Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Prelude To A Rewrite - Obstacles To The Challenge"

Backstory:  Recent thoughts about Major Dad led me consider rewriting the last scene of an episode of the series written twenty-five years ago.  Today, I thought it might be illuminating to consider the obstacles involved in such a challenging undertaking.

Confession:  This is a “stall” post, so I can push off that challenging undertaking into the future.

It has been close to ten years since I have attempted to write anything in the situation comedy format at all.  My final effort in that regard was a spec pilot script entitled House Rules, which my agent was unable to get anyone interested in. 

I reflexively realized that as a troubling signal, because he was a pretty good agent.  And because House Rules was one of the best things I have ever written.  Difficulty selling your best thing is an ominous demonstration that the buyers are no longer enamored of your once greatly valued but now demonstrably unmarketable abilities.

Note:  I was correct in my assessment.  I never sold anything in television again.

Besides being out of step with both current taste trends – Read: meaner – and the prevailing subject matter – Read: sexier – I was also an expert practitioner in a comedy-writing protocol had fallen into terminal disrepute. 

Imagine you are one of the most respected “Bleeders” in the business, one of a handful of top practitioners whose name immediately pops to mind in the therapeutic employment of leaches, a “go-to ‘A’-Lister” in the “leaching” fraternity.  Still riding high, you take notice of the advancements in the “healing practices”, and you realize that the medical profession as a whole is inexorably moving away from “leaching.”

Prognosis:  Hard times ahead for the once hotshot “Bleeder” and his family.

As with “leaching”, so with writing multi-camera situation comedies.

Multi-camera comedies were (then 22-minute) “mini-plays”, filmed (or, more inexpensively, videotaped) in front of a live studio audience.  For more than forty years – from the 1960’s – The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Danny Thomas Show – to the mid-00’s – Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends that’s the way situation comedies were produced.

Since multi-camera writing was the sitcomical M.O. of the era, that’s what I trained myself to do, honing my skills at MTM (The Mary Tyler Moore Company), and plying them successfully for the next twenty-five years.  Over time during that period, I was considered one of the Top-of-the-Line “Bleeders”… I mean, sitcom writers in the business.

Then, as viewing preferences and production technology evolved, the audience (finally) tiring of the multi-camera format, and digital recording making filming shows using a single camera more cost-effective, the younger TV writers, identifying more closely with movies than with plays, began creating more and more series following cinematic template – short films, if you will, producing The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, etc.   

Single-camera comedies became the stylistic “Flavor of the Month”, relegating the stodgier multi-camera comedies into, if not oblivion, then at least what would appear to be permanent marginality.

So I haven’t done it in a while.  And there are few to no shining examples currently on the air that I can study, to help knock the cobwebs off of my once razor-sharp “skill set.”  Imagine a ballplayer, long out of the game, stepping up to the plate, hoping to swing the bat with less than embarrassing consequences.  A respectable outcome appears highly unlikely.

(That’s me, soliciting sympathy for my upcoming attempt.)

Why do I want to do it?

“Crazy” comes immediately to mind.  My best efforts would still be applied to an arthritic format, making an appreciative reception of the final product precariously doubtful.  Plus, as just mentioned, there is a lot of rust on this aging former hotshot.

I guess it’s because, thinking back, I have developed retroactive reservations about the climactic scene of “Discipline”, a Major Dad episode concerning the contentious issue of spanking.

An ideologically divided “Rewrite Room” over a script in which the Major is determined to spank his seven year-old stepdaughter for her deliberate disobedience created a difficult atmosphere to do our best work, the result producing, at least in my recollection, a less than admirable final version of that scene.

At the time I’m sure I was just happy to ultimately get the thing done.  But, as the show runner taking total responsibility for the finished product, it was not my Finest Hour.  (Though I may be overrating my abilities, and underrating how difficult it is to turn out consistently first class material under a grueling sitcom-producing schedule.)

Disclaimers, rationalizations and excuses aside, it occurred to me I could do better.

And I just thought I would give it a try.    


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'm looking forward to reading this.


McDobie McGillis said...

Although over-saturated w/commercials, the topical Major Dad episode is available for free on Hulu.com. Many, if not all of the Major's episodes are available for free.

Mike T. said...

This is a minor quibble, but it's not quite accurate to say that multi-cam reined supreme in the sitcom world "from the 1960's ... to the mid-00's." In fact, during the '60s, very few sitcoms were shot multi-cam; most were single-camera shows with laugh tracks (e.g., Bewitched, The Munsters, Gilligan's Island). Multi-cam was somewhat more popular in the 50s--I Love Lucy being the prime example--but it didn't really become the nearly universal format until the early 1970s, when even some single-cam shows (The Odd Couple, Happy Days) switched to multi-cam in midstream.

Canda said...

Earl, if you weren't willing as the Head Writer/Exec. Producer of a show to ultimately do as you want, rather than letting a rewrite room dictate what you should do, than there's little reason to complain now.

If you intend now to do the scene as you wanted to do it, it will be edifying for us to read.

Chuck Lorre is doing just fine with multi-cam shows in front of a studio audience.They're some of the hottest things on the air.

JED said...

I think this is going to be great. I know you must already have decided the format of your upcoming post but I am hoping to influence you a bit here.

You probably won't want to break up your writing by placing "this is why I did it this way" notes interspersed with the lines of dialog but I think it would be a fascinating follow-up post to go through your updated episode listing what you changed and why.

However you do it, though, I can't wait!