Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Two

Throughout my career writing for television, I have invariably received one of two credits: a “Consulting” credit or “Executive Producer” credit.

Once, I received a “Consulting Executive Producer” credit. I may be the only one who ever got that. It was exciting breaking in a new title.

Receiving only these credits is extremely rare. Ask around. You have to be lucky. And be willing to turn down lucrative offers for jobs that aren’t those. (You also have to be short-sighted enough to reject valuable learning experiences. There is also, sadly, that.)

I liked being the consultant or the E.P. (Which are, coincidentally, my initials.) As Executive Producer, there was nobody above me in the show’s hierarchy, which meant I could be “right” just by saying I was. As a consultant, I was outside the hierarchy. I was in a different category. I was the funny uncle, a friendly face from the “outside” who popped in and improved the show.

From my earliest days as a scriptwriter, I was also a consultant. It was during my MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) years, after I quit my only staff job ever – on Phyllis – because I hated it – that I began supplementing my income, consulting, during “Production Week”, on the episodes that I had written. There’d be “Rewrite Nights” and I would pitch in.

Sometimes it was fun, and sometimes it wasn’t. It was fun when the script I’d delivered was in such great shape that there was little to do but accept compliments for having written it so skillfully. That was delightful.

It was less delightful when the show’s Executive Producer had ideas of their own – ideas that, in my view, were making the script worse. At those times, I felt obligated to fight for what I, and, in many cases, the members of the Executive Producer’s writing staff, believed was the better approach.

Unfortunately, being members of that Executive Producer’s writing staff, and understandably reluctant to make waves, the writers who agreed with me were not always that helpful.

Once, I was having a disagreement with the Executive Producer concerning some issue in the script, and I suspected that the writer ranked immediately below her agreed with me, a suspicion that was confirmed during a break. Having discovered an ally, I excitedly inquired,

“How much support can I get from you on this matter?”

To which the writer who ranked immediately below the Executive Producer replied,


That’s when it wasn’t so fun.

Not long afterwards, I was invited to consult on scripts that I hadn’t written. That was easier. No vested interested. No pressure. No stress. (No having to talk to the actors or the executives – which is another way of saying, “No pressure. No stress.”)

When an astute and talented writer named Barry Kemp created Newhart – the one where the Bob Newhart character owned an inn in Vermont – he invited me to serve as what he called, “a legitimate story editor.” Presumably, an illegitimate “Story Editor” was a writer who received the credit, “Story Editor” but they didn’t edit any stories.

(In actuality, the “Story Editor” credit simply means, “You’re getting less money than the guy with the ‘Producer’ credit.” Credits are primarily salary designations.)

During the first season of Newhart, scripts would be delivered to my home (already a plus, because I didn’t have to drive anywhere). I’d study them, and then type up my suggestions. (This being before e-mail and fax machines, someone then had to pick up my suggestions and drive them back to the studio. I apologize herewith for the traffic and pollution problems I may have added to. Though I don’t know how many accidents I prevented by staying out of my car.)

During my career, I provided similar consulting services (though sometimes I had to go in) on a number of television series. The job felt like a natural fit. As was not unusual in my career, somebody else had found me my niche.

Whether I consulting on the iconic Larry Sanders Show, starring Garry Shandling, or the barely noticed Goode Behavior, starring Sherman Hemsley – I consulted on both shows during the same season – I took my assignment equally seriously.

(The seemingly incongruous double-duty won me respect from the Goode Behavior writers, who were impressed that I consulted on Larry Sanders, and heaping derision from some Larry Sanders writers, who couldn’t believe I was working on Goode Behavior. “How’s Shoiman”, I’d be hootingly asked.)

What, specifically, did the consulting job involve? Well, generically there was inevitably the issue of length. Shows – though less so on HBO – had to conform to a “time format.” We were always looking for “cuts.”

“You don’t need Page 8,” I’d suggest.

“Why not?” I’d be asked.

“You never need Page 8.”

This wasn’t always helpful, but it never failed to lighten the mood.

As for the content, to me, no matter the show, the job remained the same: Understand what they were trying to accomplish in the story, and suggest things that would help them reach that goal more successfully. It is my belief that all stories – I’m talking about half-hour comedies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it really was all stories – have an inherent trajectory:

To me, the internal structure of a story is like the natural progression that you find in music. You may not be able to articulate it, but when the chord structure deviates from its inevitable path, the final arrangement sounds “off.” It’s the same with a script. The consultant’s job is to listen for the “off” parts, and “fine tune” them, so they’re harmoniously back on track. (My music analogy’s admittedly shaky, but hopefully you get what I’m drivin’ at.)

The objective is clarity. (The ultimate objective, of course, is comedy, but fuzzy storytelling can inhibit the “ha-ha.”) “Clarifying” can mean noticing the inconsistency between two jokes, which, although both funny, undermine the credibility of character who’s delivering both. “Clarifying” also means eliminating the “wrong turns”, streamlining the storyline so it more smoothly travels to where its theme indicates it wants to go.

Sometimes, I’d suggest adding a speech or some different lines of dialogue. Not to say, “This is funnier”, but to say that, “This joke is more helpfully ‘on story’.” Or “This speech gives the joke you’re pointing towards a nourishing context.” Or “This line capsulizes the moment (and since it’s been ‘built to’ so cleverly, I’m predicting – making sure of coming short of guaranteeing – a hilarious response).”

Nobody’s right all the time. Your success level resides, like baseball, in your batting average.

What I’ve offered is the idealized version of the consulting job. There are times when “consulting” is butting heads with stubborn people. Sometimes, it’s the show’s star, who’s “not a writer” coming in when the work’s nearly done, and changing everything around. And sometimes, it’s people of good will seeing things in diametrically different ways. In these situations, your fondest wish is to get fired. And almost invariably, that wish is granted.

But when the “consulting thing” is really working, you’ll find creative exhilaration, a giddying collaborative chemistry, there’s “break time” hilarity, there’s free dinner, and a check for your services when you’re done. All really good things.

By the way, I still know how to do this stuff.

And I’m available.


Anonymous said...

I'd love to have you consult on my show "Inside Kern." There are NEVER any actors to deal with. Unfortunately there also never a script. But I think I can safely say that when it comes to county government shows about how county government works, we're wicked funny.

Michael said...

Would you do movie scripts as well, or just TV?

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I really learned a lot from this. But at MTM, whenever you cut page 8, didn't Abby Singer always find a way to put it back in at the end? Get it? Oh nevermind.

Jess Kiley said...

I'd love to hire you, if only I could manifest what we'll be consulting on...does the job title come first, or the actual job?

Jeremy said...

Hi, Earl... been a few years. :)

I love this bit: "To me, the internal structure of a story is like the natural progression that you find in music. You may not be able to articulate it, but when the chord structure deviates from its inevitable path, the final arrangement sounds “off.”...."

I think that really speaks to why some folks write great comedy, and some have that tin ear.

And sometimes a joke that might work on its own totally falls flat - because it doesn't work as part of that overall flow. Like the joke a major executive producer insisted my cousin stick into the film he was directing... they tested both versions, and it totally changed the audience reaction to the overall film.

And yet, people with tin ears for comedy do seem to manage to get into positions of power where they influence the making of comedy. I guess that's why so many shows never quite make it, eh?