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Friday, June 22, 2007

Guest Blog: Upfront and Behind, Part II

And so, Rouge Wavers, today we delve a bit deeper into the three-ring circus that is producing a pilot.....

Upfront and Behind, Part II
by M.

With the production machine spinning in high gear and the beginning of a two week countdown until show night, my boss hosted a casual table read of the script with the actors, giving them a chance to meet one another and hear everything out loud, and more importantly, giving her writer peers, a chance to hear the script and suggest changes. (At this point, mind you, we still didn’t have three roles completely cast.) In comedy the most important question is, does it make you laugh? And as any writer’s room can attest, there is a team of funny professors behind any comedy on television. As a writer also, what impressed me the most in this part of the process was the lack of ego involved. My boss, who created this pilot based on a personal experience, could have easily defended against any story changes, or held on firmly to jokes she wrote and believed in. But, no, if there was a better, funnier, easier suggestion made, she jumped on it. As writers, no matter how much we can be open to notes and suggestions, there is always something we love and want to hold onto in our scripts, but in this television sitcom world, anything is up for grabs. (One thing that was slightly different at this point is that this group of writers had all worked with each other before, so there was already a level of trust and comfort in the room.) These writers all sat together after this reading and made the script better. The writers assistants then double checked the script for errors and had the new drafts delivered to the actors that night.

The next day was an official network table read where the actors had to adjust to the new changes immediately, and do it in front of an audience of 75 people from the network, production company, production staff and more. After this reading, the writers all went back to the writer’s room and once again worked for hours making the script better.

For another week while the actors rehearsed on the set with the director, the writers would rewrite the script every day. Some days only one joke would change, on others whole scenes would be deleted or rewritten. I saw the ending of the pilot script, which seemed like the only point that would never budge, get completely rewritten. As far as I was concerned, the magic of the show happened in that writer’s room, where every day an evolving group of comedy writers (most with Emmy’s on their mantels at home) would take an already brilliant script and go through it line by line and make it better. They were like professional figure skaters, showing off a finely tuned skill and making it look easy. I had to bite my tongue and not chime in (knowing your place in the room is a BIG lesson, one that no one ever taught me, but I figured the “Speak when spoken to” rule was a good one to evoke here.) These writers brought the last 10 years or more of television comedy to millions of people. They were witty, warm, and intelligent; it was like witnessing the best cocktail party ever and just eavesdropping on the wittiest comedic conversations. The curtain in Oz was pulled aside and instead of great looking actors with terrific comebacks and witty one-liners, these people who I buy my morning coffee next to, who I was ordering dinner for and assigning parking spaces, they put the words into those actors’ mouths. They were really the witty comeback people, the terrific one-liners. I secretly wanted to be their friend and take them to every party possible, just to show off their quick comedic wit.

And it was these people who made a script better. And, by better, I mean, funnier. They would try out their new jokes with the actors in rehearsal, and if a new joke got more laughs, it stayed. If it didn’t, they would stay until any hour of night to find a suitable replacement.

Any writer who thinks he or she is ever done with a script hasn’t worked in television. Chances are it can always be better.

We were into the home stretch. The final two weeks of rehearsals before show night. Every minute in these two weeks counted so much that my boss had me custom make her a calendar of only these two weeks, looking at a full month was too much to process. We just needed to get through two more weeks. I ordered pre-made meals, called in the housekeeper and even dogwalker to handle my own life, because it was all going away for the next two weeks.

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