Saturday, December 23, 2017

Rookie mistakes

Everyone has to start somewhere. For me and my writing partner, David Isaacs our first paid writing assignment was for an episode of THE JEFFERSONS. Prior to that we had been writing spec scripts, schlepping down to the Writers Guild to register them for protection, and then we peddled them to anyone who would read them.

Our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (which had already been rejected by THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and RHODA) found its way into the hands of Gordon Mitchell, one of the story editors of THE JEFFERSONS. He liked it well enough to invite us to come in and pitch story ideas for the show. One hit the mark and we got the assignment.

Now came the hard part. Not the writing – but covering the fact that we were both utterly clueless of the process.

Step one was breaking the story. We met with Gordon and his partner, Lloyd Turner and worked out the beats of the story. Gordon then asked how long we needed to write the outline?

The outline? You have to write an outline?

I didn’t say that, but that’s what I was thinking. David and I wrote outlines for ourselves but they were usually handwritten scribbles on a couple pieces of notebook paper. I didn’t think that’s what he meant.

So we were on the spot. We didn’t want to say a week and have them say, “A week? It should take you two days.” Or we say two days and they say, “What? You’re just going to dash it off? It should take a month.”

We asked to see a copy of one of their outlines because we said, “every show has its own preference.” Even this was a stretch. They do vary, but we didn’t know that. There could have been one standard outline format used by every television show since Shakespeare’s day – how did we know?

They provided an outline. It was about seven/eight pages. We glanced at it and figured about three or four days. “Perfect,” they said. Whew. We navigated that minefield.

Once our outline was submitted and approved we were turned loose to write the script. Only hitch was that they needed it in two weeks. Normally that would not be a problem. But David and I were in the Army Reserves and those happened to be the two weeks we were ordered to report for active duty. Fortunately, we were in the same unit (we met in the Army Reserves) and were able to write the script at night at Fort Ord. Of course, that was a little strange. Picture one of those large barracks like in FULL METAL JACKET that houses fifty or sixty soldiers. It’s the evening. Guys are blaring the radio, smoking pot, drinking beer, playing cards or nerf basketball, and we’re sitting on a bunk saying things like, “Weezy, get over here!”
Script completed. Duty to country served. Monday morning upon our return I call Gordon to tell him we were bringing in the draft. “Great,” he said, “When can I have it?” I said, “Well, it’s 9:30. The Guild doesn’t open until 10. We’ve got to go over there and register the script, so I guess about 11:00.” He stopped me. “Schmuck!” he said. “You don’t have to register the script. I bought the script. You’re protecting yourself against me.” Oops. Didn’t know that. “Oh,” I said, “Then we can be there in twenty minutes.” “There you go!” he replied.

We hand-delivered the script and they were still laughing when we arrived.

Down through the years David and I have given a number of young writers their first assignment. And learning from our experience, we spell everything out. For you aspiring scribes, hopefully you too will get that first elusive script assignment. And hopefully you’ll get showrunners who will walk you through the process. But if not, don’t be proud. If there’s something you don’t know – ask. You may save yourself a lot of laughter that won’t be yours.


jcs said...


I'm wondering what happens when a writer turns showrunner. How did you and David handle the increased responsibilities regarding budget and personnel? Did you hire people for the economic side of producing your shows? Or did you learn financial planning on the fly?

Brad Apling said...

Friday (or earlier) questions: Your early spec scripts you wrote some time ago were done at home - yours or David's. Once you started writing for The Jeffersons and other shows, did you get at least a desk on the CBS lot to write or was it still at home? In the same vein, how have the writers rooms changed, in terms of snacks and space, from The Jeffersons and MASH days to today? When did you and David start feeling "Okay, we think we've got the hang of this writing scripts now."?

Brent said...

Christmas question: There was a time when it seemed like nearly every sitcom on television took its turn at doing a Christmas episode that was a riff on either A CHRISTMAS CAROL or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. I don't think that trope is as common as it used to be, but you still see it trotted out periodically. My question is, why? Why would a writing staff decide to pursue an idea that so many shows have already done? Do they think they can come up with a way to make a hackneyed idea fresh? Is it because good ideas for Christmas episodes are really hard to come up with?

Also, do networks and/or producers like holiday-themed episodes? It seems like they'd be problematic once a series hits syndication and the series Christmas episode is being rerun in the middle of July.

Thanks, Ken.

Long time reader, first time commenter

dan o'shannon said...

brent -- i always wanted to do an episode where a character wishes "a christmas carol" had never been written because he's sick of it. and an angel grants his wish, and the guy wakes up in a world where nobody ever heard of "a christmas carol" --- scrooge mcduck is now named greedy mcduck, and bill murray won the oscar in 1988 for rain man because he wasn't busy making scrooged, etc. etc. and finally, the guy breaks down and wants life to go back to the way it was and it does and he realizes he's the luckiest man in town to live in a world where a christmas carol was written.

Dana Gabbard said...

That is so brilliant. And funny!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I like that mash-up of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE a lot.

I'd second Ken's advice. I've been a professional journalist for more than 25 years, and whenever I write for someone new I *still* ask them to point out a couple of similar (ie, features if it's a feature, reviews if it's a review...) pieces they particularly liked on their site as a guide. I don't follow them slavishly, but I read them to get a sense of how they approach their audience and their idea of what makes a good story.


Peter said...

Ken, if you're deciding which screeners to watch, may I recommend Battle of the Sexes. Just saw it this week at the cinema and it's a terrific film. Emma Stone and Steve Carrell are of course great, but Sarah Silverman steals a lot of scenes. Definitely worth watching.

Anonymous said...

I'd prefer an extended version of "A Christmas Carol"
Scrooge still learns the meaning of Christmas in one night and saves Tiny Tim.
But the epilogue is that Tiny Tim grows up to be an androgynous, long-haired person with a high voice and an ukulele.
He gets married on The Tonight Show and everybody ends up singing "Tiptoe Through The Tulips".
i know it could never happen but nothing says Christmas like ukelele music.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

In an early "Mary Tyler Moore" episode from 1970 in which Mary is put in charge of WJM's election returns program as a massive snowstorm hits Minneapolis, the two mayoral candidates--mentioned but not seen--are named Turner and Mitchell.

Obviously, this was an "inside" reference since Gordon Mitchell and Lloyd Turner had written the previous week's episode titled "Toulouse Lautrec Is One Of My Favorite Artists."

Aaron said...

@Dan O'Shannon - the Ghostbusters cartoon in the 1980s did an episode where the title characters capture the ghosts from A Christmas Carol, with the result being the story never happened. Most of the episode is split between seeing the consequences of Scrooge never having been saved, and the Ghostbusters trying to reenact the story with themselves as the ghosts. Silly in places, but for a 1980s cartoon it holds up remarkably well I think.

Jabroniville said...

I usually just assume it's an easy theme episode if you gotta fill 22 that season. Though I haven't seen any good shows doing it.