Monday, May 09, 2016

Comedy 101: Now you'll know the rest of the story

Here’s the behind-the-scenes look at how we broke the story for the ALMOST PERFECT episode I showed Saturday, “Lights, Camera, Mike.” If you haven’t seen it, I think you’ll get more out of today’s post if you watch it first. I’ll wait.

No, don’t come back to it. Do it now.


We were always looking for problems to give Kim (Nancy Travis). Her job was Executive Producer/Head Writer of a TV cop show. We wanted a work-related problem that was also active. So we thought, what if Kim had to direct an episode? You get the fun of seeing the set and the show being filmed, and directing – especially for a first-timer – is clearly a challenge. The next question is what exactly would those directing challenges be? Lots to choose from here. Temperamental star? Equipment breakdowns? Complicated stunts? Shooting going too slowly? Union strike? Air conditioning on the fritz? You get the idea.

But we wondered, what can we do that’s unique to our show? And involve more of our characters? We then came up with the idea of having her boyfriend, Mike be an extra and wreaking all kinds of havoc. Normally, she’d just fire an extra who ruins take after take, but she can’t do that if he’s her boyfriend. This also gave us a chance to put him in her world for an episode.

We figured there would be enough story beats in this to not need a B (or secondary) story.

Okay, now it was time to plot it.

First scene: In the office. Quickly set up the problem. We learn that the scheduled director had to bail and no other regular director was available. Block all alternative options. (For Seattle Mariner fans, did you notice two of the names were Dave Niehaus and Kevin Cremin?)

Quick sidelight: We needed someone to enter the scene and basically provide expositional information. That can be dry and certainly thankless for an actor. So we gave her a real comic attitude – she takes great delight in delivering bad news. Suddenly we got some laughs out of it. And Mary Jo Smith was the perfect gloating messenger.

At this point more options were ruled out leading to Kim volunteering for the job. We used Gary as a device to remind her (and the audience) of how difficult the job can be. The harder you can make things for your characters, the better.

We also needed to set up that Rob wrote the script so he would have some attitude towards the shenanigans that would follow.

Next we decided we needed a brief scene to show Kim preparing for the job. How does one prep for such an assignment? We thought that would be interesting for the audience to see. We could also use that to establish for the viewer just what the scene in BLUE JUSTICE would be that we would focus on. When I started out as a director, I had little figurines (that my multi-talented daughter made) that I would move around and decide just where I wanted my cameras. We upped it to goofy trolls for Kim.

Characters always need attitudes in scenes. Having Kim prepare was not enough. Was she nervous about it? Confident? Overly-detailed oriented? We chose confident so we could do a quick flip to later that night in bed where she woke up terrified. The only way you want your character walking into a tough situation overly-confident is if the audience knows they’re really walking into a propeller. In this case, we wanted the magnitude of the task to really hit her. And it was very relatable. People do wake up in the dead of night terrified over some upcoming task.

The danger here is that the scene could be very expositional and not a lot of fun. Just a character saying they were scared. We used the device of the dream and called-back “the Fatman” to get some laughs out of the exposition. And we used the scene to rope in Mike. We liked the idea of Mike wanting to be there to support her and Kim coming up with the idea of having him be an extra. She’s ultimately hoisted on her own petard. And we established in numerous episodes that Mike had very little knowledge of show business so he could screw things up for her and legitimately not be aware that he was doing it.

To help foreshadow that stormy seas lay ahead, we had Kim offer to give him a line and we can see by his rehearsing that no good could come of this.

Now we go to the set. By the way, that was our stage at Paramount. At one point they walk to our craft services corner. If you look closely in a couple of shots, you can see Kim’s apartment set peeking through. But don’t tell anybody.

Again – attitude. We decided to start with Kim kicking ass. She’s very capable, very organized, relieved that she seemingly can handle this job after all. We needed to make a clean demarcation so that when Mike enters that’s when the problems start. There’s no doubt that Mike is responsible for all the havoc.

The other BLUE JUSTICE writers are there as our Greek chorus.

From there we looked for as many fun ways as we could for Mike to screw things up and challenge Kim’s control. We played with slow motion. We started a fire. I think the room pitched for an hour on possible screw-ups and we chose the best six or seven. And with each passing ruined-take the pressure mounted on Kim to fire her boyfriend. But she couldn’t do it. We even added that his parents back in Baltimore were planning a big viewing party the night it aired.  (Just keep making things harder.)  So our task was to find a clever way for her to regain control, get the shot she needed, not fire her boyfriend, and make good on having him appear in a scene. You saw the result. (Or those of you who watched the show did.)

We gave this outline to George McGrath and he did such a great job with the script that we put him on staff as a result.

Two final points: This was a very tricky show to shoot – especially in front of a studio audience. Director Jeff Melman did a terrific job. You needed an experienced hand and Jeff made it look easy. Secondly, there were a lot of re-takes, which meant a lot of pick-ups. We would need to shoot long after the studio audience had been sent home – well after midnight. That makes for a long long day. People can get cranky, especially stars. And if the star is unhappy she can make everybody unhappy. Nancy Travis, however, was a goddess. She assumed the role of a cheerleader, very positive, getting everyone pumped up. What could have been a nightmarish night was instead a night of fun. I love Nancy Travis.

Hopefully you enjoy these glimpses into the creative process. If nothing else, you can see that a great deal of thought goes into every moment. Every beat has a definite purpose, every scene has a clear objective. Not all sitcoms do that, especially today. But I feel they suffer as a result. The hardest part of the process is story. It’s worth the time and effort to get it right. Or at least I think so.


richard Y said...

Friday question: As the series House MD went on, Hugh Laurie complained about his limp and use of the cane causing hip injury. Did John Mahoney suffer any similar issues during the course of Frasier?

Eric J said...

Don't ever send your readers off to view a youtube video. They're still over there watching the 3rd Ultimate Fails video...

YEKIMI said...

Nice to see you used "Blue Justice" as the TV show in your book "Must Kill TV". Just finished that and "The Me Generation by Me" and enjoyed them both. The scary thing reading the Me Generation was how similar things that happened to you happened to me only about 5 years later and clear across the country on the Florida west coast.

VP81955 said...

Sad news: William Schallert, the quintessential character actor and former SAG president, has died at age 93. RIP Leander Pomfritt, the Admiral, Martin Lane, etc.

I don't know if Ken ever worked with Bill (though I wouldn't be surprised if they had crossed paths somewhere), but I interviewed Mr. Schallert when he came to New Jersey to appear in a play in 2002; we talked for nearly two hours. Terrific man.

Joseph said...

I really enjoyed the episode and the behind the scenes of how it was created. However, I was wondering if there was ever a discussion about whether you should misdirect the audience by making them think Mike was going to be the problem but then have him saving the day some how so that it would be less predictable? Or do you believe it's better for the audience to have some idea of what will happen but not how it will unfold?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

thanks Ken. Watched it and read it together. It's a great companion piece.

MikeK.Pa. said...

"What could have been a nightmarish night was instead a night of fun. I love Nancy Travis."
We all do. How could you not?

Johnny Walker said...

Fantastic stuff. Thanks for sharing, Ken! As usual it seems so obvious, and yet thoroughly thought out, when you explain the thinking behind it all.

I'd love to know if the behind-the-scenes stuff in Almost Perfect was based on reality. For example, we all know that Buddy in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was loosely based on Mel Brooks, and Sally was loosely based on Selma Diamond and Lucille Kallen. Were there any real life inspirations for the stories or characters in Almost Perfect?

DrBOP said...

HOW didn't this show last longer on the air? And....oh's the Off-Topic Kid with a great birthday trib to Tony Gwynn :

Rashad Khan said...

If Paramount isn't interested in bringing AP to DVD, then how about Shout! Factory?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Thanks for the exlanation, Ken. I remember seeing this episode when it was broadcast. I can't argue at all with the thought process or the construction, which is obviously skilled. I *personally* would have liked Kim better if she'd had the balls to fire Mike and found a way to navigate their relationship later at home (where perhaps what professionalism meant to each of them might have emerged), but that's a personal thing. But I recognize that's not at all the story you were telling in that show.


Andy Rose said...

Having done some work as an extra, I thought the least realistic part was having Mike throw the filming off track by pointing out the scene's incongruity. Nobody pays any attention to anything an extra says unless it's, "Hey, that light is about to fall on you!"