At its best, TV writing is an exceptional art form -- from the existential malaise of Mad Men to the quippy horror of Buffy The Vampire Slayer to the sadly cancelled Zoo, which once devoted an entire episode to fighting a giant octopus inside of an airplane. But how do all these shows we love get written? Sometimes, the answer to that question is more interesting than some channels' entire fall seasons ...
For those curious about how South Park comes up with, say, an episode that simultaneously lampoons R. Kelly, Tom Cruise, and the Flash Gordon-on-mescaline truth of Scientology's wacky cosmology, there's a whole documentary about it. The hour-long doc 6 Days To Air shows how the South Park team puts together an episode in, well, six days. To put that in perspective, a single episode of The Simpsons takes between six and eight months. If all TV shows stuck to South Park's ridiculous schedule, Game Of Thrones would be iPhone footage of a sock puppet dragon fighting with an upturned mop.
It all starts in a writer's room which happens to feature former SNL star Bill Hader, whose job is seemingly to laugh a bunch and generally exude Bill-Hader-ness.
Comedy Central Productions
Comedy Central Productions
After the writers have spitballed some funny ideas, Trey Parker isolates himself to write the script. When he gets stuck, Parker builds Lego sets almost meditatively. Another part of Parker's creative process evidently involves wolfing down copious amounts of McDonald's -- which presumably inspired Terrance and Philip's raging flatulence.
Comedy Central Productions
And then, instead of outsourcing the animation to Korea, the South Park crew does everything in the same office, from storyboards to animation to audio recording. They stop just short of showing up at college dorms to help kids smoke pot and download torrents.
Once they finish the exhausting process, they deliver the episode to the network with hours to spare ... at which point Parker declares that it's a piece of shit. Hey, at least they get a whole day to rest before beginning the cycle anew.
Comedy Central Productions
Over the course of his career, John Swartzwelder wrote 59 episodes of The Simpsons, including all of your favorites, such as "Bart The General," "You Only Move Twice," and "Itchy And Scratchy Land." Yes, believe it or not, a human mind came up with this gag:
So what was Swartzwelder's technique for surefire critical acclaim? Well, it involved a shitload of cigarettes and a deadly allergy to showing up to staff meetings -- or indeed, dealing with anybody, ever. Although he started out working at the office, Swartzwelder was eventually released from duty (and from giving a shit) due to his habit of chain-smoking indoors despite it being forbidden. Without the obligation to operate from an office, he eventually found his perfect working environment: a specific booth in a local diner, from which he'd spend every day pouring down coffee and pouring out his heart and blackened, blackened lungs. He became so attached to this booth that (according to Matt Groening on one Season 8 DVD commentary) when The Man banned smoking in public places, Swartzwelder bought the booth and had it installed in his own home.
He cultivated such an air of mystery that at one time, hardcore superfans thought "John Swartzwelder" was a name shared by several writers -- sort of an opposite Alan Smithee. The fact that there's only one documented sighting of him hasn't done much for these rumors, but it also hasn't stopped the show's animators from dropping him into as many random scenes as possible:
It's no secret that Seinfeld was based on a lot of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David's real-life experiences, such as having an eccentric neighbor named Kramer. Of course, at a certain point, the pair had to seek out other writers ... mainly, it seems, to siphon off their amusing anecdotes for use in the show.
According to the book Seinfeldia, David and Seinfeld "rarely hired" writers with sitcom experience. Between seasons, most of the writers would be fired, and David "would bring in a batch of former stand-ups, use all the best material from their lives for plots ... then start fresh with a new batch of lives to harvest." Yeah, these guys were more or less Nosferatus who lived off of awkward sex stories.
Adding to the weirdness, Seinfeld didn't have a traditional writers' room. Writers would have to track down Larry or Jerry in the "maze" of offices, and pitch ideas either based on their own experiences or the experiences of someone else. One writer, Spike Feresten, went for a meeting with the pair and pitched ten ideas which all bombed. Then, to "lighten the mood," Ferensten started telling them about a mean soup vendor -- at which point, to his utter confusion, they threw him out of the room and said, "That's your first episode." Boom, pure TV magic:
Festivus, George's dad's embarrassing alternative to Christmas, was based on one of the actual family traditions of writer Dan O'Keefe, who had to be convinced to let it in by the producers, because he didn't want his "family shame" broadcast in prime time. According to O'Keefe, "The Airing of Grievances" was a real thing, but the aluminum pole was made up for the show, because "the real symbol of the holiday was a clock inside a bag nailed to the wall and nearby a sign that says 'Fuck Fascism.'" Incidentally, has anyone checked to see whether Larry David had a fiancee who perished under mysterious circumstances involving wedding invitations?
Some weeks you'd tune into Star Trek: The Next Generation, only to be assaulted by exploding heads and Cronenberg puppet monsters, while other weeks you might get plumes of green mist doling out space orgasms. So what went into this genius hodgepodge of space adventure with the occasional confused eroticism?
Well, a lot of it came directly from the fans. While modern shows won't associate with the riff-raff of viewers, The Next Generation decided to accept "unsolicited" spec scripts, and was the only major show to do so at the time. And although they probably got a bunch of scripts in which the Enterprise travels back to 1980s Earth in search of an unemployed writer living in a studio apartment to captain the ship and make sweet love to Deanna Troi, the policy also resulted in some great episodes, such as the acclaimed "The Measure Of A Man." There was also the one with Data's daughter, the one where Geordi becomes a glow-in-the-dark alien ... hell, even that classic sex ghost episode originated from a spec script.
And as for how these inexperienced writers were able to crack such scientifically complex dialogue? Future Battlestar Galactica helmer Ronald D. Moore (who also got a job on TNG through spec scripts) dropped the bomb that they would just write the word "tech" in the script "whenever they need to resolve a story," and specialists would write in some sciencey jargon later on. An initial draft would read something like this:
La Forge: "Captain, the tech is overteching."
Picard: "Well, route the auxiliary tech to the tech, Mr. La Forge."
La Forge: "No, Captain. Captain, I've tried to tech the tech, and it won't work."
Picard: "Well, then we're doomed."
Of course, you have to wonder if Commander Riker ever snuck into the office at night and changed "tech" to "trombone solo."
We don't know much about how the early installments of the Transformers live-action film series were written, but we're going to guess that it probably involved measuring how big an erection Michael Bay got when he started dreaming up action sequences. Oh, and writing in female parts so he'd have someone to wash his car. As it became clear that the series refused to die, however, fresh ideas were needed -- hence the creation of a sitcom-esque writer's room, wherein a team of scribes were paid $200,000 each to dream up as many premises as their talents and consciences allowed them to.
But this particular writers' room wasn't simply chairs and a vending machine. Oh no, in order to get those writing juices flowing, Hasbro had the room stocked with as many Transformers products as conceivably possible. Pinball machines, action figures, artwork, giant model robots, you name it -- the writers had to dim the lights and breath that shit in like shamans divining messages from Megatron.
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And you know what? It fucking worked. With help from a special timeline showing the canonical adventures of everyone's favorite talking trucks stretching back billions of years, the team were able to generate ideas for 14 movies, including a coming-of-age story starring Bumblebee set in the 1980s. Hey, that's not so bad. At some point, they have to do one that doesn't suck, right? Right?
Even if you've never watched Rick & Morty, you've no doubt heard about the intense loyalty it inspires. Want to know the secret to creating a hit motherfucking show that moves people to swap a 1 oz sauce packet for a 2000 Volkswagen Golf MK4? So did we. Here's what we found out.
Each episode is written using specific a formula: co-creator Dan Harmon's "Story Circle" or "Embryos." Harmon has been using this basic structure to write scripts since at least his previous show, like this:
The Story Circle was inspired by The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Harmon adapted it to work for him, and meta-hilarity ensued. YouTuber FilmInTheMaking gives us an excellent rundown of Harmon's Story Circle using Rick & Morty's pilot:
Step 1: YOU. In this case, "You" means Morty, perpetually trapped at the horrifying stage of life called "being 14." Your comfort zone is high school, which sucks, but is at least something you can cope with on a day-to-day basis.
Step 2: NEED. The bully pulls a switchblade on you. It's safe to say you need some help with that. Luckily, your genius alcoholic grandfather shows up in the nick of time and zaps him with a freeze ray because he needs your help.
Step 3: GO. Grandpa Rick's quest requires interdimensional travel today. This takes you out of your comfort zone and into ... Dr. Seuss Land? Don't read too much into it.
Step 4: SEARCH. Transdimensional travel is no picnic. "Searching" and "adapting" generally translate to "running for your life" when you're a Morty.
Step 5: FIND. Payday, baby! In this episode, Rick is after megaseeds, and after a few hiccups -- Morty falls off a cliff and breaks both legs, forcing Rick to go to a dimension with Broken Leg Serum in every corner drugstore -- he finds the seeds.
Step 6: PAY. Nothing is free, even when you're stealing it from another dimension's back yard. Megaseeds aren't exactly legal, so there's only one way to get 'em across the interdimensional border: Morty pays for the seeds first by having to shove them into his anal cavity and then by being forced to engage government bugs in a brutal firefight.
Step 7: RETURN. Now that you've been properly traumatized by your adventure, it's time to get back to the ol' Comfort Zone!
Step 8: CHANGE. The ol' comfort zone ain't so comfortable anymore, now that your head is full of the horrible knowledge that every world in existence is a crazy and chaotic place, and your rectum is full of melting megaseeds. Nothing will ever really be OK again. Now we have a show!
Harmon explains the creative process in his own words on his Tumblr. Once the writing is done, however, it's time for improv and voice work ... both of which involve alcohol.
Our favorite example: For season three's superhero spoof "Vindicators 3: The Return Of Worldender," co-creator Justin Roiland got suuuuper sloppy in order to portray Rick as a literal pants-shitting blackout drunk. Associate producer Sydney Ryan had to deal with that, keeping Roiland from straying too far off-script and too close to vomit territory. You can watch it yourself, followed by a charming little clip of Harmon ironically apologizing to her for having to "wrangle Justin for the performance of a lifetime."
Move right on over, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Miss out on that Rick & Morty poster the day of the sauce release? Here's a quality backup for your living room.
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