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'Golden Girls' Polishes Its Scripts : Daily Revisions Geared to Sharpen Story and Hone Those Laugh Lines

First of two articles about how the writers of two competing Saturday-night TV series--NBC's "The Golden Girls" and CBS's "Leg Work" prepare their shows. Next: Behind the scenes at CBS' "Leg Work."

October 30, 1987|NANCY MILLS


Actresses Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan and Betty White write their own dialogue for "The Golden Girls." (FALSE)

Older female writers write all 25 episodes each season because no one else could understand the problems of older females. (FALSE)

In order to keep the shows consistent from week to week, one writer prepares all the episodes. (FALSE)

Ten staff writers work together to prepare a season's worth of scripts. (TRUE)

It's a Monday morning in early October and on a sound stage at the small Renmar Studios in Hollywood, the "golden girls" have gathered to read a new script. This will be episode No. 60 of the series and it will air about three weeks later--on Halloween.

Everyone in the room has heard about this week's story line: Rose writes a letter to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But apart from the writers, no one has seen the final script until now. It was completed on a Saturday, photocopied 150 times on Sunday and distributed this morning to NBC; co-producer Touchstone Pictures; the show's creator, Susan Harris; the show's lawyers and researchers, and the "Golden Girls" cast and crew.

"Hopefully, they'll laugh," murmurs head writer Kathy Speer as she prepares to hear the "table reading." "If they don't, we'll be here fixing the script for a long time."

The table reading really is at tables--eight of them arranged in a rectangle. The actresses and guest actors sit on one side, facing the writers. To the actresses' left are director Terry Hughes, executive producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas and co-executive producers/head writers Speer and Terry Grossman. To the actresses' right sit NBC representatives, the show's casting director and props and wardrobe personnel.

They begin. Director Hughes reads the stage directions: Interior, kitchen--day. Sophia is seated at table. She is reading book entitled 'Magic Made Easy.' Dorothy enters.

Bea Arthur, as Dorothy, reads: "Hi, Ma."

Estelle Getty, as Sophia, reads: "Give me your watch."

Another week is under way. As the actresses go through their lines, everyone else listens intently. They laugh (or don't laugh) and take notes. By the Friday-night tapings, this script will need to play at 22 minutes. But Friday is a long way off.

As soon as the table reading ends, the writers, producers, director and an NBC program executive huddle to discuss script changes. Then, while the actresses begin rehearsals using the first draft, the writers rush off to their yellow stucco two-story building nearby to begin rewriting.

"The secret of TV half-hour comedy shows is the revisions," explains Dean Valentine, NBC director of current comedy and also the program executive on "Golden Girls." "What they start out with is 75% away from what they end up with."

"I don't think this episode is going to need much work," co-head writer Terry Grossman announces cheerfully on his way back to his office. "It got a good response at the table. We just have to cut it, smooth out transitions and clarify some story points. New jokes will be the tough thing." He anticipates a few hours' work.

"Early in the first season we were throwing out whole scenes," he recalls. "Now we know what works for each lady and what she does best. That's the advantage of being in the third year of the show. The disadvantage is that stories are harder to come by."

Grossman heads into the office he shares with his wife Speer, who is also his writing partner. They are in charge of the writing staff. "That means we are the two who get yelled at the most when something goes wrong," he jokes.

Also piling into the conference-sized room are supervising producers Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan and producer Winifred Hervey. Despite their titles, Grossman explains, "We're all writers."

"We are the five most dull people," Nathan insists.

"We're much funnier on paper," Hervey adds.

These five, all in their 30s, met when they worked on "Benson," an earlier Witt-Thomas-Harris series. They have been with "Golden Girls" since the beginning, and every Monday they jointly rewrite the script being taped that week. They jokingly call themselves The Gang of Five.

While they start rewriting, the show's other five staff writers--Chris Lloyd, Jeff Ferro, Frederic Weiss, Robert Bruce and Martin Weiss--go back to their own offices to work on new scripts.

"To keep quality, you like as many writers as you can afford," Speer explains. "This year, we have six 'entities' (writing teams)--four sets of partners and two individuals. And we also use a few free-lance scripts each season."

Approximately 25% of the show's budget goes to the writers, executive producer Tony Thomas says. Staff writers on a comedy series earn a weekly salary plus separate payments for completed scripts. A free-lance writer who does a story outline, a first draft and a second draft can earn about $11,000. (Note: All outside script submissions must come through agents.)

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