Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eighteen B"


Every script I wrote for Family Man was based on a story that had happened to me, either to me, as a kid – when I was seven, I stole a ton of chalk from my classroom, and when my mother found it, I pounded it to dust so I wouldn’t have to give it back – or to me, as an adult – as a Stepdad, I tackled the challenge of preparing my stepdaughter to sing a single line at a school assembly, a girl who was more than somewhat melodically challenged.

Little stories. Personal but identifiable. No forced comedy. The “funny” arose naturally from the situation. Dr. M, a passionate mosquitophobe, once smacked a mosquito with such force into our bedroom ceiling that, if you ran your hand across the ceiling, you couldn’t feel the mosquito. It was embedded that far into the plaster.

(A footnote in the middle: Although Family Man was only on the air for a short time, there were a number of people who saw it. We knew this because people would come up to Dr M at parties and such and say to her, based on having watched the show, “I feel like I already know you.”

Dr M never cared for this arrangement, preferring people to know her as she actually is, rather than, as in the case of that episode, the mosquito-murdering crazy person I portrayed her as. Her reaction is understandable, but not altogether helpful to the writer. Especially one writing a series about the events of his life. At least as he saw them.)

Dr, M told me about this story that occurred before we were together. She wasn’t Dr. M then, just M. M was attending a party in the seventies, when feminism was in its “I am woman, hear me roar” incarnation, and she heard an apparently “out of the house” woman announce to a group of equally liberated females that, “Any woman who doesn’t work isn’t worth talking to.”

At that point in time, Dr. M was “in the house”, a single mother, raising a two year-old daughter. The woman’s comment made her cry.

I found this a powerful story. And I used it as the basis for the first episode of Family Man. Was the episode funny? In other places, yes. But that moment stayed what it was.

While I was writing, a “set” was being built on the soundstage, which, adjusting for the requirements of the cameras, duplicated the actual layout of my house. I was simply being consistent. To complement the original stories, I wanted the series to have an original “look.” How better to accomplish that than to design the “set” not based on a set designer’s concept, but on the place where the prototype of the series’ protagonist actually lived.

We live in what’s called a craftsman bungalow, so that’s what was built, in all its specific detail. The “set” looked like nothing I’d ever seen before, except for my house. It was really beautiful. And it felt like a place someone would actually live in.

All “sets” have backings. Backings, which are hung at the back of the stage, are the view you see out the windows of the “set.” Most shows rent backings. Generic backings. A neighborhood. With a tree, and a car and a dog.

The set designer for Family Man sent a photographer to our house. The photographer went out onto our back porch and with a very wide-angle lens, took a picture of the view you would see out the back windows of our house. The picture was then blown up and was turned into the backing for the “set.”

The “view” for the Family Man “set” was the exact view that you saw from the back of my actual house. Was that cool, or what?

Then the set decorator took over. He did his best, based on his research and experience, but as talented as he was, he wasn’t, owing to his natural proclivities, a family person. Even if he had been, I would have still done what I did next.

Which was to invite in Dr. M and my stepdaughter, Rachel, to suggest ideas that would give the set decorations a legitimizing reality. Dr M contributed humanizing touches in the many areas, and Rachel suggested helpful improvements for her counterpart on the show’s bedroom. We even brought some “props” from home, trying to bring the “set” more truthfully to life.

The set decorator was not pleased. I understood. We were intruding on his turf. He could, however, have been nicer about it. I remember him asking, rhetorically, I’m pretty sure, “Will you be bringing in the three year-old to consult on her bedroom?”

(Note: I had deviated from reality in one significant regard. In life, I have a wife and a stepdaughter and a biological daughter, separated in age by nine years and eight months. In Family Man, I expanded the family to include a “me when I was a boy” element, represented by an in-between-aged stepson. When the president of NBC rewarded me with three large beach towels with the NBC peacock logo on them, (see: “The World’s Greatest Agent” – February 10, 2008), it was in the mistaken belief that I had three children in real life as well. He couldn’t believe that I made anything up.)

The next part is kind of technical. You can jump over it if you want. Although I think of important. You know what? Just read it.

A decision had to made as to what method should be employed to shoot the show. The Cosby Show was shot on videotape. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi had been filmed. All had used the multi-camera process and were performed in front of a live studio audience (as opposed to a dead studio audience, a process which was tried but quickly abandoned, due to a depressing lack of audience response. And the smell. That’s not true. I made that up.)

There was also the option of shooting the show “single camera”, the way 30 Rock and The Office, among other shows, are recorded today. Since we had several young actors in the cast – one of them barely three years old – who might be spooked be a live audience and whose performances would be difficult to control, the “single camera” option, though more expensive, offered meaningful advantages.

I decided we would shoot the show on videotape (for budgetary reasons) but without a studio audience. Why? For a lot of reasons, one of them being that, when you take out the bleachers, where the audience sits, you have room on the stage for more “sets”, and you’re not stuck with the standard living room, a bedroom and a restaurant where they sometimes eat out. You’re free to go to more places in the story when you have room for more “sets.”

Mostly, though, I wanted to shoot the show without an audience, because I wanted to expand my comedy-writing options.

Here’s the deal. The most reliable method for making a live audience laugh is by delivering a ceaseless fusillade of hard, punchy jokes, especially if they’re about sex. That’s not what I do. I wanted to try other ways to get laughs. And shooting without a live audience would provide me that freedom.

(Over the years, I have written episodes that did not play particularly well in front of a live audience but played beautifully on the air. I have also written episodes where the audience was coughing up phlegm from laughing so hard, that seemed considerably less funny when you watched them in your house. What you’re really dealing with are two different forms of communication. In my view, it was the home audience that mattered most. Almost all of my bosses disagreed. If they had a successful “show night”, they were ecstatic. If we didn’t, it was "Hide the sharp implements.")

I got rid of the audience so I could do things like this:

The writer in Family Man, who I named Shelly, always wrote, as I do, with music playing. I wrote a scene where Shelly’s concentrating on his writing. Playing in the background is Randy Newman’s wonderful score for The Natural. Shelly is, almost unconsciously, humming along. As the score reaches its soaring crescendo, Shelly suddenly rises from his seat, and, using his pen as a baton, begins vigorously conducting the orchestra.

The timing for such a scene – coordinating the recorded music with the actor’s performance, had to be perfect. I needed the control that having an audience present would not allow.

I felt the same concern about the afore-mentioned episode, where Shelly’s wife Andrea’s efforts to fall asleep are impeded by the intermittent buzzing of a malevolent mosquito.

I also wrote a Shelly-Andrea dispute, where the scene is played entirely without words.

When you’re not servicing a live audience, you can try a lot of different things. That’s why I decided not to have one. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss why that might have been a mistake.

Classic British half hour comedies, like Fawlty Towers and The Office, had seasons that were six episodes in length, and they ran for two seasons, making for a grand series total of twelve episodes. Short seasons of this nature allow the writers to complete the scripts before the shooting starts. That rarely – bordering on never – happens in the States, at least not on network TV. Here, new episodes must be written at the same time that previously written episodes are being produced. You think that, maybe affects the quality of the shows a little?

(Why is the arrangement different in England than it is here? A British producer once explained, “In England, we need money to make shows. In the States, you need shows to make money.” That’s why Americans make more of them.)

Fox’s seven-show order for Family Man was the only time I had the opportunity to write the scripts before we went into production. This civilized arrangement not only allowed me to feel less time pressured, it also allowed me to write all the episodes myself, which was particularly helpful, seeing as how the series chronicled my experiences, as a child and as an adult, and outside writers would be unlikely to instinctively know what those experiences were.

Okay. I had built the set. I had written the scripts. Family Man was ready to go.

All I needed were the actors.


Anonymous said...

I love reading about "your show". Looking forward to tomorrow.

yatesy said...

i remember watching your show but i thought it was on abc? weird how you think you remember stuff.