Monday, August 22, 2022

Room writing vs. real writing

Chris asked a Friday Question that became an entire Monday and Tuesday post.

I know you're a big believer in the writer's room, as is Chuck Lorre. However, he recently discussed the risk of losing one's one voice in that system with regard to going back on writing on his own for The Kominsky Method

He describes many frustrating moments during the writing of The Kominsky Method when he was ready to throw his hands up and quit, because he had thought he'd lost the skill of writing on his own. What's your take on that? Is it like riding a bike or is there a real risk there?

Well, first of all there’s no denying Chuck Lorre’s success with the gangbang method of writing of sitcoms.  No one writer does a draft.  Everything is room written.  And for Chuck it's worked out spectacularly.  So you can't knock success. 

But I hate it.

I certainly don’t mind room writing when rewriting scripts.  And considering the time crunch (you don’t go home until the script is finished because the cast arrives at 9 the next morning), it’s an effective and efficient way of working.

But not for first drafts.  You hope as a writer you’re more than just a room joke guy, and essentially that’s all everyone is reduced to in a gangbang environment.  The stories are flimsy at best and there is rarely any genuine emotion.  So it’s just a joke fest.  And Chuck Lorre shows are funny.  He hires good joke writers.

But to be a writer means you have to have your voice.  You have to wrestle and solve story problems.  You can’t just sit back and let the other 10 people in the room solve it. You have to come up with that big joke to button a scene.  You have to orchestrate that nice moment between your two leads that feels organic and earned.  When the draft is too long you have to decide what to cut.   When you hit a roadblock you have to navigate around it yourself. 

I remember when I was directing DHARMA & GREG, another Chuck Lorre show that was gangbanged, I talked to one of the writers at the wrap party and he was very concerned that after two years of this he didn’t know he could still write a script on his own.  It’s a real concern.  And no, it’s not like riding a bicycle.  You’ve got to tackle the script yourself and that takes a certain amount of confidence — confidence that is undercut by two years of doing nothing more than pitching jokes.  

There are some great room writers who excel at pitching jokes during writing sessions.  They’re fast and funny and prolific.  Some of them write horrible drafts.  (They’re like basketball players who can shoot but not play defense.)   And it’s great to have one or two on your staff.

But there are other writers who are uncomfortable in the room but turn out great drafts.  Shy writers like Neil Simon.  I also want two of those on my staff.   And if I had to choose of the two which was the more valuable — on my staff it would be the Neil Simon writer.   I’m liable to get more heart, and depth in their scripts.  Jokes we can add.

And the writers will grow and become better the more drafts they write.  Another part of my job as a show runner is to groom writers.  

Unfortunately, I don’t have a show and seriously doubt if I will in the future.  So it’s just one man’s opinion.  But you asked.


Douglas Trapasso said...

Interesting, cause I was thinking about the Writer's Room (TM) this weekend for a Friday Q:

When developing a new character (as a guest or a possible regular), how OK is it for a writer to pitch it as a variation on an existing character? Is that acceptable or a rookie move?

Something like what might have happened in the Cheers room after the first season? "Let's add a second love interest for Diane - maybe a doctor, a Major Winchester type?"

Don Kemp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elf said...

Thank you for your use of the word "gangbang" in this context. I suggested something similar at my job once, where a bunch of us analysts would go into a conference room for a gangbang to solve a problem and the best idea would win. Of course, they interpreted it as the sexual version of a gangbang, and I had to explain that I meant it in the fight/rumble sense. The management didn't believe me, so I had to google several non-sexual references to the term to prove my point. I agreed that, in retrospect, the usage of the term these days leans far more towards the sexual connotation and I promised to avoid using it in a professional setting again.

Kendall Rivers said...

FQ: Been watching a lot of Cheers and Frasier lately and I'm curious about writing for Frasier Crane in both shows. Which version of the character did you and David enjoy writing for more?

Anonymous said...

British comedies (at least historically) don't seem to have this problem.
One or two writers tops.

Brian Phillips said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: Reading about the Dick Van Dyke Show, a show was in rehearsal and word got to the set, President Kennedy was shot. Carl Reiner stopped the show and sent everyone home.

Has there ever been a case where a show you were involved with stopped rehearsals?

Matt said...

What do you do when you write for a specific actor, but then the actor becomes unavailable?

We were watching COACH one night and it hit me that Hayden Fox sounds like, acts like, probably could've been played by Dabney Coleman rather than Craig T. Nelson. So I looked it up and sure enough, Barry Kemp wrote the part for Coleman. But when it came time to do the show, Coleman was already cast for BUFFALO BILL.

So as a writer or even Executive Producer (or both), what do you do when you write a part for an actor and that actor is no longer available? Do you go out and find a similar actor (as they did with Craig T. Nelson) or do you rewrite the part in a more general way to attract a wider range of actors?

Leighton said...


I see that "gangbang" originated in the late 40s/early 50s (America), meaning a violent gang fight. (See "West Side Story") I've heard it in more than a few older movies, in that context. For the past twenty years, due to online porn, its sexual definition is prevalent. You really can't say the word today, without it being interpreted in that manner. Today, saying someone is "gay"...nobody is going to assume that it just means "lighthearted."

NOTE: I was "browsing" Amazon Prime Video last week, and sampling some 50s movie (now I don't remember the name). One of the characters said that he'd been to a gangbang, and briefly I was knee-jerk shocked, being used to the contemporary usage.

iamr4man said...

I worked in Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles in the late 70’s. The kids who were in Latino street gangs were routinely referred to as “gang bangers”.

Mrkatman said...

Saddest line of your post - “I don’t have a show and seriously doubt if I will in the future.”

Leighton said...

And I just learned, that "gang bang" is a noun, and "gangbang" is a verb. (Merriam-Webster)

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

The episode "The Dick Van Dyke Show" cast was rehearsing was on Nov. 22, 1963 when JFK was killed was called "Happy Birthday and Too Many More," which centered on a children's birthday party for Van Dyke's son on the show.

The episode was filmed the following Tuesday--the day after Kennedy's funeral--and it was the only Van Dyke episode performed without a studio audience. The show used a laugh track.

CBS did not air the episode until Feb. 5, 1964.

E. Yarber said...

These issues have a lot of importance when trying to judge what may look great on a resume. Some years ago, I was working with an independent producer who got very excited because a writer from a Wildly Successful Sitcom had agreed to rewrite a script he owned. Without seeing a page of new material, the producer had already changed the promotional text for the project, which now prominently featured the sitcom's name as though his film was practically going to be a spin-off of the program.

"Wait a minute, " I said. "Did this guy create the series? What season did he come aboard? Was he a key player on the staff, or just someone in the writer's room? Is he able to pull off twenty minute script on his own, let alone a theatrical feature?"

All that mattered to the producer was a chance to grab a piece of the established show's reputation. A month later he sheepishly admitted that the writer had been unable to submit anything they could use.

Michael said...

George Burns said someone once said you can hire all the brilliant young comedy writers you want, but if you want a good script, you need two Jews and a typewriter.

Anonymous said...

Another Dick Van Dyke/JFK assassination tie-in was the episode Turtels Ties and Toreadors, filmed before the assassination but airing 12 days aftrerwards.
the last scene has the girl Maria paint the bottom of a turtle with a picture of the Kennedy family.
It had to be cut and refilmed with a painted picture of the Petri family.
The dialogue for the scene was redone as well

Elf said...

@Leighton, I think the lesson I learned that day was that I needed to work with some older people who would get more of my references and my apparently archaic language. I hate when I drop an "Arnold Horshack" or "Arthur Dietrich" into a conversation and get blank stares.

Necco said...

The turtle always had the Petrie family painted on it. Rob's line was: "We look just like the Kennedys." In post, they redubbed the line with, "As long as this turtle lives, we'll be immortal."

Andy Cowan said...

I've always much preferred the freedom to zone into occasionally hypnotic inspirations, happy accidents and the organic timing that comes from ad-libbing in my head vs. competing at a loud table. In my head I could hear the show. At the table I heard distractions and felt like a lamb going to slaughter. Jokes that landed in that licorice-infested room didn't always equate (in my opinion) with the richest end result for the home viewer. The jokier sitcoms today with less than living and breathing characters sound table-written to me. There was no table at Seinfeld during my stint there. True, Larry and Jerry rewrote everything. But writing a first draft (whether it went the distance or not) in the quiet of my office with my white noise machine whirring away sure beat a licorice high at 2 in the morning.

ScarletNumber said...


Based on the timeline of the shows, I would say that Dabney was busy with The Slap Maxwell Story rather than Buffalo Bill when Coach was being cast. Both TSMS and BB were created by Jay Tarses, so perhaps that's the source of the confusion.

Leighton said...

@ Elf

I prefer to work with younger people, and educate them on older references.

Al in PDX said...

Enjoyed the podcast on your Vin Scully memories (even though I would disagree with your evaluation of Russ Hodges). Growing up in the Northwest, we didn't have as many opportunities to listen to Vin in the 60s, although Portland stations would often pick up the Dodger broadcasts late in the season during a tight pennant race. Even with that limited exposure, it was easy to see that he was one-of-a-kind.
Small correction ... Coliseum was built for 1932 Olympics. 1936 was the Jesse Owens in Berlin Olympics ... quite a different affair.

DyHrdMET said...

The way I'm reading this, being a "real" writer means that you learn and have all of the skills necessary to be successful in the business. It's the equivalent of a "5 tool player". The good ones will be the most successful (like you). And doing it for several successful shows (remember that writers are a big reason why a show becomes and stay successful) is what lets you run shows and become the guy to come in once a week and fix problems or pitch jokes (script consultant, I think it is).
But then there are "specialty" writers (the left-handed one-out guy in baseball) who do one thing well and can be succssful in a room-written show. Those guys can stick around, but frankly aren't worth as much as the "real" writers. I wonder if it gives extended life to writers who just aren't that good, where they can hide in a writers room basically faking it (I feel like that would be me).

Maybe there's a sitcom pitch here (of course, it would be written in your "real writer" style), where a real writer is struggling to fit into a room-written sitcom, seeing who's good and who's faking it. It would be very meta to have it be written in your preferred style but being about the other style. I'll save you the trouble and give you notes from the "network" - have a hot ditzy wife who doesn't get his problems and a quirky neighbor who's always in the way of the script.

Anonymous said...

I am fascinated by the photo of the writers smiling and enjoying themselves around Chuck.

Chad Holmes said...

"Unfortunately, I don’t have a show and seriously doubt if I will in the future."

It is unfortunate as observations you have made over the years where network sit-coms have gone off track between the network interference and problematic productions/writing seem to be on target.

2 questions: Do you have a show in mind, developed and ready to go if you got the call and had a network/executive who gave you the opportunity to do it the way you wanted to?

Also, have you gotten feedback on your critiques of what has gone wrong with the networks and sit-coms in your blog from the top levels that are the targets of those postings over the years and what have they said?

Jay Moriarty said...

"Room writing" vs. "real writing" is a subject that's always interested me. When my partner and I began writing sitcoms in the 70's for Norman Lear shows, scripts were written and re-written, but there was no such thing as "room writing." The term itself is an oxymoron and any writer worthy of the title would and should be ashamed to equate gang-banging a script with the art of "writing." In my memoir about writing and producing The Jeffersons, I explain how that show and similar series were written without the assistance of a conference table, whiteboard or "writer's assistant."