Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Writing drama

Here’s a Friday Question that led to a rambling answer and dedicated post:

It’s from suek2001

Ken...your episode "Billfold Syndrome" was on last week....it remains a classic in my book. I do have a question. For the meatier guest roles like Jerry Nielsen, did you have to audition them or were they just sent to you? Your gift of comedy is well known but that episode showed a fantastic drama narrative...Did writing for a clear drama become a desire for you?

First off, thanks for the kind words. That’s one of my favorite episodes too.

Actors were brought in to audition. Sam Christensen & Joyce Robinson were terrific casting agents and consistently brought us terrific choices. Kevin Geer was awesome as Jerry Nielson.

As for the second part of your question (and here’s where it gets winding), I’ve always enjoyed writing drama. So has my partner David Isaacs. In our time at MASH we never shied away from it.

But I have to admit we didn’t have very much prior training in it. When we pitched showrunner Gene Reynolds the very first time, the one story he really sparked to was Hawkeye being temporarily blinded by a heater explosion. Gene's one reservation though was that it was very dramatic. Had we written any drama?

We both lied through our teeth and assured him we had written tons of drama in college and that it was a piece of cake. There was no way we were walking out of there without a MASH assignment. (Neither of us had ever written any drama at that point.)

He took a chance and we took a chance and fortunately it all worked out.

About fifteen years ago I was writing spec screenplays, many on my own. I had some success (sold a few) and some misses. They were all comedies.

But there was subject matter I was interested in that was not particularly comedic and did not lead to a happy ending so I decided to write a straight dramatic screenplay instead. It was very cathartic to write (and also quite painful).

Ultimately I was very proud of it. Larry Gelbart read it and thought it was one of the best things I had ever written.

So I called my movie agents at the time (they worked as a team) and said I was bringing in a new spec script. They were both very excited (meaning: they SAID they were excited). Then I happened to mention it was a drama.


You could hear crickets. It’s as if the phone went dead. Finally, one of them said tentatively: “Well… why’d you do that for?”

They were not pleased I was not handing them a comedy.

I told him the issues I wanted to tackle in the script were dramatic by nature and my desire to be true to the subject matter.

More silence.

One then said, “Well, is there any comedy in it?” I said that there were light moments. This wasn’t an exercise in gloom like INTERIORS.

“Could we sell it as a black comedy then?” he asked.

“No!” I said. “It’s a drama. I’ve written a drama.”

They said, “Okay, we’d love to read it” with the same enthusiasm I would have if a distant relative gave me a thousand page mini-series about crossing guards to read.

They read it, said they liked it, but there was a problem. It was set in the present day. Unless it was a period piece they claimed they couldn’t sell a drama. I said, “So I do the same movie but put wigs on the men you could sell it?” They didn’t realize I was being sarcastic.

I never sold the movie. I’d still like to find some investors and make it. But I did leave that agency. So one good thing came out of the experience.

I suspect one or more of my plays will become more dramatic depending on the subject matter. I base my work on the idea and my passion for it, not how comedic or dramatic it might be. I enjoy writing comedy the most but welcome any chance to stretch myself and tackle more dramatic subjects.

And that’s how a question about MASH resulted in a post about agent-bashing over something totally unrelated that took place twenty years after MASH ended.


Dhruv said...

Thanks a lot!

Another great post with a great line "I base my work on the idea and my passion for it".

I hope a movie gets made from your script. Would love to see it :)

Rashad Khan said...

I've always believed that the best stories are those where comedy and tragedy co-exist (often, within the same moment). Y'know, sorta like real life? For the writer, therefore, the objective is to find the sad in the funny, and the funny in the sad.

Liz said...

Oscar comment:
Your Oscar review was great as usual.

Here was another one equally snarkier.

Both your reviews should be a compulsory read to those running the show and the moron celebrities.

A FQ, hoping for your snarky take down.

Jennifer Lawrence says that she is gonna take a year off to educate young people about politics?

Give us your take Ken xD

Eric J said...

I enjoy your "inside baseball" stories like this...as long as they're not really about baseball. (Actually, I have no interest in baseball, but I find your baseball posts interesting).

Steve Bailey said...

For what it's worth, the episode about Hawkeye's temporary blindness is one of my favorite M*A*S*H episodes. I found it refreshing that the subject matter was handled so delicately and even put a positive spin on it. Compare that with a similar Happy Days episode of two years later, where Fonzie is blinded and everybody but Richie condescendingly treats him like an automatic cripple.

tb said...

If Larry Gelbert thought it was one of the best things you ever wrote, then it surely deserves to be seen

Peter said...

I've just started watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. I love it and I got a kick out of this line:

"That's the fanciest sentence I've ever heard and I used to watch Frasier."

I read that there are more Frasier references in other episodes.

Peter said...

The writers of Basic Instinct 2 set out to write a thriller but delivered one of the funniest comedies ever.

John said...


I saw this article last week and hopefully you find it worth commenting on:


Am I reading this right, would NBC actually cut ad time, and give the writers more time to tell stories?

E. Yarber said...

I've had two screenplays optioned. The first was a drama, the second a comedy. Since there were a few years between the projects, I never really thought of there being a contrast in styles between them until reading this post. In each case, I was just following the nature of the story.

Unfortunately, I know exactly what it's like dealing with folks like the agents here. There are people in the business who act like you're doing something wrong if you happen to step outside of their personal comfort zone, and they'll keep trying to force the work back toward something within their area of understanding. There are too many times in my experience when I thought I'd be able to broaden the range of a collaborator, only to find myself straightjacketed within their limits. I never found a way to deal with them.

Mike said...

Here's a story: Innocent robots, going about their business on the streets of San Francisco, are being attacked by people. Delivery robots, security robots, self-driving cars.

Anonymous said...

First, Ken..Thanks for replying to my question. I am honored to be a whole blog post.

It is interesting that you say you never wrote drama before MASH. I've been trying to figure out what kind of writer I want to be. I am more snarky in some blogs than others. I also can rant with the best of them too. Your line about passion is spot on. The older I get, the more I want to write what I care about.
..and thank you for the sweet write up on David Ogden Stiers....an amazing actor from an amazing craftsman..

Max Clarke said...

Caught your Oscars podcast.

So the name you had in the betting pool was the guy who said "Sinatra!"

Good one. Al Rosen had some good lines.

I liked the one that might have been from Tan 'N Wash, when he said, "I fell asleep on the beach!"

Andy Rose said...

Speaking of Al Rosen, I recently stumbled across the fact that Al appeared in some classic Three Stooges shorts, including as Curly's stand-in.
(Fair warning: the clip below includes a blackface scene)


Loosehead said...

Ken, you are such a well-known name in comedy writing, you maybe should try a nom-de-plume for your dramatic output, at least until you have sold a couple of scripts.

Anonymous said...

Ken, it might interest you to know that Herman Wouk, the author of the dramatic World War II epic novels THE CAINE MUTINY (he also authored the play THE CAINE MUTINY COURT MARTIAL), THE WINDS OF WAR (I'm still recovering from Ali McGraw's performance in the mini-series.), and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE (much better mini-series) started out as a comedy writer for Fred Allen. So, if he could do it...You might even consider to contacting him for advice as he's still alive at 102 and put a new book out last year!

VincentS said...

Sorry. I wrote the Herman Wouk posting. Forgot to sign it.