This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Blossom Blossoms

It was the TV decade that brought us Boy Meets World, My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks and everything in between. It was the 1990s – and the same poignant, truthful focus that John Hughes brought to movies about teens and growing up in the 1980s seemed to gradually make its way to small screens. From sitcoms to one-hour dramas, TV shows from the 90s took a Hughes-ian cue and treated the subject of coming-of-age not with exaggeration, but with subtlety and seriousness, often finding honest humor as a meaningful by-product. Perhaps this is why those of us who literally came of age during the 1990s often look back on the decade with fondness (whether it was actually a great time to be alive or not).

Shows like these help us to recognize the lessons inherent in our own experience and offer us instruction on how to face the newness and scariness of getting older.

A particularly phenomenal example of “lessons-in-growing-up” TV is the second episode of the series Blossom. Entitled “Blossom Blossoms” and written by Racelle Rosett Shaefer, it was the first episode of the show to air when the show was ordered as a mid-season replacement by NBC in January of 1991. (Its pilot had already aired in July of the previous year). As a part of the 90s theme we’ve been exploring on our social media channels this week, I want to implore you to check out this script the next time you’re in the WGF Library.

The general gist: Blossom, an adolescent girl, being raised by her single musician father and two goofy older brothers starts her period… and she can find nobody to provide her with the understanding and instruction that she needs as she cycles out of girlhood and into womanhood.

The episode draws attention and gives gravitas to the uniquely feminine part of growing up, which up until this point was very often under or misrepresented or made out to be some kind of horror show (Carrie, anyone?). In fact, the subplot finds Blossom’s brothers, Joey and Anthony, making horror videos for school about things that can incite violence. As the story progresses, the episode lovingly references and subverts “The Carrie trope” and we learn with Blossom that one thing that isn’t violent or scary, but completely natural is getting one’s period – and it’s okay to talk about it.

I write in a previous post on this blog about Lisa Simpson trying to find somebody to understand her struggle with sadness and how her mother steps in to empathize and help at the 11th hour. What’s interesting about Blossom is that she doesn’t have a mother to give her instruction during this time. She has her father, her brothers, her best friend and an older woman named Agnes, who lives next door, but there’s nobody to give her the kind of support she really needs (or so she thinks). With her father and brothers, she’s afraid to even broach the subject.

It’s up to Blossom’s Father, Nick, to step in and zoom past his socially prescribed role and offer a kind of compassionate mothering to his kid. When Blossom gets up the nerve to tell her Dad she got her period, he sits her down and talks with her while attempting to braid her hair. He vocally celebrates that his daughter is getting older and encourages his sons to do the same. It’s sweet and almost revolutionary to see a rock star Dad avoid falling into the pitfalls of storytelling banality. He’s not on the road, having abandoned his family. He’s more than there for them.

With television writing like this, a critical part of growing up is not only brought to light, but championed. Girls get reinforcement that their experience is valid, learning that it’s okay to talk about their periods and ask for help when they need it, that it shouldn’t be something catastrophic, or to be ashamed of – and perhaps fathers, mothers, brothers, friends and chosen families too can find an example of how to support each other.

If you want more 90s teen-focused TV, be sure to peruse our catalog. Along with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, you can find:

A newly acquired draft of The Fifth Element by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen,

Season 3 of Starz’ Power,

and many, many episodes of 1980s detective procedural, Remington Steele.

READING THE 101 BEST WRITTEN SERIES

On June 2, 2013, the WGA announced its list of 101 Best Written TV Shows as voted on by the Guild’s membership. On April 28, 2017, one of our amazing library patrons Christina Irion finished reading at least one script from every available show on the list. After giving her a moment to rest her eyes and brain, we asked Christina to tell us what she learned from the experience. In this post, she shares ten highlights, offering a glimpse into TV storytelling, network history and how to make exceptional use of your friendly Writers Guild Foundation Library.

 

TEN THINGS I LEARNED FROM READING THE 101 BEST WRITTEN SERIES

by Christina L. Irion

Every time I popped into the WGF library I noticed a list hanging on the wall by the front glass doors. With 101 titles, these television shows were voted the best-written series of all time. Seeking to broaden my knowledge and challenge myself—with zero awareness of the commitment I just made—I decided to read the entire “101 Best Written Series.”

Over countless hours (with encouragement from the librarians and forced coffee breaks), I tackled the list from 101 all the way down to number one. Reading the pilot, or the earliest materials I could find from each show, I also created my own nerdy chart to track each script. Below are the top 10 things I learned.

 

1.   Cha- Cha – Cha – Changes

The top 101 series are categorized by top-voted writing before June 2013. This meant that in one day I could read scripts with a wider age gap than Gloria and Jay on Modern Family. In reading scripts from different decades, I found it interesting to see how scripts and shows have changed over time.

From teleplays in the ’50s to HBO dramas in the late 2000s, I found discrepancies in the amount of dialogue and number of act breaks in the scripts. Specifically in comedies, I noticed a change over time that resulted in more act breaks per episode and a quicker pace.

For example, Family Ties (Multi-cam) and Modern Family (Single cam) are both ABC comedies set decades apart. Structurally they are very different. While Family Ties is broken into only 2 acts with about 3 scenes in each act, Modern Family’s pilot is broken into 4 acts and a tag with about 9 scenes in each act. As a control in this experiment, I also tested this structure-change with scripts from Friends, comparing scripts from Season 1 to Season 10. I noticed that while each Friends script is broken into two acts, there are more scenes in Season 10 verses Season 1.  

Going back to comparing Family Ties and Modern Family, there is a huge difference in scene length. In the Season 2 Family Ties episode “Not an Affair to Remember” the script is comprised of far more pages and dialogue per scene – usually about 7-10 pages of dialogue. Modern Family has a quicker pace with most long scenes lasting between 2-3 pages.

I think this shows the shift in the way people absorb media and possibly indicates the added time for commercial breaks around the story.

 

2.  Top Producers and Writers – Starting To Make That Web

One of the best things about reading the scripts was learning about key players in the history of television. I knew my favorite writers and executive producers from my top shows—Tina Fey, Michael Shur, Ricky Gervais—but the list allowed me to branch out and discover more. With each series, I kept digging. I learned about different producers and writers and gained an understanding of projects they previously worked on, their collaborators and their sensibilities.

For example, one of the most-represented writers on the list was James L. Brooks. He dominates the top 101 with three hit shows, two of which I knew, the third of which surprised me. I knew of him from hit comedies like Taxi and The Simpsons. I was surprised that he also topped the list for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I had never looked into his filmography in depth, but I quickly hopped onto IMDB and saw that his other credits ranged from The Tracey Ullman Show to, surprisingly, Terms of Endearment.  

As I read the top 101 list, my own list of favorite writers and producers grew. I began to understand a larger network of show creators and developed a web of their work.  If you want to be either a writer or development executive, the top 101 list and the WGF library can help you study the top influencers throughout TV history.

 

3.  Whoa, This Used To Be Like That?

A few of the top shows on the list have been on the air for decades. What is on screen today looked a lot different 25 years ago. Like looking at your mother’s old high school yearbook photos, I found it fascinating to read past scripts and compare them to the present-day version.

Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, and The Muppets stand out the most with this phenomenon. Over decades, writers change, society shifts, and comedy transforms, so it is not surprising that formal writing style fluctuates because of this. I will say, though, that side by side – the comparison is jarring. For example, the older generation of Sesame Street seems like a slightly weird cousin to its current version.

Comparing a Sesame Street episode from the ’80s to the 2000s, there is an obvious change in how the segments are broken up and who is highlighted in those segments.  In the 80’s version, there were shorter segments and less dialogue (the font was MUCH larger) while the 2000’s version was comprised of long scenes with more emphasis on the celebrity guest. Perhaps Sesame Street made its programming longer to combat quick-paced programming that encourages shorter attention spans.

Comparing these scripts from different decades was an interesting way to see how shows can morph over time to better appeal to a current audience.

 

4.   Which Network Reigned Supreme?

One of the biggest draws for me to read the top 100 list was to track the shows and their networks/cable companies. If anyone is development-driven, reading and studying the top 101 shows is a great way to see what types of programming each network/cable channel is known for, which production companies/writers they have worked with, and how each show fits into overall brands and missions.   

It was no surprise that NBC, CBS, and ABC had the most top shows (they have been around the longest, to be fair), but their show genres differed. NBC’s best-written series consisted of large-cast comedies and procedurals like Cheers, 30 Rock, ER and Law & Order. CBS’s top shows tended to be variety shows surrounding comedic actors like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show and The Bob Newhart Show.  

Knowing the history of each network and cable outlet seems like an extremely helpful tool when shopping scripts and ideas. By doing research, a writer can show that their outline or script will fit well with what the cable/network strives for in their shows.

 

5.   “Young, Attractive Female..”

When reading the list, I tried to read mostly pilots. I wanted to get a good idea of how each show introduced its story. This meant reading hundreds of character introductions. One character introduction that became way too familiar was “[INSERT NAME] a young, attractive female”.

Repeatedly this was how background, secondary, and main female characters were introduced. While I saw this dissipate in the newer scripts, it was jarring to see how often appearance had to be added as a qualifier for women in these scripts. Not to say that “attractive male” wasn’t also seen, but there was a definitive, overall sense that the female characters had to also be “attractive” to be interesting and catch the eyes of the characters around them.

 

6.   New Found Favorites

The top 101 list has a LARGE variety of genres, formats, and styles and is a fantastic way to broaden one’s taste in scripts. I found gems I never thought I would enjoy. The list opened my eyes to new genres and shows I would not have read otherwise.

Northern Exposure, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Playhouse 90 were all fantastic shows that previously slipped under my radar or were set aside in favor of familiar shows and genres. Each show featured amazing writing that I look forward to sitting down and scrolling through again.

7.   Script To Screen – “That Seems…Different”

Only by reading material from the top 101 list did I notice that that the screen and script versions of certain shows could seem vastly different.

For example, on the page, the pilot for Twin Peaks seemed like a fast-paced mystery. When I finally watched the show, I was surprised that on screen it felt slower, more dramatic, and reminiscent of a soap opera.

It goes to show how much power a director (or maybe just David Lynch) has in carrying the script to the screen.

8.   “This Is The First Draft ?”

Because scripts go through many drafts from first pitch to pilot, characters names may change, there can be different exposition, even characters’ actions can be changed. Many series at the WGF library have at least two versions of the pilot available. For my favorite shows like The Office (U.S) and Game of Thrones, I read both versions and wow, they were different.

The first version of The Office (U.S) is very similar to its British predecessor, which makes lovable prankster, Jim, look like that creepy jerk at the party. In all honesty, first-pilot Jim wouldn’t have fans rooting for a Jim-Pam romance.

Game of Thrones was rewritten and reshot after the first filming of its pilot episode. The focus of the beginning is pretty different which should make any super-fan curious to see what the earlier draft looked like.

It was eye-opening to see first-hand how development notes can change the pivotal beginnings of our favorite shows. It makes one wonder how the series would look if it weren’t for those notes.

 

9.   Which Came First: Culture or the TV Show?

In the top 101 list, there are shows that take place in varied cities with characters of different races, religions, social statuses, sexuality, and identities. One of the most interesting parts about reading through the list was diving into a different world with every script. I think a lot of the shows were chosen because they had a social commentary to make within their 22 – 60 pages that was not explored in previous shows.

From The Wonder Years to Roots to The Wire, the series’ writers show their audience different viewpoints of history and also put a spotlight on characters and societies overlooked in mainstream pop culture.

For example, when Roots was released in 1977, it was a cultural phenomenon hitting some of the highest Nielson ratings at the time.* The multiple night, mini-series was unexpected and families across the United States tuned in every night to see the story of Kunta Kinte and the generations after him. Roots was an example of a different take on Black television that unapologetically showed the harsh reality of American History. The onscreen portrayal of America’s brutal past in Alex Haley’s novel was a stark difference from the other African American sitcoms at the time. A Newsday Review article from 1977 praised Roots’s educational approach to black culture and ancestry by stating Roots goes deeper into explaining black family life than “What’s Happening.”

It really behooves any reader of this list to read some of these scripts and contemplate: “Did culture influence television or did television influence culture?”

 

10.   Off to the Races

Time to sound like every ’50s TV mom giving a life lesson when I say, “Like any other muscle, the brain also needs a bit of practice and exercise.” Whether you read scripts for a living now or want to in the future, reading this list in its entirety quickens reading speed and helps you gauge your reading time. Soon the mountain of scripts will seem a lot less daunting.

It became easier to read more scripts with each visit to the library. With thousands of pages to read, there’s not only speed to be gained but brainpower to be strengthened by taking on the Top 101 challenge.

Overall, reading the top list was beneficial in so many ways. I feel like I broadened my mind, became a better reader, and got to understand so much more about the industry I love. I would highly suggest reading down this list as a personal challenge to continue learning and growing.  

Whether you decide to tackle the list or read your favorite show, know one thing: the librarians know best. There are hundreds of episodes to choose from and it can be overwhelming if you don’t know what exactly you are looking for.

Javier, Hilary, Lauren, and the rest of the librarians are happy to share fan favorites as well as their own. Don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions because you can find some of your favorite scripts that way. I know that was true for me. 

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Horton Foote on the Big Screen

Johnny Cash cited FRANKENSTEIN (1931) as one of his favorite films. Speaking of his empathy for the title character, he claimed to be fascinated by a man/monster “made up of bad parts but trying to do good.”

Not coincidentally, tales of men and women “made up of bad parts but trying to do good” run completely rampant through the lyrics and musical leitmotifs of roots and country music. From Johnny Cash to present-day artists like Kacey Musgraves or Chris Stapleton, the genre is filled to the brim with self-loathing average joes, small town loneliness and alienation, the idea of disappointing one’s mama, trying to burn out personal demons and pain through vices like whiskey and beer, then the quiet desire found in a tank of gas and speeding along down the road to move on.

Right now you might be thinking: I’m a screenwriter. This is a blog dedicated to film and TV writing. What on earth does this post have to do with me?

A quote often attributed to Hank Williams is that country music is simply “Three chords and the truth.” Could it be that film, TV or any other form of dramatic storytelling isn’t all that different? Just substitute the word “chords” for “acts.” It’s on this note, that I’d like to put forth a contention that hopefully doesn’t seem too outrageous.

If Johnny Cash can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in the movies, then screenwriters can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in country and roots music. Of course, this can be achieved by pulling out Waylon Jennings, Staple Singers or Emmylou Harris records, listening to the lyrics, aching pedal steel solos and cyclical banjo breaks that conjure images of dirt roads and juke joints, but it can also be achieved by studying one of country music’s greatest screenwriters.

His name is Horton Foote. You might know of him as the two-time Oscar-winning writer of TENDER MERCIES (1983) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), but in this blogger’s mind, he’s actually a country musician who deals in sluglines instead of baselines.

Horton Foote, photo by William B. Winburn (Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters from the 1960s by Pat McGilligan, University of California Press.)

Well, actually, he considered himself more of a playwright who occasionally wrote for TV and film.

Indeed, he was prolific in his work for the stage, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (1995). Perhaps it was in the theater, with its emphasis on cycles and revisiting certain themes again and again where Horton Foote developed the ideas and flourishes that would come to make his particular kind of storytelling so recognizable on screens big and small.

When one sees certain impressionistic paintings, one probably associates them with Monet… When I see certain quiet movies that put across the same pain and authenticity as a good country song, I think of Horton Foote.

The Trip to the Bountiful (1985), Screenplay by Horton Foote based on his play

Born in Wharton, Texas in 1916, Foote eventually settled in New York City, where he became a dramatist after studying method acting. Even though he wrote plays, TV and movies, like any great country/roots musician, he never shook his small-town, southern home and it became something he tried to explore and stay connected to through his writing. Home is a repeated theme throughout his work. Like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor or John Steinbeck, he tended to write about the same place in his stories, eliciting in his audience a sense of longing for the heart of Texas or Alabama – even in people who never visited those places. It’s a feeling similar to that which comes from hearing Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton.

“Foote weaves his melodrama into the plain cloth of everyday events,”

wrote New York Times Theatre Critic Ben Brantley in a review in 2010. His stories often follow damaged, rejected people looking to flee or redeem themselves from some misdoing, demon or detriment, then finding makeshift families and a sense of community to get through that dull sense of alienation that often goes hand-in-hand with small-town existence.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Screenplay by Horton Foote, Based on the novel by Harper Lee

Fascinated by what he called the “dailiness” of everyday life, his characters are gas station clerks, farmers or store owners – people who are meager of word, but overflowing with feeling and unspoken dreams and wants. He focuses on the scar and how the character tries to heal it rather than over-saturating us with the event that left it there. It’s not difficult to view his plays and films as the living, blood-fueled embodiment of the characters put forth in a Johnny Cash song – sutured together from bad parts and trying to be good.

Tender Mercies (1983), Written by Horton Foote

His plain cloth, personal but rural style of playwriting proved to be a natural fit for a new, burgeoning medium called “television” in the 1950s and 60s. Because of television’s smaller budgets and need to shoot quickly on sound stages, it was predicted that writers with scaled-back, character-based proclivities would meet with success – and that’s just what happened for Foote and his contemporaries like Paddy Chayefsky and Tad Mosel.

It’s compelling to think that the same seeds that influenced the storytelling in American roots music might – by way of writers like Horton Foote – have sailed their way into the genesis of American television and, later, American film… then later still into the gelatinous hybrid of forms that’s found on streaming platforms today. I think that, in some roundabout way, country music helped solidify what we view as tenets of any kind of great American writing.

See these tenets in action with UCLA Film & Television Archive’s screening series “Golden Age Television Writers on the Big Screen.” The little-seen, Foote-penned TOMORROW (1972) is showing Sunday, August 6th at 7pm at the Billy Wilder Theater. The series is co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation. WGA members get free admission.

Tomorrow (dir. Joseph Anthony, 1972)

Until there exists a book or Screenwriting course based entirely in country and roots music, watching Robert Duvall as a soft-spoken farmer who takes in a young pregnant woman in Mississippi (based on a William Faulkner short story and Foote’s play of the same name) is the best place to experience exactly what I’m talking about.

Oh, and as always, stop by the WGF Library to read the newest additions to our catalog. This week we’ve added the script for summer’s most wonderful superhero flick WONDER WOMAN and the Netflix Original Series GLOW, unofficially making us the coolest non-circulating library in town!

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Dick Tracy on the Radio

He wears a bright yellow fedora and trench coat, has razor-sharp intuition and, working with a merry band of sidekicks, employs gadgets (including his famous two-way wristwatch radio) to track down wrongdoers and miscreants in the wake of violent crimes.

He’s Dick Tracy, of course, and since his creation by Chester Gould and subsequent debut on the newspaper pages of the Detroit Mirror in 1931, he’s been the subject of all manner of serialized storytelling including films, live-action and animated TV series, radio shows and, first and foremost, comic strips. He’s one of America’s most recognizable and longest serving private eyes.

With all his recurrent sleuthing, we might contend that Tracy is a kind of grandfather to the modern-day, long-running detective or cop procedural. It’s this contention I’d specifically like to give pause to this week. The WGF Library recently processed a small bounty of radio show scripts from the mid-1940s. Many of these scripts, including The Dick Tracy Show, were written by Sidney Slon, who also famously served as head writer for the gritty and seminal pulp radio series, The Shadow.

Listeners could hear Dick Tracy’s adventures on the radio starting in 1934. The gumshoe’s grizzled voice continued to emanate over airwaves through the 1950s with the show switching networks, sponsors and lengths throughout its audible existence. The scripts in the WGF Library are specifically from 1945 and 1946 when the show aired on ABC in 30-minute segments and was proudly sponsored by Tootsie Roll.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

In our world of over-saturation with all kinds of media vying desperately for our attention, it can be an informative relief to step back in time and examine a very direct, uncluttered mode of storytelling like radio. Library patrons with the ambition to create distinct, enduring characters whose exploits audiences continue to care about for decades, will find fundamental writing lessons exposed in the pages of these serialized radio capers.

On a warm Wednesday last week, I decided to peruse one of these scripts and found several things worth sharing, which hopefully will spur your imagination when you sit down to create your own nail-biting drama, whatever the form may be.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

Just like today’s most compelling cop, detective, medical and other procedural shows, each Dick Tracy episode starts with a BANG! – usually literally.

It’s a bang we’d like to see resolved by the end of the episode – and it’s usually carried out by an obscenely un-likeable criminal or thug. It’s characters like Dick Tracy who provide us a kind of wish-fulfillment – that when bad things happen, we can figure out not only whodunit and how it happened, but also bring the morally in-the-wrong party to satisfying justice. In fact, the more unjust the situation at the top of the episode and the meaner the villain, the more truly gratifying it is to see the hero step up and fix things.

Dick Tracy is a unique kind of detective hero. He’s somewhat of a mug himself, which is why (tactically) he’s able to get inside the heads of the criminals he’s tracking and take them down. He might have the Al Capone look, but his heart and sense of making things right make him different and endlessly fascinating.

Dick Tracy, Mystery of the Wooden Bullet (Comic)

However, a radio hero can only be contradictory and compelling insofar as he has other characters to talk to. A common practice in the radio serial is to give the main character a sidekick or someone to explain things to along the way, so that the listening audience not only has a sense of the story, but also of the feelings of the protagonist. A necessity in radio is to make the characters speak and sound differently enough so that the audience can easily distinguish which character is talking. This is a tenet worthy of consideration even if you are writing for a visual medium. The person reading your script won’t have the visual cues to tell your characters apart, so it’s helpful to give even the smallest of characters a unique voice and cadence.

See the following examples featuring Tracy’s accomplice and a woman selling newspapers from The Case of the Nightclub Singer (1945)

Finally, Alfred Hitchcock used to famously explain that a scene between two people talking at a table will become infinitely more suspenseful if the camera pans down and we see a ticking bomb underneath the table. What do you do if you’re writing for radio and you want to generate the same amount of suspense, but you have no camera to show the bomb? In radio, verbal threats and contracts become integral to raising stakes. The hero and the villain make declarative statements, such as “If you don’t bring the money to this place, by this time, this person will be hurt,” etc., setting up anticipation of a horrible event or showdown in the audience’s mind. The characters then must continually verbally remind each other how time is running out.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

There’s a smattering of Dick Tracy Show radio scripts sitting behind the main library desk, see? And if you don’t get here before we close today to read and learn from them, your script will suffer… gradually and painfully.

Well, maybe not, but you should still browse our catalog, stop by and read newly processed scripts including:

  • Every episode from every season of Girls.
  • Screenplays from The Nutty Professor (1996) and Anchorman (2004).
  • A few episodes of Freaks and Geeks.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Moaning Lisa

New amongst the WGF Library’s collection of TV show bibles and development materials is a thin packet entitled,The Simpsons: Episode Guide and Storylines (Season 8).” While this 1997 packet consists mostly of brief synopses of every season 8 episode, it also features vivid character profiles as well as rules for writing the show. Looking over this document, I internalized one thing — that the creative possibilities for The Simpsons are literally endless so long as the characters are true to their nature and to their relationships with one-another. In fact, it’s this particular notion that inspired my cavalcade of musings this week.

As any prolific writer knows, having a solid understanding of as many stories as possible can be supremely helpful. Why? Cultivating a reservoir of plot points, characters, arcs and themes that move you can only give you more to draw on when you embark on your own pen-wielding excursions.

The Simpsons is proof of this. Using their titanium-solid characters and staying true to them, the writers have been able to draw on myths, legends, other TV episodes, plays, tabloid stories, hearsay, current events and anything else you can possibly think of to create their own funny and poignant episodes of television (and for nearly thirty years). The idea of creating sturdy, compelling characters and putting them through a wealth of tried and true plots and stories is what I really want to focus on here.

For me, a script that really illustrates the power of this phenomenon is Moaning Lisa.

Written by Mike Reiss & Al Jean as a part of the show’s first season, the episode dates back to when the series had an imperative to, in addition to lampoon current events, establish meaningful relationships within the Simpson family.

The first beat of the first scene tells us exactly what this particular episode is drawing on.

Using the bleakness of Ingmar Bergman, the writers weave the tale of an existential crisis. What makes this episode inventive is the character experiencing that crisis. I’m not sure how many sitcoms about families up to this point ever featured a 2nd-grade girl in a funk over the emptiness of the American dream or life’s ultimate meaninglessness, but in this episode, Lisa Simpson has some big weighty questions getting her down — questions that nobody in her family or at school can seem to answer.

This blogger appreciates centering the story around a young girl who is experiencing depression — and not just depression over something like being rejected by a boy or failing to be popular — but a real experiential pickle, which young women can experience just as acutely, as, say, men approaching mid-life.

The episode finds movement in how Lisa fails to stumble upon anybody who can help her. The kids at school think she’s strange; the teachers don’t get her desire to be-bop on the saxophone during band practice or her inability to dodge balls in gym class. She eventually meets the great Springfield jazz musician Bleeding Gums Murphy who encourages her sax playing, but can’t offer her a cure for her blues.

As in any great coming-of-age story, it’s the character who seems to understand the least who ultimately ends-up helping out the most. Marge, at first, has advice that seems hopelessly destructive to what Lisa is going through:

What’s brilliant about this monologue is that even as we’re reading it, we can tell it hurts Marge to say these words and that perhaps she relates to Lisa on a greater level than she lets on — that she doesn’t believe this advice even though it was passed down to her from her mother. What a fantastic screenwriting lesson that Marge never outrightly states: Lisa I know what you’re going through. Rather, we as the audience infer it. We especially infer it in the action that Marge takes next.

She watches how offering a fake smile and repressing her true feelings actually hurts Lisa when she interacts again with peers and teachers. With not an ounce of hesitation, Marge whisks her daughter back into her car and offers her some of the greatest parenting ever:

And that’s the essence of rock-solid character — doing right by somebody else even if it runs counter to the philosophies that were imprinted on you when you were a young Marge.

Oh, and Homer experiences his own Bergman-esque version of playing chess with death as he keeps getting pounded by Bart at a boxing videogame, leading him too to contemplate getting older and his own mortality.

Moaning Lisa is the perfect read if you have but 30 minutes to spare in the library for it inspires asking big questions of yourself like: If I were going to write my own version of an existential crisis story, who would be my subject and what would they learn? Who would they learn it from?

The WGF Library exists to help you do what The Simpsons does so well — develop your own poignant, true characters and draw on a pantheon of stories and storytelling to create relatable adventures to put them through.

Search our catalog and stop on by, won’t you?

Here’s what’s new:

  • The complete first season of Animal Kingdom on TNT
  • John Carpenter and Nick Castle’s Escape from New York
  • A handful of scripts from Disney’s Doug
  • Season 2 scripts from HBO’s Ballers

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Apartment

“The origin of THE APARTMENT was my seeing the very fine picture by David Lean, BRIEF ENCOUNTER [1945]. It was the story of a man who is having an affair with a married woman and comes by train to London. They go to the apartment of a friend of his. I saw it and I said, ‘What about the guy who has to crawl into that warm bed…?’ That’s an interesting character.”

The above quote comes from Billy Wilder, describing to Cameron Crowe how he came up with the idea for his film THE APARTMENT.

In 1999, Crowe published a book called CONVERSATIONS WITH WILDER, documenting his encounters and talks with the late-great writer/filmmaker, furnishing us with stories like the one above. Last week, when Crowe was here at the Library (before conversing with Winnie Holzman about his own writing life and process), he took the time to scribble a note in our copy of his book.

For regular visitors to the WGF Library, it’s no secret that you can sit amongst Wilder’s personal, bound copies of his scripts — and if you ask really nicely we might let you read one. As part of This Week’s Script Cavalcade, I’m doing my part to hail the maestro by telling you that if you choose to read one of these Wilder scripts, THE APARTMENT is a very nice place to start.

From imagining the unseen flunkee who lets his friend have an affair in his apartment in BRIEF ENCOUNTER, Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L Diamond create CC Baxter (or “Bud”), a corporate drone, who naively believes that if he lets his bosses use his apartment for their affairs, he’ll get a promotion.

Bud embodies the always-relevant notion that if you let other people take advantage of you without complaint, they’ll see what a deserving person you are and you’ll get ahead in the world. The problem is that Bud has let the higher-ups use him and abuse him for so long that he no longer has a sense of his own worth.

Even mother nature and the common cold take advantage of him:

To boot, Bud spends the majority of the script enamored with the elevator operator in his office building, Fran Kubelik. The plot genius at work is that Fran happens to be having an affair with the head of Bud’s company, who also wants to use his apartment.

The theme of the film pops up again and again and it’s particularly relevant today:

The specific wisdom that THE APARTMENT puts out into the world is that when we get “took,” we can find surprising solace in sharing rejection with people who understand because they’ve been there too.

Read how Bud and Fran find themselves alone together on Christmas. Without family, friends or lovers, all they have is each other and they form a makeshift bond. It creates a feeling of losing and winning at the same time. Without going into too much detail, Bud consoles Fran and makes her feel better after she’s attempted suicide by sleeping pills in his apartment.

Bud proves himself an everyman hero at every possible turn in the script. When his neighbors and Fran’s brother-in-law believe he’s the man who has broken Fran’s heart, he doesn’t contradict them, going so far as to take a punch for her. Ultimately, he learns that treating people well – no matter how much it hurts – is its own reward. For people who tell screen stories, there’s a lot to be gleaned from studying his every move.

It seems Cameron Crowe reveres this film and this script and has studied it thoroughly. It shows in films like JERRY MAGUIRE and ALMOST FAMOUS, especially in the relationships between Jerry and Dorothy and especially William Miller and Penny Lane.

In fact, movies like Wilder’s and Crowe’s endure because they feel like a person telling you a story like the one Bud tells Fran to make her feel better. They feel like a person telling you that you are not alone.

What better way to keep good company while you write than to read their encouraging words while sitting amongst fellow scribes in the WGF Library?

While you’re here, you can also read:

  • Scripts from the entire first season of Netflix’s THE CROWN written by Peter Morgan
  • The entire series run of HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS created by Damon Lindelof
  • Gillian Robespierre‘s feature script OBVIOUS CHILD
  • And a handful of scripts from Mike Schur‘s THE GOOD PLACE, including the pilot

And since you’ve stayed to the end of this post, I’ll leave you with the last, classic exchange from THE APARTMENT.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Subject Was Noses

It’s an episode of TV remembered for a single re-playable moment. A football hits Marcia Brady in the face and she staggers back dramatically, yelping out “Oh my nose… my nose!” Fans and aficionados of 70s TV will be pleased to know that the WGF Library now carries a shooting draft of this exceptional BRADY BUNCH episode, aptly titled “The Subject Was Noses.”

Drawing on the folk and fairy tale archetype of a character receiving a physical curse for a misdoing, “The Subject was Noses” is a compact morality play designed for families sitting down in front of their television sets on Friday night.

Written by Al Schwartz & Larry Rhine, the episode most overtly draws on the idea of Pinocchio, whose nose grows with each lie he tells. As the Pinocchio-inspired heroine of this story, Marcia tells a little lie to get out of a Saturday night date with a nerdy average guy, Charlie… all so that she can hang on the arm of a popular football player named Doug Simpson. After telling this fib (and in a stellar example of plot point karma), Marcia literally takes a football to the sinuses, which makes her nose swell-up and turn blue so that she and everybody around her are constantly reminded of the lie she told.

When we think of wounded heroes bearing facial scars, it’s often tough guys like Terry Malloy in ON THE WATERFRONT, JJ Gittes in CHINATOWN or Tom Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH; it’s not typically a pre-teen girl in the vein of Marcia Brady, but that’s just one aspect of this episode that makes it interesting. From here on out, Marcia is a branded woman, forced to live – physically and emotionally — with the consequences of her choice, but then showing a pleasing amount of agency for a young female character of the time and working to rectify her mistake.

The writing is as poignant as it is funny, transcendent even — for a squeaky-clean family show — with all the characters sweetly adding their support to Marcia during her struggle. Plus, the subplot serves as a comic foil to the central dilemma as Mike and Carol face their own quandary of choosing the right wallpaper for their bedroom.

This blogger wonders, however, if “The Subject Was Noses” was written today – would Marcia’s solution involve accepting a date with Charlie, or would she ultimately ditch both boys to work on a stronger sense of her own self-worth?

Patrons of the WGF Library often come in wanting to read the most recent hit series (and rightly so if you are working on a spec episode of a current show), but if you’re reading scripts to bolster your TV writing knowledge, why shortchange yourself by sticking only to shows written in this decade? There’s a lot to be gleaned from classic TV shows like this one, including inspiration, tropes to subvert and good techniques for creating a moving character arc in less than 40 pages.

Be sure to check out our online library catalog to see what we’ve added recently including:

  • Scripts from NBC’s comedy THE CARMICHAEL SHOW
  • The complete first season of the Netflix’s ONE DAY AT A TIME, created by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, inspired by the 1975 Norman Lear series of the same name (which we also have scripts from)
  • The pilot episode of the 1980s sci-fi sitcom SMALL WONDER
  • A smattering of radio scripts from the 1940s featuring yellow-suited sleuth, DICK TRACY

WGF Archive: Roasting Bette Davis on The Dean Martin Show

In a recent episode of FX’s Feud, Bette Davis gets nominated for an Oscar for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? eliciting extreme jealousy in her co-star Joan Crawford. As payback, Crawford conspires with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper against Davis by convincing two other Best Actress nominees that year – Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft – to let her accept on their behalf should they win. The Oscar ultimately goes to Bancroft, so Crawford gets to saunter across stage to accept the award when Davis loses.

If you’re a fan of the rivalry depicted on Feud, a recent find from the WGF Archive might just pique your interest. In a trove of scripts from The Dean Martin Show, we discovered the “Celebrity Roast of Bette Davis.”

Drawing on the celebrity roasts that first appeared at the New York Friars Club in the early 1910s that later came to be broadcast on the Kraft Music Hall program in the late 60s and early 70s, The Dean Martin Show began celebrity roasts in 1973 with the “Roast of Johnny Carson” (a script we also have). Younger TV viewers might be familiar with roasts from when they were revived on Comedy Central with such celebrities as Joan Rivers, Bob Saget and Justin Bieber.

The format of a roast (think: the opposite of a “toast”) involves guests aiming insult comedy at a celebrity “roastee,” who sits back and takes jokes at their own expense with good grace – knowing that the mockery is meant as praise. Studying classic sketch comedy shows like roasts can be helpful to writers and researchers alike – offering a glimpse into the humor, hot topics, social attitudes and personalities of the era in which they were written. More than simply watching the show, reading the script reinforces the idea that the wit and jokes emanating from the famous faces actually begins with writers.

The Davis Roast includes lovingly insulting tributes from the likes of Pat Buttram, Nipsey Russell, Vincent Price, Henry Fonda, Howard Cosell as well as the roastmaster himself Dean Martin. Not to be outdone, Davis has a chance at rebuttal offering this gem, “I’ve certainly had a lot of fun tonight… It would have been nice to have some of my old male co-stars with me… but then, they’d have to hold the roast at the Hollywood Wax Museum!”

One of the more intriguing parts of the script finds gossip columnist Joyce Haber, who took over Hedda Hopper’s job at the LA Times in 1968, referring to events seen on Feud involving Oscar acceptances and marriages to Pepsi-Cola magnates…

This and many other Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts were found in the Norman Liebmann collection in our archive. Liebmann wrote on many a comedy / variety series in the 60s and 70s including The Jerry Lewis Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. No stranger to comedy, Liebmann is known for writing on sitcoms like Chico and the Man and Diff’rent Strokes as well as developing The Munsters with his longtime writing partner Ed Haas. Liebmann passed away in 2010. His personal papers were donated to the WGF Archive in 2015 and will continue to be processed this year.

Materials from the WGF Archive are available for viewing by both researchers and fans. Find more information here.