Thursday, October 15, 2015

The strangest rewrite I've ever been in

With THE SITCOM ROOM coming up this weekend, I'm reminded of my craziest rewrite room experience.
A colleague of mine was teaching a writing course at a local Hollywood vocational college that specialized in TV & film production. Several divisions were collaborating on producing a half-hour sitcom episode. The writers branch was supervising the script, the directors branch handled directing, sets were constructed by production teams, editing students would cut it, etc. This was just a school exercise. The finished product would not be aired or even uploaded to the internet.

My friend asked if I would attend the table reading. He was assembling a few professional writers to join in on the rewrite. I was happy to help. They had an existing script, but it was from a British sitcom and he thought it might need some “Americanizing.” Fair enough.

Then I learned the script was from FAWLTY TOWERS. (They had secured permission to do it.) Okay, that was weird right off the bat. I was going to be rewriting John Cleese? “Hey, Mozart, I think you need some quarter notes here.”

But again, no one was going to see this so what the hell?

I arrived at their “campus,” which was several floors of a high rise in Hollywood. There was a big lecture hall. All of the students from the university were invited to attend regardless of their division. A table was set up in the middle of the cavernous room with individual desk/chairs surrounding it, several rows deep. Imagine a boxing ring or theater-in-the-round.

I’m guessing close to a hundred students filed in for the reading. Professional actors had been hired and although they were far from the originals they weren’t “Waiting for Guffman”either.

My writer friend worked on hour-dramas in his day and the other writers he had assembled for the rewrite were also drama veterans. This was going to be an interesting punch-up. FAWLTY TOWERS was so similar in style and jokes to STAR TREK VOYAGER.

The reading went fair. There was some work to do. The actors left, everyone took a break, milling around. I asked my chum where were we going to go to do the rewrite? He said we were going to do it here at the table. “Okay,” I said, “Then let’s clear everybody out so we can go to work.” “Oh no,” he said. “The students are staying.”


Oh yes, this would be a great learning experience for them.

Now understand, writing rooms are the ultimate Las Vegas. What happens there, stays there. It’s a unique environment where people are forced to be creative on demand under extreme pressure. The staff must feel free to say anything no matter how appalling, politically incorrect, or stupid. Add just one outsider to the room and it’s like turning off the tap. Writers become very inhibited. There are certain activities you don’t do for an audience. Even though you can’t go blind doing rewrites they are one of them.

So if one looky-loo can squelch a room, imagine a hundred.

All the kids returned to their seats and for us it was like conducting a rewrite on the set of THE VOICE with a full audience (but at least there was no Carson Daly).

So there I am, rewriting a classic show I have no business touching, working with writers who devise grisly murders while two-hundred eyes were trained on us.

Needless to say, I was the only one pitching jokes. I think one of the other scribes wondered if Basil could kill Manuel but we nixed it.

The only good thing I found about doing a rewrite under these conditions was that when I pitched a joke that got a big laugh there was no argument as to whether or not it should go in. There were even a couple of times I drew applause. It was like I was doing a magic show. And I thought to myself : what was once a highly-sought-after unique professional skill has now been reduced to a parlor trick.

I’ve had strange rewrites before, but never one where it felt like an audition to open for Tom Jones in Vegas.


Bill Avena said...

Must have been like walking into a blowtorch. I remember seeing an Americanized Fawlty Towers with Harvey Korman in the late 70s(?) so there must have been a few writers rushing in where you feared to tread. So, so bad...

Rock Golf said...

There were, IIRC, at least 3 attempts to "Americanize" Fawlty Towers. One, "Amanda's" had Bea Arthur as a fish restaurant owner.

No surprise they all flopped.

Chris G said...

I think there was another Americanized Fawlty Towers with John Laroquette, too.

Don K. said...

Nothing from nothing, but I've seen Tom Jones in Las Vegas and he didn't have an opening act. Trying out for a job that doesn't exist must really blow.

Frank Beans said...

If American network television did a FAWLTY TOWERS rewrite today, Basil Fawlty would be renamed Brad Johnston (and with a full head of hair), and Manuel would be a 6-foot-2 hunk named Jeremy.

Andrew said...

I think you missed an opportunity, Ken. You could have done the whole episode as a tongue-in-cheek drama, while letting everyone else think you were serious.

Basil and Polly are secret lovers. They kill his wife.
Manuel finds out, and tries to blackmail them. Basil kills Manuel.
After a 1/2 hour, Columbo shows up and starts asking questions.

If you kept a straight face through the whole thing, it would be a comedic work of performance art, second to none.

Chris said...

The issue of Americanizing "Fawlty Towers" aside, I'm questioning the bone-headed idea of the entire premise of the "experience" for the students. What the what? You were kindness itself to participate, Ken, but other than you, this is an idea that, as a member of academia myself (and one with a nice professional resume) shouldn't have gotten past the professor, let alone the chair or the dean. You alone in a room fielding questions would have a much better use of everyone's time.

TH said...

This is insane! Why do people think writing is a PERFORMING art? *head.desk.bang*

TH said...

This is insane! Why do people think writing is a PERFORMING art? *head.desk.bang*

Tobi said...

Spoiler Alerts....
Well, I gave that new show "Life in Pieces" another try. Oy!
There seems to be a rigid formula built in to each show that is not just about the structure and characterizations. It seems there must also be a weekly 'gross-out' event. We've had the shoving of icy rubber gloves up a post-partum vagina and now, this week, a lengthy discussion of childhood 'boogers'. I'm sure the parents of that poor little actress playing the daughter must be very proud. I'm equally sure she will be delighted to add this scene to her demo reel!

With that in mind, I have some suggestions for future episodes:
Diane Weist pees in her pants and goes shopping for 'Depends'!
Niall Cunningham gets a boner in front of the whole school!
Jordan Peele gets raped in prison....a million laughs!
James Brolin has prostate surgery and can't get it up anymore (I realize this harkens back to a plot point in "Modern Family", but they are desperately trying to copy that show in so many ways, so what the heck!)
You'll have to tell me how it all turns out. I'll just wait to see them all again when they trot up to the stage to get their Emmy's.

Barry G said...

Your story of rewriting in front of an audience reminded me of one I heard decades ago about the late 1980's show "Amen," starring Sherman Hemsley and produced by Johnny Carson's company. As the story goes, Carson attended a run-through, then followed the writers back up to the rewrite room, where he planned to watch them work. But nobody would say a word, completely intimidated by Carson's presence. Finally, the showrunner (maybe Ed. Weinberger) took Carson aside, explained the situation, and Carson left.

I wonder if any of your readers can verify that story.

Ken, you clearly didn't have a problem performing in front of a hundred students. How would you have felt about pitching in front of one comedy legend?

Igor said...

At the risk of appearing to be victim blaming... Ken, is that your turnip truck out front?

OK, yes it's great when a friend asks and one just says, "Yes." But, jeesh - There's going in blind, and there's going in BLIND. Rather than a colleague asking you, it reads more like your bookie's son asked you - when you were 100K in the hole and asked for "just one more week to get the money, I swear."

On the other hand, from where I sit... it's somehow good to know that even your friend who's in the business - i.e., in one segment of the business - could have been (per your story) so lost as to how he should have set things up for a class on comedy rewrites.

All that said... As usual, a fun read.

Anonymous said...

Fittingly Pythonesque! And now it’s time for novel-writing, which today comes from the West Country, from Dorset...

MikeK.Pa. said...

The one unanswered question: Is he STILL your friend?

Andy Rose said...

In fairness to those attempts to Americanize Fawlty Towers, you can never really judge how a re-imagined show is going to turn out based strictly on a one-line description. If you said "Take a British sitcom about a lower-class schemer and his nasty dad, recast it with a bawdy, professionally unreliable Black stand-up comedian, set it in a junkyard in Watts, and watch the hilarity ensue!" you probably would not have guessed the show would last 6 seasons.

That story about "Amen" has a ring of truth to it. According to one of the biographies of Carson, he wasn't particularly proud of the show, and in particular thought the people who managed his company had paid far too much for their development deal with Ed. Weinberger.

D. McEwan said...

Next, punching up Twelfth Night as Superbowl half-time entertainment.

The actor who played Manuel in the third Americanization of Fawlty Towers is a friend of mine whom I have directed in a show. Good comic actor, good casting for the role, and unlike Andrew Sachs, Actually Hispanic.

Rashad Khan said...

I don't blame Carson for feeling less than proud of "Amen." That show was like death, from ignoble beginning to bitter end.

Hamid said...

It will be much fun this weekend when the sitcom room goes on. Cannot wait.

Paul Duca said...

Andy--obviously you are referring to SANFORD & SON. It turns out years earlier other producers had the rights, produced a pilot...and NBC was expected to put STEPTOE & SON on its 1965-66 schedule, but changed its mind at the last minute.

Igor said...

@D. McEwan –