Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Punching the puppet

One of the dangers of writing a spec for an existing show is that you land on a story that they are already in the process of doing. You finish your script and see the same story next week on the show. You want to throw yourself in front of a bus.

A few thoughts before you lay down in the street:

The fact that you came up with a story similar to theirs says that you’re on the right track; you have a good feel for the show. Take that as an encouraging sign. 

Readers are not going to hold it against you that you did something similar to what was shot. Obviously, if they did the story last season and you just now are writing it, then yeah – do your homework. But if your spec treads on something recent, people understand that those things happen.

Yes, you won’t sell that spec to that show now, but realistically, you probably wouldn’t have anyway. Except for super rare cases, the best you could hope for is that the show’s producers are impressed and call you in to do another episode for them. But you'd be happy with that I imagine.

And finally, should you find they’ve done your story it can be a great learning experience.  You can compare the way you handled the story to the way they did. This happened with my partner David and me when we wrote our spec for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

In our case, it was several months after we had finished the script that we saw essentially the same story on the air. (No, we never felt they stole the idea. By the time our script was submitted to them this episode was already in the can.) And it was a real eye-opener.

Here’s why:

The story (ours and theirs) was that Murray becomes unhappy writing the news for WJM. He gets another job offer. He discovers that the new job is worse and enlists Mary’s help in getting him his old job back.

In ours, he gets an offer from a competing station to write their newscast and takes that job. We then do a scene where Murray comes over to Mary’s apartment to explain that he’s miserable, the new job isn't what he thought, and could Mary talk to Lou on his behalf? This puts Mary in a tough spot because Murray had burned some bridges with Lou and now Mary is right in the middle. Sounds like a viable story, right?

They did practically the same thing… with one exception. Instead of taking a job at a competing station, Murray accepted a position working for Sue Ann. And it was like a light bulb went on over my head. Instead of a character telling another character how bad things were, we SAW it. There was a hilarious scene where Mary and Lou came down to Sue Ann’s set and observe first-hand what a nightmare this new job was for Murray. I don’t remember the particulars. I just recall it was a hilarious scene, involved the central cast characters, and at one point Lou punches a puppet.

But it was a great lesson. Find a way to SHOW something rather than hear about it later. A teacher could have told us that in a writing lecture but it never would have made the impression that the MTM episode did.

And by the way, we got our first assignment – THE JEFFERSONS – off that MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW spec.

So take heart. All is not lost if your spec resembles a recent episode of that show. In fact, in some cases it can be a real plus.


Thanks to reader Rob, here's that MTM episode.


ScottyB said...

Wrong MTM episode. Lou punches the puppet in the one where Sue Ann gets sacked from her food-program job and ends up miserable doing WJM's version of 'Kukla, Fran & Ollie'.

Still, the spirit of today's blog post is spot-on. It's hard to come up with something that someone somewhere hasn't already thought up already at some time. And jeez, how many times have we seen the story line from one sitcom end up on another?

ScottyB said...

Oops, I take that back. I spoke too soon. That's the right episode. Duhhh me. I was confused by Sue Ann being more miserable than Murray. But I stand by the second paragraph, tho.

James Joseph said...

"with my partner David and I"


From a super accomplished, super talented writer. Our culture is gone.

Alan Light said...

Coincidentally, that episode where Murray goes to work for Sue Ann is airing next Monday night, if you get the "Me TV" channel.

RC said...

Just a big old "LOL" at the equation of a grammatical error with the death of our culture. Here I am thinking that our biggest challenges are things like global warming, overpopulation and natural resource depletion; little did I know that our problems could be curtailed by a refresher course in Mrs Smith's sixth grade grammar class.

Did I just use "LOL" in a sentence? Truly, the end is nigh...

Johnny Walker said...

Great post!

Another great tip I heard from a British writer (Rob Grant) is to make sure you've squeezed all the good stuff out of your scene before moving on. Lou having a terrible day in his new job could be shown in one joke -- but then you'd be missing out on a great opportunity to have it slowly getting worse and worse, until Lou punches a puppet.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Here's the cultural death moment: I saw the phrase "Punching the Puppet" and immediately thought it was slang for masturbation.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Friday question: Are there times when you look at a script (yours or someone else's) and think "There's something missing, but I don't know what?" Or can you always pretty specifically nail down the problem?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

James Joseph: And what about "lay down", huh?

Picayune details, sure, but my problem is that when these things pop up in TV shows it distracts me while I wonder whether the mistake was intentionally revealing of the character's background and education or the writer's error.


RCP said...

James Joseph said...
"with my partner David and I"


From a super accomplished, super talented writer. Our culture is gone."

Actually James, that should be super-accomplished, super-talented...

benson said...

If folks don't have access to Me-TV (I don't), RFD-TV (no kidding) has a second channel, Rural TV, and they run four classic back to back in prime time weeknights. WKRP, MTM, Bob Newhart and Newhart. Sure beats having to watch most network fare.

Jon J said...

"...the equation of a grammatical error..."

Er, shouldn't that be "equating"?

RC said...

Of course, you're right, John J. Another stab into the heart of the culture.

Pat Reeder said...

A few years ago, a friend of mine wrote a musical comedy for the stage and asked my wife and me (get that, guys? "ME") to do some play-doctoring on it. The very first thing I noticed was that the characters were always talking about things that happened off-stage, but we never saw any of them.

Alan Jay Lerner wrote a book about the creation of three of his shows with Frederic Lowe, and I remember him writing that that was the problem with the first draft of "Camelot," too. People were always rushing onto the stage to talk about some great thing Arthur or Lancelot had done off in the wings. So it doesn't make for scintillating live theater, either.

Rob said...

Brigadude said...

@Pat Reeder: I, love the Lerner book ("On the Street Where I Live" if anyone is interested), partly because it is so well written, and partly because it is filled with delightful lies from beginning to end. Very little of it is actually true, but it doesn't make any difference because, as Bennett Cerf was supposed to have said about Moss Hart's autobiography (which is also full of delightful lies: "It's a truthier truth.") Such pros, the both of them. But, getting to my point, it wasn't until I read Stephen Bach's excellent biography of Hart ("Dazzler") that I realized what is fundamentally wrong with "Camelot", namely that both Guinevere and Arthur are in love with Lancelot (different kinds of love), and that he is a complete fool/buffoon/pompous ass. Since we are defined by the people and things that we love, this makes both Guinevere and Arthur kind of pathetic and ridiculous as well, and there is no real recovery from that in a dramatic sense. Your point about offstage action is well taken, but I think Bach really gets to the heart of the matter. Great score, though. Loewe at his best.

R. said...

Advice based on a great many spec scripts I have seen for existing series:

1. Write for the series you see on TV. Don't reinvent and reimagine the series and the characters. Even if you believe your reinterpretation is better, that's not what anybody on an existing series is going to hire you to do.

2. Observe formatting. If a sitcom is done in three acts, write three acts. Don't write two acts and a tag scene because you think that's a better fit for the story you're trying to tell.

3. Try to stick to the sets you normally see on a series. Not to say you can't write a spec that calls for a new set, but if your spec requires four brand new sets and extensive location shooting, however much impressed people are with your writing will be balanced out by how impressed they are with your lack of consideration for budgets.

4. Keep in mind that sitcoms tend to hit reset at the beginning of every episode. Not to say you can't have characters and events change and progress, but on series TV those changes and progressions tend to be done in small steps, and basic relationships and situations need to be preserved. For example, if you have two characters who have a basically antagonistic relationship, you might be tempted to write a big scene where the two reconcile and come to an understanding. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but it needs to be done very carefully because in the next episode the characters are going to have to go back to not liking each other very much.

5. Don't forget the visuals. I've seen specs where, except for indications of entrances and exits, the script was nothing but dialogue. That's the point of Ken's post today. Whenever possible, show the audience rather than just telling them. Give your characters something to do besides stand around and yak. You're not writing for the Lux Radio Theater. Garry Marshall tells how he and his partner once wrote a Dick Van Dyke Show script with a scene that had Rob and Laura squabbling in the kitchen. Their scene was all dialogue. Laura is cooking, and Garry tells how Carl Reiner came up with a nice visual bit by giving Laura a spoon that was too small for whatever she was stirring in one of her pans. The spoon kept slipping down into the pan. Her mounting frustration and anger with it underscored and punctuated her frustration and anger with Rob in a subtle way and made the scene something other than two talking heads.

6. Don't tell the actors how to play their parts. Don't cite an emotion or give emphasis to this or that word in every line of dialogue. Actors hate it. It's insulting to them. Your job is to write the script. Their's is to figure out the best way to play it. Likewise, don't waste time on camera directions and describing how you want scenes shot. Again, it's not your job, and the director will ignore it anyway.

John said...

Ken --

Writing a spec for MTM, would you and David have thought to be as forward as having Murray stuff Sue Ann's rear into a three-level cake? That got an enormous laugh from the studio audience, in large part because it was so unexpected.

From the standpoint of actor/actress, do you write a spec where one of the stars is asked to perform something really embarrassing without really knowing if the actor or actress is one of those types that just won't do those kind of things (one of the main reasons Betty White is beloved today is because she was willing to have cake stuffed up her rear or show just a little too much enjoyment in a vibrating bed -- the affronts to dignity always were great laugh-getters, but if you've never seen a shows star take it really bad before, do you write a spec that breaks new ground if the shows staff knows this gag is never going to fly with the star?)

Johnny Walker said...

More great advice, R. Thanks for sharing that.

Paul Duca said...

Sounded like your script could have used a little more vanilla...

pumpkinhead said...

I'm on the fence about this, but I'm not entirely sure "David and I" was incorrect, given its context in the sentence, for essentially the same reason "it is I" is correct rather than "it is me." Ken goes on in the sentence to refer to David and himself more as subjects than objects. I forget the technical term for the "it is I" grammatical rule, but I'm sure someone can remind us.

And I definitely agree on a big screw you to anyone who equates a tenuous grammatical error with the fall of civilization.

Mike said...

>Here I am thinking that our biggest challenges are things like global warming, overpopulation and natural resource depletion;

None of those are big problems. Population is expected to peak and start decreasing. The problem could be underpopulation, not enough kids to support the older generations. There is also the possibility of Islamic populations overwhelming the others. Europe could become sharia in 50 years. Parts of France already are with officially published no-go areas where the Muslims are expected to be the only ones.

Even global warming might turn into global cooling with an ice age due any day now, geologically speaking. Even without that global temperatures have been flat for about 15 years, and warming is likely to be on the low end because of negative feedbacks as the planet adjusts.