Thursday, July 6, 2017

"Answering JED (Who Writes In A Lot And I Always Appreciate It)"

As I await the return of my “Back-To-School” mojo, I happily content myself with readers’ questions, which help “prime the pump” of recollections and remarks.  Keep ‘em coming.  At least until the camp bus in my head deliver me home and I am officially my old self again.  By which I more accurately mean, my former self.  My old self you can keep.

I shall begin by quoting JED, quoting my post:

Re:  Filming the first thirteen episodes of Best of the West before the show went on the air:  (If I can do two colons in one sentence.  If not, a punctuational apology.)    

“…. We immediately got down to the business of making twelve additional episodes (following the pilot episode), free from the buffeting intervention of ratings and reviews.  It was an uncharacteristical, dream-like experience, our success coming the hard way – the studio audience was watching a show they had never seen or even heard of and they were having a really good time.” 

JED goes on to inquire, “… why it is not done this way more often.”

Okay, first let me, hopefully briefly – and again, I am speaking to myself – retroactively elaborate.

When the studio audience files in to a hit show, like, say, Seinfeld, they laugh at the curtain masking the scenery. 

“The ‘Seinfeld’ curtain!  Oh, that’s so funny!

Not that hit shows aren’t hit shows for a reason – they are generally wonderful shows.  But, certainly later in their illustrious runs, not all of their laughs – or the intensity of those laughs – are totally honestly come by.  Audiences habitually laugh at “reputation”, fueled by the dizzying excitement of “Look where I am!

By contrast, a totally “unknown quantity” like Best of the West ­– yes, we screened the pilot before the evening’s filming to acquaint the audience with the show’s comedic ambiance and parameters – also because the pilot episode was sensational – but compared to the hit shows they have enjoyed in the living rooms, it’s like a stranger coming unexpectedly to their door.

“I know you know absolutely nothing about me but would you mind if I tried making you laugh?”

Difficult to pull off.  But when you do…

That’s a good thing.

And we did.

So it was.


Why is the policy of making episodes before airing any of them not practiced more often?  Well in fact these days, it is.  All the shows on cable and on those streaming dohickeys we’ve learned to access and then forgotten how to do it and had to learn the procedure all over again, that is precisely their M.O.

Those outlets – I believe – make all their series’s episodes before offering them to the public.  That’s how you can do “streaming.”  If the episodes weren’t already all completed, you would be functionally unable to “stream.”  “Streaming” one episode a week in not “streaming.”   It’s just watching TV.

Pre-producing the series was – and possibly still is – what they did in Great Britain.  Two of my favorites, Fawlty Towers and Extras come to mind in that regard. 

Okay, be detectives. 

What do the British, cable and “streaming”-service series all have in common?

I’ll wait.


But not long.  I have a busy day ahead of me.

The answer? 

Short orders.

Did you get it?  Congratulations.  If not, there are no losers on Just Thinking, just people who get the right answers and people who don’t.

In this country, a full-season order is a minimum of twenty-two episodes.  (It was originally thirty-nine.)  In England, for the above-mentioned comedies, it was six.  Here on cable and streaming services, the series order is regularly twelve. 

With “short orders”, you can write all the episodes ahead of time.  With twenty-two episode orders, productions must necessarily make shows and prepare other shows at the same time.  Not exactly the same time – you do not have to write episodes during the filmings, although sometimes it feels that way – but under the twenty-two-episode scenario, you can easily be writing a script, rewriting the script in production, editing an earlier episode, casting an upcoming episode, and outlining a future episode all on the same day.

Hold on.  I just got an acid reflux attack thinking about that.

Do not believe you can do better work doing five disparate things in a day rather than focusing exclusively on the writing, and then on the producing, and then on the editing, and then on the vacation, while the series airs and you are waiting for the results.

JED continues, “But I also wonder if you feel you were as sharp in this situation (writing the episodes ahead of time) as you would have been with more pressure on you.”

“As sharp” – yes.

“As petrified” – no.

Yes, there is creative energy consequent to punishing time constraints and some heroic efforts can be achieved.  But there is “pressure” – including the self-imposed pressure of doing your best work, and there is “so much pressure” you need to break away every week to go to therapy.

How well do you think you can you deliver when you are too nervous to eat and too anxious to sleep?

But that’s me.  Other people, it’s like, “Pour it on.”  Of course, there are also those who found combat the most exhilarating experience of their lives.  I probably wouldn’t have.

It takes all kinds, as they say, and I just repeated.

By the way, parenthetically except for those for whom it is central to their existence, you – by which I mean everybody involved – get substantially richer making twenty-two episodes rather than six.  A British TV executive I once met said, “In England, we need money to make shows; in America, you need shows to make money.”  (And syndication to make fortunes.)

The making of thirteen episodes of Best of the West before any of them went on the air was an anomaly, triggered by ABC’s reservations about the show.  But we made wonderful episodes and I regret that by their nature, anomalies are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Now, things are different.

Now, however…

I am writing a blog.

(Although women in prison, and Dads transsexualizing into women?  Writing today, I’m not sure I would fit in.)


JED said...

Thank you for answering my question. So, you (and the British) were ahead of your time:-) You have told us many interesting stories about how TV shows are made but I never caught on to how demanding it was with so many disparate things going on at once. I think (well, I hope) that most people in charge are starting to realize that multitasking (for humans) is a myth.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The other consequence of short orders and writing in advance is that you can use fewer writers. British comedies are typically written by just one or two people. CATASTROPHE is all Sharon Horgan and whatshisname. FAWLTY TWOERS was all John Cleese and Connie Booth. YES, MINISTER - Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay. COUPLING - Steven Moffatt. The result is much more consistent characterization, too.

As for whether Earl would fit in now. Well, one way to look at TRANSPARENT is that three adults suddenly discover they're fish out of water in their own family when their father comes out as trans. How do they adapt? Go...