In the first of our series of chats with key members of The Weird Al Show cast and production team, All Things Yankovic proudly presents....
ATY: How did you get involved with the show?
ZK: The head writer they had quit in a huff (or so I was told). The producers started looking for a replacement. My agent submitted me. I went in for a meeting and we hit it off.
ATY: How familiar were you with Weird Al at this point?
ZK: Is there anyone over the age of sperm who isn't familiar with Al?
ATY: Well, there is this guy in Minnesota....
ZK: I would say I was an Al appreciate. I wasn't a rabid fan, but I did own a few of his CDs. And I've always loved his videos.
ATY: What was the usual process for writing an episode? The writing credits for each episode vary greatly, so it's unclear if the whole writing staff was always present.
ZK: Basically they had a brief description of each episode along with the "educational goal" for that episode. They assigned the show to one of the writers who would go off and write the outline. Then Al and/or the producers gave notes. The writer would either do a second outline, or if the first was close enough, he'd go to script. We usually did two or three drafts with notes in-between and that was it. Sometimes a writer (I won't mention names) couldn't get it right, so they would reassign the script to another writer.
I think the reason the credits are a bit confusing is because of things like "Changing Channels" and other segments that were extraneous to the main story line. Those were assigned separately from the episode's main script. Sometimes I would have by chance written every sketch or fake commercial as well as the script for the main story, sometimes I had a sketch in a story someone else wrote or vice-versa.
ATY: What kinds of challenges were there for the writers to make sure the scripts contained an educational value?
ZK: I was worried about this when I first got the job, but it quickly became evident that the type of educational value they were looking for wasn't teaching math or history, but moral tales. Personally I like writing fiction where the bad guy learns his lesson or pays for his evil deeds in the end. It's just good storytelling. I had to change some things in a few scripts because it was a kids show (like when I was going to have a bad guy spray the audience with melted butter...they thought kids might try that at home) but never because it wasn't "educational enough."
ATY: Were the writers needed to be on the set during taping after an episode was written?
ZK: We wrote everything in 8 or 10 weeks prior to the show being taped. So the writers were all unemployed by the time they started shooting on set. They did let me come hang out for a few tapings. It was fun.
I think we finished the last of the writing one week before it started taping (though there were a few tweaks that were made to each script after all the writers were gone--I think the producer's secretary did those).
ATY: Was there any segment that you had written that you were particularly proud of?
ZK: I remember Judy Tenuta and Al both telling me how much they liked my Lip Bomb joke. So if I had to pick one joke, I guess it would be that. I was really pleased when I came up with the mood pie idea. Funny and weird. It was a very Zeke sort of joke.
ATY: You already mentioned that the writers were already gone before the show started shooting, but when did you know that the show was going to be cancelled? Was anything written for a second season at this point?
ZK: I think we figured it would be cancelled before we even started shooting it. That's just the nature of the business. By the time the word came down that they definitely weren't going to do a second season, I heard it secondhand and probably almost a year had gone by. I don't think anything was written.
ATY: Likewise, do you recall any sketches that were written but ultimately scrapped when the episode was produced?
ZK: Yeah. Lots. One in particular that I wrote was I think called "Cutting Room Floor" or something like that. I spent a long, long time writing Al into Star Wars scenes. It was like a documentary about how Al was in the movie and we superimposed or cut him into sequences. At the last minute some people involved with Star Wars (a particular actor who is a real Joker, if you know what I mean) decided he wanted tens of thousands of dollars to let us use the clip with him in it. So it got shelved.
ATY: How did you get your start writing for television?
ZK: I started out writing cartoons for Hanna-Barbera. Artists I went to school with were working there and one thing led to another.
ATY: Speaking of Hanna-Barbera, in addition to The Weird Al Show, you've also written for The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory, both of which also definitely have satire and tongue-in-cheek humor. Is this the kind of humor you're most drawn to?
ZK: I don't know. I just like weird character comedy, preferably set in a strange world, or strange circumstances.
ATY: What kinds of differences are there writing for an animated series as opposed to a live action show?
ZK: I'd rather not go into it. Needless to say live action show writers tend to be treated better and less underpaid. Obviously the script formatting is different.
ATY: We stumbled upon a tidbit about you involved with developing a series for Disney. Is there anything you can reveal about it?
ZK: That was actually some time ago. It was before I did the Al show. I've done development work for most of the studios, but currently I have a show at Sony that is very close to my heart. Warner Bros. is interested so we're keeping our fingers crossed. As for description I'll just say it's funny, a bit weird, and it's animated.
ATY: Who are some of your influences?
ZK: I really love British sitcoms. The weirder the better. I also read and write science fiction. Actually it's a subgenre of SF called "Slip Stream". It's sort of like magical realism. Probably my favorite author is R.A. Lafferty. Lafferty in Orbit is a collection of his short stories that are absolutely amazing.
ATY: What kind of advice can you give to someone who would like to become a writer professionally?
ZK: Read books. Novels, sure, but short stories and short story collections especially. The structure of a good TV show or even most features is much more like a short story. There are two items of advice I've been given over the years that seem the most valuable or wise: don't give up. If you're good, and you stick it out long enough, you'll make it.
The second? If you'd be happy doing anything else in the whole world do that instead. Being a writer is one of the most emotionally difficult jobs in the world. No one who is not one will understand. They'll think you just sit home all day doing nothing, that it's not a real job. But if you love it, and you put your love in it, it can be one of the most rewarding things you'll ever do.
ATY: So, in conclusion, how would you sum up your experience on The Weird Al Show?
ZK: I wouldn't hesitate to work with Al again. In fact there are very few shows I wouldn't quit to work with Al again. He was funny, kind, and talented. It was a blast to work with him.
It was a really wonderful experience working with Al, and I'd love to have the show be released on video. For one thing, then I could finally get to see the episodes I wrote. Dick Clark never gave me copies!
Check out Zeke's web site
Warning: Contains DANGEROUS short-fiction!
Special thanks to Grant from Throwing Toasters for use of the original script image from his recent eBay auctions.
The Weird Al Show ©1997 Dick Clark Productions, Inc.