Thursday, July 28, 2011

The inside story on DREAM ON

Here's another Friday question that deserves a whole post... and a guest to write it. The question is from Chris, who asks:

Do you have any idea how they used to write Dream On? It had these old movie/tv sequences in between characters' lines to make things more funny. Did the writers come up with the jokes based on old tv shows/movies they remembered or did they have people to help them with those/come up with better ones?

To answer this I went to one of the writer/producers of DREAM ON, Jeff Greenstein. Jeff went on to produce obscure shows like FRIENDS, WILL & GRACE, PARENTHOOD, and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.  He more than graciously fills us in. 

The short answer is both. Here's the long answer.

Before the Dream On staff convened for our first season, we spent hours watching tapes of old anthology series like GE Theatre and Jane Wyman Playhouse (yes, there were tapes in those days, chilluns), painstakingly logging intriguing clips into our notebooks. Sometimes stories would emerge from these sessions—for example, when creators Marta Kauffman & David Crane noticed the startling number of times people offered each other coffee: "Would you like some coffee?" "More coffee?" They concocted a story where main character Martin Tupper has to kick caffeine, only to be plagued by "Getcha some coffee?" "Have another cup," and so on.

Over time, however, the writers came to depend on a research staff whose job it was to watch the old shows and log them into a computer database. (Some of these researchers, notably Greg Malins, later became successful writers in their own right.) Stories were broken without much regard to their clip content; we always believed an episode should work without them. But then, once we were off writing the draft, we'd reach an emotional moment in a scene and say something like "CLIP TO COME: A single tear rolls down an Indian's cheek." The script would then be reviewed by a researcher who'd tell us, "Well, I don't have a crying Indian, but I do have a clip of a guy playing a a tiny violin." So we'd rewrite the script accordingly.

Every once in a while, we'd come across a clip that was so delightful we'd build an entire sequence around it. Jeff Strauss and I wrote an episode where a marathon sex session was intercut with dry narration of a rocket launch: "Yes, the big rocket was off, climbing into the atmosphere with a tremendous thrust of power." And then we'd cut to Martin, well... thrusting. You get the idea.

My favorite of these was an episode called "Calling the Kettle Black," which won us the coveted and defunct CableACE award. Martin finds a joint in his son's sock drawer and gives the kid the "just say no" speech. Cut to an old clip of Nancy Reagan saying "Good for you."

There was also an entire post-production phase where exec producer Kevin Bright would insert or alter clips to punch up a scene. Hence, in a way, the writing process continued all the way through editing.

So to return to the short answer: sometimes the clip tail would wag the writing dog, sometimes vice versa. It lent an additional level of difficulty to the scripts, but it also saved us from having to write subtext. And I think we can all say hurray for that.

Thanks, Jeff.  Both for the answer and some GREAT shows over the years. 

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