Thursday, July 03, 2014

The writing process on MAD MEN

Actually, I'm doing Friday Questions on Thursday this week since tomorrow is the 4th of July and most people have other things to do.   The first FQ is answered with the assistance of Matthew Weiner.

It comes from Ted:

I love Mad Men, and I've always thought that, like The Sopranos, the sharp writing comes from a staff in a room. But Matthew Weiner does a lot of publicity for the show, and he doesn't seem to mind if you think he creates every word, character, and storyline. So what's the truth? Is Mad Men room-written or not?

No. Matt comes up with the general arc and direction of the season. The staff works together with him on breaking stories and then write individual scripts. Matt then takes his pass at every draft. That’s not to say that a lot of the original writer’s draft doesn’t make the final cut but everything passes through Matt first. And that's in addition to the scripts he writes by himself. Hey, he’s the real deal, folks.

To confirm all this I double-checked with Matt, who added this:

I have had a lot of writers come through the show. And the story process in that room is very collaborative and essential. I do not and more importantly can not do it by myself.

Thanks, Matt. Also worth noting, whenever he’s interviewed he always makes a point to mention and thank his staff and crafts people and it’s very often not published.

Jose asks:

How would an actor find out that they're fired from a show for bad behavior? From who and how would they get the news?

Like if it was a young actor on a cable show who didn't take his job seriously and they just had a supporting role that could easily be written out of the show without them appearing again.

Uh..Jose, are you by chance on a cable show and feeling a little insecure??

When actors are fired it should be the showrunner who tells them but often times that thankless task gets pawned off to the agent or manager.

Most times it’s not because of bad behavior per se. Actors are often fired for reasons that are not their fault. They tested poorly. The network has someone they like better. Or the network has a deal with an actor and needs to stick him somewhere.

A few years ago a showrunner was ordered by the network to replace an actress with another of their choosing.  The new actress was terrible.   After several of her episodes aired the showrunner walked into a gym and there was the actress he fired on the treadmill.  She sees him and calls out across the entire gym, "Yeah, BIG improvement!"  

Shows also get rewritten and parts are dropped.

So in most cases, it’s like being the victim of a sniper. You never hear the bullet coming.

But there are also times when the actor knows he’s not cutting it. Getting fired is usually painful but it can also be a relief.

As for bad behavior, we really need to define just what that is. Some actors have a maddening process that drives everyone around them nuts. Is that bad behavior or bad work habits? If the performance is ultimately great it’s just the process; if it’s not you shoot him week four.

The only incident of real bad behavior I encountered was a guest actor who made a totally inappropriate sexual advance on an actress. When I found out about it later in the day I walked right down to the stage and fired him on the spot.

So be careful Jose. Work real hard, take your job seriously, and no hanky-panky with series regulars.

Here’s a question that all America wants answered. It’s from Ian:

How does Phoef Sutton pronounce her first name? I suspect it's something like "fuff," but I'm dying to know for sure.

It’s pronounced “Feef”, just like it’s spelled.   And as you can see, Phoef is a guy. 

Warren Z. wonders: 

If you were to write for a show like Modern Family, where every episode is based around a theme (sometimes loosely, sometimes not so much), would you start by determining the theme, and then work out each of the storylines from there? Or would you figure out the plots first and tweak them, if you need to, to fit a particular theme?

Theme FIRST. Always. It’s the spine. This also applies when creating a series, movie, play, novel – any dramatic enterprise. The best stories are ABOUT something.

To not have the theme first is like an artist painting something at random and then deciding what it looks like.

What's your Friday Question and what day would you like me to answer it on?  


Hamid said...

I have a Friday Q:

Is there something that you like, whether a song or a film or a food, whatever, that David doesn't and vice versa? That all through your years of friendship and working together neither of you can believe how the other could possibly like that song, movie etc?

Pat Reeder said...

Re: how actors are told they're fired. Gilbert Gottfried has an article in the new Playboy about how easy it is to offend people these days and how they're always demanding groveling apologies that celebrities have their press agents write, but they don't really mean them. He tells the story of how he was fired after one show opening for Belinda Carlisle, for being too dirty for the mommy-and-daughter audience. He said his agent called and the first thing he said was, "Belinda Carlisle's people LOVE you!" He said everyone knows that's the universal code for "You've just been fired."

BTW, I found it ironic that the very same issue of Playboy where Gilbert Gottfried shreds the vogue for demanding BS apologies for anything you say that might offend someone also includes the interview in which Gary Oldman said some things that offended someone so he was forced to go around apologizing for a week. But of course, that's different because he REALLY means it.

See what amazing things you notice when you actually read the articles in Playboy?

Howard Hoffman said...

I love Phoef. She's marvelous.

VincentS said...

I know what you mean about theme, Ken. Last week a friend of mine approached me to write a webisode for his web series. Not only had I never done a web series before, I am not a comedy writer, so I felt extra pressure on myself to be funny in addition to the responsibility of creating a situation and dialogue for someone else's characters. But once I viewed the episode he sent me the second time and hooked into the theme of the show - the greed and laziness of the main character - I used that as a goal to concentrate on and easily came up with an idea I was able to cultivate into a full script.

Dan Ball said...

Ken, a Friday question that continues with the theme of writing with a theme:

Do most new writers write with a theme or is it a pretty common beginner's mistake to not write with one? I feel like a lot of TV shows and movies don't necessarily make thematic storytelling a huge priority, which suggests that you can get work without infusing your work with a theme. If you think that's the case, would a writer who DOES work with themes stand out much more than a writer who doesn't?

(Hope that makes sense!)

Anonymous said...

Related to firing-actors:

My understanding is most series regulars on a new TV show sign a four-to-six year contract at the pilot stage. On "high-mortality rate" shows like LOST, if a character is killed off for story reasons (and not due to actor wishes or misbehavior) - are the actors paid for the full contract? It's not *their* idea to leave.


Tony Tower

RockGolf said...

C'mon everyone: from the info given, what guesses can we make as to the fired actress and her terrible replacement?

Johnny Walker said...

The rule on MAD MEN was that, if you wrote more than 20% of the script, you got a credit. Unlike Ken and David when they ran M*A*S*H, Weiner insists on getting a credit (and royalties) on every script he substantially adds to -- which, as the showrunner, is most.

You can watch an pure, unedited conversation with Weiner, conducted by his sister, here:

If you want to learn more about the production of MAD MEN, I HIGHLY recommend the book "DIFFICULT MEN".

BigTed said...

"How does Phoef Sutton pronounce her first name?"

I'm not sure if you're joking, but Phoef Sutton is a he.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Ken related the Wayward Tongue story a while back. I want a name but as an industry insider he wouldn't tell tales out of school. Ok I think it was Will Arnette. He's exactly like his "Arrested Development" character isn't he?

Anonymous said...

Ken Said:

"It’s pronounced “Feef”, just like it’s spelled. And as you can see, Phoef is a guy. "

Why would any parent name their child with a word used to describe vaginal flatulence??

If he hasn't already, I think Pheof's parents should be confronted.

Jerry Smith said...

Ken, on the actor's leaving a show (or not) theme, what about the one's who should be fired and are not? I've seen maybe three episodes of Babylon 5, but one featured the worst actress in TV history as a guest star. A person who should never considered acting for a living. After the first word out of her mouth, the director and showrunner should have known this woman would make them, and the show, look foolish and unprofessional. Yet they kept her and she had a large part in the episode. Why would they do that?

Jerry Smith

Matt Neffer, Boy Spotwelder said...

Hi Ken, You've written about theme before. It's interesting to me. Based on your answer, it almost sounds as though you sit down at the table and think "let's do an episode about the fear of death". But that can't possibly be right, can it? (Disclaimer: I actually worked with a show runner who did work this way and it was murder coming up with stories). I ask because my process has always been different. Often we'll have a pile of A and B stories on the wall and we're thinking about which one to pair with what. The ideas themselves came from a basic place: What's funny, what haven't we done with these characters before, etc. Out of that, for me, anyway, common themes will emerge. I'll look at a couple of story ideas and think "You know, both of those ideas are sort of about "loss" (for example). Maybe they would work together. And once we have that theme in our head the stories often break more easily. So I guess I'm saying that absolutely an episode must have a theme (as one writer I know put it, if you ask what the episode is about and the answer is "about 22 minutes", you screwed up) but it's still an organic outgrowth of story.

Susannah said...

Friday question: Did you see the second season of "Orange is the new black" yet? Did you like it? Personally I loved it, especially what they did with the Red-character this year. Lorraine Toussaint as Vee was also incredible. Hope to hear your thoughts.

John (not McCain) said...

"everything passes through Matt first"


Cap'n Bob said...

Ok, who is the fired actress?

jcs said...

Friday question:

30ROCK used product placement in several episodes to make up for its less than stellar ratings. A recent episode of MODERN FAMILY was filmed in Australia with the financial help of an Australian airline. Despite fairly clever writing on both shows, I felt that the plots of those episodes were not quite as smooth as usual. What's your opinion on pleasing the networks by accepting product placements, Ken?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think we should denominate "bad behavior" in Charlie Sheen Units.


Kit said...

Anonymous is clearing thinking of the word "Queef." Phoef is not named after a vaginal noise.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Vaginal Noise! We need a new product for it so we can hear that phrase in commercials. Quoff?

Johnny Walker said...

Just want to add that I didn't mean to make a judgement about Weiner taking credit, although looking back it reads like I was being very critical. It seems like an odd grey area in the industry. I guess it's understood that the showrunner will have their fingerprints on most scripts (and every other aspect of production), so they don't need credit, but I can also understand the desire to want to receive credit for your hard work. Hmm.

What's your take on this, Ken?

In other news, after loving DIFFICULT MEN, I couldn't help but pick up Season 1 of MAD MEN on the way home today. Wow. LOVED the pilot episode. Can't wait to get stuck in to the rest -- although I guess I've got to brace myself to watch "another show" in the later seasons.

BrettJ said...

I have a question / comment for some Friday in the future.

Everyone can easily think of a series that has "jumped the shark" (and in my case, I saw the episode that phrase is named for) and I am sure you are no different. Have you ever worked on a series that should have called it a day earlier than it did? How do you write something of good quality for a show that has seen better days?

Anonymous said...

David asks:
You mentioned that johnny carson 'wrote' the lyrics for Paul Anka's repurposed old pop song for the tonight show. I tried and failed to find the lyrics... Any idea what they are?

I'm planning on visiting Hawaii for the first time, probably Maui. What are Levine's top tips for a newbie?

Jabril Mack said...

Hey Ken
My Friday Q is more of a "Any-day Q":
I was in your USC comedy class last fall ( the guy that met with you about writing cartoons) anyway, I'm working on my thesis and would love for some advise from you! I'm not to sure how to contact you though. is my email.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: if you want to chat about the MAD MEN episodes as you watch them, call me.


Johnny Walker said...

Thanks, Wendy. You're a fan then? :)