Thursday, January 3, 2013

"Why Wasn't I Better?"

I have undoubtedly taken various pot shots in this direction along the way, but it is nice to hit it dead center.  Now, when I wonder “Why wasn’t I better?”, I can go one place, and find out.  And that place would be righ’chere. 

(I say “righ’chere to elevate my spirits, which I have to do, because I am writing a blog post entitled, “Why Wasn’t I Better?”) 

No false humility.  (Though I shall retain the illusion of actual humility.)  I won two Emmy Awards, and was nominated for four others.  I won a Writers’ Guild Award (and was nominated for another), a Cable Ace Award (which I was required to pay for), the Humanitas Prize (which, besides the Plexiglas award, paid me money), and the Alan King Academy of Comedy Award, which is shaped like and egg, and I currently cannot find.) 

Proving that somebody, on occasion, thought I was good.  I worked consistently and was never fired, until near the end, when, as a consultant on a show that lasted nine episodes, I was let go after five. 

I was also cut loose – after two seasons – from According To Jim – my last job in television – because, as I recently ungenerously observed, they could be mediocre without me.  (I was subsequently informed that my suggestions often had members of the writing staff rolling their eyes.  I am not sure which hurt my feelings more, that they were rolling their eyes at my suggestions, or that they had the ability to roll their eyes, which I, unfortunately, do not. 

Maybe I could pull off one eye. 

Nope.  I just tried.  Oh, well.

Having had what I imagine are the standard career ups and downs, though with considerably more ups, and acknowledging that I ranked in the higher percentile of the sitcom practitioners of my day, I remain, to this very day, troubled by the concerning question I began with:

“Why Wasn’t I Better?”

A paragraph, to examine what I mean by “better.”  For me, writing involves the pursuit and capturing in words of the most truthful version of the situations and relationships that the writer has selected as their subject matter.  Comedy additionally requires the funniest possible rendering of whatever it is I just said in the previous sentence.

In this context of “truthful writing” – and perhaps others but today isn’t about that – I believe I could have been – and should have been – better. 

Perhaps a lot better.

And in that regard – and in others as well but today isn’t about that –

I have regrets.

If being “better” means writing more truthfully – and that’s pretty much it, isn’t it? – the inevitable next question is,

“Why didn’t I write more truthfully?”

First of all – and it virtually goes without saying but not quite – the truth, in many situations, is not always easy to nail down.  Knowing the truth takes sensitivity, understanding, clarity and insight.  And who has a surfeit of any of those?  Besides that, the truth is often subjective, so who’s truth are we talking about, anyhow?

But setting aside the difficulty of determining the truth – and that is no small “setting aside” – there were (and perhaps still are) fundamental conditions in television sitcom writing sending the truth to the sidelines, where was is relegated to a permanent seat at the end of the bench. 

The primary conditions marginalizing the scriptural search for truth – not to be confused with the Scriptural search for Truth, which believers insist is “All Truth, All the Time” – were the rules we were required to mandatorily adhere to during the course of the scriptwriting process.   

In many ways, writing a sitcom is like writing a Japanese haiku, only longer and funnier.  (Unless some haikus are funny and I’m an ignorant ninny.)  The similarly is that, in both formats, the unbending structural rules are everywhere. 

Sitcom Rules I Was Required To Abide By:

You had to write your script to fit the available (and ever-shortening) episode length.  You had to write in a “joke-structure” format, the punchlines appearing with metronomic regularity. 

A character could not leave a scene without first delivering an exiting joke.  (This paragraph, were it an scene-exiting sitcom character, would be sent back for a “punch-up.”  No, wait.  That’ll work.)

Series “regulars” had to be serviced – in terms of jokes and screen time – equally, the series’ star more equally than the others.  All storylines had to be deliberately structured so that no guest star ever wins out in the end – the series “regulars” must always come out on top.  (I once wrote a script where the guest star prevailed over the star, and the studio audience went “Awwwww.”  Man!  I mean, the star wasn’t even nice!)

Space limitations on the soundstage, plus budgetary considerations, meant that you could only have two standing sets – say, an office and an apartment set – and one “swing set” specific to the story, like a restaurant, or a veterinarian’s Waiting Room (where you could showcase a parade of funny-looking dogs.)  You could, with rare exceptions, not go outside.  (Into the real world, in contrast to the soundstage.)

The show’s tone needed to be consistent, comedic, with perhaps a dollop of drama near the end that they called a “moment”, because it could not be any longer.  The ending had to be not tragic, not bittersweet or even touching, but obligatorily upbeat.  And, again with rare exceptions, after the resolution of the immediate catastrophe, everything had to revert to the way it was at the beginning.  All episodes were hermetically sealed off from their countertparts.  In the following week’s episode, the crisis of the previous week’s episode – or of any other episode in the series – was never mentioned.  

The tastes of the showrunners had to be considered.  If you deviated from their “comfort zone”, they’d rewrite you.  The “studio notes” inevitably deflected you from the deeper, dangerously challenging concerns to a more familiar and comfortable terrain.  And, of course, there was the network, desperate to maximize its viewership by offending no one.  And I literally mean…no one.       

That’s five paragraphs of rules.  I am sure there are more, but your attention span and “I have a life”, albeit a small one, prevent me being comprehensive.  With all those rules we needed to accommodate, is anyone surprised that the truth was frequently marginalized, and often totally forgotten?

“Where’s the heart?  Where’s the humanity?”  Superseded by by “Where’s the jokes?” and “Where’s the ratings?”  I once attended a live comedy concert entitled “Only The Truth Is Funny.”  The title sounds noble, but it is not entirely correct.  More accurately – if less catchily – is, “Only The Funny Truth Is Funny.”  A substantial portion of the truth is not funny.  And in sitcoms, that stuff almost never makes the cut.  (And it can be persuasively argued that it shouldn’t.) 

The funny truth?  It just never got a high priority.  Not when there were promising joke areas to mine.

If you want to be a successful sitcom writer, you do not, as in Pinocchio, always let your conscience be your guide – you always let the rules be your guide.  When you start out, you would hold those rules firmly in your mind.  In time, they were automatic, your encoded conditioning preventing you from thinking any other way.    

I was not better because, eager to please and endure, I allowed myself to become slavishly shackled to the rules.  Other writers (the Charles Brothers on Cheers) were less so, or even less so than that (Larry David on Seinfeld), and they wound up doing remarkable work.

I was pretty good at what they wanted me to do.  But I never found a way to blend the format’s constricting requirements with my innate, and as a consequence more truthfully human, uniqueness. 

I do better with this blog.

Why am I a better blog writer than I was a sitcom writer?

Tune in tomorrow.  (As if there were really any suspense.)

1 comment:

issy emnon said...

Required to pay for your Cable Ace Award? That has to be an interesting story.