In 2010, my writing partner and I were on staff of a CBS show called “How To Be A Gentleman.” The show was created by and starred David Hornsby, who is one of the funniest and most talented people I’ve ever met. Hornsby had been one of the head writers of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” and the original pilot script for H-TBAG was really funny, but was VERY non-networky. Taking a script or idea that is best suited for cable and turning it in to a network show is sort of like finding a wolf in the wild and trying to make it your pet; Sure, if you drug the hell out of it, it might be safe to have one in your backyard. But if it’s drooling and shitting itself, is it really that cool to own a sleepy wolf that smells like doo doo? I say no and I feel qualified to say that. (See: My Dad Says, Shit). I think you can make a great network comedy, but I feel it needs to be one that is created with the parameters of a network in mind, like Modern Family or Parks and Rec. Anyway, this is all just a roundabout way of telling you that H-TBAG sucked a huge bag of dicks.
The show had a large cast of talented actors but nobody was sure what the show was (odd couple? Ensemble? Single protagonist?) and we tried variations of everything and none of them felt like they worked. Fast forward to right before the sixth episode of the show. At this point the network was like “BRO. WTF IS HAPPENING WITH THESE MILLIONS OF DOLLARS THIS SHOW IS COSTING?” Every time we saw them, they were making the universal face for “Unhappy Network Executive” which looks something like this:
So, there was a lot of pressure (or at least I felt there was) on this next episode to be something that resembled a good direction for this show to go. Now, normally when a show is running smoothly, a writer is off on draft working on a script for an episode that’s going to shoot in no sooner than two or three weeks. But when shit is all kinds of fucked up, you get way behind, and then you’re writing the episode that’s shooting that week. At that point, there’s no time for a writer to go off on script, so you do something that is referred to in the sitcom writing world as “gang banging a script.” That means there’s probably two rooms, each led by the show runner or number two, and you all write the script together. That’s where we were at. Gang Banging a script with a new writing staff is probably a lot like actual gang banging; which is to say it’s not that fun unless you’re in charge and there’s always someone sitting silently in the corner making this face:
So we busted out the script in a couple days and then got it to the network. And they fucking haaaaaaated it. The good thing about CBS (whether you like their shows or not), they know their brand. They are very clear about what they want. I believe it’s one of the reasons why they’re so successful in the ratings. In our effort to try and figure out a now fifth direction of the show, we did basically the opposite of what they wanted. We were now tasked with trying to come up with a brand new direction for the show, breaking out the entire story, and writing that story, all in 24 hours before the table read (which is when the actors read the script live for the first time in front of the network.) The table read was at 10 a.m. the next morning. We finished the script at 5 a.m. When you’re writing a script that quickly, here are the phrases that are said aloud:
- "Does this make sense?"
- "Is the story tracking?"
- "Who keeps farting. I’m serious, this isn’t me doing a bit or being funny. Whoever is farting, stop it. If you have to fart, go to the bathroom or something. We all have to be in here, okay? OKAY? Jesus Christ."
You’ll see that nowhere on this list is “You think that joke is funny enough?” YOU JUST WANT SHIT TO MAKE SOME SEMBLANCE OF SENSE. Now, hopefully you’ll stumble across some funny jokes and you’ll come up with some areas that are ripe for joke writing, that, though you don’t really have time to work on that night, you can punch up the next day in a rewrite. But we were all so tired, and had been working such late nights, and had been having such a tough time figuring out how to make the show work, that by the time we were saddled with this script, we had nothing left. And at 9:30 a.m. the next morning, when I re-read the draft that was about to be tabled in thirty minutes, I turned to my writing partner and said “There’s not a single fucking joke in this thing. This is going to die a fucking horrible death and it’s got our names on it.”
Ah yes, I forgot to mention that we were the credited writers on this SHITPOCALYPSE. See, even when you gang bang, scripts are generally just handed out in order. It’s actually a nice thing that a kindly show runner will do, to ensure that every writer gets to take home the extra 27k you get paid for writing a network script. I explained it in detail here.
So, anyway even though we didn’t write any more or less of it than anyone else, since we were up in the queue, we were credited as the writers of that script, which also means that come table read time, you sit in the very front, next to the actors, with a big cardboard sign in front of you that says “WRITER.”
H-TBAG table reads were held on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City, in the basement of four story building. (SIDE NOTE: Only two shows worked in that building; us, and Parks and Rec. Our writing staff used to joke about getting off on their floor and walking in to the writer’s room, sitting down, and going “So, what are we working on today,” as if we were just members of the staff, and then when they gave us weird looks, break down in to tears and scream “PLEASE TAKE ME WITH YOU I CAN’T STAY AT MY HOUSE ITS A BAD PLACE.” )
Generally speaking, it doesn’t really matter all that much WHERE you have your table read, but the basement of the building we used looked like the bathroom where Cary Elwes wakes up in the original Saw movie.
Seriously, minus the blood and the urinals, it’s basically that. It’s also where they house the air conditioning system for the whole building, so there’s a constant loud “HUM” that’s going the entire time. Basically what I’m saying is it’s not exactly a place that is conducive to the ha has.
We all gather in front of a table that holds placards with the names of the actors and their characters that look something like this one from my current show:
The actors walk in and sit down, and since the script was put out at 5 a.m, the only one who had a chance to read it was David Hornsby, because he was there working on it, but Hornsby probably slept all of two hours and he looks like what I imagine the AIDS virus would look like if it were an animated character in a Pixar movie. In short, he was not firing on all cylinders.
The execs filed in and the table read started and Hornsby, the true pro that he is, somehow turned the first line he had in to a laugh. And then… there were no more laughs. None. For thirty five minutes, it was silent, save for the sound of the air conditioning unit and an occasional throat clearing by Kevin Dillon, who was the co-lead of the show. You could actually hear people’s cell phones vibrating. The best moment of all was about half way through when a joke was so fucking atrocious that some dude let out a huge sigh, and people turned and looked at him and it actually threw off Kevin Dillon who flubbed a line, and then said “Sorry, give me a sec,” and we sat watching him try to regain his composure.
There were no wry smiles that day from Mr. Dillon.
On a first year show, table reads are incredibly important. It’s the first chance you and the network get to hear the script read, and it’s also where the largest notes are given. Everyone is always tense when it’s table read time because if it doesn’t go well, ALL the executives are there, sometimes even the president of the network, and there’s no place to hide when a joke bombs. It’s a little like stand-up comedy in that way. No one expects it to be perfect, but you’re hoping to get laughs on 60% of the jokes, I’d say. Silence is deadly. I believe that one of the reasons you see so many joke heavy shows, where they just bombard you with one-liners, is because of how tense table reads are. Writers are so afraid to have any period of time where there’s silence that they over-joke the show and the result is incredibly joke-heavy shows. This is a question to ask a more experienced writer than myself, but that would be a theory I’d throw out there.
After that horrendous table read, we went upstairs to our offices and guess what we did? We broke a brand new story and wrote a brand new script in 24 hours so that it could be performed the next day at the network run-through. Guess what was the worst network run-through I’ve ever seen?