Monday, June 15, 2015

Cutting remarks

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became a whole topic.   I talked recently about the exercise to thin down your scenes.  Well, what happens when you can't?

dwgsp asks:

I can imagine that you have been in situations where a script simply ran too long and you needed to cut something out, but the task seemed impossible because every line was integral to the story. Do you have any suggestions for how to identify what to remove? Would the same advice apply to other forms of writing, such as a short story or an essay?

You are right in that the one thing to preserve at all costs is the story. That sounds obvious, but it’s not. Sitcom writers will fall in love with jokes and trim story beats, hoping the audience will make the connection and still be able to follow the story.

If the audience is confused or is not involved in the story you’ve lost them. Jokes are just lipstick on a pig.

But that’s one of the reasons why I prefer stories that aren’t too complicated. Sometimes we writers can get too clever. We construct stories with four more twists than it needs. And what happens is you have so much story to tell that you leave yourself precious little room for fun.

I like my stories to be clever. I don’t want the audience to be able to predict the ending. But I also want to leave room for the show to breathe. I’m sure part of that is my belief that the best comedy comes out of characters. I want to see them interact. I want to be able to throw a topic in the air and have characters come at it from different points of view.

When I do a multi-camera show I hope that by the time it is filmed in front of a live audience it’s pretty much to time. Then ideally I get a two or three minute laugh spread. That allows me to go into editing with some room to play with. I can tighten things up, remove jokes that don’t work, etc.

But sometimes you get a bigger laugh spread or you find yourself still thirty seconds over after you’ve taken out everything you want, and then it’s tough. You occasionally have to lose good jokes. It’s a killer, but as the saying goes: sometimes you have to kill your babies.

David Isaacs and I faced a situation with the pilot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S that was somewhat unusual (for us). It was a nice problem to have. The show was to time when we brought in the studio audience. But the filming went through the roof. We ended up with a ten-minute laugh spread – on a twenty-minute program.  That's great until you have to cut it.

There comes a point where you can’t edit out too many jokes because characters will suddenly jump all over the room.

In this case, we whittled it down to seven-minutes over and decided to turn it into CBS. If they picked up the show we would just go back and re-film a couple of scenes, reblocking to accommodate the lifts.

The next day we got a call that Jeff Sagansky, the president of CBS, wanted us in his office. Uh oh. We called our agent saying, “I think we’re going to be handed our heads.  Do you know if Orange Julius is hiring?” He said it was a good thing that CBS summoned us. If they weren’t happy with the project they wouldn’t bother. They only had time to concentrate on the show they felt had promise.

It turns out he was right.

Jeff said he loved the pilot but of course, it was too long. He offered to screen it with us and help suggest further cuts. So we watched it together. Along the way there were times when David and I would chime in that you could cut this bit or lose that joke, and Jeff would always say, “No, I like that line.” After the show ended we had another thirty seconds in cuts. He said, “Screw it. Just turn it in as is.”

We did. The show did get picked up. And we did reshoot a couple of scenes to get the show down to time. This was before anyone had come up with the idea of “Super Size” shows. And even then, that was a privilege reserved for big hit series like FRIENDS, not summer tryout pilots like ours.

It’s a problem all showrunners face, but today it’s worse because networks insist shows be shorter (to accommodate more commercials and promos). You’d think that would make it easier for writers because they had to write less, but it’s actually harder because it’s more difficult to tell good stories in a more condensed period of time.

So that's how we attack the problem.   Then there are those mysterious editors hired to trim shows for syndication.  They use a different method.  They just hack indiscriminately.  Or at least that's how it seems.  I'm so glad that you can now see MASH episodes in their original form.  Some of the syndicated episodes were absolutely butchered.   At times they would just lift entire scenes.  All of a sudden nothing made sense.  For years I couldn't watch MASH reruns because I got so furious with the editing.

That's why it's best to do it first.  Don't let "them" fix it.   


Hamid said...

Getting my comment in before my loony stalker pitches up with his latest nonsensical rant

There's a bit from an episode of Big Wave Dave's I still remember which cracked me up. One of the characters keeps repeating what someone else says as though it has some sexual innuendo. He keeps doing it until he says something which another character points out has no sexual innuendo to it and repeating it was meaningless. Can you please put up the transcript of this bit or which episode it was in, in case it's on Youtube! Would love to read it/see it again!

And to my stalker: seriously, get help or get a life.

Oat Willie said...

"For years I couldn't watch MASH reruns because I got so furious with the editing." At this statement the writers of WKRP gave a weary, hardened laugh.

MikeN said...

Couldn't you just take it to a guy at a local station in charge of editing?

They do a good job taking out 4 minutes to make room for commercials.
Cut out the laugh track, edit out pauses, speed up speech by 10%, etc.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

This is one of the reasons why I hate how shows keep getting shorter and shorter to allow time for more commercials. I find it already difficult to try and cram as much content into 21-minutes' worth of show and have it all flow smoothly and make sense, but it's darn-near impossible to try to condense it all down to as short as 17-18 1/2-minutes!

Sal said...

Ken, I've never seen this show. Is it available anywhere?

By Ken Levine said...

The pilot and one other episode is up on YouTube. Check it out. Mahalo.

Andy Rose said...

It sometimes seems like producers of single-camera shows get a little lazy about cutting down their scripts before they get to the stage. I see a lot of episodes where it's obvious that large sections of a scene have been slashed in editing, with a quick ADR line added so that the story still makes sense.

Igor said...

Ken, what I love about your post today, and others of yours of a similar sort: It tells us that even someone at your level (of skill and experience) struggles with the same stuff (we) amateurs do. Again, yes, at a different level. But before reading your posts like this one, we might just assume whenever _you_ faced this kind of problems... the solutions were obvious, and with a few quick flicks of your editing saber - Viola! [sic]


Mike said...

May I ask the layman's question: why not simply edit the laughter?

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,
I don't know if you have ever read John Cleese's biography So Anyway but I just came across this paragraph(below) where he is talking about a Footlights Review he did at Cambridge back in the sixties. I thought it was interesting how closely aligned you two are in your views on comedy.

No, I think it’s simply because there was nothing in the whole damn show that was really funny. And I think that deep down, that’s what has always really motivated me. When I’ve had enough artistic control, I’ve always aimed at being as funny as I can possibly be—not at being clever or witty or amusing or charming or whimsical or quite funny—all the things that our revue could claim to be. And being really funny is much harder than being clever or witty or etc., etc. And we weren’t quite up to that yet

Unknown said...
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Johnny Walker said...

Possible Friday question, Ken: Were there any unaired episodes of Big Wave Dave's? Wikipedia says there were only ever six produced. Is it right?