Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"the Most Chilling Words A Sitcom Writer Can Hear"

Next to, “We’re cancelling your show”?

“Page-One Rewrite.”

What does a “Page-One Rewrite” mean?  Exactly like it sounds.  After the “Table Reading” on the first day of “Production Week”, it is determined that that week’s script is in such terrible shape that, in the course of “Production Week” but primarily on that first day, the script needs to be entirely rewritten.  From “Page One” to the end. 


You sit around a table and the cast reads the script.  Optimally by that time, the script has gone through a development process involving an outline followed by notes from the show runner, a First Draft followed again by show runner notes, a Second Draft, and finally, a “Mimeo Draft”, an often staff-generated polish before the script is prepared for a public reading by the actors. 

You would think that by then the major script problems would be behind you.  And normally, they are.  But sometimes, it turns out they’re not.  Which leads inevitably to the dreaded…

“Page-One Rewrite.”

Oy, again. 

And another one.


You know what a “Page-One Rewrite” means in practical terms?  It means that on the day of the “Table Reading”, the show’s writing staff stunned by a reading where the jokes got few laughs and even the “Craft Services” (snack food) provider had questions about the story will not be going home on the same day they arrived at work. 

They arrived on an A.M.  They will work through that A.M., through the following P.M., and when they’re finally finished, it will almost certainly be A.M. again.  

And possibly dawn. 

On those glorious “Page-One Rewrite” occasions, it feels like there is virtually no interruption between the end of one workday and the beginning of the next one.  You go home, and before you know it, you’re back. 

Once, while working on The Cosby Show, being dropped off at my apartment after a sixteen-hour rewrite, I turned to a companion writer and said,

“I’ll see you in ten minutes.”

I brushed my teeth at bedtime, and the next thing I knew, I was brushing my teeth again.  

This is exactly the type of ordeal that once led me to complain, “There must an easier way to earn three hundred thousand dollars a year.”  I have written about it in a post correctly entitled, “The Stupidest Thing I Ever Said.”  But it felt painfully accurate at the time.

How does it happen that a script, believed to be ready, turns out to need a “Page-One Rewrite”?  How is it possible that professional writers with the talent, the touch and the track record can get things so horribly messed up?

I don’t know. 

And when there’s an Everest of work ahead of you, there is no inclination to speculate.  The problem can usually be traced back to an inherent flaw in the storyline.  Sometimes, the episode’s premise is inconsistent with what we know about the character; they behave – for comedic purposes – in a way they have never behaved before. 

Sometimes, the premise strains common sense credulity, depicting a situation – for comedic purposes – that would never believably occur in everyday life.  (In both cases, the mistake is the show trying too hard to be funny.)

Sometimes, you’re nearing an extended holiday break or the end of the season, you are beat up, tired, you “see the barn”, so to speak, and your artistic judgment is not close to its sharpest. 

And sometimes, you believe the original script okay, and you were just simply, flat out wrong.

None of this matters.  Whatever the reason for the disaster, you still have to do the work.  The Everest of the “Page-One Rewrite” must be scaled, primarily (I JUST HEAVED A HEAVY RETROACTIVE SIGH)…in one day.

When faced with a “Page-One Rewrite”, some people went to the bathroom – because there’d be little opportunity to do so later – they came back, they rolled up their sleeves, and they got down to business.  No finger pointing.  No excuses. 

Some writers I knew actually reveled in the challenge.  It was a mine cave-in, and they were the “Rescue Team” facing disaster with the clock ticking.  It’s a high adrenaline situation.  Some people enjoy that.

There are other people for whom the debacle of the table reading triggered soul-searching questions about their abilities.  And one question in particular. 

It wasn’t “How did we (or I, if you’re the decision-making show runner) ever get this so wrong?”  Though it is a close relative, something I often thought about because I’m me and I can’t help it. 

We have all this work to do.  And it’s “us” that’s doing it.  Who is that “us”?  The “us” whose talent and touch and track record determined that this train wreck of a script was perfectly fine. 

Now…do you see where I’m headed here?

How are the same people whose misjudgments put them so precariously in the toilet, supposed to now miraculously – switching metaphors in mid-stream – pull the fat out of the fire?

What kind of reasoning is this?  “The doctor’s incompetence left the patient’s life hanging by a thread.  Let’s call them back in to save them.”

Why are they counting on us to fix things?  If we knew how to do it right, would you not think we’d have done so in the first place?

You can see, I imagine, how a show runner burdened by such reservations, doubts and concerns could take a long day – and night – working on a “Page-One Rewrite”…

And make it substantially longer.


It’s too late!

I know.
Tomorrow:  “Page-One Rewrite” – You Do What You Can.


Canda said...

Earl, for those who don't know, you should mention that a page one rewrite is usually preceded by a lengthy discussion at the table after the reading with the network and studio executives, along with the principal actors, on "how" to fix the script. This can be frustrating, when the "usual suspects" make horrible suggestions you have to listen to, and react to.

You can't "dismiss" any bad idea from the Suits, since the script was in bad shape to begin with. You have no power at the moment to act like you know better. These meetings could last two hours, and now it's 1:00 p.m., and you haven't started yet. You may not even have the right fix yet. Eating lunch after that is the worst thing that can happen to your stomach. You're just devouring carbs for comfort, barely tasting the food, wishing you had a state job that ended at 4:30, with no big responsibilities.

I once worked on a page one rewrite that went until 7:00 a.m. We were too tired to do the last scene, and all decided to go home and at least shower and nap for a couple hours before coming back. We ran smack dab into morning rush hour traffic in L.A. It took me an 90 minutes to drive to Santa Monica from Burbank. I only had time to shower, eat a muffin, and drive another hour back.

Mac said...

And of course when the AM comes round again, your capacity to be funny has diminished along with your energy, blood sugar level etc etc. Nothing is funny when you've been up all night. Or everything is - hysterically funny, because you're on a manic high through sleep deprivation, which is when you're in no position to judge what's really funny.