Posted on May 26th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | No Comments »
Tina Fey’s breakout American sit-com 30 Rock is an exemplar of the genre in many ways. Its sketch sensibility means that it has an astonishingly high gag-rate, but the characters are well-drawn and create the comedy rather than simply being mouthpieces for it.
A well-known test of dialogue is to cover up the character names in your script and see if you can still tell who is speaking which line – does each character have their own individual voice? Here are some quick pen portraits of some of the main 30 Rock characters, which I’ll use in a minute to show you how Fey and the other writers extend this principle.
Liz Lemon - the lead, played by Tina Fey. Head writer on NBC sketch show “TGS”. Fundamentally decent girl nerd, good at her job, bad at most other things. Sample dialogue: (on being asked her religion) “I pretty much just do whatever Oprah tells me to.”
Jack Donaghy - Liz’s boss, played by Alex Baldwin. Ruthlessly ambitious corporate suit who becomes a mentor to Liz despite their differences. Sample dialogue: (on being asked why he’s wearing a Tuxedo) “It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?”
Kenneth Parcell - a page at NBC, played by Jack McBrayer. Endlessly optimistic and naive country boy, drawn to the big city by his love of television. Sample dialogue: “I don’t vote Republican or Democrat. Choosing is a sin, so I always just write in the Lord’s name.”
Tracy Jordan - star of TGS, played by Tracy Morgan. TV and movie superstar with a tenuous grasp on reality. Sample dialogue: “That’s not me. That’s a Tracy Jordan Japanese Sex Doll. You can tell us apart because it’s not suffering from a vitamin deficiency.”
Jenna Maroney - female star of TGS, now usurped by Tracy, but still consumed with self-obsession. Played by Jane Krakowski. Has been friends with Liz for years. Sample dialogue: “I got a residual check for that Japanese commercial I did! Three hundred dollars! I’m going to use the money to buy us all new boots for myself.”
Hopefully you agree that these are all good jokes, and all reflect their different personalities. But 30 Rock also scores because it avoids having Liz Lemon as the bland focal point around which a bunch of entertaining crazies orbits. Liz’s foibles, insecurities, strengths and opinions are a big part of the show, and so are her relationships to all the foregoing (and the other characters). How well do the writers know these relationships? Let’s look at how each of the other characters listed above typically refers to the lead character…
- Jack, the corporate suit, calls her “Lemon”
- Kenneth, the page, calls her “Miss Lemon”
- Tracy, the lunatic, calls her “Liz Lemon” (every time)
- Jenna, her friend since childhood, calls her “Liz”
If you can nail the relationships of your characters as clearly as this, you really know the world of your story.
If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service from just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.