Friday, March 6, 2015

"Going Exclusively In the Other Direction"


If you require absolutely certainty in your blog posts, you might want to skip this one, because it is unlikely to produce a definitive resolution.  I say “unlikely” because I have not written it yet so there is no guarantee where I’ll wind up and, who knows, I may surprise us all and come up with an answer.  The “smart money”, however, remains on “unlikely”, and I wanted to forewarn you about that, so that your wasted time is limited to reading this paragraph, rather than submitting to the entire enterprise and at the end going,

“This blog post explains nothing!

Consider this a “public service”, and I shall hopefully see you on some future occasion.  Bye-bye, now. 

For the rest of you who, like myself, have available time on their hands…

Here we go.

The earliest half-hour comedies I wrote for – and you would think therefore the most influential ones on my developmental tendencies – were situation comedies involving single people and the workplace. 

By the time I wrote episodes for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary’s outside-of-work buddies – Rhoda and Phyllis – had both decamped for series of their own, evolving the Mary show into a comedy in which the still single Mary’s workmates performed double duty by re-appearing at her apartment as her friends.

I wrote four episodes of Mary.

Then came Taxi, where nobody went home because, except for Elaine, who was a single mother, none of them had families.  Come to think of it, Elaine didn’t go home that much either, her two children, presumably, raising themselves. 

I wrote nine episodes of Taxi, with nary a single scene about “bedtime.”

Finally, there was Cheers, where the single (except Norm) characters were effectively coworkers, but rather than turning out a news show or driving a taxi, the activity they were collectively involved in was drinking. 

I wrote four episodes of Cheers.

At that point, I was offered the opportunity to create a half-hour comedy series of my own.  Based on my writing background, it would have been natural at that point to have rendered my own version of a “workplace” comedy populated by single participants.

Instead, however, as this post’s title foreshadows, I went unilaterally in the other direction.

Every series I created was a family show.

“Best of the West” – a young family relocates to the American frontier.

“Family Man” – Did you catch the word “family” in there?

“Major Dad” – A former bachelor Marine marries into the family comprised of a woman with three daughters.

Those were the shows that got on.  Through the succeeding decades I also devised failed pilot ideas such as Island Guy, in which a Beverly Hills family goes all “Culture Clash” with a Polynesian “primitive”, The Home Team, about a former baseball superstar becoming a “stay-at-home” Dad (in the 1980’s when that was actually a novel idea), and House Rules, wherein parents are forced to move back into their old house which they had in the interim passed on to their married daughter.

Six series – and there are others – none of them look anything like Taxi.

Those were the shows I did.  Spontaneously and unprovoked.

Why?

I don’t know.  (Throw in a shrug reflecting bewildered authenticity.)

Were family shows my favorites when I was growing up?  Not particularly.  I preferred the workplace comedy “Sergeant Bilko”, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, which, though it had an appealing family component, was the most fun when the lead character went to the office.

Were family shows popular when I was creating them and I was simply pursuing my best chances for commercial success?  (The “Desperately Hedging Your Bets Factor”?)

I don’t remember, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.  I am not that calculating.  Besides, I am talking about show ideas spanning more than three decades, during which times, the family sitcom, like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, kept “going in an out of style.”

While I was compiling the above list of series, I noticed – surprisingly for the first time – that both Major Dad and Family Man involved male protagonists who were in either full (Major Dad) or substantial (Family Man) “Stepdad Mode.”

I am a Stepdad.  (Though I subsequently became the kind where you help make the kid yourself.)  Although the decision was never overt, maybe I felt more comfortable writing what I knew.

The thing is, to my knowledge, nobody who created Taxi ever drove a cab.  Nor did – dare I mention the name? – Doctor Cosby ever deliver a baby.

Though you may be subliminally attracted to the subject matter you know, such issues are hardly determinative.  Given research and the fertile writerly imagination, you can theoretically write anything.

Although…

Series about single people inevitably involve relationship difficulties and sexual entanglements.  You know me.  Does writing in that area seem to you like my natural terrain? 

(I once wrote a script about a reclusive single guy with a pet falcon.  That’s as close as I got to a non-family-centered sitcom.  And that series went nowhere.)

Bottom Line: (though unlikely a satisfying one.)  I wrote family shows because I wanted to.

Though I am not exactly sure why.   

(You see, I told you – no resolution.  Though this could quite possibly have been a self-fulfilling prophesy.)

"Gradations Of Gutsiness"


is what came to mind after writing yesterday’s post.

I have often – by which I mean more than one time but not incessantly – thought about immigrants.  Not necessarily the immigrants of today but the immigrants like my grandparents who arrived here at the turn of the twentieth century, and in a similar context, myself, who immigrated to this great country on April the Twelfth, 1974, a date rivaling in importance December the 7th 1941, but with considerably less infamy.

Yes, I too was an immigrant.  Leading me to ponder during a recent conversation the fundamental difference between “The People Who Leave” and “The People
Who Don’t.”  Overhearing my pondering, a fellow immigrant, not of the inter-country variety but the “inter-state” – having moved from Minnesota to Seattle Washington, observed that when he went “home” he noticed a characteristical distinction between the migrational contingent and the ones who stayed put.

I cannot quote the man verbatim, as at the moment he spoke I had no plans to appropriate his observations.  Which is a shame, became he put it considerably better than I am about to.

People who stay – I now paraphrase his insightfulness – are more cautious and considerate; people who leave are more adventuresome, but they’re a pain in the ass.

I left.  And I acknowledge, not entirely comfortably, that the adjectives describing the “leavers” pretty much personally apply.  The second “descriptive” is not a giant surprise.  “Pains in the ass” are inveterate complainers, which generally defines why they are pains in the ass.

“I hate winter!”  “Canadian television is too limiting!”

I am sure I whined both of those things.  On numerous occasions.  “Complaining”, characteristically, is me.  And I believe that it ultimately helped me to move.  So never say complaining is all bad.  That would make you a complainer about complaining.  Meaning you are no different that I am.  So there.

As for the other descriptive, I never thought of myself as “adventuresome.”  But in retrospect, I must have been.  Or I’d be in Toronto and not here.  Not that, as Seinfeld said about gayness, there is anything wrong with that.  Though I’d be suffering through months of frigidity, disappointed career aspirations and, for a number of years, an embarrassing mayor.

Contracting my overall self-perception, I can recall specific examples of being brave.  I have mentioned the story of how, when the confirmation of my temporary work permit had not arrived at the Toronto Airport Immigration Checkpoint, I forced a burly American Immigration Officer – carrying an enormous firearm – to a nearby payphone, to speak to a California-based Immigration Official I had called up – there were no cell phones back then – so he could instruct the Toronto Officer to allow me to proceed legally onto the plane.

That was plenty brave.  “Racing-into-traffic-to-rescue-your-child” brave, only in this case, the child in question was my embryonic career. 

That, you will agree, was brave.  Won’t you?  Well, it was certainly brave for me.

I was also brave when I was rejected the invitation to move to New York to work on the inception of Saturday Night Live, jettisoning the only person who had given me work to that juncture and facing the daunting prospect of my navigating my career in Hollywood on my own.

I was brave on certain other occasions as well, like when I said “Yes” to an opportunity when I could more comfortably have said “No.”  (Note:  I am restricting my examples to the work-related arena; there were a handful of personal braveries as well.  Or, more accurately, a couple of fingers’ full.)

And then at some point, nearing the end of my career, I apparently – and inconveniently…

Ran entirely out of gutsiness. 

After three decades of comparative clear sailing, things started to get harder.  The offers dried up, my “spec” pilots and screenplays were unilaterally rejected, my agent, realizing he was extremely wealthy, retired…

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the ball game.

Unlike during earlier stages in my career when I ignored them, I took a look at the formidable obstacles that confronted me, and I ran out of… the stuff that I needed to empower myself to take them on.  I had, it appeared, reached the end point of my “Gutsy.”

And that’s when I realized – well not at that precise moment, but at some point down the line… that your “Gutsiness Quotient” – like your talent, like your timing, your good fortune, among countless other continua (the Latin plural of “continuum”) – can be identifiably designated along, in this case, “The Gutsiness Continuum”, pinpointing your position somewhere between curling up permanently into a ball and… I don’t know, telling Donald Trump you are cutting his previously agreed-upon classical piano solo out of your television show.  (And who knows, there may be even gutsier actions than that.  Involving a lion, a bullwhip and a chair, but that’s about it.)

Call it the “Gunfighter Mentality.”  I do.  Because, like the “quick draw” specialist who believes he’s the fastest, whatever personal characteristic, aptitude or ability you can think of, there is always somebody out there who’s “faster.”  (And also, following the “Gunfighter Analogy”, slower.  Which should make you feel better, but it usually doesn’t.)  

You can motivationally push yourself beyond your statistical limit.  You can intentionally restrict yourself and undershoot.  But there is indisputably only one
“Fastest Gunfighter” out there.  (And that position is temporary.)  The rest of us are reliably somewhere along that line. 

I can more of less live with the fact that I am not the most talented.

That I am not the gutsiest – or more specifically not as gutsy and I may have wanted to be…

That one, I am still working on.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"Tinkering With The Format"


You want to tinker with the format because, by definition – meaning because the format was in place before you arrived – it is somebody else’s way of doing things, and you want to develop a way of doing things of your own.  Understanding that writers are notorious rebels.

“We like to write about things rather than risk actually doing them.”

All right, there’s that.  But within the realm of the imagination, we are exceedingly bold.

Anyway…

I am thinking of three situation comedies that tinkered with the traditional format – but just tinkered, you do not want to reinvent the wheel; it is virtually impossible to sell an entirely different-looking wheel.  Three experiments in tinkering, two that succeeded, another that didn’t.  I will begin by chronicling the experiment that didn’t.

Oh, wait.  That was the one I tried.  Well, at least it has the honor of going first.

I made mention not long ago, possibly yesterday, that comedies shot without an audience have the creative advantage of storytelling flexibility, while comedies filmed in front of a studio audience gain the heightened intensity of the immediate presentation.  But there are tradeoffs.  To be delineated forthwith.

In a sitcom I created called Family Man, I decided to eschew the live studio audience, because I wanted them to take out the audience bleachers so there would be more room on the stage for more sets, thus providing an expanded number of storytelling locations.  In the Family Man pilot, I used seven locations rather than the regulation three, which was then the maximum number of locations (because of space limitations) available to live audience shows. 

By eliminating the audience, I was also free to write more nuanced and naturalistically, unencumbered by the insistent imperative to earn audience guffaws.  It is incredible how comedically freeing that is.

Unfortunately, my experiment did not work.  Though I unquestionably gained in range of storytelling and laugh-inducing flexibility, lacking the audience-infused electricity, the finished product projected the recessive energy of an amusing soap opera. 

(Note:  It was only after Family Man’s production when two completed episodes were screened in front of an audience that the show’s star, Richard Libertini, realized, from their enthusiastic reaction, that the show he was participating in was actually funny.)

I had tried something and it failed.  But at least I tried something.

Seinfeld, on the other hand, tried something and it was wildly successful.

Having no sitcom-writing experience whatever, the Seinfeld creative team was blissfully liberated from the restrictive indoctrination of “The Rules.”  Also, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are incredibly talented, each of them possessing a distinct and hilarious comedic “Voice.”

Their original “Voice” pervaded the series from its opening episode, where an in-no-way-story-advancing conversation concerning the importance of the location of the second-from-the-top button on a man’s shirt tagged Seinfeld as a series that was definitely going to be different.

From the tinkering standpoint, although they retained the live studio audience, Seinfeld told its stories employing, I don’t know, twelve to fifteen scenes of greatly varying lengths, situated in multiple locations. 

This expanded canvas was accomplished by “going outside”, like on that “New York” street (in quotes, because it was actually a set next to the soundstage), by locating sets on the stage itself whose action, resulting from advanced technology, the audience could not directly see but could follow via a monitor – when shows like Taxi were produced, there was nothing to see, because the film had yet to be developed –, by pre-filming certain scenes and showing them to the audience fully edited, and by later in its run expanding to two soundstages, allowing room for even more indoor locations.

The result, complementing the more naturalistic dialogue, was a more naturalistic (meaning less “theatrical”) manner of unfolding the story, their narrative options no longer restricted to two or three standing sets.  (Note:  In our day, we were also instructed to limit the number of scenes so that the live audience experience would be less fragmented, and inevitably take less time.  For some reason, every time you “Cut” a scene, the actors disappear into their dressings rooms and call up their business managers.  An increased number of scenes triggers a commensurate number of delays.)

Finally – I am just skimming here because we all have lives outside of this exercise… except, perhaps me… there is the sitcom Mom, out of the Chuck Lorre stable of comedies  (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a half Men, Mike and Molly), delivered in full-out “Throwback Mode” – unrelenting “setup-punchline” format and a live studio audience.  But it’s different.

Mom’s courageous innovation is that, while telling its story via the traditional format, it will abruptly stop to acknowledge the less than humorous realities of the characters’ existence – their history of addiction, and financial uncertainty – not just once, near the end of the episode as shows of the past have done in their often excruciating "MOS" (the professionally denigrated ‘Moment of Shit’) interludes, but interwoven organically throughout the episode.

Rather than being a downer, this balance of lightness and darkness makes Mom feel more like actual life than a structural skeleton to hang formula jokes on.

As you see, these innovations are not earthshaking.  But they uniquify the product by delivering a welcome humanity into the proceedings.

And that’s what we’re looking for.

A sitcom with a pulse.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"A Perennial Question - Part Two"


“Whither the sitcom?”

is that question, for those intermittent visitors who missed yesterday.

Television will always make comedies.  That’s where the money is.  The thing is, more than ever maybe, television does not know what comedies to make, and, albeit less importantly, they are less than confident about the most commercially viable format for making them.

When we left off yesterday…

I was mentioning how television half-hour comedy evolved directly from radio – sometimes literally, as many hit radio comedies were transferred intact to the new medium – The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee and Molly, and radio’s perennial favorite comedy, Amos ‘n Andy, although in that one, black actors were required to replace the white actors who played the Amos ‘n Andy characters on radio because now you could see them, leading nitpicky questions, such as,

“Why are they white?”

Many radio comedies were recorded in front of a live studio audience.  Eventually – after filmed situation comedies such as Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show
ultimately succumbed due to terminal tepidness – television comedies began being filmed and later videotaped in front of live studio audiences as well. 

Faced with the prospect of performing before an actual assemblage of humanity, the actors became advantageously adrenalized.  By contrast, Robert Young, the star of Father Knows Best, often looked like he could barely keep himself awake.

So here’s the deal.  And, like everything in life – asserts the writer because he is seventy and now speaks with the Wisdom of the Ages – it’s a tradeoff.

When facing a live audience, the indisputable Test of Success is,

“Are they laughing?”

With that single objective clearly in mind, the writers write in a style that will insure the greatest likelihood of eliciting the “ha-ha.”  Which sometimes – no, more than sometimes, almost always – generated a greater level of exaggeration in both word and behavior, meaning that the characters would say and do things that, almost without exception, would neither be said nor done in actual everyday life.  That’s why we watch television instead of actual everyday life. 

There are more guaranteed laughs.

That’s the tradeoff – belly laughs at the price of contrivance.  (Which a lot of viewers don’t mind, because, unlike verisimilitudinous purists and curmudgeonly former TV writers – or TV writers with immutable standards – those viewers readily accept the fact that, “It doesn’t have to be real.  It’s a show!”)

But time matzas on, and as the audience tires of one format, another inevitably takes its place.  And in truth, it is not just the audience that finds the traditional style of presentation formulaically predictable, the writers get tired of it themselves.  And they start hunting around for something fresher.

“Fresher”, over the last fifteen or so years, is the – technically labeled “single-camera” comedy, or – expressed less technically but equally accurately – comedies shot without a live studio audience.

I know.  You only care if it’s funny.  But I am telling you, despite your disinterest, that the choice of formats delivering the comedy makes a thesis-length describable world of difference. 

This is my only point today – although I could write about this till the cows come home but I won’t because if I did the cows would roll their eyes and immediately go out again and who wants to be responsible for wandering cows?

Watch a half-hour comedy filmed in front of an live studio audience, like, say, Mike and Molly or Two Broke Girls, and then watch a sitcom that isn’t, like Parks and Recreation or Portlandia.  Then ask yourself this question:

Is there any joke that can be extracted from Mike and Molly or Two Broke Girls and seamlessly inserted into Parks and Recreation or Portlandia?  I am not talking about content; I am referring to the structuring of the dialogue.

Conversely, is there a line in Parks and Recreation or Portlandia that you can imagine being performed in front of a live studio audience and eliciting a certifiable belly laugh rather than a (barely recordable) registration of amusement?

There you have it. 

Two systems of laugh elicitation that are incompatibly different.

Right now, the non-studio audience format is dominating the airwaves.  I personally prefer at least its possibilities because it requires the writers to put clever, naturalistic interplay before the obligatory punchline-every-ten-seconds. 

But that’s me.

Though I believe that, generally, the non-audience format will prevail because it seems more compatible with the sensibilities of today’s show creators, it is stylistically consistent with the inexorable progression of realism in entertainment – all the way to “reality” shows themselves – and because creatively, you do not, as a rule, go backwards. 

RADIO WRITER:  Isn’t it more satisfying to imagine what the characters look like than actually seeing them on television?  The audience will be back.  I’m sure of it.”

That radio writer does not have a job.

Unlike the Beatles, at least in the context in question, I do not believe in “Yesterday.”

But I do believe in talent.  That’s where my money is.  Somebody out there, who is intensely in the tune with the times and can deliver a relatable situation and identifiable characters (played by consummately gifted comedy performers) is going to touch a Zeitgeistual nerve and ignite a response from, not a sliver, but a substantial portion of the television-viewing audience and the next landmark situation comedy will have arrived. 

I hope it’s soon. 

Because at the current moment, I have very little to watch.