Monday, April 27, 2009

"The 'Annual Inefficiency' - Follow-Up"

Oh boy.

Here’s a writer with a, possibly, overdeveloped hostility towards his “overseers”, who hasn’t participated in pilots for years, spouting off about the horrible inefficiency of the pilot process. Bias and credibility issues abound.

And yet…

It’s true I am no longer involved in the pilot business. I just know that, during the time that I was, a period when the networks were prohibited from owning the shows they broadcast, they interfered a tremendous amount. Today, the networks own the shows. Would it be reasonable to believe they would now interfere less?

So there’s that.

Then, there’s the “argument” issue. In “The ‘Annual Inefficiency’ – ‘Take Two’”, (posted April 23rd, 2009), I specifically referred to arguments which “frame their opponent’s position in such an extreme manner as to make it appear ridiculous.”

So what happens?

Mike The Blogger refers to “your explaining that the writers are experts and the executives should not interfere…” Diane Kristine claims I want TV writing to work “with no interference from the people who hold the purse stings…”

Brrrrrrrrr. (That’s me, shivering with frustration, my jowls jiggling from side to side.)

It is not my argument that networks should never be allowed to interfere. I even indicated specific junctures where they are every right to. The thing is, there’s interference, and there’s interference. One, you could call “reactive interference”, where whoever it is, the networks, your spouse, the Crafts Services person, provides an honest reaction to your efforts. I’m in favor of that type of input. Sometimes a writer is too close to the material, and it’s illuminating to receive responses from an “outside eye”, professional or otherwise.

The other type of interference could be called “proactive interference.” This one involves – if it weren’t being practiced by “the people holding the purse stings” – egregious boundary crossing. Comments venture beyond, “That part was confusing” or “That made me uncomfortable”, to “our thoughts”, suggestions, which, because they hold all the cards, become not suggestions, but orders.

I wouldn’t think of walking into the networks’ offices and telling them how to program Thursday night. Why then do people, as equally as unqualified as I am to program a network schedule, feel so comfortable delivering their “thoughts”, which, invariably, send the project hurtling towards a migraine-inducing predictability?

Despite how it may sound, it isn’t (exclusively) an ego thing that sends steam shooting out of a television writer’s ears. Writers respond to the signals they’re given. Ask any writer who’s gone to pitch at a network. You can count on this. At some point, the network executive will gush about how thrilled they are to be in the “Earl Pomerantz business”. It’s quite a heady experience. Reassuring, even. Makes you feel like going out and buying something expensive.

You then go away and write the script, in the – you like to believe – unique and delightful way you write scripts. Call it “The Earl Pomerantz Way.” You hand the script in, and the network’s “headline” reaction is this: “We still love the idea. We’re just not crazy about the way you wrote it.”

Two reactions come to mind. The first one is:

“Huh?!”

Expanded version:

“I thought you wanted to be in the ‘Earl Pomerantz business’.”

“We do. We just don’t want you to write like this.”

“But writing like this is what being in the ‘Earl Pomerantz business’ means.”

The second reaction is, “If you want me to write like somebody else, why don’t you just cut out the middleman and bring them in?” The answer is, they probably did, and when they handed in their script, they told them to write like somebody else. Possibly even me.

I may be on to something here. Maybe if every writer just moved one job over…

So there’s that. (Yeah, but you got paid a lot.)

Now before we move on, I’d like to reiterate, from a post on Major Dad (“Story of a Writer – Part Twenty B” – November 13, 2008), an example of a time when a network suggestion was gratefully and enthusiastically received. In the original concept of Major Dad, the Marine character was a widower with three kids from both the traditional sexes. The network suggested, instead, that the Marine character marry a non-Marine-loving woman with three daughters.

I immediately recognized this as a way better idea, offering a greater number of comedic possibilities. I thanked the network for the idea, and happily incorporated it into the show. It also helped that the suggestion came at the earliest stages of the series’ development. There was nothing to do over, because we hadn’t done anything yet.

So there’s proof. I’m not against network interference, just certain types of interference. Like damaging suggestions, offered at inopportune times, in a less than respectful “my way or the highway” delivery.

(And for that, I was labeled “difficult.”)

Moving on…

Diane Kristine references HBO’s short-lived series, John From Cincinnati. I never saw it, but I know it was written by David Milch, who has a spectacular track record (NYPD Blue, Deadwood, among others). John From Cincinnati was neither a commercial nor a critical success. Which, ostensibly, makes it “Exhibit A” for “‘Creatives’ Gone Crazy!” – the balancing “other side of the coin.”

I wasn’t there. But it’s imaginable that a major talent, working on a premium cable channel, would demand and receive unchallengeable creative control. He messed up on this one. (Commenters may write, saying they loved John From Cincinnati, but it’s generally conceded that the show was a failure.) Sometimes, as the great writer-director Billy Wilder used to say, you’re aiming at the wrong target.

Or, you have a bad day. Nobody bats a thousand. The question is, if you’re looking for a hit, who do you send to the plate, Manny Ramirez, or some guy who’s enthusiastic about baseball and has seen a whole lot of games?

Batters, like idea-suggesters on television series, are not all equal.

Finally, briefly…

Laugh tracks and “incidental music.” Like all creative choices, it’s a matter of taste. If you want to add laughs, add laughs. But you don’t have to make it like New Year’s Eve.

Taxi had this cool jazz “incidental music” playing out of scenes. It fit the show perfectly. Again, it’s a matter of taste. The Taxi music enhanced the finished product. The same can not be said for “hwa-hwa” music.

Once again, I appreciate the comments. Keep ‘em comin’. They’re challenging. Plus, you never know when you’ll receive the gift of some delicious tidbit. Like the people who spent time and money redoing the Married With Children laugh track into German.

9 comments:

impworks said...

I don't know if there is any way you'd be able to see it but the South Bank Show's interview with William Goldman shown in the UK last night had some good points on a similar theme.

As to laughter tracks - BBC2 showed M*A*S*H without the laughter track and I swear it was funnier that way. Don't ask me why. It just was.

Dimension Skipper said...

Taxi had a theme song I liked (even more and more as I heard it each week) and the incidental music as "scene segue" worked too. IMO most of the great old shows did the music well without letting it intrude into the actual scenes (unless necessary, like if there was a dance scene or something). The Odd Couple also did very good music segues. Or maybe it's just my own nostalgia factor making me think that.

It's when incidental music is used during a scene (simultaneous to the dialogue) to heighten some intended emotional viewer response that I often find it distracting. It CAN be done well, but some shows use it way too much. Of course, the same can be said of laugh tracks in general and as always there's a certain amount of subjectivity to deciding how much is enough and where it crosses into "too much" territory.

I think usually my objections to overused incidental music pertains more to dramas or that hybrid known as the dramedy. Desperate Housewives when they want to try to alert the viewers of the humor of a scene. Or Worst Week (which I only tried for a few weeks before abandoning) when the situation was spiralling ever more out of control for the lead character.

I recall trying to watch an episode or two of the revived and syndicated Outer Limits and I found them unwatchable because the entire hourlong episodes seemed to be filled beginning to end with non-stop incidental music over, under, around every scene. I just couldn't take it. 95% of it was unnecessary imo.

A. Buck Short said...

DS, just wondering out loud, and rhetorically, is it possible that our acceptance of conventions in laugh tracks and incidental or underscoring music changes over time? Maybe in part as these become clich├ęd?

Maybe the Outer Limits music would have worked for many of us when it first aired – but the world changes? Do you ever wonder if the stagey dialogue and delivery in even some of the better old movies was the result of the art not having fully evolved into the way real people talk or letting the camera do some of the work – or “was that the way people actually talked in the 30s?”

OK, I realize it was probably done on an electric bass or synthesizer, but one of the comforting thoughts I always had about the Seinfeld transitional musical notes was that it probably provided a lot of work for out-of-work Jews Harp players. As you may be aware, what with the demise of jug bands and all, many of us were otherwise forced to accept those transitional element roles in pornography.

Finally Earl, I wish you would stop providing us with all these examples of how to be aggravating and annoying. Some of us are professionals at that, and we really don’t welcome advice from someone like yourself on the outside. :)

Diane Kristine said...

Of course, equally frustrating is someone taking comments out of context in order to make them appear more extreme :) I was using no more hyperbole than you did in saying that every job has the same frustrations and writers are not a special breed who require a special solution. Not that your solution isn't wise, just that it is framed in a way to ensure that people who already share your opinion will agree with you, and people hostile to it can point out that the "real world" does not work that way for a variety of reasons you don't touch on.

dougl said...

What - They redid the laughtrack in German? I had no idea Germans laughed differently, that Germans could tell the difference, and that German viewers would react poorly to hearing American laughter. I mean, the war's been over for half a century. Surely we can all forgive and forget.

Anonymous said...

Earl, you are 100% correct in your assessment and I say this as having been heavily involved in writing pilot scripts these past few years. The only thing I would add is if it were only network exec interference, it might be something that is manageable. But the real stupidity comes from the studio execs who are always trying to guess what the network execs will think or say and so they are in a constant state of panic and diarrea of the mouth in giving stupid notes. In fact, I've encountered studio execs who were so moronic that they would suggest a note or change during a meeting with the network when the network had no such note or change in mind. The stupidity and arrogance of these $80,000 a year idiots is mind boggling. And you have not exaagerated it one bit. The truth is, it is mainly because of these fatheads that TV sitcoms are almost dead, and certainly mostly unfunny. And they killed it themselves.
"Anonymous Brian"

growingupartists said...

Earl, you've never mentioned your jowls on here before, believe me, I've paid attention. Should I find the first comment I ever left here, back when you used to be upset that the industry fired you, based nothing on talent, but only on age?

You've come along way Earl, and I'd assume so has Dr. M., what with you grumping less than more. Well, I celebrate you, in all your many colors. It's called friendship, right? Even in this day and age.

Politics totally optional.

growingupartists said...

Just got a great idea for a post, on touching on reality versus reality. Two are different, believe me, and probably affect peoples careers without even noticing it.

Perhaps I'll delve back into feminism afterall, for memory's sake.

growingupartists said...

I did it, I really did it Earl. I wrote the post I thought of this morning, I didn't forget it.

The actual title is Id and Famine, but I felt too bad about starving Africa, and so I changed it.

http://guppyart.blogspot.com/2009/04/thought-id-post-this-here.html

Plus, those toddlers getting their heads ripped off...