Friday, September 2, 2016

"The Other Colors Of The Rainbow"

Shows have writing staffs for a reason.

Well, more than one reason, but “Shows have writing staffs for more than one reason” feels noticeably deficient in introductory “snap”.  

There are a lot of scripts to write to complete a season’s order.   No writer can crank out twenty-something episodes a year by themselves.  Although a notorious number of them have been known to totally rewrite all the scripts, those “substandard” submissions serving as indispensible “cannon fodder” for the head writer (generally the show runner) to obliterate.  (Recalling the saying, “Just give me something to hate!”) 

Fixing scripts is demonstrably easier than starting from scratch.  Something about that blank page staring at you.  It’s like “snow blindness”, the sheer whiteness throwing the crazed writer into a disorienting stupor.

There are other reasons a writing staff is necessary, the least publicized perhaps being to provide the beleaguered show runner with physical company in the work room, though that “company” is not invited to participate in the writing.  Call them furniture with lunch privileges.  Sciptorial “extras”, if you will.  But with enviable paychecks.

But the primary reason…


I was concerned I left the impression yesterday that I believed that my style of writing – comedy grounded in identifiable reality – was better than everyone else’s style of writing.  I don’t know, I may be overreacting to sending messages of implied superiority, but I did not want it to pass without an acknowledgment of my awareness. 

Okay, that’s over.

Here’s what I know:  Different writers write different ways.

That’s why you require a writing staff – to provide a wider array of comedic “colors” than a single writer is capable of delivering on their own. 

On a generic level, you want staff writers whose sensibilities are stylistically compatible.  Imagine a writer for Taxi writing for Laverne and Shirley.  (Or vice versa.  I once tried to write an episode of Mork and Mindy and I couldn’t.)

Calculated joke-writing will never be my favorite – the kind whose arrangement is so screamingly familiar, the only thing you can do – because you are unlikely to laugh – is to wait it out, hoping for funnier things down the line.

Consider the traditional “one-eighty”, a structural dinosaur in which the punch line is the diametrical opposite of what you expect (and what anyone would say outside of a sitcom):

“That man!  He’s rude.  He’s boorish.  He’s insensitive… I think I’m in love.”

I mean, give me a break!  What regular TV watcher did not see that coming?


I wrote exactly that type of joke in Best of the West:

PARKER TILLMAN (THE TOWN BAD MAN):  “Sam Best – He’s good.  He’s decent.  He’s honest… We may have to kill him.”

That one’s a little better because… stop it, it is precisely the same joke.

Formula jokes are not acceptable to me… even when I write them myself.  On the other hand…

Here’s the thing:

Every writing style has its limitations.

Take mine, for example.

Although comedy grounded in identifiable reality remains my indispensible “baseline”, when you hew exclusively to “what would actually happen”, the consequent writing can feel muted and mundane, missing the “magic” that makes audiences not just chuckle in knowing recognition but delight in non-linear inspiration.


Ted Baxter (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) is away on business, enjoying sumptuous accommodations and an unlimited expense account.  Baxter, we have learned, is congenitally cheap.  So it is no surprise when he picks up the phone, dials “Room Service” and, because he does not have to pay for anything, proceeds to order a banquet of more menu items than a ravenous football team could possibly consume.  That’s the predictable “funny part.”  But then Ted adds this:

(TO THE “ROOM SERVICE” REPRESENTATIVE)  “Do you do clothing too or is it just the food?”     

Somebody wrote that line.  And it wasn’t me.  Why?  Because you need a certain (hyper-realistic) “turn of mind” to conceive of that joke and my mind turns in a different direction.  (Which is also not the direction of the Mary Tyler Moore writer who, for the weight-conscious “Rhoda” character facing a seductive piece of candy, wrote:  “I don’t know why I should even bother to eat this.  I should apply it directly to my hips.”) 

Great joke.  It would never have come to me.

That’s why you need writing staffs.  Though you may favor your own, to provide needed variety, you have to “flavor the stew” with individualized perspectives.  

“Mine’s the best!  Mine’s the best!  Mine’s the…”


That just slipped out.

1 comment:

JED said...

I am missing the subtle distinction because I'm not a writer and I'm not in show business. If I laugh, I think I've just heard a joke. When I watch shows you've written, I laugh a lot. Whether it's a one-liner, a long, extended story or a set-up and response - it's a joke to me. I even consider a pun a joke - sometimes.

I don't continue to watch a show because it has a lot of jokes, though. I watch it because I can relate to the story and the characters AND it makes me laugh. My goodness, I enjoyed the end of Laugh-In when they all popped out of those little doors and told a bunch of jokes but I couldn't take a whole show like that!