Few will storm the Emmy barricades so that improvised comedies like HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” can win awards for writing. But is it time they did?
Even though these shows aren’t written in the traditional way, they do get written. Every word. As conversations with the principals illustrate, it’s just a different process:
Story outlines go straight to the set. Actors come up with most of their own dialogue — they just use their mouths instead of typing. Scripts materialize in a de facto sense, after footage is edited with the same consideration for story, wit and character as a writer revising a script on paper.
So if the show is getting written, does it really matter how?
“It’s not writing in the traditional sense, but I’ve always said that the writing process continues on the set and even into the editing room,” says Robert B. Weide, executive producer and principal director for “Curb.”
Still, even Weide has reservations about whether the show’s improvised exchanges qualify as writing: “Writing, to me, conjures up a physical act, like running or eating. So, in the pure sense, our dialogue isn’t written, it’s spoken, spontaneously.”
Despite being what some believe to be the most clever comedy on television, “Curb” has never tried to make itself eligible for Emmy consideration in the writing category (though it did win a Writers Guild award for comedy series). So it has no one to blame but itself.
“(“Curb”) would be eligible, but typically you don’t see any writing credits,” says John Leverence, a senior VP at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “What we would need to have is on-air credit indicating there was a writer.”
It’s true: Though some recent episodes carry a story credit, no “Curb” episode from the show’s first five seasons has a “written by” credit.
“I don’t think Larry (David, its star and creator) was comfortable taking a writing credit when actors were making up dialogue,” says Weide.
Other shows with improvised dialogue, such as ABC’s “Sons & Daughters,” do submit “written by” credits, usually assigned to the person responsible for outlining the episode. As in conventional sitcoms, nothing gets off the ground without an outline.
The outlines in improvised shows can be brief, though. Weide recalls with amazement that David’s outline for the one-hour special that became the predecessor to “Curb” was 1½ pages. With time, David’s outlines have become more elaborate.
“That’s just because the stories are denser, there tend to be more scenes, and Larry provides a little more detail within the outline now,” Weide says. “I think because now that we know what the show is, he has a more specific idea of how a scene should play out. I think there are more specific marks to hit in a given scene now. That’s what the outlines are now — marks to hit.”
Although no script exists when filming begins, the sitcom equivalent of a writers’ room develops directly in front of the cameras.
On “Sons & Daughters,” this included series co-creators Fred Goss (also the show’s lead) and Nick Holly, as well as members of, yes, a real live writing staff, hired for their comedy and story skills.
“Our writers’ room is often with Fred in the scene,” Holly says. “At times it can be a burden because he’s got a role to play, but he can trigger things the others need to get to.”
Adds Goss: “Being the writer and occasionally the director and the actor of the scene, you’re the tee-up.”
That being said, even if they don’t type “Fade in” or get official credit, the performers on these shows really prove their writing chops.
“We know what point A or point B will be,” says Wendi McLendon-Covey, who plays Deputy Clementine Johnson on “Reno 911!” “But in order to get a good take, sometimes we go from point A to point F to point N and have to be reminded how we’re supposed to end up.”
“Reno 911!” does not predetermine whether the cop will catch the criminal.
“If we’ve got a crazy naked man screaming in a fountain, at some point we’ve either got to apprehend him, or he’s going to run away,” McClendon-Covey says. “People are pretty shocked to hear how open-ended it is.”
The combination of inspiration, preparation and improvisation yields hundreds of hours of footage, which means that the crafting of the script takes place in the editing room. “It’s a puzzle where the pieces change depending on who is putting it together,” says Goss.
Adds Weide: “Going into the editing room with Larry is daunting. Even if a scene works, even if you get a reaction from Larry that’s great, Larry will still want to see the other 10 takes. We spend weeks editing an episode.”
Whether or not Emmy voters ever honor the writing of these shows, it’s hard to argue that it never happened.
“You can’t really say that things like this are not written,” says McLendon-Covey. “I sure had a lot of breakfast meetings from not having written anything.”