Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty E"

It was real. Which, in a way, was a shame, ‘cause if it hadn’t been real, it would have made a really nice vision. And I’ve never had a vision.

I’m walking down one of those “streets”, a paved corridor between soundstages on the Universal lot, heading for the stage where the Major Dad pilot would be filmed, starting in about an hour. And who do I spot, sitting on the steps of an enormous dressing room/trailer, engrossed in a biography of Sammy Davis Jr.?

Bill Cosby.

“Doctuh!” I call out with gleeful enthusiasm, employing the nickname I traditionally used in respect for his Ph.D in education.

He looks up.

“Errrrrl,” he replies, his standard growling acknowledgement.

We had not set eyes on each other since I left The Cosby Show five years before. I was excited to see him, don’t ask me why, my Cosby experience had been nightmarish. Maybe it was the timing. I had left his show early and unhappily, and here I was, fully recovered, and helming a new show of my own.

I took this surprise reunion as an omen. I walked away feeling buoyant about the pilot we were about to make. I came “that close” to inviting Cosby to drop by and do the warm-up.

As I headed for the soundstage, I thought back on our week of production. The process had run extremely smoothly, thanks primarily to our director, Will Mackenzie. Will Mackenzie – talented, funny, understood the “tone” I was shooting for, a gentleman. He’s about a hundred now, but if you need a gifted director who makes everything easier, you can’t possibly do better than Will Mackenzie.

The one dark cloud during “Production Week” occurred on a Thursday evening, the night before the Major Dad pilot would be filmed. It was not fun.

The Thursday “dress rehearsal” had gone off without a hitch. We felt confident about our efforts. Now it was time for network “notes.” For those unfamiliar with the process, network “notes” is the time when network executives tell you what you’re doing wrong.

Here’s something somebody told me I said once about how TV networks behave: “The first thing they say is the last thing they say.” What did I mean by that? I meant this.

During the “casting approval” process, the president of CBS, Kim (a man) had strongly objected to the casting of Shanna Reed as our leading lady. Universal insisted. We got Shanna Reed.

It is now the night before the filming. What is Kim’s primary “note”, besides that the show doesn’t “ring true” to the spirit of the Marine Corps?

“I can’t tell you what to do,” he began, before telling us what to do, “but if I were you, I would close down production and look for another leading lady.”

The first thing they say is the last thing they say.

There was a moment when I’d had enough of this foolishness and I walked away, segregating myself on the couch on the Major Dad set. A Universal executive was dispatched to fetch me back. What I said to Kim on my return was this:

“It’s Thursday.”


We’re done.

Kim was noticeably upset, which is not good, because, well, the person who decides whether or not our show gets on the air?

It’s Kim.

When I reached the soundstage, many thoughts, positive and otherwise, swirled around my brain. I pulled open the heavy, metal door and I stepped inside.

And off we went.

Here’s what you need to know about audience laughter. It’s nice to get. But laughs, particularly in pilots, mean more than “We thought that was funny.” Laughs, and the type of laugh it is – natural, spontaneous, the “we get what you’re going for” kind of laughter – they’re indicators. Of what? Of whether or not your pilot has the elements to make it as a series.

I’ll show you what I mean.

One of my favorite kinds of comedy is what I call “It” comedy. The laugh ensues from the explosive truth of the situation you present. No exaggeration. No clever phrasing. No structural comedic twist. “It.” The thing that it is.


After interviewing the McRaney character, “McGillis”, “Polly” the liberal, female reporter writes a scathing article criticizing the Marine Corps. “Major Smiley”, the Corps’ P.R. representative, barges in on McGillis, incensed. Supporting his outrage, Smiley reads an incendiary quote from Polly’s article, defining the Marine Corps’ mission as,

“…combat-trained veterans taking eighteen year-old kids and teaching them how to kill.”

to which McGillis replies,

“Isn’t that what we do?”

“It” comedy. That’s exactly what they do.

The line got an enormous laugh.

What did that laugh indicate? It indicated that “It” comedy can get enormous laughs, thus vindicating my favored style of comedy writing. I knew I’d be injecting plenty of “It” comedy during the series, and, by their delighted response, the audience had told me, “You inject it. We’ll laugh at it.” The indication was positive.

Our biggest laugh in the pilot? A joke with no words.

McGillis arrives at Polly’s house to discuss her article. He is unexpectedly invited to dinner. As Polly and her two older girls exit to the kitchen to finish preparing the meal, McGillis, dressed head to toe in a camouflage outfit, stands waiting, the other person in the room, Polly’s six year-old daughter.

What does the girl do? She stand there and she stares at him. An oddity in her living room. As she continues to stare, McGillis becomes more and more uncomfortable. She stares a really long time. McGillis is feeling the heat.

As the stare and McGillis’s discomfort grew longer, the audience’s laughter continued to build, laugh upon laugh, like the rolling of thundering ocean waves. It just wouldn’t stop. We had to cut the laugh down for the finished episode. It was too long for television.

What did this monster laugh indicate? That the comic component of the McGillis-little girl relationship was working. Laughs generated by McGillis’s clashes with the other children offered similar encouragement.

The climactic scene: McGillis has asked Polly to marry him. Polly’s response is to laugh in his face. Twice. Big laughs from the audience, meaning this relationship is working too. Plus, they’re “buying” the storyline.

Polly is dumbfounded by this unexpected turn of events.

“What happened to ‘good clear Marine logic’?” she inquires, parroting an earlier McGillis pronouncement.

“Overruled by finely-honed Marine instinct. It’s like combat. Sometimes, in a firefight, the moment crystallizes, and you know exactly what to do. (INDICATING POLLY) See the hill. Take the hill.”

A thunderclap of laughter, followed by spontaneous applause.

The indicator here? The “Marine-out-of-water” premise of the series is a winner.

The “show night” filming was a resounding success. Our creative choices had been proven correct. It was nice to know that we knew what we were doing.

This moment is too delicious to leave out:

During a break in the filming, the audience was asked if they had any questions. One question came from Kim, the president of CBS . It had to do with the Marines’ wardrobe on the show, focusing on something called a “gig line.”

“Shouldn’t the ‘gig line’ be blah-blah-blah…” he asked, with the insinuation the show was stupid and that everyone involved in it were idiots?

From somewhere in the Marine contingent that made up a third of the audience, two words came booming out from the darkness:

“That’s ‘Navy!’

Thank you, Marine Corps.

We filmed the Major Dad pilot on May the fifth, then did “post production” around the clock so we could make our “delivery date” deadline on May the ninth. It was really late in the process. Ours would be that the last pilot the network would receive.

On May the fifteenth, CBS announced its fall schedule. Major Dad would be broadcast Mondays, at eight-thirty.

It would remain on the air for four years.

I’ll write about working on the Major Dad series at some future date. Major Dad-related questions? Now is the time. I’ll be answering them tomorrow. If there aren’t enough of them, I will ask a few of my own.


Anonymous said...


PP said...

Only technical questions, sadly:

- Sitcoms were shot on tape, right? Major Dad was a 3 camera show? I guess with tape it's less important, but any idea what your shooting ratio was?
- How did you handle having to do multiple takes of jokes? The audience laughs less each time the shot is repeated, no?
- You shot every episode in one day? How long was the day? How long was the audience there for?
- How much time rehearsing without the audience present?

Sorry if they seem like silly questions, but these are the little details about television production that always interest me.

Anonymous said...

You've written in the past about your discomfort with the casting process. I've often wondered about finding the right person for a role that isn't particularly flattering. I'm thinking of Gunny. She's talented, she's good at what she does, but she's plain. Do you cast a plain-looking woman? Does she come into casting, knowing how she looks? And then how do you feel having to affirm that yes, indeed, she is plain? Or can you punt and go with a, well, non-plain actress and "plain" her? And what about the rejects: Not plain enough, too plain, etc.?

It's the same thing I wonder about actors who are fat or disfigured. Say I'm casting a show about my own life, and I need an actor to play my best friend, who's large in carriage. I would feel awful having to look for someone who's fat first of all, and then, assuming they got cast, keeping them fat for the duration of the ten seasons my show airs on Thursday nights on NBC.

Is that sort of thing ever an issue, or am I especially neurotic (or naive about the business)?

Unknown said...

Thanks for the post... here are some handy links to the moments mentioned:

* Reaction to the news article

* Before dinner

* Marriage proposal

Ger Apeldoorn said...

How come if this series was an 'it' comedy I remember it as a silly comedy with silly characters? In my memory Coach was a similar comedy, but more human. Despite the precense of Jerry van Dyke's character.

This may seem like a harsh criticism, but a. I suspect you weren't involved in all of the series, so you can always say it all went downhill after you left and b. I have worked on a family sitcom in Holland for eight years thinking we did the most humane comedy ever, but still some people thought it was articificial and contrived.

Greg Morrow said...

In the youtube video chris posted (thank you!), you're listed as exec producer. Where's Rick?