Friday, September 1, 2017

"Take Two On Why Are Successful Television Writers Rarely Successful Movie Writers (Which I Meant To Write Yesterday But I Never Got To It)"

It’s not that we’re not smart enough.  Movies use the same alphabet as television shows.  And if you don’t know a word because you never used it in television, you are probably just showing off and should not use that word anyway.

It’s not that we’re sitcom-length “sprinters” rather than screenplay-length “Marathon Runners.”  Nobody writes a movie in one day.  Or a sitcom, for that matter – at least I never had to; I’d have leapt from a balcony.  In either format, you write the number of pages you are capable of writing, and then you have dinner and go to sleep – maybe watch some TV first – and the next day, you are back at it again, focusing specifically on that day’s effort, rather than “How long will it take till I’m finished?”

It’s not like we’re afraid.  I mean, you’re always afraid – “Maybe I am not the writer I think I am”, or, more importantly, “Maybe I am not the writer the guys who are paying me think I am.”  But, being professionals, once you get down to work, you get down to work.  Leaving “agonizing self-doubt” to nocturnal restlessness and/or regular psychotherapy sessions.

And it’s not like we don’t get the opportunity.  At some point in their careers, every television writer worth their salt – in Latin, salarium, from which is derived the word “salary” – is offered some form of movie work.  I myself was asked to write a screenplay about a boxing kangaroo.  And also Cannonball Run 7.  Or thereabouts.  Oblivious to their career-advancing implications, I walked away from both of those potential opportunities.  Sometimes, I am just excessively cautious.  (I also passed on the classier Romancing the Stone 2, telling Michael Douglas over the phone after reading the current draft of the screenplay, “I think it’s just fine the way it is.”)    

There is, as I have previously reported, an overarching explanation for why television writers are not famously successful at the writing movies.  And that failure is not substantially their fault.

Note:  Remember also – and always – that this is a pessimist writing.  Optimists, I am certain, believe otherwise about this issue.  The thing is – and I just chuckled thinking about it – optimistic television writers?  They’re not that great screenwriters either.  Although they are considerably better at shrugging off the consequent disappointment.

Remember the psychological concept I introduced to you yesterday?  It’s okay.  You can cheat and look back.  And if you are over sixty, don’t blame yourself – that is simply the way it is.

The psychological concept, in the form of a Jeopardy question:

“What is ‘Proactive Debilitation’, Alex?”


Meaning (in this case)…

The specific requirements for being a successful – I am talking exclusively about half-hour comedy – television writer – specific requirements you have internalized over the many years of writing TV sitcoms – will make it more difficult when you then try to write movies.  That’s the inescapable bugaboo right there.  Mastering one task makes it harder to master a subsequent task.

As I said yesterday, if you learn to play badminton… no.  Let’s jump right in, before this turns into a three-parter.

“Hindering Obstacles For TV Writers When They Attempt To Subsequently Write Screenplays”:


(And I am talking “The Old Days” and still network TV today, although not the serialized episodes on those streaming services I hear about but rarely watch because I forget how to get there):

In episodic TV, the storytelling trajectory is invariably circular.  At the end of each episode, after the hilarious hi jinx and frustrating complications, you are inevitably right back at the beginning.  Quoting an applicable line – albeit in an entirely different context – from Bruce Jay Friedman’s play steambath,

“The old lady with the parakeet, flies out the window, flies back in.” 

With the exception of the Major Dad pilot – where I had to fight like crazy for permission to veer from the traditional sitcom template – that’s the trajectory of virtually every half-hour comedy episode I ever wrote.  At its conclusion, everything is happily “back to normal.”  The bird flies out, the bird flies back in, and we’ll see you next week.

That’s what we learned to write – circular episodes.  In movies, you write a script where everything’s the same as it was at the beginning – that’s not a movie.  Movies are an unfolding escapade.  That’s what moviegoers expect.

“How was the movie?”

“I don’t know.  Stuff happened but in the end everything’s the same.”

“Sounds like a sitcom episode.”

“I know.  Except I paid to get in.”

So that’s one thing – you have no experience with cinematic-style storytelling.  Next:


In my day – and still on network “half-hours”, especially “half-hour” filmed in front of a live studio audience – what the character says, at best, simulates, naturalistic dialogue.  Its fundamental, “stealth” mandate, however, is to deliver jokes on a regular basis.  As a result, if you monitor the dialogue carefully, you can detect, where the build-up to the joke begins.  It then ends with, hopefully, a laugh, after which the “Dialogue Train” chugs back up the hill, headed for “Ha-ha Station.”

Modular “setup-payoff” structural hunks.  Repeating again.  And again.  And again. 

And again.

Movie dialogue doesn’t sound like that, because movie dialogue isn’t like that.  It’s just people talking, and if can do it – and sitcom writers have difficulty, because they are programmed to do something stylistically different – you can get laughs in that conversational format. 

Think:  An iambic pentameter poet tackling “Free verse.” 

“Are you ready?  Go!

“I cannot write the way you want me to
That’s not the kind of poetry I do.”

Moving on…


Movies can say and show anything.  Network television – who retain “Standards and Practices” divisions, still can’t.  The TV writer starting a screenplay goes, “Free at last!”, only to find television’s, now phantom, “short leash” still constricting their imaginatorial movements.

And speaking of Movement

A big ”physical action” in a television sitcom is,


Although you, in fact, see television with your eyes, half-hour comedy filmed before an audience remains, “radio with pictures.”  Overwhelmingly dialogue, with a little


thrown in.

Movement – the primary ingredient in movies.  And you never practiced it in television.

Think that might hurt your ability to write compelling screenplays?

Those are the main things that keep, no they don’t “keep”… restrict – “restrict” is too strong a word – inhibit half-hour comedy writers when they try to transition to movies.

It can be done.

But not by pessimists.

And not by too many optimists either.

Which makes pessimists feel better.

But, being pessimists of course,

 Not for that long.

No comments: