Sunday, 11 November 2012

How to Write a TV Show

The variety show hosts of radio’s great days in the 1940s didn’t stand in front of a microphone and make up a half-hour show on the spot every week. There were highly-paid writers, though some stars had a reputation of treating them like crap and leaving the impression they were the fount of all comedy creativity on their shows.

Some of the stars got involved in the writing process. Jack Benny was one, though he didn’t sit there and come up with the jokes. And just as Benny let his cast get the funny lines, he generally let his writers do the writing. No wonder his writers stuck with him all those years.

The San Mateo Times TV columnist put together a how-they-write-the-Benny-show story on March 16, 1957. Jack’s radio show was off the air by then, but his radio writers were still with him and adapted some of their radio routines for Benny’s television show. It was a little difficult, partly because radio is not a visual medium, and partly because some of Benny’s radio cast didn’t move with him to TV, or appeared only occasionally. But the method of writing the TV show was exactly the same as it was for the radio show in the mid-to-late ‘40s. And the writers still had the one main cog of the Benny radio show—Benny himself. His radio persona was so well defined, moving it to another medium was simple. And now his fans could see him stand there and react to all the things that used to happened to him on radio. The laughs poured out. It sure made writing easy.

Comedy Is A Real Science: Writers

For Sam Perrin, George Balzer, Al Gordon and Hall Goldman [sic], the talk about the high mortality rate among comedy writers is just so much talk. They know nothing about such things.
The talented, and lucky, men are the four who pick each other’s brains each week to come up with eomedy material for Jack Benny on his twice monthly show. Perrin and Balzer have been pounding a typewriter in the Benny outfit for fourteen years, while Gordon and Goldman have been around, happily, for seven years or so.
Most comedy writers last about two years with a comedian. They, used up, drift into another show with another star and a different format—or sometimes wind up as difficult producers and directors.
THESE FOUR GUYS think they have the formula for longevity. This week they told the secret. In case any budding young writers might be looking over my shoulder, here’s part of the secret.
The first ingredient necessary for the concoction of this humorous pies [sic] is of course the basic idea. The idea may come from Jack, anyone of the four writers, members of the cast or even an actual event that may have occurred to any of them.
FIRST OF ALL, the four work as two teams. Perrin and Balzer work as one team, while Gordon and Goldman work together. Most of the time they split a show in half. One team will work on the monologue and that tag that comes at the end, the other team writing a skit that comprises the body of the show.
Occasionally they all pitch in and work a show together for its entire length.
Being funny is hard serious work, they all claim. Perrin says, “We work in our shirt sleeves” and he added, “we quite frequently are exhausted by the time a show is put on.”
TO THESE FOUR, comedy writing is an exact science. “All of us have studied comedy writing, we hope we know what makes people laugh and what makes them cry,” one of the men said.
A Benny show starts with a story conference during which the basic ideas is placed before the writers. Then begins the grim business of turning a basic idea into a side-splitting 30-minute television show.
One of the writers might begin by saying “all right fellows, here is the situation. Jack decides he’s getting too fat and has to go on a diet.”
From this moment on, all the writers start throwing fat man gags and the dietetic situations, all tailored to the Benny style of comedy. This conference may last for an hour, maybe all day, but when the writers split into teams they have the show on its way.
A COUPLE OF DAYS LATER the boys get back together with Jack who listens to the rough script and makes suggestions. Occasionally he and his writers disagree. In most cases however, Jack defers to their judgement, proven by many years Jack has had one of the nation’s top comedy show.
A few days later they all get together again for a first read through with the cast. Another day or two of rehearsal during which gags that didn’t quite come off are changed. The script is polished and the show is soon on the air.
During the actual broadcast the four writers sit in the control room. They laugh at some of their own jokes, and grimace at others. If the audience reaction is good they go away feeling good. If not they are depressed. After a few comments about the show, a hand shake from Jack, they immediately start a new show. It’s a vicious circle, but it pays off.

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