Monday, December 15, 2014

"The Always Frustratingly Perplexing Switcheroo"

Paramount Studios – The Late 1970’s – Late Afternoon – Most Likely On A Wednesday.

I am attending a runthrough of an episode of Taxi during its first season of production.  Why, I have no idea.  I am, at least partly, not on Taxi’s writing staff in order to avoid going to runthroughs, more specifically, the subsequent “Rewrite Nights”, which can (and often do) extend into the following morning.  It was my preference to simply write scripts for the show and go home before it got dark.  (Or “more specifically” a second time, before it got dark and then light again.)

But somehow, inexplicably forty-five years after the fact, I am there.  It is possible I am there because the episode they are rehearsing was originally written by me, and I was simply snooping around.  What I rapidly determined in my snooping was that my script had been detectably rewritten, during the “Production Week’s” series of “Rewrite Nights.”

Suddenly, out of the predictable excitement accompanying the getting-closer-to-“Show Night” preparations, I hear the unmistakable voice of actor (and Taxi regular) Judd Hirsch, calling out,

“What happened to that ‘primordial ooze’ line from the ‘Table Reading’?  I kind of miss that line.”

I could have hugged the guy.

The “primordial ooze” line was mine, included in the “Table Reading” version of the script, but a casualty of a subsequent rewrite, replaced, it was determined, by a more predictably laugh-inducing…

“Big Joke.” 

(Let me be clear here.  Did I just throw the words “primordial ooze” out there, believing the audience would hear them and suddenly convulse into hysterics?  I most certainly did not.  I was going somewhere with it.  Though not, apparently, somewhere the show’s “Top Brass” believed would elicit “Maximum Comedic Effect.”)

So there it is.  No, wait.  Not “there it is” yet.  I had coffee this morning; I’m a little jazzed up. 

I need to include this section first.

When you write a sitcom script, you spend the better part of a day (and sometimes longer) involved in, what they call, “beating out the story.”  Which is exactly what it sounds like.  You have a story idea, and, in collaboration with the show’s “People In Charge”, you work out the developmental “beats” that will ultimately expand that story into a full-blown episode.

You go home and you write the outline.  You get “notes on your outline”, after which you go home and you write the script.  (I emphasize “go home” because that was, maybe, my favorite part of the process.  The office “energy” made me deleteriously jumpy.)

During the developmental process of the script, it was repeatedly drummed into our heads that our writing choices must remain “true to character” and as consistent as possible with identifiable reality. 

Any joke that exceeded those parameters was considered a “reach”, meaning that it stretched beyond the show’s acceptable parameters for procuring a laugh. 

(Note:  Every show had its own distinct parameters.  A joke deemed acceptable on Laverne and Shirley might be (and regularly was) considered too broad and exaggerated for Taxi.  (Hence Taxi’s generally acknowledged reputation for “higher standards.”  Not to be confused with Laverne and Shirley’s reputation for higher ratings.)

Even on Taxi at some point – that point invariably being on “Rewrite Nights” – those parameters seem to have been temporarily shelved. 

The gloves were now off.  With the testosterone-level spiking mightily in the room, “Rewrite Night’s” unambiguous objective was to replace any joke in the script with a room-determined – adjudged by their immediate reaction to it – funnier counterpart. 

It is then that “primordial ooze” comedy becomes vulnerable to a phenomenon I have just coined and now call “Big Joke Mania”, an unbridled “Rewrite Night” ritual, in which the joke receiving the biggest laugh gets into the final version of the script, even if – and herein lies today’s argument – that “Replacement Joke” adheres less to reality and character than the more rigorous original. 

This unquestioned “Switcheroo of Standards” inevitably befuddled me.  If, during the script’s “Developmental Period”, it was demanded that the writer hew as closely to believability and “character” as possible, why did they (in my view, at least) pay diminished heed to those parameters on “Rewrite Night” and start “swinging for the fences”?

And here things get contentious.

To me – and not just in retrospect, I was always of this opinion – the inherent joke structure itself – which by definition requires a “set-up” and an accompanying “punchline” – seems irretrievably contrived. 

Do you see the problem here?  You insure that everything in the show feels real.  Then the characters open their mouths, and they speak in a Kabuki-style sitcom rhythm that nobody comes close to speaking in actual life.  And that’s not just the bad sitcoms.  It’s all of them.  (With the qualified exception of Seinfeld.) 

So, to me again – though never to a substantial portion of the television-viewing audience – regardless of its content, which may in fact be startlingly insightful, if that content is presented in a standard “set-up-punchline” formulation, you are delivering a comedic conversation pattern that is generically unnatural.  

(This, to me, explains why current sitcom writers, seeking verisimilitude in their dialogue, shy away from classic joke-writing formulas today.)

For me, it was always a search for a less formulaic “Middle Ground”, a solid joke, offered in a clever hopefully less predictable construction.  The laugh may be smaller (although, hopefully, not much smaller.)  But, in the tradeoff, your show, I believe, earns “Quality Points” (and therefore audience loyalty) for its integrity and credibility.

Contending on “Rewrite Night” – with the room’s atmosphere crackling with competitiveness, and the joko-centric “punch-up” specialists added to the mix – the “primordial ooze” line (attributing an anthropomorphic persona), actor Judd Hirsch and myself…

Are all destined to be sorely disappointed.

(NOTE:  The preceding dissertation was presented by writer for whom conventional joke-writing was not his recognizable strength.  But who did all right nonetheless.) 

1 comment:

Guyle Fielder said...

But isn't one of the purposes of re-write night to find the better jokes, regardless of the shows stated mission statement?

But this may make you feel a bit better. I'm guessing you don't watch Mike and Molly - so you'll be pleased to know that in a recent episode, Mike's mother, who was/is (I've lost track) dating Mike's police captain played by your favorite major (and Air Force general in The West Wing), Gerald McRaney, called him a numb nuts. And she did it in all caps, NUMB NUTS!

How come I wonder, a person of his age, one year my senior, did not serve in the military, and yet seems to land so many roles in which he plays an officer in the military.

I also read that he holds the distinction of being the last man to face Marshall Dillon in a gun fight on Gunsmoke. I'm going to assume that Matt blew Mac's little ass away.