Friday, December 17, 2010 posted by Jen at 12/17/2010 12:49:00 AM
One of the heartbreaking things about writing novels is, there’s no opening night.
Yes, you’ve got pub day, which, as any author will tell you, is pretty anticlimactic. Your book shows up in stores with no fanfare or flourish. Maybe you do a reading that night, and maybe there’s a review or two. Your publisher sends you flowers, your loved ones offer congratulations, and your mother tells you she reserved her copy at the library. After that, nothing. It’s a whimper, not a bang.
TV? That’s different.
You spend months laboring over a script, thinking about the characters and their motivations, where they come from, what drives them, how they look, what they say. You hold your breath until the network gives you the go-ahead. You find your casting director, then your cast. A crew builds a set, constructing the workplaces and houses that have only ever existed in your dreams. There’s costumes and makeup and lighting and music. And then, you go onstage, in front of a live studio audience, and you put on a show.
We shot “The Great State of Georgia,” the half-hour sitcom I wrote with Jeff Greenstein last week at Hollywood Center Studios, where, once upon a time, “I Love Lucy” was filmed. About twenty of my friends and relations came to L.A. to watch the fun. Everyone from my seven-year-old daughter to my ninety-five-year-old Nanna was there…and my sister nabbed a small role, so they got to watch both of us work.
The whole thing was kind of magical. The sets looked so rich and so real – “just like a TV show!” I kept saying, which I’m sure wasn’t too charming after the hundredth time I’d said it. The characters, on stage, were funnier and more poignant than they ever sounded in my head. Raven-Symone as Georgia is all grown up, hilarious and heartbreaking when she has to be. Majandra Delfino, as her BFF Jo, is, in a word, adorable. Meagan Faye as Aunt Honey, their eccentric fairy godmother, is brilliant and droll, and should strike a chord with anyone who ever loved “The Golden Girls.” And I still love the story of the curvy, confident girl who’s going to change the world, instead of letting the world change her.
“So which do you like better?” a Facebook friend asked. “Books or TV?”
The truth is, they’ve both got their strong points. Nothing rivals the control you get from writing a novel: how it’s just you and your story and that great intangible, the reader’s imagination to see the world you're building on the page.
Television, as many anti-TV types point out, does a lot of that work for you: instead of imagining how a character looks and sounds, the viewer gets them served up in high-def.
But television also gives you a much broader canvas, a chance to tell a story over seasons, over years.
There’s also the question of audience.
If you write a hardcover that sells 100,000 copies in its first month of release, trust me, your publisher will be ecstatic.
In TV-land, a show just got cancelled for only bringing in 500,000 viewers on its debut night…and the show was on cable. Bottom line: if you’ve got something to say, a story to tell, and you want to reach people -- a lot of people -- there’s worse places to do it than on TV.
TV writing's refreshingly collaborative – instead of writing alone, spending a year by yourself with the characters in your head, you’re in a room, with other writers, pitching jokes and bits of dialogue, which the actors then bring to life.
I also love the chance to fix things that aren’t working. Joke’s not landing? Exposition’s feeling wordy? You rewrite on the spot, give the actor a new line or a new bit of direction, and it’s fixed. How many novelists would give blood or money for a chance to start tinkering with their words once they’re in print and out in the world?
Then there’s been the adventure of going from Philadelphia to West Hollywood. I’ve had a bunch of fun star sightings (Kelsey Grammar! Sarah Silverman! Cameron Diaz, who I think may actually live at my gym)! And I’ve learned lots of fun lingo. A “one-percenter,” for those wondering, is a joke that only one percent of your audience is going to get (“Like that joke you pitched about Sally Hemmings,” one of my new friends explained. “Or everything on ’30 Rock.’”) “Beat the blow” only sounds dirty – it means working on the joke or moment that ends a scene.
I’ve learned the joys of audience testing and network notes calls, gone through casting and blocking and post-production, a process in which you can sample a dozen different burps to put in your character’s mouth…and oh, did I mention that Liz Phair (Liz! Phair!) and her producing partners are doing the music? And that I had a breakfast meeting with Liz Phair during which I was too awestruck to speak? So now Liz Phair probably thinks of me (fondly, I hope) as that mute lady who ate some of her fruit plate. Which is cool. Could be worse, right?
So when can you see “The Great State of Georgia?” If ABC Family buys what we’re selling, I’ll be back out here in the spring to write and shoot more episodes, and the program will be coming to a TV set near you sometime this summer.