Monday, September 28, 2015

How to begin a pilot

Let’s say I’m given a pilot to write. And for whatever reason, this has to be my first scene: Young guy brings the girl he’s recently dated back to her place. She invites him in the for the first time. He’s excited because he figures he’s going to get laid. But when they step inside he learns that her ex-fiancé is on the couch. He still lives there.

Okay. That could be funny.

Actually, it better be. Pilots are much harder to write than normal episodes and the first scenes of pilots are the hardest of all. Why? Here’s what you have to do: Establish the premise, introduce the characters, begin a story, forge the tone, and make it really funny. As the expression goes: You only have one chance to make a first impression. That first scene has to hook the audience. Viewers have to feel they’re in good hands; that they will be rewarded for spending their precious time sampling your pilot for thirty minutes.

So that’s my assignment.

First, a disclaimer. I realize I’m old school, retro, out of touch, whatever. My approach is based on experience, a certain sensibility, and principles I believe to be universal and timeless. Feel free to seek other approaches.

My initial thought is: who are these characters? How can I make them interesting? How can I give them traits or behavior that is fun, identifiable, and sets up an intriguing dynamic between them? For now I’ll call the young couple Matt and Colleen.

And in concert with that, how can I make the situation as funny as possible? Not just amusing, not just wry – this is the opening scene of my pilot, maybe the only scene a viewer will watch – I can’t afford for it to be anything other than laugh out loud funny. It’s always best to give characters strong attitudes or goals and for this particular situation I would think it would heighten things if Matt really needs to get laid. He hasn’t had sex in awhile so he is champing at the bit. Guys will go to great comic lengths to get sex (so I've been told).  Now the scene becomes one of frustration and my job is the construct the funniest cock blocking scenario.

So I consider possibilities. What if…?

What if they get in the house, the ex-fiancé is there, and he’s really belligerent? “This is the ferret you left me for?” The couple get into a fight and the poor Matt is in the middle, all the while being belittled. Maybe. Matt could be somewhat insecure and this feeds into his neurosis. But he still tries to work things out and get the ex-fiancé to leave.

Or they get in the house and the ex is crying? Matt has to console him.

Or the ex goes on an on about what a bitch Colleen is. He shatters any illusion. Matt is torn between wanting desperately to sleep with her and to run.

Or the ex is not there when they get to the house. Things heat up quickly. Matt is practically undressed on the couch when the ex comes home. Puts Matt in the most compromising position possible. (Comedy writers are evil, aren't we?)

Or it doesn’t appear that the ex is home. Matt & Colleen are in bed and Matt hears crying from the other room. Learns that the ex still has the adjacent bedroom. Matt desperately wants sex, but can he perform under these weird circumstances?

Or Matt & Colleen arrive to find the ex is there with another girl. How does Colleen react? How does Matt react? Is there a big fight? Does the ex want to do a four-way?

Or Matt & Colleen are making out on the couch and then the ex arrives with another girl. Is Colleen mad?  Jealous?  Is there fun in her double-standard attitude?

Or Matt knows the ex.

Or Matt knows the other girl the ex is with.

Or Colleen knows the other girl the ex is with.

Or the other girl is Matt’s sister.

Or the other girl is Matt’s ex-fiancé.

Or something else. You may have a better one.

And then some specifics. What’s the funniest Matt reaction to learning the ex is still in the house? It could be a great “What the fuck” moment. Colleen obviously knows there’s the complication of the ex still living in the place. How does she explain it? How did she think she was going to finesse the situation?

You get the idea.

I would bat around all of these ideas and see which one gave me the absolute most bang for my buck. I’m always imagining the audience and saying to myself, “Would they laugh at that? Would they REALLY laugh at that?” A lot of times I might say, “No. They’d smile, maybe they’d chuckle, but they wouldn’t laugh.” So how can I make it funnier so they would laugh? (Note: I may be wrong in my prediction but at least in my best professional judgment I’m striving for the maximum reaction.) So I would arrive at the scenario that was most promising, would even have a number of sample big laugh moments or jokes and then try to write the best scene I could.

That’s me.  Old veteran me.

LIFE IN PIECES premiered last week on CBS. It has a likable cast and slick look. I wish it well. I missed the debut on the air but caught up with it a few days later ON DEMAND. Since it was on  ON DEMAND, a lot of my remote features didn’t work and I had to watch it straight through. So I only saw this scene once and am describing it by memory (which may be as faulty as my computer ability).

But here was the opening scene:

Matt (Thomas Sadoski from NEWSROOM) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral from ENLISTED) come home from a date. She invites him up to her place. Once there they find her ex-fiancé sitting on the couch. Matt is just kind of frozen. The ex is mildly annoyed. The ex still thinks he has a chance with Colleen. It’s just an awkward moment. And the characters are AWARE they’re in an awkward moment. (Again, this is “me” thinking – this isn’t funny enough. This is really tepid. And I’m also wondering -- do the writers think this is hysterical? Do they think an audience is really in stitches over this? Or do they not even put the scene to that mental test?)

So what does Matt do? Characters need to actively address a situation. Matt does nothing. What does Colleen do? She offers some wine. There’s a little cutesy banter. The ex comments that they’re “bantering.” Everyone in this scene is totally AWARE of the conventions they’re using. It’s like they’re all too cool to have any strong emotions or reactions. The humor has to come from them merely realizing they’re in a potential comic situation. As a result there’s a real distance. And for me the scene loses its comic edge.

The scene ends with them deciding to go to his place instead. The big joke then is that his place is occupied… by his nutty parents. Awk-ward.

Old school, retro Ken believes if you’re doing a comedy you’ve got to own it. Characters finding themselves in awkward comic situations have been a staple for years. We find ourselves in awkward comic situations in our real lives.

They really happen.

But we don’t step back and observe; we ACT. I’m hoping that LIFE IN PIECES succeeds. It’s just the pilot and they’re finding their way. And I present this post as a learning exercise, not a knock on them. It’s a way to illustrate other possibilities. And a lot of you are aspiring writers currently crafting your spec pilots. Think of the audience and ask yourself the hard question. “Is this FUNNY enough?” And if not, no matter what your age or sensibility, or how cool you are, go back and make it funnier. And don’t apologize.


Stop all the Complaining said...

All good points Ken. I think of your ideas, the one that would have been the funniest and most interesting was the two engaged in sexual activity in the bedroom and him suddenly realizing the ex is in the bedroom next door.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think it was a tough ask as a pilot first scene, actually. I guess they thought the farce of their frustration in looking for somewhere to have sex was funny (but how often have we seen that done?), but questions arose as to whether I was going to want to spend any more time with these characters: is she so deaf to other people's feelings that she doesn't know her ex is upset at the thought of her seeing someone else and that her new squeeze might be uncomfortable? (In which case: run. Well, maybe have sex first, then run.) Is Matt a doormat or really into this girl and prepared for some stormy waters while he gets her?

The one thing that might have been fun is to focus on the ex: is he a masochist or a manipulator? Is he trying to game this situation somehow to his advantage?

I'm curious about LIFE IN PIECES in that it's a weird format - four stories every week. And it's a good cast - Dianne Wiest doing TV? I thnk they should have put the funeral story first. It offered opportunities to introduce all the cast, and at least it was something that hasn't been on TV a thousand times.


blinky said...

This is one of your best posts ever. You were supportive but honest. Not just critical but you gave examples of alternatives. You owned it!
I would enjoy reading your critique of every show out there. How about the new flavor of Romcom like Catastrophe?
In any case, good job Mr Levine.

Tobi said...

I gave this one a shot...mostly because of the cast. They deserve better.
It left me with the overwhelming despair that this is what good actors must lower themselves to do if they want to work. Each story was desperately reaching for something new (shoving frozen rubber gloves up your wife's tender birth canal while grimacing in disgust - a natural evolution, I suppose, of the persistence of vagina jokes in other shows) and inevitably falling for old chestnuts (accidentally and predictably slamming down the casket cover and being unable to lift it back up - panic ensues).
Does Mr. Brolin really need the work so badly?
The sight of poor Academy Award winning Ms. Weist, frantically pushing a coffin out the door at the end brought me to tears...and not of laughter.
What they really needed here, was the watchful eye of Mr. Pomerantz, who would never allow such 'unreal', vulgar and telegraphed moments to make it out of the writers' room.

cadavra said...

Wow, Ken, you're a lot kinder than I would have been. I normally give a new series three episodes before giving up on it, but LIFE is so mind-numbingly dreadful that it's one and out for me. And compounding the felony is yet another waste of the gloriously talented Zoe Lister-Jones; in her previous lousy sitcoms (e.g., FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES, WHITNEY), she at least managed to elevate the lame material she was given, but here she can't even manage that. Someone get her a show worthy of her brilliant comic sensibilities.

Jim said...

The scene you described struck me, when I saw it, as belonging to that contemporary school of comedy writing that has no use gags in a comedy scene. In fact, this approach to comedy avoids anything that might make the audience laugh out loud. Anything that could be clearly identified as "a gag." That's old-fashioned and hackneyed. To write this kind of scene, you never have your characters say or do anything that might come off as funny. Instead, the laughs are supposed to be inherent in the situation itself, not in how the characters react to the situation or how they deal with it. This style of comedy writing is all set-up and no payoff.

I do understand that writers want to avoid having their characters speak in zingers and one-liners. Too many sitcoms fall into that trap, and it's annoying. (My wife has been working her way through THE GOLDEN GIRLS lately, and I swear, that show needed a drummer just offstage, playing rim shots.) But, you know, it's entirely possible to have your characters saying and doing funny things, in finding funny angles to your situation, without everyone coming off like Morey Amsterdam or your script like an episode of I MARRIED JOAN.

Mike said...

This was mine before reading yours:
Matt & Colleen enter flat. Verbal foreplay. Some clothes scattered. Onto the couch/bed. Matt searches in wallet for condom. Empty.
Colleen: "That's OK, honey." Reaches out hand.
"Here you are." Male voice from directly alongside.
Colleen: "Thanks... Oh, this is..." After titles, Matt repeatedly tries to leave but Colleen & Ex pull him back.
"It's OK, we're just good friends." Really?
For 22 mirthless episodes, Matt tries to discover what's really going on as he meets her friends & family and they incrementally destroy his life. (I needed to use the title at some point.)

Mike Martin said...

I was watching this pilot when it came on after a show I was watching and I figured I'd give it a chance.
I watched through this opening and at the end of it I said "eh" and I changed the channel. You were spot on. It was tepid.

Rick said...

It was one of those shows where you think "okay, this is an interesting situation," and you decide to wait and see what funny things they do with it. But they don't do anything funny with it because apparently it's out dated to have your characters say or do anything that might be construed as "funny." These writers' rooms must be bizarre. I always imagined traditional writers' rooms as a bunch of guys (and gals) sitting around trying to come up with the funniest possible way to spin a line or a situation. On shows like LIFE IN PIECES I imagine them all sitting around trying to come up with lines and actions that are LESS funny, because, you know, god forbid that anything should sound remotely like a gag or come across as if you're making an effort to make people laugh. ("I don't know, Dave, that line made me smile. I think we need to take it out. We don't want to come across like we're TRYING to make people laugh.")

Grace said...

Here's a Friday question, Ken: how do shows handle it when one season picks up where the previous season ended? For instance, in the seventh-season finale of Frasier, Daphne and Niles decide to run off together in the Winnebago; in the season eight opener, they're in the same places in the same Winnebago in the same clothes as though the two scenes were made together. So I guess my question is are those sorts of scenes generally made together? Do you send the audience home and have the actors stay so everything looks the same? Do you take tons of photos and use the episode to restore everything when you return to work? I can't imagine how the writers would necessarily KNOW that they needed to do all that work, but I've seen it on a lot of shows, so obviously someone's planning.

Sid said...

I imagine them all sitting around trying to come up with lines and actions that are LESS funny

Actor Tony Dow, talking about the series Leave It to Beaver, remembered that anything in the scripts that got too big a laugh from the cast and crew in rehearsal would be taken out before filming began. Series creators Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher wanted Beaver to maintain a low-key style and generate smiles rather than belly laughs. (Connelly and Mosher had written Amos 'n Andy for several years and were no strangers to broad comedy and going for the biggest possible laugh.)

McAlvie said...

I tried out that show for a few minutes. It was more like a long gag than a story. That the girl was so blasé about the ex living there seemed idiotic. After a few minutes, when I realized I didn't care how this was going to end, I changed the channel.

Diane D. said...

"It's like they're all too cool to have any strong emotions or reactions." That is also a good description of many 30 somethings who would be watching the show. If they catch themselves unexpectedly in a laugh out loud situation, they feel embarrassed and guilty. When they see someone joyously dissolve into laughter (especially at a TV show), they seem to pity him/her. It's a type of social evolution that is absolutely bewildering to me.

Many of the questions you say you would ask yourself about a first scene in a pilot, are answered with skill and brilliance in the first scene of the CHEERS pilot---laugh out loud funny, captivating, intriguing, and I'm just referring to the brief conversation involving Diane, Sam, and the woman on the phone! Best pilot ever!

Al said...

This post made me think of modern comedy in a new way. In an era in which we're all very well versed in TV tropes (so much so that it's one of my favorite websites), it seems that writers now go out of their way to avoid the established tropes of older comedies. The Life in Pieces Pilot struck me as one that tries really hard to be "edgy, relevant and modern" but in avoiding tropes, never actually settles on a point of view. In the scene you describe, I'm reminded of the lesson's of my first acting class which was to make a decision. Any decision is better than trying to play to the middle. Seems they were over aware of audience expectations in that scene and instead of either a.) transcending them with a new take or b.) playing out the classic trope in a unique and entertaining way they decided on c.) neither.

The whole pilot seemed to find the only way to push the envelope was to end each segment with a fairly crude or dirty joke. And often, they weren't jokes as much as uncomfortable glimpses into someones life that while rarely seen on TV, aren't particularly funny. The ice glove scene would have been better to me if there was a joke at the end of it, rather than simply having it happen and expecting the audience to fall down in hysterics. I'm actually quite a fan of the well told crude or dirty joke, but this pilot seemed obsessed with sex in a way that seemed really forced.

I wonder if the need for modern comedy to acknowledge the audience's familiarity with the form has caused it to try so hard to comment on the joke, it forgets to actually tell the joke. I watched some rare I Love Lucy stuff on Hulu last night (A promo for the Desilu Television Playhouse, I believe) in which they basically had the Lucy cast playing themselves, but still playing the familiar Lucy/Ricky/Fred/Ethel stuff. All of the familiar joke patterns and gags were there, but I was falling out of my chair laughing at what was (to me anyway) new I Love Lucy bits. It followed the same patterns from the show I've been watching my whole life, but still had me laughing.

MikeK.Pa. said...

"First, a disclaimer. I realize I’m old school, retro, out of touch, whatever. My approach is based on experience, a certain sensibility, and principles I believe to be universal and timeless."

All the reasons I read you every day. :)

You probably have this planned but would love to hear about the two-day sitcom writing class you've doing this fall. Ditto from the blog readers who attended.

Ed said...

Class is in session!
Thanks Mr. Levine...this was better than anything that could be found a screenwriting book or any how-to on the subject.
This was a brilliant way to make us think and challenge ourselves on what we have on our first page and first few pages.
You're awesome!

cadavra said...

Okay, I gave in and decided to give it a second chance. At the second break, I switched over to the last 15" of Penn & Teller. Fool me twice...

MikeN said...

Ken, what type of remote do you have? If it is a silver/gray one with white/red/gray buttons, then you can program a 30 second skip. During on demand this becomes a 5 minute skip, a little faster to skip ahead and rewind 2.

If it is the black remote for the new X1, hit exit 3 times and type 0030, and your page up and down will now jump 30 sec in On Demand.

Nick said...

I didn't like the pilot either. I didn't think it was funny. Watched the second episode today and still not funny. It's not improving. It's not "finding itself" or whatever I've heard critics say. It's just really dull.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I changed the channel after the rubber glove scene and will not go back. This is apparently a new genre called gynecomedy. After her well-publicized financial problems I was happy to see the great Dianne Wiest employed, but it may not be for long.

McAlvie said...

Okay, maybe this will make me sound like an old-timer, too, but why do tv writers have such a low opinion of 20-somethings? It always seems to be the same thing - shallow people sleeping around. I may not be in that demographic, but I was once and even now I don't think it resembles most people in that age group.

I'm also puzzled by the idea of targeting a specific demographic. Doesn't that just narrow the already slim possibility of your show making it? Isn't it smarter to just write good tv that will appeal to a broad audience ... you know, the way they used to do it? The whole narrow demographic concept seems like a bad investment.

J said...

I haven't watched the show but I read the script. The real issue, to me, is the characters. If you look at the script, the character descriptions are usually just the person's age and occasionally the race (if it's not mentioned, I guess you just assume the character is white). Slice-of-life comedies like Transparent don't have to be too joke-heavy to be entertaining, but they fall apart if the characters are bland rather than genuine and recognizable.

cadavra said...

"Why do tv writers have such a low opinion of 20-somethings? It always seems to be the same thing - shallow people sleeping around. I may not be in that demographic, but I was once and even now I don't think it resembles most people in that age group."

As Hartley wrote, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." As a baby boomer (as you may be), I can tell you that being in one's 20s back then was not like it is now. I encounter millennials all the time. Some are indeed bright and lively and could actually find their home state on a map, but far too many of them are, sadly, sloths whose only interests are getting wasted and getting laid. Plus most of them speak some sort of odd language that's somewhere between English and gibberish, with a vocabulary that seems limited to "awesome," "sucks," "like," "y'know," "fuckin'" and "shit." Plus many have the manners of orangutans (been to a movie on opening weekend lately?), and if something wrong happens it's never their fault and you're an asshole for saying so. So if I sound like a grumpy old man, I'm sorry, but it's because I've been driven to it by one too many encounters with these little snots, and I hate them for ruining so many things we used to take for granted.

Bryan Thomas said...

In my opinion, LIFE IN PIECES grew to be one of the funniest sitcoms in recent memory. So many genuine gut laughs. I think it was ill served by CBS and unfortunately did not grow enough audience but you notice they kept it around. It consistently entertained me for sure.