Monday, December 10, 2012

“Do Rewrites Always Make Shows Better?”

After I came up with that title, I wondered if I should rewrite it to read:  “Do Rewrites Inevitably Make Shows Better?”  But then I decided I wasn’t sure that was an improvement, and I left it as it was.  Let me further confess that in each of the previous two sentences, I considered at least four alterations of what I had written, deciding, ultimately, to go with my original impulse in every case.  Oh, and that last sentence?  Two changes, both of which I included, demonstrating that sometimes the “original impulse” medicine works and sometimes it doesn’t.  (And sometimes the writer simply has too much time on his hands.)

Lesson learned here?  If you want to get out of a Rewrite Room before dawn, you might not want to have me in the room. I rethink everything.  Though I’d like to believe that, over the years, with accumulated experience, the decision-making process has become faster – three “rethinkings” in that sentence, two rejected, one making the grade. 

This obsessive second and third-guessing (ad, often, infinitum) explains why I have never written a novel.  Or, more truthfully, I tried once, but gave up after six pages, because every time I read over what I had written, I rewrote every word.  Again and again.  This did not bode well for my ever finishing the novel.    


Focusing on the type of rewrites I was involved in – the rewrites of half-hour situation comedies – returning to the question, “Do rewrites always make shows better?”, the answer, as accurate as it is annoying, is

It depends on what you mean by “better.”

Sorry for those of you who are disappointed by non-definitive answers, of which I am generally one, so, I am also, in fact, though not for the first time, disappointing myself.

Early in my career, when I simply wrote scripts and was not involved in the rewrite process that took place during the week of rehearsal, I had the nagging suspicion that adjustments were taking place during the rewrite process that excluded me an undeniable factor in my perspective that did not always make the show “better.”

Yes, the talented rewriters were making the show funnier, which you might think, that by definition – it being a comedy show – was indisputably making the show better.  Still, I was not entirely convinced.

The following is my thinking on the matter:

When developing an episodic script – pending the available time to do so – after an, often, day-long story meeting, the episode writer, who in my case was known as the “outside writer” as I worked “outside” the writing staff, would go away and write a detailed outline. 

The finished outline would be handed in and meticulously critiqued, after which a First Draft and, after it was critiqued by the higher-ups, a Second Draft would be written.  The Second Draft would then go through a Mimeo Draft process, thus called, because afterwards, the script was mimeographed (Read: copied), and distributed to cast and crew for production.  By Mimeo time, the “outside writer” would be out of the picture and on to other things, like starting from scratch on another script.     

“Post mimeo”, all subsequent rewrites would take place “in house”, a collective effort by the series’ writing staff.

Meaning that the unique and specific vision of the “outside writer” was now out of the game and sitting on the bench.

Helplessly observing the mutilation of his baby.

Okay, that’s way too dramatic, but that’s how it feels.  Wearing my “not entirely bitter and crazy” hat, I am fully aware that script changes are inevitable and necessary.  Sometimes, the script is simply too long, and on occasion, stuff, even great stuff – entertaining side-trips that did not move the story along – has to be taken out, designated to that purgatorial location where all “cut stuff” is dispatched, hanging out together, commiserating over their fate.

“I was cut out of Chico and the Man.”

“Nice to meet you.  I’m the Eleventh Commandment.” 

Sometimes, for “time” reasons or because a lobotomizing boredom has set in, the narrative needs to be streamlined, sharpened and clarified.  Sometimes, a joke turns out not to be as funny as previously believed.  Sometimes, and I am to this day unaware of the reason, material that worked beautifully when read from a script falls flat when delivered “on its feet” by actors facing each other on the actual set.  These are often described as “head jokes.”  They play deliciously in your imagination, but appear noticeably stilted when actually performed.

Finally – and here’s what I mean by “It depends on what you mean by better” – show runners often change jokes simply because they’re the show runners and they can.  True, show runners are for the most part more gifted and more experienced.  But it should not be dismissed that they may also re-work scripts, because it makes them feel special to be the indispensible heroes to the process, flying in – often literally; they’d been away skiing in Aspen – and they flew back for Rewrite Night to, “save the show”, some might add  “…from contributions that did not entirely emanate from them.”

It was less, however, the power tripping that annoyed and befuddled me than the whiplashing alteration of standards.  Throughout the entire script development period, the objective was to include lines that were not only the funniest ones we could think of, but ones that were also faithful to both reality as we know it, and to character.  My bosses were continually telling me that, so I took it extremely seriously.

Then, though it was never officially acknowledged, it seemed to me that, on Rewrite Night, a revolutionary regime had taken over, a regime in which the “no one would ever say or do that” yardstick was summarily exiled to the corner, and “funny”, more accurately-labeled “big funny”, invariably took center stage.  

I never understood that. 

Here’s an example of a joke that I believe, if it had been included in an earlier version of the script would have been rejected for unduly straining the bounds of credulity.

In a The Mary Tyler Moore Show episode, Ted Baxter is on a big-city junket, involving members of the television news media, which, besides free accommodations, also includes complimentary Room Service.  With his character having long been identified as cheap and self-absorbed, Ted calls down to Room Service, and orders pretty much everything on the menu, the audience laughter escalating as the list extends well beyond anything one person – even a Jerry Springer 600-pounder – could possibly consume.

Topping it off, like the proverbial cherry atop a mouth-watering sundae, Baxter finally greedily inquires,

“Lemme ask you something.  Are you guys just for food, or do you also do clothing?” 

Though I attest no “hand-on-a-Bible” certainty on the matter, as I was not personally involved, I strongly sense that that line emerged as a Rewrite Night “topper”, a joke, which, if it had appeared in an earlier draft, would have been red-pencilled on the basis of, “a normal person would know what ‘Room Service’ includes”, likely followed by a stinging, “What the hell were you thinking?”  

And yet, it is very funny.  Funny enough for me to remember it after thirty-five years. 

Did it make the show “better”?  Yeah.  But the “outside writer” in me still feels like it was cheating. 

Dear Regular Readers:

I apologize for inadvertently publishing the same post twice, this in contrast to when I publish the same post twice, because I forgot I had already written that post. This time,  I just temporarily lost my mind and, after proposing to Ken Levine of that we both write posts on the same subject, I inadvertently published mine two weeks ahead of time.  Silly me.  The one compensation is that you now get to read two posts on the same subject on the same day by simply going to  By the way, and I am not being humble here, Ken's post is significantly better.  Maybe that's why I unconsciously published it two weeks early - to avoid the comparison.  Nah, I just went temporarily nuts.  Or the ever popular, I don't know what I'm doing.  Anyway, enjoy it a second time, if you can.  And again, my apologies.

You can try this.  But I'm not promising anything.



Mac said...

It's an interesting post, I'm happy to read it again. I'm amazed that joke worked, given, as you say - that any normal person would know what room service did and didn't do. It's kind of annoying that it did work as it goes against the grain.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

That's the great thing about deadlines. At some point, there's no time to rewrite any more; you just have to turn it in.


Doug in Dallas said...

I think there's also an element of 'suspension of disbelief' at play, here. True, an ordinary person would know what room service does and does not provide, but the characters on television shows are outsized reflections of reality. Ted is both dumb and cheap, and we repond to those characteristics when we hear the joke and our disbelief is suspended momentarily. By the time we realize the unreality of his question (hopefully) the story has moved on and our attention is focused on something else.

Jill Pinnella Corso said...

Very informative. As an aspiring writer, who gets infinite time to rewrite spec scripts, I find that rewrites make them better and better until suddenly it's worse. Law of deminishing returns I guess.

Mark P. said...

Just saw the pilot for 30 Rock again, and now I understand the joke. Jack has just arrived as the new head of programming and is drastically renovating his office. He says "It's a great office, but sometimes, you have to change things that are perfectly good just to make them your own."