Sunday, January 10, 2016

Comedy 101: How we break a story

Yesterday I posted an episode of ALMOST PERFECT. As (hopefully) a fun experiment, I thought today I would break down the thought process that went into it. This might be helpful to young writers learning how to construct stories and for non-writers it might be fun or a giant snooze. I’ll try to be funnier tomorrow. This episode was written by me, my partner David Isaacs, and co-creator Robin Schiff. Stan Daniels did a terrific job directing it.

If you haven’t watched it yet, you can see it here.

The core of the series was the relationship between Kim (Nancy Travis) and Mike (Kevin Kilner). She had a high-powered job as head writer of a TV cop show. He was a DA. Watching Kim juggle her career and relationship was our money.

Perfect characters are no fun so we wanted to give Kim some flaws. She was good at her job but she was also a little narcissistic and bossy. So we wanted to do an episode where she went out of her way to do something for Mike and it was something very hard for her to do. We came up with cooking. She tries to make Mike’s favorite meal.

You might be thinking, gee that sounds like a simple story. You’re right. But that’s okay if it’s really about something. This wasn’t just watching Lucy fucking up a chicken, this was about an insecure person desperately trying to prove her worth in a relationship. And along the way there was fun to be had.

Two problems: One – we had to find a B story to involve the other characters since the cooking story was primarily just Mike & Kim at Kim’s house. And this all had to take place over one night. Ideally, we could use the B story to cover the passage of time while the chicken was cooking.

Earlier in the season our line producer Larina Adamson had uncovered some stock footage of a building blowing up. We could recreate the building, dress up a structure on the New York street and make it appear that we’re blowing it up. We thought that might serve us at some point and this was the point.

It’s always good to have conflict or rivalries between characters. One of the dynamics we set up between Kim and co-worker Gary (the brilliant Chip Zien) was that Gary resented Kim for getting the job he felt he deserved. To Gary, she got it because she’s a woman. He was the voice of anti-feminism, which was a nice balance to Kim’s pro-feminism stance.

Anyway, we thought what if Kim puts him in charge that night while she goes home and cooks? And on their cop show they have to blow up a building. He winds up supervising and accidentally gives the cue blowing up the building while the cameras are off. The actual brainchild for that story came from Mike Teverbaugh, who along with his wife Linda were INVALUABLE members of our staff. 

So we began plotting out the episode.

The objective of the first scene was to establish Mike’s appreciation of certain qualities Kim doesn’t possess. How about if they bump into an old flame? That would freak Kim out. But where do they meet? We decided it might be fun outside a movie theater. We establish that Kim loves gory horror movies and thinks romcoms are lame. Right away we see she’s not your usual moviegoer.

Mike’s old girlfriend passes by. We wished to avoid introductions, boring dialogue, etc. So we had Kim get a call while Mike was chatting with his old flame. This call achieved a second purpose. We set up there’s a big stunt to come and Kim is clearly in charge of all decisions.

Mike returns and Kim learns this girl had a high-powered job (like hers) but gave it up to raise her children. She’s very nurturing and a great cook – qualities that Kim lacks.

Scene two: That night. They’re in bed. Kim can’t sleep. Decides to cook his favorite meal. Ends the scene by saying, “Hunh, I must really like you.” For Kim making fried chicken is a big deal.

And this is important: your characters must really WANT something. The tougher the task and the more they want it, the better your story will be. Even if that desire is seemingly trivial.  For Kim this dinner isn’t just for pride. She believes in some warped sense her relationship depends on it.

Now we go to the office and set up for the audience what this stunt is and why it’s a big deal. Kim is dealing with the director and special effects guy. Again, she’s comfortably in charge. We also wanted the guys to razz Kim for trying to cook. This lets the audience know that this relatively simple task is Herculean for her.

Kim wouldn’t reveal her plans to them because she knows they would give her shit. That’s why Rob enters with the fax. At the end of the scene Kim puts Gary in charge for the night. He collapses on the ground. We wanted a funny reaction to her gesture. Gary mocks her, like she’s doing him such a favor when in fact he’s more qualified (in his mind) than she is.

Off to the kitchen. Kim struggling. But what attitude to take? Anxious and apprehensive seemed familiar. So went against that. Made her manic – masking her fears by getting a little silly. We also wanted to showcase Nancy’s comedic skills. Yeah, it’s a little slapstick but she’s very cute pulling this off. And we get a big joke when Mike enters and sees what she’s doing.

Back to the office. The director enters and says that due to impending rain they either have to do the stunt tonight or tomorrow as planned but hope for the best. Gary in charge now has a big decision. Tough decisions help drive stories. Gary opts to blow up the building that night.  His co-workers think he's making a big mistake.    Look, the audience KNOWS there's going to be some fuck up.  They just don't know what.  Hopefully you can exceed their expectations. 

We return to the kitchen. The chicken is done and looks great. They go to the dining room. This was fun for us because we had never used the dining room before. It gave the show a new look. Unfortunately, it was hard for the audience to see the dining room because it was way up in the set.  We had monitors but we knew we would not get the same response had the dining room been in full view.  Sometimes you have to make that choice -- studio audience or home audience?  We opted for the latter in this case.   Sometimes we forget that the show we're making is for the millions of viewers, not the two hundred people in the bleachers.

Back to the story:  The chicken is terrible and so are the mashed potatoes. More decisions: Does Kim give up or start again? Does Mike tell her to stop or let her go, knowing full well she can’t cook worth a shit? What these characters decide informs us of who they are. Kim will try again; Mike will support her.

Next up we go to the New York street. We have fun with Gary trying to be the big shot and the other two writers amused by it. Everyone in every scene has to have an attitude. Otherwise you’re just writing one-liners that feel very unreal and forced. I think we devised a pretty clever way for Gary to accidentally give the signal to blow up the building.  If a building exploding on a multi-camera sitcom isn't an act break, I don't know what is. 

Come back and see the rubble. Instead of making Gary suddenly panicky and fall apart we thought it would be more fun to see him trying to maintain control. Again, a character has to make a big choice. Meltdown or salvage the situation somehow? Sheer damage control mode seemed more ripe for comic possibilities.

Back to Kim’s house. We return to the kitchen.  Having had one scene in the dining room we didn't want to push our luck.  And when we get to the important stuff we want to do it within easy view of the audience.  Kim's next batch is black. We wanted to avoid seeing any more of her cooking. We've already been to that well. Kim calls Mike’s mother, which has to be a tough and humiliating call to make. Yet she does it because this means so much to her.  Plus it helps set up a future episode where Mikes' mom thinks Kim is a dingbat.

Back to the set to watch Gary’s solution. It sucks. Should he call Kim? He still resists and tries coming up with alternate solutions.

Back to the kitchen. Mike finally puts a stop to this. We have a nice scene where they really delve into their relationship and what the future might hold. Choice on our part: there are not a lot of jokes. The discussion feels real and relatable to a lot of people so we just let it play out naturally. Finally Gary calls.

Last scene – back to the set. Kim and Gary. We see that even in a crisis she’s cool and in control. She comes up with a solution on the spot, which is a talent every bit as remarkable as cooking fried chicken – and instead of taking Gary’s head off she comforts him. Would a man in that position be as compassionate? Gary is grateful and gains a little more respect for Kim.  

David, Robin, and I wrote this over a weekend after plotting it out with the staff for several days. The writing went quickly because we knew what each scene was about and why it was there. We had comic situations and attitudes already built in. I also had one of my wife’s cookbooks since none of us knew how to make fried chicken either. “Colonial pine stain” comes right from that recipe.

One final note: The power of suggestion – after writing the first few cooking scenes we broke for lunch and had to go to Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles for fried chicken.

And now that I write this, I’m getting in the car and heading right back to Roscoe’s.


The Minstrel Boy said...

Roscoe's is in, and of itself, reason to live.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I remember seeing that episode broadcast. Very well crafted, of course, but I remember being utterly baffled at the notion that anyone needed a *recipe* for fried chicken.


Canda said...

Wendy Grossman is right. It is well-crafted, BUT I would need a recipe to cook it. Not sure about the slapstick skills of Nancy Travis, but she is enjoyable to watch, and very likable. Again, as I've said before, I wonder if this series would have been more relatable if it had not taken place in show business. The writers are never writing, only quipping. Still wish it was a business where we saw people doing things. The writing and characters were excellent, just not active enough.

YEKIMI said...

Not a far fetch that she would need a recipe to cook fried chicken. I've known people who needed a recipe to boil water. Heck, I've known people whose only reason to go into their kitchen was to get the phone book so they could order a pizza.

Nick said...

Again, as I've said before, I wonder if this series would have been more relatable if it had not taken place in show business.

Yeah, that's why THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was totally unrelatable.

VP81955 said...

I'm writing this from LAX, where I'm boarding a flight to Houston and then to Jacksonville, where I will stay with my brother until I put my finances, and life, back together. I'll miss Los Angeles dearly and vow to return. Of course I'll stay in touch here, but I won't be attending any "Mom" filmings in the near future (sorry, Anna!). Of course, if I win Powerball on Wednesday, or sell a screenplay or two, things could change. Wish me luck, please.

Rodger45 said...

I always enjoyed this show & can still picture Nancy when she said "Pay attention to me!"

Bryan said...

Okay, you're breaking a story and it's not clicking. Something about it just isn't working. How do you decide if what you've got is still salvageable or if you're better off just tossing it and starting fresh? Do you ever shelve ideas that aren't working and pull them out again later after you've figured out what the problem is?

Mike said...

@VP81955: Good luck. There was a time when I thought I didn't need it ... but, we all do. You seemed to enjoy your stay in the City of Angels, and the bigger regret would be to not have tried.

Diane D. said...

I'm a non-writer, and this was indeed great fun, but the best part was to see another episode of ALMOST PERFECT (I've now seen 4). I've always been a fan of Nancy Travis, but I think this is the best role she ever had. You and your co-creators gave her material that allowed her to shine in a way I never saw in her other work. The whole episode was hilarious, but when Gary sarcastically collapsed when she left him in charge, I got my biggest laugh---I have known people who would behave exactly like that!

VP81955--I am wishing you all the luck in the world, and will send many positive thoughts your way!

RareWaves said...

I had taped these back when and this is one of my most watched episodes (along with Suites for my Sweet and Auto Neurotic). In the one scene starting at 7:00, she is talking out loud by herself. That usually only works if you have an actor that can pull off the lines believably. That’s why I really appreciate Nancy’s comedic talent. I think she pulled it off beautifully. It was like her character was improvising a character. After several viewings, I still laugh at that bit. Did you write that scene knowing Nancy would pull it off as well as she did?

How tight was the script and how much of that scene did she add? The egg shells going into the blender, not getting the blender bowl off the base, the cord almost knocking the milk over, the flip of the potato and quick stab to the potato, the fumbling of the “hot” potato, the silly laugh, the funny voices. How do you write lines that, by themselves, aren’t necessarily funny, but in the hands of comedic talent, come off as funny? Lines like, “Rookie mistake,” “No problemo,” “Oh, poor Mike,” “You old poop,” “I’m Sally Perdue,” “Is that stuffing under your skin or are you just happy to see me?” (Okay, that last line IS funny all by itself, but that laugh she does after the line nails it.) I’d like to believe that developing this scene was a lot of fun.

There’s one facial expression and gesture that she does that shows in one second what would take a bunch of dialog to tell. It starts at 19:10 after she says, “I was having such a good day, you know, with that eye-popping thing and everything, and then…” At that point, she makes a face and gesture that speaks perfectly to how she feels. Is that purely Nancy’s comedic gift or was she expressing an action that was in the script? Either way, she’s amazing. Great episode.

But here’s my big question. If, in real life, the staff of your show thought to use stock footage of the building blowing up, why didn’t the characters think of that? Yes, I know, no B story, but still...

Andy Rose said...

I'm curious... did you play the location scenes back for the audience, or was that stock laughter? I ask because I feel as though I've heard that female "Ah!" gasp (that we hear when Gary says "NOW") before in other Paramount shows.

Second question, which may be more of a Friday question. The scenes filming the cop show involve a number of things that wouldn't happen in real life on set quite that way. When you're doing a show based around one of your own fields of experience, does that change how realistic you feel the depiction of that industry need to be? When you are doing a show about writing or showrunning or baseball or radio, how do you decide how much realism you can sacrifice in service of the story? Are you more likely to get complaints from people in your industry about that kind of fudging, or people who are bartenders, small airline operators, etc.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

One thing I can appreciate is that there are no pop culture references and nothing to 'date' this episode. Except for the technology they use (faxes, phones) we'd have no idea when this was filled.

Always loved Nancy. I think she's currently terrific in "Last Man Standing".

Ricky said...

I'm not sure I ever watched ALMOST PERFECT when it originally ran in primetime. When it was on Monday nights it was on at the same time as STAR TREK: VOYAGER. Besides, your show was on after THE NANNY, and no way in hell was I going to sit through Fran Drescher to see ANYTHING.

And when it was on Sundays it was on at the same time as LOIS AND CLARK, which I watched while taping THE SIMPSONS on Fox to watch after LOIS AND CLARK. And you were on after CYBILL on Sundays, weren't you? I didn't like that one, either.

Do remember watching the reruns on USA a few years later and enjoying the show then. For whatever that's worth. And what's the deal now? You have to live in, where, Norway or Finland or some such to be able to see the thing on Netflix? What's up with THAT?

Doesn't make any sense for CBS or Paramount or whoever owns the thing not to put it out there for somebody to show it. There are like 10,000 cable networks and they're showing pretty much every piece of crap show made in the past 25 years. Surely there'd be room somewhere for ALMOST PERFECT. And they might make a few bucks. The show's not going to earn them any cash locked up in some film vault, gathering dust next to moldy old reels of THE AMOS AND ANDY SHOW.

Ricky said...

Oh, forgot the question I meant to ask.

If you and David could go back to '95 and do ALMOST PERFECT again, is there anything you guys would do differently, knowing what you know now?

Carl said...

My wife and I went to dinner and then to a play Sunday night. Based on what I've read here that you folks had to suffer through on the Golden Globes, I have absolutely no regrets about that.

Pat Reeder said...

Interesting to see how much thought is put into each line of a sitcom. That's why I'm always amused when a line sneaks through that makes no sense if you think about it. For instance, I was watching a "Frasier" rerun the other night, the one where the KACL staff ask the station owner to give Kenny the station manager his job back after he was fired. In describing why they like him, Trudy The Story Lady says, "He doubled the puppet budget for my show!"

Any manager who doubles the puppet budget for a radio show kind of deserves to get fired.

Johnny Walker said...

This is fascinating. I would have thought you would have started with the worry of not being good enough for the person you're with, and then built a story around that, but actually you say you started with her being out of her depth with something and then came up with a reason for her to be in that situation. Interesting.

I think what makes this episode work is the fact that you can relate to the idea that someone who was lacking in certain traits (like nurturing/cooking) might feel insecure about it and want to show that they could be the "model" wife. I liked that you decided to play those moments more naturally and didn't think that was a conscious decision -- it's amazing how deep you go into each scene.

It's also surprising to me how much thought you put into the b-story. Again it makes perfect sense that you would, but for some reason I would have thought that the b-story would have been given a lot less consideration. Your thoughts clearly show you really thought about it from the character's perspective -- even though they are secondary characters. That's a good reminder not to slack on things like that.

I'm also surprised that you decided to go against anxious and apprehensive. Again it makes sense to do something different for the audience, but it wouldn't have necessarily crossed my mind (although, if I'm honest, it was too broad for me -- even though I understand why you would do that).

I actually feel I've learned a lot more than I expected from this. Thanks Ken!

Now I need to find a fried chicken place that's open late.