Sitcom Scenes I Hate to Write, Part One

There are certain set-ups that don’t lead to anything good. “Box canyons,” writer Don Reo used to call them. “We’re in a box canyon!” Best you can do is get out.

I carry with me a mental checklist of such scenes. Sometimes the set-ups themselves are inherently flawed. Sometimes it is possible to fashion a scene that is “correct,” but lacking in all other virtues (to me, the only thing worse than a correct scene is a correct joke). Other times, I’m just being an asshole. So here’s my list:

Scenes where characters get along on first dates, with an emphasis on eating food together to establish a short hand for intimacy. Is it ever interesting to watch two people hit it off? And once they start eating, it’s just disgusting.

Scenes where characters open gifts. I have spent too many late nights in writers’ rooms, pitching on what’s in the box. Better for there to not be a box. Nina Wass may disagree. She has a story about Jim Vallely pitching crotchless panties as a gift for Blanche on the Golden Girls twenty years ago that was the right joke for the right moment. To me, that’s the exception that proves the rule.

Jokes that have the word “since” in the middle. I haven’t seen her this upset since

The danger here is in not taking the first decent pitch and moving on. Because all decent since jokes are basically the same, once you set the bar a little higher, it becomes like turning down the first house you looked at–the one that, in retrospect, was perfect. Now you have this impossible standard. I’ve seen rooms grind to a halt over that elusive bit of funny history, all to service a stupid little word that never should have made it into the sentence in the first place.

Scenes that serve no purpose other than to explain why someone decides to do something. These scenes are almost always reductive, making the decision more understandable but only in a connect-the-dots sort of way, while eliminating anything interesting we might learn about a character doing something slightly off kilter. In editing, these scenes come right out.

Sometimes it is difficult to separate a box canyon from a firmly held superstition. Tony Thomas hated what he referred to as Man Who Cam to Dinner stories. “You don’t want to do Man Who Came to Dinner,” he’d warn, about any story involving an unwanted house guest. Even a guest star taking a coat off and sitting down made Tony nervous. At the time, I thought it was silly. But experience has taught me Tony was right. Man Who Came to Dinner stories never work. You don’t want to do Man Who Came to Dinner.

Other times, our pet peeves can lead to self fulfilling prophecies–scenes that never work because we’re determined that they not work. Is it possible? I’d rather be right than watch a successful scene featuring a man and woman eating Chinese from the box and talking about their childhoods?

Tony Thomas had a huge pet peeve about scenes set in restaurants. “You don’t want them sitting in a restaurant,” he’d say, “with the waiter, and the guy hiding behind the potted plant.” There wasn’t going to be a guy hiding behind a potted plant, we’d assure him, which was true because we hadn’t considered the possibility until that moment. But Tony was adamant, “You’ve got to have the guy hidding behind the potted plant.”

(to be continued)

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