My last ever job in network television was as a one-day-a-week consultant on According To Jim, a show I worked on for two seasons – the show’s second and third seasons – and then I was fired, generally, because they decided they could be mediocre without me (harsh but evidentiarily supportable), and specifically because of the following:
Normally, my schedule called for me to sit in on According To Jim’s Monday morning “Table Reading”, where the actors sit around a table, and with the show’s writers and some production staff as their audience, they read aloud that week’s script. (You can tell which writer had written the script. They were the one laughing the hardest.)
Inevitably, there’d be things that needed fixing. The script may be too long, requiring “tightening.” (Because, with rare prearranged exceptions, you cannot spill over into the next time period.) Jokes that were responded to with silence would be replaced by jokes that would hopefully be responded to with laughter. The storyline may need clarifying. The characters’ motivations may need bolstering. And then, of course, there are the network and studio notes, that need to be addressed, even when they were wrong.
After the network notes session (to which the writers were – thankfully – not invited), the show runners would return to the Writers’ Room, equipped with a plan – an amalgam of executive notes and some ideas of their own – as to how we should proceed. At that point, I had the opportunity to throw in my – prepared at home after a thrice-reading of the script – observations and suggestions.
Then, we went to work.
Well, sir, one Monday, for some reason – maybe it was a Jewish holiday; let’s say it was a Jewish holiday; it makes me sound virtuous for demanding it off – I was absent for the Monday “Table Reading.” Because I was paid on a daily basis and did not want to miss a paycheck, I generous proposed – though I suppose it’s not really generous, if you’re doing it not to miss a paycheck – that I would come in on the following Tuesday, to make up for my absent Monday.
The result was, that during the following production week, I worked two days – “Table Reading” Monday, and “Runthrough” Tuesday. “Runthrough” Tuesday is pretty self-explanatory – he goes on to explain. Tuesday afternoon, there’s a runthrough, at which time the staff has a chance to evaluate the condition of the script “on its feet”, and make additional changes during the subsequent “Tuesday Rewrite.”
The thing is, on that particular Tuesday, According to Jim’s star, Jim Belushi, for reasons I was told and immediately forgot, was unavailable for the runthrough. When the star of the series is a runthrough “no show”, you dispense with the runthrough, because the star has the most lines, and when they’re not there, the runthrough is riddled with silences, or even worse, the Assistant Director stands in for the star, and is so terrible, you cannot tell if the jokes need replacing, or if the Assistant Director needs to be instructed to never do that again.
So. No runthrough that Tuesday.
But nobody told me. So I showed up, as arranged.
I had been present the day before for the Monday “Table Reading”, and had participated in the subsequent Monday rewrite. That rewritten script would normally have been performed during the “Tuesday Runthrough.” But not this time, because the “Tuesday Runthrough” had been dispensed with.
What happened, instead, was that the show runners decided to conduct another rewrite of the script.
This seemed odd to me. Monday’s revised script was deemed viable on Monday. It is now one day later, and without the direction normally provided by the “Tuesday Runthrough”, we were rewriting it again.
Why was this happening? Because, with no “Tuesday Runthrough”, there was ample time to do so, and the writers – including myself – were available. So why not?
Okay, so, we’re sitting there, rewriting a script we have no idea what part of which, if any, needs rewriting, re-pitching replacements for the jokes that had been inserted the day before, with no certainty as to whether those jokes actually needed replacing. And nobody seems to be upset about this.
So, after many hours, toiling away at this questionable enterprise, I voiced my reaction, possibly with some...um, intensity.
“We’re not making this script better,” I observed, with maybe a “6” or “7” on the “Passion Scale”, “we’re just making it different.”
Unfortunately, passing by at that very moment, was a writer whose limited gifts for writing comedy were made up for in his ability to snitch, a man who also, for some reason I never discovered, did not like me. Overhearing my observation, the writer, literally raced down the hall to the show runners’ office,
And ratted me out.
My presence was subsequently requested in the show runners’ office, at which point I was reminded that my job was not to criticize the proceedings, but to participate in them. I did not defend myself, because they were right. I respectfully apologized. They advised me to return to work, and have fun.
At the end of that season, I was gone.
You know what? This was not the post I intended to write today. I wanted this post to be an examination of situation comedy rewrites in general, and whether they were overdone, using this – rewriting for no reason other than because they could – I was actually going to call the post “Because They Could” – as an example.
I will write about that tomorrow.
As for now, I think I need a cookie.