What better way to kick off Martin Luther King weekend than with some Friday Questions?
Kieran is up first:
I was watching the 'Big Bang Theory' pilot (the one that aired, not the disaster that didn't) the other day, and was struck by the fact that although Sheldon in particular was neeeearly the finished article, there were certain aspects - not least, his initial willingness to donate to a sperm bank - that he would never do even a few episodes later.
With the obvious caveat that many characters grow and evolve over time, in a show as in real life (Hawkeye and Hot Lips being prime examples that come to mind), generally speaking do you look back and feel that most of your characters have arrived fully formed? Or how many episodes do you feel it takes them to fill out fully? Or does it vary widely?
Here’s the dance. As the writer, you’d like all of your characters fully formed right from the get-go. But once you cast it, see the dynamics, and get a sense of what works, things change. So you have to be flexible enough and willing enough to change things – sometimes rather drastically. These projects take on a life of their own and sometimes there is a real learning curve before you figure out the characters, relationships, tone, storylines that work, etc.
On the other hand, certain characters do arrive fully formed. Diane Chambers on CHEERS is maybe the best example. Shelley absolutely nailed it.
Recently Gawker posted the minimum salary for staff writers (eg $3,703/wk for a 20 week guarantee). This got me to thinking... what is a staff writer's commitment to a show? If it is in production for 26 weeks per year, are they free the rest of the time to pursue other writing assignments? And if they choose to pursue other assignments, what impact might it have on their ongoing employment the next season?
Some deals are for number of weeks and others are for number of episodes. Sometimes you get screwed if it’s number of episodes. Let’s say a show has production issues and shuts down for a few weeks. The writing staff still works those weeks. So you’re essentially working for free those weeks.
Since staff writers are busy all year on their shows, the only moonlighting they might do is development (writing a pilot). Some deals allow for this, others require exclusivity to the show or the production company that makes the show. So if you’re on a 20th show and you have a pilot you will have to do it through 20th.
My twelve-year-old kid is a huge fan of the Good Wife and has a terrific idea for it. Does this mean he has to write a spec script? He's a kid with a great sense of perspective, (and humor) and honestly, he's got a great--and unexpected--idea. At twelve, he's unlikely to be doing this for a career, but this is a kid with both school and writing anxiety--he missed half of last year after his teacher left school abruptly--so I'm excited anything that might encourage him to be excited about something remotely academic.
Really, what he would prefer is simply to write to them and tell them his idea and have them say, hey, kid, great. Keep up the good work. (Says his Mom) Any suggestions are much appreciated.
Yes, I would write the producers, Robert & Michelle King and say exactly what you wrote to me. Shows generally don’t look at unsolicited ideas, but if the goal is encourage your son they may just oblige.
When I was on MASH we got a script on notebook paper from a 10 year-old. We sent him an autographed cast photo, and a whole packet of scripts, autographed pictures, and MASH swag.
And finally, from Bobby M.:
When I was in undergrad, a teacher of mine told me that many contemporary sitcoms are based off of Jewish theater: the Rabbi, the Putz, the Schmuck, and the Princess appear as the main character archetypes. He specifically cited Frasier, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, and even Friends to some extent. Now I'm in grad school, and my theater history teacher suspects the tradition dates as far back as Plautus and the birth of New Comedy.
My question to you—as a college professor and writer of one of the aforementioned shows—is how aware of this were you when writing for TV? Did you work to establish characters as these specific archetypes?
Thanks! (and if you answer my question, I promise to buy your book, which I hear is available on Amazon for $2.99)
Yes it is, Bobby. And it's as funny as ever.
With all due respect to your professor, no. I have never considered the Jewish Theater for inspiration in creating a series. Nor has any comedy writer I have ever met.
That certain character types reoccur in series has more to do with (a) the dynamics of the series itself, and (b) certain comic types are proven winners.
When I develop a pilot I look for the theme, a premise that’s fresh, and characters that are interesting and will relate to each other in fun exciting ways.
I seriously wonder how many of today’s younger TV writers have even heard of the Jewish Theater.
Happy to answer your question. Please leave it in the comments section. Thanks.