Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Questions

Here are some Friday Questions since it's, y'know... Friday.

RockGolf leads off:

Who do you consider to be the best COMIC actor on a current DRAMA series? I'd suggest Tim Kang on The Mentalist, whose deadpan 6-year Sgt. Friday imitation slays me.

I don’t think of Tim as a comic character. I suspect he doesn’t either. I’d be surprised if anyone on the staff does.  And Miguel Ferrer does a way better Sgt. Friday.  Check him out in TWIN PEAKS and the original ROBOCOP. 

No, for my money, I’d have to go with Damon Herriman as Dewey Crow on JUSTIFIED. Not just as the best comic character in a drama but the funniest comic character on television period. No one on any sitcom makes me laugh as hard as Dewey.

Julian Brown has a question on a post I wrote about the need for a theme and the importance of your show being about something.

This really resonates with me; I'm grinding away at a making an album, and this week I'm trying to determine what it's about.

If you feel like it, I'd be interested in what, if any, process you go thru to get to the bottom of yr premise/story/what have you.

Well, the first thing is I do is determine what the theme is before writing. The story, or in your case, album, should reflect that. Taking a finished product and sifting through it looking for gold is rather counter-productive.

This is a question I get a lot (and answer a lot).  It's an important point that needs to be repeated.   Sort of like a "theme." 

When people tell me they just want to start writing and see where the story takes them, I tell them most often it leads to Death Valley.

Put in the time and effort to determine your theme first. And yes, I know – it’s HARD. The hardest part actually. But once you have it, the rest falls into place and it’s much easier to determine if you’re on track or straying. The theme is your compass.

Bottom line: what is it you want to say? And if you don’t have anything, then why are you even bothering?

And finally, from Jay:

Hi Ken,

I've heard and read all about how rough writers' rooms can be, and that if one wants to be a working TV comedy writer, one needs to have a thick skin and be prepared for anything. What's been your experience with a fellow writer (or, maybe it's been you) who's going through a rough time (read: depressed) and may be a little more sensitive to things? Did his or her fellow staffers been sympathetic or just see this more fodder to throw around the room?

I ask because I am going through a rough time right now and am prone to depression from time to time. I'm not a working TV writer but one of those aspiring types. I know me, and I know that when I'm feeling good and confident in myself and my abilities as a writer, I'm sharp and on the ball with a good balance of being amiable but with an edge. But during my downturns, I'm much more sensitive and distracted than I'd like. So this makes me question, do I have the personality to make it in a comedy writers' room.

Thanks for your time!

First off, Jay, my heart goes out to you. Battling those demons are rough.

What I would suggest, in your best interest, is that staff work might not be for you. You may get a supportive room; you may not. It depends on the personalities in the room, the pressure they’re all under, how well the show is working, etc.

I would suggest you concentrate on your drafts. Time was you could make a living in TV as a freelance writer. No more really. But if you write great drafts you may get a show to give you multiple assignments.

And a better avenue might be to write screenplays. Or stage plays (although there’s not a lot of money in that).

There are a lot of terrific comedy writers who just don’t have the temperament for staff work. Guys like Neil Simon. Yes, it’s harder to break in, but once you do you can create a working environment more to your comfort level. And the more comfortable you are, the better the work will be.

One last point – comedy writers who suffer from depression is more common than athletes who drink Gatorade. It needs to be addressed, but there’s no reason why you can’t ultimately enjoy a long successful career. You’re already ahead of the game by recognizing your condition. Again, best of luck to you.

What’s your Friday Question? Please leave it in the comments section. I do try to get to as many as I can.  Thanks.


Johnny Walker said...

I think the question of them probably comes down to the medium. In Stephen King's amazing book "On Writing" (seriously, check it out), he talks about theme being gilding. (Maybe those who aren't fans of his work will cite this as one of the reasons why...?) In his mind theme is really only something that comes into play on the second pass when writing a novel. (At least, if I'm remembering correctly.)

Your story should be gripping and taut, but theme is something that should elevate it, not dictate it. If a theme comes, great, but don't go out of your way looking for one, changing characters or scenes to fit one.

For example, when he wrote "Carrie" (which isn't a great book by any means, but it did put him on the map), it was during rewrites that he started adding references to blood throughout the text, as he realized it was a theme within the story.

Indeed, as far as his writing process goes, it appears to be: Start at the beginning and keep writing until you get to the end. Don't stop. Don't look back. And don't leave more than a couple of days between sessions, or you'll lose the thread of what you're doing.

Then put it in a drawer, and don't think about it for six weeks.

Comes back to your manuscript with fresh eyes, and begin your second draft. (And only when that's completed show it to anybody.)

Clearly this isn't some amazing template to writing a brilliant novel, but if you keep doing it, it will (I imagine) eventually teach you how to write novels and short stories. And you can sort of see how trying to cram a theme into your story would get in the way of following your characters.

As I recall, he said that he feels that novels that have been constructed with precise planning often feel stilted and forced to the reader, losing their spontaneity and organicness.

With TV, however, it seems that starting off with a theme/premise is essential. Very few people can start writing at the beginning of a script and end up with something coherent at the end (Woody Allen works this way, and I *think* Mike Nichols and William Goldman, but I could be wrong on those two).

With such limited storytelling time, and with other major constrictions that aren't necessarily factors in other mediums, it seems that film and TV require a lot of careful and precise planning, and conversely to novels, can feel confused and meandering without it.

I don't know what the best advice for making a music album is, though. (Do albums outside of concept albums even have themes? :-/) But maybe it's more like novels, where you can look back and find one, but where you shouldn't force one if it didn't organically arise?

Johnny Walker said...

Jay: Thanks for asking that question! It's something I've wondered about myself. I've heard enough stories from inside Hollywood to make me wonder just how tough you need to be to survive. The answer does appear to be that it completely depends on the room you're in: Some are wonderful, others can be hellish -- all depending on your own temperament.

I'm surprised Ken didn't mention this, but I would have thought that having a writing partner would help? Having a trusted ally to rough things out with sounds like it would be helpful?

Nic Schweitzer said...

Ken, I've always wanted to know your detailed opinion on Jeff Zucker. What is it?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: William Goldman I think plans ahead more than that. In his later book on screenwriting he discusses writing with a number of other screenwriters; very interesting stuff.

As for music albums: I'm not sure whether the OP is the original songwriter or someone interpreting others' songs. There are times when a musician sets out to create an album on a particular theme, but it seems to me much more common to pick songs that are representative, that audiences like, and that benefit from studio enhancement. Where finding a theme comes in is when you're trying to come up with a title and cover art for the album, as well as a running order for the songs, that defines it. That process is not always easy, because it's really more about marketing than art, IMO.


JimBriggs said...

Couldn't agree more about Damon Herriman/Dewey Crow. Dewey is funny as hell, and Herriman does a great job with the character.

Anonymous said...

Just an amateur's pet theory: comedy writers who suffer from depression self medicate by practicing their art.

Dan Ball said...

"Hello, Interwebs! I'm Dr. Frasier Levine and I'm listening."

Nic Schweitzer:

I'll give you my opinion on Zucker: The "Z" is only there because the courts rejected his real surname.

He chose his new last name because he wanted to be cool like those other Zuckers who made the SCARY MOVIEs. (THE NAKED GUN or AIRPLANE! weren't showing in his ass at the time, so he hasn't seen them yet.)

His career is so scandalous and shameful that a papparazzo once took photos of him giving drugs to a fourth-grader and couldn't sell them. Even *ucker himself didn't think it was the worst thing he'd ever done, so he didn't pay to stifle them.

Jeff Zucker and Lee Arenberg: separated at birth?

The only time Don Rickles hasn't teased someone is when he told *ucker, "You're an ass, man!"

*ucker probably figured he was more of an ass-man since he's the only man ever caught cheating on his wife with his own ass.

If he hadn't sued DC Comics, Superman's arch nemesis would now be Lex Zucker.

You don't hear of too many people losing their hair in ego-stroking accidents.

On Conan's Comeback Tour, someone suggested burning an effigy of Jeff Zucker at a concert. They decided against it when they figured he was already gonna burn enough in Hell.

Ane said...

There's a show (a drama series leaning towards soap) here in Norway that has been on for more than 15 years. Only recently has the business around here taken a few steps towards Hollywood, and therefore a "showrunner" was hired ;they had lost such position earlier. This guy decided to have all episodes written in writer's rooms, rather than having each writer doing one script each like they had done before. The writers didn't like this, they wanted to keep writing separately. There was a lot of fuss in the media, and some writers quit. The audience started sending letters saying the show was not as good as before. Finally the showrunner had enough and left. Now they have a new showrunner who let's them write one episode each again. Would love to hear your thoughts, Ken. Also, sorry for any typos, I am writing this on my phone.

Ane said...

"no such", not "lost such".

Dan Ball said...

Ane, that's crazy! A guy gets hired to bring order to the creative process, but the writers want anarchy and force him out. Wow...

Andy Ihnatko said...

A "Cheers" scene that I've thought of at least once a month since the first time I saw it: one of Coach's former teammates comes into the bar. Coach excitedly introduces him around, marveling that he played ball when he was legally blind. Friend corrects him: "They called me 'the blind man' because I used to sell venetian blinds door-to-door during the off-season."

Coach blinks as he processes this information. He turns back to the gang. "My God! HOW DID HE FIND THE DOORBELL?!"

What goes into creating a great, dumb, but believable character like that? It seems like there's this line that you can't cross without making this person seem completely unbelievable. Yet some of the funniest stuff happens when a writer tries to go as far as they can.

vicernie said...

what do you think of "Welcome to Sweden" I think that it is a delightful little show full of chuckle moments. it doesn't stand a chance on US television. we are not big enough to keep it in Canada.

Anonymous said...

I think Music and TV are too different to analogize. Songs contain the music and the words and a theme can be just in the music (for example, using acoustic guitar predominantly throughout will set one mood or most songs are slow songs, or a dour keyboard sound carries through most songs) and then there are the words -- the words themselves may not have specifically reference to an event (for example, a war) but may be symbolic of something (for example, each song is about darkness or feeling trapped or overcome). Pink Floyd's the Wall has an overarching theme - a child born in war time without a father and growing up in a strict society (at least I think that is the theme) but the later Beatles records also have a theme -- everyday life (A Day in the Life, She's Leaving Home, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields Forever). And sometimes you can record an entire album and only later realize the theme -- perhaps in the music or in the words -- like an entire album about about heartbreak and love and loss and sex and then you realize that all songs were written just as you were breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend.

So to the musician working on a theme it could already be there and may just need to honed -- maybe adding or subtracting from the music or writing one song that pieces it all together. Or changing the lyrics such that there is one common theme, like Roger Waters in Radio Kaos. The Who have their rock-operas and Pink Floyd has their theme-albums, but Beck has his slow and acoustic songs and Oasis wrote Whats the Story Morning Glory on acoustic guitar mainly. The Ramones' theme was fast music without any filler and the words mainly about life in dirty New York. And if you really want an overarching theme and realize there is none in the music or words, perhaps you need to forget every song written so far and start over and decide you want it to be soft or loud, or about one person or a group of persons that carries through every song or maybe it is just an idea (like lost love) that carries through.

Hope this helps and thanks for indulging. I love music and love to figure out why there is greatness from only a beat.

Ed from South Bend said...

Brandon Tartikoff.

He is sainted in the industry by many creative. Yes, he stood for quality more than most, yet he also was given a longer leash than most (By Tinker??).

What say you? Any personal dealings you could recount?

cadavra said...

At least with the Biffle and Shooster shorts, I do it backwards: Create a title (often a parody of a then-current film) that pretty much states the set-up and then write it. Thus THE BIFFLE MURDER CASE (whodunit spoof), IMITATION OF WIFE (one of them ends up in drag), BRIDE OF FINKLESTEIN (mad scientist is Jewish), and so on.

Allan V said...

Are there any unwritten (or written) rules that dictate how an extra is supposed to act during a scene? As I understand it, they're supposed to fill space and make the scene look normal, but without distracting the audience from the cast members. Are they simply told to avoid any movement that would bring attention to themselves, or is there more to it than that?

Barry Traylor said...

I think that Damon Herriman is also a pretty good actor period. I dearly love his Dewey Crowe on Justified but he played a chilling hitman on the short lived series Vegas that was on CBS for one season 2012-2013.

jbryant said...

Damon Herriman is indeed comic gold as Dewey Crowe. I was amazed when I first learned he is Australian.

Cathryn said...

Hey Ken,

How do you feel about the state of illegal downloading/streaming now? Do you think it'll inevitably get worse with younger generations doing it almost by instinct or do you see it being cracked down on harder than the war on drugs in the future?

Some people may argue facetiously that if it's 2 Broke Girls or an Adam Sandler movie, it's less of a crime than downloading Almost Perfect or Volunteers, but what do you think?

Thanks, the blog is really a great resource for all us novice writers.

Angela Gill said...

What has inspired your writing? What great books, activites, or tips would you recommend to a novice comedy writer trying to get their creative juices flowing?

Greg Hager said...

I agree about Damon Herriman as Dewey. I'm even more impressed since seeing him on Rake (the proper Australian version, mate). I just finished season 1; he's in episodes 4 and 8 as a Sydney cop. In a post earlier this year, Ken lamented that Rake didn't work with Greg Kinnear as the lead. Check out Richard Roxburgh in the original on Netflix. You want to kill him at times, but you still root for him. The show is entertaining, touching, and makes me laugh out loud multiple times per episode. Ken, please watch and plug this show!!!

Marianne said...


Hi Ken!

As an 18-year-old, part of the reason why I love ‘Cheers’ so much is that there aren’t many, if any, topical references. I can sit down and watch an episode with the understanding that knowledge of the events of 1983 is pretty much irrelevant. However, as you’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve noticed that shows tend to draw on references regarding recent events so as to create its humor.

Do you think it is possible today to make a show timeless? Is it easier or trendier nowadays to just stick with pop culture references? Do you think that some of the current popular shows will carry the same legacy as ‘Cheers’?

Thank you!

julian said...

thanks for the answer, Ken, and thanks to the others who commented on my question.