There is a secret television comedy writers have, a truth so fiercely protected, it is often concealed from to the television comedy writers themselves, including – sans doute – thisone. It is, in fact, quite possible that the funnier a television comedy writer you are, the more likely you are to succumb to that secret. (Not that I was that funny, so I guess there are other succumbing reasons as well.)
What is that secret?
The secret is this.
A gifted comedy…
Wait. First, let’s take a moment to answer a related question that may have arisen reading blogs like mine and, say, Ken Levine’s. (The reliable and always funny bykenlevine.com)
We have often written about – and whiningly bemoaned – sitcom rewrite nights lasting till two, three in the morning, or later. Have you ever wondered, “How come?” Not how come we whiningly bemoan – that comes with the territory – but how come rewrite nights are so long?
Here are three reasons for “How come?”:
The script, playing insufficiently funny “on its feet” during rehearsal runthroughs, requires arduous and extended “punching up.” (I myself have suffered through forty-five minutes searching for one joke before discovering an upgrading replacement. I have also occasionally settled for “That’ll work” so we could move on, with the rewrite and with our lives.)
Sometimes, the story itself feels frustratingly “off”, which, as with a malfunctioning timepiece, must then be painstakingly taken apart and meticulously reassembled it so it will run more efficiently. (Thatwill get you late to the parking lot, your waiting car huffing an exasperated “Finally!” on your arrival.)
Sometimes the story “lays out” just fine.
It is simply the wrong story.
Bringing us now to “The Secret”, which in a nutshell, though don’t count on it, is this:
A gifted comedy writer is fully capable of – as is said in less humorous contexts – putting lipstick on a pig. (Which itself is a humorous descriptive, if you are comfortable with, metaphorically, disfiguring a pig.)
And you might not even know you are doing it.
Case in Point: Because what’s a good post without a clarifying example?
“A good post without a clarifying example.”
Is that really possible?
“If it’s entertaining enough.”
Which is exactly my point. If you are sufficiently skillful, you can satisfactorily entertain, even with a structural hole in your narrative balloon. (Though some will have the nagging impression that things are not right.)
Okay, so here’s the example, which could be right, or merely my personal reaction. (And one must always include the insidious “Envy Factor.”)
I am invited to a filming of Everybody Loves Raymond. I have an acquaintance on the writing staff, and I ask him if I can visit. (Truth be told – though only in brackets – my late-period career trajectory is shaky and I am casually – although semi-seriously underneath – fishing for future employment. Forgetting I dislike working on writing staffs, even on admirable sitcoms like Raymond.)
I meet Raymond’stalented creator/show runner, Phil Rosenthal, my host (and possible future employer?) escorting me to the pre-show dinner, and later, rather than seating me in the gallery, honoring me with a coveted show-watching position on the soundstage floor, behind the cameras. (Of course, behind the cameras. And yet I still said it.)
The episode, entitled, “What’s with Robert?” finds the family grappling with the dawning possibility that brother and older son Robert is gay.
During the filming before the live studio audience, the episode plays like the proverbial “Gangbusters.” The actors are sharp, the story is skillfully unfolded, the “touching” elements are genuinely “touching”, and, most importantly, the peppering punchlines are consistently hilarious.
What’s the problem, at least for me?
“What’s with Robert?” is “Episode 12” of “Season Four” of Raymond. That’s like 80 episodes of Raymond already “in the can.”
And in that whole time, I never once thought Robert was gay.
I can imagine the episode’s “pitch” being enthusiastically received. The comedic – and dramatic – possibilities are irresistibly enticing. And tonight, their original appraisal of the idea was rewardingly vindicated.
And yet, I’m standing there, thinking,
“What the heck are they talking about?”
For four-and-a-half seasons, the idea Robert was gay was never legitimately set up, or even casually alluded to. And now it’s like – Boom! – they’re doing the episode. Because it’s funny. And because they can.
The evening’s filming ends, everyone’s happy with the results. I tell Phil Rosenthal “Well done.” The thing is, my unsmiling face is conveys a contrasting message.
“What’s wrong?” the show runner anxiously asks, reading my dissatisfied visage.
Quickly, I improvise a non-reaction reaction.
“Why? Are you doing it again?”
No good. The creator/show runner wants to know what I think. A response I insistently fudge. What did I know? I was thoroughly outnumbered. The audience loved it. Everyone’s celebrating its success. How would it look, a contrarian “invitee” going, “A well-executed mistake”?
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I missed the myriad “gaydar”-ing signals embedded in earlier episodes. To me, “What’s with Robert?” didn’t feel honest. And though my mouth diplomatically demurred, the righteous remainder of my physiognomy transparently spilled the beans. (Which, of course, meant no job.)
So that’s “The Secret”, right there. With enough talent – and unconscious self-delusion – you can deliver an episode that should never have been made.
Says the man with a much smaller house than Phil Rosenthal.