Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday Questions

What better way to kick off Martin Luther King weekend than with some Friday Questions?

Kieran is up first:

I was watching the 'Big Bang Theory' pilot (the one that aired, not the disaster that didn't) the other day, and was struck by the fact that although Sheldon in particular was neeeearly the finished article, there were certain aspects - not least, his initial willingness to donate to a sperm bank - that he would never do even a few episodes later.

With the obvious caveat that many characters grow and evolve over time, in a show as in real life (Hawkeye and Hot Lips being prime examples that come to mind), generally speaking do you look back and feel that most of your characters have arrived fully formed? Or how many episodes do you feel it takes them to fill out fully? Or does it vary widely?

Here’s the dance. As the writer, you’d like all of your characters fully formed right from the get-go. But once you cast it, see the dynamics, and get a sense of what works, things change. So you have to be flexible enough and willing enough to change things – sometimes rather drastically. These projects take on a life of their own and sometimes there is a real learning curve before you figure out the characters, relationships, tone, storylines that work, etc.

On the other hand, certain characters do arrive fully formed. Diane Chambers on CHEERS is maybe the best example. Shelley absolutely nailed it.

From BD:

Recently Gawker posted the minimum salary for staff writers (eg $3,703/wk for a 20 week guarantee). This got me to thinking... what is a staff writer's commitment to a show? If it is in production for 26 weeks per year, are they free the rest of the time to pursue other writing assignments? And if they choose to pursue other assignments, what impact might it have on their ongoing employment the next season?

Some deals are for number of weeks and others are for number of episodes. Sometimes you get screwed if it’s number of episodes. Let’s say a show has production issues and shuts down for a few weeks. The writing staff still works those weeks. So you’re essentially working for free those weeks.

Since staff writers are busy all year on their shows, the only moonlighting they might do is development (writing a pilot). Some deals allow for this, others require exclusivity to the show or the production company that makes the show. So if you’re on a 20th show and you have a pilot you will have to do it through 20th.

JoeBobFrank asks:

My twelve-year-old kid is a huge fan of the Good Wife and has a terrific idea for it. Does this mean he has to write a spec script? He's a kid with a great sense of perspective, (and humor) and honestly, he's got a great--and unexpected--idea. At twelve, he's unlikely to be doing this for a career, but this is a kid with both school and writing anxiety--he missed half of last year after his teacher left school abruptly--so I'm excited anything that might encourage him to be excited about something remotely academic.

Really, what he would prefer is simply to write to them and tell them his idea and have them say, hey, kid, great. Keep up the good work. (Says his Mom) Any suggestions are much appreciated.

Yes, I would write the producers, Robert & Michelle King and say exactly what you wrote to me. Shows generally don’t look at unsolicited ideas, but if the goal is encourage your son they may just oblige.

When I was on MASH we got a script on notebook paper from a 10 year-old. We sent him an autographed cast photo, and a whole packet of scripts, autographed pictures, and MASH swag.

And finally, from Bobby M.:

When I was in undergrad, a teacher of mine told me that many contemporary sitcoms are based off of Jewish theater: the Rabbi, the Putz, the Schmuck, and the Princess appear as the main character archetypes. He specifically cited Frasier, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, and even Friends to some extent. Now I'm in grad school, and my theater history teacher suspects the tradition dates as far back as Plautus and the birth of New Comedy.

My question to you—as a college professor and writer of one of the aforementioned shows—is how aware of this were you when writing for TV? Did you work to establish characters as these specific archetypes?

Thanks! (and if you answer my question, I promise to buy your book, which I hear is available on Amazon for $2.99)

Yes it is, Bobby.  And it's as funny as ever.

With all due respect to your professor, no. I have never considered the Jewish Theater for inspiration in creating a series. Nor has any comedy writer I have ever met.

That certain character types reoccur in series has more to do with (a) the dynamics of the series itself, and (b) certain comic types are proven winners.

When I develop a pilot I look for the theme, a premise that’s fresh, and characters that are interesting and will relate to each other in fun exciting ways.

I seriously wonder how many of today’s younger TV writers have even heard of the Jewish Theater.

Happy to answer your question. Please leave it in the comments section. Thanks.


Garrett said...

I know you've said that the producers and writers meet in late Spring and map out the episodes for the upcoming season. How much flexibility is there? When it became clear that the Niles/Daphne relationship was going to be explored, an episode, "A Midwinters Night Dream," came along. Was this always planned or was this a revision of the initial schedule?

Curt Alliaume said...

Excellent point about how characters evolve. Warren Littlefield noted in the Friends chapter in his book that one of the producers noted very early on Matt LeBlanc (Joey) played dumb really well, so Joey got stupider as time went along. Accordingly, Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe stopped being less idiotic and more... sneaky conniving. (This is very noticeable in the last few years of the show, when it seemed harder to give Kudrow more ongoing story lines; she was the only character without a multi-episode romantic involvement with any of the other leads.) Yet many references to her character today include the description "ditzy," which means either the writer was somewhat lazy or stopped watching around season three.

Anonymous said...

Here's a question out of left field.

I work in a computer field where we process a lot of data. More and more often we get text with foreign characters (usually in names) that will occasionally trip up old programs that were never intended to handle such things. Obviously problems ensue.

So here's my question - were the asterisks the M*A*S*H title ever a problem in any way? Mostly I see them used, but sometimes not. I imagine that would be a problem downstream somewhere, not at the writer's level, but I thought I'd ask.

Richard - Milwaukee, WI

Hamid said...

Off topic but Happy 92nd Birthday to the awesome Betty White!

Covarr said...

"I seriously wonder how many of today’s younger TV writers have even heard of the Jewish Theater."

I don't know about younger writers, but the folks behind Futurama have frequently made obvious nods to it. Zoidberg's voice was influenced by a number of notable Yiddish Theater actors, and subplots involving the character often invoke Yiddish Theater tropes. Billy West has talked about it to some degree in interviews; it seems to be one of the most interesting aspects of the show to him.

Todd A. said...

They make $3700/wk as a writer at Gawker?!!! Surely you're kidding.

Dale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hal said...

My wife, who has taught college-level writing courses for many years, once brought home a stack of scripts a student had given her. She had written them for The Golden Girls back in the 1980s and had submitted them, not through an agent, but by posting them to The Golden Girls, care of NBC. Naturally, she received no response to them.

The scripts the young woman wrote are pretty awful. Kind of fascinating, in their own way. Much of what's in them is rewritten from the series. Exchanges of dialogue or sometimes entire scenes that have been lightly altered, but generally with a tin ear to what made the dialogue or the scenes funny originally. These rewritten material is patched together with original stuff that's so out-of-character for the series, that it's difficult to believe the young woman was a fan and had actually seen much of it. One of her scripts, for example, has the ladies trying to put up wallpaper in the living room. Aside from the fact that it's painfully unfunny, the series just didn't do that kind of broad slapstick. The details of the scene are straight out of a 193s two-reel comedy short, with the ladies grappling with buckets of paste and oversized brushes, as if the writer had no clue that this isn't how putting up wallpaper works, not even in the 1980s. The stage directions are light on detail. Lots of "improvise funny routine unrolling wallpaper" type directions.

Not even to mention that every one of her scripts ignores the fact that The Golden Girls always had an "A" scene and a "B" scene. Also, some of the scripts call for various location shooting or scenes actually filmed outdoors, ignoring the fact that the series was taped in front on an audience.

The reason I bring all this up is that I'm curious to know if most would-be script writers are typically this clueless and inept. If they are, I'd hate to be the person charged with plowing through it all.

Dale said...

I have a question.
Who locked the restaurant on Becker during the first season???

Often the customers were left alone when Terry knocked off early.

Bob Scott said...

Would love to get your opinion on the top five tv themes of all time. Mine would be Cheers, Law and Order, Garry Shandling Show, All in the Family and Lavern and Shirley.

Bob Scott

Jon88 said...

A question: On "Community" 1/16/14, Annie, who's supposed to be the smartest person in the group, said "I bore my soul to you." That should be "bared," past tense of bare, not bear. Is grammar really such a low priority among writers that nobody caught this? (Not to mention all of the "you and I"/"you and me" gaffes that occur just about everywhere.)

Mike said...

Here's five minutes of Jim Ladd & Raechel Donahue describing the origin of FM Radio. (It's from a BBC documentary on '60s American Rock.)
With a name like Jim Ladd, why wasn't he on Pirate Radio?

Hamid said...

Oprah was asked for her reaction to being snubbed by the Oscars. She said she didn't mind one bit and that by being in such an important and well received film, she's "already won".

Yep, typical humility from the monthly cover star of O magazine.

Rogers Motley said...

Friday Question...What will Jay Leno's legacy be in regard to "The Tonight Show"?

Anonymous said...

I have a Friday question.I randomly quote lines of dialogue from MASH and Frasier with family and friends all the time. As I writer, does it ever enter your mind that these lines are not just a part of a story but will be repeated by loyal viewers for years to come?

VP81955 said...

A Friday question: When a competing series does a specific story angle, have you ever created a twist on it? For example, this week's and next week's episodes of "Mom" deal with the identity of Christy's dad as she learns about it from mom Bonnie; it's almost a "how I met your father," but in the present tense.

DenverPat said...

I am an aspiring writer working at a corporate office (ugh) while burning the midnight oil in an attempt to refine my writing before making the jump to L.A. In trying to be as objective with myself as possible in analyzing my strengths/weaknesses, I have concluded that my skills lend themselves best to TV -- this is because I feel I have a firm grasp on characters and dialogue, less of a grasp on story structure, plotting, etc. -- basically those deeper, richer, more complex things that drive a movie.

I feel that my personality would lend itself best to a comedy writing room, where I can feed off others' ideas and craft some crisp, funny dialogue, as opposed to the life of a feature writer. I just think I'm wired better for TV.

As I have heard many times from many different sources, TV is very exclusive and the best way to break in is through drawing attention from a feature script. So I guess my question is -- Do you agree with that for someone who feels strongly about going into TV? If 28 year old Ken Levine was preparing to break into the industry in 2015 and knew in his heart that TV was the right place for him, what advice would you give him? Would you tell him to work tirelessly on a great feature in the hopes of getting his foot in the door that way? Would you admonish him to become a PA on a TV show? What would be your advice?