Friday, August 9, 2013

Guest Post: Hy Conrad author of Mr. Monk Helps Himself

By Hy Conrad
Author of “Mr. Monk Helps Himself”

For eight years, I was one of the guys who told the Adrian Monk mysteries on TV. There were, on average, six writers meeting every day in an office in Summit, New Jersey, sitting around a big table, outlining each episode. We were only vaguely aware that we were creating a template – a specific way of telling a story that would make each episode feel comfortable yet surprising.
There would be an opening teaser that piqued your interest and often involved murder. Act One would set up Monk’s emotional dilemma and begin the investigation. Act Two would contain a comedy set piece. Act Three would ramp up the investigation, often with a complication, like a second murder. Act Four would usually put Monk in danger and end in “Here’s what happened.”  The tag at the end would get everyone back to square one, ready to begin again next week.
When I agreed to take over the Monk books, all that went out the window, including the comfort of having five other guys to bounce around ideas. I had to adjust to a new template, a new way of telling Monk’s story.
From the beginning, the most important choice was point of view. Telling the stories in the third person seemed too impersonal. And using the first person, through Monk’s eyes, would have been maddening. (I can just see writing an entire chapter about vacuuming the herringbone nap in his living room rug.) Lee Goldberg’s solution, and mine, was to tell things through Natalie’s eyes. It was the best alternative, giving the stories a “Watson” character as well as a sympathetic woman’s perspective.
But even this solution isn’t perfect. For one thing, when Monk is alone, getting into trouble, we can’t be there with him. We hear about it later, either from Monk or someone else. And when Monk goes in for his private sessions with Dr. Bell… Well, you may have noticed that Dr. Bell doesn’t play much of a role in the novels.
Another difference is the size of the stories. In TV, we had 42 minutes. The mysteries were clever but simple. But when you have 70,000 words at your disposal, you either have to make the stories complex, which is not the Monk way, or you have to throw in some fancy footwork. The Monk books often spend the first two chapters on a “starter mystery”, one that has no connection to the rest of the book but may help set up Monk’s emotional track.
Then there may be a few fast cases thrown in, things that show off Monk’s brilliance but are really just there to entertain. Plus the novels tend to tell two mysteries at once, switching back and forth until we let loose with two climactic scenes in the last fifty pages. Like I said earlier, it’s a template, and every mystery writer or TV writer uses one. That’s also what keeps fans coming back, a feeling of familiarity, even if the story is brand new.
I think all the writers were surprised by the perennial appeal of what we were creating. Monk is still on TV in dozens of countries and the Monk books now total seventeen, including the one coming out in December.
One reason for the appeal is the family-friendly attitude. No real violence, except now and then some blood spatter. No language or sexual situations. We snagged some really great guest stars because they’d sat down with their kids and watched the show and wanted to become part of the Monk story.
Other reasons for our longevity may not be so obvious. For example, the show didn’t change much. Three of our four main actors were there from the pilot to the finale. And each episode was pretty self-contained. You can enjoy them in any order. No one has a season-long arc that had to be explained before you can catch up.
Also, we were low on pop culture references or trendy storylines. This was on purpose. Andy Breckman, the show’s creator, wanted it to have an undated quality. And when we did slip in a real name, we tried to make it timeless. For example, Monk’s idea of a femme fatale is Angie Dickenson. Not a bad choice, but not really pop culture.
We felt the same way about technology. No one on our show ever tapped a keyboard to solve a case or relied on DNA to set up the final scene. For one thing, it seemed like a lazy way of getting to your suspect. It wasn’t the Monk way.
Fans will often mention Sunday afternoons when they’ll accidentally watch one “Monk” after another, as if the show were somehow hypnotic. We never intended to have this effect on people, but there was some actual thinking behind that effect.
“Monk” had fewer scenes than other shows – about twenty per episode as opposed to thirty
or forty for the typical cop show. We also wrote less dialogue. A “Monk” script would have 52 pages on average, while a CSI script has over 60. We also tried to avoid using hand-held cameras, which are everywhere nowadays. The net result was a show that you could relax into, that slowed you down and gently invited you inside. No wonder it results in hypnotism.
But the main reason for all the love is Tony Shalhoub. He was originally unavailable and we cast someone else. But when Tony became free, the network actually paid off the previous actor. Bad for the actor, who shall remain nameless, but good for everyone else. Tony played OCD for the reality of it, without a lot of ticks or mannerisms, which somehow made it funnier. And his vulnerability made you laugh at Monk even as you cheered him on.
Almost every fan who comes up and talks about Monk mentions the OCD thing. Hundreds of people have said, “I’m just like that,” or “My wife calls me Monk.” When we were writing the show, we didn’t think too much about that impact. We were trying to stay true to the character and be funny and tell a story.

Now that I think about it, the biggest reason for Monk’s evergreen appeal is probably the way he handles his obsessions and compulsions. It was a pleasure to help write a character who is so damaged and yet so successful in his job – and funny to boot. We can’t forget the funny.


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