Friday, June 16, 2017

"The Sitcom-Writtng Counterpart To Yesterday's Post About Baseball"

With apologies to people who prefer baseball to sitcoms.  And retroactive apologies to people who prefer sitcoms to baseball.  It seems impossible to please everyone at the same time, though Lord knows I try.  Wait.  What about people who dislike both of them?  Oh my.  What an impossible undertaking this is.

Yesterday I discussed baseball executives – their eyes focused exclusively on “sabermetrically” derived efficiency standards, and, giving no thought to the consequences, unintended and otherwise – changing the way baseball had been played since its venerable inception. 

Everyone knowing exactly what their role is; everyone playing their predictable part in the process – gone.  This was definitely different, though the jury remains out about “better.”  All I know is – and I don’t even know this, I am merely speculating – nobody ever went into baseball dreaming, “I want to be the best dang left fielder, right fielder, shortstop, second and first baseman the game of baseball has ever seen!”  Yet that’s the job – one example among many – that Dodgers Kike (pronounced, thankfully, “Keekay”) Rodriguez has been designated to perform.

Forget iconic John Fogerty’s

“Look at me, gotta be, centerfield.”

Baseball teams are no longer a collection of well-practiced specialists.  They are not even a team.  They are instead a 40-man roster of interchangeable components – a radical reworking of the inherent nature of the enterprise.

As is the following.

But before “the following”, some illuminating background.

Before my time – during the fifties and much of the sixties – half-hour comedy scripts were written primarily by freelance, or what were called, “outside writers.”  Why so?  Because the network “season order” was then thirty-nine episodes.  Miniscule writing staffs (of maybe two writers) could not possibly crank out that much material.  As a result, accomplished outside writers were brought in and, after story meetings to develop the ideas – frequently suggested by the outside writers themselves – the writer went home and they fashioned the script.  A week or so later, they handed it in, and the staff took over from there, polishing the episode before imminent production.

That’s how it worked back then.  A writer – or an established team of two writers – would write the script, the staff then making minor adjustments to get it in shape.  Frequently, because the original effort was capably executed, or because there was minimal time to do otherwise, the script was broadcast almost exactly as it was delivered.  What we saw is what they wrote.  As they say in the Bible,

“And it was good.”

… for the outside writer seeing their work broadcast almost exactly, “As written.”

Then, sometime in the late 60’s, or so – to protect myself from inaccuracy – series episode orders shrunk from 39 to 26, and then, to 22.  With 13 or 17, respectively, less episodes to produce, “outside writers” found a reduced “opportunity terrain”, partly because there were 13 or 17, respectively, less episodes to produce, but also because the show’s staff – with specialized outside assistance – could now handle the depleted workload themselves.

“Specialized outside assistance” included myself.  (And, to a greater degree, a wonderful writer named David Lloyd.) 

There was always a potential liability with “outside writers.”  They might miss the specific tone and patois of the series, and have Gilligan quote Kierkegaard.  Maybe, being “outside writers”, they did not know any better.  Or maybe, because they were writers, they felt compelled to inject “something different” into the proceedings, a “something different” the show’s staff writers were then required to take out, and replace with something appropriate, like having Gilligan quote Popeye.
To mitigate their still onerous burden of 20+ episodes, writers like me – who, being around the show, were more familiar with what worked – were contracted to write “multiples” of scripts, in the belief – hopefully realized – that the finished product would arrive “closer”, leaving the show’s writing staff substantially less to rewrite.  As a “multiples” writer, I wrote nine Taxis and numerous Phyllises.  Whatever I did, the prodigious and talented David Lloyd did double.

David and I were like hybrids (who were unwilling to work on staff) – outside writers with reliable job security.

It was evident, however, that “consolidation” was inexorably on the march.  By the time I stopped working, scripts were almost entirely written “in-house”, by progressively larger writing staffs, a platoon of writers, on the job full-time, who knew the show even better than “multiples” writers.  And besides, who needs outside “multiples” writers with a lavishly paid, platoon-sized writing staff?

And then, thankfully after my time, the inevitable occurred.

In the name of still heightened efficiency, the scripts became “room written”, meaning writers gathered around a table and wrote the entire script together, the writing credits assigned randomly in a round-robin arrangement.  Can anyone say, “Pride of Authorship”?  No, actually.  They can’t. 

One can, however, see the “efficiency” advantage.  Back in the fifties, a producer had to wait more than a week before being able to say, “That’s terrible!”  With everyone all in the same room together, producers can now go “That’s terrible!” immediately, greatly reducing the interval between “That’s terrible” and the on-the-spot replacing, “That’s funnier.”

Yeah, but…

A “room written” script does not “Speak with one voice”; it speaks with a dozen.  Imagine a cow with twelve individualized brands on it, triggering not just the parochial grumbling of “Whose cow is it, anyway?” but also “It sounds, ‘Written by a committee’.” 

Hey, yeah, because it is.

I know things change.  I know things have to change.  But the fun of bringing your specialized attributes to a ball club?  The joy of making a uniquely distinct contribution to the writing?  People feel good doing that.  And they come up with magic.



But in the service of what?

And at the loss of what else?

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