Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Writing A Scene"


I had decided to rewrite a scene from a “Major Dad” episode produced twenty-five years ago, because it began troubling me that that scene could have been better.  This is not entirely uncharacteristic for me.  I have been known to rewrite blog posts after they had been published.  This is merely a continuation of that foolishness, only going back a little further.

And now we begin.

No, wait!

Oh, no.  More stalling?

No.  And probably yes, a little.  But this is important, if you want to be a writer, or if you are simply curious about the process. 

When you are writing, it is not good to just jump in and off you go.  Although – contradictory me – we invariably did that, the oppressive pressure of time denying a more calm and sensible approach, the result being that, twenty-five years later, you might harken back to that effort and believe that you perhaps could have done better.  (Note:  I no longer have that script, but the impression persists that that climactic scene was indefensibly “hacky.”)

When I took a cooking class once – I did not learn to cook anything, but I did drink a lot of wine and brought home an unneeded stainless steel spatula – I was apprised of a principle which works as successfully in writing as it does in cooking.

The principle introduced to me was called “mise en place.”

Mise en place” is a French-ascribed doctrine, directing the chef to get everything – ingredients, cooking implements, Band-Aids in case while you are slicing and dicing, you slice off a portion of an extremity not included in the recipe. 

Mise en place directs the chef to have everything they will need to get job done assembled and within easy reach before they get started.  It’s the same thing with writing, except instead of cooking implements and ingredients, what a writer needs “in place” is a mental checklist of instructions, to continually refer to while in the process of doing their work. 

The following internal reminders may not be listed in order of importance, or entirely comprehensive.  But at least they are in one place, and we can add to them later.  Maybe when I read this blog post in twenty-five years and I suddenly realize what I left out.

My invaluable though admittedly incomplete checklist includes the following:

Respect the Format

One of the rewarding advantages of writing in a multi-camera format (as I almost exclusively did) is that, because there are fewer scenes included, you can take the time that is reasonably required to “Examine the Moment.” 

A climactic multi-camera scene could last three to four minutes.  For a single-camera show – that’s, like, eleven scenes.  (Check it out some time.  Count the number of scenes included in a Parks and Recreation episode.) 

Traditionally the shows I worked on permitted no more than six scenes per episode.  It is hard to believe by cramming fifteen scenes into the same episode-length of time (or now even shorter) that something valuable in terms of depth and understanding has not somehow been sacrificed, or that transitions of insight and awareness are not unnaturally speeded up. 

Also involved in “Respecting the Format” is adhering to the expectations of that format.  Unless you are the Burns and Allen Show from the fifties or Showtime’s considerably later It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, your characters cannot suddenly stop the scene, and start talking directly to the camera.  (In those shows, that was the format, meaning that they were adhering as well.)

Also, like in the scene I am about to write in which the issue at hand is “To spank or not to spank”, as much of a momentary jolt as it might supply, it is a little cheesy to have the front doorbell ring, and in comes Dr. Joyce Brothers (Read:  “Dr. Phil” today) out of nowhere to deliver “The Word” on contemporary childrearing techniques. 

As in a play – not ones where the deus ex machinas show up with their “out of the blue” resolutions, the good ones – the characters, taking the appropriate time (within reason), have the opportunity to engage each other directly and negotiate their conflicts as satisfactorily as they can.

Which leads to the next point on the “Checklist”,

Respect the Characters

You have a series going on.  The characters’ parameters – what they will “characteristically” do and not do – are established in the pilot, or at least early on in the series.  The audience expects and deserves consistency in their behavior (unless they bump their heads, accidentally takes drugs or it turns out “It was a dream”, and then all bets are off.  (Note:  I have never written a show where such “uncharacteristic anomalies” ever took place.)

In the episode in question we have a “by the book” Marine who believes in spanking’s deterrent value versus a seven year-old girl who, like people in general minus a few aberrants, would prefer not to be spanked. 

You cannot have the Major suddenly go all squishy and abandon his principles.  You cannot have a seven year-old little girl arguing her case like Clarence Darrow.  (Or “Groucho” Marx.) 

As an honest writer, you have to take the characters as they are and allow those characters – and not the oh-so-clever writers – believably work out their difficulties.  The other was – breaking character for the sake of comedy or for any easy solution – is cheating.  And consciously, or unconsciously, the audience knows it.  I like to believe.

Respect the Situation

A crisis has come to a head.  The climactic scene is expected to resolve that crisis.  The Major cannot come home, the kid’s waiting there to be spanked, and the issue is ignored like it never happened. 

“Hey, Short Stuff.  Wanna go for ice cream?”

You cannot do that.

The writer has an agreement with the audience.  They buy into a situation – they are owed a resolution.  (Maybe I missed it, but at the end of Seinfeld’s “The Contest”, I was unclear as to who was the winner, Jerry or George – which, to me, was a diminishing disappointment to a landmark episode.)

And finally, though I am sure there are others,

Respect The Clock

I include this last, though for me it was always the first.  In sitcom writing, the clock – both in how long you have for the scene as well as how long you have to complete the work – was always oppressively ticking.  (That is why I never wore a watch.  I could not stand looking down and seeing my precious time inexorably slipping away.)

Since a sitcom’s length is finite, the professional’s imaginary though in significant ways real “inner clock” must keep them alerted to a scene’s being too long or too short.  It is a magical thing when a scene says exactly what you want it to say and is also precisely the right length – I don’t know how that happens but more often than you think it would, it does.  Like the right lyrics fitting organically into a melody. 

Those are the things that you have to remember – the indispensible checklist that must be kept firmly in mind.  (Along with remembering limitations on language and taste.)  Then you can get started.

As I unequivocally will tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Prelude To A Rewrite - Obstacles To The Challenge"


Backstory:  Recent thoughts about Major Dad led me consider rewriting the last scene of an episode of the series written twenty-five years ago.  Today, I thought it might be illuminating to consider the obstacles involved in such a challenging undertaking.

Confession:  This is a “stall” post, so I can push off that challenging undertaking into the future.

It has been close to ten years since I have attempted to write anything in the situation comedy format at all.  My final effort in that regard was a spec pilot script entitled House Rules, which my agent was unable to get anyone interested in. 

I reflexively realized that as a troubling signal, because he was a pretty good agent.  And because House Rules was one of the best things I have ever written.  Difficulty selling your best thing is an ominous demonstration that the buyers are no longer enamored of your once greatly valued but now demonstrably unmarketable abilities.

Note:  I was correct in my assessment.  I never sold anything in television again.

Besides being out of step with both current taste trends – Read: meaner – and the prevailing subject matter – Read: sexier – I was also an expert practitioner in a comedy-writing protocol had fallen into terminal disrepute. 

Imagine you are one of the most respected “Bleeders” in the business, one of a handful of top practitioners whose name immediately pops to mind in the therapeutic employment of leaches, a “go-to ‘A’-Lister” in the “leaching” fraternity.  Still riding high, you take notice of the advancements in the “healing practices”, and you realize that the medical profession as a whole is inexorably moving away from “leaching.”

Prognosis:  Hard times ahead for the once hotshot “Bleeder” and his family.

As with “leaching”, so with writing multi-camera situation comedies.

Multi-camera comedies were (then 22-minute) “mini-plays”, filmed (or, more inexpensively, videotaped) in front of a live studio audience.  For more than forty years – from the 1960’s – The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Danny Thomas Show – to the mid-00’s – Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends that’s the way situation comedies were produced.

Since multi-camera writing was the sitcomical M.O. of the era, that’s what I trained myself to do, honing my skills at MTM (The Mary Tyler Moore Company), and plying them successfully for the next twenty-five years.  Over time during that period, I was considered one of the Top-of-the-Line “Bleeders”… I mean, sitcom writers in the business.

Then, as viewing preferences and production technology evolved, the audience (finally) tiring of the multi-camera format, and digital recording making filming shows using a single camera more cost-effective, the younger TV writers, identifying more closely with movies than with plays, began creating more and more series following cinematic template – short films, if you will, producing The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, etc.   

Single-camera comedies became the stylistic “Flavor of the Month”, relegating the stodgier multi-camera comedies into, if not oblivion, then at least what would appear to be permanent marginality.

So I haven’t done it in a while.  And there are few to no shining examples currently on the air that I can study, to help knock the cobwebs off of my once razor-sharp “skill set.”  Imagine a ballplayer, long out of the game, stepping up to the plate, hoping to swing the bat with less than embarrassing consequences.  A respectable outcome appears highly unlikely.

(That’s me, soliciting sympathy for my upcoming attempt.)

Why do I want to do it?

“Crazy” comes immediately to mind.  My best efforts would still be applied to an arthritic format, making an appreciative reception of the final product precariously doubtful.  Plus, as just mentioned, there is a lot of rust on this aging former hotshot.

I guess it’s because, thinking back, I have developed retroactive reservations about the climactic scene of “Discipline”, a Major Dad episode concerning the contentious issue of spanking.

An ideologically divided “Rewrite Room” over a script in which the Major is determined to spank his seven year-old stepdaughter for her deliberate disobedience created a difficult atmosphere to do our best work, the result producing, at least in my recollection, a less than admirable final version of that scene.

At the time I’m sure I was just happy to ultimately get the thing done.  But, as the show runner taking total responsibility for the finished product, it was not my Finest Hour.  (Though I may be overrating my abilities, and underrating how difficult it is to turn out consistently first class material under a grueling sitcom-producing schedule.)

Disclaimers, rationalizations and excuses aside, it occurred to me I could do better.

And I just thought I would give it a try.    

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Prelude To A Rewrite"


It is fascinating the way the mind works.

A quarter of a century after the fact, I am unexpectedly – and deeply gratifyingly – invited to the wedding of the eleven year-old actress I had cast to play the “smart and wryly humorous middle daughter” on Major Dad.  (See:  “A Nice Thing Happened” 7/10)

A few days later, a forgotten recollection is suddenly awoken in the dark and dormant recesses of my mind.

SUDDENLY AWOKEN FORGOTTEN RECOLLECTION:  “What!”

In the mysterious and magical way in which the brain invokes connections, I found myself thinking about a long-ago episode of Major Dad, featuring, not the now adult woman who had invited me to her wedding, but the sitcom family’s seven year-old youngest daughter, “Casey.”

Wikipedia reminds me that the episode in question was the thirteenth produced episode of Major Dad.  That means it was early in the adjustment process depicted in the series – Major Dad’s premise being “a career bachelor Marine marries a (widowed, Left-leaning) woman with three daughters” – making the story’s issue a “natural” for comedic exploitation, that issue, revealed in the title of the episode being,

“Discipline.”

Again, Wikipedia reminds me of the specifics of the storyline.  After being instructed not to go near it, little Casey loses one of the Major’s treasured medals, leading the Major to invoke the disciplinarial consequence of spanking.  

Well, as you can imagine, the Major’s permissive new “Lefty” wife – as well as the family’s other two daughters – adamantly oppose this method of punishment.  As do, it turns out, the women on the Major Dad writing staff, particularly a gifted and outspoken two-day-a-week Consulting Producer on the show, who to this day I remember exclaiming – with an appropriate though somewhat frightening intensity,

“I would never let anybody spank my child.”

Examined more closely, two issues are in the spotlight here.  One, is the issue of “corporal punishment”, which could play out in any family narrative, especially when the two parents hold diametrically opposing positions.

The second issue – which hit particularly close to home, as I was involved in a paralleling situation in real life – involved the rights and privileges of being a stepdad. 

Hearing the words, “I would never let anybody spank my child” – an admonition which could admittedly include biological fathers as well but in this case sounded directly targeted at non-“blood” pseudo-relatives – strikes a sensitive nerve, because it places front and center the question:

“What legitimately and acceptably is a stepfather permitted to do?” 

And by “permitted”, you are already acknowledging that outside permission to do that thing is obligatorily required.

Man!  I thought were just telling a (hopefully potentially humorous) story.  It became apparent, however, in the course of the rewrite process, that I had inadvertently stepped into a hornet’s nest.

In a family comedy undergirded, at least while I ran the show (the first season) by a liberal-conservative ideological tension, the arguments could be clearly delineated, one side advocating “spanking is never an acceptable alternative”, the other side believing that such mamby-pamby mollycoddling inhibits accountability among children, and a greater likelihood of their engaging in such egregious behavior, or something similar to it, again.

Skillful comedic exaggeration of these powerfully felt positions could, I believed, inject humor into this highly credible family conflict.  The trouble was, the writers, especially the female writers, particularly the female writers with daughters, and most particularly that outspoken Consulting Producer were not buying it.

You cannot have a conflict, comedic or otherwise, reflecting only one side.  That’s a plane with one wing; it inevitably tips over sideways and crashes and burns.  That was the problem with “Discipline” – in contemporary childrearing America, there appeared to be only one supportable point of view. 

I myself am an opponent of “corporal punishment”, having spanked my (then two-year-old) daughter only once, immediately regretting it and apologizing profusely, though she was unlikely to have heard me, being too busy wailing, and recording this (one time only!) transgression in her mind to bring up in future psychotherapy sessions down the line.

The thing was, the characters in the show were not the writers. They were the characters in the show, one of whom who maintained a strongly held position that, whether the writers in the Major Dad rewrite room agreed with it, that character, and a substantial portion of the viewing audience, making it a viable option for storytelling, did.

Well, we finally got through it – a number of us kicking and screaming – and the episode was completed.  I do not recall it being a standout episode.  Nor do I recall it stinking up the place.  It was a serviceable episode, professionally executed, which – no small accomplishment – carried us to the next episode (which we began with a “Table Reading” the following morning), which we hoped would be better.  Or at least less contentious.
 
“Discipline’s” climactic scene involved two characters:  The unbending Major, and the little girl, bravely prepared to take her medicine, all the time hoping for a last- minute reprieve.  At the last moment, the Major, in a close call, ultimately relents.
    
Not excusing the predictability, but somehow when you deliver what they at least unconsciously expect, the audience seems to enjoy it, relishing an oft-told Morality Play, unspooling – hopefully artfully – to its pre-determined conclusion.  Still, you want to get there in the most imaginative way possible.  And I am not certain we did.

Call it compulsive obsessiveness, or just a man with too much time on his hands, but since thoughts of that episode came to mind, it occurred to me that, after twenty-five years,

I might try writing that climactic scene again.

Tomorrow:  “Obstacles To The Challenge”