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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Anniversary Schmaltz

About ten years ago, Mike, my then writing partner, had come across an ad for a production company here in Atlanta that was looking for comedy shows to produce. We came up with a concept in which events would take place "six months in the future" and in which the sketches would be linked in some way or another--usually by free association or by having a TV parody take the viewer to a television in a living room--and the sketches would interweave with a straight storyline. The original version of this script was the second that we wrote as part of that pitch. (For the record, we submitted our stuff and never heard back. The "production company" was probably out of business by the time we got to the elevator.)

My first notion for the concept that came to be "Next in the Series" was to take that sketch comedy concept and adapt it to radio and see if I could sell it that way. I decided to start with this script because I remembered it as adhering to the original concept better than the first one. I asked Mike if he wished to be involved, but he declined.

Back then, in the olden daze, I had also written an audio sketch (called "Superhighway Robbery") that featured the same main character in the same situation. (A young man who leaves a business conference on the day of his anniversary sans present.) The sketch showed him in an airport dealing with a "cybernetic teller machine." And, although I think we originally intended to insert it into our script, I think we just plain forgot, and the scene was omitted.

My first notion in doing the adaptation was to find room for "Superhighway Robbery." I started out hewing pretty closely to the original script, just finding aural ways of presenting ideas that had originally been presented visually and doing a standard rewrite of the dialogue, which means removing anything trite, false, or unfunny and replacing it with allegedly better material. I also expanded the role of the main character's co-worker so that the guy, Mel, would spend less time talking to himself and have more pressure put on him at various points.

I also updated the technology a bit. We hadn't anticipated the rise of the cell phone--back then they were generally about the size of your shoe--and that gave me a chance to put a newer spin on a scene in which Mel tries to order flowers for his wife via a voice response unit over the phone. When I got to the point in which I was going to drop in "Superhighway Robbery," I was able to use him still trying to order flowers over his cell phone as a linking device to get him (and the listener) from the conference to the airport. I rewrote "Superhighway Robbery" to include the co-worker as a way of adding dramtic tension and polished the dialogue. Once that was done, I was left with the need to cut at least three minutes from the rest of the script.

It was at about this point that I started to better understand the theme, the idea that the reason why you're better off dealing with a person than a machine is because people are forgiving. This made itself felt soon enough, when I was approaching a scene showing Mel shopping for an anniversary present at the local mall while on his way home. I needed to be able to establish, aurally, exactly what kind of store he goes into for his present. In order to do that, I wrote a new scene in which he goes to a "holographic concierge" booth in order to get a recommendation.

Armed with a theme I really liked, I rewrote the next scene, which takes place in the store, to make one of the salesgirls into an animatronic salesgirl. I was having to cut sketches to make room for the new material, and the scrubbing and burnishing of dialogue continued unabated. I gave the wife a friend to chat with while she was at home preparing a surprise party for that evening.

The final challenge I faced was the ending. In the original, Mel wound up sleeping on the sofa in the family room having accidentally humiliated his wife at the party. Since the theme I was working with concerned the unforgiving nature of machines, I had the wife, having had the chance to calm down and get some perspective on the situation, offer her forgiveness. Instead of being trapped and alone, Mel was offered redemption.

At least, that's how it works on paper.

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