats that I remember it years and years later. As I remember it, a news station had digitally aged a photo of a murderer wanted from decades earlier, and the aged photo was a dead ringer for Fay.

That episode got a lot of good mileage out of a rather cheap premise, and it got a little darker than usual for a sitcom. The scene I remember best had Tim Daly pretending to be poisoned by Fay's salad, to mess with Steven Weber's mind -- head rolling back, fake convulsions. Probably it was funnier than it sounds.

Gary said...

Rebecca turned up on one memorable (to me) episode of Frasier, and her TV husband of the day was one of my all-time favorite bad guys, Anthony Zerbe. Did you write that one, Ken?

Wings was always funny, and always fun to watch. Wish I had a BIG SANDWICH now.

Kris Mandt said...

I couldn’t hold my Crystal Bernard story any longer. First I have to “set the scene”:
It’s 1994 and I’m working as Asst, Chief of Emergency Services (EV) for the Ruan Greater Des Moines (IA) Grand Prix and SCCA PRO Race. It’s on a street course like Long Beach.
The Chief of EV and I are sitting in a safe area along side the next to last turn on the “track” that contains along with us: a DM Fire Dept. Ambulance, a Rescue Truck (MERV) with full fire gear and a Paramedic, a flat bed wrecker, and a hook wrecker. Our race protocol is that if anything happens on the track in our area the MERV personnel are the first ones to check over the driver. It’s also over 100 deg. That day and we are sitting on black city streets.
Crystal Bernard was driving a GEO in a “Celebrity’ race. Prior to the “race” we had once again gone over who reacts when with all the crew on hand. The MERV crew said it would be really cool if they “collected” Crystal during that event as she really did look very nice in her Nomex race suit.
About midway through the race she and another driver have contact and both end up in the protective tire wall downstream to the left of our EV location. She get’s out of her car and to the delight of the 4 workers on the MERV starts to run to us. The guys on the MERV are saying ‘it’s her guys, it’s her!”. Unknown to them and the Chief and me the Ambulance crew comes around the back of our trucks on foot scoop her up and put her in their rig. That REALLY ticked of the MERV crew as they wanted to place their hands on her first.
The Chief and I look at each other once we had figured out what had happened and had listened the resultant bitching of the MERV crew. I said I would take care of talking with Ambulance crew about the incident protocol once the race was over.
5 laps later the checkered flag falls and the Ambulance crew radios into Race Control to ask if once the track is clear if they could drive her back to her trailer, they get the OK and are soon on their way. When they finally get back and parked I get out of our truck and head over to them for my “come to Jesus meeting”.
After once again going over who should respond at what time during the remaining races. I ask the oldest member of the Ambulance crew how it was with her. “Well you know it’s pretty hot and she was sweating to we thought to get her in our nice air conditioned rig ASAP” said the man. “She was really nice, signed the sheet that she was sitting on our gurney and the pillow case, we are going to put them up in the Fire House when we get back there on Monday”. (I can confirm they are sill on the wall in the “house” to this day.
I then turned to the younger crew member whose eyes were sill as big as dinner plates and asked him what he thought of his brush with Crystal. “Well you know it’s hot out here so once we got her into that nice cool rig she unzipped her suit and took it down to here waist”, said the kid. “And…” I said. Then the kid looks right at me and says. “Well you know she only had a very thin bra on under that suit and it was pretty wet from sweat “ “And…”, again from me. “And they were magnificent” said the kid.
Thus ends our tale
A faithful reader and fan of your writing,
Mr. Kris Mandt, Des Moines Iowa

Anonymous said...

The funniest sweetheart character that comes to my mind... Georgette on the MTM Show.

Cap'n Bob said...

Yes, but Georgette was scatterbrained. She had one of those flaws Ken alluded to.

D. McEwan said...

One of "Sweet Dick" Whittington's maxims, which I heard him say many times, was: "'Nice' pays scale."

LKB said...

Writing Fay was like writing Susan on Desperate Housewives, except Susan was a lead -- or The Lead, depending on who you ask.

Sweetness and light ain't funny.

Anonymous said...

This post was indeed a surprise. Fay was probably my favorite character on the show, due to her inept optimism and her sometimes odd split-off musings. She was quirky and her sweetness was usually foiled. I suppose her talented consistency as an actress and sharp intelligence of Rebecca Schull contributed more than I realized to my enjoyment of the character. But I thought she had some great storylines and great dialogue.

Johnny Walker said...

Now I've watched a ton more WINGS, I am not surprised that Fay was the answer to this. Her character felt very ill defined to me (although I know that's not what you're saying). Was she really sweetness and light, or was she a little cuckoo. Her character became a lot more fun when she'd suddenly say something surprising, but the rest of the time she wasn't completely convincing as a sweet natured character, either. She always felt Puck-ish to me.

Rose Nylund was a great example of a genuinely sweet character who could sometimes come out with shocking things. Fay was something else.

Jonathan Schull said...

I'm a little bias but she is one of my all time favorite actresses.

li'lmickey said...

I appreciate the difficulty of writing for FAY! However, Fay is one of my FAVORITE characters and some of what you all wrote for her makes me still laugh out loud.