Saturday, June 23, 2007

How Studio 60 Started

NBC Conference room. Sitting at the table is the network head of programming. In walks Mel Torkelson, slightly disheveled genius, to pitch his new idea for a show.

Exec: Mel, good to see you again.

Mel: Good to see you.

Exec: So what have you got for us? What's the pitch?

Mel: Not to start off combative or anything, but I resent the term "pitch."

Exec: But that's what we do here. Surely you know this. We're trying to line up some pilots for the fall season.

Mel: Let's get this straight. I have a great show all mapped out. I came here, to this network, out of respect for how you supported The West Wing. I could have gone to any of the networks, any of the basic cable outfits, or any of the pay cable channels, and they would have given me a two year commitment sight unseen. I'm here to find out exactly how many Emmys you want.

Exec: Late night last night?

Mel: What?

Exec: Nevermind. Tell me about the show.

Mel: It's a behind the scenes dramedy.

Exec: Sounds familiar.

Mel: At a late night comedy show. Like SNL.

Exec: We already have one of those in development. With Tina Fey, who was the head writer at SNL.

Mel: But that's a sitcom, isn't it?

Exec: Yes, it is. But it's a single camera, no laugh track deal. Looks very promising.

Mel: But how do you expect to comment on the inner workings of government, the political divides in this country, the struggle of reason against faith, the pursuit of art in the face of commerce and the gripping drama of substance abuse in 30 damned minutes?

Exec: We don't. We're trying to make people laugh.

Mel: Oh. Okay. Sure, that has its place and purpose. But this show will be filled with laughs, too. After all, it's about a comedy show. But it will also enlighten and educate. And bring you more Emmys than you have shelf space for.

Exec: Tell me more.

Mel: The two lead characters will be the head writer and the producer of the show. The writer is a brilliant guy. Bit of a pill popper, but nothing he can't handle. He'll have an on-again, off-again relationship with the lead actress on the show, a gifted comedienne who is sort of his muse. But here's the deal with that. Despite being sexy as all get out and brilliant in her own right, she's a born again Christian conservative. So there's lots of fertile material to play there. She'll try to get everyone to pray, and the cast will look at her like she's crazy. She'll object to the racy or liberal sketches, and basically be a voice for those nuts in flyover country. She's an up and coming star, so she'll be tempted to whore it up in Maxim, but God will talk her out of it. Good stuff. The producer is brilliant director, and concerned with putting the best show on he can, ratings and network notes be damned. And he's got a substance abuse problem. And he's a bit of a stalker.

Exec: Doesn't sound very funny, Mel.

Mel: Are you kidding me? We can play that whole "will they or won't they" game with the writer and his actress out for months. Lots of opportunities for snappy dialogue walking down halls. And the idea of a blonde, sexy, multitalented actress in Hollywood who is actually a god-fearing reactionary is just inherently funny.

Exec: Sounds a lot like Kristen Chen-

Mel: Not it's not. Totally different. My character, Harriet, is taller. Much taller.

Exec: So is she with the writer?

Mel: Yes and no. We won't reveal all this right away, because we'll peel back layers over the onion over time in sidesplitting flashbacks. But in the beginning, the writer was just a staff writer, but obviously brilliant and talented and principled. He'll start to shine as he recognizes his attraction to the actress and she inspires him to write good material for her. But he'll be shy about confessing his feelings for her, and she'll start sleeping with another writer, a hack who was happy when we bombed Afghanistan. They'll break up, and then she'll start sleeping with the brilliant writer, and they'll have lots of hilarious debates about politics and religion, but eventually break up over something silly, and still have to work together. Then, this hack writer who was on staff will leave and direct an edgy indie movie, and cast her as the lead. They'll start fucking again, but she'll eventually realize he's just a hack and still be attracted to the brilliant guy, who is now the show runner for the sketch comedy. Funny, right?

Exec: Uh, tell me about the producer.

Mel: Okay, he's best friends with the writer. He's been off directing movies, but gets in a bind when he fails a drug test for his latest flick and can't get insured. So he needs this SNL gig.

Exec: Two drug addicts? Isn't that a little much?

Mel: Have you looked around this fucking town? How do you think people handle the fucking pressure of putting out quality fucking product week after fucking week? This shit is life and death, and Emmys don't grow on trees, ya know. They come out of an eight-ball!

Exec: Mel…

Mel: I was just kidding there. Really, it just adds flavor to the characters, and gives them a chance to struggle with their demons. Actors love this stuff. As do Emmy voters. Anyway, the producer has to constantly fight with meddling network suits who only want to move a few boxes of cereal or some crap, and are always worried about the ratings and ad buys.

Exec: Well, Mel, the ratings and the cereal keep the shows on the air…

Mel: See what I fucking mean? It will be a weekly debate about the purity of art versus the evils of commerce, and the goddamned compromises our heroes are forced to stomach every single goddamned show just to sneak a little enlightenment and insight past the censors and execs. Plus, it's not about total ratings, anyway. What you want is the demo. That college educated, upscale, liberal demo. They buy things. They move the needle. They set the watercooler agenda.

Exec: (Sigh.) What about the sketches?

Mel: What about them?

Exec: Will they be funny?

Mel: Uh, sure. How hard is it to write sketches? Christ on a stick, it's much harder to write soapbox speech after soapbox speech and make it sound like naturalistic dialogue. How difficult is it get a laugh out of a 3 minute sketch?

Exec: Have you actually watched SNL in the last 10 years?

Mel: No, but I read that book about it. And we don't have to actually show any full sketches. We'll just tell the audience that our writer is brilliant and funny, and they'll get it. And besides, we can show parts of sketch, and have the actors do a funny voice or something. The sketches aren't the point, anyway. The drama, and the humor, and the pathos, will come from all the behind the scenes stuff, anyway. We'll have a pregnancy scare in the ER, some shallow whore who wants to put on more reality TV, a bomb scare in the studio, some stupid fucking bloggers who think their opinion matters. There's this bit with an animal wrangler, too, that just kills. And I have this whole long arc worked out about one of the cast's brother getting kidnapped by the Taliban and potentially being beheaded on live TV, and he'll have to struggle with letting our corrupt and incompetent military try to save him, or ponying up millions to let a private K&R firm rescue him, and…

Exec: K&R?

Mel: Kidnap and ransom, moron.

Exec: Yes, Mel, I know what K&R stands for. I'm just wondering what the hell this has to do with a late night sketch comedy show.

Mel: I told you. One of the actors has a brother who enlisted in army. And he was STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF AFGHANISTAN! And he gets captured during a routine mission by these freedom fighters…

Exec: Mel, I'm worried that it strays a little from the central premise.

Mel: Oh, Jesus fucking Christ. Think outside the box. We're commenting on what's happening in the world, using television and this show as a vehicle to say something important. Don't you want this network to stand for something?

Exec: Well, the Law & Orders are getting a little long in the tooth.

Mel: Look. I'm not gonna beg, okay. I realize things got a little hairy toward the end of The West Wing, and I was going through this bad break up with this sexy, illogical zealot who just couldn't see things my way, but I'm all past that now. It won't inform the work we do here. It's a comedy show! Now I need a full season order, or I'm walking out that fucking door to another network and they'll greenlight me in a New York minute.

Exec: But it will be funny, right?

Mel: Funny as hell. And people will identify with and love these characters. And did I mention Emmys?

Exec: Okay, you have a go. We have a great lead in. A new show about superheroes. Looks very promising.

Mel: Superheroes? Is that the crap from the guy who did Crossing fucking Jordan? Are you kidding me? THAT is my lead in?

Exec: It's testing well.

Mel: Oh please. Who wants to watch that shit when we've got criminals in the highest office in the land and we're fighting some pointless war over oil?! When mythology believing hypocrites are teaching our kids that dinosaurs didn't exist? When corporations are censoring artists? When a goddamned genius can't get insured to work? When a beautiful, sexy, funny woman breaks up with a brilliant auteur for no good reason? Okay, whatever. Just promise me that when the critics start drooling over my show, the Emmys start piling up and that fluffy superhero nonsense tanks and gets cancelled after four episodes, you'll give us a better lead in.

Exec: We'll do everything we can to bring an audience to Mondays, Mel.

Mel: Great. See you at the Shrine Auditorium in September. And one favor, please. Any pilots with what's her name? Make sure they don't see the light of day. I want that in my contract.

No comments:

Post a Comment