Running for Trains

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

A guy I know tells this story: he and a student friend are in Paris. They're going to take the Metro somewhere, and as they're going through the turnstyle, they hear the train arriving and its doors opening. The guy starts to run when his friend grabs him by the arm and stops him and says, "I don't run for trains."

Which is sort of the exact opposite of the philosophy that governs what we do in Hollywood. We not only run for trains, but we push people out of the way to do so. We don't just run for trains, but when we miss them, we file suit against trains. And we do it all pretty publicly, often over salad.

A few years ago, we were shooting an episode of a show we had on the air and one of the jokes fell flat. I know, I know: impossible to believe, but these things happen: in a script of 90 good jokes – roughly two per page of double-spaced dialogue – one fell flat.

This is not really a problem, because if a joke doesn't work, you can always just cut it. On film. Later. That's why you write a 45-page script with double-spaced dialogue that times out to a 28- or 30-minute piece of film in the first place. So you have room to cut the jokes that didn't work. Or, as we writers like to call them, the jokes that somebody else wrote.

But on that night, we had a new director and a new audience warm-up guy – you know, the guy who stands in the audience bleachers keeping everyone awake and energized during the actually quite deadly process of filming a television comedy – and so when the scene was over, and he saw one of us conferring with the director, he assumed we were going to rewrite the joke.

What we were saying to the director, though, was something like, "Let's move on. We'll cut the joke on film." Not, emphatically not, "Hey, you know what, I think we'll try out a bunch of alternate jokes right now, in front of the audience and everyone."

Because, well, we don't run for trains.

But the warm-up guy didn't know that. So he tells the audience, "Hey, I guess the writers didn't like the way that last joke fizzled! Let's watch them as they come up with a better joke!"

Which shamed us into gathering in a little clump, watched by one hundred fifty people, as we tried to come up with a better joke on the spot.

Everybody watching, quietly.

"I wonder what the new joke will be.." intones the warm-up guy into his mike. "This is a great glimpse into the process..."

Moments later, we came up with a new joke. It wasn't a better joke, but it was a different joke. And of course, eventually we cut it on film. Because the trick to succeeding in this business – and by succeeding I don't mean succeeding wildly, I mean, just maintaining a stately equilibrium in your life, your wallet, your sanity, the trick is to remember that there's always, always, another train.

Also, we fired the warm-up guy. That's the other trick to succeeding in this business: never pay someone who makes you work.

That's it for this week. Next week, it's like Public Radio Christmas! Subscription Drive! For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long