Moonlighting's Writer/Producer Ron Osborn
discusses developing characters on television
From Selling a Screenplay: The Screenwriter's Guide to Hollywood by Syd Field. Field is a leading authority on the the art and craft of screenwriting and has written numerous informative books on the topic. Many in Hollywood have studied and trained under Field, as he is also well-known for his workshops, courses, and consultations. This particular book, published in November, 1989 is still available online at various sources, including Amazon.com. This excerpt comes from "Chapter 11: Television" and contains some interesting anecdotes about Moonlighting as well as some insight into how the scripts develop the characters of Maddie and David.
Ron Osborn, (pages 156-163)
So I went to see one of my former students, Ron Osborn, who, with his partner, Jeff Reno, were senior producers and writers for Moonlighting, one of the most unique television series on the air in the last several years.
Osborn started out as an advertising illustration major at Art Center College of Design, but soon became interested in film. That's when I first met him. He wrote a script called Dime Novel Sunset, which had been optioned by William Holden shortly before he died.
Osborn and Reno joined forces and wrote a M*A*S*H episode on spec. "M*A*S*H had been on for seven seasons," Osborn explains, "so we watched as many reruns as we could. Then we went to the library and looked up old TV Guides and got one-liners of every episode they ever did, then wrote a spec script we truly believed they hadn't seen.
"Of course, we couldn't get the people at M*A*S*H to read the script," he says, shrugging his shoulders. But the people at Mork and Mindy did read it, liked it, and put Reno and Osborn on staff.
It happened that fast. But as Osborn explains, going "from a part-time typist who gave plasma and wrote screenplays in my spare time, to being a staff writer on Mork and Mindy, starring Robin Williams and Pam Dawber, was a tremendous challenge. We worked six and seven days as week, twelve hour days, sometimes doing rewrites between the afternoon and evening filmings on Friday. I remember getting up in the morning, having breakfast, and then losing it because there was so much pressure."
What's the difference between writing thirty-minute sitcoms and screenwriting? "First of all," he explains, "the form is completely different. The half-hour structure flies in the face of everything you know about good structure. But it works with a twenty-two minute format. Instead of a three act structure, you have two acts with an interruption, the act break, the cliff hanger. In the first act you have to set up the conflict, and over the course of the act bring that conflict to a head. That's the act break, the commercial break which you use as a cliff-hanger. Then you save the block comedy scene for the second act, which is the big payola, after which you wrap everything up.
"The first directive we got from the producer on Mork and Mindy was 'We like our stories reality-based.' Now what does that mean? A man comes down in an egg in Boulder, Colorado, and they want reality-based stories!
"What he meant, I later learned, was the emotion in the stories had to be based in identifiable situations. Every week we got to examine the human condition in a different perspective. The things we take for granted, for example, are the very things Mork would react to and want to explore; like jealousy. What's jealousy? So he asks around and is told you are jealous when you love someone; it's thought to be a normal reaction. So, because he loves Mindy, he becomes maniacally jealous. The show was a wonderful mirror to hold up to ourselves.
"We did an episode called 'Twelve Angry Appliances,' where Mork learns about consumerism and standing up for your rights. The basic idea had to do with Mindy having something repaired that repeatedly keeps breaking down. And Mork can't understand why humans don't take more pride in their work. When Mindy finally gathers up enough courage to confront the repairman, he turns around and runs them out of the shop. Their humiliation was our act break.
"In the second act, Mork comes back late at night and brings all the appliances to life and they put the store owner on trial for negligence to their owners. Which was the block comedy scene. And out of that grew the resolution in the next scene, where the repairman, having the stuffing scared out of him, comes over to make amends."
Osborn says that people submit spec scripts to him all the time, and he finds "the most common problem people make when they write a half-hour spec script is that when they get to the act break they simply stop the story then pick it up in the second act. That's the worst sin you can do. You have to think of the act break as a cliff-hanger. You have to build the problem to a peak, so the audience is hopefully wondering how you're going to resolve it.
"The other thing writers have to remember is that the second act has to be better than the first. You've got to have the block comedy scene in the second act. You always bring out the big guns in Act Two. In a show like Mork and Mindy the challenge was to be as good as Robin Williams."
Osborn and Reno next joined the staff on Too Close for Comfort, then took a year off to "reinvent ourselves," as Osborn says. "It was hard; after working for two years straight we realized if we wanted to start getting more quality material we'd better present more quality calling cards.
"So we wrote a spec script for Cheers. Now, writing a spec script for episodic television is a very special animal. For one thing, you have to walk a fine line between being true to the situation and characters, yet still be refreshing and illuminating. Second, you should never write a spec script that changes the course of the series.
"The spec Cheers we wrote, for example, was based on a situation what was established in the show that had never been capitalized on before. The attitude of Norm [George Wendt] toward his wife was well established, so we wrote a spec Cheers where Norm suddenly thinks his wife is having an affair with the fumigator. What's his attitude toward his wife now? That's something we hadn't seen. It doesn't compromise any of the characters. It simply illuminates. And we were able to get across the fact that Norm, despite everything he says about her, loves his wife.
"That was a fresh approach.
"Ironically, Cheers wouldn't read it. [Take note: this was after they had been staff writers for two years on two hit shows.] Two years later, believe it or not, it somehow came across Glen and Les Charles's desk; they read it, called it the best spec Cheers they had ever read, and offered us a job to go on staff. We thought carefully about it, but chose to leave for the unknown, which was a brand-new one-hour series called Moonlighting."
Glenn Caron, the talented creator and guiding hand of the series, gave them only one instruction: "Release yourselves from the old formulas, and develop characters that the audience has an emotional investment in."
When Moonlighting first aired, it had such a sparkling wit and unique approach that it quickly soared to the top of the ratings. Moonlighting, says Osborn, "is a placebo detective show. It looked like one, it smelled like one, it tasted like one, but it was, in fact, a romantic comedy.
"Acknowledging it to be a romantic comedy, the mystery is always secondary to the characters. Each show focuses on illuminating an aspect of the characters, or their relationship, because that's really all that matters. The case that comes in is always a case with strong emotional undercurrents, and always presents an interesting twist on the human condition.
"One of my favorites," continues Osborn, "was written by Roger Director. A woman comes in wearing a veil, having been disfigured by a jealous lover who had thrown acid on her some ten years earlier, and she wants to find the man who did it. But it wasn't for revenge, it was because she wanted to marry him! That gives you a wonderful arena to talk about possessive love, and the lengths people will go to for it.
"Jeff and I did a show where a man comes in and says, find my perfect mate. You people are hired to find people based on characteristics; here are all the characteristics, now you go and find someone who matches them. So that became an arena for David and Maddie talking about what men look for in women and what women look for in men, the subtext being what they look for in each other.
"That was really what that particular show was about. The case itself was thick and convoluted, but we didn't care. What we cared about was the way David and Maddie were illuminated."
Interesting. Henry James, the great American novelist, had a theory of fiction he called the Theory of Illumination. What James believed was that your main character occupies the center of a circle. Around him or her, in a circle, are the characters he or she interacts with. James felt that every time the main character comes in contact with another character, the interchange should "illuminate" certain aspects of the main character, just the way you walk into a darkened room, and turn on various lamps around the room. You "illuminate" the room, just the way the other characters illuminate the main character. It's a wonderful tool to use when you're writing a script.
I asked Osborn about people sending in spec scripts of Moonlighting and he replied that they "usually come in with a very straightforward case that had no subtext to it: find my missing daughter, or the missing jewels. Or they would come in with a silly case. Basically, though, our cases are always serious and weirdly human. Once we resolve the particular issue we're dealing with, then we get silly.
"The kinds of cases we looked for were ones that affected David and Maddie, or their relationship; cases that gave them an emotional arena to explore, discuss, or argue about, so by the time we got to the end of the hour, we discovered something new about them, or managed to advance their relationship, even a little bit, in a new direction. Generally speaking, I think this approach, of advancing the characters emotionally, is the best way to approach any script on any show.
"The pressure on Moonlighting was so intense," Osborn continues, "we would sometimes be writing a day ahead of the camera, or even the day it was being shot.
"Because it's a romantic comedy masquerading as a detective show, we could get away with it. It was born out of having our backs against the wall, and in this case, it just happened to work.
"We had to do the same thing in another episode," Osborn goes on. "We had to finish this particular show in a grand way, and we didn't have a clue as to how we were going to do it. And it was the day before it was supposed to be shot. We finally came up with the idea of having a bizarre chase sequence during a funeral procession where the villain takes off in the limo, and David and Maddie give chase in the hearse, and the entire funeral procession, thinking they're being left behind fall in and chase the hearse. As we were writing it, we loved it, but we didn't know whether they could do this kind of complicated chase sequence on such short notice.
I asked Osborn what a writer should do when he or she wants to write a spec script for a current show, like Moonlighting, thirtysomething, or Cheers.
"The thing most writers do," Osborn replies, "is watch an episode of the show and say, 'I can do that.' That's the worst thing a writer can do. If we're looking for new writers, we're not looking for someone to imitate what we've already done, we're looking for someone to do better, someone who's going to take a fresh approach. Basically, TV has done it all. But if your approach makes it appear fresh and new, we're going to sit up and take notice.
"The second thing you should not do in a spec script is write a script that creates a series decision, because that decision is made only by the producers. For example, we get a lot of spec scripts of Moonlighting where David and Maddie get married. And I'm sure Cheers gets a lot of spec scripts where Sam and Diane get married. I guarantee you the producers have thought about this a lot longer and a lot harder than you did, and they probably have a better way to do it. If, in fact, they want to do it at all.
"Another thing the writer should not do is introduce an outside character to resolve the story dilemma. It's okay to bring an outside character in to establish a problem, but not to resolve it.
"Plus, it's not good writing. The audience has an emotional investment in the opening in the ongoing characters, and that's who they want to see.
"By the same token, you shouldn't try to establish a new ongoing series character. That's the producer's decision, and not something an outside writer should do. I find a lot of writers who seem to think that spec scripts can bring in and develop new characters to enhance the series, when they don't know what a series really needs, or if it needs any new characters at all. Many new writers think creating a new character becomes a solution to the story line, when in fact it's the major problem."
I asked him how an outside writer should prepare writing a spec script for an existing series.
First of all you have to define what kind of show you're writing for.
If it's a half hour, what kind of show is it? "There are three kinds of half-hour scripts," says Osborn. "There's a half-hour one camera show, there's a half-hour three camera show, and there's a half-hour three camera tape show. A half-hour one-camera show is similar to a screenplay in that the rule of thumb is that a one-camera page in television runs about 50 seconds. [In a screenplay, one page of screenplay equals one minute of screen time.] A half-hour script tends to be between 30 and 35 pages.
"A half-hour three camera film show, like Mork and Mindy, or a four-camera show, like Designing Women, has a different configuration; that is, the dialogue on the written page is double-spaced; those scripts tend to run about 45-50 pages.
"A one-hour show is always written in a one-camera format and runs in the area of 55 to 60 pages, although in Moonlighting the banter is so fast and furious it's not unusual for a script to run 90 or 95 pages.
"If you're submitting a spec script to an existing show, you have to know what form they use. If it's a three-camera tape show, and most sitcoms are that now," Osborn says, "try to get hold of one of their scripts, because if a person submitted a script to use for a three-camera tape show that was written in one-camera form, it was hard to gauge how it played itself out in terms of real time. Invariably, it's too long."
If you don't know where to find one of these scripts, try the local library, or the film school library at a university. You might even call the show, explain to the secretary that you are writing a sample script and ask what kind of show it is-one-camera film, three-camera film, or three-camera tape. The secretary is always your best friend, and most of the time they'll give you the information you need.
"I know television form is a superficial thing to harp on," he goes on, "but the presentation of your script can hurt the read, and you don't want to hurt the read.
"In terms of structure," he says, "the general approach is that act breaks have to escalate the action in terms of tension and suspense, or heighten what's at stake emotionally. In an hour-episodic series format it's a four act structure. The first act establishes what's going on, the second act develops it, the third act starts to explain it, and the fourth act pays it off."
This will vary depending on whether you're writing an open or a closed mystery. A closed mystery is where you don't know who did it, like Murder, She Wrote. An open mystery is where the audience knows who did it, and it's a question of how the main character is going to solve it. Columbo is always the example used. We see the crime committed and know who did it, so we get to watch Columbo working through all the steps to find the murderer.
How does the Osborn-Reno collaboration work? "We outline the script together, then divide it into parts," explains Osborn. "The fun parts versus the expositional parts. And then we trade off who does what. Then we exchange pages and rewrite each other, then get together for bloodletting sessions where we give each other notes that always come from a healthy mutual respect."
This is not meant to violate or infringe on any copyrights.