Tuesday, September 17, 2019

An argument for writing scripts

I’ve read a number of articles lately about life in the writers room. A long one about FRIENDS, one about Chuck Lorre shows, and they all tout the benefits of most of the script writing being done by the collective group. FRIENDS at least used to send writers out to craft a first draft, but then the staff would have at it and it would be a feeding frenzy. Chuck Lorre shows even avoid that step. First drafts are written at the table by committee and then writers’ names are just assigned. No writer ever gets to do a “first draft.”

And other shows are set up similarly.

One could argue that the system works. I would say especially in the case of FRIENDS. Those episodes are little gems and the reruns have become a worldwide sensation.

But I think at a price to young writers.

Young writers need to write drafts by themselves for their own development. If you’re a young writer on staff YOU need to come up with those big jokes that end scenes, YOU need to make adjustments when the story outline doesn’t work, YOU need to write that tender speech. And then YOU need to do the rewrite, find new better jokes, find more artful ways of making story turns, discover ways of satisfying notes you don’t agree with but are obligated to do.

In a room you let the big joke guy come up with those zingers and you let the story guy figure act 2 fixes. You can zone out when the staff bats around a thorny story issue and rejoin the conversation when it’s been resolved. Even in the FRIENDS article it said that creators David Crane and Marta Kaufman did most of the heavy lifting when it came to emotional moments, arcs, and the direction of the series. The writers were told that “Comedy is King” and their job primarily was to pepper the show with killer jokes.

James L. Brooks, co-creator of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, which begat TAXI, which begat CHEERS, which begat FRASIER always had a saying: “At some point you’ve got to be a writer.” I’m so glad I was weaned in that camp. You had to write first drafts. And the goal was to get as much of your original script into the final show despite whatever rewriting was done after you turned it in. There’s a real sense of author’s pride when 90% of your script makes it to air. And it’s a real learning experience when only 10% does.

I’m so glad I was part of that group. That system down through the years produced some great young writers like the Charles Brothers, Earl Pomerantz, Gary David Goldberg, Hugh Wilson, Peter Casey, David Lee, David Angell, Heide Perlman, Christopher Lloyd, Steve Levitan, Sam Simon, Ken Estin, Barry Kemp, Bill & Cheri Steinkellner, Phoef Sutton, Dan O’Shannon, Tom Anderson, Dan Staley, Rob Long, Joe Keenan, Anne Flett-Giordano, Chuck Ramberg, and quite a few others. Some of those names might not sound familiar today but they all had major careers filled with Emmys and hit series they created.

And I’ll go back a step further and say it’s the way Carl Reiner worked when he created and ran THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. He developed such writers as Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson, Bill Persky & San Denoff.

When I was directing DHARMA & GREG I was talking to a young staff writer at the wrap party. D&G was a Chuck Lorre show so all room-written. And again, that system turned out consistently funny scripts — but the writer was worried that after two years of this he couldn’t write a script on his own again. It eroded his confidence. After two years on a show you’re supposed to feel better about yourself and your skills as a writer, not worse.

Now a show runner could certainly argue that his job wasn’t to teach young writers but to turn out the best shows he can. Young writers were hired who had the talent to contribute to his agenda in his system. And that’s certainly true, but I come from a generation where it was important to pay it forward. I had Jim Brooks and Larry Gelbart and the Charles Brothers as mentors. I was truly blessed. I would not be a quarter of the writer I am without their tutelage. So I’ve always seen it as my responsibility to mentor young writers on my staff. And that means my young writers have to write drafts. It’s more pressure on them, more responsibility, more work, but in the end I believe it is so worth it. (And, by the way, it’s more work for me as well — giving outline notes, giving second draft notes, rewriting their drafts. But still, it’s worth it.

There’s another more self-serving benefit to grooming young writers. In time on a successful show you can step away a little and they can assume more important roles.

I know this may sound like one of those “back in MY DAY” rants, but I do believe it’s essential that young writers be allowed to write scripts. Isn’t that why we all wanted to get into the business in the first place?


Anonymous said...

And of course Carl Reiner goes back to an even earlier generation of writers for Sid Caeser, probably the greatest ensemble in the history of the medium.

Jim S said...

It's funny you wrote this today.

Last night I was looking for something interesting to watch because American Ninja was going to be on in a couple of hours (Yes, I watch that "sports" show. Fight me).

Anyway I was looking at Sundance Channel offerings and they have "Hollywood Reporter Roundtable" a show in which five or six Hollywood insiders get together and talk about one topic. Last night I watched a show on comedy writing. Bill Hader was there talking about Barry, Dave Mandel about VP, and a few others talking about streaming shows I've never heard of, much less watched.

Anyway the topic of group writing came up. Mandel echoed your point. He got his start on Seinfeld and he said he was taught that the way a script was done was that one writer wrote the first couple of drafts and it was his baby. Now that script might have a group reading with the other writers where they did a punchup, but the script was that writer's vision.

Like you, Mandel did admit that some shows were funny and did well under the group table approach, but that they lost unique voices and everything was smoothed out.

That may be the case, but I will admit that Chuck Lorre's Mom does go to some dark places. Characters overdose and die, they confront their horrible pasts.

The show is funny, but it does take chances, so there's that.

I guess I fall on the side of does the show make me laugh?

Too many cable, streaming and even network "comedies" fail that test for me. I think I'm a pretty good judge of quality and willingly concede that something that doesn't appeal to my particular taste can be quite good. But there has to be a happy medium between generic schlock like Two Broke Girls and, I don't know - Whitney, a show "too hip" for this codger.

But I am digressing. Given the state of TV comedy, having a show be able to get 10 million viewers a week is not nothing (unlike say 1990, when that was nothing). So again, does it make me laugh? That's all I, as a civilian, care about.

Developing the next generation of writer is somebody else's problem.

Gary said...

Excellent post that leads to a Friday question (apologies if you've covered this in the past): Ken, when you were directing a show that was written by others, were you still thinking of funnier lines to replace those in the script? If you've written comedy I imagine there's no way to turn off that trigger in your brain. And did you ever suggest a funnier line while directing, or would that be a serious breach of show business protocol?

VincentS said...

To your point about dividing the work between the writer who comes up with the storyline and the big joke writer who will provide the zingers (albeit indirectly): Jackie Gleason and Art Carney performed in a live TV drama entitled THE LAUGH MAKER by A.J. Russell. After the broadcast Gleason approached Russell about writing for his new sitcom, THE HONEYMOONERS. Russell thanked Gleason for the offer but said he was not a comedy writer, whereupon Gleason replied he already had writers who could write jokes but he needed someone who could come up with stories. Russell accepted Gleason's offer, teamed up with Herbert Finn and together wrote, among other great scripts, one of the best HONEYMOONERS episodes ever (and my favorite): A MATTER OF RECORD. Ironically, although Russell remained primarily a dramatic writer, he went on to write for THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW.

Glenn said...

It seems like a lot of writers who come from this system have completely b.s. resumes. They "get their name put on a script" even though it was room written, and then what? Does a future employer go "Wow, we need this guy, he wrote three of the best episodes of Big Bang Theory of all time!" Or do future employers just understand that this guy "works well in a room environment"?

Rashad Khan said...

Actually, I wanted to get into the business to meet girls.

I'm kidding.

Frank Beans said...

"James L. Brooks, co-creator of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, which begat TAXI, which begat CHEERS, which begat FRASIER..."

Aside from the obvious connection of the latter two shows, what were the others? I didn't know they were spinoffs.

Francis Dollarhyde said...

Not spin-offs, but a lineage of personnel. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was co-created by James L. Brooks and its producers included Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed. Weinberger. Brooks, Daniels, Davis, and Weinberger went on to form The John Charles Walters Company, the production group that created TAXI. The first four seasons of TAXI were produced by Glen Charles & Les Charles and the house director was James Burrows. They formed the Charles-Burrows-Charles production company and created CHEERS. Plus CHEERS inherited from TAXI writers like Sam Simon, David Lloyd, and Ken Estin (not to mention actors like Rhea Perlman and Ted Danson, both of whom showed up in TAXI. Plus Christopher Lloyd was a regular in TAXI who guested in CHEERS).

Heck, if not for these earlier shows, we probably wouldn't have had THE SIMPSONS either.

Brian said...

Frank, Taxi was created and written by some of the people that worked on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

FRIDAY QUESTION: If you direct your own script you can, of course, influence how a line is delivered. Are there some directors that work with the writers of episodes on certain line readings?

Andy Rose said...

@Frank Beans: In addition to Brooks, Taxi was created by Stan Daniels, David Davis, and Ed. Weinberger, who had all been MTM writers. Cheers was created by the Charles Brothers (Taxi staff writers) and Jimmy Burrows (Taxi's principal director). I don't think Ken meant to imply they were literal spinoffs.

cd1515 said...

Ken, your thoughts on this?

Rashad Khan said...

Glen and Les Charles produced the first three years of "Taxi," which Jim Brooks had co-created with his former producers at "The Mary Tyler Moore Show": Stan Daniels, David Davis and Ed. Weinberger. So, in other words, without "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" or "Taxi," there might not have been a "Cheers" or "Frasier."

Johnny Walker said...

Seinfeld didn't even have a writer's room. Jerry S and Larry David did the final tweaks to every script themselves.

Frank Beans said...

Thanks for the follow-up comments. I retract the word "spinoff" since I know that most of these shows weren't literal spinoffs. I suppose the word "begat" just threw me a bit, and I didn't know the connection behind the scenes. But hey, that's part of why I read this blog.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me this system once again puts the power into the hands of the hands of the “haves.” A corporate drone or HR operative now can hire an insider’s personal friend more easily with no repercussions and just as easily keep out a great writer by this vague use of specific contributions. They can say in the one hand, “We hired this great person because they worked on this hit show” and also be absolved if the writer is a fraud because isn’t that good by saying, “It’s not my fault, look at the great resume, how was I to know?” Or they can deliberately keep a writer out of the running by saying, “we know that,because of this system, your contribution wasn’t significant enough to qualify even though you got screen credit.” Trump is not the only one building walls to keep undesirables out.

Covarr said...

I'm really a fan of the two-person team dynamic. It seems a good balance between a full-on writing room and working solo.

When my now-wife and I wrote our first play, we each went into it with our own strengths and weaknesses. She's boundlessly creative; she had a million ideas, even if only half of them were good, and even if among that half only a small fraction could actually be made to work together. Me, I wasn't nearly as jam-packed with ideas, but I had a much better grip on the more technical elements, such as story structure, natural-sounding dialogue, etc.

Alone, I don't think she could've sorter her ideas into something remotely workable. I could've, but it would never have gone beyond okay. Together, though, we made something that I truly believe was special (and audiences at our local community theatre seemed to agree, which was the best feeling in the world). Since there were only two of us, we were both active participants in the writing process from start to finish. As a result, I think we both learned a lot from each other, certainly more than we would have in the context of a larger group where we could too easily tune out the parts that aren't our "specialty".

Because of that, I feel like we're both more prepared to write alone than we were before we wrote together. With other plays we've written since then, which haven't been produced, I've definitely noticed less need on both our parts to focus on the specific elements we're good at. I'm still more technical, she's still more creative, but the line is definitely blurrier than when we first started writing together. I'm sure you can't get that kind of growth as easily from solo writing, and I'd bet room writing isn't terribly conducive to it either.

Friday question: You frequently talk about all you've learned from your mentors, from people like Larry Gelbart and James Burrows, etc., but do you think your partnership with David Isaacs improved each of your own individual writing?