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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 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.

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    August 13th, 2008Jane EspensonComedy, From the Mailbag, On Writing

    Oh, such an adventure today, Gentle Readers! I got to go on a tour of the sets and entire operation of a daytime drama. You might think that the world of television writing is sort of homogeneous all the way through — like a potato. But it’s not. The worlds of comedy and drama have undergone some cross-pollinating in recent years, and if you work on a prime-time comedy, it’s possible you might even find yourself interacting with writers from the late-night world of Conan, Dave or Colbert, but soaps — they are unknown territory.

    The effect is something like divergent evolution, as if soaps were put on an island in the early days of television, where they’ve continued to develop along their own lines, uninfluenced by the rest of the TV world. Their job titles and terminology and methods are similar to the rest of the business, but just different enough to cause delightful confusion.

    The production aspects are insane– the show I visited doesn’t shoot, as you might assume, an hour’s world of material each and ev’ry blessed day. No. They do FIVE shows in FOUR days. So it’s more than one standard episode every working day. With no hiatus, of course. Year ’round, I’m sayin’. Holy cats. A single actor might be in seven, nine, eleven scenes in one day. I was told of one case in which and actor, trying to clear their schedule so they could take a week of… that one actor shot over twenty scenes in one day.

    The sound stages look very much like sitcom stages, only without audience seating. The rooms have no fourth walls, and there are four cameras shooting into the sets, getting all the angles at once. Most scenes are shot in one take — taking as little as minutes to complete. The sets themselves are moved overnight as the ones needed for the next episode are moved in to replace the previous day’s configuration. This show uses four directors — one directs all the eps shot on Mondays, another all the eps shot on Tuesdays… I’m telling you, it’s wild.

    Oh, and the director blocks all the scenes well in advance of shooting and all the sets are pre-lit to fit that blocking during the night before shooting. In other words, the actors don’t get any input on where they stand. What’s your motivation for crossing the room? Well, that’s where the light is, bub. Oh, and the director sits in a control booth, watching monitors there, not on the set.

    Now let’s try to imagine the challenges for the writing staff! If everything goes smoothly, all you have to do is produce a full script every single day, year ’round. And they have only a few more writers than a standard prime time hour drama. So they cannot, obviously, run a standard story-break room. The system that evolved was for years, at least at this show, a sort of three-tiered system – a few top writers craft the overall story arcs. Mid-level writers work with them to turn those arcs into things that look a lot like traditional episode outlines, and an array of writers below that (who do not even have to be local to Los Angeles), take those outlines and quickly generate the dialogue while adhering slavishly to the outlines because any adjustment they might make would affect all the other moving parts of this speeding train.

    Recently it seems that the middle of that particular snack cake may be disappearing — the higher-ups are creating things with a more outline-y flavor and the lower-downs are being given more autonomy to do a bit of structuring on their own. By this I mean that they’re told in which act a given scene goes, but not in which order. Of course, if it’s ultimately decided they got the order wrong, the scenes just be reordered in editing. Again, I must say that I’m fascinated. When the finished scripts come back to the top writers, they do rewrites in a process that they were calling “editing,” which sounds very odd to my ears, as much of this did. It was like finding a foreign country within our own shores.

    Now, soap writing has often been disparaged, but once you view the necessities of the process, it’s frakking amazing what they’re able to accomplish. By the way, one of the results of the process is that there is even more of a premium on chameleonship in this writing than there is in prime time writing. If a script reflects the individual voice of a particular writer it can be somewhat distracting (or wonderful, depending on the show and your point of view on these things) in a prime time show, but in a show that airs every day and that has beloved characters with decades of history behind their voices, a reliable consistent authorial sense is absolutely required. That great new spin you put on that scene is going to be the spin that tears the machine apart.

    Okay, now imagine what happens when the process doesn’t run smoothly — what if an actor has an emergency and can’t show up, for example? Or what if an episode turns out too long and a B-story has to be cut — how does that affect the next day’s script? What if an actor doesn’t like a story line and requests a change? Imagine that one-script a day train coming at you!

    So what should you do if this work appeals to you? After all, it is one of the few Hollywood jobs that doesn’t require you to live in Hollywood. And it does seem to provide an unusual example of job security — almost everyone I met seemed to have been there a decade or more, some much more. Well, unfortunately, daytime drama does not appear to be a growth industry. And the downside of all that job security is that there are never any openings. So it’s hard to recommend that anyone pursue this as their do-or-die gonna-make-it-in-shobiz option. But I have to say that there is something very appealing in this high-pressure high-output write it now-now-now world. I can imagine myself wanting to try it just to test my mettle — but can you write… faster?

    ADDENDUM: If you follow the link on this page (over on the right–>) to the ABC/Disney writing fellowship, you will see that one of the programs that is offered there is actually specifically for daytime (soap) writing. So if this is for you, that would be the place to start!

    Lunch: chicken breast and mozzarella sandwich from the studio cafeteria! TV hospital food is much better than actual hospital food.

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    August 8th, 2008Jane EspensonFriends of the Blog, From the Mailbag, On Writing

    With the help of Friend-of-the-Blog Jeff, I located and purchased the most wonderful book today, Gentle Readers. “Best Television Humor of the Year,” edited by Irving Settel. It was published in 1956 and contains long script excerpts from “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “The Goldbergs,” “The Life of Riley,” “The Martha Raye Show” and others. All of the shows were in production at the time of publication, and there’s something wonderful about hearing, say, Milton Berle discussed in the present tense.

    I’ve only started reading the scripts, and I must say they are heavy on situation and reaction and low low low on jokes. So far, the only real laugh I’ve had was at a clever stage direction. In an episode of “The Bob Cummings Show,” written by Paul Henning and Phil Shuken, there’s a bit of physical business indicated for a bit player — a model hoping to land a job. The stage direction reads:

    A very beautiful and shapely model is seated near the office door waiting to be interviewed by Bob. As she hears the door open she quickly crosses her legs, pulls her dress up to jury-influencing height, and assumes a provocative pose…”

    “Jury-influencing height.” I love it. Sharp, quick, knowing, subtle, and since it’s in the stage direction, clearly intended for the reader, and not the viewer of the piece. It feels very contemporary amid the rest of the script. I’ve always advocated stage-direction humor, and I think this is one of the starkest examples I’ve seen of how it can pop — not just as an opportunity for humor, but as a way to create a connection between the writer and the reader, even across decades.

    Lunch: Barbeque chicken and more of those Spicy Fries from Ribs USA. Wonderful!

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    August 4th, 2008Jane EspensonFriends of the Blog, From the Mailbag, On Writing

    Okay, so my new pattern for the blog is to disappear for a long time and then come back with a post that gets something wrong while being critically snooty about people getting things wrong. And I accomplished it on my very first try!

    Friend-of-the-Blog Craig Miller has directed my attention to the actual standard use of the phrase “butter wouldn’t melt in his/her mouth.” And I was totally wrong about it, although I’ve certainly heard other people be wrong as well, in different and contrasting ways. The actual use is to refer “dismissively to somebody who appears gentle or innocent while typically being the opposite.” Erm. Okay, yeah, that actually seems right, although the connection to the relative behavior of mouths and butter is obscure.

    I will point out that this totally proves my point. Sometimes we’re so sure we know how language works (what with being writers and all), that we don’t double-check this stuff and then we get in trouble when our scripts meet a reader who does know what they’re doing. In fact, this makes my point so perfectly, that I suspect maybe I played it exactly this way on purpose.

    So check those idioms!

    Lunch: Korean bbq chicken, brown rice, kim chee and pickled radish from the food court at the Century City Mall.

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