Friday, January 14, 2011

Free teleseminar on TV writing

A special bonus for Friday Question Day!! Next Thursday, January 20th at 6 PM Pacific/9 PM Eastern, I will be conducting a FREE teleseminar, answering your writing questions. It will last between 60 and 90 minutes. And you can get an mp3 of it to play on your boombox. You just go here for more information and to sign-up. Again, it’s free. No obligation. No salesman will call.
If I can't think of an appropriate photo I always just use one of Natalie Wood.
Okay, on to today’s Q’s:

We start with John, who has a follow-up to last week’s discussion of warm up men:

In the role of the "keep 'em warm" guy, was there ever a time when you did that for one of the scripts you an David had written where earlier, but the audience reaction to certain jokes hadn't been what you expected. Did that make you feel like you had to try harder to get the audience in a more receptive mood for the rest of the show, or were you thinking, "These miserable SOBs have no sense of humor, and probably ought to be shipped over to sit in the 'Happy Days' studio audience, where maybe they'll think Ted McGinley is a laugh riot." Or did someone else have to do the rewarming part, because you were in one of those set conferences with the producers on why you didn't get the reaction everyone was expecting?

Well, I wasn’t doing the warm-up this one night on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for a episode that David Isaacs and I wrote that played great all week long. But on show night it died. We were stymied. Turns out, half the audience was bussed in and couldn’t speak a word of English.

We didn’t know that at the time, and neither did Jay Tarses, the producer who was also doing the warm-up. He flat out turned on them. He’d say stuff like, “Hey, your Hearse is outside waiting” and “Raise your hand if you’re awake.” The half that did speak English was pissed. 

Rarely will the showrunner do the warm-up. He has too many other things to monitor and worry about. So any show that I ran, I left that chore to someone else. I was always available for those emergencies huddles to fix a scene or a joke.

The thing you have to remember about audiences: the ultimate quality of a show does not depend on the audience. I’ve seen shows go right through roof on the stage and you look at them in editing and say "what the hell were they all laughing at?  This is awful!"  Likewise, a show that played to a flat audience may come way up on the screen.

Here’s another follow-up to last week’s post by Troy:

So how much does a warm-up guy make per taping?

Top guys in multi-camera can make as much as $4,000 a night. Disney and Nickelodeon pay around $1,500 or less.

I don’t know about talk shows, but I would guess the warm-up guys for Leno, Letterman, and Conan get top pay.

carol asks:

I tried writing a script once, just for fun, and one of the hardest things for me was to introduce the characters and history in the 'pilot' without resorting to the whole 'as you know, Bob' thing.

What kind of 'show don't tell' exposition tricks do you have up your sleeve?

First off, don’t lay out all the exposition at one time. Dole it out slowly. And in comedies, try to weave the exposition into jokes. That’s for backstory.

As for conveying just who a character is, let his behavior, attitude, and decisions do that for you. How he reacts in specific moments when you know he has options informs us as to who he is.

Exposition is the hardest part of a pilot. That’s why I suggest your pilot stories be as simple as possible. The audience has a lot to process. Usually, their first priority is to get a handle on the characters. Then they have to piece together the relationships and decide whether or not they like these fictional fun devils. If the audience is still trying to figure out just who is who then they’re not going to laugh at the jokes.

For that reason, don’t cast two actors that look very similar. And although it’s a popular trend, don’t give girl characters boys’ names. Until we know these people well, when two characters are talking about Alex, and Sam, and Mel, we’re going to think those are three guys.

There’s also a lazy way of getting out exposition and that’s by using a narrator. Or, if you really don’t give a shit, just do the pop-up video thing and use those little cartoon bubbles. Blip!  He has a crush on Sally.  Blip!  She's the stupid sister. 

And finally, from Lou H.:

If the sitcoms you've written had been on networks that didn't run commercial breaks, would this have affected the way you broke the stories into acts?

Probably not to a great degree. You still start with a problem, build to a crisis, and head to a conclusion. Without commercial interruptions though, we’d have more flexibility on when that crisis point would come. On network shows it needs to come right around the middle. On non-commercial shows it could come anywhere. And if the story is better told with two smaller crisis points (a three act format), you’d have that luxury too. Networks generally give you very strict formats to follow. And they can be stifling, but then I see a show like THE GOOD WIFE and it follows all of the network conventions, and has solid act breaks that fall right where they need to be, and still they’re turning out the best written show on television.

What’s your question? Who knows? It might be one I answer next Thursday night in my teleseminar.

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