Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Keeping It Real - Follow-up"

Pursuant to a post I recently wrote called “Keeping it Real”, a reader named Jed commented thusly:

Do you think the subject of that episode of “Friends”, the difference in the income of the friends, could never be funny or could it have been fixed?

First of all, Jed, thanks for writing in. Second, thanks for giving me something to write about. And third, how’re ya doin’? Sorry, I needed three.


Income disparity among friends (or strangers even) is an extremely touchy area, and therefore uncomfortable, and further therefore not easy to make funny. Though it’s certainly not impossible. A skillful writer can make virtually anything funny, based on the approach they take to the situation. I’m sure there’s a funny approach to “income disparity.” I’d need time to come up with one, but I wouldn’t put it past me, or someone more talented, to figure one one. It is my judgment that Friends didn’t.

Part of the reason they didn’t was because Friends had not alerted its audience through its “mission statement” (offered subtextually in its pilot) that it would be tackling such meaty concerns. (As I recall the pilot included a runaway bride and a monkey.) Regular Friends viewers were conditioned to expect stories about attractive, single people in their twenties, with uncertain visions of their futures. And stories about sex.

The Friends ambience of choice was borderline fantasy. The friends’ apartments – you could land planes in them. They could never afford them. And the women’s haircuts, one of which triggered a national trend, would have cost even the most prosperous Friend a prodigious slice of their salary. Also, New York looked really clean.

The mistake the Friends show runners made in choosing the “money disparity” storyline was (paraphrasing The Three Amigos:

They strayed from the formula and they paid the price.

Now, back to Jed. The guy who wrote me.

I think that would be an interesting group of articles for you to write; how Earl Pomerantz would have written for various sitcoms. Not necessarily how you would fix bad episodes (although that would be interesting) but how would you fit your writing style in with the existing “universe” of the sitcom if they asked you to come in and write an episode.

Except for Becker, I was never asked to “come in and write an episode.” Wait, that’s not entirely correct. Garry Shandling once asked me if I’d write episodes for The Larry Sanders Shows, but I said no, because I can’t write dirty. I can think dirty, but I can’t write it. (I can also fix dirty, as I did for two seasons on Larry Sanders).

After running Best of the West and Cosby, I was at a place in my career where freelance episode writing was no longer an element of what I did. Mostly, I was contracted to create new television series. The closest I came to involving myself in other people’s shows, and something I really love to do – and would still love to do – was to consult.

People would ask me to come in a day or two a week and help them with their stories. (I would perform a similar service on new shows during pilot season.) But here’s the thing.

As a consultant, the first thing I try to discover is what it is that that particular series is trying to accomplish – to understand and internalize the basic premise of the show. It is not my job to pass judgment on its quality, or alter its direction. Whether it’s a revered series like Larry Sanders, or a less loftily aspiring series, like Goode Behavior (starring Sherman Hemsley) – both of which I consulted on during the same season – my goal was the same: To help the creators of the show fulfill the core intentions of their series’ concept as successfully as possible.

I worked just as hard preparing for Goode Behavior as I did for Larry Sanders. Maybe harder. Larry Sanders almost never sent me scripts ahead of time, the scripts rarely being completed until the night before they were to be read by the actors.

Hitting the wrong note, like the Friends people did on the “income disparity” episode, is easy to do. I did it myself on a show I co-created.

I forget the actual episode, but it was early in the first season of Major Dad. During one rewrite night, I supervised the replacement of the climactic scene of that week’s script with an entirely new one. I really liked what we’d written. But the next day, I was informed that the actors were unhappy, and they wanted to go back to the scene that our new scene had replaced.

I agreed to going back to the earlier version, but on one condition. Before we discarded it, I wanted the actors to read the new scene to me, so I could hear it out loud. The actors agreed.

I went down to the stage. The two lead actors, the director and I sat at a table, and the actors read the rewritten scene for me. It read beautifully. It was sharp. It was funny. And it wrapped up the story in a fresh and satisfying way. Only one problem:

It wasn’t Major Dad.

Nobody had to tell me. I knew it when I heard it, though I’d missed it the night before. It just didn’t feel like Major Dad. It had a different tone. The replacement scene was unquestionably well written. It was just for the wrong show.

It happens to the best of them.

It also happened to me.
I went to the Post Office to renew my passport. Seeking assistance, I entered the "Customer Service" office. There was nobody there. I returned to the Post Office area and said, "I can't find a 'Customer Service' assistant." A Postal Service employee officially replied, "The 'Customer Service' office is closed every day of the week."


MikeThe Blogger said...

"...The 'Customer Service' office is closed every day of the week." - As a writer I am sure you think to yourself - I can't make this stuff up. After our Canadian postal service was somewhat deregulated, I went to our local office and lined up (forever) to buy some stamps. Finally getting to the counter, the clerk told me they no longer sell stamps. I exclaimed, "What? The Post Office doesn't sell stamps!". "So how do I buy stamps?" I asked, getting louder. Next store, at the 7-ELEVEN she replied. I broke up the other customers in the room, who were now listening in sympathy to my frustration, when I asked her if she'd sell me a Big Gulp.

JED said...

Thank you, Earl. I found that very interesting. And thank you for answering my questions. The more I read your, and others', writings about writing, I'm realizing that the profession of writing is a lot like the profession of software engineering. I also am called into projects to give a hand (and sometimes to fix things). You can't just blow in and decide to go your own way and you don't have time to rewrite huge sections of code. There are schedules to keep. Also, to make the program easier to work on in the future, you try to fit in with the coding style of the existing programmers. As well as the human interaction of trying to get along with the team you are working with!

Writing for television, movies and the stage certainly has had a longer time to accumulate best practices for how to do things and I find your insights both interesting (how can human interactions ever be boring?) and useful as I try to incorporate the useful ideas from your "older profession" into our relatively new profession.