Thursday, September 16, 2004
Bittle Joinsoin's Adventure Through the Watching Glass
Back before my former writing partner had come across the ad from the production company, I had drafted an audio comedy sketch I called "Surfing." Back then, in the misty mists of yesteryear, before the advent of guides and TiVo, we used to do something called "channel surfing." In this activity, the couch potato nation would point its various TV remotes (or "clicker" as some idi--I mean, people--insist on calling it) toward the TV or cable box and simply visit each cable channel in turn by using the "Channel +" button. After spending as much as several milliseconds on any one channel, we'd flip up to the next one and then the next one until either we found something that suited our fancy or would do until something good came on.
Mike and I had discussed this phenomenon several times and, influenced by The Firesign Theatre's "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers," I drafted out several pages that moved back and forth between a man who was channel surfing and the shows that he was supposed to be watching.
Right about that time, Mike came across the ad in the paper for the production company, and he approached me about trying to come up with a script for them. I showed him what I had, we agreed on a basic concept, and were off. The material I had written became the basis for the first five or so pages of this new script. We then each went our separate ways and wrote various bits and sketches instead of working at the jobs we then had.
Toward the end of the week, we met a couple of times and stitched together the items we had each worked on, added in a couple of things from each of our files, and even wrote a rather lengthy bit together. By the end of seven days, we had a thirty-page script called "Exit 36--Paramus" and had some ideas for a second one.
Flash forward ten years.
While casting about for scripts to adapt for the "Next in the Series" concept (working under the assumption that it's easier to rewrite than to write anew), the script Mike and I had put together seemed a natural. I was originally going to work on it right after the script that became "The Anniversary Schmaltz," but was a little dismayed when I reread it and put it aside. I was also becoming more interested in telling stories and less interested in writing sketches, so I started working on the Jerry and George scripts instead.
After completing two of the Jerry and George scripts, I got stuck early on in the third one and decided to give "Exit 36--Paramus" another try.
In this draft, I tried to remain faithful to the original concept, although I did add a new character. I gave the main character, Bitlle Joinsoin (pronounced "Bill Jonson"), a wife named Bettle (pronounced "Betty"). This simple change allowed me to do away with having a character spend most of his time talking to himself and allowed me to add some dramatic tension by contrasting their individual tastes in television. I also polished the dialogue generally and tried to find aural equivalents to what had previously been visual segues and cues.
By the time I finished it, I knew that it still needed more work. In fact, it would need an entirely new draft. I put this second draft aside and returned to the third Jerry and George script.
When I returned to the script for the next draft, I found myself to be dissatisfied with it. I found that I wanted more of Bitlle Joinsoin's story and fewer TV parodies. In preparing my proposal to PRI, I had rewritten a scene in which Bitlle complains about his cable service over the phone to a customer service representative. In the "Paramus" script, Bitlle gets electrocuted when he tries to disconnect his cable himself. When next we meet him, he is entering the cable company's office singed from head-to-toe. In my rewrite, I changed the device to a satellite dish and had him fall off the roof while trying to remove the dish. (I felt that getting electrocuted while trying to pull the cable from the wall was far-fetched and wanted something more believable.) When next we meet Bitlle, he is in a hospital bed and is going to get the dish removed by talking to a rep over the phone.
As I reworked the scene for the proposal (drawing heavily on my experience as a CSR for MetLife), I pondered where the script went from there. In both the original script and my rewrite, the CSR tried to persuade Bitlle to not give up his service by showing him all the wonderful programming he'd have access to. The trouble was, since everything they were watching were parodies, there wasn't anything on that would persuade anybody to do anything other than to throw their TV out the window. It was then that I decided that, in the next version, I would jettison half or more of the material and play out Bitlle Joinsoin's story further.
The first scene, of Bitlle and Bettle watching TV with growing frustration, would remain. I did make some changes within it, however. First, due to a disagreement I had with our then cable provider (I won't say the name, but it rhymes with Bombast), I changed Bitlle's connection back to cable. His injuries then came when he pulled the entertainment center over on himself while trying to disconnect the box. I then moved the scene with the CSR (still set in the hospital) up, and ended it with the CSR having persuaded Bitlle to change from MegaComm cable to MegaComm satellite.
The final scene, in which Bitlle and Bettle wait for the guy from MegaComm come to set up their satellite service, was taken directly from my own life and my dealings with Bombast. In fact, there's about a page of dialogue that's almost a transcript of an actual "conversation" I had with some bubblehead who works for Bombast.
Throughout this rewrite, I was able to sharpen the dialogue, add bits of satire, and just improve the whole thing from stem-to-stern. I may never do a straight sketch show again.