Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"Making Changes"

This is a specific incident involving script changes on The Cosby Show.  I need to write about the process generically, and if I remember to, I will. 

Maybe you can remind me.

The Cosby Show is, admittedly, an unusual situation.  We are not talking about a sitcom fronted by the best actor the casting department could deliver.  We are talking about a certifiable comedic…“The guy really knows stuff.”

On The Cosby Show, after the preproduction story ideas were exhausted – like the one I wrote involving a bathroom funeral for a beloved goldfish – the ideas for the episode stories emanated directly from Dr. C. 

We would meet, he would inform us as to what story he wanted to tell, we would bare-bonesedly structure out the scenes together, and then I or someone else on our miniscule writing staff (a two-woman team, and another guy) would go off and write the script.  Ideally, the script writing process would be completed in about a week.

It’s good when the star of the show – if they are blessed with the requisite writing chops, which is almost never, but still – it is helpful for them to be involved in the development of the material.  That way, they are to certain get what they want, which cuts down on the rewriting process, which can often be extensive due to the scriptwriter’s making reasonable choices which are, for often unfathomable reasons, unacceptable to the star.  “Trial and error” becomes “Trial, and we’re done.”  Which is better.  Or at least faster.

The problem arose when the “Fountain of Story Ideas” changes his mind.  Excruciatingly late in the scriptwriting process. 

On The Cosby Show, the scariest words I could hear three or less days before the script is scheduled to go into production were,

“I was talking with Camille last night…”

Camille is Bill Cosby’s wife.  Now, I am unaware of the specifics of the conversation – “Oh, Bill, that’s just terrible!”, or what – having myself not been privy thereto, but however it “went down”, the result was that the script we were writing would require serious, often total, revision.  

It has been asked – I do not recall where but it was – at what point does a script need to be locked in, meaning left alone and produced exactly as it is?  The truthful answer is, “There is no such point.”  You rewrite, if necessary, till the cameras roll, and sometimes even after.  If a joke bombs in front of the studio audience, the writers are required to come up with a “Take Two” replacement.

But I’m not talking about that kind of rewrite – a joke here, a line of clarification there.  That’s just “business as usual.”  What I’m talking about is basically starting over, at a juncture when the available time to do so is realistically not there.

What do you do then? 

You do the best you can.

Is there no reasonable alternative, such as explaining that it’s too late to make extensive changes at this point and then politely decline to do so?   I guess you could do that.  Though I never once did on my admittedly brief (seven episodes) stay on The Cosby Show.           

You may well like to know why I didn’t.

So I’ll tell you.

Was it because Dr. Cosby is extremely charming and was thereby very difficult to say “No” to?

No.  Exceeding charm cannot overcome my awareness that what he wanted of me was impossible to deliver.

Was it because he was rich and powerful, and could have me removed from a position I dearly wanted to hold on to but might possibly be unable to if I said “No”?

No.  I once risked it all by telling the guy to learn his lines.

Was it because he was intimidatingly physically powerful, his still impressive football player’s upper body conjuring the image of John Henry, the Steel-Driving Man, and, if I opposed his wishes, he could hurt me really, really badly?

No.  Though this fantasy did not entirely not cross my mind.

Why then did I take a long, deep, trepidatious breath (“Every time you do that, it goes straight to my ‘funny’”, Cosby would say), risking my physical and psychological wellbeing in an effort to make those last-minute, breathtakingly extensive changes to the script?

Because, the idea he was currently, albeit belatedly, proposing?

It was better.

Can you say “No” to “better”?

I couldn’t.

So I did the work.

And I burnt out after seven shows.
It occurred to me that, seeing as how perhaps not all of you have been on this wagon train since the beginning, that, especially if you're interested in the nuts and bolts of a guy's show business career, you might want to check out my "Story of a Writer"series, of which there are numerous chapters, some of them interesting.  That's just a suggestion.  If you have better things to do with your time, I will completely understand.   

1 comment:

PG said...

Your piece today led me off in a weird direction to research good old "Wagon Train". There were over 280 episodes in 8 years! I think I saw every one of them.
I bet you could have written them all, as long as "The Cos" wasn't hitching' a ride.