Monday, May 6, 2019

"Friday Questions, Continued On Monday, (Because I Took Too Long, Answering One Question On Friday"

When we last met, while responding to a query submitted by JED, I found myself egregiously – and inexcusably – running off at the pen.

Having left JED’s subsequent queries unanswered, I am returning to them today.  It’s amazing.  Ken Levine provides half a dozen helpful and funny “Friday Question” replies in one post.  I answered one question.  And even then I had to edit it down to “Too long” from “You know we have other things to do with our time.”


Promising to be brief.  Yeah, right.

Responding to my two-part “12 Angry Cave Men”, JED’s “Question Two”, concerning dialogue writing, the “Dialogue Only!” posts, by the way, being my most enjoyable posts to write, although I cannot always think of an idea that will fit that particular format, and, though I enjoy writing those posts, they invariably take the longest to complete.  And only partly because the characters seem unable to stop talking. They‘re just real hard to get right.

JED asks if, along with the dialogue writing in sitcom scripts, there is any description of character and place.  He also asks about “Narrators” in shows.

In half-hour comedy scripts, the “place and character” description is kept to a minimum, unlike movies where lines of dialogue are as rare as hen’s teeth.  (What the matter?  Don’t hens brush?)  TV is all “Talk, talk, talk” because, compared to lavish locations, “Talk, talk, talk” is “Cheap, cheap, cheap.” 

In half-hours, the ubiquitous dialogue itself reveals “character.”  As for “place” – the pertinent sets they’ve constructed? – that’s the “place.”  Leaving not much left to talk about in the stage directions.  Plus, you deliver a hefty script full of detailed description and the producers are already not laughing.

Citing an exception, I once got a big laugh from a stage direction.  (I was told.  Being merely a scriptwriter, I was exempt from other production responsibilities, including my two favorite exemptions – staying real late, and talking to actors.)

It was The Tony Randall Show, in which Judge Franklin, played by Randall, barricades himself in his apartment, fearing retaliatory revenge from a newly released convict he had originally sent up.  My descriptive direction went,

“Take a look at this door if you want to see a lot of locks.”

Although stage directions are essentially guidelines for the production staff, an extra laugh at a table reading is unlikely to damage the mood. 

As for narrators, I, who almost exclusively wrote episodes filmed before a live studio audience, never wrote a script that included a narrator.  “Voice-over” narration, associated with single-camera comedies (shot without an audience) and dramas, generally serves as a “summary” device (plotline reminders and episode-ending “Lessons learned”), or to save money.

During a recent viewing of a Tales of Wells Fargo rerun, I heard lead character Jim Hardie “voice-over”,

“The sheriff told me that the posse formed to track down the stage robbers had unfortunately lost their trail.”

This saved the show the necessity of shooting two scenes:  The one where the posse loses the stage robbers’ trail, and the one where the sheriff tells Jim Hardie “We blew it” in person.  Aside from saving money, summarizing “voice-overs” also keep shows from running too long.

“Voice-over” narration provides half-hour comedies shot on a soundstage no paralleling time or money-saving advantages.  Unless parodying “Detective” movies, the only time half-hour comedies shot live employ “voice-overs” is when they are airing the second episode of a two-parter, and show’s “voice-overly” lead actor intones,

“Previously on Taxi…”

Or with, “Cheers will be back after these messages.”

For a better answer about “voice-overs” in comedies, you would have to consult  writers on The Wonder Years, or possibly, though I am not certain, Modern Family.

JED’S last question – actually a comment – relates to my passing remark in “What Makes A Show Special” (4/14/2019) that, after finishing watching “Episode 9” of Shtisel, I returned the next day to watch “Episode 10”, only to find the program cued up at “Episode 12.”

JED proposed several viable reasons why that might be the case.  This reflects the difference between two kinds of people, JED, a legitimate “Problem Solver”, and me, who, hungry for bemusement, prefers clueless mystification over settling clarification.  And it’s even more fun when it rhymes.

I smiled when I discovered the “jump-ahead” problem, immediately wondering if my TV was watching Shtisel without me.  Not actual wondering.  Comedy wondering.
By contrast, when my car, as it has twice in the past three weeks, dies in the middle of the street, the impotent gas pedal going, “We don’t do that anymore” when I tried to go forward, when it came back to life again, I quickly drove to the dealership repair shop for diagnosis and repair.  In that case, I needed an ameliorating answer, because the vehicle behind me has no idea when my twenty-seven year-old car will decide to finally throw in the towel.

Would I like to know why Shtisel leapfrogged two episodes without me?


After writing about the “startling surprise.”

Let me be clear.  I do no personal subscriber to “Ignorance is bliss.”  But when the stakes are low and “Ignorance is comedy”?  I am definitely onboard.

Okay.  So much for “Friday Questions” and the follow-up Monday post, which is actually longer than Friday’s.

Do you think if I had more practice answering questions, I’d write shorter answers?


But then what would I do?

1 comment:

JED said...

Well, it was good enough that you answered my questions but to even get a response to my comment was more than I ever expected. In one small way, I feel like I imagine you felt when you heard back that they laughed at your stage direction for The Tony Randall Show.

Thank you, Earl. This was very interesting. Blog post by blog post, I'm learning a lot about writing in general and writing for TV in particular.