Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A big difference between plays and pilots

Readers ask “what’s the difference between writing plays and TV pilots?” In both cases you create the world and characters.

A big difference is this: The world and characters of a play ends when the play ends. Different actors and directors may have various interpretations, but the text is the vision of the playwright and will forever remain so.

When you write a TV pilot, if you are lucky enough to get picked up for series, most of the time (unless you’re David E. Kelley or Aaron Sorkin) you’re now going to need a writing staff. As someone who has co-created three series I can tell you it’s WEIRD. Especially at the start. Other writers naturally don’t know these characters the way you do. Their first scripts tend to be wrong – at least to your eyes.

And of course, it’s not their fault. They can’t get into your head. At the start of a series YOU don’t even have the characters rock solid in your mind. You learn over the first few episodes what works and what doesn’t, what pluses and minuses actors bring, etc. So to expect another writer to hit the bullseye is unrealistic at best.

Still, it’s a little strange to read someone else’s interpretation of characters that came out of you.

I have also been on the other side. An example is CHEERS. David Isaacs and I were there right at the beginning and when we wrote our first script, the show hadn’t gone into production yet. We had the pilot to go by and a few other early drafts. Plus, we had never worked with the Charles Brothers before.

The script turned out well, but we were lucky. What got us over the hump was this: Your natural inclination is to always think “What would the Charles Brothers (i.e showrunner) do”? And that’s a huge trap. You’re never going to really know that they’re thinking. And the result is you second-guess yourself on every line. What you need to do is say “fuck it,” this is how I see it based on what examples I have to go on, and I need to bring what I can bring to the script. If it’s wrong, and a lot of it will be, they’ll change it. And we’ll learn more from that.

The way I locked into the characters on CHEERS was seeing what we did right and what we did wrong. And eventually you do lock in.

And when I was in the showrunner position for my own show, I would start to relax when it was clear the staff was starting to get it.

Then a wonderful thing happens. Other writers bring new dimensions to your characters that improve them over what you had created. And that’s when you know if your series has legs. But it takes time. It’s not like a play where you know opening night.


Anonymous said...

John Sullivan did a good job by himself on Only Fools and Horses

Karan G said...
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Tammy said...

Great post, Ken (yesterday's too - love reading about the writing process). I've always wondered how writers felt about someone else writing their characters. I felt so bad for Aaron Sorkin after he left the West Wing - I gave the new episodes a shot and it was such a bizarre experience, watching characters you know so well suddenly talking like completely different people.

blogward said...

Ken: I saw this joke and thought of you.

What do Abraham Lincoln and Cheers have in common?
Both were shot in front of a live audience

Karan G said...
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By Ken Levine said...

No Karan. I hate WILL & GRACE and have not seen a minute of it.

Troy McClure said...

Don't sit on the fence, Ken! Tell us what you really think about Will and Grace!

On a different note, please forgive me for mentioning politics but I've tried so hard to resist the urge to comment on the daily insanity coming from the soulless monster in Washington and his unhinged claim that he has total power as president, but there was one absolutely hilarious moment today that underscores how completely fucking stupid Trump's people are. Kellyanne Conway actually said this is COVID 19 and not COVID 1 and that the World Health Organisation should have been prepared. That's right, folks. Conway thinks there were 18 previous COVIDS, as though this is a series of sequels. She is so mindblowingly stupid, she doesn't realize that the 19 refers to 2019, the year it began.

Evil and stupid is a toxic combination.

Karan G said...
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PolyWogg said...

Interesting re: other writers writing your characters before they're fully formed. In a different realm, Star Trek, you can see this easily in early tie-in books that were written and part of official "canon". I read a few Star Trek: The Next Generation stories where they wrote them fast while the first season was on, and there wasn't much info about the characters, how they'd react to something, what they'd say, how they'd say it, etc. The authors had 2-3 EPs + some outlines when they started, if that. And the show writers weren't approving the books, it's all "brand people". They usually limit early books to established ST writers who've written other books in the universe, but not completely. But those first few books? They're great ST stories, but you have to ignore the names and just assume they are other characters or they're in an alternate ST universe. Many times while reading one I've had the gut reaction, "WTF? That character would NEVER say that!" because I had already seen the arc to season 4 or 5. Often the books come with the disclaimer, a bit like spec scripts I guess, "This story takes place between Ep 3 and 4 of Season 1".

Not completely the same, I grant you, but I have often wondered how the main show writers felt about those books going askew.


Dimension Skipper said...

I didn't go in search of it, but this coincidentally popped up today on a favorite author's facebook page I follow... Not a sitcom pilot, but perhaps some folks may have some passing interest in this Nero Wolfe Unsold Pilot from 1959 starring William Shatner.

The youtube blurb: An unsold, 1959 pilot for a proposed NERO WOLFE TV series starring Kurt Kasznar as Nero Wolfe and William Shatner as Archie Goodwin. The theme was composed by Alex North. Rumor has it there are two additional unsold pilots with this cast out there somewhere. Trivia Note: Guest star George Voskovec later appeared as "Fritz Brenner" in the 1981 NERO WOLFE tv series that starred William Conrad. This unsold pilot is in the public domain.

Troy McClure said...

Now I'm curious to know why you hate Will and Grace. Any chance you could do a blog post on it?

I'm not a fan of it either, but I'd like your perspective on it.

Janet said...

Hi Ken!

I have a couple of related FQs for you, both coronavirus related.

What do you anticipate what the lockdowns and social distancing is going to do the networks' fall TV schedules?

And with everything shut down until who-knows-when with nothing under production, how much content do you figure the networks have in the can to keep their schedules going for now? And then what?

Thanks for your informed speculation, Ken!

Troy McClure said...

Oh man. Just saw the news that Brian Dennehy has died (natural causes, not Coronavirus). He was such a fantastic character actor. I especially loved his performance as the cantankerous sheriff in First Blood who keeps pushing Rambo.

Rest in peace. Damn you, 2020.