This Could Be a Pitch

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

When I was in film school, we used to have to present a few pages every week of our script in progress, to be, I guess the phrase is "workshopped" by the rest of the class.

Once, after I have presented my pages, there was a long pause.

"Anyone want to say something?" asked the professor.

"I like it," said a classmate, hesitatingly.

"Yeah, I like it too," agreed another.

"But isn't there too much dialogue? I mean, all that talking and talking and talking."

"Well, I guess it's kind of talky," I said.

"You know what this is?" another classmate said, suddenly. "This is television. That's what this is."

It took me quite a long time to realize that this was meant as an insult.

And in a way, it was valid: television does tend to be a little talky. Or, as a highly successful and major-award-winning writer I know puts it, "Television shows, like Shakespeare, rely heavily on dialogue." But then, so does life, really. I mean, most of what we do all day is, we sit, we talk. And so when you're thinking about what might make a good television show, it's a good idea to try to come up with characters and stories that lend themselves to fresh dialogue.

But there's a natural tendency, if you're a writer in this town, when you hear a story or an anecdote, to think: could this be something? Could this be a pitch?

For instance, I have a friend who was telling me a pretty sad story, a true story – let's not get into the details. Let's just say that it involves his once-very rich dad suddenly being pretty broke, which is potentially funny, but he also has pancreatic cancer, which isn't so potentially funny, but he has to move in with his new-age vegan daughter to be closer to the hospital where he's being treated, which is potentially funny. And all of this is going through my head while he's telling me this and I know I'm supposed to be thinking, "This is a sad story; this poor guy; he's going to lose his dad; etc. etc." but what I'm really thinking is, could this be a pitch? I mean, with the right casting? Except there's sort of a bump with the illness and that's kind of a downer and then suddenly I notice my friend noticing me not listening to him and I unthinkingly blurt out what I've been thinking, which is: "Does it have to be pancreatic cancer?"

And then a day ago, I was talking to another friend of mine, a feature writer, and I was telling him about this story I heard from someone in the intelligence business. Apparently, years ago, someone leaked a list of former CIA informants living in Eastern Europe – it was an old list, by the time of the leak, the people on it were in their seventies at least – but enough of them were still alive that it caused some trouble. A lot of old scores to settle, a lot of angry old guys. And suddenly, old men were turning up dead.

"My God," he said. "That's a feature pitch."

"But aren't the guys too old?"

He thought about this for a moment.

"Maybe it's not post Cold War," he said. "Maybe there's a young guy trying to solve the problem. Maybe it was a computer glitch that leaked the list and the young nerdy computer guy in the agency is the only one who can solve the problem. And he pairs up with a former tough guy – a Clint Eastwood, a Gene Hackman – and its Eastwood and the Nerd."

A long pause.

"Do you mind if I use that?" my friend asked.

"Take it," I said. "I'm working on a cancer comedy."

That's it for this week. Next week, paparazzi.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long