Saturday, December 08, 2012

A handy writing tip

Just saw one of my favorite DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episodes, “100 Terrible Hours”. It’s the one where Rob was a disc jockey and had to stay on the air for 100 straight hours just before interviewing with Alan Brady for a writing job. I love that episode for many reasons but first and foremost is the structure. I imagine Carl Reiner and the staff thought it would be fun to see Rob’s initial job interview and of course it had to be a disaster. But how?

The obvious ways: he was drunk, he got in an accident and was all disheveled, he spilled something on his crotch, he had laryngitis, he had a bad cold and Alan Brady was a germ freak, he barged in at the wrong time, etc. You get the idea.

But they found a totally fresh device instead. Have him loopy because he’s sleep deprived. And concoct the best comic way to get him sleep deprived. Radio marathons were a staple of early Top 40 radio so making him a disc jockey was not only ingenious, it was also real. The best comedy always comes from reality. Plus, it gave Van Dyke a lot to play as you saw him get progressively goofier.

This is called getting “the most bang for your buck”. Find a good comic premise for a scene and then maximize the possibilities. In this case, not only was the payoff great but the set-up scenes leading up to it were terrific as well.

Give this some thought when plotting out your spec script. Once the wakeathon story was laid out I’m sure it was much easier for the writers (Sam Denoff & Bill Persky) to fill in the funny dialogue. They had so much to work with.

The hardest comedy writing in the world is when you have characters just standing around with nothing really dynamic happening. You have to manufacture jokes out of nothing. The characters start talking in forced one-liners. When viewers say that sitcoms sound predictable and bogus that’s usually what they’re referring to.

So do the heavy lifting first. Construct a story that lends itself to great comic possibilities. Easier said than done, you say? Yep, but that’s why YOUR spec might sell and the others don’t.

By the way, in the early 60s a San Bernardino radio station held one of these wakeathons. By the end the disc jockey was hallucinating, thinking that a giant Mickey Mouse was coming to eat him. I don’t know whether it was the city that had to issue a permit or the union, but somebody insisted that medical supervision be provided to lend assistance and monitor the d.j. throughout. He would be on the air for 50 minutes each hour and get ten minutes to use the bathroom, stretch his legs, eat, whatever. The medical staff would check his vital signs and ensure he was in no health danger.

A tent was set up near the broadcasting site (a store window I believe, just like in the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW). Every hour the disc jockey would disappear into it to get his examination. What the city or the union or whomever didn’t know was that the around-the-clock nurses that were hired were actually hookers. That probably kept him going another twenty-four hours.

Now if they had done that on the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW the title of the episode might have been changed to “95 Terrible Hours and 5 Great Ones”.


Pickles said...

5 hookers? Ooooooh, Rob!

Paul Worthington said...

Speaking of wake-a-thons: When Twin Peaks was first popular, the show's creator's brother wrote a book of Agent Cooper's life-long tape recordings -- including a collegiate three-day experiment in sleep deprivation. Funniest thing I've read.

Anonymous said...

I heard Max Baer, Jr. say in an interview that he owed the fact that he won the role of Jethro Bodine in the Beverly Hillbillies to the fact that Irene Ryan took him to lunch beforehand and he had a drink (or two). He was so plastered when he auditioned that he bumped into a door jam, then he backed away, looked at the door jam as though it were a person and said, "Excuse me."
The producers thought that was hilarious.

Steven in London said...

I am a regular reader of your blog and really enjoy it. I use an rss feed reader and I noticed that at in the last couple of weeks your full posts no longer come through to the feed reader, and I must click through to your actual site to read the full post. This is much less convenient, as I often read through the posts off line when I have no Internet access (like on the underground). Was this change made intentionally and if so, would you consider changing your settings back so that the full posts can be read on a feed reader? Thank you very much.
PS I've bought your books and thoroughly enjoy them.

Phillip B said...

Friday question, radio related. The Australian radio network involved in the recent prank gone bad said this as part of their defense -

"Prank calls as a craft in radio have been going for decades and decades, they are not just part of one radio station, or one network or one country, they are done worldwide."

Everyone does it, so I assume you did. Ever had one go bad?

JJ said...

Just watched the episode. Really, really funny.
Brings to mind a writing question, though... I keep hearing "experts" say that the character has to have a single goal he is actively pursuing in a story... so in this episode is his goal to stay awake or to get the writing job?
If it's the writing job, he's not actively pursuing it... if it's to stay awake, then the writing job part is just added in at the end, but it's clearly more important than that?
I love the episode as is. It's fantastic.
So, just want to know if these rules are useless BS, and funny is funny, or if I'm missing something structural?

Kevin Hanson said...

Thought you might find this amusing:

Trevor said...

I'm not sure if its from the same episode but Rob Petrie had a brief and strange cameo in Diagnosis Murder.

Richard J. Marcej said...

I recently listened to the interview (over on the excellent Archive of American Television web site) with Dick Van Dyke. During the interview Dick mentioned that the radio marathon episode is based on a real life event that he experienced early in his career.

Earl B said...

Thanks for that link, Trevor. Haven't seen it in ages. As I recall, that was part of CBS' ill-conceived "celebration" of its history: have current CBS stars interact (sort of) with CBS stars of yesteryear. Don't know how many they ended up doing - the only other one I saw was Bill Cosby on his show talking to a colorized clip of Jack Benny.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the advice. I will have to check out that episode.

I don't even know what to say about the nurse story.