Wings Wednesday: Interview with Television Writer Dave Hackel – Part Two

In Part One, television writer Dave Hackel talked about his career and his time working on Wings. In this post, I’m excited to bring you the second part of the interview, where he talks about writing one of my favorite Wings episodes, “Murder She Roast,” which is Episode 21 of Season Two.

The Story:

When Joe’s (Tim Daly) house has to be fumigated, Brian (Steven Weber) gets an offer to stay with Fay (Rebecca Schull).  While at her home, Brian watches his favorite show, Fugitives from Justice, and the subject of the episode – a woman who has left a trail of dead men in her wake – has many similarities to Fay.

Freaked out, Brian shares his newfound info about Fay with Joe and Helen (Crystal Bernard), which they quickly dismiss. But as Brian’s paranoia about Fay’s possible true identity mounts, are his suspicions about her crazy, or is he really staying with a serial killer?

Meanwhile, Lowell (Thomas Haden Church) begins selling a gadget called the Car-B-Que. Will Roy (David Schramm) take the bait and buy one, or is this just another idiotic thing Lowell has ventured into?

My Take:

I love this episode. It’s interesting to watch it now in the context of our cultural obsession with true-crime series and podcasts, and the idea that you could see or hear about someone you might know on one of those shows seems more possible than ever. 

The cast takes the solid material and runs with it, and the entire set-up and pay-off of the main storyline is exceptionally well-crafted and delivers solid laughs throughout. 

And I’d really like to know a little more about the culinary science behind the Car-B-Que, especially how it cooks chicken so fast. 

“Murder She Roast” never fails to make me laugh. Wings is reliably funny and always can get a smile or a laugh no matter the episode. Whether it’s a line of dialogue or the line’s delivery, “Murder She Roast” is great stuff.

The Interview:

I was honored to be able to ask Dave Hackel about the inception and writing of the episode in question. His answers are below:

Ian Dawson: How was the initial story pitched?

Dave Hackel: As conceived, “Wings” was a show about two brothers.  Obviously, other great characters made up the initial ensemble and others were added along the way.  The production staff had to service all the actors/characters and some were easier to come up with stories for than others.  Rebecca Schull was and is a marvelous actor, but Fay was often difficult to create shows around…especially in the early years of the show.  The network wanted stories about Joe and Brian so when trying for a Fay episode, we had to find ones in which the boys were prominent, as well.

So, our job was to come up with a story in which Rebecca could shine and still give Tim and Steven good parts to play.  “Murder She Roast” was clearly inspired…if not liberally borrowed…from the classic Alfred Hitchcock story about the woman who killed a man with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooked it and served it to the investigating detectives.  I suggested that we might be able to come up with a story that cast doubt on Fay’s character in a similar way.  Of course, we ended up with — certainly in that last block comedy scene in Fay’s kitchen — an homage to Hitchcock’s story.

ID: Were you assigned to write the episode, or did you pitch the episode and then were sent off to write it?

DH: All of the above.  I came up with the basic idea then, as will most of the episodes, the entire staff worked out the story and I was sent off to write it.

ID: How long did you have to write an episode?  Did you craft an outline or beat sheet first that was then hashed out in the room, or did you jump into a first draft with an outline?

DH: As with all of the episodes, first you work out the story in the room, then the writer — in this case me — was sent off to write the outline — usually around ten pages of prose that broke out the story beats into scenes and included many of the jokes that were pitched in the room.  Then, after a week, I turned it in, met with the staff, went over the story, made changes and then I went off to write the first draft of the script.  That usually took about two weeks.

ID: How did the storyline/episode evolve from pitch to shooting script?  Did the B-story with Lowell and Roy change at all, or were the A and B stories pretty much set from the start?

DH: All the beats, A & B stories, were worked out before I started to write the script.  As was the case with all of the episodes, stories were adjusted, edited and hopefully improved throughout the week with the help of the writing staff and, of course, the actors and the director of that episode, Noam Pitlik.

ID: Do you recall what the initial reaction to the episode was at the table read?

DH: I believe the script went over quite well at the table read.  Those initial readings were usually a great deal of fun for all of the “Wings” episodes.

ID: As the credited writer on this or any episode, do you get final say on any changes that are suggested by the actors, director, or other writers?  Do remember if there were any network notes that you had to deal with on this episode?

DH: The initial writer doesn’t get the final say on an episode.  Once it’s turned in, the script becomes fair game for everyone to work on and improve.  That includes the actors, director, writing staff, as well as anyone in the crew who comes up with a good idea.  It’s an incredible amount of work to produce a new episode every week, so any input that makes it better is appreciated.

ID: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing or during the taping of the episode?

DH: Time is always the enemy on a television show.  How to get it done in five days while, at the same time, working on editing last week’s episode and coming up with new ones to round out the season.  “Murder She Roast” was no exception except for the fact that we also had to find time to shoot the footage on the “news” program that Brian initially watched.  We went onto Paramount’s back lot and did those sequences as well as filming Maury Povich playing the part of the newscaster.

ID: Looking back at the episode now, is there anything you would change.

DH: Oh, I’m sure if I viewed the episode carefully, I could find jokes that could be better — sharper, funnier — and perhaps a shot here or there to improve.  That’s the case with every show.  But I remember being quite happy with the finished product have always appreciated that, when people are asked about their favorite episodes of “Wings”, “Murder She Roast” is often mentioned.  

I appreciate Dave Hackel taking the time to talk about the writing of “Murder She Roast.”  You can find this episode and other episodes of Wings on Hulu, buy the complete series on Amazon (or watch on Amazon Prime), and watch via the PlutoTV app on the 24/7 Wings channel (channel 456).

Wings Wednesday: Interview with Television Writer Dave Hackel – Part One

I love sitcoms. I Love Lucy and FraiserThe Mary Tyler Moore Show and BeckerGreen Acres and WingsAll in the Family and Married…with Children. These shows, along with hundreds more, have given millions of people laughter, comfort, enjoyment, and quotable lines for generations. They have ranged from multi-camera series like Lucy, to single-camera series like The Andy Griffith Show. The situation comedy has had its ups and downs, but one thing is for sure…it’s here to stay.

Long before the advent of television, radio was where situation comedies began their evolution. Radio comedies like My Favorite HusbandThe Adventures of Ozzie and HarrietFibber McGee and  Molly, and Father Knows Best were pioneers in the sitcom format. Many of the ones mentioned here would be adapted to television. What had worked in one medium would translate seamlessly into another: the situations and the comedy.

These shows work and deliver continuous laughs thanks to the hard work and dedication of those who write them.  They understand how to craft an effective joke and understand the value of a strong story and dimensional characters that can help elevate the comedy.

One of my favorite series is Wings, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. I had the honor of interviewing television writer Dave Hackel, who wrote many of my favorite episodes of Wings, and also worked on Fraiser (another favorite of mine), and created Becker (another favorite of mine, too).  

In Part One, Hackel talks about his time working on Wings. In Part Two (posting next Wednesday), he talks about the writing process for one of my favorite episodes of Wings, “Murder She Roast.”  


Ian Dawson: Talk a little about your writing career before Wings.

Dave Hackel: My television writing career began a little over ten years before “Wings.”  I’d worked on comedies, dramas and variety shows.  After having the opportunity to try my hand at those different formats, I found I was most drawn to writing comedy and put all of my efforts toward finding work in half-hour sitcoms.  Little by little, a was able to gain a foothold in that area, writing a number of single episodes for different shows and going on staff for a few others. 

ID: How did you get the opportunity to write for Wings?

DH: I’d done the first year of “Dear John” at Paramount Studios before meeting Casey, Angell and Lee.  They’d sold the pilot of “Wings” to NBC and were putting together their staff for the first season.  I was looking to make a change and submitted a few scripts as writing samples. They liked what they read, we all seemed to like each other and they asked me to come on board.

ID: What was a typical writers room week like on the series?  

DH: We filmed on Tuesday nights, so production weeks began on Wednesday morning.  The new script was read around the table with the cast, the director, the entire staff as well as representatives from both the studio and network.  After the reading, the cast and director would go to the stage to begin rehearsing and the rest of us would discuss the script and decide what worked well and what needed to be rewritten.  We’d see a run-thru of the show at the end of each day, learn what we’d fixed and what still needed work.  The staff would then begin that day’s new version of the script.  Sometimes there’d be just a little work to do – writing new jokes, smoothing dialogue and responding to specific problems that the actors and director had pointed out.  On other days, whole scenes would be thrown out and redone.  Each day’s rehearsal was a learning process and hopefully each day’s work would improve the script so that the best possible version would be ready to put before an audience by the following Tuesday evening.

During the day, before rehearsal, the staff would be working on upcoming scripts.  Finding new stories, working as a group to rewrite others that were in the pipeline and making sure we had a new script in shape for the following Wednesday morning.

ID: How were ideas pitched?

DH: At the beginning of each season, we’d throw out many ideas for shows.  Everyone would participate.  Sometimes we knew of a overreaching theme for the season and pitch to that, sometimes a story would emerge as we wrote to various actors and their characters strengths. When trying to fill a season, literally everything is possible fodder for an episode. We writers would mine our lives for stories — little things that had happened to us, memories from our childhoods, something funny our friends did or that we’d overheard a stranger say — everything was fair game to be expanded upon to make an episode.  We had good characters to write for and also the airport setting allowed for interesting characters and their stories to walk into the terminal or off an incoming flight. 

ID: How were episodes assigned to be written?

DH: Sometimes a writer would come in with an idea they especially liked and wanted to write. Other times the tone of a story might be better for one writer to tackle than another.  Other times it was as simple as “Who’s next?”  With an entire season of episodes to complete, all the writers were usually busy on a script.

ID: What were the table reads like?

DH: Usually, the table reads were a lot of fun.  Lots of laughs.  But the staff was working during the reading.  We all knew that the rest of our day would be devoted to fixing any problems the became evident during the reading so we were all taking notes about what worked and what didn’t, what attitudes might need adjusting, what scenes might need to be reordered or, in some cases, eliminated. 

ID: How much input did the actors have in crafting and defining their characters?

DH: The actors had a lot of input.  They were welcome to bring up problems and ideas to the staff, but mostly their input was realized by their performances.  Slowly but surely as a series grows, the characters evolve.  Ideally, a level of trust gets established between the actors and the staff as we write to the actors’ strengths.  Subtle changes get made from all departments.  For instance, an actor might respond to or request a certain type of wardrobe that helps establish the type of person their character is.  Notice Joe Hackett’s button down, put together look vs. Brian Hackett’s which was crazier, more colorful and casual. Tim Daly’s performance helped define Joe and we all wrote to it.  Steven Weber’s performance helped define Brian and we wrote to that, too.  So, working together the characters grew, as did the stories about them.

ID: What was one of the challenges you faced as a writer on Wings?  

DH: One of the biggest challenges was that we had so many characters to service in each script.  Six to begin with.  Then seven, when Tony Shalhoub joined the cast.  And another when Farrah Forke came aboard for a couple of seasons.  Then Amy Yasbeck later.  If one character was heavy in one show that naturally meant someone else’s would have less to do and being fair to both the actors and the show overall was always a concern.

ID: What was your favorite part of being a writer on Wings?

DH: Wings was a very “joke heavy” show.  And, luckily, we had actors who could deliver.  So it was especially gratifying to write funny lines and hear the immediate response from the three hundred people in the audience.

ID: What is your favorite episode of the series?

DH: That’s a difficult question.  I like some more than others, of course, but a favorite?  Of the ones I wrote, I liked “Four Dates That Will Live In Infamy” and “Murder She Roast” the best. Another I really enjoyed was “Das Plane” with William Hickey as the guest star.  Another was “Joe Blows – Part One.”  Thankfully, there are really too many good episodes to choose from.

ID: What was tape night like on the set as a writer on the series?

DH: Rewriting on a sitcom never ends.  On shoot night we all followed along carefully and constantly threw in new and improved jokes for additional takes.  Anything that could improve a moment — a line, a word, a pause  — we’d try anything and everything to get the best possible show.

ID: Did you have a favorite character you liked writing lines for?

DH: Enjoyed them all for different reasons.  Brian, Lowell and Antonio were the most fun to write for — each had a very unique voice and approach to comedy.  

ID: How long were you a writer on the series?  When did you exit the series?  After your exit, did you then move on to work on Frasier?

DH: I was with the show for, I believe, 95 shows.  When I left, I created a short-lived series with Grub Street called “The Pursuit Of Happiness.”  After it was cancelled, I consulted on “Frasier” one day per week for a time before creating “Becker.”

ID: How did being a writer on Wings prepare you to create your own series, Becker?

DH: It was invaluable training.  Casey, Angell and Lee brought the “Cheers” way of doing things with them and adapted it to their shows.  I liked the way they laid out the season and the individual shows and tried to emulate that production method with “Becker.”  Obviously, each show takes on it’s on a style of its own, but the basic “bones” of how to organize a season, I learned on “Wings.”

I really appreciate Dave Hackel taking the time to answer my questions, and I hope you enjoyed his insight into the inner-workings of this great series.

 Check back next week to see Part Two of his interview about writing the Wings episode, “Murder She Roast.”