Monday, February 7, 2011

"Yet Another Question"

Pour it on!  I love it!

I was concerned that some of this stuff was too “inside” for popular interest – and by “popular” I mean the breadth of my 39 Followers – but perhaps there are more sitcomaniacs out there than I imagined.  Or maybe people are just interested, I don’t know.

Not long ago, I was writing a response to an earlier question about the writer’s “voice”, and to complete the picture – and leave nothing out, for we may never pass this way again – I included the fact that there was, along the continuum of “It takes all kinds”, a type of writer who seemed to project and promote no discernible “voice” whatsoever.

Whew.  That was some sentence.  I must be feeling better.  Back problems have had me spewing in short bursts.

Okay, so now here comes Joe, seizing upon this final fragment of my pronouncement, and wondering if these “Writers Without A Voice” I referred to were analogous to “relief pitching” specialists who, despite failing to master the full range of the pitcher’s repertoire, could nonetheless do one thing extremely well, viz, “Throw heat”, meaning, throw exceptionally fast pitches that the batters couldn’t hit.  Or possibly even see.

The answer to that wondering, Joe, is yes.  And no.  The “no” first.  My inclusion of this substratum of writer related not to how funny they were, but to the fact that this type of writer lacked any kind of identifiable perspective, or as the Beatles memorably warbled, he

“Doozn’t have a pint of you

That’s really all I was talking about. 

However, rummaging around in my ramblings, Joe did unearth a valuable nugget.  Joe smartly monikered them the MELs, acronymic for the “Make ‘Em Laugh” writers.  Good on ya, Joe.  Mel Brooks may be their Patron Prototype.

The clarification I make between Joe’s categorization and my own is the following:  

Like all subspecies of writer on a TV series’ writing staff – the “Idea Person”, the Story Structure Maven, The “Intricate Plot” Deviser, The “Brilliant Insight Into Character“ Writer, The Clear and Succinct “Exposition” Writer, The “Writes Great Drafts But Is Useless In A Rewrite Room” Writer, The Specialist In The “Female Perspective” Writer (not always a female), the consistency-demanding “Logic Police” Writer, the Staff Writer Who Turns Out To Be a Big Disappointment, the “Doesn’t Contribute Much, But They’re A Good Laugher” writer, and the MEL Specialist, among other categories  (Old Friend of the Show Runner is another), strung out along each individual “Continuum of Competence”, there are greater and lesser practitioners. 

To be complete, every writing staff requires some representative of the MEL fraternity, who, when “We need a joke here” can adequately supply one.  But the greatest “flame throwers” were the undisputed “Top of the Line” in that category. 

Members of this elite corps of superlative joke writers would rarely be found toiling on writing staffs.  The shows couldn’t afford them; and besides, they were only proficient at that one thing.  As a result, these wizards of sure-fire hilarity were contracted for “Rewrite Night”, one or two days a week. 

Whatever astronomical daily rate they were paid, they were well worth it.  One blockbuster replacement joke could substantially elevate a scene, an act, or sometimes an entire episode. 

I recall one such addition on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Ted Baxter, the self-absorbed, slightly stupid anchorman, away at a convention, and exploiting the luxury of Room Service paid for by the station, decided to test the limits of its beneficence, by inquiring of the Room Service Order Taker:

“Do you do clothing too, or just the food?”

That line continues to make me laugh after 35 years.  And I’m pretty sure it came courtesy of a Writing Consultant who “threw heat.”

As a card-carrying member of the “Logic Police” (as well as a member in good standing as a draft writer, “in character” joke writer, succinct “Exposition” Person, and Structure Guy) I would regularly butt heads with our comedic hired guns, complaining that their most recent joke pitch, though undeniably hilarious, made no sense in terms of the character who was delivering it, and/or undermined the credibility of the entire story.  You can imagine how popular that made me amongst my fellow funmeisters.

“Joke pitch.  Enormous laughter.  Earl explains why we shouldn’t do it.”

Oh yeah.  I was a Rewrite Room favorite.  

Though I had wavering regard for the MELs whose jokes seemed artlessly forced or gratingly familiar, I respected the writers who “threw heat.”  And the best of them didn’t mind me either.  They acknowledged that I too had a job to do.  Also, they were confident there were many more jokes where the one I’d shot down had come from.  They simply pitched another one.  And another.  And another.

Their Rewrite Rom-rising spirit was a bonus.  Since these genius joke-writing machines were not overly invested in their pitches, they just pitched, and moved on. 

On the other hand, you shoot down an “I’m saving the show here” suggestion by the “Logic Police”,

And they’d pout.

For which behavior I do now offer my sincere, if belated, apology.

(It seems like I’ve apologized for my behavior before.  Though not its central concern, this could be another reason I’m doing this thing.)


Joe said...


Now we're getting somewhere. And not just having my moniker enshrined in italics, either.

First, and wholly unrelated to the point, while I'm a regular reader, I'm not a Capital-F-Follower. The whole setting up a Capital-F-Following thing seems to be a lot more aggravation than simply remembering to aim my browser Earlwards on a regular basis.

I know I speak for the multitudes who do not show up in your Capital-F-Followership.

Secondly, my suspicion as to why this vein on bloggery on your part may have struck a chord among the readership (Capital-F'ed or not) is that most of us likely consider ourselves to be clver and funny but have always wondered how (in a logistical/mechanical way) clever and funny transforms into something for which one is exhorted to check one's local listings.

So, without having a specific question at this time -- although I reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks -- I politely make the following request: Earl, at some point please expound, with as much detail as your patience will allow, on the various subspecies of writer to which you have alluded.

Yes, yes, I know any one given writer may be both Logical Policeperson AND Story Structure Maven. But still.

And, to close this particular loop, in my (spectacularly limited) experience what you said about MELs pitching a joke without ego rings very true, in the way a pitcher with 846mph fastball shrugs off the wild pitch which accidentally severed the umpire's femoral artery.

Matt said...

My "followhood" comes via RSS, which probably also doesn't show up in your list, though I'd imagine there is some not small number on that avenue as well. Keep up the great work!

Gnasche said...

I have a question - although it's more about advice, I guess.

When writing a serial script, I usually have a story first, then see how the characters react in it. At times, however, I need them take certain actions/perspectives for the sake of the story. Even if I come up with a realistic, natural catalyst for their action/perspective, it always feels obviously contrived. I feel like the audience will roll their eyes and think, "how convenient".

Your stories always mesh so well with characters. Do you suffer the same insecurity, or do you have techniques that make those moments seamless?

ttv said...

Very well said. I like the article. I am a police too. :-)

KEN LEVINE said...

Hey, I didn't mind you in the room. That must mean I was better than I thought I was.