Thursday, November 29, 2012

Angus and Charlie said it like it is.

I had decided that I wouldn't write anything about Angus T. Jones calling Two and A Half Men 'filth' and saying that we shouldn't watch it. 

Unfortunately, I then happened to read Ken Levine's completely one-sided post about the issue and decided that I need to weigh in because the whole thing makes me feel pretty mad.

Now, I'm not saying that I don't find some of the comments that Angus has made about his beliefs and religion a bit troubling, because, I think everyone perhaps should.  

Also, I'm not saying that in a somewhat normal situation I wouldn't find him to be a somewhat ungrateful person for making millions from a show and then openly trashing it. 

But we're talking about Two and A Half Men here, the ultimate flagship of lazy, unambitious, crappy writing, a show that doesn't represent any values,  a show that doesn't even pretend that it's trying to make the world a better place.

It's run by Chuck Lorre, the guy who wrote in a  public vanity card (when Charlie Sheen was in rehab) 'jokingly' that he hopes that Sheen dies before he does.

Even only based on that, I think it's more than understandable if the stars of the show at some point simply aren't able to take it anymore. (Sheen called it eight years of emotional oppression)

But what really troubles me is how the media plays this thing. According to them, anyone who walks away from 'easy' money.. ..well, that person can't be trusted.

I mean, why did Sheen walk away from a show that made him millions? Why? He must be crazy.

Now it's the same situation with Angus. He's made millions from the show. Why would he do this? He must be.. (pick your word).

The only person from the original cast who hasn't had enough is Jon Cryer. He plays Alan who is basically a man-whore on the show.

For some reason the media thinks that he is the good guy here. They think that it takes a lot of courage to take the money and not say a damn thing about the lack of morals and the lack of quality on the show.

That's not how it's supposed to go. Right?

Monday, November 19, 2012

A sitcom book that doesn't suck.

Well, I finally decided to write about a book that isn't completely useless when it comes to writing spec scripts. In fact, I would go as far as to say that 'Elephant Bucks' - by Sheldon Bull - is the best how-to sitcom book out there.

There are numerous reasons why the book is better than the rest out there and one of the most important reasons is that the book actually makes sense. By that I mean that after you read it, the chances are that you might start writing and stop procrastinating. At least that's what happened to me.

So, the book has a great section about structure. It gives you seven plot elements that you should think about when you're trying to come up with a story/storyline. (depending on your character, active or passive, these are first goal/problem, obstacle, first action, act break, second problem/goal, second action and resolution).

The reason that this section is so good and helpful is that it concentrates on characters and what motivates them. Nothing is more important than your characters wanting or needing to solve something. If your characters don't have a goal or a problem, they're stuck in a room doing nothing like Penny, Amy & Bernadette on the Big Bang Theory.

Perhaps the most important thing that I learned about structure is the 'first action', which Sheldon calls 'an unwise decision'. This decision is important, because when your character does something, ahem, unwise, that action can develope into an actual storyline - not just into a series of pointless 'and then' scenes that South Park's Trey Parker has talked about.

It is of course up to you to come up with those ideas, but 'unwise decision' is a much easier term to understand than the usual 'inciting incident'. I still haven't figured out what that really means. I don't think there's any reason to make structure intentionally difficult to understand and Sheldon, unlike others, makes it pretty easy for the reader (he really does).

The way Sheldon's book differs from all those others, is that in 'Elephant Bucks', he actually writes an episode with us (Frasier). This is such a simple idea and it works beautifully because we get to read how Sheldon plans his episode and what his thought processes throughout the script are. He goes step by step through those seven plot elements, and voila, in the end it turns out we have come up with pretty good storylines and a script.

Other than that, there's stuff like editing your script and how to rewrite dialogue among other things that are really valuable. Brevity in scriptwriting is usually a virtue, so it doesn't hurt that Sheldon chimes in on that.

I also have to say that there's another big gem in the book besides that 'unwise decision' and that is Sheldon's advice that you should write your script as a drama first. After all, jokes are easy, storytelling isn't.

That's my advice to you too, because if you find a way to tell a dramatic story without threatening the status quo (character relations), you're almost bound to write better scripts than even the showrunners on their shows. If you understand drama and characters, you really don't need to understand much else.

Besides teaching us how to write a script, the book also has a second part which is about landing your job as writer. There's a lot of stuff about being a writer on a show, about agents, how to deal with network executives, what it feels like when you get rewritten and other useful things about how you should prepare yourself when you get your lucky break.

All in all, Elephant Bucks is one the very few books out there that actually makes sense and doesn't confuse you. What more as a writer can you ask for? 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Similarities between poker and writing.

Above is a picture of Phil Hellmuth, a rather famous poker player who a month or so ago won his 13th World Series of Poker bracelet. (He has won more than any other person.) 

Now, the reason that I write about this is that poker and writing aren't that different in the end. Both are about understanding structure and about understanding players (characters). If you're not good at reading others or if you don't understand structure, you can't be a good poker player and you can't write good scripts.

Structure is really important for you to understand. It's your blueprint that you build on. It's the most important thing when it comes to planning. It allows you to use the rational part of your brain. It's also something that can be somewhat learned.

For example, in poker structure dictates what you can do. There are strategies that need to be known, like the unexploitable way to play when you have a short stack. Understanding structure gives you ideas and there's pretty much a right and a wrong way to handle certain situations.

When it comes to structure in writing, you have to know a lot of stuff. Like how to use exposition, how to introduce new characters, where the act breaks are, how long the script can go and so on and so on. It's basic and quite simple but not necessarily that easy to master. Structure is crucial to know and there's usually a right and a wrong.

But what is more important in my opinion is one's ability to read. Your ability to read characters and players. Your ability to know where you and others are so that you can react to the situations in hand.

I think this is an ability that you don't hear about enough when it comes to writing. In poker, you hear about it all the time. The best player is the one who makes the best reads. So, why aren't the writers talking about the ability to read characters that much? It might be that the best character reader is also the best writer too.

Phil Hellmuth especially prides himself on his ability to soul read players. This allows him to live in the moment and lets him make decisions based on his instincts. He usually has a pretty good idea on when to call, when to raise, when to fold and when to shove it all-in. This talent allows him to win tournaments quite often.

This reading ability, I believe, is mostly a gift. Some people have it, most unfortunately don't. Without it, you're pretty much lost. Therefore it's more important to be a great reader, because structure is something that you can learn but reading ability is something that you can't.

When it comes to writing, if you know the characters, you can safely concentrate on your plots. After all, character is the plot. So, the better you are at reading characters, the better your storylines, the better your script and the better your ability to write eventually will be.

It's that simple and I guess that's the reason why it's so hard.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Comedy should be taken seriously.

How many times have you heard the words: "Stop whining. Let's just relax and enjoy the show"? I don't know about you, but I've heard those words too many times. Way too many times.

"Lighten up, don't be so serious, this stuff is hilarious". If only it could work that way. If only it could...

"But but but, it's better than 90% what's on tv..." No, no, no.

There are too many shows currently on tv that aren't funny. Critics might recommend these shows and posters on message boards might be extatic over these, and yet the simple truth is that these shows are so bad that I can't relax and enjoy them.

No matter how many people might say otherwise..

For example, a show like 'New Girl' might be popular, but it's not funny because it's so implausible. It seems that no one paid attention - was serious enough - about the premise, characters and the storylines when they came up with the show.

Who thought that a weirdo girl living with three dudes in a high-end apartment would be plausible as a premise? Who thought that these shallow, empty characters would be relatable? Who thought that their non-existent problems would be interesting to the audience?

Probably no-one said, 'let's be serious for a moment'. I wonder what the executives were thinking. Did they think that people like me would like it? I hope they didn't say "this is going to be great".

The problem is that if you don't take comedy seriously, you can't help but to fail. There's no way you're going to create anything meaningful just by doing something half-baked and expecting it to work like magic.

It can only work if there's some serious thinking involved in the process. Even then it might not work, but at least there's a chance. Then I might enjoy it and relax.

When I take a look at a show like New Girl, I can only compare it to Ally Mcbeal. Because New Girl tries to be quirky like Ally, but it doesn't work at all because there's nothing whatsoever to build on. 

Ally Mcbeal worked because it was a serious and even a sad show at its core. It dealt with honest emotions. Even though the show sometimes was pretty absurd, it worked because David Kelley took his job seriously and treated his characters with honor and dignity.

New Girl, however, doesn't. I can't enjoy it, because too many people simply didn't do their jobs.