I love sitcoms. I Love Lucy and Fraiser. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Becker. Green Acres and Wings. All 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 Husband, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Fibber 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.”