Monday, April 18, 2011

Comedy 101 is back in session

From time to time I like to deconstruct a half-hour episode of comedy and give you some insight into the thought process we went through in writing ALMOST PERFECT.   If you're writing a spec, it might be especially helpful.  Otherwise, it's a glimpse behind the curtain. 

ALMOST PERFECT was a CBS show that ran for almost two seasons in the mid ‘90s. It starred Nancy Travis as Kim, the head writer of a cop show and Kevin Kilner as Mike, an assistant D.A.

The episode was “Your Place or Mine” and was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It starts about a minute into the video (I don’t know how to edit out title cards).

The hardest part of writing any show is finding stories. That’s why a solid series premise can make your life sooooo much easier. We originally had that (until CBS made us lose the boyfriend). Here’s the premise: Kim is a bright, attractive single woman in her 30s. She’s struggling with her career and struggling with her personal life. On the day she gets the job of her life she meets the guy of her life and both are full-time jobs. Very simple, very clear. And it set up a series of stories exploring the various stages of their relationship.

About eight or nine episodes in we decided it was time to do the story where the woman stays at the man’s place for the first time. We tried not to tell stories that were too complicated. We wanted room to let the characters breathe. I recognize that today the style is way more frenetic but dramatic structure is still the same regardless of pace.

So the general arc of the story was that Kim stays overnight at Mike’s for the first time, hates it, but he loves it and now she’s stuck. What does she do? How does she tell him? And more importantly, how’s the funniest way to tell this story?

In the first scene we needed to set up that Kim has never been to Mike’s place. Easy enough to do – someone could just ask her. But we were always looking for more interesting ways to get out exposition. So the solution was Kim and the writers would be on the stage of their fictional TV show and she had to approve the set of an assistant D.A.’s apartment. Her lack of familiarity led to the revelation that she’s never seen Mike’s place. The thought is planted that maybe she should.

One character trait we gave Kim was that she was a princess. She didn’t think so but she was. So the more basic and generic his apartment, the more uncomfortable she’d be. One commenter yesterday said that that trait made her unlikeable.   But without flaws characters are not funny.  That Kim is materialistic doesn't make her a bad person.  Just as being vain doesn't make Sam Malone a bad person.  

Next scene is Kim’s bedroom that night. She’s in bed with Mike. Objective of the scene: Arrange to stay at Mike’s the next night. Kim casually brings it up, he’s ambivalent. Why? Because she’s such a princess. We needed to re-establish that for the audience.  She needs a fan to provide white noise in order to sleep. Now this upcoming first night is more than just a sleep-over, the gauntlet has been dropped. Can she prove she’s not a princess?

Here comes the fun part. We had to make this night as absolutely horrible on Kim as we could. And every dreadful feature had to be something that occurred on a regular basis. So every night would be this bad.   (That's another aspect of comedy -- if a character has some failing, it's fun to see them pay the price.)

The best ideas, invariably the most painful and embarrassing, come from real life.  

A number of years ago, a friend in San Francisco loaned my wife and I his apartment for the weekend while he went out of town. That was great except we discovered he had a waterbed. Neither of us could sleep for two nights. So we gave Mike a waterbed.

Once when I was shopping for condos I was shown a place that was surprisingly cheap considering the neighborhood. I soon found out why. It was on the ground floor right next to the complex’s tennis court. That meant a bright light shined in the bedroom all night and you’d hear people playing tennis at all hours. That was perfect for our story, too.

One of the other writers once had a neighbor when he was living in an apartment, who played a radio talk show all night.  That kept him up all hours. We thought, let’s change that to Headline News so it’s like the Chinese Water Torture Test. Every half-hour it goes on again… and it’s the exact same show.

Okay, we were almost there. We wanted one more thing. Something inside the room. All these other atrocities were big.  For contrast, we also wanted something small.  Someone came up with the idea that Mike mutters something annoying in his sleep (that he doesn’t when he’s in a regular bed). The on-the-nose answer is snoring. We wanted something a little fresher. Hence: “puh”.

So Mike ushers Kim into his apartment. We see it’s an Oakwood Gardens cookie-cutter no-frills dry-wall place with standard rented furniture. Kim is already bracing herself.  Then they go into the bedroom and Kim discovers the waterbed. It’s fun seeing her try to be the good sport when already you know she’s in hell.

Then the scene where they try to sleep and we pile on these nightmarish features. (Trivia note: the two idiots playing tennis off screen are me, and my partner, David Isaacs.)

On to the next morning. She’s had the worst night sleep ever. He’s had the best. To make matters worse, he now has new-found respect for her. And he wants them to stay over at his place again that night. That sounds like an act break to me.

Now we’re at the office. Two reasons. We needed to service the other characters. And we needed Kim to express her frustration. This leads to the question of whether she should be honest and tell him her real feelings. It’s also a chance for us to get to know our characters better – something we put a high priority on. The more the audience knows about your characters, the more they will care about your characters. So we felt this was a good place to have Rob tell this long story, which gives you a real insight into his dysfunctional background. (By the way, Matt Letscher was great, wasn’t he?)

The ultimate objective of this scene was to get Kim to agree to tell Mike the truth. So in the next scene, when Mike goes out of his way for her, you know it’s really blocking her intentions.

First and foremost, the audience needs to be able to track the story. They need to know what the characters’ attitudes are. How the characters react may be surprising, but only if the audience is following along.   And characters don't just say what their attitudes are.  You have to artfully convey them.

We needed a device in the office scene to tip the scale and get Kim to decide to come clean. Just presenting arguments until she finally says, “Okay!” isn’t interesting and certainly isn't funny. The solution was Neal’s “fake orgasm” speech. It gave us a very funny beat, and then allowed us to play back on it while she’s on the phone. He made his point while getting laughs. And it’s another case where laughs don’t have to come just from constructed “jokes”. By setting up the situation right, we got big laughs from every “Oh yeah”, and “Uh huh”.

Back to the apartment, Mike goes out of his way, and even bought her a fan (reprising that device from scene two). She can’t bring herself to tell him. So now she has a bigger dilemma – another night of hell and she’s unable to call it off.

We go back to the bedroom for the second night of Kim futility trying to sleep. Obviously, we didn’t want to just repeat what we had done in act one. Yet, we needed to reprise all the incidents we saw before. Our solution was to have Kim take action this time. See her try to solve all of these issues, one by one. It’s always best when a character tries to actively solve a problem.

We needed to build to Kim having no choice but to tell him. The best way to do that was to have him catch her going to all these lengths. But what would be the funniest reveal? We decided that puncturing the waterbed was the answer. The geyser of water between them as they sat on the bed was a terrific visual, and then after all that build-up, Kim matter-of-factly telling Mike she wasn’t happy here got a huge laugh.  The end.

If you’re writing a spec script, especially a spec pilot, don’t feel you have to tell a twisty complicated story. You don’t. Devote your time and energy to getting the most bang for your buck in every scene. Trust me, I know the scripts that are floating around out there -- you will be way ahead of the curve.

Best of luck. Class dismissed. Mid-term in a couple of weeks so study up.


Rockets and Turtles said...

Thanks for posting another great episode of Almost Perfect and how it was written!!! It was such a great show and Nancy was perfect in that role!!! They really should put the whole series out on DVD!!

Mac said...

Very interesting, informative, and free! Thanks for taking the time to do this, much appreciated by those of us wrestling to crack that very thing.
It means having to chuck half of it away and start again, but that means it's gonna be better, yes?
(I sincerely hope that's what it means).

Jose said...

great post. thanks

RockGolf said...

Nancy did everything she could with that role, but dear God, she was carrying the entire burden of being funny in most of the scenes. I can see why CBS told you to get rid of the boyfriend, he's as dull as a dishrag. "Puh" was the funniest thing he said and I'm sure there were a hundred actors who could have puh'ed funnier, or with better comedic timing.

My biggest walkaway was why anyone as interesting as Nancy would even want to spend time with this guy.

That said, I really appreciate you walking us through the episode.

Moviemikesa said...

This was my favorite episode of Almost Perfect. A female friend of mine said she had experienced the same thing, hating her boyfriends apt. and not knowing how to tell him. I think she broke up with him so she didn't have to.

Ashley said...

I am dying to know why CBS made you get rid of the boyfriend when he was obviously such an integral part of the show.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the breakdown - it's amazing to get this straight from the writer and to see the hows and whys certain things occurred in a show! This is one one my favorite blogs - and the most informative too!

Greg said...

Wow, that was absolutely amazing. The episode is very good and your thoughts are really interesting. For some strange reason I feel the urge to write a sitcom spec now. :-)

Jim S said...

Now Ken, I didn't say Nancy Travis was unlikable. Her character isn't. I said that her problems, when compared to Mike's were trivial. His jobs have life and death consequences, doesn't pay well, doesn't bring him fame and fortune, etc.

Her job, while difficult brings her riches, fame and, hopefully, artistic satisfaction. By making Mike so nice, it becomes very difficult to care about her problems. Maybe if he was a lawyer in a regular law firm where he spends hours and hours in the law library reading over boring contracts and case law, it would have worked better for me.

I agree with RockGolf, but we're getting into the area of opinion. You had a vision for your show and went for it. I'm just one guy who has never written a TV show in my life. So who would listen to me? No one and that the way it should be.

chalmers said...

Thanks so much for posting the episode and analysis.

I'm sure this is the kind of pat note that networks provide and writers mock, but do "romance sitcoms" ever work with the public?

There have been memorable romances within other sitcom formats, such as workplace ensemble or family shows. But when the main thrust (or a main thrust) of the show is two great-looking people falling for each other, I think laughs are hard to come by.

Bridget, Bernie, Joanie, Chachi, the "Duet" duet, etc. all turned people off the way your good-looking neighbors might if they came over one night and made goo-goo eyes at each other.

To me, the great moments in this episode are when Kim's alone or the only one awake. Her expressions during the knife gag alone could make me see why CBS would want to dump the guy and say "the premise should be Nancy is cute and funny for 30 minutes."

I thought last Thursday's "Parks and Recreation" episode both funny and wonderfully romantic. However, that was with two secondary characters. I don't think the show would work as "April and Andy's Awesomesauce Odyssey of Love."

wfs said...

that's cool info. And I am also a comedy lover.

Lou H. said...

Thanks for the insight into how you crafted the episode.

One thing I felt was odd was the scene where Rob told his story. Occasional serious moments aren't uncommon in sitcoms, but I can't remember one accompanied by audience laughter at every pause.

Maybe the audience was anticipating that Rob's story was about to get ludicrous at any moment, revealing that he was just BSing. But I'm just shaking my head at how they could find a story about a kid covering for his father's drunkenness and shunning friends funny.

When you wrote that scene, did you expect the audience to be mostly quiet? (at least up through the Senator Paley line)