‘Golden Girls’ Polishes Its Scripts : Daily Revisions Geared to Sharpen Story and Hone Those Laugh Lines
TRUE OR FALSE:
Actresses Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan and Betty White write their own dialogue for “The Golden Girls.” (FALSE)
Older female writers write all 25 episodes each season because no one else could understand the problems of older females. (FALSE)
In order to keep the shows consistent from week to week, one writer prepares all the episodes. (FALSE)
Ten staff writers work together to prepare a season’s worth of scripts. (TRUE)
It’s a Monday morning in early October and on a sound stage at the small Renmar Studios in Hollywood, the “golden girls” have gathered to read a new script. This will be episode No. 60 of the series and it will air about three weeks later--on Halloween.
Everyone in the room has heard about this week’s story line: Rose writes a letter to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But apart from the writers, no one has seen the final script until now. It was completed on a Saturday, photocopied 150 times on Sunday and distributed this morning to NBC; co-producer Touchstone Pictures; the show’s creator, Susan Harris; the show’s lawyers and researchers, and the “Golden Girls” cast and crew.
“Hopefully, they’ll laugh,” murmurs head writer Kathy Speer as she prepares to hear the “table reading.” “If they don’t, we’ll be here fixing the script for a long time.”
The table reading really is at tables--eight of them arranged in a rectangle. The actresses and guest actors sit on one side, facing the writers. To the actresses’ left are director Terry Hughes, executive producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas and co-executive producers/head writers Speer and Terry Grossman. To the actresses’ right sit NBC representatives, the show’s casting director and props and wardrobe personnel.
They begin. Director Hughes reads the stage directions: Interior, kitchen--day. Sophia is seated at table. She is reading book entitled ‘Magic Made Easy.’ Dorothy enters.
Bea Arthur, as Dorothy, reads: “Hi, Ma.”
Estelle Getty, as Sophia, reads: “Give me your watch.”
Another week is under way. As the actresses go through their lines, everyone else listens intently. They laugh (or don’t laugh) and take notes. By the Friday-night tapings, this script will need to play at 22 minutes. But Friday is a long way off.
As soon as the table reading ends, the writers, producers, director and an NBC program executive huddle to discuss script changes. Then, while the actresses begin rehearsals using the first draft, the writers rush off to their yellow stucco two-story building nearby to begin rewriting.
“The secret of TV half-hour comedy shows is the revisions,” explains Dean Valentine, NBC director of current comedy and also the program executive on “Golden Girls.” “What they start out with is 75% away from what they end up with.”
“I don’t think this episode is going to need much work,” co-head writer Terry Grossman announces cheerfully on his way back to his office. “It got a good response at the table. We just have to cut it, smooth out transitions and clarify some story points. New jokes will be the tough thing.” He anticipates a few hours’ work.
“Early in the first season we were throwing out whole scenes,” he recalls. “Now we know what works for each lady and what she does best. That’s the advantage of being in the third year of the show. The disadvantage is that stories are harder to come by.”
Grossman heads into the office he shares with his wife Speer, who is also his writing partner. They are in charge of the writing staff. “That means we are the two who get yelled at the most when something goes wrong,” he jokes.
Also piling into the conference-sized room are supervising producers Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan and producer Winifred Hervey. Despite their titles, Grossman explains, “We’re all writers.”
“We are the five most dull people,” Nathan insists.
“We’re much funnier on paper,” Hervey adds.
These five, all in their 30s, met when they worked on “Benson,” an earlier Witt-Thomas-Harris series. They have been with “Golden Girls” since the beginning, and every Monday they jointly rewrite the script being taped that week. They jokingly call themselves The Gang of Five.
While they start rewriting, the show’s other five staff writers--Chris Lloyd, Jeff Ferro, Frederic Weiss, Robert Bruce and Martin Weiss--go back to their own offices to work on new scripts.
“To keep quality, you like as many writers as you can afford,” Speer explains. “This year, we have six ‘entities’ (writing teams)--four sets of partners and two individuals. And we also use a few free-lance scripts each season.”
Approximately 25% of the show’s budget goes to the writers, executive producer Tony Thomas says. Staff writers on a comedy series earn a weekly salary plus separate payments for completed scripts. A free-lance writer who does a story outline, a first draft and a second draft can earn about $11,000. (Note: All outside script submissions must come through agents.)
“A good comedy requires a lot of teamwork, a lot of people sitting in a room working together,” Thomas emphasizes. “A good team is rare, but it’s not extremely rare. It’s like winning the NBA title. We had it in ‘Soap,’ and we had it for some years in ‘Benson.’ Obviously this is one of the most successful staffs we’ve ever put together.”
Both Witt and Thomas deal with day-to-day details on “Golden Girls.” Harris, who created the series, is less involved this season because, according to Thomas, “She is working on a feature for Disney with us. But she reads all the scripts and is familiar with most of the stories.”
Flashback to the previous Friday, a week when “Golden Girls” wasn’t taping. Every fourth week during the season, the show shuts down, giving the actors and crew a rest and allowing the writers to catch up.
The Gang of Five is trying to explain how their writing process works. They insist on telling, rather than showing, because, as they say, they’re shy. “At the beginning of the season, even having our new writers in the meeting made me a little uncomfortable,” Grossman admits. “It slowed down the process.
“One of the most important things that exists with this group is that the bottom line is making the show as good as possible. It’s still very difficult when your script is read for the first time and the material doesn’t work. It hurts for a moment. But there’s no time to take it personally. It didn’t work, and the clock is ticking. You better keep moving and get it right.”
Like all sitcoms, “Golden Girls” has a “bible,” a book that synopsizes everything that has happened on a series. Thus, new writers don’t have to watch all the previous episodes. But there is no master plan of what will happen in the future.
The idea for “Letter to Gorbachev” surfaced last May at a beginning-of-the-season meeting of the writers and producers. “It was one of 20 or 30 story notions kicked around,” Barry Fanaro recalls. The obvious similarity to Samantha Smith’s letter to then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov isn’t mentioned.
“Most of them didn’t work,” adds Fanaro’s writing partner Mort Nathan, “but this one sounded amusing. Because Rose is a childlike character, we wondered what would happen if she wrote a letter to Gorbachev about world peace. We started fleshing it out, but we couldn’t think of a second act. We went round and round, and finally six weeks later we came up with a way to make the story work.”
“The five of us went over it scene by scene and agreed it was workable,” Fanaro continues. “Then Mort and I went off and wrote it. It took about 10 days because we were also working on other things.”
Each “Golden Girls” episode is written to a formula: “the idea, the act break and the resolution,” Grossman explains. “Usually there’s an ‘A’ story and a ‘B’ story going. It’s the natural structure.”
Although Fanaro and Nathan, who won a writing Emmy last year for a “Golden Girls” episode, wrote the basic Gorbachev script, the story the audience will see has gone through the usual “Golden Girls” grinder: The Gang of Five read and dissect the first draft, adding new scenes, new lines, new jokes. “It’s really a team effort,” Grossman stresses.
The jokes can be the easiest part--or the hardest. “They’re only hard to write when you’ve got one that isn’t working,” Grossman says. “A joke in the middle of a scene can be weak, but the ‘out joke'--a snappy one-liner that ends the scene on a laugh--has to be strong.”
“We may decide a scene needs a new opening,” Speer explains. “There will be a long moment of silence. Then someone will ask if anybody’s eaten at some new restaurant. In the course of conversation, somebody will say, ‘Wait a minute. I have an idea.’ ”
“With five of us, at least one of us is paying attention,” Hervey deadpans.
“Good writers should be able to write for men, women, old or young,” Grossman says. “We all draw on other people in our lives--parents, grandparents. Part of the reason for the show’s popularity is that these are very vital people. The very same story you’ve seen 100 times on every sitcom takes on new light with characters in this age group. That makes life easier for us.
“Also, these four actresses are sensational. To have the entire cast be able to give such high-caliber performances means you don’t have to adjust your material. You write the material, and they deliver. If they can’t make it work, there’s something wrong with the material.”
The week goes by quickly. On Tuesday morning, the “golden girls” read over the revised script and discover that one scene has changed considerably. Some lines have been cut, while others have been sharpened. There are several new jokes. A press conference scene has been shifted from a hotel room to the ladies’ living room.
On Tuesday night, the Gang of Five works late. During the day’s rehearsals they realized that the revised scene didn’t play well so they jettisoned it and added some new dialogue and a few more jokes.
Following Wednesday’s rehearsals, they hone the script a little more. Time is pressing. By the Thursday afternoon dress rehearsal, the actresses try to be script-perfect, although they often aren’t. By now, the original 52-page script has been reduced to 50 pages, and almost every page has had at least one alteration.
For instance, on Monday when Blanche accidentally spat Coca-Cola on a Soviet Embassy official, he responded by saying, “No apology necessary.” Now he says, “No need to apologize. In Moscow, we have to stand in line four hours to get this.”
Late Friday afternoon, the audience files into Renmar Studios to watch the first taping. The writers are standing by, just in case a last-minute problem occurs. During the 90-minute dinner break, while a new audience is arriving, the cast, writers and producers calmly discuss how to improve the second taping. A few lines are cut, the taping is completed, and it’s on to the next week.