“It’s just one joke.”
And they don’t understand why you’re fighting for it.
Let me explain.
I’m working on Lateline, a sitcomical version of Nightline, co-created (with John Markus) and starring (now Senator) Al Franken. We did nineteen episodes for NBC, but they only aired, like, five of them. The rest were eventually aired on Showtime. Maybe now that Al’s important, they’ll release the entire set on DVD. I’d like that. We did some really good work.
On Lateline, (now Senator) Al played “Al Freundlich” (which means “friendly” in German), a guileless but legislatively all-knowing news correspondent. "Freundlich" knew precisely and in detail how a bill made its way through Congress. And he knew it wasn’t the National Institute of Health, but the National Institutes of Health. “Freundlich” was a polidiot savant.
Let me say this as a preamble. (I know a little bit about the government myself.) I write in a certain voice, which I’ll call, for want of a better label, mine. However, when I’m in a room with people who write in a different voice, but a voice I admire, not some dumb or leeringly sexy voice, my mind does this flip, and I am able to imitate the way they write.
I don’t become them, exactly, but somehow – and the transformation excites me – I hear myself pitching comedy that would never come to my mind if I were working alone. (Now Senator) Al’s “take-no-prisoners” brand of comedy, which is natural to him, and was further honed at Saturday Night Live, greatly expanded my range. Working with him, I was surprised (and delighted) with the things I came up with.
Example? It’s on its way.
We’re in the Writers’ Room, working on a script wherein “Freundlich’s” wife is chairing an important Washington fundraiser. Franken improvises the cause she’s raising the money for:
FREUNDLICH: (ENTHUSIASTICALLY) “It’s for a new Burn Unit and the Pediatric Jewish Hospital. It’s for kids!”
To which I add:
“And you don’t have to be Jewish. Just burnt.”
Well, people laughed a lot. I even laughed. Partly in amazement. I had never written a joke like that in my life.
We finish the script, and it’s handed in to the network. The next day, we get a call from the NBC censor.
“You can’t do the ‘burnt children’ joke.”
“Because it’s ‘burnt children.’”
(Now Senator) Al hits the roof.
“But it’s a great joke!”
“It’s a great joke” is the comedy writer’s first line of defense. Great jokes are very hard to come by, and when a writer comes up with one, they prefer an enthusiastic “Way to go!” to an order to remove the joke from the script. Such a demand is incomprehensible to us, tantamount to a chef’s preparing a magnificent dish, and being told by his restaurant-owner boss to toss it in the trash.
But this is not the main reason writers explode when they’re told to take something out. Okay, writers never like being told what to do, but this goes far deeper than a sensitivity to criticism.
Getting challenged on their choices goes to fundamental issues of taste and judgment. And on these points, writers are steadfastly unwilling to surrender. Especially to some censor, whose job it is to look useful, and the only way censors can demonstrate their usefulness is by telling writers to take stuff out.
The whole writing process involves deciding as you go what to put into your script (or whatever it is you’re writing) and what to leave out. Writers censor themselves constantly, struggling to produce a work that expresses not only what they’re trying to communicate, but their unique and stylistic distinct way of saying it.
What makes one writer different from another writer? Style (which includes tone and taste) and content. That’s all we’ve got. Our essential “us-ness.” Expressed by each and every choice we make. It is therefore infuriating when our essential “us-ness”, arguably the quality that got us the job in the first place, is brought ringingly into question.
The establishment of a show’s voice is as important as the establishment of the show’s level of truth that I spoke about yesterday. Both contribute to defining what an audience can expect when they tune in. Now, I’ve heard network executives say many stupid things. But none is stupider than telling the creator of a new series, “You’re a new show. You haven’t earned the right to break the rules.”
The clear direction there is, “Be ordinary. When you’re a hit, we’ll relax the boundaries.” The problem with that is that “ordinary” shows get cancelled. If a series can’t capture its audience early with a way of presenting itself that distinguishes it from the pack, it won’t be around to be accorded the munificence of the networks’ loosening of the reins. When I worked, this network shortsightedness was apparent all the time. I don’t imagine it’s gone away.
After striking out with the censor, (now Senator) Al took his appeal to the highest level, calling, and screaming, at the president of NBC. At the same time, he remained reasonable.
“You have to take the joke in context. ‘Al Freundlich’ is a guileless innocent. He’d never take a gratuitous shot at “maimed children”. He’s just excited about the fact that the Burn Unit is for everybody. That’s why he says, ‘You don’t have to be Jewish. Just burnt.’”
And then he’d scream some more.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Lateline was cancelled. And not because it was blanded out. For the most part, it wasn’t. Lateline failed because not enough people watched it. There’s no saying for sure, but I doubt it would have been more popular if it had been duller.
I claim no private wisdom on why television shows succeed or fail. I just wanted to make the case for why, sometimes, it’s important to fight for one joke.
And I believe I have.