Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Script Rewrites - A Professional's Advice"

A lot of blogs are popular because of their helpful tips.  Today, I shall follow in those blogs’ footsteps.  The best way I can.

I shall tell you how I did things, my helpful tip being, “You see what I did there?  Study it in detail.  Then, do it a different way.” 

Spread the word.  This blog is educational!

If you do things differently than I did, you’ll be doing things – if not right – then at least righter than I did them.  This “Avoid my approach at all costs” strategy is guaranteed to help you do better work, reduce stress and aggravation, and allow to get home in time to see your children before they’re asleep.  Or have gone off to college.

Last time, I talked about “Page-One Rewrites”, involving scripts that, during “Production Week”, were discovered to be in such atrocious shape they required a massive amount of rewriting, from Page One to the end, hence the panic-inducing moniker, “Page-One Rewrite.” 

This was hopefully a rare situation.  However, when I ran shows…

Every script was a “Page-One Rewrite.” 

Let me qualify that remark before they come over and take back my awards.  It wasn’t that every script we prepared for production turned out to be in terrible shape.  The majority of them were in pretty good shape.  The actors read them at the table, the laughs were plentiful, and the story essentially made sense.  There would inevitably be the necessary “trims” to bring the episode to time, minor content clarifications and a handful of joke misfires in need of replacement.  But that was it.

Nevertheless, on every rewrite during “Production Week”, from the first rewrite after the “Table Reading” to the rewrites after the runthroughs (of which there were generally two), when I ran the room, we would always begin our revisions starting on Page One.  I would then dutifully call out the succeeding page numbers and, if there was a “trouble spot”, we would stop there and do what needed to be done.

Sometimes, believing they had an upgrade, a writer would pitch an alternate joke, even though the joke currently in the script had gotten a solid laugh.  We would then take time to debate which joke was funnier.  Being now in “pitching mode”, other writers would jump in with alternates for the alternate.  The “winning joke” would then be inserted – or the original one left alone – and on we would go. 

There would also be times when a joke that got a laugh earlier stopped getting a laugh – because, through repetition, the joke’s “funny” had eventually worn off – and we would irrationally take the time – up to an hour in some excruciating cases – to pitch a replacement joke.  I say “irrationally” because the audience would only hear the original, previously funny joke,


Then, of course, there were the serious script problems, involving a scene that required a “start from scratch” reworking.  More often than not, this “trouble scene” was the climactic scenes at the end of the episode.  Our rewrite would begin with a discussion of that scene, a task which might eventually involve creating an entirely new outline. 

After it was decided how to revise that climactic scene, if I ran the room, we would then return to Page One, and away we would go.  Working our way through the script.  Line by line.  Joke by joke. 

But Earlo, if the major problem was at the end of the script, why not tackle it first, when you’re fresh and focused and full of beans, and then start back at Page One, cleaning up the “little stuff” along the way. 

Really?  You think that’s a better approach?


I know that’s a better approach!  What am I, crazy?

Then why didn’t you do it that way?

Because I had to begin at Page One!!!

I am certain there were show runners who worked on the hardest stuff first.  Aside from the fact that my congenital linearity made me temperamentally incapable of not starting on Page One, there were logical reasons for the way I did things.  But all of them were weak.  Still, as a nostalgic tip of the hat to my inflexibility and dumbness, I shall respectfully allot them the following paragraph:

Sometimes, to accommodate the revamped ending, certain structural underpinnings earlier in the script needed to be revisited, and I wanted to remember to attend to those adjustments.  Also, though the hardest work – which could take a number of hours to complete – was behind us, there was something, for me, psychologically discouraging about going back to Page One at a depressingly later hour. 

Most importantly, however, I was an idiot.  And we shall leave it at that.

(Additional Parenthetical Excuse:  The people who taught me always started on Page One.  But retrospectively?  So what?)

Anyway, there you have it, your helpful tip for today.  There are two ways of handling a rewrite – my way, and the right way. 


If I only hadn’t been me.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"the Most Chilling Words A Sitcom Writer Can Hear"

Next to, “We’re cancelling your show”?

“Page-One Rewrite.”

What does a “Page-One Rewrite” mean?  Exactly like it sounds.  After the “Table Reading” on the first day of “Production Week”, it is determined that that week’s script is in such terrible shape that, in the course of “Production Week” but primarily on that first day, the script needs to be entirely rewritten.  From “Page One” to the end. 


You sit around a table and the cast reads the script.  Optimally by that time, the script has gone through a development process involving an outline followed by notes from the show runner, a First Draft followed again by show runner notes, a Second Draft, and finally, a “Mimeo Draft”, an often staff-generated polish before the script is prepared for a public reading by the actors. 

You would think that by then the major script problems would be behind you.  And normally, they are.  But sometimes, it turns out they’re not.  Which leads inevitably to the dreaded…

“Page-One Rewrite.”

Oy, again. 

And another one.


You know what a “Page-One Rewrite” means in practical terms?  It means that on the day of the “Table Reading”, the show’s writing staff stunned by a reading where the jokes got few laughs and even the “Craft Services” (snack food) provider had questions about the story will not be going home on the same day they arrived at work. 

They arrived on an A.M.  They will work through that A.M., through the following P.M., and when they’re finally finished, it will almost certainly be A.M. again.  

And possibly dawn. 

On those glorious “Page-One Rewrite” occasions, it feels like there is virtually no interruption between the end of one workday and the beginning of the next one.  You go home, and before you know it, you’re back. 

Once, while working on The Cosby Show, being dropped off at my apartment after a sixteen-hour rewrite, I turned to a companion writer and said,

“I’ll see you in ten minutes.”

I brushed my teeth at bedtime, and the next thing I knew, I was brushing my teeth again.  

This is exactly the type of ordeal that once led me to complain, “There must an easier way to earn three hundred thousand dollars a year.”  I have written about it in a post correctly entitled, “The Stupidest Thing I Ever Said.”  But it felt painfully accurate at the time.

How does it happen that a script, believed to be ready, turns out to need a “Page-One Rewrite”?  How is it possible that professional writers with the talent, the touch and the track record can get things so horribly messed up?

I don’t know. 

And when there’s an Everest of work ahead of you, there is no inclination to speculate.  The problem can usually be traced back to an inherent flaw in the storyline.  Sometimes, the episode’s premise is inconsistent with what we know about the character; they behave – for comedic purposes – in a way they have never behaved before. 

Sometimes, the premise strains common sense credulity, depicting a situation – for comedic purposes – that would never believably occur in everyday life.  (In both cases, the mistake is the show trying too hard to be funny.)

Sometimes, you’re nearing an extended holiday break or the end of the season, you are beat up, tired, you “see the barn”, so to speak, and your artistic judgment is not close to its sharpest. 

And sometimes, you believe the original script okay, and you were just simply, flat out wrong.

None of this matters.  Whatever the reason for the disaster, you still have to do the work.  The Everest of the “Page-One Rewrite” must be scaled, primarily (I JUST HEAVED A HEAVY RETROACTIVE SIGH)…in one day.

When faced with a “Page-One Rewrite”, some people went to the bathroom – because there’d be little opportunity to do so later – they came back, they rolled up their sleeves, and they got down to business.  No finger pointing.  No excuses. 

Some writers I knew actually reveled in the challenge.  It was a mine cave-in, and they were the “Rescue Team” facing disaster with the clock ticking.  It’s a high adrenaline situation.  Some people enjoy that.

There are other people for whom the debacle of the table reading triggered soul-searching questions about their abilities.  And one question in particular. 

It wasn’t “How did we (or I, if you’re the decision-making show runner) ever get this so wrong?”  Though it is a close relative, something I often thought about because I’m me and I can’t help it. 

We have all this work to do.  And it’s “us” that’s doing it.  Who is that “us”?  The “us” whose talent and touch and track record determined that this train wreck of a script was perfectly fine. 

Now…do you see where I’m headed here?

How are the same people whose misjudgments put them so precariously in the toilet, supposed to now miraculously – switching metaphors in mid-stream – pull the fat out of the fire?

What kind of reasoning is this?  “The doctor’s incompetence left the patient’s life hanging by a thread.  Let’s call them back in to save them.”

Why are they counting on us to fix things?  If we knew how to do it right, would you not think we’d have done so in the first place?

You can see, I imagine, how a show runner burdened by such reservations, doubts and concerns could take a long day – and night – working on a “Page-One Rewrite”…

And make it substantially longer.


It’s too late!

I know.
Tomorrow:  “Page-One Rewrite” – You Do What You Can.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"More About 'Writer's Block'"

“Writer’s Block”:  You have something you want to write but, for some reason, you are unable to get to it.

Yesterday, I chronicled my original experience with “Writer’s Block” (I will dispense with the superstition-driven strategy of uttering the words in a whisper and boldly accept the consequences, hoping they are not overwhelmingly severe.)  In that situation, I was contracted to write something, but felt paralytically incapable of breaking the ice, a classic example of “Writer’s Block.”

Over the length and breadth of my career, “Writer’s Block” was rarely a serious impediment, the problem lessening over time, and disappearing when I collaborated with others.  

(This is one reason why writers often choose to work in pairs; it is mathematically less likely for two people to be creatively incapacitated at the same time, a partner’s mere presence encouraging the other team member to jump in, because if they don’t, they will inevitably find themselves back working alone.  You do not split the money for nothing.) 

I did, however, experience “Writer’s Block” early in my career. 

Back in the seventies, when I wrote episodes for the Mary Tyler Moore Company (eight scripts per season for three years), fearing, as they say in baseball, a “quick hook” from my lifetime dream leading to an ignominious banishment to Canada’s wintery “Unknown”, I felt an immobilizing incapacitation before beginning every script.

I was generally allotted two weeks to write a First Draft.  After repetitively discovering I was unable to get started, I developed a routine – the routine itself helping greatly in overcoming, or at least mitigating, my debilitation.

The first week was assigned the descriptive “Panic Week.”  For five days, I would walk around my apartment moaning, “I can’t do this.” – “It’s too hard.” – “I’m not good enough.” – “They’re going to fire me.” – “I’m going to have to go home.” 

Over time, I determined that this self-lacerating procedure was inevitable.  Though this did not stop me from hearing myself and panicking even more.  

The second week began, and I would sit down at the typewriter and write the script. 

That was the routine.  That’s what I put myself through every time I started a new script.  It was suggested at one point that the “Panic Week” was not entirely about panic.  Having already written and been given notes on an outline, I had a relatively clear idea of where the script was expected to go.  As a result, though it appeared like no writing was taking place, inside I was already at it, rehearsing the possibilities before setting in on the actual work, making “Panic Week” less a question of “Writer’s Block” than, at least partially, “Writer’s Preproduction.”

In those early days, the reality of deadlines also helped get me in front of the typewriter.  Deadlines are like the “It” person in “Hide-And-Go-Seek” saying,  “Ready or not, here I come!”  With a deadline, it is, “Ready or not, out it goes!”

A deadline does not require a script to be perfect.  At a minimum, it requires a stack of pages starting with “Fade In” and ending with “The End.”

As asserted earlier, a writing routine, for me, is essential.  But that’s primarily because, on the “Rigid-Flexible” continuum, I am temperamentally situated substantially closer to “Rigid.”  But that’s just me.  I have to insistently sit there until it comes.

Despite this, some might call discipline and others something less flattering, I am aware of the indisputable benefits of interrupting that routine.  On innumerable occasions, after searching interminably for the “right word”, I have gotten up and gone to the bathroom, only to be struck by the precise word I’d been looking for, standing there, staring down at the toilet bowl.  It’s like that “right word” was just living there, floating around in the water. 

I was first made aware of how a strategic break in the action can be invaluable during High School when a classmate named Willy Grinstein reported that, the night before, at a time when his mind had become clouded and unproductive due to intense studying for exams, “I got up and I took a showah!”  Willy G. enthusiastically testified that he then returned to his studies, noticeably refreshed and invigoratingly replenished.  I myself have never followed in Mr. Grinstein’s watery footsteps, but I imagine it’s a pretty good idea.

I shall now expand the conversation.  Recently, in an interview with Albert Brooks, Mr. Brooks was quoted as saying, relative to his screenplay writing options, “I have tons on ideas.”  Let me publicly acknowledge that at no time in my career have I ever had “tons of ideas.”  The greatest number of ideas I have ever had at one time was four.  (I once pitched four series ideas to CBS at the same time.  They enthusiastically bought two of them.) 

In a way, this too is a form of “Writer’s Block” – a constriction of the number of ideas to the low single digits.  This is admittedly not, “I can’t write anything”, but it is a less than impressive number of available ideas.

Some days on this blog-writing adventure – though thankfully not many – I have no ideas whatsoever and must scrounge around for one that’s, at least minimally, worthy of your time.  This momentary “Writer’s Block” triggers identifiable rumblings of anxiety, which, on the “up” side, remind me that I’m still alive – “I worry; therefore I am.” 

I have come to analogize these creative ups-and-downs with a batter’s “long-run” performance – one day, you go “oh-for-four”; the next day, you hit everything that comes at you.  “Hot streaks” and “slumps” – it simply comes with the territory.  Hopefully, your overall batting average remains respectable.  Even so, however, every time I’m stuck, albeit temporarily, it feels exactly like “Writer’s Block.”

Proceeding even further – and finally – setting aside this arena in which “Writer’s Block” is, for me, substantially absent, consider for a moment a “Writer’s Block” characterized not by sitting frozen in front of your writing apparatus of choice, but, more expandedly, by the book you never wrote, the play you never started, or the screenplay idea you have given up trying to imagine.

You say this stretches the traditional parameters of “Writer’s Block.”  

But does it? 

“You have something you want to write but, for some reason, you are unable to get to it.”

Refusing to even try?  It may not be the classic “staring at the blank page”, but is it not, he proclaimed with wavering certainty, what might be categorized as “‘Writer’s Block’ by Omission”?

If this is, in fact, includable under a broader definition of the dysfunction, then I must humbly revise my earlier assertion.

With the exception of my blogging activities,

I have “Writer’s Block” all the time. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Have You Ever Had 'Writer's Block'?"

Would it be funny to answer that question by leaving the rest of the post blank?  Or would it be substantially cheesy and thoroughly unhelpful?  I’m going with “The Second One.”  While remaining cheesy enough to still mention it as a possibility.

I wrote recently about routine being a significant element in the writer’s process.  Another “it comes with the territory” component, I’m afraid, is superstition.  You write about “Writer’s Block”, and it is not beyond some writers’ concern – not mentioning any names – that merely bringing the issue into one’s consciousness gives rise to the possibility of contracting it. 

Today, I will look that superstition straight in the eye and courageously take that chance.  For a reader named


Commenting on a recent post entitled “A Glimpse Behind The Curtain”, JED posed a number of questions about the dreaded “W.B” – not the TV network broadcasting series I have never seen, but the immobilizing syndrome that leaves the writer staring at a page or computer screen and feeling utterly incapable of putting anything on it.

I will respond from experience, rather than by giving advice, which I feel uncomfortable passing along, in case someone follows it, it doesn’t out work, and they sue me.  Everybody’s different.  What works for me, may be useless for you.  And who am I anyway?  Dr. Phil?  If that guy’s so smart, what happened to his hair?

I will now reveal my first, and perhaps most debilitating experience of (IN A WHISPER) “Writer’s Block.”  As with every activity, writing inevitably gets easier when you keep doing it.  Not that my (IN A WHISPER) “Writer’s Block” never came back.  It did, no occasion.  But the first time is the scariest.  Because, you know, it being the first time, it never happened before.  And you have no idea how to handle it.

One of my earliest TV jobs, I was on the writing staff of a comedy special in Canada called The Hart And Lorne Terrific Hour, Hart being my older brother, and Lorne being Lorne Michaels.  The assignment was to go home and write “blackouts” for the show – short comedic bursts, ending with a punch line, and then…


Example:  A joke I had written a couple of years earlier.  A young woman looks straight at the camera and says,

“I told my boyfriend if he didn’t want to get married, we could just live together.  He said he would rather get married and not live together.”


So there I am, sprawled out on my bed, a pen and a yellow legal pad lying in front of me…

And I cannot think of anything to write!!!   

And that’s exactly how it felt – italic hysteria, with three exclamation points.  Maybe more.

I had no idea how to do it.  How do you make something up?  Like, there’s nothing on the page, and then something comes to your mind, and you write it down, and it makes you laugh – How exactly is that supposed to happen?

I felt desperate, a non reader who’s handed a book and told, “Read.”  I’d love to but…how? 

There I was, catatonically frozen, hovered over that blank yellow pad with the blue lines and the double-lined red margin.  I was hired to do something – people were counting on me – and I felt viscerally incapable of pulling it off! 

I mean, who did I think I was?  Professional comedy writers wrote blackouts; funny humans did that for a living.  At that moment, I felt congenitally unfunny.   There was undeniably “funny” in me, but, wracked with terror and impending doom, I felt physically incapable of accessing my abilities.  Woe, woe, woe, and maybe one more woe even was – I thought I could do this but it turns it turns out I couldn’t –


I call Lorne and announce my surrender.  I am quitting the show.  I can not not possibly deliver what’s required.

Lorne Michaels – whose last name at the time was Lipowitz, but it was the same guy – calmly and patiently talked me down, like I’m a guy on a ledge and he’s a trained professional specializing in “Jumpers.” 

Looking back, it is easy to imagine how Lorne successfully reassured the NBC executives that, if they gave him the Saturday night timeslot previously occupied by Tonight Show reruns, he would provide them with precisely the show that would appeal to the emerging “TV Generation” of viewers. 

Lorne’s soothing voice and confident demeanor earned him the trust of the clueless and anxious “suits”, even though, at the time, he had no idea what exactly he was talking about.  Some people can do that.  Not entirely fairly, though not entirely inaccurately either, I once said about Lorne, “He made a lot of waves, so people thought he had a boat.” 

Lorne applied the same approach with me – blowing smoke and hoping for the best.  He assured me that he had confidence in me; I was a good writer; if I weren’t, he would never have hired me for the show.  Also, there was no rush in handing in the material, so I should not worry about time pressure. 

Most importantly I believe looking back, Lorne reminded me that there were a number of writers on the staff, including himself and my brother; it was not just me, carrying the load.  He encouraged me to stay with it, and do the best I could.  I told him I would try.

I hung up, feeling perhaps not as relieved as if he’d let me off the hook, but free of the guilt and shame that would have accompanied that alternative.  It felt good that somebody believed in me.  And to know that the burden would be shared; it was not entirely on me.  (And how hubristic of me to have ever believed it was!)

Within minutes, my breathing slowed, the sweats abated, my mind cleared…

And I started to write.

The next day, there were a dozen blackouts on Lorne’s desk, scrawled on two pages of yellow legal pad paper. 

The material was unsigned.  (In case he hated it.)

Later that day, Lorne comes up excited, informing me that somebody’d left these great blackouts in his office.  He quoted a couple to me.  They sounded pretty good.  Lorne wondered who had written this eminently usable material.  I shyly admitted it was me.  Though I’m pretty sure he already knew.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, there is somebody around – somebody credible, not, like, your mother – who will help relieve some of the pressure.  If nobody fits the fill, then you pretty much have to do it yourself.

I have a little more to say about my “Writer’s Block” experiences, including what might be considered an expanded version of the definition.  But I think that’s enough for today. 

It’s not that I’m blocked.  I’m just working on “portion control.”