Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My most difficult character to write for

Recently I spoke at a UCLA writing class and a student asked, “Of all the shows you’ve worked on, which character was the most difficult to write?” I had to really think. Finally, the answer I gave was Fay from WINGS.

But first, understand that I love the actress who played her, Rebecca Schull. She’s both a wonderful person and actor and did a remarkable job with what she had to work with.

But Fay, the character was hard to write for. Why? Because she was so NICE. She was sweet and kind and cheerful and wise, and those traits are all death to a comedy writer.

If you’re writing a sitcom pilot or comedy screenplay, take care when you’re creating characters that you give them flaws. The more, the funnier. They don’t have to be unlikable, but you’ll find you have a lot more comic ammunition if they’re not perfect. They can be vain, selfish, suspicious, cowardly, stingy, forgetful, neurotic, immature, untruthful, love sick, dim, cocky, opinionated, bossy, verbose, jealous, insecure, obsessed, or a hundred other traits.

We’d sit in a WINGS rewrite and need a joke for Fay and be stymied. We had little to draw upon. The best we could do was give her the element of surprise; have her say something unexpected. And if I may say so, I thought the WINGS writers did a fantastic job servicing that character. Fay had a lot of great lines, but it was like pushing a basketball through a garden hose.

Again, Rebecca was a joy, and a total gamer. She was willing to try anything. So she does not apply to the next paragraph.

But a lot of actors will balk at their characters having flaws. They don’t want to be seen in a bad light. They don’t want to appear vain, or foolish, or an asshole. What they don’t understand is that they are shooting themselves in the foot. Being Captain America or Mother Teresa doesn’t automatically make you likeable. What does? Being interesting. Funny. Relatable. Not taking yourself too seriously. Being a good sport.

Networks sometimes don't understand this either.  You'll frequently get the note, "Gee, he was mean.  I don't like him when he says that."  And if you bow to their notes and pressure from the image-conscious actors you'll wind up turning your show into a nice, lovely, bland rice cake.  This is one battle worth fighting.   Comedy is edgy.  Comedy is subversive.  You're not writing THE WALTONS.

I had the solution for Fay, but the producers never bought it. I said, have her be as sweet as you want. Just make her an ax murderer. I lobbied for this for years, always to no avail. It would be midnight. We would be struggling for a Fay line, I would pitch something, no one would laugh, and I’d say, “Okay, now picture her saying it with an ax in her hands. Suddenly you have comic gold!” Like I said, the producers never bit… although there were a couple of times at 2:45 in the morning when I could swear they were wavering.

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