Thursday, October 20, 2016

Following the format

This blog post was inspired by another blog post – by Earl Pomerantz – about “formatting” in TV, films, and musicals. He does a great job discussing the pros and cons of following formats. So I’m not going to do that. I’ll just agree with him and move on.

But he talked about the format of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and pretty much all of the MTM multi-camera shows during their heyday in the ‘70s. Having been there at the time I can attest to its accuracy.

We all followed a six-scene format. Three in the first act, three in the second. I can only speak for THE TONY RANDALL SHOW and BOB NEWHART SHOW, but not only did we have six scenes, no two scenes in the same location were done back to back. In other words, if you open at the office, your next scene has to be at home, and vice versa. There was generally one swing set (built just for that episode) that was like a wildcard that could go anywhere.

Unlike Earl, who questioned it, I just took it for granted that this format was derived after a lot of trial-and-error. As much as I’ve always loved THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, the first year was a little uneven as they groped around in the dark searching for just the right formula.

I also suppose there were practical considerations. Number of wardrobe changes, number of times the cameras moved from place to place, etc.

The only time it felt unwieldy to me was when we had something happen at work in the first scene, then the star went home and had to fill in everybody there as to what happened. The problem there is you’re essentially telling the audience something they’ve already seen. That’s not the best storytelling.

But otherwise I found that having a formula made the stories easier to break. And I was young and new and needed all the help I could get. 

On MASH we had a different format. Five scenes in the first act and five in the second. Generally we tried to avoid doing two scenes in the same locale back to back, but there were no hard and fast rules. We always had at least two stories (and sometimes three) dovetailing throughout the episode. We also knew we could only do 8 1/3 pages of exteriors at the ranch. So we had a lot to juggle.  Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart established this format. 

But unlike at MTM where we were quite content to just follow the format, on MASH David Isaacs and I felt a little restless. So there were times we did shake things up during season seven. We did the POINT OF VIEW episode (seen through the eyes of a patient), the cave episode (to give the show a different look), and one of my favorites – NIGHT AT ROSIES. We wrote that like a play, all in one set (Rosie’s bar). It has to be one of the very few episodes of MASH where you never see the MASH camp.

The key to any format is not to make it so obvious that the audience recognizes it and the show becomes too predictable. Be honest now. Of all the MASH episodes you’ve ever watched in your life, did you know until just now that we had this 5+5 formula? Same with THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW?

It might be fun as you watch your current favorite shows to start looking for patterns. Are they following a format and if so, what is it? It’ll give you some audience participation and something to do besides emailing while you watch TV. Let me know if you find anything.


Rashad Khan said...

Good writing isn't about upending rules or formats. It's about being creative within them.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

can't wait to try this... though it will annoy my spouse...

single cameras may be too hard to find a pattern.
Shows like Modern Family with usually 3 stories are all over the map (literally?)

Big Bang has 2 stories, usually, with their cast of 7. Sometimes it's couples, sometimes it's men v women.

J. Allison said...

I couldn't have told you that MASH was a 5+5 format, but there is definitely a pace and structure to the show that you become very accustomed to. That makes episodes like Point of View and Rosie's Bar stand out. I remember both of those episodes very well, probably because they departed so radically from the expected format.

Johnny Walker said...

The format of a show is fascinating to me. It sounds so restrictive, but as another commenter just pointed out, it also gives the show a unique rhythm that actually becomes part of the experience of watching it. Plus, it must be a godsend for the writers. I'd love to explore other show's formats.

Ken, did Cheers or Frasier follow formats?

Anyone know of formats for other shows?

Is it just me, or did Breaking Bad generally have a format of something like five scenes an episode? It sounds absurd, especially for an hour show, but I swear it seemed focussed on having fewer scenes, but making those scenes absolutely gripping. (I feel Wolf of Wall Street tried to do the same, with varying degrees of success.)

Johnny Walker said...

Also, that clapper loader has some serious style :)

Roseann said...

I never noticed the 5+5 format but MASH was the first show that I realized there were 3 story lines somehow tied together. I was so clever - that must by why I ended up in show business.....

VincentS said...

Loved the NIGHT AT ROSIE'S episode. I'm also reminded of the FRASIER episode when Frazier and Niles were planning a party which was essentially one long scene in Frasier's apartment and the one that takes place entirely in the coffee shop.

William said...

Speaking of alternative M.A.S.H.-episodes; any thoughts on the surreal Dreams? It is (in my opinion) the episode that breaks most from the norms of the show. Were you involved, and if so; any stories to tell about it?

MikeN said...

Johnny Walker, Breaking Bad has more scenes, it just seems longer.

Is the Simpsons multicam or single cam?

Captcha really annoying today. Click all houses, and one that I am not supposed to click is labeled China House.

MikeN said...

Friday Question, is there ever a show you were writing for, and you realized there is a fundamental flaw with the show that needed to be fixed?

I thought of this while watching Bull.

Stuart Best said...

You're right, I never noticed the format, so it's interesting to be made aware of it. The interesting thing is, though, the viewer would notice something "off" if the format was broken, but they wouldn't be able to say what was wrong with it. They would just feel like something was weird with the show.

John Hammes said...

Strongly suspect that MTM ensemble photo is from the final scene from the final episode (note group hug and kleenex tissues all about).