Friday, December 17, 2010

Debunking Robert McKee

Aloha and mele kameekeiiemaaakaaa (I think that’s how you spell it). Here are some Friday questions you’ve posed over the last couple of weeks.

paul get us started:

I just finished reading Robert McKee's Story, about screenwriting for film. One of the interesting things he instructs is about how in each scene there must be a change of value, from positive to negative, or vice-versa. Do sitcoms follow the same rule?

No. Because it is a made-up, bullshit rule. We try to make sure each scene moves the story forward and is as fresh and funny as possible. I’m not saying that Robert McKee doesn’t provide a valuable service in stressing the importance of story structure, but his dogmatic theories and over-analysis do as much to strangle the process as aid it.

I’d love to be in the room where Chuck Lorre is pitching out a scene and a writer says, “There’s still no change of value yet in this scene”.  Talk about a "big bang"...

Ed Blonski asks:

What is your favorite "era" to write for?

Was it the 50's for MASH? Contemporary for Cheers & Fraiser?

The reason I ask is because I miss the sitcoms or dramadies set in the 30's & 40's. Such as Tales of the Golden Monkey, Hogan's Heroes, Remember WENN, and the Waltons.

Any possibilities that we would see something like that again on TV?

I tend to prefer writing contemporary because there’s more to draw upon, but it depends on the project. The problem with period comedies is that to be authentic a lot of the references will be too obscure.

We had that issue with MASH but honestly, just ignored it. We were sprinkling in Adolph Menjou jokes. We knew most people wouldn’t get them but oh, those that did really got some boffo laughs.

There have been some historical sitcoms including THANKS and BEST OF THE WEST. And so far audiences have had a tough time connecting to them (despite the fact that both were terrific shows). But you know this business – someone with clout will do a period piece comedy. It will be a big hit. And the next year there will be eight of them.

Care to guess how many GLEE-type musical shows are being developed this year?

From Alex:

Back in college I had a Korean friend who hated MASH because, in his words, the Koreans were always played by Japanese actors. I know that wasn't literally always true but a lot of times it was.

So I'm curious if there was any particular reason for this. And secondarily when it comes to casting and the character is presented as a specific race or ethnicity, how much effort is put into the actor matching that.

On MASH we always tried to cast Koreans first. But there just were not that many of them. We were forced to widen our net. What became really tricky was when ywe had two actors vying for a role. One was Korean, the other was not, but the non-Korean was a better or funnier actor. It depended on the case, but sometimes we opted for authenticity and other times we just went with the better performer.

John wonders:

Ken, What's the longest you've ever held a story idea, because the premise/key scene was good, but overall just didn't feel right of flow correctly for whatever reason and required retinkering before it was strong enough to film?

There are movie and play ideas in my drawer that have been there for twenty years. What I do, when I think of a notion, I write it down and file it. Often something will come along months or years later and I will say, “that’s the element that was missing!” And suddenly the project takes shape. The key is to always be on the lookout for ideas, or interesting characters, or stories. You never know when that “aha” moment will hit.

Sometimes movie or play ideas come to you whole cloth. Other times you have to be patient.

For series, at the start of each season, we’ll usually spend a few weeks just spitballing ideas, coming up with possible stories. Some work out, some don’t, some get held over until later seasons.  It took two years to get "Point of View" off the ground at MASH.

And finally, from sjml:

Ken, I notice that the overwhelming majority of How I Met Your Mother episodes are directed by the same person, Pam Fryman.

How common is it in sitcoms to have this level of continuity in the director's chair? Do you think it can adversely affect a show's tone to have too many directors?

It’s more common now that there are fewer sitcoms. Directors used to like the variety and flexibility of working on different shows. Now they’re happy to just lock up a series.

Especially if a show has a very distinctive format, like HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, it’s a big advantage to have the continuity of one director. And in the case of that show, they have one of the very best in Pam Fryman. I love her so much I had her direct a pilot of ours… and I’m a director myself.

The main thing is the director has to get along with the cast. The crew may love him, the writers may love him, but if there’s friction with the cast, it’s just not going to work.

But when there is a director that everybody is comfortable with, it does make the process easier. A certain rhythm is established.

That said, sometimes it’s very helpful to have a different eye and sensibility once in a while. On the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW they had a series director, Jay Sandrich. There was one script he absolutely loathed; to the point where he refused to direct it. So the producers got Joan Darling instead. And she did a pretty spectacular job on “Chuckles Bites the Dust”.

What’s your question, bruddah?

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