Friday, June 21, 2013

More of the CHEERS outline

Earlier this week I posted a portion of a CHEERS outline and it prompted a couple of Friday Questions. Many of you also asked to see more of the outline so I’m providing that too.

B.B. Callow asks:

Why is the outline so detailed if it's only an outline? If you kept all the dialogue from the teaser and formatted it to script form, it would be very close to what the finished teaser would look like.

Is there really any advantage to creating an outline when you could simply go at a first draft instead? I suspect the amount of plotting/planning would be about the same for both.

A detailed outline helps the writer really think through the story. You catch logic problems, you discover exposition traps, you realize if a scene has nothing funny going on, and when you get to good comedy scenes you can really connect the dots. The producer and staff can determine whether the story still needs some tweaking. In short, it saves everybody a lot of time to make story modifications at the outline stage and not the script stage.

Composing a detailed outline also gives you a better idea of how long it will take to tell the story. Everyone pitches it out in the room, it seems like the right length, but once you get it down on paper you realize you have way too much story. Or not enough.

Or the A story works but the B story isn’t as funny as it was in the room.

And even with a ten-to-fifteen page outline, you may think you have all the jokes but once you start writing you find you only have about 30%, and a lot of those get discarded as you write.

But some do remain. And when you set off to write the draft it’s nice to know you’ve got some great jokes in your hip pocket.

It’s like driving a race car. You come to a spot in the outline where you can transcribe off the page and it’s like coming out of a turn into the straightaway.

Nowadays, detailed outlines are mandatory because they have to be approved by studios and networks. We never had that on CHEERS. The great David Lloyd would write things in his outline like “Carla says something stupid” or “here’s where I get out of this scene somehow” and we didn’t care because we knew he’d deliver on the draft. But you couldn’t turn that in to a network.

From Tom Quigley:

Since we don't see the full 11 pages, were there any major story changes that were decided upon by the producers or writing staff between turning in the outline and writing the first draft of the script?

In the outline Frasier discovers Lilith has a rat in her purse while Lilith is there. We decided it would be more fun if she wasn’t there initially. It allowed for more discussion and fun reactions.

At the end of the show we wound up losing a lot of the tenuousness of life discussion. And Frasier’s exit line worked so well we ended the show there. You’ll see here a more elaborate ending that was never filmed.  These are the last two pages of the outline.

If you have questions, please leave them in the comments section. Thanks. Now more of “Rat Girl.”


Unknown said...

These posts about Cheers are like a drug to a junkie in a two decade withdrawal.

Wonder what prompted the Rats name change from Walter to Whitey.

ScottyB said...

I am not a screenwriter and never had any aspirations to be one (even tho I've been a news writer during my career), so excuse me for sounding all ignorant and stupid, but until I saw this post and the related one before it, I never even knew what an outline was, much less actually saw one (thanks for the visuals, Ken). I've had ideas for short films knocking around for years, but actually scripting them always just seemed a Herculean effort and not worth the time especially when you're middle-aged and live in the Midwest and there's a snowball's chance anyone who matters might ever see it. But now I know how to OUTLINE it so, if someday some chance stranger having a beer in a bar next to me ends up saying he's from LA and always likes to read new stuff (the fantasy continues, heh-heh), I now know I need only expend a quarter of the effort to still get the same ideas, feeling and color, and fragments of dialog across that *could* have someone go, "Hey, there's something here."

Thanks again, Ken.

ChicagoJohn said...

I actually kinda like the idea of the show ending on a more darker note... with everyone reflecting on their mortality.

One of my favorite Frasier episodes ended with the 3 men on the balcony - after all 3 had lost loves - joking about how lonely they were... but then reflecting on it in silence.

Rowan said...

Ken, I missed your blog for the past few days (because I like to binge-read you) so thank you for posting the outline and why writers should have one before starting their first draft. I do a fair amount of script consulting and this is one thing new writers really are resistant to. They just want to jump in but don't know where the Act breaks will be or if the storylines even work. This half page method seems like a great way to go about it so they can write notes clearly instead of cramming them in the margins or putting them on a separate piece of paper. I'm going to recommend it to people as the concept of writing an outline seems to really flummox people.

Matthew said...

Is is common for jokes and/or story lines that were in original outline but cut out of final script to be recycled in subsequent outlines?

GC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GC said...

@Matthew, one golden rule, i learned from this blog "Never save a joke!". This rule help me to be creative all the time, at least to try to be. By the way, thank you, Mr Levine.

Austin E said...

If an actor plays two characters in a show, is he paid for the roles separately?

For example, Jeffrey Tambor plays George and Oscar in Arrested Development.

D. McEwan said...

My mother was not a Cheers fan. She didn't like Ted Danson for reasons I never figured out, nor Kelsey. But she loved Lilith and would watch any episode I assured was Lilith-heavy, so she saw this episode.

As it happens, as a girl growing up, Mother kept pet rats, and maintained to the end of her days that rats were "adorable." The idea that they were revolting vermin, she soundly rejected.

Consequently, this episode made a wreck of her. She reacted like Lilith did. It brought back the grief she'd felt as a child when her pet rats died. As Dog is my witness, she cried watching this episode. Mom was weird.

No wonder she loved The Addams Family so intensely (She thought John Astin's Gomez was "hot." Honest!); they shared her love of rats.

rchesson said...

I truly enjoy seeing the process "behind-the-screen" for most creative products. I find music "demos" for songs which later become hits interesting for the same reasons.

DANIEL said...

Good blog!

Powerhouse Salter said...

Ken, what is your take on why so many mid-level sitcoms from the 1960s have been "rebooted" into lousy feature films instead of remade as half-hour sitcoms?

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, thanks for thinking my question was worthwhile enough to devote some of your blog to today.

I don't know how many writing classes and workshops I attended when I lived in LA that just skimmed over the value of an outline, or ignored it all together.

I'm positive that your posts of the last two days have been invaluable to many aspiring TV writers.

Brian Doan said...

Hi Ken,
A question with a bit of a set-up, so I hope you'll indulge me (:

I'm still thinking about the passing of James Gandolfini, and just read a good interview with Ed Asner, so my mind is on the relationship of comedy and drama. A lot of recent shows, to varying degrees, blend comedy and drama in a way that owes at least a bit to M*A*S*H and other 70s sitcoms, even if none of the shows I'm thinking of are sitcoms (THE SOPRANOS, BUFFY, GILMORE GIRLS, THE WEST WING, MAD MEN in a much darker and more surreal way). And Asner took a comedic character, Lou Grant, and played him wonderfully in both comedy and drama.

So my two-part question is: 1) Do you think the kind of genre crossover or "rebooting" between MARY TYLER MOORE and LOU GRANT would be possible with any show today, or would it feel redundant when there's so much blurring of those lines, anyway? and 2)Was there any show you ever worked on (either one you created or wrote for on-staff) that you wanted to try a "LOU GRANT" with, transforming it from comedy to drama? And if so, which shows you wrote for do you think might work? Personally, I think FRAISER might have been really interesting as a straight drama, actually: the family dynamics, the radio stuff, the lonely central character, etc.


Wayne said...

If anyone would be interested, there's an extended interview with the late great David Lloyd in a new book Funny You Should Ask: Oral Histories of Classic Sitcom Storytellers.

D. McEwan said...

Thanks, Wayne. That looks like a fascinating book. Glad to be turned on to it.

Another excellent book of the same sort and subject is THEY'LL NEVER PUT THAT ON THE AIR: AN ORAL HISTORY OF TABOO-BREAKING TV COMEDY by my friend, Allan Neuwirth. Among the folks interviewed in Allan's book are such know-nothing nobodies as Larry Gelbart (The book came out in 2006), Carl "What's He Ever Done?" Reiner, Grant Tinker, Gene Reynolds, Sam Denoff, Leonard Stern, Tommy Smothers, Allan Blye, some guy called George Schlatter, Dick Martin, Chris Bearde, Gary Owens, Allan Burns, Valerie Harper, Jay Sandrich, Treva Silverman, Norman "Mr. Unsuccessful" Lear, Bud Yorkin, Caroll O'Conner, Jean Stapleton, Bob Schiller, Burt Metcalfe, Susan Harris, Paul Junger Witt, Larry Charles, and David Steinberg. And believe me, that list is quite incomplete. (But no David Lloyd.)

There are chapters on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Maude, Soap, and Seinfeld, with the focus on battling censorship and enlarging what what you could get away with on TV.

Johnny Walker said...

If we keep pestering you will we get to see more pages? :)

Johnny Walker said...

Unknown, I'm guessing they switched it because they thought it was funnier. Although "Walter" is a funny name for a scientist's rat, "Whitey" is arguably a funnier name for *Lilith's* rat: It's more childlike and cutesy -- the very opposite of Lilith.

Interestingly, this change would later inspire Vince Gilligan when he was creating Breaking Bad. (j/k)

Rich D said...

My thought on the Walter-to-Whitey name change - Could it be a reference to noted Boston mobster Whitey Bulger?

Anonymous said...

Question: Elliott Reid passed away. He was primarily an actor, but of his very few writing credits, he wrote a few episodes of AfterMASH. How would such an inexperienced writer get to write on the show?? Who did he have pictures on?

Stephen said...

James Burrows once said that the door to the bar through which characters entered Cheers was on the left side of the stage because "you read from left to right". Were there any design aspects on any other sets you worked on that you thought were particularly clever/useful? Louie's De Palma's cage on Taxi springs to mind for me.