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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


Jane in Print
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

Jane in DVD

Jane in DVD

Now Available:
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+Dinosaurs Seasons 3 & 4
+Gilmore Girls Season 4
+Buffy: The Chosen Collection
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Jane in Progress


Thursday, June 29th
The Storm in Your Brain

Hey everyone, I'm heading off on my long weekend very early tomorrow morning, so there won't be a new entry until Wednesday. So enjoy the 4th, everyone. Don't get mutilated by illegal fireworks. Or legal ones, for that matter.

Do they still sell sparklers? I remember playing with those as a very small child. The metal stick would literally be white hot. I could've been maimed! Looking back, it seems like a very bad idea.

Sometimes there's an inexhaustible supply of bad ideas. Or none at all. Which is to say that sometimes the "One Hundred Bad Ideas" brainstorming tool just doesn't work. Or maybe it just feels weird to you. Trust your instincts on that -- if it's not for you, there are other ways to come up with that shiny new idea. Like a more traditional brainstorming session.

Here's what my brainstorming list tends to look like when I'm looking for a new idea. I really do sit down and write one of these pretty regularly. It comes out different each time. But it might look something like this:

Jane Austen / Darcy from Pride and Prejudice
Moonlighting -- Moonlighting with sci fi twist?
Time travel -- teens? A family? As someone's job?
Alien Nation -- integration
Con men / witness relocation (with aliens?)
Egypt / Hieroglyphs
The Egyptologist -- unreliable narrator
Starman / Splash -- seeing our own world through someone else's eyes
Alternate Universes
Alien POV
Fiction comes to life? (Darcy again.)
Blade Runner / Battlestar – characters unaware of own nature

I'm sure you can see what I'm doing. I'm thinking of things that inspire me. Usually, for me, it's books, movies or tv shows with themes or a tone or a kind of character that I like. Sometimes it's other things entirely. I list them as they occur to me, more or less randomly. And as I go, I'm thinking about what it is that speaks to me about each one -- what is it about the show or movie or book or issue or place or person that makes me like it?

The trick to making it work is realizing that it's not a list about other works of fiction. It's a list about *you*. About what gets an emotional response out of you. Maybe your list won't even have works of fiction on it -- it might all be about your life experiences and paintings and songs. The exercise is really a bit of self-analysis to help you figure out what you already want to write about, but might never have articulated.

This list is mine. Yours will look totally different. It'll have your trip to Spain and The Godfather and Batman comic books and zombies on it, or whatever else makes it yours. Just like with the "100 Bad" list, you should go for volume, not quality – don't shut yourself down.

Anyway, I find this kind of list so much more helpful than starting from a title or events, or looking at what is lacking in the currect TV schedule. And this way, whatever I come up with isn't just something I think I can write, but also something I know I will love writing.

Lunch: Vietnamese food. A noodle dish and spring rolls.

Jane on 06.29.06 @ 10:54 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, June 28th
Milking the Idea Cow

I'm planning a whirlwind last-minute trip for the 4th of July – just a long weekend, really, but fun. As a result, I got to go buy travel books the other night! Whee! Hey, you know what books I love? Those "100 Places to See…" books. Usually travel guides assume that you already know you want to go to Maui or Peru or Greece or whatever. But those books open it all up, and you end up considering places you've never thought of. That how I ended up in Tobago a while back… one of those books said it was the place to go, and it was.

Those books remind me of a great brainstorming technique that my friend Michelle told me about once. It's called "One Hundred Bad Ideas." It's just what it sounds like; you make a list of one hundred bad ideas for a sitcom or a drama or for a House spec or for a movie or a short story. The fact that you're calling them "bad ideas" frees you up to put down absolutely anything that crosses your mind. After all, they're *supposed* to be bad. But, truth be told, you don't really have one hundred bad ideas. Once you're thinking about your subject, and being free and accepting with all your ideas… some of them are going to be good. Possibly really good.

Do it pretty fast. A quarter hour, maybe, until you run dry. You probably won't complete the list. You'll run out of ideas, bad and good, before you reach one hundred. But the fact that you will try as hard as you can to finish it, also means that you're not settling for the first idea you came up with. This is incredibly valuable. The reason I started my writing career with *two* spec Seinfelds is that I had a better idea when I was halfway through writing the first script. I'd jumped on my first idea too soon.

I actually, right now, have a file on my computer called "100 bad ideas for a sci-fi drama." It has 52 entries – that's when I fizzled out. I actually love about fifteen of the ideas on the list, and will probably invest some time in all of those fifteen, playing around to see if they can be turned into something. Most of the ideas are, however, legitimately bad, as they should be. I was going to excerpt the list here, except that I have realized that one's bad ideas are a very personal thing. We all need to feel free to put down *very bad* ideas without fear that anyone else will ever see them.

Okay, if you insist, here's one of the more detailed entries: "A person is split into two people, a man and a woman. They need to solve a task together to re-integrate. They hate each other, but must stay together always or lose any chance of becoming one again."

A wee bit contrived, no? Other entries are much shorter, by the way. "The Monkey's Paw, the series," that kind of thing.

So go crazy! Especially if you've decided to tackle a spec pilot. Looking for a family sitcom idea? A single-camera half-hour idea? A cop drama with a twist? One of each? Start making lists. You'll be amazed what you've got kicked into the corners of your brain.

Lunch: tofu pups and fresh tomato.

Addendum: Friend-of-the-blog Jeff Greenstein adds this story from art school: "On the first day, my painting teacher told the class, 'You are about to paint 100 bad paintings. So just go ahead and get 'em out of the way so you can start painting the good ones.'" Nice!

He adds:

"I think of that often when I look at my early spec scripts."

Jane on 06.28.06 @ 05:02 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, June 27th
an unprovoked slam at Carrot Top

There's a very funny joke on the always interesting Bob Harris blog today. Put in script format, and adapted into, oh, say… a House spec, it would go like this:

Cutty looks up from reading the newspaper.

Why would Rush Limbaugh take Viagra to the Dominican Republic?

To keep his pants up?

Haw! I love it. And I simply *must* discuss this unusual joke form distinguished by a punchline lifted from another joke. Delightful. I was sure I'd occasionally seen other jokes of this type, but I couldn't recall specific examples.

And yet my mind was fizzing with that feeling of recognized similarity. I finally realized that I was being reminded of the amazing cartoons at Spamusement.com. Have you seen these? They're cartoons fitted to the subject lines of actual spam emails. Just like the Bob Harris joke, these rely on the humor of working around a pre-existing punch line. I love these cartoons. I'm helpless in their grasp.

But what is it that makes this type of humor so irresistible? Personally, I think it's because these jokes have a perceived high level of difficulty. It's like the difference between a prop comic who uses custom-made props, versus an improv guy who has to make funny out of whatever bizarre unexpected object he's handed. You laugh more at the improv guy because you're giving him credit for the harder job of being fast and adaptable. As a script writer, you create the illusion of spontaneity. And a joke like this makes you seem really quick and clever, no matter how long you labor over it to get it just right.

If I were teaching a class, I think I'd give an assignment: come up with a new set-up for "to get to the other side." I bet we'd have some great ones.

Afterthought. After I wrote this it occurred to me that if this were in an actual House script, House's line might very well be prefaced with "Wait. I know this one..." It feels slightly more like him that way, don't you think?

Lunch: eggplant stew over tofu noodles.

Jane on 06.27.06 @ 05:56 PM PST [link]

Monday, June 26th
It's Vistalicious!

I did a little checking with my agenting team (yeah, they sometimes form teams), to find out the hottest, latest, up-to-datest info on what specs they're seeing in the drama world. They agree with me that there is very little in the way of specable drama shows right now. House seems to be the most popular one-hour spec of the moment, they tell me. With some action also happening with Nip/Tuck and The Shield. Nip/Tuck? Still? Really? Huh. They're a little skeptical about Grey's, due to the serialized nature. It's hard to keep it current. (Frankly, I worry about that less than they do.)

So what do they recommend after you've written your House? They suggest writing a play, a screenplay or a spec pilot to demonstrate your skills. Certainly not a terrible idea.

(An aside: Following up the spec pilot idea, I had a kind of a neat thought yesterday. Part of the problem with a spec pilot is that the reader doesn't get to see how well you do at capturing someone else's characters and tone. So what about a spec pilot that takes off on a well-known movie? You know, as if you'd been hired to write the tv-series version of X-Men or Platoon or whatever? Personally, I think this could be a very interesting project.)

Anyway, this blog -- this humble blog -- is going to continue primarily to be about writing spec episodes of existing shows. I still believe this is considered the currency of the town by so many people -- and by the ABC Writing Fellowship -- that it can't be discounted.

But I'm also going to start throwing in a little advice on spec pilot writing as we go along. Not all the time, but here and there. I'm not qualified to speak to writing features or plays, but I've written a few pilot scripts now, and they present some unique challenges that are totally different than anything I've talked about. So hang on, because suddenly we get to talk about conceptualizing a whole show, creating major characters and setting a tone... And even naming the series! Fun!

New vistas!

Lunch: that cannellini bean salad I sometimes make. I'm starting to be a little bored by it. We need new vistas in all areas of life.

Jane on 06.26.06 @ 10:36 PM PST [link]

Sunday, June 25th
New Romantic Comedy: Yin Loves Yang

Remember when everyone was saying "my bad"? It had a brief popularity, totally blowing the equivalent form "mea culpa" right off the charts. Now I hear neither much. I suspect that self-blame is just out of fashion.

And yet I should note the fact that I let the closing date for the ABC writers' fellowship slip past us uncommented-upon. My culpa, seriously. Especially since I got a big packet of blog-letters delivered to me today, some of which are from people asking pressing questions about their fellowship submissions – how to compose the bio, and that sort of thing. Oops. The mail is collected for me and sent to me in batches, so there can be a substantial time-lag. Sorry about that. I hope you all feel happy and comfortable with what you ended up submitting. Besides, I have no inside knowledge of what the ABC people look for in a bio: diversity, I guess, so I hope everyone stressed the things that make you different, culturally and otherwise. Ever been in jail? Mention it. It's different and it'll go better than if they find out later.

I also hope everyone took the day off after dropping their scripts into the mail. Because the day after *that* should be devoted to starting the next spec script! Yay! A new show to pick, a new world to learn, new voices to master!

In fact, one of the letters asks a great question about selecting the show to spec next. Austen from New York has written a spec "The Shield". She has been told that she should have "two spec scripts that complement each other and one 'wild card' script." Good advice.

So now she wants to know how to pick a script to "complement" the Shield. It's tempting to think about a show that is "opposite" to the Shield and come up with... what? "Reba"? But the fact is that what you want is opposite, but not too opposite. She's going to want a drama.

She asks if it should it be network instead of cable? Or a show that draws more female audience members, like Grey's or Medium?

Yeah. Pretty much, Austen. There aren't a ton of specable options right now, and I think you've done a good job of pointing at two choices. Grey's Anatomy and Medium would both complement the Shield. "Veronica Mars" would provide even more contrast, but I'm being told that it's still considered a bit out of the mainstream. It could work as your "wild card" spec.

Speaking of which, that wild card could be anything from Veronica to a mainstream show like House to something SciFi like Battlestar to something bizarre like a novelty Bonanza or Columbo spec or a spec pilot or whatever.

Austen asks a further question. Given that she is a woman writer, should she be conscious of the fact that her spec is for a show as aggressive as The Shield – a show that is assumed to be very masculine? Strangely, no. For a town that is in some ways very hidebound and traditional and sexist, I have found no resistance to women writers on even the most violent and male-dominated shows. Although women are still under-represented, it looks to me like we're under-represented in a very even-handed way. This is just my Jane's-eye view. Stats could show me to be wrong. Mea Badda.

But I do know for sure that lots of women writers have spec "Shields" or "Sopranos." And lots of men wrote "Gilmore Girls" and "Buffy" specs. Which is good. Of course, that also means it doesn't really set you apart. You can't sell yourself as the girl-who-writes-tough-specs. Maybe a lot of us had the same idea.

So everyone out there, boy or girl, slip on a skirt and write some Grey's Anatomy. You're going to want something to contrast with your cop shows.

Lunch: cherry yogurt, granola and coke-with-grenadine.

Jane on 06.25.06 @ 04:04 PM PST [link]

Friday, June 23rd
Scene and Not Heard

You know how sometimes kids are running around in a store or a restaurant or the DMV, squealing and touching people and everyone is smiling at them and thinking they're so cute, but there's one lady sitting alone who stares at them, blank and unsmiling, until she suddenly breaks out a frown that sends them hurtling back to their parents, silent and ashen with fear?

I am that lady.

Now the thing is, you know me. You know I'm a sweetheart, always with a song in my heart, a dance on my hips and candy in my purse. But I can only be pushed so far. And, truly, is there any sound as chilling as the laughter of children? (I'm sure *yours* are delightful, by the way. Totally the exception. I hear good things.) You might assume that I don't have a lot of opportunity to have conversations with little ones. And yet, I can tell when children's dialogue has been written thoughtlessly.

Writing for kids is really hard. Especially if you aren't around them a lot. And it's really tempting to write kids to sound like other television kids. This leads to (at least) two common choices:

The "and stuff" choice. This style of kids writing looks like this:

And, and, and then? And then? I saw the monster and I ranned and ranned and then there was a lady and I fell down and stuff.

This child is an idiot! This style is marked by run-on sentences, grammatical errors and little tags like "and stuff" or "or sumpthin'." You've got to be really careful with these things. Your readers are going to know that this character is a child. You don't have to hit them over the head with exaggerated child-speak.

The opposite choice is the "little adult" choice. This style looks like this (taken from an actual script for a show that will go unnamed):

(to the dog)
Well, Brandon, we gotta trust somebody sometime.

Most usually the "little adult" style is used as a comedy device, in which case it's not the writer mistakenly thinking that's how kids talk, but the writer looking to get character-based humor out of the idea that *this* child talks this way. This style is obviously hugely popular and has been used in lots of successful shows. I'm not slamming these writers. I'm simply encouraging you to be aware that by now this is not the... freshest choice.

By the way, if the child also extorts money out of an adult, it's extra funny.

Man, I am cranky today.

If your spec HAS TO have a child character in it, I'd advise you to keep the part small and simple, and try to aim down the middle, on the intelligence and self-awareness scale. Make him or her sound as much like a real child as you can, but keep in mind that the character description is going to do a lot of that work for you.

Lunch: dim sum

Jane on 06.23.06 @ 02:29 PM PST [link]

Thursday, June 22nd
What's a Half a Joke? Ke

A new Harper's magazine came yesterday. Yay! In a few minutes, I'm going to settle into bed with the puzzle. I love their puzzles – they're cryptics, like the British-style crosswords. Do you know these? You have to do all these different sorts of manipulations to the clue to get to the answer. The first time someone showed me one of these puzzles, I was in college. And for the first quarter-hour of the explanation, I simply could not understand what I was being told. The answers to the definitions sounded arbitrary, not uniquely-defined, amateurish. And then it all clicked into place. Oh! The puzzles weren't unsophisticated. They were, in fact, far more sophisticated than any puzzle I had done to that date. I simply had misunderstood the entire explanation because I had expectations about what I was about to hear. Sometimes we get halfway through something, and think we know where it's going. But we don't. It's more sophisticated than we thought.

Keep that in mind as we look at the following joke I heard recently on a rerun episode of The Simpsons. Moe is talking with his old bartending professor:

Describe your tavern in one word.

Is crap-hole one word?

Yes. If it's hyphenated.

Then I'm sticking with crap-hole.

The first two lines are a joke. But it's an old and familiar joke, so they're not really funny. Then the next two lines make the first two lines funny again. Hee! I love that at the half-way point, you think you're done, but that it's a bit lame and unsophisticated. And then you suddenly realize the writer is way ahead of you.

It reminds me of a joke we did once on Dinosaurs that went something like this:

If you looked up "happy" in the dictionary, you'd find a bunch of words that describe exactly the way I'm feeling right now.

This joke works because, just like in The Simpsons' joke, the audience thinks they know what the joke is when they're heard the first half. Then the second half surprises them with its frankness and literalness. It's like a magician's version of a joke -- misdirection and slight of hand.

It's a pretty easy kind of joke to write, too. Give it a try. The next time a really obvious joke occurs to you as you're writing a scene, see if you can adapt it into one of these.

Lunch: papaya salad and a Thai iced tea.

Jane on 06.22.06 @ 11:49 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, June 21st
House Dry-Swallows a Valium

I'm a member of the Television Academy, so I get to vote for the Emmys, which is pretty cool. This year I was interested to learn that the process was going to be internet-driven for the first time. Yesterday was the due date for nominations, so the previous night as I logged onto the super-secret internet site, I was filled with feelings of entertainment-based power. But, I quickly realized, the internet only provided a location on which the academy had posted all the shows and episodes which were eligible for nomination. The actual ballot itself was still a fill-in-the-bubble paper dealy which had to be in the offices of the accounting company by 5PM yesterday! Yeeps!

So I spent my afternoon, yesterday – literally my whole afternoon – driving downtown, parking, walking to the correct building, turning in my ballot and driving home. Hours, this took, gentle readers. Traffic, confusion, lots of walking… The guard in the building had a sort of harried look as he escorted me to the correct elevator. I asked him if he was seeing a lot of people walking in with yellow envelopes today. "Don't *even* ask," he said wearily. Well, apparently I wasn't the only writer in town who misunderstood the rules.

Sometimes we misunderstand them. And sometimes we break them on purpose. You've probably been told not to "do the director's job" when you write a scene. You already know that you shouldn't specify a bunch of shots. And you've probably also been told not to tell the actors every time you want them rub their eyes or scratch their nose or take a sip of something. You should let them do their own scratching. And yet, there is a situation where specifying this kind of thing can be very useful. Especially in a spec script. Because, of course, you don't have to worry about ticking off the actors. You're writing for readers, not in order to be produced. No actors at all. So, you can feel free to *use* those little actions to control the pacing of your dialogue.

Here's what I mean:

Someday, I swear, I just have this feeling that something transformative and wonderful is going to happen to me.

Guy takes a sip of his coffee, thoughtful.

GUY (cont'd)
Or something transformative, anyway.

See that? I was able to give the reader something like the same effect you'd get with (beat) or (then), but with a little more style, a little more sense of the length and quality of the pause. A little more help with the visuals.

And even better, if you can capture a distinctive action that's associated with an established character, you help give your script that authentic feeling. A Buffy scene feels even more like Buffy with a little "Giles pauses to clean his glasses" in it. And everyone loves a bit of "Adama looks sharply up from his desk," or "Michael glances uncertainly toward the camera." I know I do.

Lunch: I bought a jar of a sort of lentil-based stew at a Persian market. Tried it over tofu noodles. Yummy!

Jane on 06.21.06 @ 10:29 PM PST [link]

Monday, June 19th
That's right. It steals tongues

They're tearing down a building near the one I live in and putting up a bigger, fancier one. I had some concern that my pretty view would be blocked, so I went to the public hearing at the … what was it … some kind of planning commission. I imagined that I was letting myself in for an evening that would manage to be both boring and contentious. It wasn't as bad as I feared, but, yeah, there were aspects of both boredom and contention as the issue of parking garage clearances was debated. There are some TV jobs that feel like that. You have to sit and listen to people arguing passionately about adjective choice on an episode of "Mom's in the Kitchen," or whatever.

Which brings us back to bad television. Yesterday, I talked about the benefits of bad television. But bad TV is more than just a crappy wonderland of writing examples. It's also potential employment. If you're writing spec scripts, you're doing so in hopes of being hired by a show. Sure, you might be hired by House or Battlestar or Veronica Mars. But you might not be. You might instead be hired by "Cat's Got Your Tongue," a new drama about a kleptomaniac demon passing as an ordinary housecat.

What do the writers on "Cat's" do, then, to try to get a better job the next time they're on the market? They write spec scripts. Even very experienced writers sometimes have to write fresh new specs. If you're on a high-profile show, you can use the actual episodes that you have had produced as your samples, but if your show is more obscure or not respected, you're going to have to write something better-known and classier. Some writers embrace this as a chance to prove to themselves that they can still write quality. And, in a way, isn't that part of the glory of the spec process? It gives us all a chance to see how'd we do if we were handed an assignment by our Dream Show.

So keep Tivoing the good shows, and keep collecting produced examples and keep polishing your spec-writing instincts. You'll probably be using them for a while.

Oh – and don't worry that as a not-yet-hired writer your specs will be competing against the specs of people already in the business… they're competing for higher-ranking jobs. You all are just competing against each other. And you KNOW you're better than each other.

Lunch: quesadilla and a coke.

Jane on 06.19.06 @ 05:16 PM PST [link]

Sunday, June 18th
Bobbing for Bad Apples

I have received a most interesting letter from Joe in San Jose. After telling a charming story about how he discovered the Buffy program, he asks why The Da Vinci Code sucks. Well, I seem to be the person who has neither read nor seen it, so I don't have an opinion. Sorry, Joe. Loved the charming story!

I'm not done with that letter yet, though. It has aligned with some email correspondence I had today, to combine into a thought. In the email, an aspiring writer friend was talking about how she has had a very good experience with television. She watches the shows her friends recommend to her, and then she discovers she loves them. She is left with a view of television as a landscape cluttered with humor, intelligence and quality.

That's when I had my thought. Here is my thought, and it is mine: It's important to watch not just the good, but the bad. I suggested that she watch a bad show at once.

I shouldn't be envied because I managed to avoid the evident pain of The Da Vinci Code, but censured for not wanting to go watch it to figure out something about screenwriting from seeing what failed. (And I suspect I should read the book too, to learn how to create a page-turny runaway best seller.)

If you want to learn how to sew a garment, it might be good to look at a poorly-made one, so you can see the exposed seams and figure out how it goes together, and also so you can see what mistakes to avoid. Watch a little bad TV. Watch for the mistakes, and observe the effects they have.

One common mistake is insufficient motivation. A character does a thing and you wonder why. There's usually some sort of lip service made to why they did it, and since everyone else on the show is buying it, it can just slip past you. I mean, they clearly did it, so there's no point asking if they *would*, right? They *did* it! See how you have to kind of force yourself to see these things? Anyway, once you start looking for it, you see it a lot. And you get better about making sure your own characters are doing things for reasons.

Look for weak act breaks, stereotyped guest characters, lame comebacks and familiar put-downs, stories that resolve too neatly, stories that peter out, logical jumps that don't make sense, inconsistent attitudes across scenes, stilted language and old jokes. Notice the effect they have on the show as a whole. Maybe noodle around with how to fix or avoid them.

Try reading some of the excellent recaps on Television Without Pity, too. They have a brutal way of cutting to the heart of a script-writing mistake that can be very helpful to those of you wanting to get into the habit of watching critically. And, on occasion, a bit painful to those of us already on the other side of the process. But, seriously, it's good stuff.

Mostly, when you watch, watch quality. But now and then, dip your toes into the other end of the pool. There are lessons swimming around in there.

Lunch: spaghetti with cheese sauce, a family recipe. Fantastic. Like fondue on your pasta.

Jane on 06.18.06 @ 09:21 PM PST [link]

Saturday, June 17th
Sometimes you don't need to use the f-word

It's fun to just look back at my recent blog posts and remember. Why, it seems like only two days ago I was writing about flashbacks...

In the time since I wrote about flashbacks, I have been lucky enough to have a produced My Name is Earl script fall into my hands. So I can quickly report on how they notate it, since it's a little different than how I described it. This is from an actual script:


A younger Randy stands on the field, waving to Earl in the stands.

They clearly find it sufficient to note the time frame of the scene without using the word "flashback." Those of you writing an Earl, take note.

By the way, this Earl episode, one called "Randy's Touchdown," written by J.B. Cook, is a terrific script. Remember how I talked about how even in an Earl, with its typical use of guest stars, a really good spec would find a way to make show about the main characters? This script is an excellent example of how to do this. Earl starts out with a guest star to appease, and then realizes Randy is the one he really wronged. Keeping it in the show's family makes it all so much more meaningful. There's real heart here, among the funny.

Does the fact that this script already exists mean that this general shape of story is "taken"? Nope. There could be lots of things that Earl needs to make right with Randy. Or Joy. And there could be lots of different kinds of ways into a story with our regular characters at the core of it. If you're writing an Earl, I recommend finding a way to do that exact thing.

Lunch: flatbreads and guacamole.

Jane on 06.17.06 @ 05:58 PM PST [link]

Friday, June 16th
Tee Party

Know what I love? Terminology! I love that there are words for things like finials and processes like foxing. When I was in Hawaii, in a region with lots of sharp volcanic gravel called "tephra," there was nothing I liked more than throwing that word around: "Oh, I slipped on the tephra," "Did you cut yourself on the tephra?," "The camera hasn't worked right since I dropped it on the tephra"…

Television writing is a garden of terminology. One lovely concept that we haven't talked about yet is "teeing up a joke." It just means "setting up a joke," actually. You can tee a joke up a lot or a little. Here is an example of a classically teed-up joke from an old episode of Boy Meets World that I found on line. (I looked because I had a memory of this being a show that did a lot of very clear and obvious teeing up.) The teacher has just asked the student if there's any topic he wants to talk about:

Yes, actually there is a pressing social matter, which I feel equipped to discuss with confidence and alacrity.

Well then, you have the floor, Mr. Matthews.

Nah, that used me up.

The words "equipped," "confidence" and especially "alacrity" were chosen specifically to set a certain mood that is then punctured by the punchline.

As you can probably tell, it's really hard to tee a joke up very far without the audience getting ahead of you (without "tipping the joke" -- more terminology!). That's why this is not a great joke. First off, as the viewer/reader, you're suspicious because Cory's "alacrity" line doesn't have a laugh in it. So you know his next line probably will. Already you're on the look-out. And, even if you have no idea what the character of Cory Matthews was like, you know something's up when you see "alacrity." It's tonally out of line with the entire rest of the show. The only question at that point is *how* the ball will be hit off the tee.

It can be done more subtly, of course. There was a joke in an episode of Ellen once that had a frakkin' enormous tee, but that managed not to tip the joke. Anne Heche guest-starred as Karen, who was Ellen's girlfriend Laurie's ex-girlfriend (think it though). We had already established that she was enjoying making Ellen jealous of the old relationship. This is, as best I can remember, how she described an event that happened when she was with Laurie:

One day, I came home, and I found that she had filled the house with candles. Hundreds of them. It was beautiful. And there was a note that said, "one day, all these flames will burn themselves out… except the one in my heart."
And then we did it.

This punchline is more likely to catch you off-guard since there's nothing out of character or otherwise unlikely about the tee-up. It fits Karen's agenda, in that it's designed to make Ellen jealous, so you aren't tipped off to the fact that a further drop is coming.

So tee 'em up, but be careful. Assume a clever reader. If there's a straight-and-earnest line in your comedy, especially one that's a bit out of character, doesn't fit the show, doesn't fit the moment... they're gonna see the tee.

Lunch: I fried tortillas into crispy chips that I tossed into my scrambled-eggs-and-salsa.

Jane on 06.16.06 @ 12:24 PM PST [link]

Thursday, June 15th
There used to be harp music for this kind of thing

I was on a certain studio lot today, where I had to pass the Building of Unpleasant Memories again. That building is the one wherein lies the writers' room of doom. Everything about the place takes me back to those unhappy days of toiling on that specific staff. It's just like the way the Radford lot still makes me unreasonably joyous-- that's where I entered my first writers' room, at "Dinosaurs". (Yes, the one with the puppets -- fun!)

The writers' room was also the showrunner's office. The amazing Bob Young acted as his own writers' assitant, typing the script himself as we all pitched. We could watch what he was doing on a TV that was connected to his computer screen. Gee, it's almost like I'm back there now…

We see a ridiculously young-looking Jane. She plays nervously with a pen, obvious to the ink marks accumulating on her fingers and chin...

Did'ja see that? That's a flashback. You don't really need to do much more than title the scene with that header. And the little "young-looking" reminder in the stage directions clues in anyone who missed it.

If you're using flashbacks in your spec, I'd first make sure your show does that kind of thing, and then try, if at all possible, to check how they do it. It's possible that a show might develop a special non-standard technique for this, so make sure you do whatever they do. But in the absence of other information, I'd do it the way I just did.

And for a flashback within a flashback? I would use the same kind of header, but then add a stage direction:

That's right. This is a flashback-in-a-flashback. Twenty-year-old Jane slices furry bits off an enormous block of cheese.

For something like this, clarity trumps elegance. I saw a brilliant Simpsons recently with a whole series of nested flashbacks, and they actually had a character make a comment. Something like: "Wait, in the story you're telling me, someone is going to tell another story?" You know that line was put in just to assure the audience that they were following what was going on. Clarity. Because confusion is the enemy.

Lunch: Int./Ext. Burger, animal style, and a Dr. Pepper. Mmmmm.
Jane on 06.15.06 @ 03:44 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, June 14th
No Practical Advice Today -- But a List of Ways to Get Some

I was bopping around on Amazon yesterday, and I came across something funny that I thought you would enjoy, gentle readers. I was looking at the "how to write" books and I came across one on comedy writing. "Interesting," I thought. "I wonder if this fellow discusses some of the same joke types that I have discussed on my blog." But before I could even determine that, I came across this part of the Amazon page:

What do customers ultimately buy after viewing items like this?

38% buy
The System: How to Get Laid Today! by Roy Valentine $11.69

38% buy
How to Succeed with Women by Ron Louis $10.37

12% buy
NLP The New Technology of Achievement (New on CD) by Charles Faulkner $12.97

7% buy the item featured on this page:
Comedy Writing Secrets by Melvin Helitzer

5% buy
The Guide to Picking Up Girls by Gabe Fischbarg $9.60

Well! If nothing else, this certainly tells me something about the sorts of people that are interested in learning about comedy writing. You're clearly fascinated by the technology of achievement! Good for you!

Lunch: Pre-packaged Indian "beans masala" over scrambled eggs. Fun new taste combo.
Jane on 06.14.06 @ 12:49 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, June 13th
What do Screenwriters Call In 'N' Out Burger? Int./Ext. Burger

I went to the gym this morning. Finally got up off my expanding bottom and got myself to the gym. I got a phone call from my agent just as I was arriving, so I walked into the gym, still speaking on the phone. By the way, there was nothing of particular import in the phone call. The most interesting thing I was doing was changing locations while talking. Hmm, that reminds me of today's question, sent in by faithful reader Christine in San Francisco. She asks:

"If characters start a scene in one spot, i.e. the interior of a diner, and the cameras follow the characters outside in the same scene, is there a need to start a new scene, or identify the new location? Or is there a way to indicate with stage direction… the fact that we're moving from in to out? Or vice versa?"

Well, yes, there is. Actually, this is one of those areas where the art, as opposed to the science, of screenwriting comes into play, because you get a choice of methods here.

You can, of course, start a new scene, making the location-change super-obvious:

The characters exit, still talking, into…

As they emerge and continue down the street…

Or you can do this. Make it all one scene and head it this way:


Or, if you prefer:


Now, you just use stage directions in the middle of the scene to indicate the transition. If you're afraid the readers won't catch it, you can supplement the stage directions with parentheticals like (exiting) or, more subtly, (fumbling for his sunglasses).

Not only does this kind of location description allow your scene to look as continuous on the page as it would play on the screen, it also saves space.

So why would you ever want to use the first option, to make it two scenes? I do that if the scene is unusually long, especially if the topic changes at some point. It's just a judgment call – does it FEEL like two scenes or one?

I might also do it if the locations are simply too different from one another. For example, this would feel a little strange to me:


Sure, a conversation could conceivably bridge a beam-up. But the transition is more than just incidental to the characters going through it. I would make these two separate scenes.

There are, of course, going to be all kinds of variations on simple location-changes that you will encounter in your writing life. You will have characters in revolving doors and characters who exit vertically, and characters who hallucinate locations, exteriors that are revealed to be interiors and vice versa… The most important thing to keep in mind is that the techniques of screenwriting are flexible enough that you will be able to invent a way to describe whatever it is that you want to describe. There's no need to adjust a moment to make it easier to write down. Remember, the words work for you, not the other way around.

Thanks for the question, Christine!

Lunch: a salad to which I added still-warm chicken. Soothing.
Jane on 06.13.06 @ 03:00 PM PST [link]

Monday, June 12th
When is a Joke like an Oven?

I had my kitchen remodeled last year. It was the first (and only) time I've ever taken on a project like that. Finding a designer, working with a contractor. Enduring the dust and delays. But it worked out great. The finished product is perfect.

Part of what was hard about getting started on the remodel was coming to terms with how much needed to be done. Sure, the oven door never closed completely, and it blocked the entrance to the room. But it cooked just fine, and I was convinced that moving gas lines around would be the death of us all. It just seemed like it would be easier to leave it where it was. Leaving it in place, of course, was going to put all kinds of limits on where everything else could go, so I finally had to give in. The oven moved and everything has been better ever since.

I had to be willing to let go of something that worked well – it cooked great – in order to make the whole kitchen better. This is an example of what is called "Killing your Darlings" or "Killing your Babies" in scriptwriting. You have to be willing to cut something that you KNOW works, in order to make the script as a whole better.

Cutting a good joke is really really hard. I know really experienced writers who still have to tell themselves "we'll use it in another episode" before they can cut a good joke. Even though they know it's a lie.

Here's a little joke run from my first draft of an episode of Buffy called Gingerbread. This is Xander and Oz, whose relationship was strained at this point. I wanted to give them a bit of awkward/funny interaction in which Xander is trying to make nice:

Hey, it's Buffy's birthday next week. Big eighteen. Good-bye not voting and feeling excluded, hello just plain not voting.

He holds for the laugh. There is none.

XANDER (cont'd)
So. You got gifting plans?


Wow. Great idea.
Was that "pendant" or "pennant"?

At the time, I loved this bit. I still like the "voting" joke. Not sure I'm still in love with the "pendant" joke -- the idea was supposed to be to highlight Xander's willingness to praise Oz's idea even thought he isn't sure which word he heard. It's not terribly strong. But at the time, I adored the whole run.

I did a huge rewrite on this episode. I hadn't gotten the tone of the episode right at all. Too much joking. Not enough genuine horror. And, of course, there were always issues of script length. For one or both of those reasons, this interaction had to go. If I'd held onto it, it would've been at the expense of other material. The fridge would've stayed stuck in the corner and the cupboard space wouldn't have worked out right.

Sometimes you've gotta yank stuff out. At least, it ALL has to be on the table. If you start a rewrite with some jokes that aren't negotiable, you end up having to stretch everything else around them. And it often shows.

Lunch: Turkey scramble.

Jane on 06.12.06 @ 02:58 PM PST [link]

Sunday, June 11th
Final Draft Tries to Keep Us From Talking Over Each Other

I'm back from Vegas. I had a wonderful time! I played many pretty slot machines. However, there was one that I had enjoyed on a previous visit, that I discovered to be gone. It was brand new when I found it, and it was quite different. It had no illusion of reels. Instead, it featured a honeycomb-shaped pattern of symbols that each popped in independently and it payed based on the size of the clumps of any one symbol. I guess maybe it was *too* different. Since the machine was nowhere to be found, I assume that I was the only one who liked it. Technology can sometimes be slow to find acceptance, even if it works perfectly.

And sometimes, it doesn't so much work perfectly. I assume that many of you out there are using Final Draft to write your specs. Well, here's a handy tip for all of you. It has to do with dual dialogue (parallel columns of dialogue that indicate two characters speaking at the same time). If you need to use any dual dialogue, do not put it in its final form until right before you turn in your script. Keep the dialogue in one column for as long as possible.

This is because of the way Final Draft deals with the problem. When it creates the two columns, it actually creates a little block of your script that is opaque to search-and-replace. If you want to substitute a word throughout your script, or, even more crucially, change the name of one of the characters uttering your simultaneous dialogue, search-and-replace will simply fail to work inside the dual dialogue. And there will be no notification that you need to go check it by hand. This can allow errors into your otherwise perfectly executed spec. Boo!

Also, it seems to me that having dual dialogue greatly increases the time it takes to do a simple "save" on your script. It looks to me like it "unpacks" the dual dialogue, saves the script, and then duals it up again. Pffft.

I can only assume that there are good programming reasons why this is the best way for Final Draft to handle two columns. The best way for you to handle two columns is to keep it as one for as long as you can. Also, you get that lovely surprise at the very end – when you finally engage the dual dialogue, the script will be mercifully shorter!

Lunch: Del Taco's chicken soft tacos with Del Scorcho sauce

Jane on 06.11.06 @ 07:19 PM PST [link]

Friday, June 9th

I have a lot of books about Egyptian hieroglyphs. There's a lot to learn. I've got some of the basics down… I can puzzle out a lot of the cartouched names of your more established Pharaohs. I can spot familiar nouns and recognize a bunch of formal language that shows up simply everywhere: beloved of the gods, that sort of thing. Knowing some of this makes trips to the Luxor casino in Vegas extra interesting. I love trying to figure out all the inscriptions they've got all over everything… inside the elevators, on the bedspreads, on all the reproduction art and the columns on the main floor. Great stuff.

There's one exterior wall of one of the towers, alongside where the secondary taxi stand is, that is covered with big panels – probably five feet by ten feet, all beautifully carved with hieroglyphs. I stood there, during my last visit and took a minute to really look at them. And I recognized them. Not just the words, but I recognized some of the ornate patterns that were used to decorate the images. These were copied directly, I realized, from the pages of one of the books I had at home. One of my favorites, it's a very basic book of vocabulary items. One per page. Like flashcards. Very prettily done, with fanciful ornate patterns that I haven't seen anywhere else. This wall of the Luxor is covered with random pages from the vocabulary book. Just the prettiest words, carved very large and scattered around, repeated sometimes, regardless of their meaning. "Cat!" declares the wall. "Baboon!" "Hear! Hear! Cat! Milk! Baboon! Ramses!" The north wall of the Luxor is like an over-stimulated Egyptian toddler.

I'm going to the Luxor. Back on Monday!

Lunch: Coca-Cola. Marzipan Bar. Pirate's Booty.

Jane on 06.09.06 @ 01:49 AM PST [link]

Thursday, June 8th
Laugh is a Battlefield

More mail! Carole from Attleboro writes with kind words and a couple of interesting questions. Thanks, Carole! She asks why I don't often use examples from Arrested Development in my joke discussions. Well, let's take care of that right now. I was just thinking of one of their particularly genius jokes yesterday, and it made me laugh out loud. Just sitting in my living room, laughing out loud like a crazy person.

Remember this one? Tobias was speaking proudly, early in an episode, about how he was both a licensed analyst and a therapist. He combined the two words in what sounded like an-AHL-rap-ist. It was a funny character moment, not really a joke. Then, as I recall, much later in that episode, we saw his business card and realized that his new title was spelled "analrapist." Holy cow. This joke works like one of those hidden picture things. It's there right in front of you the whole time, but you don't see it until… you see it. Fantastic! What you end up laughing at is partly your own blindness in not having worked out the spelling immediately. And you can laugh as Tobias's own blindness for not seeing what he'd done. AND you can laugh at the reaction of the person reading the card (Buster, so it was hilarious). It has layers of funny as far down as you can dig.

This is a great illustration of joke deployment strategy. Whoever came up with this must have noticed that this word could be logically formed from common job descriptions. This writer might have even noticed this years earlier when looking though the yellow pages for professional help, I don't know. But then came the challenging part, working out how to use this comic observation for maximal funny. Because, you know, there is more than one way this joke could've been told. The card could've been the first thing we saw, for example, and then had the title explained, which would have been funny, too. Or, the first person to hear him say the title could've noticed the problem and asked him to spell it, getting the funny out right away, but without the visual component. Or Tobias could've delivered the whole joke himself "I was going to call myself an analrapist, but then I noticed…". None of these are as funny as the actual deployment on the show. Letting the audience sit with that information and then revealing the card…

If you have a joke that's not quite working, or even if it is, consider how you're laying it out. There are always other ways to deliver the humor. Would it work better reversed, or as a call-back, or as a visual reveal? Should the funny be split over two people or should one character deliver the set-up and the punchline? Once something is funny, it's very tempting to stamp it "done." But, just as with weaponry in a war, deployment can affect how efficiently you slay 'em.

Clarification: I remember Buster reading the card. It's possible this was in a later episode... I'm not sure who the first reader of the card was. But it worked. It worked great.

Lunch: tofu pups and health-food sauerkraut. Get regular sauerkraut. This "healthy" kind has the texture of applesauce. Bleah.
Jane on 06.08.06 @ 12:28 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, June 7th
Disclaimer: A gun doesn't really make you important

I had lunch with Lisa Klink today. She is the Trek writer who sent in the "Jesus was not a Zombie" example from a previous post. Delightful! She went from being a name on an office in the Star Trek building, to being a real live person eating sushi. People do that. They sometimes stop being incidental.

Characters in a script can do that too. Remember Jimmy, the gate guard in yesterday's post? Well, what if he was a minor character in your script, chirping up here and there with a "G'morning, Champ" or whatnot, and then, at the third act break, he suddenly pulls a gun and is revealed to be hugely important?

Well, clearly, he deserves a name at that point. But if you give him a name all the way through the script, you might tip the fact that he will be important later on. And you don't want to do that. You want to hide him as much as possible.

The answer is simple: you can change the way you identify a character at any point in the script. Even though it feels like you're breaking a rule, the first time you do it.

If someone you've been calling TOUR GUIDE turns out to be KEVIN, a gunman, or, let's say, um… JENNY, your main character's long-lost sister, you can do this:

Don't you know me? It's me! Jenny! Your sister Jenny!

Reginald blinks at her. Knows what she's saying is true. He backs away.

Reginald? What's wrong?

This is similar to the way you reveal the owner of an offstage voice:

Hey! What're you kids doing there?

The kids freeze, turn, and are relieved to see it's only Kyle, grinning at them from the doorway.

Did I scare you?

By allowing yourself the freedom to change the character's identification, you are allowing the reader to more closely experience what a viewer would experience: suddenly realizing that this character is transforming from a minor element to a genuine player. This makes it easier for them to go along for the journey.

I suppose there is a question about whether or not there should be a (cont'd) on that second line. That's a question for the philosophers. I say, do as you wish.

Lunch: Sushi at Echigo again. I can't get enough of that warm rice.
Jane on 06.07.06 @ 06:28 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, June 6th
looking for Burbank in all the wrong places

Yesterday, I drove to the wrong place. Most of my meetings lately have been at Universal Studios. The one you're thinking of, the one attached to the theme park with the Jurassic Park ride. It's become very automatic to drive to Universal. But yesterday my meeting was actually at NBC. The one you're thinking of, the one with Jay Leno inside. This led to a very confusing exchange between me and the guard at the gate at Universal. In the end, I got where I was going, and I wasn't even late. If Jay Leno ever wants to go on the Jurassic Park ride, he can comfort himself knowing it's only about ten minutes away. (I *knew* the meeting was at NBC. I can only blame motor programming. And my own general hilarity as a person.)

So, let's talk about the guard at the gate at Universal. How important is it for you to know that his name was Jimmy? Not at all, I'm guessing. In fact, if I had told you this, you might have wondered if there was a reason for my mentioning it. Is he going to show up again later in Jane's life? (So far… no. He hasn't.)

When you're writing your spec, you sometimes need to create incidental characters. Maybe it's a guard at a gate. Or maybe one of the regular characters goes to the hospital, so you write a scene with a three-line-having doctor in it. A doctor whose lines should probably all be slugged with the name DOCTOR. Even if all the characters in the scene are calling him "Dr. Franklyn," this is still my personal preference for how to label his lines. He might have gone to fictional medical school, but he's not very important. Writers will differ on this, but that's how I do it. Jimmy the guard is named: GUARD unless he pulls a gun and is revealed to be a much bigger part of the story than I thought. Then, he gets a name.

I was recently asked about a different kind of minor character. What about the kind who are introduced, not because your regulars go to a new venue, but because they've been there all along? For example, what if you need a Viper pilot for your Battlestar spec beyond those who have been established? Or another doctor we've never met before for your House or Grey's spec? Or a sibling for one of the characters on Veronica Mars? I'm talking about someone whom the regulars are assumed to know, but who will be new to the readers.

Again, if they only have a few lines, I would still slug them as: PILOT or LITTLE SISTER. But if they're going to be a significant part of the story, which is more likely now that they have an assumed pre-existing relationship with your main characters, then you are getting into the area where they will need a name.

Here's how I would do it. (Others may disagree.) The stage directions would introduce the character, and they would also make his status clear in the following way:

House is looking over the shoulder of the staff urologist, let's call him DR. PATEL.

That little phrase "let's call him," tells the reader that this is a character you are introducing and naming. The dialogue that follows will make it clear that this is someone House already knows. This way, no reader will be confused into thinking that *they* should recognize this person.

The question I was actually asked about these characters had to do with how many of them you can have. A certain friend-of-a-friend-of-the-blog spec writer is finding that they're having trouble keeping these people out of the story. Well, you don't want to create bunches of them. If the actual show generally gets by without them, then your spec, ideally, should do so too. If you find yourself needing lots of extra people, lots of extra-canon relationships, then you might be going a bit astray. Cling to your produced examples, cleave unto them and do as they do. What has your show done in the case of stories that require these sorts of introductions? If you can't find out that they've ever done stories that require them… uh-oh. Cleave! Cleave before you drive off the road!

Your one advantage over every other kind of writer is that you have a road map. Reread your produced examples until they fall off their brads. I cannot say this enough.

Lunch: poached eggs on canned artichoke hearts with a layer of taramosalata (that Greek whipped caviar stuff). It was an experiment. Not bad, a little weird.

Jane on 06.06.06 @ 03:26 PM PST [link]

Monday, June 5th
A Quickie

Oh my. I am having a very busy day today, so I'm just going to offer a simple post. Another example of the principle I discussed in yesterday's post.

Which two characters on The Office are the most realistic, grounded, identifiable-with, the least broadly-comic?

And which two actually *make* jokes? Compose jokes for each other with the intention of being funny, and then actually are funny?

It's the same two. Jim and Pam. A-ha! QED.

Keep this in mind not only if you're writing a spec for The Office, but for any show. You can move characters around on the groundedness scale simply by adjusting their level of joke-making-ness.

I think it's a point worth making twice.

Lunch: Pho, that Vietnamese soup I like, at a restaurant I hadn't tried before. It was disappointing. The broth lacked the intense flavor I seek out.

Jane on 06.05.06 @ 09:14 PM PST [link]

Sunday, June 4th
Maybe Everyone Else Already Knows This. Is this Common Knowledge?

Okay, I just checked out "My Super Sweet 16," the show about real teens and their ornate parent-funded coronations. My God! The waste of money! The waste of energies! Imagine if those kids put that kind of effort into their college applications, into their creative pursuits, into reading and learning! And the whole enterprise is counterproductive. They think they're making their peers like them, but instead they're clearly fostering resentment.

It's one of those counterintuitive things. What you think makes you likable makes you unlikable. What you think makes you funny makes you unfunny. Which brings us looping around to an important principle relating to the nature of comedy. I was prompted to notice this principle, which I will unveil in a moment, by a question that came in the mail from Jerome in Chicago. He's looking for techniques like the one I discussed on April 29, (about writing past the punchline,) techniques that work well for using humor in otherwise dramatic spec episodes. I hope you read the previous post, Jerome, about settling for the soft joke, it's another good trick to creating humor without creating "jokiness."

Well, Jerome's note got me thinking. What is the ESSENTIAL difference between comedy-comedy and dramatic-comedy? And what I came up with startled me! It's crazy, but here it is:


Isn't that interesting? And counterintuitive? I never noticed it before, but it's really true. Did everyone else already notice this? The more comedic the character, the less they (successfully) crack (funny) jokes.

Michael on The Office, is a comedic character. He is not usually trying to be funny. And when he does try, he isn't. Which is an unintended result, and thus… funny. House, on the other hand, is a dramatic character. When he is funny, it's because he is making a dry observation about something, and he intends it to be funny. The more a character cracks intentional jokes, the less "jokey" a show feels. Wild!

Now, this isn't a strict half-hour vs. hour distinction. M*A*S*H is one of the most dramatic comedies ever made. Full of intentional humor -- Hawkeye cracks jokes constantly, and comes across as war-bruised as a result. While an hour like Boston Legal can be packed with sincere nutjobs -- packed with them! As a result, BL ends up feeling, at times, more broadly comedic than the comedy.

Even within the same show, you can see the difference clearly. Some half-hour shows, like Taxi, Bob Newhart or Seinfeld, have a character at the center who is more serious, sane and grounded than the characters around them. They don't tend to get themselves stuck in bathtubs as often as the whack-a-doodles surrounding them. So how are these characters made funny? By giving them joking comments about the hijinks around them. Jerry comments to George about how crazy Kramer is – that's intentional humor, making Jerry a more serious character. For me, Phoebe on Friends was at her best when she would suddenly manifest an unexpected awareness of the world that would allow her to make a joke about someone else's behavior before she would slip back into her own bubble. Joey, the other oblivious, broadly comedic character on that show, rarely made the same jump... UNTIL HE HAD HIS OWN SHOW. Then, suddenly, when required to have depth, to be more serious, he was making jokes like the great one from the pilot where he poked fun at his sister, pointing out that you don't often hear "the argument *for* teen pregnancy." With that line he became a different, more serious guy. (Show didn't work, but in that moment, I had hope.)

Conversely, sometimes hour dramas have one comedic character, or a series of comedic subplots. Again, these are things that happen, funny circumstances unintended by the characters, or ludicrous sincere behavior by those characters, while the supposedly more serious parts of the show are the parts with characters making witty observations. Baltar is unintentionally funny. Adama, making a wry comment about Baltar, is intentionally funny. A combo that works together to bring the house down. (Have I mentioned I love this show?)

Have I over-explained it enough? Sorry. I'm actually just working this through in my head. So how can you use this surprising fact? Use it to modulate the tone of your spec.

Want a character to seem smart… even serious? Make his first line intentionally funny. When Parker was introduced in a Buffy episode, we had to make it instantly clear that she could consider this guy worthy of her. So the first thing he did was ask Buffy if she had any hobbies….

…You know, like solving crosswords or spitting off the world's tallest buildings.

He's making a joke. So we accept him as intelligent, grounded, not ridiculous and jokey. A serious candidate for Buffy's affection.

But a character like Principal Snyder says:

Call me Snyder. Just a last name. Like Barbarino.

It is a similarly ludicrous thing to say. But he is sincere, not joking. And therefore the line is jokier. Perfect for a thoroughly comedic character.

Want a really complex character? Mix the two. Jason Bateman's character on Arrested Development had both kinds of jokes. He was simultaneously appalled by his own family, and just as appalling himself. He could function as a serious character, making aware asides in one scene, and then be the oblivious boob in another. Frasier was a similarly complex character who used both types of funny. Complex and wonderful. High degree of difficulty, that one.

So, to sum it up for Jerome. Give jokes to your dramatic characters, and sincerity to your comedic ones, and you won't go far wrong tonally. That's it!

Lunch: Green Corn Tamales at El Cholo on Wilshire with my parents. Sweet and terrific!

Jane on 06.04.06 @ 11:39 AM PST [link]

Friday, June 2nd

Even after I got work on sitcoms, and got too busy to pitch at Star Trek:TNG and its other incarnations, I used to go haunt the halls of the Hart building every time I happened to be on the Paramount lot, just to get that great I'm-almost-on-the-Enterprise feeling. Oh! I was so envious -- still am, a bit. One of the offices had a name on it in those years: Lisa Klink. I never got to meet her, but there weren't many girls on the spaceship in those days, and I remembered the name.

Well, guess what came in the mail? Yessir, that's right, a note from Lisa Klink! She reads this humble blog. I'm absolutely tickled!

And she brought treats for the class. She submits for discussion another example of funny from the world of hour drama. This is her reconstruction, from memory, of an exchange on Bones:

We don't believe in things like witch doctors and zombies.

Didn't Jesus rise from the dead?

Jesus was not a zombie!

I love this! Although I have to say I disapprove of having two major characters whose names look so similar on the page. Doesn't that look confusing to you?

Lisa points out that it's the mixture of the silly and the sacred that gives it its comedic power. Absolutely. And it's also a great example of using humor to expose character. You can tell a lot about these characters just from this exchange.

This is what we call a "soft joke," as opposed to the "hard" jokes of sitcoms. A funny exchange without a bing-bang punchline. It's also very restrained. Personally I would've been tempted to extend the exchange. Continuing from where we left off:

He rose from the dead and walked around. How isn't that a zombie?

That's sacrilegious! That's horrible!

Booth gives Bones a swat.

Ow! Heal me, Zombie Jesus!

Yep. That's what I would've written. And then I would've cut it back again. The shorter version has all the comedy value without getting too broad. It's more disciplined, it's more real and it takes up less space. Also, I was working very hard to justify the phrase "zombie jesus," but a quick Google search reveals a lot of instances of that phrase, so it's probably not worth doing. This is a classic case of a light touch yielding the better result. It was worth trying the longer version, but then it's important to know when less is more.

Not every joke worth doing is worth driving into the ground. This is one of the hardest lessons I've had to learn.

Thanks again to our guest star, Lisa Klink, for providing today's show-and-tell!

Lunch: chicken with barbeque sauce made according to the South Beach Cookbook recipe. It was only okay.

Jane on 06.02.06 @ 01:48 PM PST [link]

Thursday, June 1st
Castroville is the Artichoke Capital -- that's one that I got

You'll never guess what I did last night! It was the most fun. I attended one of those bar trivia events, where your little team goes up against all the other little teams. This is the first time I had gone to one of these. What a hoot! My team happened to include two five-time Jeopardy champs, so we did okay. Some of the players were very organized and prepared, and the job of quiz master rotates, so it can be an absorbing pursuit. It's clearly a subculture.

Hmm. A subculture. Interesting. There are some shows which like episodes that take the regular characters (and the viewers) into a "world." CSI does this – remember the killings at the Little Persons' Convention? And at the gathering of ("furry"-type) sexual adventurers? Law and Order SVU does too; I saw one of those recently set in a fictionalized version of Anne Rice fandom, which turned out be packed with sexual adventurers. If you were going to write a spec for a show of this sort, you would do well to think about subcultures before you start plotting your story. (Murder at a bar trivia night… call the episode "Trivial Evidence." Nice.)

My one caution: don't choose the world of television fandom. Especially if you yourself are involved in television fandom. It's just too close to that darn fourth wall – writing about television to get a job writing for television.

In fact, as a general rule, try to keep autobiography out of your specs. I once saw a show runner returning from a pitch session with some freelancers. He was shaking his head. He said he knew he wasn't going to like the pitch as soon as the writers said "this one's based on something that happened to us." Now, this probably seems counterintuitive. Everyone's been telling you to "write what you know." And I explicitly told you to draw on your own memories when writing emotional scenes.

Here's the difference. Use your own emotional truths to create truths for the characters. Not your own diary. I should adjust my instruction: "Try to keep factual autobiography out of your specs. But emotional autobiography is good good stuff."

If you're too close to something, it's too easy to get all wrapped up in "getting it right" instead of in focusing on the emotional impact on your main characters, which is all that really matters. You have to be objective enough to *use* your subject matter instead of *serving* it.

There are exceptions, of course. But I stand by this as a good general precept.

If we all really wrote what we knew, none of us would be writing shows set on spaceships. (Psst… take a look at the "New and Noteworthy" square above.)

Lunch: sushi at the place with the warm rice. Wow.
Jane on 06.01.06 @ 07:30 PM PST [link]


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



June 2006

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