Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Three"

Imagine a “Writers’ Room.” A team of comedy writers is rewriting a script very late at night. They’re stuck on a joke. They can’t move forward until they get it. Everyone’s exhausted. They’ve been at it for hours.

Finally, a writer pitches a joke. The other writers respond.

“Too broad” (funny but unreal), critiques one writer.

“Too ‘on the nose’”, (obvious), complains another.

Bob Ellison, one of the best joke writers in television, points deliberately to his watch.

“Two-thirty,” he astutely observes.

“Rewrite Night” in a nutshell. Tired people struggling to be funny with time running out. My stomach’s doing “flip-flops” just thinking about it. “Rewrite Night” had two objectives. One, obviously, was to make the script better. The other was maybe less transparent but equally important. What was it?

To get in your car.

“Getting in your car” indicates you’re done and you’re going home. That sentence triggers retroactive feelings of joy and relief. For me, there was nothing better than going home.

That says a lot. It suggests that I didn’t particularly enjoy “Rewrite Night.” Guilty. I don’t know if this put me in the minority, but when I looked around the room, either as show runner or as a consultant helping out, other people did seemed to be having a pretty good time. For me, however, somewhere deep inside, or not so deep, it felt like a punishment.

“Rewrite Night” – which can actually be three or even four consecutive rewrite sessions for the same episode – is a sometimes gratifying, sometimes excruciating, but always pressure-packed necessity. Its requirements vary in difficulty. Some weeks, a script just needs some minor “tweaking.” Other times, it’s a “Page One” rewrite, meaning you start at Page One and rewrite the entire thing.


A total rewrite in a few short hours. It sounds impossible, but somehow it gets done. Where does that energy come from? Wherefrom the inspiration? The motivation comes from two places. First, from the knowledge that the cast and crew expect a new script the following morning. And second, until that script gets done

You can’t get in your car.

No script is ever perfect. It always needs some adjusting. The following is an extended but hardly comprehensive list of reasons:

Sometimes, the script needs cutting, so it can fit into its allotted time. After that, you have to smoothly blend the two sections, from which the middle section has been cut out, back together. This is often harder than you imagined. Like gluing a broken teacup so you don’t see the crack.

Rewriting is also required when jokes, which seemed funny on the page, turn out to be considerably less so when the actors deliver them standing up.

There are times when the storyline needs clarifying. You could be working on that script for a month, and somehow at this desperately late hour, you’re still agonizingly trying to determine, “What exactly is this story about?”

“Standards and Practices” – the network censors – could have sent a memo saying, “You can’t say that”, or “You can’t mention that specific product.” (This was before the networks, falling on hard times, started encouraging not just the mention but the placement of specific products in the middle of the episodes.)

Network or studio “notes” could have requested our “revisiting” certain moments in the script, which for them, or the phantom audience they claim to stand in for, are somehow “unclear”. (This is not the same as us clarifying the story. This is being instructed to clarify parts of the story that, to us, are already clear.)

The star could be having problems with certain “transitions”, which generally means they want more lines.

The budget requires the cutting and replacing of a joke for which some costly prop had to be rented or built, or because buying the rights to some recorded “music cue” turned out to be too expensive. (For some reason, Universal would charge Universal’s Major Dad more to use their copyrighted music than other studios did. That always seemed odd to me.)

There’s a great “Arafat” joke in the script and Arafat dies during the week of production (leading to the bizarre now but less so at the time response: “Why do these things always happen to us?”)

There are lots of reasons a script needs to be rewritten. But as far as I was concerned, there was only one:

“You did it wrong the first time.”

I never had the best attitude.

For me, rewriting late at night felt like “Remedial Night School for the Fitfully Funny.” While sometimes spending forty-five minutes searching for a needed joke or line of dialogue, eating congealing dinners out of Styrofoam containers, I had the clear picture of the writers who knew what they were doing peacefully home and tucked smilingly in their beds.

To be honest, talking about “Rewrite Night” is a little tricky for me. You’re not good at something, so you disparage the process. I wasn’t great at “Rewrite Night.” I’ll be “disparaging” in a moment.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it seventeen times – I’m not a joke writer. I re-iterate this confession because a couple of “killer” jokes can put a mediocre script over the top, and these are frequently injected on “Rewrite Night.” That style wasn’t me. Occasionally, I’d contribute in my own style, but as a rule, “The Powers That Said Yes” generally said ”No”, giving me the disoriented feeling of a figure skater in a hockey game.

I’m rarely productive when I’m tired, and “Rewrite Night”, as befitting the name, takes place at night, invariably after a long and stress-ridden day. I meditate every morning. (I'll tell you about it some time.) By the time "Rewrite Night" comes around, my focus and equanimity had completely worn off.

Add to this list, when I was running the rewrite rooms as the creator of the show, I was more than sometimes indecisive and scared.

Now for the “disparaging.” The “Rewrite Room” is a wonderful arena for replacing “so-so” jokes with funnier ones. Writers shout out joke pitches, the show runner picks the one they like best (usually their own), and in it goes. You’re done, until the next joke that needs replacing, wherein the process is repeated, and so on, until FADE OUT, THE END.

However, if you want to write a structured comedic conversation, one that flows organically and builds to its natural crescendo, a “Rewrite Room” is not the best arrangement for getting that done. Doing that requires a single, focused mind, or a writing team with a focused mind, or a limited group of writers, all thinking alike, not a tension-filled room full of high testosterone (including the women) joke pitchers.

The “Rewrite Room” was constructed to help deliver joke-filled comedies, forcing every character to speak in the stylized rhythm of “set up” and “punch line.” This longstanding rewrite procedure contributed, in mine ‘umble opinion, to relegating the venerable sitcom format to the margins, on its inevitable journey to the junk heap.

But that’s one person’s perspective. A person who didn’t care much for “Rewrite Night.”

For many writers, however, “Rewrite Night” was, or at least appeared to be, a total blast. They enjoyed the comradery. The relished the challenge. They thrived on the friendly – though not always – competition. Some of them, for personal reasons – they didn’t have families to go home to, or they did, but they didn’t like them – looked like they’d happy to hang out in that room for the rest of their lives.

Me? I just wanted to get in my car.

Really, really badly.


growingupartists said...

What a complicated process! I suppose that gives even more props, or credence in old people's speak, to comedians who forged forward with their bad jokes.

Their respect was gained through a nimble recovery, and so built the "relationship" that's missing from sitcoms today.

growingupartists said...

And furthermore, today's audiences need the stimulating adventure of learning. Take the intellectual examples of The Big Bang Theory, Frasier, and The George Lopez Show. No seriously, take them and recreate a thousand more so I can just relax and stop doing all of Lorne's work for him.

The Big Bang Theory invited me into the previously unexplored worlds of physics and nerdy logic, Frasier exposed some of psychology's best kept control-the-masses mechanisms, along with giving us a historically celebrated view "inside a radio station". I'm sure others could go on celebrating Frasier's fruits. And George Lopez dared speak openly about race issues, while captivating my 8 year old in the process, and bonding him to my husband who also thinks George Lopez is a genius.

Mike the Blogger, A Buck Short, anyone, anyone?

Nicole said...

We always used to say that time spent in the writers' room was directly proportional to how much the EP hated his family. He wasn't going home - so neither were you!

Anonymous said...

It's therapeutic to see how similar your feelings about rewrite night are to my own memories. I too hated it. The Lord of the Flies aspect to it. The screwing around. The egos. I could never get into the zone, where I was at my best. Wish we were working on a show, and you were my boss. (Or I'll be yours. Heck, it's my fantasy.)

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I hate rewrite pressure even though over here we don't have rewrite nights either. The whole idea that coming up with a solution to a problem is going to be better if more pressure is put upon the process only works for a certain type of people and a certain type of solutions. Furthermore, it creates an atmosphere of accomplishment, which can lead certain people to need rewrite night to be able to be satisfied with their own work. Or maybe I am just not a good enough writer.