Monday, August 13, 2012

How we break a story

Comedy 101 continues.  Here’s an inside look at the thought process that goes on behind-the-scenes when plotting a half hour sitcom. But first – did you do your homework? You can watch the episode I’m discussing here. Do that first. Then come back and look behind the curtain.

Quick disclaimer: The way we plotted shows back then might be a little different than today. The importance we placed on certain aspects like character motivation are less of a priority on most of today’s sitcoms. Not all but a lot. But the more you’re exposed to dramatic structure the better storytellers you’re going to become. And even if you have no desire to write, you’ll still gain a greater appreciation about what goes into telling a good story.

Here’s how this episode came about. At the start of the season we put together a list of possible story areas. We compiled as many as we could and during the season we just kept adding to the list. Probably 70% of the ideas never get used. But we had some for each character, many for the Kim-Mike relationship (that was our money), some for the office, some for home. A number of these ideas could sustain an entire episode, others could be told in two or three scenes.

So when putting episodes together we would mix and match and try to assemble something that would service all the characters.

We had the notion: Kim has to cook for Mike. We thought this was a valid story. Kim is a career woman and probably couldn’t cook. There’s always fun in watching someone flail around in the kitchen. Logically, that story takes place over two days. Kim decides to cook for Mike on Day One and Day Two she does. Since her cooking would take up much of the episode we needed a show that took place over two days with most of it unfolding the second night.

Then if it’s a Kim and Mike story we needed to find something for the guys in the office. Was there a story at work we could switch back and forth to? This would accomplish two things: service the guys and allow for time lapses in the cooking story.

So we went through the workplace ideas. One idea we had was They blow up a building. And that wasn’t even really an idea. Our line producer Larina Adamson found a stock shot of a building on the New York set being blown up. We could show the building, go to the stock footage, and then just dress the building to look post-explosion. And it would seem like we spent a fortune. How many sitcoms blow up buildings?

The only trouble is: there was no story. We came up with this: We had already established that Gary (Chip Zien) resented that Kim was the showrunner instead of him. What if he’s in charge for the night (because Kim is home cooking), the show is going to blow up the building, and he gives the signal at the wrong time so it blows up before the cameras are rolling? Talk about a fuck up.  Not only will we get the benefit of showing a big explosion, we’ll get a big laugh out of it.

Sound good? Are we ready to plot it out? No. Not yet. It wasn’t enough for us to just have two parallel stories. We wanted them to have some theme tying them together. (This is where a lot of sitcoms today say, “Who gives a shit?” and just starts slapping scenes on the board. But to us it’s important.) What we came up with is that this is an episode that shows that people are talented in one area but not in others and have to accept that.

Now we’re ready.

Establish the premise. Kim wants to cook for Mike. Why? Why would someone who can’t cook decide to do that? Because it’s funny is not an answer. At least to us. She’s needs legitimate motivation. How’s this? They bump into an old girlfriend of Mike’s. She’s married, happy, with kids, and is a great cook. Kim knows that Mike admires that, and is maybe a little envious. Mike assures Kim he’s fine that she’s not that person but it’s unsettling. Where to stage the scene? Instead of constructing another set like a restaurant we decided to go out and shoot on the lost. Paramount has a theater. Perfect. They’re coming out of a movie. We establish that it was a horror movie and Kim loved the gore. Not your typical suzy homemaker. They meet the ex and a seed is planted.

Scene two: that night in bed. Kim still haunted by this. Mike had said the ex was a great cook so Kim decides to make him his favorite meal. What should it be? Something difficult and could give us comedy mileage. Fried chicken. It’s tricky and messy – comic gold.

Scene three: Next day in the office. Establish the building will be blown up the next night. Kim gets the fried chicken recipe. This allows the guys to razz her and reinforce to the audience that she just can’t cook. She leaves putting Gary in charge. Remind the audience that he feels entitled to that job. Makes it funnier when he fucks up.

Scene four: That evening. Kim tries to cook. Again, different from today – we were content to take our time and just enjoy Kim fumbling in the kitchen. Now sitcoms insist on short scenes, blackouts almost. As for the scene itself: we wanted something fresher than just seeing someone screw up a recipe. Lucy did it better. We came up with Kim doing voices and having the food items talk to each other. She gets punchy so it’s believable, but the fun is seeing her being silly. And Mike catching her.

Scene five: Back to the office. Gary must make a tough decision. Blow up the building tonight or take his chances that the weather will hold tomorrow. Tomorrow means Kim is back in charge. Tonight he’s at the helm. He chooses tonight.  His co-workers are nervous.

Scene six: First batch of chicken is done. Kim and Mike sit down to eat. (A couple of notes: the recipe calls for it to be the color of “colonial pine stain”. This was taken from a recipe my wife found. Secondly, this entire script was written over one weekend by me, David Isaacs, and Robin Schiff. After writing these scenes we broke for lunch and had to go to Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles for fried chicken. There is no greater power than the power of suggestion.) The chicken is raw. Kim wants to try it again. Why? Because we’ve established this isn’t really about making fried chicken, it’s about fighting for the relationship. Also, Kim is a stubborn person used to being successful. This plays into her character. You can do all the funny stuff you want with cooking mishaps but ultimately the problem has to be real and genuinely challenging.

Scene seven: On the set. Establish Gary acting like a big shot. The more full of himself he is, the funnier it is when he fucks up. Just having Gary walk on the set, accidentally give the signal and boom doesn’t give you the most (pun included) bang for your buck. So the building blows up and the cameras weren’t rolling. Sounds like a pretty good act break to me.

We come back and see the rubble. It’s not so much fun to be in charge now. Gary has to do some serious tap dancing. Now the fun is watching him try to salvage the situation.

Back to Kim’s kitchen for scene nine. The second batch of chicken is black. Kim needs to salvage a situation too. She calls Mike’s mother for advice. This device allows us to explain to the audience how you really make fried chicken. That way everyone is up to speed. Hey, I didn’t know how to make fried chicken before that script. So what does Kim do now? She races out to buy some.

Scene ten: The set. We see Gary’s plan-B. It’s incredibly weenie. The vice tightens for Gary.

Scene eleven: Kim returns. Mike catches her. At this point we decided to slow things down and just have a real conversation between the two of them. We sprinkled it with little jokes, but we wanted Mike’s reassurance to really land. Still something was left unresolved. Just telling her she’s terrific at other things isn’t enough. We needed to see it in action. Kim gets the call from Gary.

Scene twelve: Kim and Gary on the set. Kim comes up with a good solution right off the top of her head. She is good at this.  Meanwhile, we're told that Gary is a great writer.  Do we need to see an example of that? No. The story’s over.  I think you buy it.  A few jokes to get you out of the show and we’re done.

Okay – extra credit. Go back and watch the show again. Do you see things differently? Lots of thought and care goes into each minute, doesn’t it? And for us the trick is to slide it all in in such a way that you don’t notice. There’s a flow and a logic with surprises and good laughs.

And we try to do that twenty-two separate times. Clearly, it’s hard, which is why a lot of today’s sitcoms don’t do it. They get okay ratings with very sloppy storytelling so for them it’s good enough. But for you as a young writer, strive for better. Seriously, did you really want to get into this business so you could write 2 BROKE GIRLS?   If so, please transfer out of Comedy 101 and see what shop classes are still open. 

Class dismissed.


Charles H. Bryan said...

Ken, I love these posts. For some reason I very much enjoy hearing people discuss their creative process.

On a side note, I was reading some more of your book yesterday -- the section that includes the song writing contest. You included a sample of the lyrics received, which were weird, but you pointed out that the lyrics to "I am the Walrus" weren't exactly a display of normalcy. And then, last night, what song do I hear during the Closing Ceremonies? (Sung by Russell Brand, no less?)

Carol said...

I'm sure you've answered this before, but I have no idea when or where, so forgive me for the repeat.

I used to watch this show when it aired originally. (I tuned in because I'd seen Chip Zien on Broadway in Into the Woods, so I was all 'oh, I know him, cool!) I was disappointed in the next series when Mike got written out. I think I remember reading in TV Guide that TPTB decided they wanted to focus more on her career or something.

Since half the premise of the show was the relationship, why did they do that, and what did you do to try to salvage the situation?

That seems to happen rather frequently - there's this great premise, and then the Suits say 'oh yeah, great, just lose the one angle that makes the show original.' Is this why you aren't writing for TV any more? :)

Also I have been craving fried chicken since watching that episode, and I had no idea you had to bake the chicken before frying, so I'm glad I've never tried to fry chicken before.

chuckcd said...

My dog ate my homework...

Johnny Walker said...

Thank, Ken! Love these sorts of things! I pretty much picked up on all of that, but I didn't notice the theme -- pretty obvious now you mention it.

I wouldn't have guessed that the theme came after the story, but I can see how having a theme would allow you to make sure that you choices while writing the scenes supported the theme, keeping everything focussed.

I'd love to see a video of a professional Writer's Room breaking a story!

Johnny Walker said...

Oh, that said, I did "cheat" a bit. I tried to reverse engineer the episode as I watched it. I paused after every scene and noted down what had happened in it, creating a sort of outline of the episode.

It's a great trick I picked up from the Sitcom Weekend. I love how it allows you to think about the creative decisions that are being made.

Max Clarke said...

Thanks, Ken, for the writing lesson.

Watching Nancy playing with the food was like a great singer taking you through a melody. You love the song, and you also just admire how easy the singer makes it look.

Good to see Tom Everett as the director of the building explosion. He was also good as the director of the commercial in that Cheers episode, "Veggie-Boyd."

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cap'n Bob said...

"Ready when you are, C.B!"

Deanna said...

I'm confused. Am I the only one who doesn't know what show this is? Did I miss it somewhere in the post? Sorry, Ken!

Deanna said...

Sorry. Should have kept scrolling down to the previous post!

RCP said...

Nice balance of laughter and vulnerability - I also appreciated your description of how it's put together.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Thanks for outlining how you put this story together, Ken. I actually remember seeing that episode around the time it was originally broadcast.


KG said...

Ken, for Friday questions:

In comedy shows, stand-ups etc. I often hear the term "Jewish writers" or that Jews are writing most of the comedy shows. I always thought this was a gag and/or a cliché. But maybe not?


PS: Don't think I'm Racist. Cause I'm not.

Pamela Jaye said...

this is one of my two favorite Almost Perfect eps (the other being the one where Mike "acts"). It was the one I remembered all those years (till I watched the tapes again, while I still could)
Thanks for the dissection.

(I too was really upset when they wrote Mike out. IMO, two people too busy to have a relationship was the premise of the show! Also loved TV Guide calling Kilner "a Scott Bakula type")

Anonymous said...

great thank you, i have just finished 2 episodes of a sit-com, i start filming in a few months and are just editing again.

*tarazza said...

LOVE this post! It's so fascinating and as a writer, I love seeing all the thought that has to go into making a show work. Great!