Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Anatomy Of A Script I Didn't Write"

I’ve been asked to post more about the sitcom-writing process.  So I will.  Not because I’ve been asked to.  (IN AN INDIGNANT FRENCH ACCENT)  “What am I, a dog, to be led around by de nooz?”  (BACK TO ME)  I want to write about the sitcom-writing process. 

Does that sound convincing to you?  I am doing my best here.  Still, you may sense some discernible foot dragging.  I guess, to be honest, sitcom writing is just not my favorite subject to write about, and only partly because they won’t let me do it anymore.  Though I will not clarify the size of that “partly.” 

I wrote sitcom episodes because I had an interest, and because I could.  But while this was happening, I did exceedingly little evaluating of what exactly I was doing.  I just did it.  My primary goal being to finish the assignment, and not get yelled at.  

But (some) people want me to write about writing.  Even though, every day in this venue, by my – he said humbly – scrupulous selection process and my frequent drawing attention to what I’m doing while I’m doing it, I am, by example and demonstration, talking about writing. 

It would appear, however, that those “some people” don’t want me to talk about blog post writing; they want me to talk about a form of writing that could make a person a living.  So, as requested, and also because at least some degree I want to, here we go. 

The script I have selected to examine has been voted, in one poll, “The Funniest Sitcom Episode Of All Time”, and in another, one of the “Top Three.”  The episode, from the rightfully honored Mary Tyler Moore Show (from 1975), is entitled “Chuckles Bites The Dust”, and its esteemed author is the late and justifiably revered David Lloyd (who, in the indisputable evidence that “The Mackintosh does not fall far from the tree”, is the father of Modern Family co-creator Christopher Lloyd.) 

(When David passed away from a cancer variation, I contributed money to the requested appropriate charity.  David’s wife sent back a very kind “Thank you” note, including the information that David had liked me.  I was touched hearing that, as I had always seen myself as an annoyance.  David’s M.O. was to work quickly, and, in my congenital deliberateness, I was continually slowing things down.  Apparently, he didn’t resent my questioning as much as his face reflected he did.)    

David Lloyd was, I believe, the most prolific sitcom scriptwriter of all time.  While I wrote eight sitcom episode scripts per season – and it virtually killed me to do so – David Lloyd wrote sixteen.  And he made it look easy.  (I always felt this was due to the discipline he’d developed studying at Yale that I missed out on attending the University of Toronto.)

How did it he do it?  Well, to me, David Lloyd wrote scripts with the no-nonsense efficiency of a man filling in a crossword puzzle. 

In collaboration with the show runners of the series he was contributing to, David constructed a detailed story outline – like the infrastructural skeleton of a skyscraper – and when he wrote the subsequent script, he assiduously adhered to that outline, with no extraneous “side trips”, in a lean, mean and unerringly successful effort to deliver drafts that were remarkably “close”, thus relieving the show’s writing staffs of onerous Production Week rewrites.

(By contrast, I felt like I was first, creating the crossword puzzle, and then filling it in.  There’s this Yiddish word – fablongit.  It’s like you’re lost in the jungle and you’re macheteing your way out.  That’s was always the way I felt.  “I don’t know what I’m doing – Oh!  I did it!”  No matter how many scripts I tackled, my always blundering writing process was inevitably the same.)

Of the dozens – maybe hundreds, of scripts he wrote, David’s arguably most outstanding effort – even the “Greats” produce standouts – was the aforementioned “Chuckles Bites The Dust.” 

You could tell the actors knew they’d been blessed with something out of the ordinary that week.  Even watching on television, I could see an unmistakable gleam in their eyes that said, “The writer has presented us with a beautiful, big fat pitch right down the middle.  Let’s knock this sucker out of the park!”

And they did.  Before I even begin talking about the writing elements that made “Chuckles” special, it’s essential to acknowledge how extra-effortfully magnificent the performances were.  It’s one thing to see the pitch; it’s another to whack it prodigiously over the fence.  First, there’s the requisite talent, which the MTM ensemble undeniably possessed.  But then, there’s accessing that ability at the desired moment, and propelling it into overdrive.  I mentioned that gleam in the actors’ eyes?  Imagine a trained hunting dog that “sees bird.” 

A scriptwriter could not possibly ask for more.

From a writing standpoint, “Chuckles Bites The Dust” set the qualitative standard that the rest of us would from then on be shooting for.  I never attained that standard myself, but I am certain that the lessons I picked up and internalized as I watched it on TV that Saturday night got me a tiny bit closer.

And for that, I belatedly, posthumously and appreciatively thank David Lloyd. 

Tomorrow:  Examining the specifics.

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