Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"What I Do"

I realize it’s pathetically “back door”, but I fantasize that if I write about what I do, somebody who sees what I do, and needs what I do, and likes the way I talk about what I do, who knows…they might want me to do it.

Let’s put aside writing a script. I’m not sure I have the energy or enough paper in my house to pull that off. Let’s focus specifically on what I do as a consultant.

What I do as a consultant is two things, and this would apply to movies as well as television. One, I study the story, looking for inconsistencies and ways to bolster the storytelling, and, if it’s a comedy, I make sure its comedic possibilities have been fully realized; and two, when needed, I create dialogue to crystallize the pivotal moments in the story or clarify a character’s personality, and, again, if it’s a comedy, I do it funny.

Of course, if you went by the foregoing paragraph, you wouldn’t hire me for anything. And you’d be right. What I said is barely coherent to me. And I know what I’m trying to say.

Let me, more helpfully, explain what I do with an example:

I was consulting on According To Jim. It was my last paying job. The show runners and I had the same agent, and he screamed at them until they hired me. As a consultant. One day a week.

This is my process. When I’d receive the script the weekend before my day of service, I would read it, read it again, then read it a third time, searching for ways to contribute, which meant searching for elements that, in the hectic schedule of producing a weekly series, the show runners had overlooked.

The objective is to look for what should be there but isn’t, though “look for” is not really accurate, because you’re not exactly looking, like a detective looking for clues. What you’re doing is “feeling” your way through the script, trying to sense, through instinct and experience, what your gut tells you might be missing.

“This moment is important, and it’s not fully realized; some clarifying dialogue, maybe just a single line, or a revealing gesture of look, will considerably enhance what follows.”

Something like that.

So I’m reading this According to Jim script. The story concerns the “Jim” character’s having taped a football game over his wedding video, and in retaliation, his wife has thrown “Jim’s” video camera away.

The problem was, we had never during this series seen “Jim’s wife” behave in such an irrational and vindictive manner before.

“Jim’s wife’s” behavior is thus jarringly out of character. Why is this a problem? Because in order for the story to work, you have to believe that, in her anger at “Jim’s” thoughtlessness, she had actually thrown away his video camera. The problem was, nothing in “Jim’s wife’s” previous behavior indicated that this was something she would ever do.

My suggestion was this: Have “Jim’s wife’s sister”, who’s in the scene when “Jim’s wife” reveals she threw away “Jim’s” video camera, relate a story from their childhood in which, in a similar situation, “Jim’s wife” had behaved in precisely the same way. Then, to “button” the moment, have “Jim’s wife” assert, with a slightly maniacal gleam in her eye,

“That’s what I do.”

You probably don't need clarification for why this was a helpful suggestion, but I’ll put it in anyway. So I can brag. The According To Jim story had a weakness. It required the audience to believe that a character would behave in a manner they had never seen her behave before. If they didn’t believe that, there was no story.

“I threw away your video camera.”

“I know you. You didn’t.”

“You’re right. I didn’t.”

That’s not a story. Well, it is, but it’s a bad one.

Inserting the childhood “backstory” related by “Jim’s wife’s sister” provided the current story with a corroborating credibility. And the payoff, the semi-maniacal, “That’s what I do”, makes it funny.

My suggestion was accepted, and included in the script. When I showed up for work the following week, I was informed that, on show night, the suggested line had gotten one of the biggest laughs of the evening.

So that’s an example.

That’s what I do.


Anonymous said...

Not that you didn't improve the story. But there's another problem with the taping a game over the wedding. Everybody Loves Raymond did it. I'm guessing they did it first.

Greg Morrow said...

I'd actually expect that, one way or another, the overtaping story goes several decades before ELR or ATJ.