Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Diagnosing problem scripts

Here’s a Friday Question worth an entire post:

It’s from Charles H. Bryan:

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?

I only wish in my dreams that I could detect all script problems and what the fixes are. But the truth is, there are plenty of times something’s not working and I’m completely stumped as to why.

This is another reason it’s good to have partners or a writing staff. And I’ll be honest, there have been many times during a rewrite when as a group we arrive at what we think is the problem, spend six hours rewriting, and then send the script to the stage not having a clue whether we really solved the problem or just did an alternate version. Generally, we’re right about 75% of the time. But once or twice a season we find ourselves right back at square one the next night.

Why do we find ourselves in these pickles? Because we strive to be original, tell stories in a fresh inventive way. If you just follow the same story structure week after week you rarely have these problems. Personally, I think the trade off is worth it. (Of course I say that now. Sitting in a rewrite at 5 A.M. I may not be such an artiste.)

On one show I worked on early in my career we would have a scene that didn’t work in a runthrough or a story that was problematic and one of our producers would say “Don’t worry. I got the fix.” So we would just move on to the next scene. Then we'd get back to room and say, “What’s the fix?” and he’d say, “Oh, I was just saying that so we could move along. I didn’t to stand on the stage debating this all day with the actors there.” We wanted to kill him… and then ourselves for letting him fool us again.

But if you find yourself in this situation, you can take great comfort in knowing you are not alone. Practically all writers face this, even the great ones.

In his autobiography, the great Neil Simon talks about mounting his classic play, THE ODD COUPLE. They had their original table reading before the first rehearsal and the first act played like gangbusters. Huge laughs all the way through. Same with the second. During the break before the third act, Walter Matthau (one of the stars) pledged to invest a lot of money in the play. it was a can't miss!  Then came the third act. Big laughs until the last scene and then it just died. Playwright Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols (no slouch himself) were stymied. Neil rewrote and they took the show out of town for tryouts.

Night after night the same thing would occur. Monster laughs until the last fifteen minutes. Neil and Mike would then sit in the hotel lobby staring at each other. They would decide on a course of action, Neil would sit up all night rewriting, and the next evening the new version would be presented to the audience. And the cycle would be repeated. Night after night after night.

Finally, a Boston critic casually mentioned he really liked the Pigeon sisters – two characters that appeared in a second act scene. He wished they had come back. A lightbulb went on. Yes! Bring the Pigeon sisters back.

Neil wrote them into the last scene and suddenly THE ODD COUPLE played through the roof. The rest is (Broadway, motion picture, and television) history.

When geniuses like Neil Simon and Mike Nichols can't put their fingers on a problem, what hope is there for the rest of us?  

So when you get stuck just know, there is no Dr. House for writing. At times we’re all Frank Burns.


Carol said...

Off topic, but I am interested to hear your take on this article, seeing as how you worked for both shows:


Charles H. Bryan said...

If there were a Dr. House for writing, would the first diagnosis always be lupus?

Thanks for answering my question, Ken. I was speaking with a guy the other day who told me about taking a welding class. He said that it made him better, although he knew how to weld before. "If I could hit it with a sledgehammer and it didn't fall apart, I figured I did all right. But now I know how to make it look good, too." And I thought, "It'd be nice to have a sledgehammer like that for everything. 'If I hit this story and it doesn't fall apart...'"

No such luck.

Johnny Walker said...

Very heartening!

Ken, I know you're a big fan of The Dick Van Dyke Show, well Marc Maron has Dick Van Dyke on this week's episode of his show, and he had Carl Reiner a few weeks back, too.

Both great listens: www.wtfpod.com

John said...

Ken, I like the part in Neil Simon's book where he got so flustered trying to nail act III of the Odd Couple, that someone just suggested they only do the first two acts and charge lower ticket prices.

Mac said...

Very encouraging to know that even the best get stumped sometimes. Reminds you that it's art, not science and there's no formula you can call upon.

By Ken Levine said...


Having written for both shows I couldn't lose!

Susannahfromhungary said...

Friday question: Say you have an idea for a concept for a show. But you don't want to go further with it yourself. Is there anyone you can turn to, who are looking for good ideas and develop them, and then try to pitch the shows themselves? Like an "idea-buyer" so to speak?

Unknown said...
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Wendy M. Grossman said...

Another fine example of how hard it can be to get a show right is from a slightly earlier generation, Moss Hart's autobiography, ACT ONE. (I believe he intended to write more installments, but unfortunately died too soon). Younger people may not know Hart's name, but he was one half of the great musical comedy writing team, Rodgers and Hart, and before that he and the great George S. Kaufman wrote a series of plays together when GSK was the toast of Broadway and Hart was a very young, inexperienced writer with ideas. ACT ONE recounts Hart's years working at summer camps and writing failed dramas (he wanted to be Eugene O'Neill) until he hit on something everyone thought had potential, the play ONCE IN A LIFETIME, about the arrival of talking pictures in Hollywood and the couple of scam artists who took advantage. (More famously, Kaufman and Hart went on to write THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU.)

ACT ONE recounts endless rewrites and cutting sessions. Finally, in out-of-town tryouts the play simply died in the third act. Eventually, the producer says, "It's a noisy play", and Hart realizes he has to throw out a *very* expensive set and bring back a minor character for a quiet scene. The change was last-minute and terrifying. But it made the show a hit.

Anyone thinking of a career as a writer should read this book (which I read in high school!) because I don't think there's any more detailed account of the agony of writing comedy. (Though I will have to get the Neil Simon book to find out.)


Unknown said...


An Anyday Question for you:
Have you ever written into a script someone breaking an object during a scene? A glass window, chair, or whatever?

Are there any debates over this kind of "stunt" in the writer's room?
Does the crew not like to clean it and set it up again and again? Do actors stress over stunts or enjoy it? Do directors dread having to oversee something breaking?

Thanks so much!

Jackson Hall said...

On the latest Jeff Garlin podcast Jeff and Mitch Hurwitz talk about the writer's room on Frasier. Are they talking about you?


Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for sharing that, Wendy. I'll definitely be picking that up!

cadavra said...

Wendy, you're confusing Moss Hart with Lorenz "Larry" Hart, who was Rodgers' partner. No relation.

Jake Mabe said...
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Jake Mabe said...

Here's a Friday Question, submitted for your approval:

Larry Gelbart was quoted somewhere (I think in the coffee table-sized "M*A*S*H" book) as saying that he would catch himself rewriting a scene in his head from an episode that aired months (or even years) earlier. Or, at the least, he'd go through "Why didn't I do Y instead of X?" scenarios.

Have you ever done that or are you a "no looking back" kind of guy, at least once a show airs?

Nat Gerter (sitcom room veteran) said...

Wendy: As someone who has played in the lead in Once In A Lifetime (community theater; no pro actor I), I can tell you that that last rewrite by Hart was sloppy, it left things in the script that were dangling and made no sense. The show can be a lot of fun to perform, and to watch the first time, but if you see it a second time you'll note all the things that go nowhere. It really could've used another round or two of polish.

--Nat (who still occasionally wears his Glogauer Studios shirt from the play, decades later.)

Breadbaker said...

The reason for the dangling parts of Once in a Lifetime (oddly, I'm reading a Moss Hart biography and just read this part this morning) is that they had literally two days to put it together before the show was "locked" by opening on Broadway after they wrote it. No endless previews in 1930.

Anonymous said...

Wendy: Moss Hart was not half of Rodgers and Hart. That was Lorenz.

Bob Claster said...

There's a great story that the Monty Python guys tell about their first movie, "And Now... For Something Completely Different." It was made up of the best bits from the early part of their television work, reshot for film. Surefire material, which they'd not only know had worked brilliantly on TV, but which they had also, for the most part, been performing on stage. They found that the material in the assemblage that occurred roughly 2/3 into the roughly 90 minute film didn't get laughs. So they reshuffled the running order, and whatever was in that spot died. Eventually, they realized that people can only laugh continually for so long without needing some sort of break. This is why so many great comedy films have some kind of chase scene or something at that point.