Friday, February 15, 2013

How we determined credit

Got some Friday Questions & Answers for ya.

Chris starts us off:

Does WGA have any rules about who goes first on a writing team credit? Peter Tolan and Denis Leary kept switching theirs on the "created by" credit on Rescue Me. Seemed it was a fair way to handle the issue.

How did you guys decide?

There are no guild rules as to who in a writing team gets top billing. The team has to fight it out themselves.

We went in alphabetical order (but just couldn’t spell).

Seriously, I don’t know why I got top billing originally. Maybe it’s because I was the one who called David about teaming up.

There are some teams that switch off every year. I made that offer to David years ago, but he said “the only people who read these are relatives and they now know where to look, so let’s just keep things as is.”

And after awhile you’re just known as a single entity. “What about Levine-Isaacs for that project?” etc.

And then there’s the famous story about one member of a writing team walking alone at a studio and a passing executive saying, “Hello, boys.”

Camille Couasse has a question from across the sea:

I’m a French TV screenwriter who’d like to write for American TV, but I’m not sure where to start. For a foreigner like me, isn’t it simpler (Visa wise) to write a feature and try and sell it, rather than write a spec script and hoped to be hired on a show (over more legitimate Americans)?

So, my question is: As a foreigner, if I want to make it in the US, should I write for TV or for the film industry? What’s my best shot? And also, If I sell one feature, isn’t easier to work in TV?

I’m not an agent, but I would assume you’d have better luck writing a screenplay. Plus, you could set it in France if you’d like and have better command of the world.

And I imagine if you wrote a spec for an existing TV series there would be some producers who – unfairly – might just assume you don’t know the show because you’re not here.

The lines have been blurred considerably between television and feature writers. It used to be if you were in TV you had a tough time cracking the feature market. And feature writers considered television “slumming.” Now they’re all hopping back and forth between the two.

But if your spec screenplay sells and you suddenly have a feature career, ride that wave all the way to the shore.

The Comic Scholar has a question along those same lines:

Do writers tend to stick to one type of show or another? For example, is it common/unheard of for a writer to work on sitcoms and dramatic hour-longs?

There’s a lot more crossover now. This really began about seven or eight years ago when comedies seemed to dry up. (Now they’re back, thank God.) But I know a number of half-hour writers who have done hour shows. Phoef Sutton, Janet Leahy, Steve Nathan, Mike Saltzman, Dan O’Shannon, and of course Matthew Weiner to name a few.

Going the other way, it happens as well. Ryan Murphy leaps to mind with NEW NORMAL. And Aaron Sorkin has tried his hand at half-hours with SPORTSNIGHT.

And now that comedies and dramas are blending it really depends more on a writer’s sensibility than track record. I certainly wouldn’t classify GIRLS strictly as a comedy. And there are more laughs in JUSTIFIED than 90% of today’s sitcoms.

Helena queries:

The formatting rules for a script are clear, but I rarely read anything about how to format a show's bible. Some scriptwriting contests for instance suggest that other information, like future episodes, is sent along with the pilot. So what exactly should a bible look like and contain?

There is no standard format. Each show seems to have its own. And the content varies as well. The show bible generally is an account of past episodes. I’ve been on some shows where that means just a detailed synopsis of the episode. Other shows have sections for each character that grows as the character develops.

It mostly depends on who is assigned to maintain the bible. If it’s a writers’ assistant they usually are quite up to date. If it’s a story editor or staff writer chances are months will go by before the bible is updated.

Honestly though, the need for show bibles is much less today because of the internet. You can easily find synopses of every episode. There are probably character sections as well. Are these online bibles accurate? Yeah, I guess, sort of. There might be some inaccuracies but so what? Bibles are just used for reference anyway.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. As always, many thanks.


Anonymous said...

I apologize if this has been asked and answered, but how does a show keep track of a character's history? Notebooks, computerized listing? I'm thinking of How I Met Your Mother which can reference and episode from several seasons past. How do they remember?

Jim S said...


Since today's questions were about the nuts and bolts of professional screen (TV and film) writing, I'd thought I'd ask a somewhat delicate question. What about money?

You've said in the past, if I recall correctly - sorry if I am misquoting, that most writers have a sweet period, but eventually become yesterday's news. New management only want hip kids and think the writers of the shows that were loved 20 or 30 years ago are too old.

So, how does a smart writer who is aware of this trend deal with money? Investments? Gambling? Save every dollar? Marry into Steven Spielberg's family? The NFL has classes for rookies about money, yet I am always reading about athletes who made millions going broke.

Is there anyone out there who can give writers good advice about their money and how to save it before they are no longer the flavor of the month?

Thomas said...

^ Jim S's question is great. I would also be interested. Though I suppose your solution is books!

Mark said...

Concerning bibles, many popular shows have wikis, basically sites like wikipedia dedicated to a given program. For example, look at this detailed page for Star Trek's Nurse Chapel:

When shows have this, I don't really see the point in having a show bible, unless you're doing a show like LOST where you might have an ongoing plot line that involves a reveal that will happen later on, but you need to keep the details straight before the reveal.

For example, if an audience didn't know that Clark Kent was Superman, and this was a spoiler, the show bible might include this detail, so the characters wouldn't appear on screen at the same time.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I actually used to wonder about those billings myself... like on M*A*S*H, for example, I've noticed when it came to the producing credits, Gene Reynolds was always billed on top of Larry Gelbart, but if they were the ones who wrote the episode, then Gelbart got billing over Reynolds. Likewise, it seems that Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum's billings alternated each time they wrote an episode.

I heard that the old WW2 drama Combat! alternated the top billing between Rick Jason and Vic Morrow each week so they would each have the same number of episodes that they "starred" in.

But I think David actually has a point, apparently relatives are the only ones who read the credits; it seems like the networks go out of their way for us to NOT read the credits.

Christodoulos said...

"And there are more laughs in JUSTIFIED than 90% of today’s sitcoms". Couldn't agree more, Ken.

Other shows which, at their funniest moments, compete equally with sitcoms: CASTLE, almost a screwball comedy at times. BONES. NCIS (ok, the humor is repetitive, but it's a guilty pleasure for me). THE CLOSER -- with the awesome duet of Provenza and Flynn. Also, THE CLOSER has a lot of hilarious moments with reaction shots of awkward pauses, furtive glances, embarrassed expressions, created by simple and effective camerawork. Loved that show.

John said...

I suppose you could have tried swapping first and last names in the credits one time, and then see if anyone noticed the "Written by Ken Isaacs and David Levine" credit.

I consider James Garner, Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell the fathers of the modern dramas with comedy sections that are actually funny. "Maverick" and then "The Rockford Files" developed a star and supporting characters who weren't either 100 percent somber or totally leaden when they did try to do any light moments.

As for a Friday question (and one you may have already answered), how do you handle writing for a show where you may have what you think is a great plot idea, but are told by the show runners it can't be used because the show is going in a different direction (i.e. -- when you and David wrote "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" for MASH, did you already know that Frank and Margaret were no longer going to be an item in Season 5, or did you have to modify your initial script so they were no longer a 'team' on the show?)

Robb said...

Do guild writers work on reality shows? Or are those non-union writers?

MBunge said...

Has today's commercial and cultural aesthetic in the TV businesses reached some kind of turning point with Girls?

I mean, Buffy got good ratings for the WB, even though they sucked by Big 4 network standards of the time. The Sopranos got great ratings for HBO and very good ratings for basic cable. Mad Men gets good ratings by the standards of AMC. Sons of Anarchy and Justified ges good ratings by the standards of FX. Though never a hit, 30 Rock was been a true ratings bomb for NBC. And, of course, Walking Dead is getting great ratings by modern broadcast network standards.

Girls has entered new territory. It's getting massive critical and media hype, on par or greater than what all those previous shows and others like them received, but its ratings flat out stink. Random episodes of Law and Order that have been rerun so often people can recite the dialog from memory attract more viewers than Girls.

And yeah, ratings stunk for The Wire, but didn't we all disregard that because it was a "black" show? Girls is as white as Sex and the City or Seinfeld.

Have we reached some sort of end point for the trend toward niche storytelling aimed at narrow but devoted audiences/demographics? It has nothing to do with the quality of Girls, but isn't there something profoundly off about "The Next Big Thing" and the latest "It Girl" in pop culture getting their ass handed to them in the ratings by Bar Rescue on Spike?


Harold X said...

...Clark Kent was Superman, and this was a spoiler...


XJill said...

Happy day after your birthday, Ken. Friday question:
I have checked off a box on the 'ol bucket list and got tickets for some Spring Training games at Camelback next month. I would love some pro tips on what to do, etc. to get the most out of my ST experience!

YEKIMI said...

If you notice a lot of hits on your blog coming from the NE Ohio area you can thank Rich Heldenfels of the Akron Beacon Journal who mentioned your blog in his column of questions people ask about TV/movie shows. [Actually they could come from all over the place because his column is syndicated all over the place] I'd post a link to his column but the B.J.s website is like falling into the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland.

Anonymous said...


Thanks as always. Is there a place where aspiring writers can find bibles from past shows? Mark mentioned memory-alpha above, but I'm not looking for something fan generated.

Have a great weekend,

Mike said...

Order team writing credits for the best sound when read aloud. For example, shorter name or smaller number of syllables first (Ken Levine 3, David Isaacs 4).
(Peter Tolan, Denis Leary 4 all).

gottacook said...

MBunge: The "my favorite show is great even though the Nielsen ratings say it's unpopular" idea goes all the way back to 1968, when low ratings would have limited Star Trek to two seasons but for a massive letter-writing campaign. Ever since the show's eventual cancellation a year later, when I was 12, I've realized the difference between "popularity" and quality (despite learning later that season 3 of Trek was inferior to the earlier years).

Today ratings don't matter the way they did when there were only three national networks and they were all broadcast. Possibly in 10 years there may not be any broadcast networks and we'll download individual programs or series, and watch their ads and/or pay some individual or company directly.

The thing about ratings is that some show has to be number 1, number 2, etc., at any given moment, irrespective of quality of writing, rewatchability in reruns, etc. In some cases, years have to pass before the inherent qualities of a TV series (movie, recording, etc.) can be distinguished from what made the thing "popular" or "unpopular" when first produced.

Pamela Jaye said...

pardon a brief off topic? someone so,where recently suggested the movie The TV Set and I thought it was someone commenting on Ken's blog but of course I can't find it. (Though apparently Ken wrote an whole post about it way back, which I will read if I can ever get my tablet to stay charged)
Anyway, to whoever suggested it --THANK YOU! I'm SO happy I don't do this for a living! Hey! Maybe that's why the brother killed himself! (or was it the mother?)

Phil said...

Hi Ken,

I have another Friday question for you:

I just saw some FRASIERS where Kelsey Grammer was the director. I wondered how an actor can direct multi-camera shoots when, presumably, they're too busy in front of the camera.

(I can understand it better for single-camera, as someone like Alan Alda on MASH isn't going to be in every shot, but multi-camera looks more difficult.)

- Phil Nichols

liggie said...

F.Q. A recent Vanity Fair article said that the 2007 WGA strike was a Pyrrhic victory for writers, because the spec script market dried up after for many reasons (the economy crashing, the move to film franchises, etc.). As someone who went through that strike, do you agree? Link:

Helena said...

Thanks for answering my question!

Unknown said...

thank you for your answer !

Do You Do Any Wings? said...

Hi Ken - long time lurker, first time poster here and apologies if you've covered this before, but I'm always intrigued when actors direct an episode of something they're in. Firstly, who usually suggests that, and how - a call from the agent or a gentle hint at the catering table? Do showrunners welcome or dread these things, and how do their peers on the show tend to react? Who mentors them through the process (and wouldn't it be easier to just get *them* to do it in the first place)? Ever been pleasantly surprised? And, on a practical level, who yells 'Cut!' on a scen they're in?
Thanks, I'm enjoying your work here.
All the best, Shane.