9.28.2011

GUEST BLOG: How To Keep A Writer From Going Off The Track

(Our Man in Los Angeles preface:  You read someone's book, you speak to their people, and bam, you've got a guest blog.  Life in the internet age.  And yet my mailman still gives me my neighbor's junk snail mail.)

By Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis

In our book, Show Me The Funny!: At the Writers Table With Hollywood’s Top Comedy Writers, 28 top comedy writers from the golden age of TV to Everybody Loves Raymond and There’s Something About Mary, take the same generic premise and develop it into their unique stories. Along the way, unexpected things happen. In fact, great Hollywood stories, tricks of the trade and writing advice came out of these interviews that might not have happened in a regular Q & A. For example, we were amazed to discover how many of these accomplished comedy pros came from math and science backgrounds.

Sherwood Schwartz, creator of two iconic shows (Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch) was on his way to medical school at UCLA when his older brother introduced him to Bob Hope. Mitch Klebanoff (Beverly Hills Ninja) says he always did better in math…especially visual math. He was stronger in Geometry than in English.

And there’s Elliot Schoenman, who lists among his impressive credits, Maude and Show-runner on Home Improvement. Elliot holds an undergraduate degree in math and physics and a graduate degree in math. “People are always saying, ‘What a wasted background,’ but it’s actually very good for plotting,” he told us.

During his tenure as show-runner on Home Improvement he was amazed by how disorganized some writers could be when it came to structuring a story. In the Writers’ Room when the staff broke out stories there was one writer in particular Elliot remembers. She would work in tangents that were interesting, even funny, but went nowhere and more important, didn’t develop character or move the story forward.

“The only way I could get her to stop and think,” Elliot told us, “…is I brought her…Brio trains…little wooden train sets that the kids used to have? I got her a piece of Brio train track, where it’s a straight track with a little curve that goes off. I got a little stop sign, and I put it on her desk…I put the stop sign half on and half off the little curve. I said, ‘Every time you come up with a beat…I want you to think: Am I going this way---Elliott indicated a straight line with his palm---or am I going this way---Elliott made a curved line. If you even suspect you’re going this way---Elliott indicated a curved line again---look at that little stop sign and come into my office.’”

Elliot told us; “I was always astounded by how far people could go off.” His background shows in Elliot’s methodical, and at the same time, imaginative development of the premise we gave him.

Elliot is too much of a gentleman to name names, but he did say, with no little amount of pride, that the woman who learned not to derail herself is now one of the biggest writers in the business.

Whether or not you run out and buy a Brio train set or just a Stop sign, Elliot’s method for knowing when you are heading off track, is a great device for all writers, no matter what genre or form we work in. To see Elliot’s story and the other writers interviewed in Show Me The Funny go to our website: www.showmethefunnyonline.com (or www.smtfo.com for short).

If you find this writing tip as helpful as we do, there are many more where this came from.

P.S. While you’re out there web-surfing, ‘Like’ us at www.Facebook.com/SMTFfans.

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Author Bios:


One out of every 150 people in America bought a copy of a joke book that Peter Desberg has written. Unfortunately, Scholastic sold the most popular one for $1 each, so he still has to work. Counting his five joke books, he has had twenty books published. In addition to this lucrative writing career, he is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the area of stage fright. He has worked with many top stand-up comedians, who are regularly confronted with massive cases of flop sweat. He also has been moonlighting as a full professor at California State University Dominguez Hills for over thirty years.

Jeffrey Davis's earliest memories are of sitting around the writers' table at Nate & Al's Delicatessen, where his father and his comedy writer cronies gathered over corn beef and Doctor Brown's Cream Soda, told war stories, and tried to fix third acts. He began his own career writing jokes for Thicke of the Night. Among his situation comedy credits are Love Boat, House Calls with Lynn Redgrave, Give Me a Break, Diff'rent Strokes, and Night Court. He has also written for such shows as America's Funniest People, America's Funniest Home Videos, and Small Wonder, and has had film projects developed by Bette Midler's All Girl Productions, among others. His plays have been produced in New York and Los Angeles. His most recently published play is Speed Dating 101. He is the Screenwriting Department Chair and associate professor of film and TV writing at Loyola Marymount University. His one night of stand-up at the Comedy Store convinced him that he should stay permanently seated at his desk.

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