CTVW: Do you write timing into the script? How do you gauge timing without an audience?
KL: Sometimes we'll give indicators ... particularly in the movie we wrote, since we wouldn't be around to see it play. When you're writing for Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde-Pierce, you don't write any of that stuff. Just get out of the way.
CTVW: Some writers say they need to underwrite
, that is, if you write the way the star sounds, you don't leave them room for their performance.
KL: It depends on the actor. Some actors will bring surprising things to a part. Like Kelsey or David Hyde-Pierce or Ted Danson or Alan Alda. Shelley Long. These are very special people. We wouldn't underwrite, but we we might give David a line that you wouldn't give someone else because they couldn't pull it off. It might not look like a joke at all, but when David's done with it, it's funny.
CTVW: One thing I've run across is actors who like to paraphrase part of their lines. About half of them do. And the ones who say exactly the dialog as it's written on the page, and make it their own, always sound twice as good as the ones who paraphrase. But the ones who paraphrase somehow seem to think they'll sound more "natural" if they rework their own dialog so it sounds like themselves.
KL: By the time a show is filmed, the actors are saying exactly what's on the page. Camera crews are taking cues from the words. Some are word perfect. A few of them will say, "can I put a "handle" on this," a "look," a "listen" -- that'll go into a script. Most of them are pretty good. Ted Danson will throw in little handles.
One of my toughest jobs as a director is to make actors with different styles mesh together. They have different backgrounds, different processes. Some of them will just memorize the script and lock into it. If they do a line a certain way and it works, they will do it that way every single time. Others need to surround it a little bit. They get better every day. They play with it a little bit until they settle down. Kind of a balancing act.
Ted Danson, for example. He's so good and so effortless. Like Joe DiMaggio. If you watch Teddy on an early run through, it looks like he's going half speed. Mumbling his way through it. "Uh oh, he's got no energy, he keeps having to refer to the book..." But by the time you're shooting, he's word perfect and there's stuff there that you would never have thought of.
On the other hand, take Wendie Malick. When she does a line a certain way and it works, she'll lock into it. You can do 20 takes, Wendy will be perfect every single take. There's no right or wrong way.
CTVW: What are the biggest mistakes comedy staff writers can make on the job (aside from things that would be mistakes in any office, i.e. pissing off the boss, pissing off co-workers, failing to bathe)?
KL: Not being funny. Too arrogant. Not being funny. Tending to think they know it all. Not being funny. Not bothering to learn structure. Not learning from their elders. Not being funny.
CTVW: Do many comedy writers come up out of standup?
KL: No. It depends on the personality. I can't imagine Neil Simon ever going on stage. For him it was the typewriter.
Another common problem on staff is young writers are too
CTVW: -- meaning being funny in the room, not on the page--
KL -- always on. You just want to kill'em. Just be a real person when you're not writing. If that's possible.
CTVW: How important is a hook for creating a comedy show? Or is it all about the star and the experience of the writing staff? For example, Third Rock
has a high concept premise, but Friends
didn't have a hook.
did have a hook. They were a show about twentysomethings with no authority figure to explain it all for them. That was their hook. But it's all in the writing. You take a show like Cheers
. What's special about a show set in a bar?
On the other hand, you have to be pitching whatever it is the networks are looking for. Two years ago it was finding stars. They wanted the next Roseanne
, the next Tim Allen. If you pitched an ensemble comedy they wouldn't buy it.