Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Billionaire show biz and sports entrepreneur Tom Werner (The Cosby Show, Rosanne, The Boston Red Sox) would offer this philosophical approach for when you’re searching for the answer to some current concern and you’re coming up empty. In such situations, Werner would advise,

“Sometimes, you just have to punt.”

For those few of you who are unfamiliar with that spinal injury surrounded by a game known as football, the term “punt” refers to your team’s kicking the ball away, when, after three plays, they are is unable to gain the required ten yards which would allow them to continue on offense.

Punting reflects a temporary surrender. You’re acknowledging a momentary defeat, knowing there’ll be other chances to go on offense down the line. Unless the game ends before that, in which case, there won’t be. Though there’s always the next game, where you can try again.

You haven’t got it, you punt. That’s the plan. Why is this philosophical? Because it’s reasonable. If you ignore this approach, you can drive yourself crazy looking for an answer. And still come up with nothing. Even worse, you can burn yourself out in the effort. Meaning, you’ll have nothing left for the certain battles yet to come.

I know about this stuff. Being too proud to accept even temporary defeat, I almost never punted when I should have. And I burned out repeatedly as a result. Case in point: Seven episodes struggling for perfection on The Cosby Show, and I went home in a head-spinning stupor that did not leave me for months. I still have occasional flashbacks.

The issue of punting often came up during late-night rewrite sessions. A room full of writers would be stuck looking for a certain joke, a joke they needed, not only for a laugh, but to make what they considered to be an essential story point.

I remember once, when I was running the rewrite room on Major Dad, we were stuck on a joke for forty-five minutes. Words cannot adequately describe how excruciating that feels. During those “stuck” moments, the rewrite room feels entirely airless. “I’m going to die looking for this joke” is a not uncommon, nor unreasonable, thought. Forty-five minutes in a futile joke search will have you seriously reconsidering Law School.

The situation was this: The Major, who had gotten married, maybe, two weeks after meeting his bride-to-be, is finally meeting his now wife’s parents. His father-in-law turns out to be an elitist, snooty jerk, ashamed to tell his high-class friends that his daughter had stooped considerably beneath her “station” to marry a Marine. The Major is fully aware of his father-in-law’s feelings.

Early in the episode, the Major and his obnoxious father-in-law engage in a private, “one on one” that includes the following exchange:

SNOBBY FATHER-IN-LAW: Surely, you don’t intend to remain a Marine your entire life.

THE MAJOR: Oh, no. I’ve got it all planned out. When my hitch is up, I know exactly what line of work I’ll go into.



“JOKE TO COME” is what you say when you haven’t got the joke. In this case, we needed a joke involving a post-retirement job the Major could haunt the snobby father-in-law with that was even less acceptable than his being a Marine. And we couldn’t think of one.

For forty-five minutes.

The room was full of writers, sitting around a table, desperately struggling to find the joke. You could see the junior writers trying to look invisible, like in class, when you want the teacher to call on someone else. The veteran writers kept pitching. But nothing was ringing the bell.

“Let’s keep looking,” I instruct my rapidly drooping staff.

We thought. We pitched. We shot the pitches down. And we thought some more. Our heads throbbed with emptiness, beyond the fervent longing that we were somewhere else.

Time to punt? Settle for the least terrible joke pitch, or move on and come back to this later?

Not yet.

“We’ll take a break,” I announce.

Ten minutes. To clear our heads, and go to the bathroom. “We’ll get it when we come back.” We’d better. The clock was edging towards midnight. And we were only on Page 8.

I think I’ve mentioned this before. Sometimes, during a break, the answer I’ve been searching for suddenly pops into my head. I don’t why that works. Maybe the tension in the rewrite room constricts my creativity. Maybe the release of accumulated bodily fluids opens me up. I don’t know what it is. But it works surprisingly often.

(Note: It does not help to move the rewrites to the bathroom. The bathroom then simply becomes the rewrite room with urinals. And the women writers have to stand outside. You don't mess with the way of things. The rewrite room is for rewrites. The bathroom is for peeing and shattering insights.)

After the break, I reconvene the writers, and I pitch my solution:

SNOBBY FATHER-IN-LAW: Surely, you don’t intend to remain a Marine your entire life.

THE MAJOR: Oh, no. I’ve got it all planned out. When my hitch is up, I know exactly what line of work I’ll go into.


THE MAJOR: Gator wrestling.

It was exactly the right job. “Gator wrestling” made being a Marine look being President of Princeton University. I felt enormous relief. I had found an answer.

And I didn’t have to punt.


JED said...

How about this idea for a "reality" show? Each week, professional writers produce a bunch of sketches that end just short of the punch line and then contestants must come up with the endings to the sketches which are then performed before a live audience and the sketch that gets the biggest laughs gives that writer immunity.

Yeah, I know, it's not edgy enough. So, the network guys would punch it up by making the losers eat bugs or jump off high dives or something.

(c) Jim Dodd :-)

moopot said...

How about "Sitcom writer" as the Major's answer?