Thursday, March 8, 2012

"Sitcom Rewrite Nights - Were They Necessary?"


Thank you, and good night.

For those of you requiring additional information (and that may not by any means be all of you, in which case, I will see you another time)…I shall proceed.

Okay. Now that the riffraff is gone…

Background: (And remember, this was before computers.)

After a detailed story meeting, you write an outline for the script. You deliver the outline and, after receiving notes from the show runner(s), you deliver a First Draft. Then, after again receiving notes from the show runner(s), you prepare a Second Draft.

Finally, there’s a staff-written, “Table Draft” – also called the “Mimeo”, because when it was completed, it was sent off to an outside duplicating service to be mimeographed, meaning, copied. (To repeat: This was before computers.)

That’s the ideal arrangement, an arrangement that generally only happened when the scripts were written during “pre-production”, when we were just writing, rather than during production, when we writing while we were simultaneously making shows.

Here’s what more often happened, especially when I was running things.

One writer’s draft, a “Mimeo”, and away we go.

The “Mimeo” was often not completed until the day before rehearsals for that script were to begin. On The Cosby Show, the deadline would be Sunday, at 4:00 P.M. (Delivered later, and the duplicating process would not be completed in time for the Monday morning “Table Reading.”) 4:00 P.M. and, ready or not, the script was wrested out of my hands.

It was not always perfect.

So you had to fix it.

Structured into the production schedule were three occasions when the repair work could be done: After the “Table Reading”, after the second-day runthrough, and after the third-day runthrough. The fourth day (of a five-day production schedule) was “camera blocking’” day, at which point the script was, hopefully, “locked in.” The fifth day was the show.

The runthroughs took place in the late afternoon, so as to allow the actors and the director time to rehearse and absorb the (often substantial) script changes. This meant that the “post runthrough” rewrite sessions would not begin until evening. And they went for as long as it took. Which was, quite often, really long.

I feel tired just writing about it.

Reality Check: Under the best of circumstances, the best writers can still get it wrong. The opportunities for revision are unquestionably helpful. But once again, we arrive at the question –

Do rewrites inevitably make the script better?

Yes. I already said that.

The real question is, did they have to take forever?

And answer to that is No.

So why did they?

Here are some reasons.

Writers will tell you about arrogant show runners who, on drawn-out rewrite nights, would tear into the script, replacing content that worked admirably in rehearsal with content they overwhelmingly preferred:

Their own.

The official explanation for the changes:

“It sounds more like the show.”

Ignoring the reality that the audience would only hear them once, jokes that originally played beautifully but have lost their “ha-ha”-inducing ability as a result of “runthrough repetition” are, often after an extended pitching process, replaced by fresh jokes that, though they are no funnier than the originals, are considered funnier, due to their newly minted currency.

Sometimes, jokes needed to be replaced, because the actors “tanked” them in rehearsal, meaning that, for some reason, the actor objected to or felt uncomfortable with or possibly didn’t “get” the joke, and, in an effort to make the joke “go away”, they deliberately sabotaged it during the runthrough. (It is generally deemed preferable to write a new joke than to take on an actor, especially if they’re the star of the show. Why don’t they just demand a new joke? They want to appear cooperative.)

Sometimes, for reasons of their own – like, because they reveled in the rewrite room communality, or because they were single and the hottest women didn’t arrive at the pick-up spots until after midnight so they had no place better to be, or because they were unhappily married and they didn’t want to go home – the show runner would stretch out the rewrite process, ferreting around for things to fix that did not necessarily need fixing.

Some show runners just liked to show off – their “prowess” for coming up with the big “replacement joke” whether one was actually needed or not, and their power, in their ability to keep people in that room for as long as they wanted.

Sometimes, due to anxiety-fueled indecisiveness, the show runner (not mentioning any names, but one of them, perhaps, me) was never exactly sure what they wanted.

Finally, over-long rewrite nights made the participants feel hardworking, self-sacrificing and virtuous. Rather than just slow.

Were rewrite nights necessary?

Yes. (For the third time, for heaven’s sake!)

Did they have to be as agonizingly extended as they, not infrequently, were?


Those excruciating rewrite nights that dragged into the early morning hours, even, occasionally, until the sun came up did not happen because they needed to.

They happened because, with nobody opposing them,

They could.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; so rewrite nights are cats licking themselves all over?


canda said...

When interviewing to work on a sitcom, try to determine if the show runner is someone who WANTS to get home early. Then you know you will be done early every day.

Johnny Walker said...

Great post!