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Counterpunch

TV: Squaring Off Against 'Roundtable Writing'

March 14, 1994|DARYL BUSBY | Writer-producer Daryl Busby, a veteran of the sitcom roundtable, received four nominations this year from the Writers Guild of America, an unprecedented number for a single writer, for children's scripts he co-authored for the Disney Channel's "Adventures in Wonderland." He won the award last year. and

A debate is raging over "roundtable writing" for film comedies, despite the fact that it has been an acceptable method of writing TV sitcoms for years. I think it's time to re-evaluate "roundtable writing" for TV, as well.

First, for those of you who "have" lunch, rather than "do" lunch, let me explain that this roundtable does not involve a single knight. It does, however, involve a lot of nights --and very long ones, at that.

You see, sometime between Lucille Ball and Roseanne Arnold, the comedy industry decided that sitcoms could be funnier if the entire staff sat around a table, punching up the scripts, line by line. The collective wisdom seems to be that if one writer is funny, then 10 are hysterical. And they are. Unfortunately, it's not the kind of hysteria anybody had in mind; as the hours crawl by, and lunch blurs into dinner, a kind of cabin fever sets in, and soon the jokes have little to do with the script. Round about 2 a.m., the writers are so slap-happy they'll put any joke down--especially if they think it will get them home any earlier. The inevitable result of focusing so many writers on a single script is that, in no time at all, the stockpile dwindles, dooming the staff to a cycle of panic writing and impossibly long hours.

Is there a better way? I think so. It was employed on the Disney Channel's hit series "Adventures in Wonderland." And it successfully generated 66 half-hour scripts in only nine months. It's a method of working that can save money, streamline production, provide work for more writers and, best of all, keep

network executives from getting crabby.

"Adventures in Wonderland," a live-action show, is best described as a sitcom with music. As head writer of the series, I worked individually with the writers, blocking out stories and giving first-draft notes. Once the second drafts came in, I met with the second head writer, Tom J. Astle, and our network rep, Peggy Christianson (the writer who developed the series). The three of us determined what changes needed to be made, and then Tom and I alone did the rewrites.

In the meantime, my staff writers started their next scripts. So instead of eight of us sitting around a table for a week, punching up one script, we used the time to punch up two scripts and generate six new ones. Consequently, once production began, we were nearly always six scripts ahead of schedule.

Not only did this system prove beneficial to production, it was also rewarding for the writers: Two of the eight have received Writers Guild awards for their work, while four others have received nominations.

Now if this system successfully produced 66 scripts in nine months, think how efficient it might be on a network sitcom, which traditionally has years to produce the same number of episodes. If two or three writer-producers assume the responsibility of rewrites, everyone will be freed of the shackles of the roundtable, and remember: Happy writers are funny writers. Scripts will be stockpiled quicker, which will allow more time for polishing. And if a script has had weeks of punch-up, rather than hours, it will hold up better in rehearsal . . . which will eliminate panic rewrites during tape week. Eventually, less-harried producers will find they have the extra time necessary to work with free-lancers.

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And just think how happy the networks might be. If a script is locked in a week earlier it will mean that a scene that required an expensive set won't be dropped suddenly the morning of the taping. The unfortunate actors won't fumble pages of hastily rewritten dialogue, requiring endless retakes and pushing crews into overtime. Writers of family shows will actually go home to their own families for dinner (the money saved on staff meals alone could pay for two additional episodes!).

Yes, I know, there'll always be the unforeseen disaster here and there. But maybe it's time to give another system a try. We may finally rid ourselves of those medieval nights of the roundtable.

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