This is the grueling part of the year for those of us who are developing television shows. It's the worst part of a writer's life: the part where he's actually supposed to write. Sure, we complain about casting and editing and producing and meeting with networks and studio executives, but the worst part of the job -- the absolute worst part -- is when we have to sit down with someone we basically loathe -- ourselves -- and do what simply does not come naturally. That is, to write.
Oh, I've heard writers say how much the love it, how much they look forward to sitting down at the keyboard and hammering out the dialogue, and when I hear that, I just think to myself that that writer is probably...really awful.
And I've seen people at local coffeeshops, laptops open, cursors blinking, staring into the middle distance with an expression both dreamy and quizzical, and then, lightbulb!, off they go, merrily typing away, smiling and nodding at their own magic words as they zip across the screen.
That never happens to me. I'm not one of those writers who say, ---You know, I don't really write, actually, I just let my characters tell me what they want to say, and do what they want to do, and I just, basically, take dictation. You know?---
No, I don't.
We're supposed to be writing two scripts, but it's slow going. It's hard to get up the enthusiasm for yet another show that may not get shot, and even if it does, may not get ordered to series, and even if it does, may not last. And enthusiasm, actually, is the one ingredient absolutely and perversely necessary to good writing. I tried to explain this to my agent recently.
I feel like I'm stuck in a bad
pattern -- we do a show, they put it on, they take it off,
we do a show, they put it on, they take it off. It's like
we're in this awful rhythm -- do a show, get cancelled,
do a show, get cancelled, like, like... MY AGENT (V.O.)
Some kind of sit-com script? ME
Yeah. MY AGENT (V.O.)
What's wrong with that? A long pause.
I don't know what's wrong with that,
actually. MY AGENT (V.O.)
I mean, it works for half-hour comedy. ME
Yeah, but I'm not sure life really follows
the patterns of situation comedy structure. MY AGENT (V.O.)
You aren't? ME
You are? MY AGENT (V.O.)
I have a teenager at home and an elderly
parent in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Trust me.
It does. It really really really does. So get writing. Charlie Chaplin once explained that there are two ways to film the old guy-slips-on-a-banana-peel joke. The first, unfunny, way goes like this: cut to the guy walking, oblivious. Cut to the banana peel, lying in wait. Cut to a wide shot of the guy approaching the banana peel. Cut to a close-up of the banana peel, just as the guy's foot hits it. Cut back to the wide shot, as the guy slips on the peel and lands on his rear end, which as everyone knows from cartoons, is the funniest part of the human body and one which registers no real pain.
The second, funny, way to film that same sequence is as follows: cut to the guy, walking. Cut to the banana peel, lying in wait. Cut to a wide shot of the guy approaching the banana peel. Cut to a close-up of the banana peel, just as the guy's foot almost hits it. Cut back to the wide shot, as the guy deftly steps over the banana peel, smiling smugly...and falls into an open manhole.
Get the difference? The trick is to make sure the audience never knows which part is the set up and which part is the joke. Until they start laughing. So maybe I should get back to work.
For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.