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Who Hates Whom / Bob Harris

Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up A Woefully Incomplete Guide by Bob Harris

"The geopolitical equivalent of scorecards that get hawked at ball games. Only Bob could make a user’s guide to our increasingly hostile world this absorbing, this breezy, and—ultimately—this hopeful."
~ Ken Jennings, author of Brainiac


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Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe, edited by Jane Espenson

Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and including Jane Espenson's short story, "Georgiana"

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, edited by Jane Espenson and Glenn Yeffeth

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Wednesday, January 31st
He Got in Trouble for Telling Menotti Jokes. Really? How Naughty Were They?

Let's go to the mailbag, shall we? Such an interesting question just arrived from Eric in San Mateo. He wants to know the difference between a "high-brow" and a "low-brow" joke. Ooh, interesting!

Well, at least as I've heard it used, this is a distinction that pretty much has to do with the set of cultural knowledge you need to have to get the joke. "High-brow" jokes presuppose a familiarity with high culture. "Low-brow" jokes assume you know your pro-wresters.

Frasier was the happy pasture of high-brow jokes. Remember how they used to use those title cards between scenes? In one episode one of the cards read "A Mall and the Night Visitors." In order to get the joke, viewers had to have heard of the Menotti opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors." That's pretty high-brow.

A short-lived comedy that I loved as a child was called "Friends and Lovers," about a concert bass player played by Paul Sand. He entered one scene while descending from the stage brushing at his sleeves. He explained that the last movement had been so passionately performed that he was "covered in conductor hair." The fact that you need some familiarity with the head-shaking habits of orchestral conductors -- well, that makes it high-brow. The same joke could be altered to be about a heavy-metal band (front row fan exclaims excitedly that he's covered in lead guitarist hair) and now it's low-brow. See the difference? Johann Sebastian Bach = high-brow. Sebastian Bach = low-brow.

I'm sure you're seeing by now that this distinction doesn't line up neatly with good jokes or bad jokes. It also doesn't line up with smart jokes and dumb jokes. You can make smart jokes that require knowledge of low culture and dumb jokes that rely on knowing high culture.

And sometimes it gets really complicated. When Niles Crane pretends to be interested in a book called "The Legends of NASCAR," and pronounces it Nazkhar, as if it were an Arabian citadel, is that high-brow or low? It requires that the audience know what NASCAR really is, and that they laugh at Niles for not knowing it... which seems low-brow. On the other hand, his apparent assumption that it's some little-known exotic location -- well, it's a kind of high-brow assumption. A puzzler!

If you've got characters making any joke that reflects a cultural background that you're not very familiar with -- high, low or whatever, make an effort to get it right. If your character is supposed to know about opera, don't make every one of their jokes refer to fat German women just because you've only heard of Wagner. Similarly, if your character is supposed to know about cock-fighting, don't just make up a bunch of likely-sounding terminology. Do some research. Also, the jokes will get better. Specificity is one of the main ingredients in humor, so the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to be able to be funny about it, whether your own brow is naturally low, high or uni.

(In other mailbag news -- I'm very sorry Jackie in Australia, but I'm not allowed to read the writing you sent to me. Thank you though, for *wanting* to send it to me!)

Lunch: hot udon soup with mentaiko (spicy cod roe)

UPDATE: Menotti died the day after I posted this. How weird is that?

Jane on 01.31.07 @ 11:13 PM PST [link]

Monday, January 29th
Pipe Dreams

Remember when I told you that TV writers refer to exposition as "pipe"? Well, we do. Knowing that will help you understand this wonderful inside joke that I saw on an episode of Sci Fi Channel's Eureka. (The first line is from memory, so it's not exact.)

We're in some kind of labyrinth under Eureka. This must be part of the original network of conduits that takes care of the town's water and electricity and gas and sewage.

That's a lot of pipe.

Hee! I love that. It's one of the first true inside jokes I've ever heard. No, wait. It's one of the first true inside jokes I've ever *understood*. Yeah, that's right.

As long as we're here, it's worth spending a moment to think about why exposition is called "pipe." It's actually a really apt analogy... exposition is there to supply information that you're going to need later in the script. The trick with pipe is that savvy viewers/readers tend to be able to spot it, and then they can guess where the story is going.

"Why are they telling me all this stuff about how you need a retinal scan to get through that particular door?", you think to yourself. "Hmm... that's going to come around later." "Why are they making a big point about how he never knew his father? Ohh... I bet that older dude's going to turn out to be his father." This is all probably stuff you don't want your readers figuring out. So you have to hide the pipe.

An excellent way to do this is to make it look decorative. Pipe in a script is only obvious when it serves no obvious function. Make the exposition seem to *have* a function and it will go unnoticed. Make it into a joke, for example. Have someone mishear the word "retinal scan" and start to take their pants off... Ha! (psst... rectal, they thought it was a rectal scan) Now it seems like the bit was there to set up the joke, and no one realizes they've been piped. Or, for example, make who gets to deliver the exposition a matter of conflict between two characters. Now it seems like *that* was the function of the line, to further the conflict. Just give it some other reason for being there.

Paint the pipe bright red and tell people it's art.

Lunch: Koo Koo Roo -- chicken with yams and cucumber salad. Quite nice. The surface of a Koo Koo Roo chicken is so good, order enough so you don't have to eat the insides. Mmm... surface.

Jane on 01.29.07 @ 10:16 PM PST [link]

Saturday, January 27th
Some Culpa for Mea

Okay, I just had an interesting realization. I don't know why this is only now occurring to me, but it's huge, and I have to apologize. This whole thing about writing original pieces instead of specs for existing shows? This whole thing that turned our world upside down? Forget it. Forg. Et. It.

Know why? Because I'm an idiot, that's why. Because I forgot that the ABC/Disney Writing Fellowship Program still only accepts specs for shows currently in production. And that's one of the only open doors in town. It's the BEST open door in town. It's the door I want you, gentle readers, to storm en masse.

The advice about writing spec pilots, short plays and short film scripts is for those of you who either already have an agent, or those of you who are submitting material to prospective agents. Most of you, however, are not doing that yet. Most of you are trying to get that first foothold. And the name of that foothold is still, "Wanna read my Grey's Anatomy?"

To you, gentle readers, I apologize. And to ABC, may I just say that you might want to consider changing your submission policy. If the pieces you're asking to see no longer reflect the material that young writers will need in order to get work... well, then.

Lunch: scrambled eggs with hot sauce and tortillas

Jane on 01.27.07 @ 10:53 AM PST [link]

Thursday, January 25th
Jane's Famous Kugel Recipe

You know what gag I've seen far, far too often? Kicking or slamming the piece of finely-calibrated high-tech equipment to get it to work. I've seen it so often now that I'm surprised when it *doesn't* happen. I want to put it into a script just so I can show the device shattering while everyone yells, "Why did you do that?! You *knew* it was delicate! That cost a thrillion dollars and now we have no way to prevent the killer avalanche!"

HOWEVER, there is a really great reason that this gag occurs so often. It's kind of perfect because it's totally designed to undercut a serious moment with lots of technical mumbo-jumbo in it by bringing in a real, human, recognizable instinct to just slam the thing. And then, when, against all reason, it *works*, it's not just gratifying because the danger is averted, it's also a symbolic victory for the human factor. It wasn't the machine that solved the problem, it was the solid, practical human who smacked it. Yay, human!

In other words, it's going to take all your strength to resist this. But I urge you to try. I just can't take it any more.

Lunch: leftover pad thai. When it's been in the fridge overnight, it sort of compresses and turns itself into kugel -- a lovely crossing of ethno-religious boundaries that makes me happy.

Jane on 01.25.07 @ 05:48 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, January 24th
No, Tiger!

Remember the Brady Bunch episode with the house of cards? No? Oh right. You're young, aren't you? Well, do you remember playing Jenga? Same thing, pretty much. When a structure is delicately balanced, making any addition, any subtraction, or any change at all, can bring the whole thing down.

I'm working with a script this evening in which I needed to remove a small plot element. A character can no longer raise a certain topic in a certain scene. But it had always been the raising of that topic that led to a certain disclosure by another character that is still crucial to the scene. House of cards! Jenga!

It's so tempting, as the writer faced with this situation, to point out the impending collapse of your structure and make it an argument for not making the change. But... just maybe... there's another way to get that second character to make that disclosure. In this case, there was. As soon as I calmed down and seriously considered other approaches to the scene, I discovered another way to prompt the disclosure that was, in fact, far *more* natural than the original configuration.

It's important to notice that this is really about a mental adjustment. There is a moment in which you decide to embrace the change instead of examining it for pitfalls. Sometimes you still end up falling in the pit. Other times, you find serendipitous new options.

Lunch: "Enchiladas Verduras" at Mexicali on Ventura followed by a "doughnut muffin" from Big Sugar Bakeshop. Fantastic. Just like a doughnut but shaped like a muffin.

Jane on 01.24.07 @ 07:47 PM PST [link]

Monday, January 22nd
Everyone Has an Office

That recent post about the importance of having original specs, as opposed to specs for existing shows, cited one important exception. The Office. It is, right now, the ubiquitous comedy spec, so I want to talk about the special problems that accompany writing the same show as everyone else.

First, I want to mention that this all takes me back to when I was starting out. I attended a UCLA extension course on television writing during my first year in LA. The guy running the course asked us how many of us had Seinfeld specs. Every single hand went up -- at least a hundred Seinfeld specs were represented in that room that night. I myself had *two* Seinfeld specs and should have raised both my hands. As The Office is now, it was simply the spec that every single comedy writer had. You know what I would love to see? A collection of the old Seinfeld specs of every high-level comedy writer working today. Because they all had them.

Anyway, keep the ubiquity in mind as you write your spec Office. Remember that it has to stand out from its siblings. And yet, it can't be so outrageous, so unexpected, that it suggests that you've misread the source material. Big stories in spec scripts worry me, particularly for a show like this one that is about capturing small moments of personality. If a bus crashes into the building, I'm not seeing small moments anymore; they've been trumped by the Big Event. And I've lost the heart of the show. So make the emotions big -- break someone's heart, expose someone to ridicule, reignite joyous hope -- but keep the events in the neighborhood of realism. Having to contain your sadness or your joy because you're in the workplace doing something mundane... that's powerful, it's very "The Office," and it doesn't work if the workplace has been occupied by terrorists. (Remember that this doesn't mean the actual show can't tell these big stories -- they get special leeway because they own the cameras.)

Not that you would do that. I'm just sayin' that it can tend to be an impulse, when you know you're writing a popular spec, to juice it up. Fine. Juice up the emotional content, not the event content. At least, that's what I would do.

And, as long as we're in the area, it occurs to me that some of you were undoubtedly in the middle of writing specs for existing drama shows when I put up that post about writing original pieces. Don't stop what you were doing, please! Carry on. There is no reason to think that a spec for an existing show won't be useful. There are certainly show runners who want to see exactly that. It's simply that, right now, it probably shouldn't be the only arrow in your quiver.

Lunch: leftover rice from the Persian place, with beans on top

Jane on 01.22.07 @ 12:40 PM PST [link]

Sunday, January 21st
"Working Under Poodleskirts"

When you're pitching a pilot to a network, you don't have to have already picked out a title (although I always have). You do have to tell them about the tone of the show. How funny is it? Does it have a sense of heightened reality? Is it gritty, with hand-held camera work? What other show does it *feel* like?

You don't get to do that with a spec. A reader will instantly know if your spec is an hour or a half-hour, of course, but they won't know about tone. And, unlike the executive in the pitch session, they don't have anyone there to clue them in except the script itself.

That's one of the reasons the title of a spec pilot is way more important than the title of a pilot you're actually paid to write. With a spec pilot, there's important prep-work that the title can do. If you write a spec called "Streetwise" you're cluing your reader into something tonally different than with one called "Working Under Harriet," which is also tonally different than "Poodleskirt Diaries."

Lots of shows that are actually on the air don't do this, of course. You can tell *nothing* about House from the fact that it's called House. You can't tell anything about tone or even genre from that title. But they have promos, publicity, Entertainment Weekly. You don't, so think long and hard about that title. Make sure it's doing more for you on that title page than just filling the space above your name.

Lunch: Lamb and rice and that rose-flavored ice cream from Shamshiri, a Persian restaurant

Jane on 01.21.07 @ 11:45 PM PST [link]

Saturday, January 20th
It Finally Sinks In

As I do periodically, I recently checked in with an agent to find out which established shows were currently being recommended as specs. I expected to hear that Grey's Anatomy and House were still strong in hours, and that The Office was still the current hot half-hour. I also thought I might hear that Heroes and 20 Rock specs *might* be starting to slip onto the scene.

Other than that thing about The Office, though, which *is* still apparently *the* half-hour to have, my predictions were wrong. For the first time since I've been asking the question, I was told that the agent wasn't recommending *any* established shows at all! Spec pilots, as well as original plays and short film scripts were *all* that she recommended for young writers putting together their collection of samples.

Wow. That's kind of earth-shaking -- causing me to scatter emphasis-asterisks like snowflakes. Or maybe it's just taken me this long to listen to what agents have been edging toward over the last several years. I seriously expected to hear that, with the current healthy array of quality dramas, specs for established shows were rebounding. But apparently not.

Personally, I think this is a shame. So much stuff goes into writing a good original pilot that isn't really relevant to whether or not a writer will be good on a staff. And, conversely, original material tells a reader nothing about a writer's ability to capture an established voice. AND, spec features and plays don't even tell the reader about the writer's fluency with the limitations of television writing. So I sigh. But I pass the information along to you, gentle readers. And I will continue, as I have been, trying to post hints that will help you in the writing of these original pieces.

Lunch: corned beef hash, poached eggs, home fries

Jane on 01.20.07 @ 05:37 PM PST [link]

Thursday, January 18th
Friends, Romans, Countrymen...

They did something very interesting on the season premiere of "Rome" on HBO the other night. Are you aware of this show? It's wonderful. Bloody and funny and full of stuff you remember from Western Civ, only with real, fragile people in it and an occasional "as it is, so it ever was" wink to our own times. And, in this latest episode, there was also an interesting awareness that another writer had already tackled this subject matter. It is a unique and interesting problem. Spoilers ahead.

Okay, last season ended with Julius all bloody and dead on the senate floor. So at this point, you might be expecting some political maneuvering and speechifying from Brutus and Marc Antony. But imagine you're the writer of this. You've got a substantial problem on your hands. Someone has already written those speeches. Someone really good has written those speeches. Do you really want to sit down and start figuring out something *catchier* than "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him..."? Man.

So here's the solution they came up with... We get the maneuvering, and, sure enough, the speeches are on the horizon... but we don't see them. Instead, we get this great working class guy in a bar in the aftermath, *telling about the speeches*. We hear about Brutus' labored effort that went over everyone's head, and then about how Marc Antony slayed 'em all with his beautiful pathos. We hear it from a character who was personally emotionally affected by the speeches.

This probably isn't the choice the writers would've made in a World Without Will. It was distanced from the event, obviously. But it was still emotional, it was elegant, and it neatly side-stepped the problem. I approve. And I love the fact that the show pretty much assumes their audience is familiar with Shakespeare. Amazing. After all, there are shows that don't even assume we're familiar with the contents of the previous scene.

Now this problem, as I said, is unique, or it must at least be nearly so. How many shows have to deal with already having been written? But there is something very similar that can happen on all shows, and it can happen in your spec, too. Events can become predictable even if Shakespeare hasn't gotten to them yet.

I'm sure you've noticed this as a viewer. Do you ever fast-forward through a scene, even on a show you enjoy, because it's already clear exactly what's going to happen?

Look for these scenes in your spec. Are there any that feel inevitable? Did you write them quickly but without excitement? Do you find yourself skipping them when you reread? If the end of a scene *dictates* the entire contents of the next scene, ask yourself if there's some way to lose that next scene.

Cut it. Cut it. Cut it. After all, it ain't Shakespeare.

Lunch: leftover chopped Italian salad from Maria's. Not bad even the next day.

Jane on 01.18.07 @ 10:08 AM PST [link]

Tuesday, January 16th
Sometimes You Don't Want to Dissolve

"Style" is a word that makes me nervous when it's applied to clothing or home decorating. It just sounds so, risky, you know? If you attempt stylishness and fall short, then you're just standing there in your seersucker culottes, looking silly and wondering what went wrong. But if you know what you're doing, "style" is what sets you apart. It conveys confidence.

I noticed a stylish little scriptwriting move the other night on The Simpsons. A group of new army recruits is being addressed by their sergeant. We're ANGLED ON the sergeant, giving his lecture. Talk, talk, funny, funny... and then he tells them all that due to lack of time, while he's been talking, their hair has been cut and they've been put into their uniforms. ANOTHER ANGLE REVEALS that this is true. Now, of course, this is amusing because of the absurdity of it. But it is also incredibly elegant. Instead of using a DISSOLVE to indicate passage of time, the story has been advanced efficiently and in a way that underscores one of the main story points, that the pressure of an on-going war is speeding up the recruitment process. Also, I would argue, doing it this way emphasizes the recruits' own sudden sense of powerlessness.

But that's an animated show. They can do that stuff. What about something with real people in it? Well, a recent episode of 30 Rock did something similar. Tina Fey holds a co-worker's baby. She twirls around with this baby in her arms, and then, suddenly, the camera angle reveals we've changed location. She realizes, at the same time the viewers do, that she is in her apartment. She has taken someone else's baby home. Again, there was humor in the absurdity, and again, the story was elegantly and efficiently advanced, because the audience was put in the same position as Tina... startled with the realization of what must've just happened.

And it doesn't even have to be played for comedy. The most shocking, wonderful moment on Battlestar was when the show "jumped ahead" one year. They could've handled this in a lot of different ways. They did it by pushing in on the tangled, burdened, top-of-the-head of Gaius Baltar, slumped on a desk, and then pulling out again to reveal that everything had changed. It was a stunning moment, made all the more stunning because it happened under our noses like a magic trick. Again, it was being used to purposefully disorient the viewers for a reason. In this case, the viewers got a sense of how unstoppable the events of the missing year were, how they had followed with a kind of inevitability from everything that led up to them. Ooh, it was nice.

So look at your script. Look at how you've got time passing, scenes following scenes. You know how to just slap events down in order now. So start looking for ways to be stylish about it. The things I've described don't just look cool on the screen, they work on the page as well. They make you look really skilled. They're style.

Lunch: sushi at Echigo. Skip the crab roll at the end, pay to have them bring you more whitefish instead. I did, and I have no regrets.

Jane on 01.16.07 @ 05:58 PM PST [link]

Sunday, January 14th
Giving 'em Wrinkles (Cont'd)

This is continuing a thought from the last post. We were talking about character traits that give a character realism and depth by being plausible yet unexpected. This can be more than an observation about making the people you write more interesting. It can also be a mechanism for creating a story. After all, what's the best way to illustrate a character trait? Through an action. And action is story.

So... think of something that a character in the show you're specing would not normally do. Something that seems to be out of character. Now, this is slightly different than what I was talking about last time. Those were traits a character had at all times, but which we might not have expected. Now I'm talking about buried traits which are revealed through actions that a character *can* take, but which they wouldn't do without being forced to dig down to their soul. Find something they have to be pressed to do. Can your good guy, if pressed, kill? Can your bad guy, if pressed, sacrifice? Find those traits that are buried. Now figure out what would have to happen to make them surface. Press them. The sequence of events you come up with might just make a great spec.

Note that, for example, the House arc that just concluded could easily have come about in this way: How do we make House apologize, the writers might have asked, and then have come up with the arc to make it happen. Or, to pick other shows: What would make Spike seek out a soul for himself? What would make Dwight Shrute quit Dunder Mifflin? What would make Mary Richards laugh at a funeral? What would make President Roslyn fix an election? What would make Lyla (of Friday Night Lights) cheat on Jason?

Play around with this for a while. Make Adama betray the fleet. Make Coach Taylor (Friday Night Lights) hit a teenaged player. Make Vanessa Williams comfort Ugly Betty. Make House believe a patient when no one else does. Make good people do bad things, make bad people do good things, make someone do an unexpected thing... and then figure out the path that gets them there. Chances are, it'll be an interesting story.

Lunch: stuffed jalapenos at Jack in the Box

Jane on 01.14.07 @ 02:31 PM PST [link]

Saturday, January 13th
Giving 'em Wrinkles

You know one of the things I totally adore about The Office? Michael Scott is a really good salesman. He is an appalling boss, yes, but several times this year we have seen him sell paper really, really well. Every time it happens, I fall in love with the show all over again.

Michael is the embodiment of the Peter Principle. His competence as a salesman clearly got him promoted into exactly the job he cannot do. If he wasn't a good salesman, we'd be wondering how he got his job at all. But the fact that Michael's salesmanship makes logical sense isn't the reason I love it. The fact that Michael is good at something makes him much realer, and *that* is what I love. Once I realized he could be competent, I wasn't only more sympathetic toward him, but I also *believed* in him more. He was more like a real person, with lovely layers and contradictions and complexity. Wrinkles.

On The Office, these Michael moments have been lovely but small. However, moments in which unexpected - but plausible - traits are revealed in established characters are often among the most memorable moments in the history of a show. Sometimes, in fact, these moments are enormous, and get accomplished in "special episodes," like Archie and Mike ("Meathead") talking while locked in the basement on All In The Family, an episode that revealed a sympathetic, more humane Archie. This would be too heavy, too non-standard, for a spec. But often these moments are just right... they occur in ordinary episodes... the very best ordinary episodes. These are episodes that would have made the most wonderful spec scripts.

For example, the best-loved episode of Mary Tyler Moore is probably the one in which sweet, proper Mary laughs at a funeral. One of my all-time favorite M*A*S*H episodes is the one in which close-fisted Charles secretly makes a generous Christmas donation to the war orphans. The best episode of Lou Grant, in my opinion, is the one in which self-obsessed Rossi supports and listens to a colleague who is recovering from a rape -- amazing television. And there was that stunner of a development on Battlestar last season, in which President Roslyn, our closest thing to a moral compass on that amazing show, tried to fix an election. It left me gasping.

Make a spec that does this, that reveals a shocking but believable new aspect to an established character... and you've really got something. Reveal the best part of your bad guy, the worst impulse of your hero, the serious side of your comic relief, the silliest moment of your stuffed-shirt or the paper-sellin' soul of the incompetant boss. Go on, wrinkle 'em up.

Lunch: scrambled eggs with fried tortilla chips and hot sauce in 'em.

Jane on 01.13.07 @ 04:10 PM PST [link]

Friday, January 12th
Scripting Spontaneity

When I used to work on multi-camera half-hour shows, there was always a live audience. The audience was "warmed up" (or "alienated") by a stand-up comic who entertained them and prepared them to do their part in the production. "Laugh when you HEAR the joke..." this person would always tell them, "...not when you GET the joke." Oy.

I was reminded of that sentiment recently when I was watching television and saw a scene that bugged me. It was a scene of a group of people assembled around a television set, watching a news report on an event they all cared about. It appeared to have been scripted something like this:

...judge found the defendant not guilty, and in so doing concluded the trial that began nearly three long weeks ago.

The crowd watching ERUPTS into cheers and applause.

Really? They waited all the way until the end of that sentence? Really?! Hmm. People tend to react the moment they hear that one crucial piece of information. I think at the very least the line of stage direction here should have been changed to something like...

But we don't hear much after "not guilty," because the watching crowd has ERUPTED into cheers and applause.

The same principle applies to one-on-one conversations too.

You could write:

I'm leaving you, and there's nothing you can say to change my mind.

God, no. Wait. Marie-- There has to be something...

But isn't it more interesting and realer like this?

I'm leaving you--

God, no.

(forging ahead, talking over him)

Please, wait...

There's nothing you can say to change my mind...

And this was without my even using dual dialogue, which can be great for this kind of thing, despite the awkwardness of dealing with it in Final Draft. (And my total inability to render at all in this blog.)

My point is to keep in mind that you can let characters react instantly to new news. Don't feel that script format requires you to let everyone finish their thoughts. Cut 'em off or let people talk over each other. Your scripts will almost instantly gain a feeling of realism and you will be loved and praised.

Lunch: shabu shabu, beef and veggies dipped in boiling water and then swabbed through sauces... mmm.

Jane on 01.12.07 @ 05:33 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, January 10th
A Rule To Not Obey

Let's talk about split-infinitives. The "rule" is that you're not supposed to put stuff between the "to" part and the verb part of an infinitive verb. So "...boldly to go..." is fine, and "...to boldly go..." is wrong. "It's great just to see you" is fine. "It's great to just see you," is wrong. Seem arbitrary and strange? Good, because it is.

I've been told that this rule has absolutely nothing to do with anything about the way English evolved or is structured, but was imposed on the language by scholars who felt English at its purest should work like Latin, in which the infinitive is a single word and cannot be split anyway. This, one should note, is a very silly reason to mess around with imposing rules on speakers of English.

But, now, here, finally, is the definitive reason to ignore the split-infinitive "rule." Here's a joke from a recent episode of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

Jon Stewart
(re: execution)
Wait-- you were there?

John Oliver
Well, I didn't spend Christmas in Baghdad to NOT go to a hanging.

Now, this isn't a joke because of the split infinitive, exactly. It's a joke because it presupposes the desirability of going to a hanging. But it is substantially less funny if the infinitive is left unmolested. (If you care why, it's because this word order makes not-going-to-a-hanging into more of a cohesive little unit, treats it as a THING TO DO. And that's what allows Oliver to dismiss it as a laughable thing to do, given any alternative.)

This is, of course, not the only example of this. You might have a jovial uncle who talks about how he likes to "go up to the lake to not fish." Haw.

The point of all this? Tweak your jokes. Look for little rule-defying tricks like this. Be willing to grab the grammar and twist it a little bit to see if some sweet comedy drips out.

Lunch: The "Veggie Max" sandwich from Subway. I think that's the name of it. It's got things that look like veggie burger patties in it.

Jane on 01.10.07 @ 05:00 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, January 9th
Jokes to Make You Cry

Quiz. What movie is this joke from?

- I trust this will have a soporific effect?

- I don't know about that, but it sure does make you sleepy.

I'm sure you recognize the joke *form* right away. This is a "Gilligan." Jokes of this form occurred regularly on Gilligan's Island. It is a particularly cheap and silly sort of joke. This specific example, however, is actually from "Wit," the play/movie about a woman dying of cancer. It occurs at a very sad moment in the story.

What I love about this example, and one of the things that I think makes it work in the script, is that the joke is *so* cheap, so simple, such a devalued joke form. When the characters laugh at the joke we realize how desperately they need to laugh. And that they're partly laughing at themselves, at their need to laugh. It's giddy; it's desperate; it's self-aware; it's human. Powerful stuff.

It's another good example of something I mentioned before, about making moments stronger through incongruity... look for that attitude or setting or event... some choice that that cuts against the expected, and exploit that gap in expectation. Break your readers' hearts through silliness... it's a surprisingly strong way to go about it.

Lunch: cheddar cheese and tortillas.

Jane on 01.09.07 @ 02:53 PM PST [link]

Monday, January 8th
Making Mistakes on Purpose

Let's imagine that you're reading a friend's spec script, and there's something in it that feels like a mistake. Let's say it's this weird scene transition. You thought that a scene was leading into another one in the same location at a later time, and then you realize that you've actually changed locations. It's confusing.

So you give the note, saying that you found it confusing, jarring, and the writer says, "Good, because that's what I was going for!" Well, yes, making something jarring on purpose is a thing you can do for a certain effect. A writer might very well want to employ it. But if it's bothering the test audience enough that they're mentioning it, that'll mean it'll bother the ultimate audience too, and then the writer won't be there to explain that they like it like that.

If you're the writer, and you're getting a note like this, don't feel like you've solved it just because you were able to convince you're friends that you wanted that reaction. You really need to address it. Addressing it doesn't always have to mean giving up on that special thing you were going for, either. Sometimes it's just a matter of letting the readers know that what you're doing really is a choice, not a mistake. If you really, really, want that transition, then you can actually say:

Caroline looks up from behind the wheel of her car at the cloudless New England sky, and then, suddenly, jarringly, we're seeing RAINDROPS bouncing off the hood of a car -- no, wait, it's a pick-up truck, and that's not Caroline behind the wheel. We realize that we've somehow been dropped into:


A WEATHERED-LOOKING COWBOY-TYPE wrestles his truck through the storm. Someone in the truck bed peeks out from under a mud-splashed canvas cover...

There. You told the reader that you want the change of location and conditions to be purposefully sudden and unexpected, and even, for a beat, confusing. You've managed that whisper in the ear of the reader, "I know, I know. I want it that way."

Lunch: left-over Chinese food from P.D. House (I think it used to be called Panda House, but they lost the rights to the name somehow and painted out all of Panda except the P and the D. That's what the sign looks like, anyway.)

Jane on 01.08.07 @ 01:37 PM PST [link]

Sunday, January 7th
That's "jack-assity," not Jack Cassidy

I was on a plane again today. There was a delightful boor on board. A boor, I tell you! He was braying into his cell phone right up 'til they practically had to swat it out of his hand -- swearing loudly about travel delays, boasting unappealingly about his Vegas winnings, bullying his friends into picking him up at the airport. And here's the best part... no one would. He couldn't get any of his friends to come pick him up. Hee! It was so satisfying.

And it made me think, a bit, about "likeability." People will tell you that you have to make your main character "likeable." But it's not really true. You have to make them "understandable." "Likeable" is just a poorly-chosen word that people use to mean that.

Do you really LIKE Gregory House? Or Starbuck? Or Michael Scott of The Office? Would you want them in your home? You're actually more likely to love them, I think, than like them. Loving allows for jack-assity more than liking does. Those characters are all damaged people who can be cruel, thoughtless, self-centered... these aren't likeable traits. But we forgive them because we understand them. We either have some notion of *why* they act they way they do, in the case of House and Starbuck, or we can see that they're *trying* to exhibit more care and humanity than they manage, in the case of Michael, and, I think again, Starbuck. In other words, we understand them.

There's some French saying, I believe, that translates as, "Everything understood is everything forgiven." Which is probably not true in real life, but is a pretty great rule in fiction. Let's imagine that the airplane boor was a character in a television show. Now imagine that we get to see the scene in which he ends up crying in the cab on the way home, confessing to the back of the head of the anonymous driver that he wasn't in Vegas to gamble at all, but to get married, but the bride never showed and now he's trying desperately to seem uninjured despite his broken heart. There. Suddenly he's "likeable" without my having to make a single change to the scene on the airplane.

So when you get a note from someone reading your spec about a character's "likeability," don't assume that means you have to soften them, take the edges off them, rewrite their airplane scene. And don't even assume you have to spell out everything about why they are the way they are. Just give us a hint that there *is* an explanation, and people will jump on it. We *want* to like characters, and we only need the slightest encouragement to forgive them, to try to understand them.

So go write some bastards, won't you?

Lunch: "Cravings" buffet at The Mirage in Las Vegas. One bite each of: bao, sushi, sausage, banana-leaf wrapped rice, crab legs, ceviche, seaweed salad, noodles, hot and sour soup, shrimp cocktail, beef stir-fry, key lime pie, egg custard, bread pudding and chocolate pie. I loved it!

Jane on 01.07.07 @ 07:52 PM PST [link]

Thursday, January 4th
Yes, and...

Recently I've been asked questions - in a few different letters and emails - that I think all boil down to the same thing. "How can I think funny?"

We've all met people who are effortlessly, automatically funny. Fearless in front of strangers, they tell stories, they do voices, they jump to their feet and do 'bits'. When one of their jokes lands, they instantly follow it up, expanding it into a routine. When one of their jokes flops, they become a whirlwind of self-deprecation that's even funnier than if the whole thing had succeeded. I love these people (even though they're exhausting).

Comedy writers' rooms are packed with these men and women (more men than women still, but that'll change). I once heard that Martin Short literally could not leave the writers' room (this must've been at SCTV or SNL) until he got a laugh, so that he could leave on the laugh. Geez.

I think a lot of this comic ability has to do with childhood environment. Crowded houses where attention is doled out to the funniest child, those are the comedian factories of our world.

But what about the rest of us? I myself am an only child from a quiet stable household where attention was not punchline-dependent. I did watch a lot of television comedy, and developed the ability to be funny "on the page" from observing what worked for me as an audience member. So I had that.

Being funny on the page can be enough, thank goodness, but being able to "pitch" your jokes well in the room is also part of the comedy writer's job, and I wasn't very good at it. I was most comfortable working out a joke on paper for a while, massaging the wording... not blurting it out as it was forming in my head.

Now, I've never gotten *really* good at blurting - I'm still fairly quiet in the room - but I will tell you what helped a lot. I took an acting class where we did improv. It was terrifying, but it did help. I had no time to overwork the joke, I *had to* just go with it. I already had a little bit of confidence that I could be funny given a trained actor to say the lines. I gained confidence in my ability to be funny with my own voicebox. It also is really good for teaching you to look at the world with an eye for comic potential -- for "seeing things funny." I can't praise the experience enough.

Start with other beginners, learn the rules, and give it a go. Maybe it's never too late to have a survival-of-the-funniest childhood!

Lunch: quesadilla, a coke, and something wonderful called a "buckeye" from Big Sugar Bakeshop... like a high-class Reeses peanut butter cup.

Jane on 01.04.07 @ 12:45 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, January 3rd
"Who Invited Joe Pesci?!"

I caught a bit of the premiere of "Knights of Prosperity" tonight. And I saw an earlier cut of the whole thing months ago in the writers' room at Andy Barker, too. Writing staffs will do that sometimes, checking out pilots together, rooting for quality. I liked Knights a lot. I had also read it when it was pilot script called "Let's Rob Mick Jagger". Before that, it was a pilot script called "Let's Rob Jeff Goldblum". And at some time in there, it was just called "Let's Rob..." Discuss which is the best premise. Now discuss which is the best title. (Hint: It's not 'Knights of Prosperity')

Anyway, I think this show might be a good model for those of you writing spec comedy pilots. It's single-camera, which feels less moribund than multi-camera, and it has a big flashy daring premise that's instantly memorable. I have no idea if the show itself is going to be consistently good, but the pilot is perfectly designed to draw attention to itself, which is what you are going to need. Take a look, if you get a chance.

By the way, employing built-in casting -- as this script did -- allows you to demonstrate you can write to a recognizable voice. I hesitate to recommend this in general, for fear of causing an avalanche of spec pilots all using the same gimmick: "My Aunt is Meryl Streep!" "I Reanimated the Three Stooges!" "Let's Ask Rip Torn!" But I gotta say, it's a pretty great idea.

Lunch: falafel and various highly-flavored salads

Jane on 01.03.07 @ 09:40 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, January 2nd
A Little Bit More About the Great Divide

Ooh. I love it when I learn something from you, gentle readers! A very interesting letter has arrived from Betsy in Los Angeles. She's asking about that weird dividing line between TV comedy writers and drama writers. Her father was a TV writer, and she supplies us with this info:

"When my father was working (60s-80s), there was no strong distinction between being a comedy writer or a dramatic writer. Many of his friends would write a Mary Tyler Moore episode one week, then a Streets of San Francisco, and so forth. Nowadays it seems a writer has to classify themselves as strictly one or the other... or do they?"

First reaction: Oooh. That sounds amazing. How much would I love writing a MTM and then a Streets of SF? Much.

I had no idea there was such mobility then. When I entered the business in the early 90s, the line was pretty strict. You really were one or the other, comedy or drama, although I'm sure there were ambidextrous exceptions. I was specifically warned against making the switch because it would require "starting over."

When I was a kid, I once heard an opera singer being interviewed about his "realization" that he was, in fact, not a baritone, but actually a bass. He had to learn everything over again. I was, and am, a bit puzzled by that. What do you have to learn to, um, sing lower? I guess there's technical singy stuff I just don't know. Anyway, TV writing was like that -- changing over was treated as if you were starting a new career.

But now, I'm happy to tell you, Betsy, that things seem to be going back to being like they were during your dad's career, with more and more comedy writers finding their way onto the staffs of dramas, and with shows like Ugly Betty further blurring the distinction anyway.

Betsy herself has a preference for comedy, but is wondering about whether to try her hand at a drama spec, maybe something in a procedural, which would, of course, be at quite the other end of the continuum.

Yes. Do it. Comedy is coughing up blood right now anyway, so you probably would need to explore drama even if it didn't interest you to some degree. And I personally think demonstrating versatility is worth something in its own right.

My only warning is that you have to be careful of trying so hard to be *different than comedy* that you end up with something purposefully dry and characterless. A Law and Order spec, for example, can have that feel, and might fail to convey your strengths. I would recommend something like Heroes or House or a spec pilot of your own devising, that will allow you to show off some drama skills while still getting a script that benefits from your ability to write comedy.

Good luck, Betsy! Sounds like you're off to a good start!

Lunch: A "Fat Burger" from "Fat Burger."

Jane on 01.02.07 @ 02:35 PM PST [link]


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Walt Disney Writing Fellowship Program
UC Berkeley
Jane recommends you also visit BobHarris.com



January 2007

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