Home of Jane's blog on writing for television
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    September 28th, 2008Jane EspensonFeatured, On Writing, Pilots

    So last week I took a break from my never-ending stay up here in Vancouver with the Battlestar TV movie, to go back home just long enough to attend the Emmy award ceremony. And it was wonderful. Oh, I know the hosting was terrible and the show was long, but there’s something so lovely for me about being out in that audience full of all the people who entertained me when I was growing up — Betty White! Tommy Smothers!

    And afterwards, there’s the Governor’s Ball, in which the star power is even more dense and they give you a map of where everyone is seated, so if you want, you can go watch John Hodgman eating his appetizer or Howie Mandel apologizing to everyone.

    I didn’t actually see him apologizing. I’m just assuming.

    I met Stephen Colbert, who was just as charming as you could ever want. He’s a sci-fi fan! I sort of knew that from interviews, but it was darn cool to hear him say it. I also saw Betty White locked in intense conversation with Phylicia Rashad out by the limo pick-up area. What was that about? And I ran into our own Katee Sackhoff and Grace Park in the ladies’ room, where they both looked beautiful despite fluorescent lighting. All in all, a wonderful night. Did I tell you met Stephen Colbert? I got to hold one of his writers’ Emmys. Hefty little lady. (The Emmy, not the writer.) Plus, I met Stephen Colbert. If my typing fingers could dance…

    But the best part of the night was part of the acceptance speech of Jay Roach, who won for directing Recount. I’m paraphrasing, but the good bit went something like:

    …and Danny Strong, who wrote a great script that really inspired us all to do this…

    That’s significant not just because Danny is one of my dearest friends. It also has a lesson for all of us about our own writing. The truth is, I gently counseled Danny against writing the Recount script. There were too many obstacles — the real life events he wanted to chronicle were so recent. Everyone knows the ending. The tone is tricky. But, primarily, I was concerned because there’s really only one place to take such a project: HBO. If they don’t want it, there aren’t a lot of second options. And I had no sense that there was a lot of enthusiasm gathering out there for a movie about the 2000 Florida recount.

    Here’s what I didn’t take into account. Just as a forest fire makes its own wind, Danny’s script made its own enthusiasm. Jay Roach said as much — the script fueled the project.

    Does that mean that you should drop that spec pilot and instead write a movie about the financial bailout plan? Heck no! Do all the practical things first, but when you’ve got your specs in a line and you’re taking aim at your dream project, don’t let others’ opinions keep you from doing something that you just know you can deliver. Danny ignored me and as a result he wrote the Best Made For Television Film of the year. Go Danny, and congratulations!

    Lunch: leftover squash agnolotti with extra parmesian cheese from the Italian restaurant right across the street from my hotel room

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    September 22nd, 2008Jane EspensonFeatured, From the Mailbag, On Writing, Pilots, Spec Scripts

    I haven’t been to the mail bag for a while, Gentle Readers, for a number of reasons that have to do mostly with the mail bag’s contents dwelling variously in my home, my office, my backpack, my hotel room, etc. The letter I’m looking at now, from Gentle Reader Rich, originated in Montreal. From there it went to Beverly Hills and then finally made its way to me here in Vancouver.

    Rich is asking about choosing a show for which to write a spec script. He is toying with the idea of writing a novelty spec — an episode of a show like Buffy that is long off the air. The problem, Rich, is that most agents and most shows these days want to read original material — spec pilots or scripts for short films. Even plays. The primary place for which you’ll need scripts for shows that already exist is for the ABC/Disney writing fellowship, and it only accepts scripts for shows currently on the air. So I’m afraid you’d have a tough time finding a reader for your vintage spec.

    I recommend you write a fellowship-ready spec if you’re at all interested in the program. You mention that you like House but are concerned about your lack of medical knowledge. You might find that this isn’t the obstacle that you think it is. You don’t need an M.D. to find out everything you need to know about one specific disorder. You might want to start by watching some episodes of those shows that follow real patients with hard-to-diagnose diseases. I’m talking about Diagnosis: Unknown or Mystery Diagnosis. Don’t lift the exact story from one of their episodes, but these shows are wonderful for suggesting starting places and possible misleads.

    There are other good shows to consider as well. I would think that Mad Men would be a fun choice. Since you only have to please the ABC/Disney readers — not create a script that will be usable industry-wide — you can be much more idiosyncratic with your choice of show.

    Then, after you’ve got that done, you should really dive into the world of original material. Be bold, don’t make a generic cop show or family show. And don’t hold back, hoarding your favorite story until you’re in the position to sell it for a thrillion bucks. Put it all out there.

    You’re reaching for a big prize, use a big reaching thing.

    Lunch: mac and cheese from craft services, served piping hot on set. Yum!

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    September 5th, 2008Jane EspensonFeatured, Friends of the Blog, On Writing

    Friend of the Blog David sends in a great example of what we were discussing last time — the Bad Joke Joke.

    This is from an episode (“Beers and Weirs”) of Freaks and Geeks. In the scene, Neal distracts Lindsay while Sam and Bill swap out her alcoholic beer for non-alcoholic:

    So, what kind of music are you gonna play tonight? You should play some Chicago. They have a really hot horn section.

    I don’t know. I think I’m gonna play some Zeppelin, Foghat, maybe some Sabbath.

    Friday night — always a good night for some Sabbath.
    (off her puzzled look)
    ‘Cause Friday night . . . is the Sabbath . . . for the Jews.

    Heh. Now that’s a good bad joke. It totally comes out of character and out of the relationship between the two characters. And it has that magical quality of being funny at the same time as we understand why it’s not a big laugh-getter. A great example against which to measure other examples of this difficult genre.

    Lunch: noodles, sushi, canned tonic water

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    September 1st, 2008Jane EspensonComedy, Featured, From the Mailbag, On Writing

    I’m still in Vancouver, and will be for another month. While I’m here, I’m continuing to read the book I mentioned before, “Best Television Humor of the Year”. The year in question is 1956.

    I came across an example of a very-difficult-to-execute joke type in the book. The type is the Intentionally Bad Joke. Here’s how it played in an episode of “The Life of Riley,” as one couple says goodbye to their neighbors, who are heading off on vacation:

    Bye! So long! Have a nice time in Portland.

    (as they exit)
    Good-bye! We’ll drop you a card!

    (calling after them)
    Hey, Gillis! Don’t take any wooden cement!


    (realizes he’s told a lousy joke)
    Well, you see, Portland, and cement, er… er… and so I said wooden cement… oh, never mind–

    I actually had to do some research on this one, Gentle Readers. It seems that cement doesn’t come from Portland, but that there is a material called Portland cement. Let’s just assume it was better known in 1956. (Or perhaps it’s absolutely huge right now and I’m just out of the cement loop.)

    My guess is that the exchange above doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t work because the secret of the bad joke joke is that it has to come out of character. Riley doesn’t have any particular attitude in the scene, no reason to try to make a joke. Here’s the exact same joke, really, from an episode of “Ellen”:

    Hey, Ellen, why don’t you turn on the stereo? How about a little Edith Piaf?

    Yeah, everybody likes a good rice dish.

    The extent to which that works for you as it lies there on your screen probably depends on the degree to which rice pilaf is more familiar to you than Portland cement. But in the context of the episode, it worked. It worked because Ellen was nervous. She was on a date in which she didn’t know what was going to be expected of her. The joke came out of her nervousness and the audience laughs at its badness because they’re really laughing in sympathy with her situation. The worse the joke, the more nervous she must be.

    Here’s another one, from the same episode. Ellen is frantically paging through Reader’s Digest, desperate to distract herself.

    Oh. Look at this: “Laughter in the Military.” It seems that there was a lieutenant whose his actual name was Lou Tenant. Well, you can imagine the mix-ups.

    It’s not hilarious. It’s not meant to be. But it’s funny that, in her emotional state, SHE thinks it’s funny.

    Ellen also specialized in the elaborate squirm, explaining her jokes in long rambling monologues like the one from “Life of Riley” only far more complicated. I would not recommend you try this in your comedy specs — it’s a very specialized skill. Blocks of dialogue that require a very specific delivery are not good in specs.

    Another note on the squirming phase of the bad joke joke: this is a place in which it is important NOT to write the line “I’ll shut up now.” That is a clam (an old familiar joke). If you’ve heard it, don’t type it. A funny joke about a very recent tragedy can probably still be squirmed out of with the line “too soon?” But the clam clock is ticking on that one, too.

    Lunch: left-over room-service lamb chops. Cute and delicious.