Okay let’s take a break from the stroll down Doctor Who’s memory lane. I’d like to tell you a little story.
Long-term readers might recall that during my oft-neglected look back at past plays, I discussed the worst first draft I’d ever written, Quest, which given how I tore into some of my otherearlyworks is quite the damning statement. Yet still somehow earned, because this attempted blend of Ocean’s 11 and Lord of the Ringswas basically unstageable.
I also mentioned that, years later, there were elements of the concept that I still kind of liked. I liked the idea of most of the characters, if not the execution. There was a moment, a key turning point for several characters, that could have been beautiful. That should have been beautiful. It was there, in my head, a moment of joy and perfect happiness right before things were scheduled to go wrong. I felt an overpowering need to try and do that moment justice.
And there began ConQuest.
Know Your Medium
When I started this mad project way, way back when, I had some friends who attempted to softball their disapproval of the script by saying that maybe stage wasn’t the venue. Maybe this was a novel, or something else.
I said no, I can make it work, because I’d seen Fringe plays that made weird or minimalist choices work and assumed anything is stageable if you’re determined. Well, that’s part of the truth. It’s a little true but underneath that was the fact that, having been running community theatre groups for nearly a decade, I knew how to get plays staged. I had no successful experience with film or with getting novels published. Or written. Not super at prose if I’m being honest.
No, this isn’t prose, this is conversational exposition. There is a difference.
Nothing said “This isn’t meant for stage” like the fact that everything interesting happened off of it. Everything. Every single thing. Because exposition and talkiness are so much easier to stage than magic and battles. Or the cons that should have been the central story mechanic.
So step one… if this story was going to work, if my one, perfect moment had any chance of existing, I had to write this thing for a genre that could actually support it. And while I’m still bad at prose, I had recently been seduced by Sweet Lady Film. So maybe it was a movie.
And when it passed the 150 page mark, maybe it was a series. So that’s what I turned it into.
Know Your Story
When writing the stage version, I had characters in my head, though only partially realized. I had a vague notion of the world, enough to fuel far too much exposition. But did I have a story? Only kind of sort of. I just started writing some stuff down and tried to build some rising action and threw in a sudden yet inevitable betrayal just to try to add value to the supposed lead, and none of it landed.
So this time I did a bit more legwork.
Know your story. Know where it’s going. Know how to tell it. If your story is about a con artist fighting a magic war, have cons. And action. The Fellowship of the Rings didn’t become The Fellowship of the Rings by standing around and talking about how cool they all were when the cameras weren’t running.
Now there are twists, turns, rising dangers and diminishing safety, action and cons. Plus characters people actually like, and moments that elicited gasps at the first reading.
Telling your story right is step two. But before you can tell your story right, you have to know what it is.
Get Good Advice
The first readers of the play version did their best. They tried, they really tried, to warn me away from it. But they also softballed it a little. They said “I don’t know if this will work” rather than “It will not work.”
Fortunately I had other friends willing to say that in no uncertain terms. Less fortunately, in a far more public venue.
So before I got attached to this new version, I called three close friends (including the two most vocal opponents of the stage version, you know, the ones from that last paragraph) and said “I need feedback on this on a level I would classify as ‘unflinching.'”
And to my mild surprise and deep relief, they dug it. Sure they had notes, of course they had notes, do you have any idea how few scripts nail it on draft one or two? But overall, I was on to something.
Soon this went from a project I’d only talk about after at least four whiskeys into something people were anxious to hear news on, something they wanted to be part of. That was a good feeling. Almost good as I imagine filming it will feel.
That’s not true. Filming it would be WAY better.
BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg wrote a great post about gender in comedy in response to a question on his Tumblr. Basically, he called attention to the fact that when casting a character for a simple gag, we assume the character will be male. Example, the Minions are genderless yellow blobs but all have male names. And the only way to break this assumption is to notice we’re doing it and fight against it.
And that’s how the main character’s partner, Freddy, changed from “Frederick” to “Winifred.” And once that was done, I analyzed every choice: am I only doing this because she’s a woman now? Is this the right choice for Freddy, beyond the question of gender?
The most important choice, and the one everyone was very relieved to hear, was that Toby and Freddy do not end up together at the end of the season. That would not work at all.
Weird that a man and a woman being friends and colleagues without any sexual history needs to be a revolutionary concept.
So when will this hit screens? No idea. Doing my best, but scrounging up filming money is a new field. But for now, it’s just nice to know it’s working.
“Wait, it’s been how long since I blogged about my old plays? Twenty-five months? Wow. And what have I been talking about in the meantime? No, aside from The Flash and Arrow.”
Someone really took “My blog, my rules” to heart, I see.
Well, back to it. I mean come on, Dan, they were finally getting good.
Ladies and gentlemen, join me on a trip back to 2008, a time of antiquated things like hope, optimism, and American democracy… a time when I decided to take a crack at a genre I’d long enjoyed, but never experimented with… farce. And then I made it a murder mystery. I do like slapping murder mysteries onto things. This is Dying on Stage.
What’s it about?
Call it “Murder at the Muppet Show.”
Who here remembers my go-to graphic for “Wacky premise?”
The Comedy Invasion is a struggling sketch/variety show (picture a non-televised Saturday Night Live, or a Muppet Show with humans and a musical guest) hosted by its creator Johnny Rayner and produced by his long-time business partner (and to his chagrin, only business) Mera Lucas. Tonight they’ve gotten a windfall that could turn their fortunes around… star of stage and screen Gareth Gardner has agreed to guest appear. If the show goes well, they’re on top.
So imagine their dismay when their asshole lead actor dies at the end of the opening sketch, apparently poisoned. It’s up to the remaining cast and crew to figure out who the killer is without Gareth or the audience noticing anything’s amiss. Cue hijinks!
So why’d that happen?
…I’m not sure I even remember.
I certainly am a big Muppet Show fan, but in the end it didn’t have that big an influence. There might be some traces of Kermit the Frog in Johnny’s occasional flustered ranting and role as MC. Resident comedienne Finnian Shale (an early case of me defying the “comic characters are men” stereotype and saying “Well, why can’t this role be a woman?”) certainly owes a debt to Fozzie Bear, especially given her big joke routine is a direct homage to one of my favourite Fozzie bits.
Maybe it had some influence from my love of sketch comedy in general, really. Back then I think I was using Kids in the Hall as background noise while writing. That would make sense. The continued presence of Premise Beach on my blogs prove I’m a bit of a Kids in the Hall fan. Maybe fondness for the brilliant and sadly forgotten late 90s show Viva Variety drove the notion into my head. Maybe it just came to me. I used to write sketches, especially back in the days of my old company, Mind the Walrus, and had some funny ones lying around that I felt I could be seen more.
No, wait, now that I think about it, I reused old sketches because I hadn’t written sketch comedy in several years and had slightly forgotten how. Hmm.
I guess at some point “Murder at the Muppet Show” became a fun idea and I decided to chase it, even though farce is a whole different animal than simple comedy.
I’m not positive when I decided to combine murder mystery and farce, but it works pretty well. The thing that drives a farce is high stakes. There is a secret, or a crisis, and any second it could come out, and if it does, lives will be ruined. And from there comes our pace, the desperate dance of lies and cover-ups that fuel the comedy. Hiding a body, or a series of bodies, while trying not to be the next victim provides those stakes.
How’d it turn out?
Really, really funny.
The opening scene was the biggest challenge. I needed a scene of pure pre-show chaos, where everything’s crazy and everyone’s high-energy and trying to get prepped, and at the same time it needed to accomplish two key things. First, introduce the cast of ten characters (well, introduce nine of them and hint at Gareth, who would show up in the next scene), and second, give as many of them as possible a motivation to kill Frankie, the lead character and first victim. Tricky juggling act but I think I got there.
Gareth Gardner works well as a hybrid of two archetypes: he’s every Very Special Guest Star from the Muppet Show (above this nonsense but still having a good time), and the Suspicious Constable from British farces, constantly spotting the holes in the protagonists’ cover stories.
Not all of the cast is super well developed, but given how fast some of them need to die I don’t see how that’s my fault. This thing needs to hit the ground running, so I don’t have unlimited time to spend teaching everyone what vain actress Veronica Horne’s hopes and dreams are. I just need you to know she’s narcissistic, weaponizes her sexuality, and the shier actresses don’t love her.
Bucky, the long-suffering intern, is as funny as he needs to be. Especially if you get someone hilarious in the role, like we did. Cliff the stage hand’s forced transition to leading man is a nice arc. I enjoy Finn. She’s so earnest and so bad at keeping a secret. Her habit of saying exactly the wrong thing at any given moment might be a bit of Fozzie Bear slipping back in.
Also, I got to end it with a line that had been in my head for a while… “If we spirits have offended, think but this and all is mended… No refunds. Goodnight everybody!”
There is one odd thing that happened. Some of the sketches didn’t get the laughs I expected, at least not at the workshops. And it’s not because the sketches weren’t funny, they were tried and true material. I’ve gotten laughs with Lost and Found and Celebrity Where Are My Pants before and since. It’s just that compared to the more rapid fire off-stage scenes, the sketches slowed the pace some. A weird effect that doesn’t really help.
But that might be more of a staging issue.
Would you stage it again?
Absolutely. That said, there were a couple of issues that came up during rehearsal, that we never got around to smoothing out. See, if I’m at a rehearsal and not on stage, I like to read. And the director took that to mean that I couldn’t be interrupted or asked questions. Which… makes no sense to me.
But anyway, it works. The major comic set pieces are reliable and not difficult to pull off. The pace is solid, and the full-on Agatha Christie Poirot-style “It was YOU!” revelation of the killer is enjoyable.
Man, why haven’t I done this one again…
Repeated theme alerts
Man and Woman Cannot Be Friends: Of course there’s a romantic C-plot between Johnny and Mera, because why not.
Writing about writers: I mean, there’s not a lot of discussion about it, but Johnny probably writes the show, doesn’t he? Someone must.
Something something pop culture reference: Well I mentioned the “Good grief, the comedian’s a bear!” homage, but here’s an obscure one. Bucky the intern’s real name is Hubert. This comes from the first “An Evening With Kevin Smith” DVD, in which one of the fans asking questions introduces himself as “My name is Hubert but everyone calls me Bucky,” and Kevin runs with it. “BUCKY! You don’t even need to ask a question now, man… what was your real name?” “Hubert.” [Kevin chuckles] “Bucky!”
Next time… how do you follow up the funniest thing you’ve ever written? You abandon comedy and get dark.
The arcs in season one mostly came about in the same way: Keith would write something (Phil and George, Becky and Ted), I would think “That’s neat,” and throw in additional references to it, leading to the finale where everything blows up.
Jeff, on the other hand, went a little differently.
This week, we meet Jeff’s on-again, off-again sex buddy Claire. Through flashbacks, primarily. And through Phil’s description. At the risk of joining spoiler culture (a call ahead reference to a blog I haven’t written yet), this is not the last we’re seeing of Claire. But the point is, the first Claire episode I wrote is yet to come.
I’ll tell the story of that episode soon enough. The relevance here is that it created a writing challenge for me. I wrote the payoff to Jeff’s arc for the year, then had to find a way to build the set-up into the rest of the season. The major part of which happens this week, as the name “Claire” is said for the first time and Victoria Souter makes her debut.
So when writing this episode, I was both following up on moments Keith and I had written from Night Moves and Favour For a Friend, while setting up things I’d written in episodes yet to come. Well, in one episode. I hadn’t written the finale yet.
More to come on Claire as it develops.
The Brain Trust Screws Up a Little
This episode has what might very well be my favourite shot of the whole season. This one, right here.
Look at all that fancy camerawork and whatnot.
Like it? We really, really hope you do. Because along with “renting the space for the writers room,” it is one of the two biggest expenses for the whole damn season.
And not even for a good reason, like permits or fancy cameras or buying a proper boom mic instead of MacGyvering something together for me to hold while Ian and I ran a lap around Aaron. No, it was possibly our largest expense because we were a little dumb about getting the shot.
That’s the roof of our friend Ben’s building. Hence Ben being found in the “special thanks” portion of the end credits.
There he is.
Everyone in this shoot had been on that roof multiple times. We used to watch fireworks from that roof. It never occurred to anyone, even Ben (who had let us shoot in his home despite not being present), that we weren’t technically supposed to be up there, given the lack of railings and whatnot.
We did a few takes, from a few angles, and once we were convinced we’d gotten the shot visually, gathered around to test whether the sound had recorded properly. A not-exactly-top-of-the-line microphone on a slightly windy roof, there could have been issues.
Let’s call that “Things we could have been smarter about #1.”
While we were packing up the equipment, someone emerged from the staircase, along with either a superintendent or a member of the condo board. Turns out that Keith yelling “action” and Aaron kicking the door open over and over drew a level of attention that fifteen intoxicated people watching fireworks never did. Whoever this basically-pyjama-clad authority figure was, she was super curious who we were and what we were doing up there. Not friendly curious, either. We tried to explain that we had a friend in the building, and he let us on the roof. Ian, ever helpful, even told her which unit.
“Things we could have been smarter about #2.”
I mean, she wasn’t a cop, she couldn’t legally detain us. We could have just left. Darted down the stairs for a few floors then doubled back to Ben’s place. All these things we thought of after Ian had sold out our host.
Turns out knowing a resident was insufficient, as for insurance reasons, he wasn’t allowed up there either. As a result, they changed the locks on the rooftop door. And sent Ben the bill. Which we paid, as we’re not sociopaths, and are capable of recognizing when we’re at fault.
If we’d done the sound check inside, or if we’d been even a little clever dealing with Angry Building Lady, maybe this could have been avoided.
The shot’s pretty as hell, though. Just pretty as hell.
Trash the set
The writers’ room has one episode left to air, but this is the episode where we wrapped it. Which obviously called for a celebratory photo.
That’s a wrap for our most frequent location.
(I’m wearing a jacket because I’d been rehearsing Frost/Nixon next door while they’d been shooting)
There is a very simple reason that this episode included our final shot in the writers room. Bet you can guess what it is.
Hint: he flipped the bitch.
We deliberately scheduled the table flip to be the very last thing in this room. Because we suspected that when Jeff flipped the table, we were going to break the shit out of it. So before we let Aaron flip it we made sure that we weren’t going to need it again, save as a possible breakaway set piece in Cry Havoc 3 (that poster with Jeff’s head on it). It meant shooting that scene in two goes on two different days, but we were right. That table be broken.
Phil and Zoe
For Phil and Zoe’s relationship, we borrowed a trick from Dan Harmon, creator of Community. On that show, he decided he wanted to try something not normally seen on TV with Jeff and Britta: they’d bang once, to resolve some tension, but wouldn’t become boyfriend/girlfriend. They’d just continue having sex without romance, and that would be fine. But the only way that he could sell that on an American sitcom was to keep it a secret (save for some subtle hints along the way), then reveal that it had been happening the whole time.
So it went with Phil and Zoe. They have their moment back in Origin Stories, a moment that couldn’t help but be ridiculously cute as Ryan and Anna are, in the words of the age, “totes adorbs,” but then next episode George shows up and we forget all about it… until Becky starts to suspect in Favour For a Friend. The reason for this is exceptionally simple.
I will not do “will they/won’t they.” Ever.
Classic 90s sitcom Newsradio had my attention when they cast my favourite Kid in the Hall, Dave Foley, in the lead role. They had my respect when they skipped over “will they/won’t they” and had Dave and his rival Lisa hook up in episode two.
Because will they/won’t they is narrative death. Get two characters into a will they/won’t they situation, and you’re stuck with three equally doomed outcomes: 1) the characters get together but become boring, since the thrill was in the chase (Ross and Rachel from Friends, Sam and Diane from Cheers); 2) your audience gets so frustrated waiting for the characters to get together that they tune out (what actually happened to Moonlighting, no matter what you’ve read); 3) it turns out nobody gives a fuck if they get together, and all the teasing is barely more than dead air (Jeff and Britta).
Will they/won’t they is an invention of narrative devices like comics and four-camera sitcoms, which present at best the illusion of change since they thrive on stability and predictability. When your characters’ relationship is based around almost but never quite getting together, because either hooking up or losing interest in each other damages the status quo, there’s nowhere for it to go. It will go stagnant, because that is the only option. To paraphrase the Master from Doctor Who… that relationship was born out of death. All it can do is die.
So I will not write one. I hope to launch other series in the future, in addition to more seasons of Writers Circle… I hope to be telling stories ’til eternity claims me… but I will not succumb to will they/won’t they. I hate it and it’s awful.
So, yeah. Zoe and Phil banged. Wasn’t a big deal. They might do so again, and it still won’t be a big deal. Relationships have so many more shapes and faces to pursue than “These two are perfect for each other but just won’t see it (until the finale)!” That includes casual sex between friends, exes who get along despite ugly breakups, the bizarre debauchery of Jeff and Claire, and… well we won’t get into what’s in store for Becky. Because that’s just more fun for everyone.
Random fun facts
I meant to write a scene for Jeff and Tina into this episode, because more Tina is always welcome (because we like the character, not because Kirstie’s a delight to have on set or anything), but the page count told me that I was running out of time and had to get to the punchline. Which, for the record, was Ian’s idea. He’s quite proud of that. As it turns out, I may have been wrong, because this one’s relatively short, but it is right in the sweet spot we’d been aiming for when we set out on this venture, so I stand by the choice overall.
Jeff’s therapist tells him not to do a Tree of Life thing because Tree of Life is terrible and shouldn’t even be considered a “film.” You probably knew that, but it’s been a while since I mentioned it.
I have started to type a fun fact about this episode no less than three times before realizing, each time, that the scene I’m thinking of is next week. Probably a sign that I’m done.
Next week… an interlude in the growing tensions, as Jeff drags Phil into what he’s described as a ghost problem.
Fresh from its debut at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo (shoulda been there), it’s the latest episode of Writers Circle!
And fresh from “me writing it all down yesterday,” here’s your peek behind the scenes.
Keith has spoken, here and elsewhere, about how he felt challenged coming onto the project and writing characters that I had created, had written on multiple occasions, and was quite close to. The exception, of course, is Zoe. Zoe’s not in the play. We created her together. Wove her out of whole cloth as a unit.
And yet… and yet in my eyes, she ended up Keith’s character.
Sure, I wrote plenty of Zoe episodes. More than Keith, even, but that has less to do with our connection to Zoe and more to do with “When you write two thirds of the season, you write damn near everybody more often, that’s how math works.” But on the other hand, it’s episodes like this (and next week) when Zoe really gets fleshed out, because in my episodes (with the possible exception of the season finale, which is coming up just WAY too soon for my tastes), I really lean into the “Zoe is afraid of everyone” aspect of her character, while Keith created the Zoe/Becky hostility angle in this episode, and then continued to explore it next week.
In fact, now that I think about it, the “Jeff can’t remember Zoe exists or notice she’s in the room” running gag was Keith’s as well. I only wrote it into In The Depths after seeing how well it worked in Keith’s episodes.
We want more Zoe in season two. We want more EVERYBODY in season two. That’s gonna be a challenge. But I’m hoping we get to know her better.
Comfiest shoot ever
Take a look at Zoe’s car. It’s in, like, the first seconds of the episode. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Alright. See it? That’s a, forgive the product placement, Toyota Yaris. Belongs to our Yaris Wrangler Matt Pickering. That isn’t the story, it just seemed the best time to mention it. The point is, it’s not a super big car, is it? The answer I’m looking for is no, no it isn’t. Which is fine for the ladies, it’s super roomy up front… but what you can’t see, thanks to Ian’s thorough work at angling the camera, is that he and I are wedged into the back seat.
I was directing this episode (the first one that Keith 100% wrote and I 100% directed; there’s not really a story there, just thought it was worth mentioning) from the back seat, while hunching down out of sight. I am known as many things… writer, actor, director, malcontent, Mass Effect fan, traveller, Mass Effect obsessive, son, brother, uncle, last sane man left standing, recovering Mass Effect addict, or my most common label, “Oh right, that guy…” but “small” and “easy to fit in compact spaces” do not make the list. Not like fun-sized Stephanie, taller but slender Anna, or my co-exec Ian, who while certainly not much more comfortable crammed back there, has been charitably described as of superior height to an Oompa-Loompa, and makes a token effort to keep himself in better shape.
I also make a token effort. It just yields very gradual results. Anyway.
I was not what you’d call super comfy back there, and most of the actual direction got done during the rehearsals in my dining room. Let’s just say this was a good shoot for my barrel-chested co-director Keith Kollee to be out of town with his family.
Ian has often accused me of calling “cut” too soon, something he’s not wrong about, since one of our favourite things to do is to just keep rolling on our delightful band of weirdos and see what comes out of them. And in the case of this episode, there were a few comments in post-production about “do we have to cut this bit so short,” followed by “Yes, because Dan kept yelling ‘cut’ super fast.” But you know what? Pressing my head into the car door for entire takes was giving me a killer headache, so if it sounded like we’d finished the scene, I was shouting “cut” and sitting up straight. That was what happened next.
Also, stopping the car short tended to kill our sound recording. So, there was that.
Big fans of law and order here
We split the shoot into segments, each with its own slice of my neighbourhood to drive through. We stuck to suburban streets (as you can tell from the shots outside of the car) because we had kind of a complicated camera setup.
“Complicated?” you ask. “No, you just strapped GoPros to sides of the car, right? Seems obvious to me.”
No. No, that is not what we did.
“Complicated” may have been giving us too much credit.
Lacking GoPros, what we did… or rather, what Ian did, let’s not throw plurals around unnecessarily… was follow this tutorial to build a simple wooden rig that we could attach our camera to and affix to either window of the car. So we were driving along with a camera-bearing wooden square hanging out of either the driver’s or passenger’s side window, depending on the angle. We… we think it was street legal.
We think it was.
Super legit, that’s us.
Because of this, and also not knowing if our home-made camera rig was going to survive at over forty kilometres per hour, we decided to keep to the quieter suburban streets of my neighbourhood, ending in the strip mall where we shot Night Moves. Encountering less traffic seemed to be the best option, even if it ends up implying that Becky just lives super deep in suburbia. You know, like those people you visit who are ten minutes from major roads, and you need directions both to their house and how to get back to any street that will take you out of the neighbourhood? Which doesn’t feel like Becky, she seems like a “build up not out” person, but… I don’t know, maybe she got the house super cheap because there was a bunch of murders or something.
Next time… after two weeks off, Jeff’s back in Stonebluff Road. See you back here.
Did you miss us last week? Well, we missed you. Both Ian and Keith are joining me today, and there’s a lot to discuss, so let’s get going. Here’s the new episode…
…and here’s an awkward yet frank discussion about crossing lines in comedy.
This is one of Keith’s episodes, so I’m-a let Keith talk before I get going.
This was the first episode I wrote. Taking characters that were very near to another writer’s heart is a daunting task. Even one misstep can be a disaster. After sending the first draft out to Dan, I nervously awaited his feedback. After reading three pages, he messaged me: You’re killing this dialogue. I would like to tell you that I coolly celebrated this vague affirmation, but the fact of the matter is, I think I sent him a dozen messages confirming that his sentiment was indeed positive. It was not cool at all. It was at that moment that I knew Dan and I had a synergy. We were on the same page, and understood these characters on the same level. It was incredibly gratifying.
Now, after talking about how awesome this episode was for me, I would be a fool if I didn’t realize there was an elephant in the room, so allow me to address it. I think that literally everything in the world can be funny. In my opinion, it is one of the most important things that have sustained us as a species. That ability to look at everything from the silliest gaff to the grimmest tragedy and decide that the only way to get through it was to laugh. I really feel like that’s the only way we get through this existence. I only mention this because Love is Blind came out this week. As I mentioned, I wrote this episode, and debated it with nearly everyone close to me, including my wife, my two co-executive producers, and the two female leads. I used the same argument I outlined above: You can joke about anything, as long as it is legitimately funny. Luckily, I think it is (thanks, in no small part, to Stephanie), though, if I’m wrong, I imagine you’ll let me know…
Okay. My turn.
Hi, I’m Dan, I’m a straight white male, and this is my blog post about rape jokes. Won’t this be fun.
So, as we recall, at the end of this week’s episode (which of course you’ve watched, why wouldn’t you have watched it, it’s right there, and if you haven’t, I… why? Why are you reading this if you haven’t… watch the episode, then read the commentary, I, honestly, I do not know how to make that any clearer), it’s revealed that Becky, having had too much wine, performed a certain oral act upon Ted against his will. We play this revelation as a joke, and in our defence… it’s a pretty funny joke. At least so people keep telling us. It was funny when I read it, Steph’s delivery of “I might have raped him a little” makes me laugh every single time… and given that during post-production I watch these things so many times the words lose all meaning, that’s saying something… and all the way from writing to casting I never considered that there might be something wrong with it. Hell, I wrote a follow-up joke (that you’ll see next week), and that was funny too, so we’re good, right? Right?
Somehow we managed to take what few scenes referenced this less-than-voluntary-blowjob and use them and very nearly only them as audition sides when we were casting Zoe and Phil. To an outsider, which of course our auditioners were, it seemed like our show was just going to be jam-packed with rape jokes. Which made some people cautious about signing on.
On that note… Ian, enlighten the folks, will you?
Back in the early days of the project when we were still casting, the bookend scenes were one of the sides chosen to see how the group dynamic would flesh out. I had brought Anna on board to play Zoe as I never could imagine anyone but her when I read the scripts.
After a couple days Anna had spoken to me about the scene, worried that we were making a joke out of rape and rape culture. (A concern echoed to me months later by Steph). Until she brought it up I had honestly not seen the problem. It became kind of a large concern for her and for Keith, Dan, and I. They will tell their sides of it but for me my major concern was making sure that we handled her concerns well as in this stage of casting it would have been very easy for her to decide she didn’t want to be a part of the project.
I agreed with Anna’s concerns that we shouldn’t make rape funny, but also with Keith’s view that addressing something with humour was the best way to take the fear of addressing it away.
We had a meeting with Anna to try to allay her worries, and while I’m not sure she was entirely convinced of Keith’s philosophy, it was enough.
In another world we might have handled this all with less open communication and Anna would have walked away from Zoe. I’m glad it worked out. I’m told she ended up quite liking the episode.
Thanks, Pond. Back to me, then.
This is a tricky subject. Smarter, funnier people than I have pondered the issue of rape jokes, the danger of their potential contribution to rape culture, and if/when they’re okay. Here’s one of them. Click that link for a lengthy but well-thought and informative essay from Patton Oswalt on joke theft, hecklers, and rape jokes. You don’t have to. I’m-a borrow some thoughts from him, though, and I wanted to be clear where they were coming from.
There is such a thing as a funny and non-offensive rape joke. Like, say, this one by Ever Mainard. Or this one by Louis CK. But it remains a tough issue, because our perspective can taint our views of these topics. Patton Oswalt, in that linked article, talks a lot about that. So does Cracked.com’s Daniel O’Brien in this post about how the second season finale of his series Rom.com was accidentally racially insensitive: in one place because of casting (a powerful female calling an underling “Boy” wasn’t offensive until they cast a black guy in the underling role), and in one part because he just didn’t see it. Sometimes, when you’re part of the most privileged group of people in the history of the Earth, things that less historically privileged people might find offensive can be hard to see.
That said. Regardless of the topic, I believe that there are only two defences any joke needs: is it funny, and were you punching up? Punching down, ie. making fun of people less powerful than you, is always a little mean. In this case, is the joke targeting the victim? Because that’s where jokes fuel rape culture, and that’s not something I’d want to be a part of. However, I posit that it is not what we did. That Becky, the perpetrator, is ultimately the punchline, both now and in the future.
Yes, the obvious thing to ask is “What if the genders were flipped? Would you still be defending the joke?” Please don’t ask that. If you do, I’ll be forced to say “If you flip the genders, it’s not the same joke.” Because it isn’t. Context is everything.
I hope you laughed at the joke. If you didn’t, I’m sorry, but we stand by it.
Let’s… let’s move on.
Harsh light of day
Here’s Ian again.
Though I forgot to include myself in the credits as such, I actually did some directing for this one. Dan was out of town and Keith was unavoidably commited the morning we shot the dates. Yeah, morning. After a night of rehearsing a bunch with Keith I dragged the actors and the rest of the crew out to a pub at 6:00 in the morning on a Saturday so we could shoot some of the worst first dates I was not personally a member of. This would not be the last time I organized a location shoot at unreasonable hours.
Shooting on location comes with tricky realities. You want to shoot in a pub? Don’t have enough money to pay them to close the joint? Well, guess what, you’re shooting at 6 AM, because that’s when they can accommodate you. So you’re going to have to drag your entire cast of volunteer actors to set at the crack of dawn.
And then not be there yourself because your cousin’s getting married one province over that weekend.
I would love to tell you all sorts of stories about shooting this episode. Like what Ted’s first day on set was like. Yes, we cast a guy named Ted as the character named Ted. It means when his friends make statements like “Ted getting raped was a highlight of the episode,” it’s extra funny. (See? We’re laughing about it already. Comedy cures all.) I’m sure Keith would have liked to do that as well, but he also had family commitments that morning. The burdens of loving your children, I suppose. So for this episode, Keith worked with the cast at our usual rehearsal space (down the hall from the writers’ room set) on Friday night, then everyone tried to remember what he told them to do as Ian directed the actual shoot.
Don’t tell him, but I’d been looking forward to having Ted on set. He’d just been the lead in a Doctor Who tribute play I directed called Who Knows (along with Tawni, our costumer/slate girl), which was one of the most fun theatrical experiences I’d had in years, and having any of the Who Knows gang around is something to enjoy. And then when he finally makes his debut, I’m in Golden, BC, watching a wedding. Okay, sleeping. I was sleeping. Look, I couldn’t be on set, I didn’t see the point in getting up at 5 AM out of solidarity.
Becky’s wine is white grape juice. Probably the only time Steph used “stunt” wine. But hey, before noon. That said, Steph hates white grape juice. Makes it awkward when she has to drink a lot of it on camera.
Ginette, who plays Jeff’s date, also played the stripper (or at least her legs) in episode three. As such, that sequence was also shot that morning. You’d think they’d have shot that first, to make sure it was done before the pub had to open. Apparently not, though. Guess they decided wrapping Chelsea and Ted was the priority.
Remind me… down the road, we’re going to talk about how Keith and I write Zoe. I think there’s some interesting thoughts there, but there’s a better episode to look at them.
Ian: In previous episodes whenever Jeff hands a girl his card it is actually the card of this pub’s manager, an old friend of mine from Junior High who helped me secure this location.
Next time: night shoots and stunt food with Phil and Becky.
Okay. So. Normally this would be when I’d pull out another instalment of Writers Circle Confidential. We’d watch this week’s episode, have some laughs, and then I and possibly a guest star would tell you all about it. But as you may or may not have noticed, we don’t actually have a new episode this week. We have a blooper reel.
And while there’s still plenty of laughs to be had, there isn’t much scintillating behind-the-scenes storytelling to be done on a blooper reel. Save that it’s a little clear Anna never quite got or embraced our Star Wars Phonetic Alphabet. (A=Anakin, B=Bespin, C=Coruscant, etc.)
So instead, let’s hop into the old Wayback Machine, head to 2009, and look at the original script of Writers Circle: the play. Yes, that means jumping the queue a little where Danny Writes Plays in concerned, but we’ll just look the other way on that. Agreed? Agreed.
What’s it about?
Phil Payton (returning from Two Guys and U-Boat of the Soul), Becky Porter (also from U-Boat), and Jeff Winnick (he was new) are the house playwrights for Taranto Theatre Company, working under producer and Phil’s ex-fiancee Tina Gellar (also from Two Guys and U-Boat). The end-of-season gala is approaching, and they’re all expected to turn in a draft of their latest scripts so that Tina can announce the coming season. There’s just… a few problems.
Perpetually lovesick and depressed Phil is attempting to write yet another romantic comedy, but can’t focus on it, because he’s in love with his friend Olivia and can’t figure out how to tell her. Seemingly happy go lucky Jeff, on the other hand, is trying to write the latest in a series of epic tragedies, but is unable to find passion in anything, even his string of one-night stands, until he meets a woman named Monica, who seems reluctant to enter into anything long-term. Becky, who is working on a big-message period piece about Victorian society trying to pretend it’s something it’s not, has been keeping a secret: her boyfriend Alex that she refuses to introduce to the others is actually her girlfriend Alex. Alex, meanwhile, is easily triggered by the thought of life in the closet, something that Becky refusing to introduce her to her friends is setting off.
Whether he likes it or not, Phil is befriended by a stripper named Amber, who has decided to peel back the walls of his repression and find out why he can’t simply tell a girl he likes her.
Becky finally introduces Alex to Jeff and Phil, revealing to all three of them that’s she’s bisexual. Try to guess which of them takes it the worst. If you guessed the girlfriend, have a gold star.
Jeff and Monica repeatedly argue over religion: Jeff’s a strict atheist, Monica’s more spiritual… and when Jeff finally learns what’s been keeping Monica from committing to something long term… well, let’s just say it gets worse before it gets better.
And ultimately, with no plays written and everyone’s jobs on the line, everything comes to a boil at the launch gala.
So why’d that happen?
I was on a three week vacation through Asia: Singapore, Malaysia, and Tokyo. I find vacations, especially solo vacations like this one, are good for two things: reflection and creation. Far from home, away from my typical distractions, and if on a solo trip, no one to talk to, I either have revelations about my personal life, or come up with a new script idea.
In this case, both.
I’d been wondering if there was a way to weaponize the ridiculous banter my friend Ben and I get into. Close friends that, due to vastly differing philosophies, can look like arch enemies. Thus did Jeff Winnick come into being, named after Judd Winick, one of my favourite comic writers (would have been Jeffrey Bendis, named after Brian Michael Bendis, but there was some concern people would connect him to the cowardly soldier who dies at the beginning of the Firefly pilot). And what the hey, let’s bring Becky from U-Boat back, make it a trio.
As to the other thing… I’d also come to examine one of my close relationships. Came to see it more clearly. Came to realize that I wasn’t the hero of my own story, which is never an easy thing to come to terms with. And if there’s one thing Phil Payton proved to be good for five years earlier, it’s serving as a vessel to exorcise some demons. And so did Olivia become a stand-in for… someone else. Someone I discussed in an open letter to long ago.
Jeff and Becky’s plots required more creativity. Originally, she was going to be too open about herself, aggressively so, but it wasn’t until I reversed that idea that I felt I had a plot. Oh, and as for why I made Becky bisexual? We’d just done two really male-heavy plays. I felt somebody in the company had to serve up some female roles. So I gave Becky a girlfriend just to write in one more woman, and made her bi so that her crush on Phil in U-Boat could stay canonical.
How’d it turn out?
Overall? Pretty well. The three leads work. Their banter is staggeringly fun and easy to write. I think we’ve been proving that on a weekly basis lately. That said… there are some things that could stand to improve.
First off… it’s long. Super long. There are three protagonists, each with their own one-act worth of plot. It adds up. It adds up until a friend and I had to spend an entire night cutting whatever we could to get the runtime down to a mere three hours. It is the single longest thing I’ve ever written not intended to be episodic. Which, perhaps, is why the characters adapted so easily to an episodic format.
Phil’s story is 90% exposition. All the key details of his arc, from meeting Olivia to falling in love with her to her relationship with another guy to, most notably, the past trauma that has made Phil the way he is, all of it happens in the past and is described to Amber. And she’s only giving him a lap dance the once. The webseries gives more opportunities to explain Phil in ways other than lengthy backstory monologues.
It was explained to me by the good people at the Alberta Playwright’s Network that Jeff’s plotline lifts right out. Phil and Becky’s stories are all about honesty. They share a theme. Jeff’s doesn’t. But it would make for a decent one-act. So it may as well lift out.
And what the hell theatre company, in the world, has three in-house playwrights on staff? You find me that theatre company, and then you pop that company in the mouth. Or see if they’re hiring. One of those.
Would you stage it again?
It’s been a temptation ever since the first staging, since I wasn’t convinced the production was 100% worthy of the script, but it’s begun to occur to me…Why would I want to?
Yes, I could cut Jeff, or at least his plot, streamline Phil and Becky’s stories, punch up the exposition… but why? In the end, I’d have a (hopefully) two-hour show about Phil and Becky… but no Jeff. No Zoe. Nobody says “For Brent” even once. I’ve found a new vehicle for these characters, one that’s treating them way better than a single, if savagely long, play did.
So instead of dusting it off and taking another crack at a stage version, I’m giving myself (and the others) license to crib whatever I want and bring it into the webseries. Not, like, word for word or anything… I did that once and now it’s my least favourite episode… but plots and characters, those I can pinch whenever. This does not, thus far, include Jeff’s love interest Monica, and when we approach the end of the season you’ll see why, but I’m thinking Olivia is going to make an appearance down the road. And Alex is a strong maybe.
Repeated theme alert
The quiet protagonist the ladies inexplicably love: Phil’s a sad sack, but he almost married Tina, slept with Becky, and draws the interest of Amber the stripper. Bravo, me.
Something something pop culture reference: The play (like the series) opens with the leads arguing about Batman and Spider-man. I think that’s the worst of it.
Something something pop culture reference Into Darkness: Olivia, Phil’s crush, is named after Olivia Wilde. Becky’s girlfriend, Alex Hadley, gets her last name from Olivia Wilde’s character on House, Dr. Remy “13” Hadley. I like Olivia Wilde is what I’m saying.
“Let’s swap backstories for fifteen minutes like that’s not pacing Kryptonite!” Every. Single. Phil scene.
Writing about writers: This was, for obvious reasons, the worst example of this one.
Next week… an actual episode, and some frank discussions about crossing lines in the name of comedy.
The beginning of this episode shifted somewhat between casting and production. Originally, it was Zoe who’d failed to notice that Jeff was in the room. And when Anna (who plays Zoe) and Aaron (who plays Jeff) read that at Anna’s audition (Aaron having been cast some time earlier), it was certainly funny… but as you may recall from two weeks ago, we had a running gag building in which Jeff was habitually unable (or unwilling, maybe?) to tell that Zoe was in the room. Or recall her name. Zoe not noticing that handsy womanizer Jeff Winnick wasn’t in the somewhat small writers’ room would be a) weird, and b) actively contradictory to the other bit, which had more legs.
(Yes, I shift between actor name and character name a lot. Yes, I know it’s potentially confusing. No, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop.)
So while it always pains me a little to cut a joke, I rewrote the opening of the episode to reflect this new status quo that several other episodes established. And hey, the new joke turned out possibly even better. Because as funny as Anna’s reaction was to Aaron sneaking up on her, that pan over to reveal she’s been in the room the whole phone call just killed me the first time through. Hopefully you agree.
There’s a lot of this. On network television, they’re producing episodes from August until April, and get a chance to react to audience expectation. Play to their strengths, work on their weaknesses… well, in theory. Lord knows the writers of Gotham haven’t done much to make Barbara Kean less of a train wreck, but Arrow certainly adapted. Other shows, like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, film their entire seasons in one go, then release afterwards. All 13 episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt come out in one burst, so if there’s oh, I don’t know, a controversy about how they handle their minority characters, there’s not much they can do about that until season two.
We’re in a similar situation (he said, desperately trying to avoid saying “We’re like Game of Thrones,” aka. the most egotistical thing he could say in this context), in that the entire series finished photography three months before our first episodes went live. We didn’t even shoot episode by episode… as I said earlier, anything involving all four writers in the Writers’ Room had to be shot during Super Fun Happy Good Times Week. So it’s not like we could shoot a couple of episodes, review the dailies, learn what we could do better and brush up the next episode before we rolled cameras.
It’s a learn-as-you-go process. You just hope the seams don’t show too much. This topic got away from me a little. Let’s move on.
Like, Share, Subscribe
I probably watch the most internet videos of any of the executive producers (he said, his tone implying this wasn’t so much a brag as a shameful confession). This means that I put the most thought into little things like the difference between YouTube, Vimeo (YouTube’s pretentious cousin), and DailyMotion (the cousin from a dysfunctional family that YouTube and Vimeo don’t like to talk about), or more relevantly, how to do a good “Like, Share, Subscribe” short (or, as we call them, LSS) to run under the credits. Vlog-style channels like Jenna Marbles will just sign off for the week by reminding you to subscribe to the channel; more production-intensive channels like Cracked Studios and College Humor (spelling it without the U kills me a little, but that’s how they spell it, so…) have to run actual credits, so they fill that time with a quick bit to encourage you to like and share and subscribe, those things that don’t seem important until you’re on the other side of the video, when they become everything.
Now there’s a couple of ways to go here, and my two examples use both interchangeably. You can do an LSS custom tailored to the video… examples include Cracked’s Rom.Com (season two, anyway) and After Hours, or at least half of College Humor’s Adam Ruins Everything videos… or you can shoot something quick and generic that you can slap on the end of basically any video. Cody from Cracked or Emily from College Humor pointing out the like, subscribe, or “Watch more videos” buttons. Effective, but I find something disengaging about Cody saying “Thanks for watching… whatever that was.” I’d rather the request to subscribe be accompanied by Daniel O’Brien explaining that Soren Bowie wrote “Everyone is eating pie” into the stage directions for no reason other than he wanted pie.
I sort of split the difference. On occasion, our LSS bits are tailored towards the specific episode… most notably Brent’s on episode two… but for the most part, I wrote LSS bits for all of the main characters, and we figured out the best episodes to pair with each one. For instance, an episode about the horrors of the comments section fits well with an LSS about Zoe being traumatized by the comments section (one of my two favourites).
I directed the section with Zoe and Jeff locked in the side room. Which, let me tell you, was a bit tricky. The side rooms aren’t very big: we needed room for Zoe, Jeff, lights, the camera, the sound equipment, plus me and Ian, and possibly Tawni, who was typically on slate, but might not have been there that day. So I was cramped into one corner, directing the shots while running sound, with no chair. I have had old-man-knees since I was 15. I would typically lose all feeling in my legs during the shot.
The poster you can see on the window (albeit backwards) is for a band we know called Thwomp. They do rock covers of video games. They’re pretty awesome. You can find their music right here if metal covers of Mega Man music appeal to you, and how could they not.
I needed something for Zoe to be listening to on her way into the building, to cover the fact she didn’t notice Jeff’s ranting, or, as it turned out when we actually staged and shot it, Becky waiting in ambush. Zoe seemed the exact type to enjoy Jonathan Coulton. Because she’s on the geeky side and has a heart and feelings, so of course she likes Jonathan Coulton.
The trick about punchlines
In the punchline of this week’s episode, Jeff asks if Zoe deals with this sort of thing on her blog. After saying “I’m a woman. On the internet,” she decides he’s had enough for one day, and says that, no, everyone who comments on her blog is totally respectful.
Wasn’t the original punchline.
Because I spend a lot of time online, and have these crazy thoughts that maybe every woman I’ve ever cared about or will ever meet shouldn’t have to deal with a misogynist culture or live under the constant threat of sexual violence from men, I am well aware about what Zoe would have to deal with on her blog.
Jeff gets mean comments that his film might not be very good. Zoe gets threatened with rape and death if she expresses an opinion about a comic book.
And this episode was written before the real-life horror movie that is GamerGate got started, and “doxxing” and “Swatting” entered the common lexicon.
So I considered having the punchline of the episode be a little different, acknowledging what I was sadly confident would be part of Zoe’s day-to-day life. But we decided that might be a little too dark. Dark’s all well and good in the set up, but if you’re working it into the punchline, you’d better be confident your audience is going to be okay with that. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia trains its audience to expect a dark punchline to a dark premise; we didn’t have that expectation. So I went the other way. I think it works better. Provides a nice end moment instead of something that would just get Jeff spun up again.
Which is not to say that we shy away from controversial jokes. As we’ll see next week, when we talk about the yelling fight Keith and I had in a pub about… well, I wouldn’t want to give it away.
Seriously, like, share, subscribe, and comment on the videos. YouTube pays attention to that stuff.
Okay. Who’s ready for their internet comedy series to get real?
Caught up? Let’s get started. Joining me this week are both of my co-execs, Keith Kollee and Ian Pond.
Ian: I always imagined that the super dramatic scene that is being rehearsed at the top of the episode is actually part of a laughably melodramatic sci fi play. Maybe about immortal cowboys.
As I’ve stated before, I started writing Phil Payton way on back in 1997. He’s been the main character, or at least amongst the main characters, in three plays of mine. I’ve used him as a vehicle to… exorcise some demons more than once.
So imagine, then, the trust involved in having the principle writer of Phil’s big solo episode be my co-exec Keith Kollee.
This isn’t the first episode Keith wrote. That’s coming in two to three weeks. And Keith’s first episode showed us that we’d achieved something important: we wrote the characters consistently. Super consistently. To the point that the cast–including Aaron, who’s been following my writing for years– couldn’t tell at first glance which episodes were mine and which were Keith’s.
That is an excellent thing to pull off. That Keith could write these characters as well as I could was a relief (part of why I dragged him into this was so that I wouldn’t have to write the whole damn thing for his writing talents). That he could write them as the same people as I do was a blessing. Because there’s little worse than when a show is so inconsistently written that you can tell who wrote it by how the characters act.
Aside from, you know, opening with a tragic death, thus far we’ve kept things light and funny. As you’ve no doubt seen (and if you haven’t, what the hell, the video is right at the top, what is keeping you, here be spoilers!), Keith went a different way with this one. When we were plotting out the season, the rough summary we came up with was “Phil has a crush on an actress, but can’t ask her out because he can’t stop picturing all the ways it could go wrong.”
Me, I pictured a series of brief fantasy sequences in which Phil does indeed envision a dozen different tragic outcomes of asking out the actress who eventually became George, because as we discussed, I am goony for cutaways. Keith, not sharing my demented and annoying-to-film obsession, tried something different.
…You know what? Let’s let Keith himself take over for a bit. Ladies and gentlemen, Keith Kollee.
Deconstructing Phil was not the first episode I wrote for season one, but it is the first to see air. That will ensure that it always has a special place in my heart. It is also the darkest and least funny episode. Why is that? Why did I feel like this was necessary? Despite Dan’s half-hearted protests, I know that Phil was based on him in the original iteration of Writers Circle. (I half heartedly protest! -Dan) What Dan doesn’t know is that once upon a time, Phil Payton was also me. I suffered the same insecurities and self-sabotage. Writing those awful things for Sydney to say (sorry Syd!) was easy because I had thought those same things about myself a thousand times. Because I could see so much of myself in Phil, I felt it was important that he not be some buffoon that we propped up and poked fun of. We will, of course, still laugh at Phil and his foibles, but we will also understand that he is a real person, and that his pain comes from a real (if ridiculous) place. I feel like this will actually make him funnier in the long run. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. I just feel like all the great sitcoms over the years had these kinds of episodes (MASH is the one that immediately springs to mind), and the characters were always stronger after being forged in that fire. I hope the audience agrees.
This was also a special episode because it book-ended the shooting of the season for us. It was the episode we shot on the first day, and again on the last. I remember standing outside the theatre, looking at these two other people (Dan & Ian) that I had decided to embark on this journey with. It was not unusual for the three of us to sit around and talk about the awesome things we could do, under the right circumstances. But we made a plan, set one foot in front of the other, and were on the verge of creating something real. I had never been more proud of us. And I had also never been so scared. I had no idea what I was doing and I was sure that was evident to everyone. In hindsight, I still don’t think I’m wrong about that. But then we flash forward to the last day of shooting. We were all so much more comfortable with ourselves and each other. I still didn’t know what I was doing, but I had made my peace with that. And no one was impolite enough to call me on my bullshit. We had become a family. I remember feeling a profound sadness that last day. An emptiness. What was I going to do when I didn’t see these people everyday? It was soon filled with the flurry of post-production and other projects, but it was not forgotten. It fuels the fire for season two.
Ian: This episode was shot on two separate occasions MONTHS apart. Being that the first day was THE FIRST DAY of shooting, the day after first read through (and a party) when we were first trying to figure out how shoots would work, Keith ended up noticing that he wanted more wide shots. Add to this that at some point I accidentally deleted half the footage from the day. All this culmintated in scheduling a reshoot day some time in October. By this time the theatre we were shooting in, which was empty for the summer, now had a set built in it. Also by the time we were scheduling reshoots Ryan had grown a beard for another shoot and couldn’t shave down for our show until he was done with that. Heh. Good times.
Anytime someone says “See you next week” I think “See you next Tuesday”. I’m not proud of it. But I doubt I’m alone.
Thanks, guys. Now, to elaborate on some things Keith brought up…
This episode is brutal and unflinching in a way I’m not sure I would have delivered on, and I do have some experience chasing Phil up a tree and throwing rocks at him. And it’s important that it happened this early in the season (would have been earlier if someone hadn’t shoehorned in Origin Stories, but here we are).
Keith named MASH. I cite Scrubs. Which may seem like a less impressive reference but too late it’s happening. Scrubs started its run with broad, zany comedy, and while they toned down the foley a little after the pilot, that’s primarily where Scrubs lived. Then in episode four, they gave each of the three lead doctors a patient, announced they were going to kill one of them, got you invested in the patients and their stories… and then killed all three. In a montage set to a cover of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, just to make sure you were every bit as depressed as they wanted you to be.
Why? Same reason I’m glad Keith wrote this episode the way he did. As a warning shot that we’ve got this in our toolbox, and while we’re primarily a comedy show, we are not afraid to get heavy when that’s where the story goes. Last week was hilarious, next week will be too, but this week we pull a knife and go for the heart. Because we can.
Plus, you know, all the stuff Keith said. About Phil’s pain coming from a real and difficult place.
We could just phone it in, have a punchline for every setup, end on the laugh track, never grow and never challenge anyone…
But I’d rather be Scrubs. I’d rather be Community. I’d rather be Bojack Horseman. I’d rather be the show that makes you laugh but can still stab you right in heart, because you care so much about the characters that their pain becomes your pain, their triumphs all the sweeter because you’ve been rooting for them this whole time.
Fortunately, Keith agrees, and this episode is the result.
First Day on the Job
Like Keith said, this was the very first episode we ever shot. Our first day on set. One day after our table read, we set up in the Pumphouse Theatre and rolled camera for the first time.
Lights, camera, excitement!
That wasn’t a small thing for us. Keith, Ian, and I had been working on this for over a year. Thirteen months since the train in Switzerland where I told Ian this was what we were doing now and started writing what became episode twelve. Ten months since Keith, Ian, and I had a drink on my balcony and started breaking the season’s stories, defining the characters, divvying up episodes. And now we were filming. It was a good feeling. And having an entire episode in the can by the end of our first day? A great feeling. We wouldn’t get an entire episode done in one day again until the first day of Super Fun Happy Good Times Week, when we managed to shoot all of Stonebluff Road (episode 10, coming in April).
Not that having an episode in the can lasted. As it turns out, we were forced to reshoot chunks of this episode, hence it also being one of our last days on set (I’m honestly uncertain which was last, the reshoots for this episode or Becky’s flashback from episode three). Not ideal, but hey, there was symmetry.
Also reshoot day was the last time all five leads were in the same room, as that was the day Dave Moss of Abby + Dave Photography came by to take the character photos you can see on our website.
Astute viewers will recognize Matt “Coffee Shop Douche” Pickering in the lower left of that photo. This was Matt’s one day on set as AD/Production Manager, a role we talked him into through no small amount of charm on Keith’s part. Sadly, health issues forced him to step down from the position, but if you’ve been watching/reading carefully, you’ll find the signs that he’s still with us in spirit.
And sometimes with us in the flesh, getting tormented by Becky.
And he wasn’t the only casualty…
Ian: The thing about shooting a passion project is you tend to do it for free and have to get people to do things for free. As such it’s kind of a dick move to be angry when someone takes paying work over your thing. Such was the case of our short lived camera op Alexis Moar who started early in the project shooting auditions, test shoots and up to the first full day of photography but then went back to working in television and film once they started calling again. I’ve worked with her plenty in the corporate AV world and seen many of the things she has worked on. If you get a chance to work with her, take it but for gods’ sakes pay her or you run the risk of losing her to someone who can.
My favourite moment from day one? That is, aside from our talented and adorable costumer/slate girl trying to keep up with some of the trickier shots?
And we didn’t even use that one.
While filming, Keith paused, turned to me (or someone, I forget, I mean I replied but people tend to forget I’m in a room so he could have been talking to anyone) and said “We haven’t had any good bloopers yet.”
That’s right, his big complaint from day one on set was that things were going too well. But I was right there with the reassurance.
“Don’t worry, Keith,” I said. “Once Aaron and Steph are on set, that’ll change.”
Rumour has it a blooper reel is heading our way which should prove I was right.
Ian: This episode was a nightmare for me and Pat. (“Pat” being Patrick “DJ PEENS” Murray -DG) The two shooting days with different equipment made post production incredibly difficult. Matching colour was a huge problem as on the original day we used some of the theatre’s existing house plot for much of our lighting. By the time we shot a company had moved in for a show and hung and focused their own light plot. And then there’s the matter that Pat needed the sound equipment we’d been using for another shoot that day so we were forced to use my far lesser equipment. What followed was some of the most hurtful and mean spirited criticisms I’d ever read in Keith’s post production directorial notes. We could but try. He’s a monster.
This also marked the last day I used a soft box for lighting. I had one bulb for that thing and when it broke had no money to replace it.
On a personal note, this was Nathan Iles’ one day on set as Ian (the actor), which turned out to be just excellently timed. See, partway through the shoot, I lost a cast member from the production of Frost/Nixon I was directing. As I was exchanging messages with my stage manager about it, I looked up and said “Hey Nate, wanna be in Frost/Nixon?”
“Sure!” he replied. “I was wanting to find a show to do.”
“Awesome,” I said. “But… remember how you were excited to get your hair cut?”
“Not so much.”
Next week we’re going to talk about internet trolls. So the episode will be funny, but the commentary might get dark. Circle of life, man. Circle of life.
There are things you can’t know about your script until you hear it out loud. Sentences that seem hilarious on paper can fall flat when you actually have to read them out. Dialogue that seems fine in your head can be awful coming out of someone’s mou–there has to be a better phrasing… can sound awful spoken out loud.
Why yes, I do have examples.
One of my favourite webcomics is Something Positive. Like most webcomics I follow, it has a strong wit and a unique voice in its dialogue. What I didn’t know is that it wouldn’t really translate from the page. And then some fans did a short film based on one of the earlier stories, and some of my favourite lines from the story… fell flat. Now you could say that it’s because the film was shot by amateur fans and not Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but honestly, spoken out loud, the lines got clunky. Super clunky. Because they move a lot faster when you’re reading them in your head than actually speaking them.
Which is something to look out for when you have my unfortunate tendency to think wit can be accomplished with excessive verbosity. Um… “bein’ all wordy.”
The second example comes from something I did, instead of a well-meaning fan film that came out a little clunky.
It was one of the earliest drafts of Salvage. I handed it to two close friends for a review, got notes, came back with a second draft, and was chided for not cutting a section of dialogue that one of my readers had advised me to be rid of. I attempted to defend the section, at which point my friend decided to prove his point in the swiftest way possible: reading the lines aloud. My reactions were as followed:
“I don’t think it’s so– Well, if you read it like that, it– maybe it needs to– STOP IT! STOP IT!”
Took, maybe, 15 seconds to be utterly broken by my own dialogue. Needless to say, it got rewritten pretty thoroughly.
So gather your friends, hand out scripts, read it out loud. It’s hard to predict how you’ll react or what’s going to happen. Me? Frequently, my nose runs. No idea why. It’s like the emotions triggered by people enjoying something I wrote set off leaks in all of my face-holes. Kind of annoying, not gonna lie.
When they laugh, how it sounds, it’s all hard to predict. Personally, I swap between trying to savour hearing the words out loud and following along in the script so that I can catch the more obvious flaws. And then… down to business.
Once the script is read, you need people’s reactions.
It’s, at best, organized chaos. You have a room full of people (depending on how many people you invited) that hopefully will all want to sound off on what they thought, and keeping it all orderly can be a challenge.
Now, in my case, I had a fiction writing class back in University with novelist Aritha Van Herk. Aritha is a nice person and an impeccable teacher, but part of her technique is that she is merciless. Aritha Van Herk will tear you down to rubble and rebuild you, stronger and better than you were. And the way this happens is that everyone reads each other’s stories, then in class everyone tears into the story to discuss what’s wrong with it. And maybe, if you’re in the second or third year, what’s right with it, but the focus is on the former. And the writer just sits there and takes notes. Because it’s not like you can find everyone who reads your book and explain what you meant to say.
Clem Martini, my playwriting prof, believed more in positive enforcement. He’d still spend the bulk of the time on how a script needed to improve, but would open by discussing what worked.
But back to Aritha. The most valuable thing I got from two years of fiction writing class was a thick skin. By the time I started playwriting class with Clem, I wasn’t afraid to have people read my stuff and tell me what they thought. In fact, I was starting to thrive on it. However, the flip side is that I also sort of got into the habit of being a passive observer in the commentary portion, which some people find baffling.
Steer into the chaos. Mine your readers for everything you can; which characters work, which don’t. If it’s a comedy, do the jokes land? If it’s a mystery, how obvious is the ending? Do people care about the story? Get everything you can, because there is going to be a lot. Unless your draft is miraculously rock-solid this early in the process (I have managed that precisely twice, similar to the number of plays I buried never to see the light of day), there will be a lot of stuff to work on. More people means more opinions and more flaws you never saw and strengths to play up.
The most recent example. My last workshop, for the farce I’ve been working on, went exceptionally well. It got the laughs it needed (if a farce isn’t funny, that’s the ball game), the main characters all worked, it was a hit. People enjoyed it, some wanted to direct it, some might even consider staging it, but there was still an ass-ton of rewrites necessary. One character had to be cut, and a full third of the cast had to be completely rewritten. Only two characters escaped without needing tweaking. Fortunately, my two favourites, so go me on that one.
Workshopping isn’t an easy process. You need a strong stomach, a thick skin, and a tough… neck, or whatever? Ran out of body part analogies. But the insights you gain on how your script is doing are invaluable.
And if you can get past the “What if nobody likes it” fear, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Me, I can’t wait to finish this draft so I can think about doing another.
Guess I’d better get back to that.
See you all Friday for Writers’ Circle: Confidential, when we’ll be talking about handing one of my oldest characters over to another writer.
Hark now to the tale of how I, as head writer, made everything complicated for the production team forever and always.
“Forever and always” in this case being defined as for a few more weeks, but still.
So the episodes did not get written in anything even approximating production or airing order. One of our first priorities when we kicked off the project was to plan out the entire season, figure out what stories we needed, what stories we wanted, try to give all the characters decent coverage, plot a couple of long-term arcs. We then divvied up the writing between me and Keith, with my plan being to write the season finale last so that it could properly pay off everything we’d done.
And then having done all of that, I suddenly decided “Wouldn’t it be neat if we did an episode about how everyone became writers in the first place?” And despite the fact that we had a full season, decided to just go ahead and write it anyway, because I’m the head writer and give zero fucks, apparently.
Fortunately, it turned out pretty funny, and a planned two-parter read way faster than we expected, so it all worked out. It just… it created a little problem.
See, by then, every other script was written. Written and numbered, from one to thirteen. And since renumbering 10 shared files felt like a lot of work, I just went ahead and numbered Origin Stories episode 3.5.
So it’s episode four to the audience, and 3.5 to the production team. Which, you know, is just a bundle of laughs when the production team is chatting.
Fortunately, we’ve worked out a good solution all around. We just keep referring to episodes by their script number (which will soon enough bring us to episode 6/7), and since I handle the YouTube copy and the social media posts, only I have to worry about their broadcast numbers.
Which, you know, is basically just counting.
I don’t have too many set memories on this episode. It fell during one of the days in Super Fun Happy Good Times Week when I had rehearsal for Frost/Nixon, so it was 10:00 by the time I was on set. But there are a few random notes and Easter eggs I can share.
There are those who imply that Phil, the playwright, might have some passing resemblance to Dan, the me. This is, of course, nonsense and slander, and officially I have no knowledge how this rumour got started. But those who spread it tend to point at the supposed fact that I gave Phil three of my old jobs.
Which is, of course, madness. Sure, okay, regular readers or those willing to troll the archive will know all about my brief time at Canada Post and some snippets of my time as a projectionist, but I only trained as a blackjack dealer. Never actually worked as one. So there.
Goth Phil judges you and your assumptions.
Moving along… due to the wonders of the filming process, Phil and Becky’s halves of their phone call were actually shot around two months apart. July was our “no Stephanie/Becky month,” meaning no Becky scenes, which was tricky, because there’s only one episode in the whole season that Becky’s not in. So in July, we knocked off just as many non-Becky moments as we could, including Phil’s side of the phone call.
Although it occurred to us in the moment that it would have been better to have both of them in the room… could have opened up some neat split-screen opportunities… but we’ll just call that a lesson for next season.
Now, while the halves of the phone call are separated by time, they were actually shot only 20ish feet apart. See, we didn’t have a lot of budget for locations… or anything… so with the exception of the writers’ room, we mostly hunted down what we could get for free. Like, say, my house. Which quite fortunately has two very distinct floors. Phil lives in my basement, and Becky on my main floor, although we mostly only see the kitchen. And yes, that’s my pimp chalice she’s drinking out of.
Speaking of my stuff… it was really simple turning my basement into Phil’s nerdy living room. It is probably not surprising that I own a fair amount of nerd paraphernalia. It was simply a matter of scouring the upper floor for Dr. Who merch, webcomic geek art, and the statue collection I call my nerd reliquary.
I’m comfortable with who I am.
Most of which you can’t even see. We’d even gotten permission from Joel Watson of Hijinks Ensue to use his “Doctor is In” print, in exchange for reminding people that you can totally buy your own at his store, and it didn’t even make it into the shot. Redecorated the entire basement for nothing. Except that the table totally works better there.
Blast from the past
Shifting to the flashback to movie night at casa del Winnick… we needed audio for whatever awful movie spurred Jeff to launch his moviemaking career. But even if there was a movie we could think of that no sane mind would ever consider to be less than fully terrible…
… if it wasn’t something we owned, we couldn’t use it. So as a placeholder, our sound engineer, Patrick “DJ Peens” Murray, used the dialogue between Zoe and Tina from the start of episode three, because it amused him to have Jeff complaining about how bad the dialogue was in something I wrote. And it’s not that the rest of the team didn’t see his point, just that if we used dialogue from last week’s episode, we thought people might notice.
So we found another way, a way that makes this scene even more self-referential.
Jeff, Becky, and Phil of Writers’ Circle: the Series are watching the DVD of Writers’ Circle: the Play.
In a perfect world, we would have used one of Jeff’s scenes, so that Jeff was complaining about having to watch the Jeff Winnick Story, but I got Peens the DVD late and didn’t have time to find a good scene. So we just grabbed scene two (which I thought was a Jeff Winnick scene, having forgotten we cut that one for time), aka. the first scene not reproduced nearly word for word in our first episode.
The… well-fed missionaries that Becky chases off in her flashbacks are, as the credits reveal, myself and Keith, with Ian completing the “executive producer cameo” set elsewhere in her flashback. We are not holding bibles or books of Mormon, as I don’t really have either, but are instead each holding one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Some of the only and easiest to find hardcover books I own.
Because man I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
It began as a simple fantasy parody novel, but grew into something much, much more. The Discworld is a fully-realised fantasy world that acts as a mirror of our own through twisting and subverting storytelling tropes. It’s filled with incredible, lovable characters I could never wait to read more about: angry detective Samuel Vimes and the rest of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch; conman turned unwilling civil servant Moist Von Lipwig; Granny Weatherwax and the Witches of Lancre; the bumbling wizards of Unseen University; Death and his adopted family. Forty novels, each designed to delight new and old readers alike. Terry Pratchett was a uniquely gifted writer, comedian, satirist, storyteller, and world builder. Since I first read Good Omens twenty-ish years ago, an end-of-the-world tale he wrote with Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett’s books have been an endless source of joy for me.
He died yesterday at the age of 66. Early-onset Alzheimer’s. The world… my world… is lessened by his absence.
Next week… Phil goes solo in Deconstructing Phil. Be well, everybody.