Tag Archives: television writing

Pencil Pusher

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Back in January of 1988 I purchased my first computer.  It had a 10-megabyte hard drive; the salesman assured me, “That’s all you’ll ever need.”  It was not inexpensive, and neither was the printer that I got that day, but I was able to rationalize the extravagance because as a professional writer, I needed to upgrade my tools.

As I soon learned, though, it was very difficult for me to do the actual writing of scripts on a computer.  While I stared at the screen, hoping to get an idea for repartee among characters, the cursor just kept blinking at me, as if to say “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.”

So I went back to writing the way I’d been doing it for over a decade at that point, with a lined yellow tablet and a pencil.  That allowed me to work through a scene as the words came to me — sometimes quickly, and at other times glacially.  There are inevitably those periods when inspiration is elusive, so while trying to come up with the next amusing bit of dialogue, I’d stare at the ceiling, or glance out the window, or study my pencil.

Before long I’d be wondering why pencils have that hexagon shape, and why are so many of them yellow… and how the heck do they get the lead to stay inside there!?  In other words, the writer part of my brain would be given a little time off by the lobe that generates idle speculation.

I have since learned that the six-sided pencil has a couple of virtues:  supposedly it is easier to grip than a round pencil, and it won’t roll off your desk.  Round pencils are more common as souvenirs because, according to Pencils.com, they are easier to print on.

The majority of them are yellow because the premium pencil of the late 19th century, called the Koh-I-Noor, was yellow.  Other manufacturers followed suit to convey that their products were high-quality, too.

The precursors of the pencils we use today go back to the 1500s, but it was a man named Joseph Dixon (along with his son-in-law) who mechanized pencil manufacturing in the middle of the nineteenth century.  So, you’re wondering, how did they get the lead to stay in there?

OK, as you probably know, even though we call it lead, it really isn’t — it’s graphite mixed with clay.  Anyway, while workers in one part of the pencil factory are making those skinny rods of graphite, other workers are cutting cedar blocks into slats, and grooves are then carved into the slats.

The graphite rods (called “writing cores” by pencil professionals) are glued into the grooves.  Another grooved slat is glued onto the slat that has the writing cores, creating a pencil sandwich.  That sandwich is sliced into individual strips, which are sanded and painted.  The ferrule — that’s what the metal ring is called — is crimped into place on the end of the pencil, and an eraser is glued into it.

This process is repeated with impressive frequency:  Around fourteen billion pencils are made worldwide every year.  That suggests I’m not the only person on the planet staring at my pencil and hoping for inspiration to strike.

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Fresh Laughter

A view from the seats

You’re sitting at home, watching an alleged comedy on television.  A character in the show says, “My butt hurts,” or something else that falls well below your standard of what constitutes funny, but unseen people inside your television are roaring.  Some are even applauding a line of dialogue that made you sneer.  You dismiss the crowd reaction as “canned laughter”, assuming that it must be a recording stolen from some other show and cynically edited into this one. 

Well, you’re wrong.

OK, maybe not completely wrong (as I’ll explain in a bit), but generally the laughter you hear on a TV show soundtrack is supplied by people who are reacting to what they are seeing and hearing in person:  a real studio audience, in other words.  When you’re watching at home, you have no way of knowing that the actor had flubbed that mediocre line three takes in a row.  The studio audience knows, though, and when he finally gets it right, their boisterous laughter and applause is sort of a sarcastic cheer.

Now, here’s where you’re not wrong about canned laughter:  Occasionally there are jokes that do get the benefit of “sweetening”, as it’s called, but usually that means adding a few recorded chuckles, not major guffaws.  And that doesn’t happen nearly as often as you suspect.  For the most part, you’re hearing the honest audience reaction, whether you think it’s deserved or not — it’s fresh laughter, not canned.

So who are these studio audience people, and why do they find everything so darn funny?  There are the agents, managers, and current spouse of the star; the writer’s wife; some relatives of other cast and crew members.  Those people all have a financial interest in laughing loudly, but they represent a small percentage of the total audience.  Most of the 200+ seats are filled with people who are under no obligation to even smile.

There is an outfit in Los Angeles called Audiences Unlimited that is used by most of the show production companies to recruit guests and distribute tickets, which are free.  It probably was a breeze to find people interested in seeing Cheers or Seinfeld or Everybody Loves Raymond.  On less popular shows, recruiters may have to resort to, “Hey, man, at least it’s a chance to get out of the rain for a while.”

Once inside the studio, the audience is greeted by a “warmup man” (or woman) who keeps convivial patter going during the breaks in filming —  it often takes 2 or 3 hours to film a half-hour show.  The warmup man also reminds the audience about plot developments in previous scenes.  I’m guessing that when you watch the show at home you don’t have a warmup man; you have a sour stomach from that leftover pizza you probably shouldn’t have eaten, and the dog is clawing at the door so it can go outside and do its business.  Distractions like that may make the show seem less funny to you than it does to the people who are seeing it in person.

There’s also something to be said for the collective experience they’re having — laughter is contagious, as the saying goes.  (The star’s spouse may also be contagious, but that’s just a rumor.)  Real laughter — fresh laughter, not the canned stuff — is definitely a live virus.

What Do You Do?

Words, not what, from long ago

A friend of ours is a Biochemical Geneticist.  That’s a very impressive job title, don’t you think?  When you hear it, your first reaction is, “She must be smart.”  And then, if you’re like me, you wonder what a Biochemical Geneticist does all day.  I’ve asked her about that a time or two and I think I have the general idea, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to step right in and fill her shoes if a biochemical and/or genetic emergency arose.  I’d know enough to put on rubber gloves, but after that I’d be stumped.

There are other occupations that don’t require much explanation.  If someone tells you they’re a realtor or a fireman, your next question probably isn’t, “what the heck is that?”  When I became a television writer, I assumed my job description was similarly obvious.  Turns out I was mistaken.

At some function at which a bunch of strangers were attempting to make small talk, a guy asked me the inevitable, “So what do you do?”  “I’m a television writer,” I replied.  “Oh,” he responded, “You write the words, or what?”  I’ve often wondered what he thought “or what” might include.  I imagine myself saying, “Yes, I write the ‘or what’.  Specifically, I write the elegant costumes the actors wear.”  But the truth is, I specialized in writing words.

I’ve also been asked on several occasions if I just write for one character on a show.  People who ask this evidently assume that I was responsible for putting words in the mouth of, say, Colonel Potter, while another wrote exclusively for Hawkeye, someone else thought up clever remarks for Father Mulcahy, etc.

It is true that there are multiple writers on every television show and that there is a good deal of collaboration involved, but at some point a writer (or two) goes off and turns out a script.  Alone.  That script includes not only the words that all of the actors are supposed to say, but brief descriptions of the action as well.  It’s necessary, for example, to indicate that Cliff walks into the bar before you have him start talking.  And all of these words are supposed to mesh in such a way that they tell an entertaining story.

Once the script is submitted, the other writers offer suggestions for improvements, and many changes to the original are made during the production week.  For some reason, the altered pages of the script are printed and distributed to cast and crew on different-colored paper.  Every show has its own pattern for that, but it’s usually something like: original pages are white, first revision pages are blue, and second revision is pink.  Pages that undergo a third revision might be green.  It’s been a while, but I recall that sometimes even more colors were used; by the time pages were printed on goldenrod, the writer of the original script was sighing deeply and shaking his head in despair at having chosen this career.

That may be more than you care to know about the mechanics of television writing, but if you run into a TV writer at some gathering, now you won’t have to ask whether they write the words or the what.  Oh, and if you’re ever in one of those awkward social situations and find yourself talking to a meteorologist, do me a favor and ask him or her why meteorologists study weather and not — excuse me — meteors!?  I’d love to hear what they say about that.  Are they just trying to confuse us, or what?

Overheard

"Sorry, but I couldn't help overhearing..."

"Sorry, but I couldn't help overhearing..."

A guy with a big gut can pick up the scent of a backyard barbecue even if it’s a block away.  Similarly, a scriptwriter can overhear potential snippets of dialogue in other people’s conversations even if it’s taking place across a convention hall.  It’s not eavesdropping, really; it’s just that the writer’s sonar has detected a sequence of words floating through the air and it registers, “I might be able to use that.”

I don’t remember if this one ultimately wound up in a script or not, and I don’t remember where I was when I heard this exchange:  “I can’t seem to find my sunglasses.”  “You mean the ones on your head?”  You can see why that sent me scrambling for pencil and paper, can’t you?  That just sounds like it should come out of the mouths of characters on a TV show.

There are other times when overheard conversations wouldn’t be suitable for family viewing, but they have their own intrinsic entertainment value.  A few years ago Sally and I were in New York and took the boat out to Liberty Island.  We stood respectfully under the Statue of Liberty, our necks craned so we could look up at this monument to freedom.  An imaginary orchestra performed “America the Beautiful” in our heads; it was a stirring moment.  Behind us was a group of school kids.  One of them asked, “Who wants to play drug dealer?”  Several others enthusiastically responded, “I do!  I do!”  The imaginary orchestra instantly became an imaginary train wreck.

I’m still haunted by stuff I’ve overheard that defies plausible context.  What had preceded some enigmatic phrase or sentence I heard?  How had the conversation gotten to this particular cluster of words?  And what followed it — a gunshot, perhaps?

Here’s an example; it also took place in New York City.  The restaurant where we were eating was crowded and noisy, but there was a brief lull in the chatter and clatter, allowing us to hear a middle-aged man say to the woman across the table from him:

“In ten years, your great beauty will be gone.”

In an instant, I determined that we were seated close enough to the couple that we were probably in the splatter zone when she upended the table and stormed out of the restaurant.  She didn’t do that, though; she sat there silently, glaring at him.  That gave me the chance to evaluate his statement.  Frankly, he may have been a bit generous in characterizing her as a great beauty.  She was kempt and had the requisite number of facial features, but was not what you’d call a head-turner.  She was attractive in the same way you might consider your aunt attractive.

But still!  Why in the world would the guy say something like that?  The noise in the restaurant resumed, so I couldn’t hear what followed.  Oh, he continued talking, and she continued glowering, but I couldn’t catch enough actual words to know if, well, let me think — maybe he’s a plastic surgeon, using the great-beauty-will-be-gone line as a pitch for a facial tightening.

It briefly occurred to me that maybe she was an actress and he was her agent; he was trying to gently prepare her for the transition from leading-lady roles to “character” roles.  Maybe he was saying that in ten years her only offers would be to play things like Matron #2 in a women-in-prison movie.  But as I indicated, she wasn’t really the leading-lady type now. 

OK… then were they a married couple, and he was trying to provoke a divorce?  Or — almost too awful to contemplate — was this a first date?  As a romantic overture, “In ten years, your great beauty will be gone” ranks only slightly above, “Whoa.  Look what I just dug out of my ear.”

Sally and I finished our meal and left without getting any more clues to the mystery.  Sometimes it would be better if I just didn’t overhear stuff like that in the first place, but I can’t help it.  And ever since that night, anytime I’m in Manhattan and hear a siren, I can’t help wondering if that woman finally stopped that guy from ever flattering anyone again.

Source Material

Fodder

Fodder

Several times over the course of my television writing career I was asked by civilians, “Where do you get the ideas for stories?”  The truthful answer, I suppose, would be “We steal them wherever we can.”  Everything is potential source material for a roomful of writers who need to come up with twenty-some episodes every season.

I’ll sheepishly admit that basic story ideas, which TV writers call “notions”, were appropriated not only from our own life experiences, but from family and friends, too.  By way of example:  Over dinner one night, a couple of friends mentioned a misunderstanding they’d had years before, about her engagement ring; I embellished the basic facts into an episode of Cheers called “Diamond Sam”.  In every writers’ room I was ever in, a lot of personal stuff got shared, and it wasn’t always our own personal stuff.

I also regularly searched newspapers and magazines for possible story ideas.  Writers for drama shows — especially the police procedurals — do that too, but they favor a ripped-from-the-headlines approach, the sensational crime stuff that makes the front page.  For comedy shows, on the other hand, I ripped obscure items from page 27.  I’d clip out those little oddities that often go overlooked in hopes that they might be useful sometime, and occasionally they were.  While going through my file cabinet the other day, I came across a folder full of yellowed clippings that for one reason or another never morphed into a television script.  I should probably throw them out, but some of them are just too good to abandon.

Consider this little nugget that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 18, 1987.  The headline was You Can’t Teach an Old Thief New Tricks:

An elderly man whom prosecutors called “an interesting guy but an irredeemable crook” was facing yet another prison term Wednesday for his latest arrest in a criminal career stretching back to the years before World War I.  Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Boag said Ronnie Winston Fairbanks, 88, who has been arrested at least 137 times and used more than 80 aliases during a long life of petty crime, was arrested again on suspicion of shoplifting June 10 at a Robinson’s department store in downtown Los Angeles, where a store security agent said he had stuffed $174 worth of women’s earrings in his shirt and a duffel bag.

Boag said Fairbanks has a 37-page “rap sheet” dating back to a juvenile arrest in 1914 and was on probation at the time of his arrest for a June, 1986 incident in which police at Los Angeles International Airport found him in possession of two stolen suitcases.  “He was warned by the judge then that if he violated parole, he would go to state prison for two years,” Boag said.  “I feel sorry for the guy, but what can you do — he just won’t stop stealing.”

Fairbanks, whose colorful list of aliases includes the name “Ivanhoe Boggle”, told police after his airport arrest that he had spent 35 years in prison.  He carried 10 Social Security cards, each bearing a different identity, and his arrest sheet showed arrests and convictions in at least 10 states — though none for a crime more serious than theft.

One of my few career disappointments is that I never found a way to work Ivanhoe Boggle into a script.