Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writing in the Mess Tent

When my partner and I started out we would lock ourselves in a room whenever we wrote. We couldn’t have any distractions. Most of the time that meant working in one of our apartments so it was easy to do… except for the neighbor across the courtyard who kept playing the Jethro Tull WAR CHILD album over and over. But we eventually killed him so that problem was solved.

When we finally went on staff of a show and got our first office we would always keep the door closed. Just the idea of people going by or our secretary answering a phone was too distracting. How could we be funny if we saw two people walking down the hall?

Then we stepped into our first writing room. The showrunners were the great Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, two of the funniest men I’ve ever known. The writers sat around a kitchen table and just dictated the script. There was a writers’ assistant right there in the room taking shorthand. Yes, an actual intruder! Besides that, the door was open and there was always steady traffic in and out of the room. The casting director had questions, the prop guy needed to show us crossbows, the P.A. dragged in a new foosball table.

At first this was very intimidating. Like in the seventh grade when I first had to shower with everybody in gym class. And unlike school, I had to get over it in under two years.

What you learn real quick is that part of the skill of sitcom writing is the ability to concentrate and perform on demand. You’re always under pressure. You’re never going to be able to control the conditions. So you just have to deliver.

By the end of that first week I was starting to feel comfortable enough that I could pitch a joke now and again. One, I remember, actually made it in! I was so proud of myself – coming through under the toughest of all conditions.

Or so I thought.

Then came show night. This was a multi-camera series (THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM if you’re scoring) and the writers all stand around the floor behind the cameras looking important. During a scene one of the jokes bombed. After the director yelled, “Cut!” Tom and Jay got us all in a huddle. We needed a new joke NOW. Holy shit! There were two hundred people in the audience waiting, another hundred crew members waiting… all on the clock. All looking at us. This was like having to shower in front of a school assembly.

I was frozen while the more experienced writers, Gary David Goldberg and Hugh Wilson fired joke suggestions at Tom & Jay as if it was nothing. One was selected, the scene was re-shot, and the new joke got a huge laugh. Yep. This was the Big Leagues. And I was a rookie.

Through trial by fire I eventually felt comfortable contributing in that aspect of the job as well.

The next season we moved on to MASH. That’s a single-camera show. No audience. So you’d think it would be easier, right?


The first day of filming every episode was a rehearsal day. The cast would move from set to set on Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox and rehearse their scenes. Once they were satisfied, David and I were summoned to come watch the scene and then go off and do any rewriting that was necessary. But since it made no sense to keep schlepping back and forth between our office and the stage every half hour, we just did our rewrites right there on the stage. We commandeered a table in the mess tent and that’s where we worked – with actors, crew people, extras, God-knows-who walking by. And in some cases just sitting down and joining us. We’re trying to fix a scene and some extra plops himself down at the table and begins eating a burrito. We eventually killed him, too.

Again, it’s a skill that most writers have to learn. But schools never teach it. That was one of the reasons why I started the Sitcom Room. Sure wish I had had the chance to experience what room writing was like before I was on a network show.

I have no plans however, to start the Shower Room seminar.


Steve Schnier said...

When we wrote "Freaky Stories", our Writers Room was in the back of 'The NEW Excellent Peking House' a steamy joint on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. The food was cheap, the Hot & Sour soup was superb and they never charged us rent for the table we commandeered for 3 seasons.

Incidentally Simon Muntner was our Story Editor. You may have known him - he wrote some early MASH episodes.

Mario Lanza said...

Judge, hiring new clerk:

J: What's your name?
ML: Mario Lanza.
J: Oh...any relation?
ML: To who?
J: Mario Lanza.
ML: I am Mario Lanza.

Or something close to that? Still one of the funniest things I've ever seen on TV. Who wrote that?

Craig M said...

It's a little known fact that Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull composed "War Child" while having to deal with his neighbor across the hall, who was writing the pilot for "Me and the Chimp."

Steve MacDonald said...

I have to agree with the other comment. To this day the line, "Judge Franklin? Mario Lanza." is stuck in my head.

Grubber said...

"Again, it’s a skill that most writers have to learn."

The killing or the writing under pressure? :)

Anonymous said...

I love the shower analogy! and the killing asides...

DogsOnDrugs.com said...

Wow, with that kind of pressure, did you ever witness any absolute writer meltdowns? Like tearing of clothes and run howling down the street?

Al Palm said...

I have been a Seattle Mariner fan since 1977 and I think Ken Levine is the best announcer this town has ever had. (sorry Dave) Maybe Cooperstown will 1 day call Mr Levine's phone. Boy I really love it when Ken is on the radio doing the Mariners games. He's really got something there.His insight into the game and of course his great sense of humor is a welcome relief to yet another dismal Mariner season. I hope he can come back full time next year and beyond.

Matt said...

Friday Question:

Ken, can you walk us through MASH Stage 9? From walking up, opening the door and stepping in...what was the first thing you'd see? Did the set remain in place all 11 seasons, or would they strike it and use Stage 9 for other things?