15 Steps to "No Fat"
Want to know what a typical production week on a sitcom is like? Read the article on Ellen's Everybody Loves Raymond episode, "No Fat."
The Evolution of a Sitcom script
15 Steps to "No Fat"
Written By Marsha Scarbrough
Everybody Loves Raymond
Written by Ellen Sandler & Susan Van Allen
At the beginning of the Everybody Loves Raymond season, Ellen Sandler pitches the idea of Marie (Raymond's mother) going on a diet. Since Marie relates to her family through food, changing her relationship to food would create conflict in the family.
Phil Rosenthal responds to the idea of food as a big issue but doesn't want Marie on a diet to lose weight. He suggests Marie and Frank (Raymond's father) trying to change their diets because of high cholesterol.
When the idea is pitched to The Room, Steve Skrovan tells a story about his family suffering through a healthy Thanksgiving dinner. The idea starts to become a story about the family's Thanksgiving being threatened. The stakes are raised by making Thanksgiving Raymond's favorite holiday since he loves his mother's cooking.
An early outline describes all the elements that ultimately end up in the final script... and some that don't.
The "two-pager" defines the spine of the story in a condensed narrative. It's rewritten once with Rosenthal's input before being distributed to all the writers and discussed in The Room. The bare bones are: When Marie and Frank learn that they have high cholesterol, Marie goes on a diet for health reasons. Debra (Raymond's wife) coaches Made in low-fat cooking. Raymond is bereft when he discovers that they are planning to make a tofu turkey for Thanksgiving. Debra insists that they stop thinking of themselves and support Marie. The family gathers for Thanksgiving. While they are politely trying to enjoy the unpalatable dinner, a traditional Thanksgiving feast is delivered from a restaurant Marie accuses Frank, but Raymond turns out to be the culprit. Debra is appalled and whisks the food off to their house as the family finishes Marie's dinner.
That night, Raymond hears strange noises in the kitchen and finds Marie with a turkey drumstick Eventually the whole family ends up chowing down at a midnight feast in the kitchen. In the tag, Marie is in the doctor's office confessing that she couldn't stay on the diet. The doctor suggests eliminating stress from her life. She interprets that to mean that she must control Frank.
After this "two-pager" is refined, it is sent to the network, the studio and Romano. At this point, Rosenthal suggests that Sandler work with Susan Van Allen on the first draft of the script.
Sandler and Van Allen collaborate by writing some scenes together line by line at the computer and some scenes individually, then trading and revising each other. After a first pass, they solicit input privately from some of the other staff writers and then do a rewrite. That version goes to Rosenthal who writes notes and jokes in the margins and returns it to Sandler and Van Allen. He questions the need for a scene in the bedroom with Raymond and Debra before they hear the noise in the kitchen. Sandler and Van Allen rewrite incorporating Rosenthal's notes to create the "writer's first draft."
The "writer's first draft" goes to the table in The Room. After an hour or more of general discussion on the overall script, the staff starts with the teaser and goes through the script line by line. A writer's assistant types this version into a communal computer as it is being revised. This process may take the better part of two or three days in The Room, but the result is a funnier, faster, more focused script. In this version, Marie blames herself for disappointing her family by not cooking her traditional Thanksgiving dinner, which prompts Ray to voice his support for her need to take care of herself. Also introduced at this point is the idea of Marie and Frank learning about their high cholesterol at a Senior Health Fair. The scenes in the doctor's office are eliminated and the tag is set in a pharmacy where a Senior Health Fair is in progress. A shortened version of the bedroom scene with Raymond and Debra is still in the script.
The script is sent to Romano, who can only be in The Room when he's not involved in rehearsals on stage. After reading this "table draft" Romano spends a lunch hour in The Room giving his notes on the script page by page. In this case, the changes are minor. He adds a joke and cuts another. A reference to diabetes is changed to "high blood sugar" since, according to Rosenthal, actual diseases aren't funny. Now the script has been "Rayified" and it's ready to go to the stage.
On a Wednesday morning, cast, director, writers, producers, network executives, studio representatives and selected crew members meet on the Raymond set on Stage 5 at the Warner Brothers lot. After a production meeting, the actors sit around a table and read the script like a play. It gets big laughs. At this point, Romano seems to know the script almost by heart. After the reading, network and studio people huddle briefly with Rosenthal and the writing staff to give notes. The cast begins rehearsals on the stage while the writers return to The Room and make minor revisions. Because there is not enough space on the stage for both the pharmacy set and the bedroom set, the bedroom scene is eliminated. Now Raymond hears suspicious noises in the kitchen from the living room stairs. In response to a network vote to "up the stakes" Marie's cholesterol level is now described as "close to the danger zone."
On Thursday morning, a new script awaits the cast on stage. They rehearse until 3p.m. when Rosenthal and the writing staff (who have been working in The Room all morning) come down to the stage for a "Producer's Run-through." They watch the cast perform the script "on its feet" in the sets. After the run-through, Rosenthal freely offers acting and blocking suggestions to the actors and director. The cast is dismissed as Rosenthal and the writers go back to The Room to make revisions based on what they've seen. In this case, a couple of scenes are shortened and a few jokes are honed.
On Friday morning, another new script is waiting for the cast when they arrive. Again they rehearse until midafternoon when network executives join Rosenthal and the writers for a "Network Run-through." After watching the cast perform the script with key props, the network execs offer notes and compliments to Rosenthal and the writers. In this case, they express some concerns about the look of the tofu turkey. As Rosenthal works with the actors to fine-tune performances, the theme of the show becomes more clearly defined. Marie's line "I forgot what was important...cooking for my family" in her scene with Raymond becomes the key emotional moment. Rosenthal also shares camera blocking concerns with the director, primarily about the need to show Patricia Heaton (who plays Debra) only from the shoulders up to conceal her very obvious pregnancy. Again the cast is dismissed while Rosenthal and the writers return to The Room and make minor revisions.
On Monday morning, the new version of the script goes to the actors and the entire technical crew. The whole day is spent camera blocking with the cast, crew and director. Rosenthal and the writers stay in The Room and watch the camera setups on a monitor as they work on upcoming scripts. Rosenthal phones his camera notes down to the stage.
Tuesday is Show Day! Rosenthal and the writers work in The Room in the morning while the cast rehearses with cameras on stage. At 12:30, they go to the stage to watch the final run-through. Producers, writers, cast and crew share a catered meal at 3:30 p.m., then at 5 p.m. the audience comes in and the show begins. During filming, the writers are "on the floor" with Rosenthal and the director. They offer notes and suggestions concerning performances to Rosenthal, who shares them with the actors and director as he feels appropriate. Sandler serves as a liaison between Rosenthal and the "switcher," who is cutting the show live for the audience to see on monitors. It's a critical job because the switcher's shot choices have a major impact on the laugh track. Tom Caltabiano goes up in the bleachers and interacts with the audience. He fields questions and jokes that it takes 11 writers to write 22 minutes. He also huddles with Romano concerning "take twos" alternate jokes that Romano uses on some second takes to surprise the audience is order to get an equal, if not greater, laugh. Although the "take twos" are written in advance, they are selected by Rosenthal and Romano during filming.
To the audience, they appear to be ad-libs.
Craft Service puts out a buffet for the cast and crew. At 8p.m., the audience is served pizza and sodas to keep them in a jovial mood. After the dinner scene is shot, the tofu turkey is added to the buffet for anyone brave enough to try it. The show wraps and everyone goes home about 9p.m. Rosenthal proclaims it an excellent filming and says he couldn't be happier. Sandler comments, "More than my initial vision was realized, The core of my original thought is absolutely there and so much better than I ever imagined."
The editor assembles the show based on notes dictated by Rosenthal during filming. Rosenthal finds time to sit with the editor and hone the final cut to perfection. In this case, the tag scene at the Senior Health Fair ends up on the cutting room floor due to time considerations.
"No Fat" airs during Thanksgiving week.