Writing the MONK Books
This interview was conducted by TERESA MURRAY and appears on the Monk Fan Page.
LEE GOLDBERG met with me and Monk Fun Page staff photographer Seth Williams for an in depth interview at a chinese restaurant in San Mateo, before his book signing at the M is for Mystery bookstore across the street. Having been a regular reader of Lee’s blog and having read a few of his books and having received this note from him just prior to our meeting: I’ll see you there at noon. I’ll be the Pierce Brosnan look-alike with the growling stomach, I was expecting… a Pierce Brosnan look-alike. Luckily, Seth recognized him from his picture in the back of the Diagnosis: Murder novel.
We chatted a little before the official interview about the bay area, he’s from Walnut Creek originally; his terrible accident which left him with an arm full of titanium and the resulting reputation with Airport Security as the only Jewish member of Al-Quaeda; the Atkins Diet, which he’s on; how boring he thinks Doctor Who is; our charming anti-artificial sweetener waitress, whom Seth compared to a gestapo officer; *cough*fanfic*cough*; New York City; and the possibility of a book signing tour with Tony Shalhoub after the first Monk novel is released. About that Lee says, “The plans for the joint signings… tentatively to be held at Barnes & Noble stores in LA and NY… are dependant on Tony’s schedule. Nothing has been set yet.”
What follows is everything Lee had to say on the record, pretty much word for word. I’m MFP and Seth is MFP Photographer. Lee is just Lee. Bracketed comments are mine.
MFP: I’ll just start with the Monk novel. How long did it take you to write? When did they ask you to start?
Lee: Eight weeks. It actually started months earlier. I finally got the call on April Fool’s Day when I was getting in the car to go across country with my wife and daughter for spring break. We were going to Sante Fe on a road trip. They had offered me the Monk books earlier and I passed, because they were offering me a deal substantially less than what I was getting for my Diagnosis: Murder books. I said, “I’m not going to do it for less than I’m already doing my other books for you.
MFP: Is that because Diagnosis: Murder is network and this is cable?
Lee: It doesn’t matter that it’s cable. Diagnosis: Murder is being done for Penguin Putnam, the books. Penguin Putnam had won the license to the Monk books and immediately thought of me to write them, because I’d done the Monk show. They knew I’d written novels. We got along great. And I was thrilled to do it, but then they offered me substantially less than what I was getting for the Diagnosis: Murders and I said, “Sorry” and I forgot about it. You know, they went to other writers, and I guess things didn’t work out. So April 1st I was literally packing the car up to go on this trip and I get a call saying, “Okay, you win, I’ll give you what you want. We want you to write the Monk books.” I said, “Great, wonderful. I’ll get started as soon as I get back.” “Well one little condition, if you do the book we must have it in eight weeks.”
They had wasted so much time trying to get writers and work things out, that they’d run out of time. So they had to have the book in eight weeks, which was actually seven for me, because there was no way I was going to write on my road trip if I wanted to keep my marriage. So, on the trip, while we were driving, I thought of a plot and I called Andy [Breckman] up and I said here’s my idea for the plot and in the hotel room I wrote a quick couple pages and he said, “I love it.” And that was that.
MFP: So do you know anything about, for a while Amazon had up a book…?
Lee: Yes, Mr. Monk and the Fatal Lie?
MFP: Yes. [Actually, it was Mr. Monk and the Bad Lie, but it never got written, so who cares?]
Lee: That was a couple of years ago. I was actually in New Jersey when Andy found out about it. I don’t know the legal details, but apparently MCA had licensed a book to somebody, and had commissioned a book, without getting Andy’s approval and without realizing Andy had control. So that ended up getting dropped. It didn’t happen. I guess they finally made a deal with Andy and all the other profit participants. Because when you write a licensed book there are a lot of people who get a piece of the pie: Andy, of course, Universal, Penguin Putnam Publishers, me. I imagine Tony Shalhoub gets some because his face is on the cover of the book. So there are a lot of people who have to get a piece of it.
MFP: But they couldn’t actually license it without Andy Breckman’s approval?
Lee: Right. That’s my understanding. You can double check with Andy, but that’s right.
MFP: They tried, but they couldn’t
Lee: Yes. So, Andy never heard of that writer. He didn’t know anything about the plot. He didn’t find out until literally while I was in New Jersey, they looked on Amazon and found it. I think it was Hy Conrad who discovered it and Andy was quite upset.
MFP Photographer: Did Amazon say who the publisher was on it?
Lee: No, I don’t know who the publisher was.
MFP Photographer: Because a lot of times Amazon puts up stuff from one of these, you know, self publishing people. Just posting things.
Lee: This was actually a real publisher and the writer who was writing it, his name now escapes me [Dewey Graham]. He was a well known writer.
MFP Photographer: Oh. Okay. So he wasn’t just a hack?
Lee: Oh, he writes a lot of different novels under different names. Novelizations and stuff. But you know Andy wasn’t going to let somebody he never met and who he knew nothing about, write one of these books, you know. Andy and I get along great. He knows because I’ve written two episodes of the show that I get it and that we’re on the same wave length. And now that he’s read the first book, actually he’s read two books now, after he read the first book he was like, “Go with God. I have complete faith in you.”
It’s important to me to have Andy’s approval and respect and involvement. So I make sure he knows exactly what I’m doing. I call him with progress reports and let him know what’s up and I eagerly await it when he reads the books. When he read Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse I was so nervous. I thought, oh god, he’s going to hate it, because I wrote it in Natalie’s voice, first person and in a book it can’t be quite the same Monk. You’re dealing with 400 hundred manuscript pages and you have to have much more of a story and you’re spending more time with the character than you do in a forty minute TV show.
By nature if it’s a book you have to go into more depth and detail.
So, Andy called up and he spent an hour or so on the phone just telling me how much he loved the book. He said, “It was so weird at first. I felt like a singer/songwriter and someone else had covered my song. It was my song. I recognized it, but it was different. And I really like what you did.”
MFP Photographer: Wow, that’s amazing.
Lee: And he says, “This is my Monk.” He recognizes Monk, “but the Monk in your book is a little more sad, a little more melancholy. He’s funny, but he a little more pained and human.” He loved hearing it from Natalie’s voice. He really thought that I nailed Natalie. He got a whole sense that he hadn’t had before just from looking at the books. I tried to reference some things that happened in the series. One of the difficulties of writing these books is it takes me, and now I have three months to write each book, after that first one that took me eight weeks.
MFP: That was a test, right?
Lee: No, they had to have it because they wanted the book to come out the same week as the show premieres in January. Production schedules on books are so protracted, that in order to make that schedule I had to deliver the book on June 1st.
MFP: Isn’t that a long time?
Lee: Well. No. You have proofreading, galleys, covers, all this other stuff and then you have to schedule a time with the printing press and distribution. I don’t pretend to understand all the complications that go into a book, but that was as close as they could cut it. So I wrote that book in eight weeks and then I had three months to write the next one. It takes so long to write these books, they’ve already done four or five episodes of the TV series, so the danger is I’m going to write something that’s already been contradicted by the TV show . It actually happened to me in the second book. I was writing about details of Natalie’s life that suddenly changed right after I saw “Mr. Monk Goes to a Wedding.” There was another episode, “Mr. Monk and Mrs. Monk,” that changed something else I had in my book.
So I get scripts ahead of time and I try to fashion the books so they can fit into the continuity of the series, but I can’t be 100 percent perfect, you know. By the time my second book comes out, the second half of the fourth season will be out. I had to cover things that aren’t in the show. I had to say where Monk lives, where Natalie lives, where Dr. Kroger’s office is and that stuff. I’ve got a little more detail about their lives and I describe the city a lot more. I don’t get into Monk’s head because I do it from Natalie’s point of view, but I’m in her head. So I have to go into a lot more detail about how she feels about the world and about Monk and about life. What she’s doing when she’s not with Monk and her relationship with her daughter.
MFP: Is she dating when she’s not with him?
Lee: She does have a sex life outside of Monk, which was hinted at the first time he met her when he found the birth control pills. She still deeply loves her husband but she’s not a monk, no pun intended. In the first book she dates. In the first book, Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse, his apartment is being termite sprayed. Of course, he isn’t going to stay there so he moves in with Natalie for a week. And completely ruins her life. So while they’re solving the case he’s actually living with her. Andy loved that, just loved that. In the second book, Mr. Monk Goes to Hawaii, she goes to Hawaii for her best friend’s wedding, and I won’t give away everything, but Monk comes too. I know a lot of fans are going to go,
“Now wait a minute. How’s he going to go on an airplane for five hours?”
MFP: He’s been on an airplane for five hours before.
Lee: Yeah, they didn’t say how he got to New York, but I have some fun with that. In fact, there is a teaser chapter at the end of Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse, that is the chapter of Monk on the airplane, where you’ll discover how he gets to fly. You know putting him in that situation a completely different culture, a completely different way of life, it was so much fun.
The third book is tentatively titled Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu and in that one the police department goes on an unofficial strike. So the Mayor drafts Monk in the interim, basically reinstates him as a homicide detective while the police are on strike. So suddenly he’s got not only his old job back, but he’s got Stottlemeyer’s job. But the police resent it because he’s crossed the picket line. He’s also got a rag tag team of unqualified and retired cops trying to solve crimes. That’s the next one I’m going to do.
MFP: So Firehouse is going to be an episode?
Lee: That’s the plan, now whether it will actually happen I don’t know because Andy said, “I would love to do it as an episode.” And I said, “I’ll be glad to.” So the plan is for me to go out there in January or February, out to Summit and write the episode, with my partner William Rabkin, who I do all my TV work with, but it depends on whether or not I’m on another show. If I’m executive producing another series, I may not be able to do it.
MFP: Is that in the wind?
Lee: It may always be in the wind. The only reason I haven’t done more Monk episodes than I have is because I was executive producing Missing and I wasn’t able to do it. Andy would have had us do more than the two we’ve done, but we were tied up on another series. We love doing Monk. We love the whole gang there. It’s just a great group of people. It’s fun to go out to Summit, New Jersey to do the scripts.
MFP: That’s an unusual set up, isn’t it?
Lee: It’s a very unusual set up and it’s also very refreshing. They’re so outside the Hollywood system out there. They’re just a bunch of guys hanging out, making each other laugh. The walls are covered with index cards of Monk situations and phobic situations and funny bits and it’s a lot of fun. I mean, Andy is the heart and soul of Monk. I mean, he is Monk, he’s Monk’s voice. Without Andy there would be no Monk. He’s like Larry David on Seinfeld. He is the show. It’s Andy. You know all the other writers are very talented, they do brilliant stuff, but ultimately Andy takes a pass at every script and gives it that special something. He’ll take your joke and he’ll turn it and just…. He’s great.
He didn’t do that with my book, which I was stunned, but he really liked the book. He thought it was very funny. He told me it sounded like Monk, so I was relieved. Hopefully, I’ll be writing these Monk books for a long time to come. Obviously, if they’re successful I’ll just keep doing them. The way it is now, I alternate between Diagnosis: Murder and Monk books on the side.
MFP: You’re going to keep doing the Diagnosis: Murder books?
Lee: Oh, yes. They’re very successful. So I’m writing number seven right now. When I turn number seven in, I write the third Monk and after I write the third Monk, I write the eighth Diagnosis: Murder. Then we renegotiate my Diagnosis: Murder contract. I’ll probably write four more Diagnosis: Murders. Before I finish the third Monk they’ll probably decide whether or not to do more. My guess is they will. They’ll probably give me a contract for three more Monks and I’ll just keep doing them. I mean I could write Monk novels for the rest of my life. I’d be thrilled to.
The only danger is that they’ll think of plots before I do, in the same arena. But it’s not that big a danger. We did 200 episodes of Diagnosis: Murder and I’m still finding new things to write about that we didn’t do on the series. So I’m sure I’ll be able to find things, like taking Monk to
Hawaii, for instance. That’s something the series can’t do. They don’t have the money and resources to go to Hawaii. So I know that’s a story that will not end up as an episode of Monk. The Blue Flu could have been an episode of Monk, but even to do Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse, we’re going to have to trim a lot of stuff out.
MFP Photographer: I was going to say, to take a novel and turn it into a script is difficult.
Lee: In the Monk plots they have one murder. Because the books are much longer, I have to have much more going on in them. It can’t just be that one murder I’ve got to have a couple of crimes that he solves: little mysteries and things. I’ve got to make the murder a little more twisty and complex than you might have in an episode. Most episodes of Monk you know who the killer is, within the first act Monk goes, “He’s the guy.” You can’t do that in a book. If you said, “He’s the guy,” in chapter one, the reader is going to be bored for the next 307 pages. When I said 400 pages, that’s manuscript pages, I think the actual Monk book is like under 300.
MFP: It’s a little over 300 [304, to be exact] according to Amazon.
Lee: So I have to add more. So when he goes to Hawaii he solves A, what I call the A crime, but there’s a B, C and D crime that he solves too. So in Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse, there’s other stuff that he solves along the way: little situations, big situations. I managed to fool Andy, which really thrilled me.
MFP: He didn’t figure it out?
Lee: Well, he didn’t figure out all the mysteries. That was fun.
MFP: And he didn’t have any suggestions or changes?
Lee: No, no.
MFP: But he did when you wrote episodes for the show?
Lee: Oh, of course, when you write episodes for the show you’re breaking the story with Andy and the staff. It’s a group effort. You’re doing it with them. Every episode is broken with Andy in the room. So he has a huge hand in developing every single episode. Nothing is done outside of his involvement. The group plots the story and then one writer goes off and writes the draft and then Andy does the production rewrite. But everyone there has been on the staff for so long they know how Andy thinks. They know how he tells a joke. They know how he likes the plots. He’s got a very talented group: his brother David, Tom Sharpling, Daniel Dratch, Hy Conrad, Joe Toplyn, you know, a great bunch.
MFP: Most of them come out of a comedy background, right?
Lee: Yes. Hy Conrad comes out of mystery. But then they bring in guys like me who have experience in mysteries. But now that Andy and those guys have been doing Monk for a few seasons, I think it’s fair to say, they’re mystery guys now. They may have started out in the comedy field, doing skits and monologues and what not, but now they’re steeped in it. They’ve done four seasons and so many mysteries. They know mysteries as well as anybody, if not better.
MFP: Why did you choose Natalie’s perspective for the books?
Lee: Because I didn’t think you want to be inside Monk’s head. That takes all of the fun and mystery out of it. You don’t want to know what Monk thinks. You want to be astonished and surprised and taken aback by his behavior. I thought getting inside his head would be wrong. You look at all the great quirky detectives Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe: they’re told from the assistant’s point of view. Archie Goodwin talks about Nero Wolfe and his behavior and Dr. Watson talks about Holmes. I thought that this way you could keep a distance from Monk. You get close to him, but Natalie’s like the audience’s point of view and we can see him and the crazy things he does and she can be as confused and baffled by his behavior as we are and then surprised when it has a meaning or purpose.
MFP Photographer: That’s the charm of it. You left the charm in.
Lee: Yes. I want to capture the feel of the series, but also I want these books to stand on their own. They’re original novels. They’re not based on episodes. So I want them to almost read as if they’re the books the TV series is based on. You need to get more than you would get from the DVD, more than you’d get from just watching an episode. I’ve got to give more substance. So I delve into Monk’s back story. I delve into Natalie’s feelings. I delve into their relationship in ways that they haven’t or can’t on the TV show, but within parameters that Andy approves of. There are no back story elements or relationship elements that I’m doing that Andy isn’t completely on board with. In fact, you’ll see him refer to some jokes and stuff in the books, in the episodes. In fact, he refers to Diagnosis: Murder in an episode coming up. He has a character reading aloud from one of the Diagnosis: Murder novels.
MFP: Which one?
Lee: Which novel? The Waking Nightmare. I can’t remember which episode it was. I think it was “Mr. Monk and the Captain’s Marriage” I think is the one where they read aloud from the Diagnosis: Murder novel.
MFP: Actually, “Mr. Monk Goes to Mexico” episode reminds me of Waking Nightmare.
Lee: Yeah. Well, you know why?
MFP: Because of the parachute thing.
Lee: Yes, and the original way I pitched it to Andy was, and I don’t want to give the ending away to Nightmare, but that was the way I pitched it. He said, “You know, it would be better if he drowned in mid-air.” So I took the idea that we originally pitched and used it for The Waking Nightmare and we went a different direction in the Monk episode. In “Mexico” a guy jumps out of an airplane and he drowns in mid-air. How’d he do it? In the Diagnosis: Murder book a famous publisher and his entire board of directors jump out of an airplane with six guys and a videographer and all that and when he lands on the ground he’s been stabbed in the chest. So how the hell did he get stabbed in the chest, which person in the air did it? That was the original way we pitched it to Andy. Andy had a different idea, but it was too good of an idea not to use so I went with it. Also in Waking Nightmare Dr. Mark Sloan witnesses someone jump off a ledge and commit suicide and becomes obsessed with finding out why. I wrote a Spenser: for Hire where Spenser looks out the window sees a woman jump off a ledge and becomes obsessed with finding out why, which had a completely different plot. This was the original plot and those producers had a different idea, so I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind. A good writer never throws away a good idea. You just stick it in a drawer to use another time.
MFP: How did they approach you to write the first episode, you and your partner?
Lee: As I recall, my agent sent scripts that Bill and I had written for other shows to USA Network, because Monk was looking for freelance writers. USA Network read our scripts and really liked them and passed them on to Andy. I’m assuming Andy read our scripts and liked them because he said, “Next time I’m in L.A. I want to have dinner with you. Let’s get together.” So he came to L.A.. We had dinner with him and we pitched him some ideas for the show and he liked them. Then we talked about other ideas he had in the works and he liked our input on that and he said, you know, “Deal.” He got us a flown out to Summit. We spent a week out in Summit and we had a great time, just a fantastic time. It’s like the perfect show. I wish I could work on it full time, but it hasn’t worked out that way. It’s a pleasure to write.
I’m so pleased that Andy’s entrusted me with the Monk books. It’s an honor and a thrill to be able to write it and really make it my own. His sharing his creation with me is just wonderful. I feel very lucky and flattered to be trusted with it. I’d be terrified to trust somebody to write a book with my character. And I still get to write the episodes. He’s allowed me to share his creation on both levels in books and TV.
MFP Photographer: That’s true. A lot of novelists don’t get to do scripts. You just get two different worlds. Which do you like more?
Lee: They are entirely different, entirely different experiences. Writing the scripts I do with my partner William Rabkin. I do all my TV work with him. And you’re with the staff and crafting a story with Andy and his staff is so much fun. I mean, you just laugh all day long. So much stuff doesn’t get in the script that’s bandied around the room. It’s hilarious. It’s so different from all my other professional television experiences. It’s much looser, much more casual, much more fun. And with the staff there’s continuity. There’s not a big turnover like there is on other shows. So they’re very enmeshed in the show. They’re very comfortable. It’s like Andy and his friends in the club house doing a TV show and you’re invited to share in the fun. And the character is so refreshing and the situations are so refreshing, so different from the clichés of TV.
Television is very much a group effort. When you write a script it’s not locked in stone. It’s going to change. It’s going to change because Andy’s going to rewrite it. It’s going to change because production concerns force rewrites. It’s going to change because of actors and directors. It’s in fluid motion all the time. A book is entirely my own and unaffected by production concerns or actors. I’m working with Andy, but I plot it myself and I write it by myself and it’s entirely in my head and I live it for months. Whereas a script you plot it in a week and you write it in two. It’s a three week experience when you’re a freelancer. A TV show is sort of ephemeral you write it and woosssh it’s gone. Whereas a book, it lasts. You can hold it in your hand and it’s in book stores and it lasts a lot longer. There’s a tactile thing that comes from writing a book. It’s all mine. I mean, it’s Andy’s character and Andy’s world, but the book is mine. It’s a different experience.
It’s different writing prose and writing scripts. In scripts everything in the story and everything the characters do has to be shown through action and dialogue. You have to act out everything; whereas in a book, you express emotions, feelings, the past, thoughts. You can go off on asides. You can show people’s feelings by what they’re thinking. You can’t do that on TV. You know action and dialogue reveal character and intent and emotion and thought. A script is much more of a working document for a bunch of other professionals to do their work from: the wardrobe people, the set decorators, the location managers, the lighting people. The script is a working document.
MFP: More like a blueprint.
Lee: Exactly. Whereas a book is not. A book is an experience. You’re seducing the reader and bringing them into your imagination and holding them there for as long as they’re reading the book. You construct everything. You construct the sets, the wardrobe, the world. You’re God. In a script, to describe a restaurant you go:
INT- RESTAURANT- DAY.
It’s a Chinese restaurant. Monk takes one look at the live fish in the window and screams….
Whatever. In a book, you describe the restaurant. The vinyl was blue. The window was foggy. You describe everything that’s going on. You have to set the scene for the reader. It’s an entirely different skill. That’s why some novelists are terrible screen writers and why some screen writers can’t write a book. They can’t jump back and forth. I started as a novelist, so I came into it first as an author and then got very active in television and then went back to books.
MFP: But you’re not going to say which you like better?
Lee: No, they’re too different. There isn’t one I like better or worse. Although probably, if the books paid as well as television, I might just write books. Only because it allows me to be home with my family more and not have to deal with network notes and studio notes and actor notes and a lot of the aggravation that is involved with writing television.
MFP: Is there more aggravation with network people than there is with publishers?
Lee: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Everybody has an opinion in TV. You get notes from the other writers on the show. You get notes from your line producer, that’s the person in charge of the physical production of the show, telling you whether they can actually make it in seven days with three days on the standing sets and four days on location on our budget. You get notes from the wardrobe people. You get notes from your director. You get notes from the actors. You get notes from the actors’ agents. You get notes from the actors’ agents’ psychic colorists. You get notes from the guy who serves donuts on the set. You get notes from the studio. You get notes from the network. You get noted up the ying yang. As a producer your job is to take all those notes and find a balance and make everyone happy and yet still maintain your creative vision of the show. Now on Monk, I’m shielded from all that. I write my script and Andy deals with all that stuff. Andy and Tom Sharpling deal with all that. But when I’m doing Missing or Diagnosis: Murder or all the other shows I’ve done, I’m the one who has to deal with all that stuff. With a book you get notes from your editor. And that’s it. And in the case of these tie-ins, I get notes from Andy and my editor, but Andy is wonderfully happy with the books, thank God.
MFP: Why is it when they have a staff of writers that they still look for freelancers?
Lee: A couple reasons: one is required and one is just common sense. The required reason is the Writers Guild requires every TV show to give one out of 13 episodes to a freelancer. The logical reason is…. you got how many writers are there on Monk? There’s Andy, David, Daniel, Joe and Hy. There are five writers on Monk. [We forgot Tom Sharpling, that’s six.] They do 18-22 episodes a season [16 for Monk, actually]. That’s a lot of writing, a lot of stories. You can get burned out very fast. It’s great to have fresh ideas come in, fresh writers, fresh troops, a fresh perspective. On a TV show you can get very insular. It’s just the five of you and you just kind of go running around. You get very locked into one point of view and you run out of ideas. Every now and then someone comes in and it’s just a breath of fresh air to the show. It’s another attitude another point of view, another way of looking at things.
Now their idea that they come in with may not be on target. It could be 40 percent of the way there and that 40 percent is worth a fortune in creative capital to a writing staff. When we were doing Diagnosis: Murder, I was executive producer, we did 24 episodes a season and we had a staff about the size of the Monk staff. That’s a lot of writing and you have to plot a new script every week, plus you’re editing and you’re in pre-production and your music spotting. You’re dealing with a lot of other stuff that gets in the way of the creative process. When you’ve got three seasons, 75 episodes and all that, it’s hard to come up with stuff, but when you have freelancers come in and pitch they’ll give you ideas, inspiration. Their initial idea may not be that great but there may be a germ in it that allows you do go off on an idea you never would have thought of otherwise. Also when you have a good freelancer, it’s a vacation. It’s a week off, because they bring you a script that’s so good. That’s a script you didn’t have to write. So you can go home at 6 o’clock at night. You can see your family. So having a script come in and it needs a little rewrite, it’s still easier than writing a script from scratch yourself or having your staff have to do it. So I think that Monk has three or four freelancers a season and that just helps reinvigorate the show, keep it fresh and from falling into a rut, telling the same kind of mystery, the same kind of story all the time.
MFP: I’ve got a couple of questions about the episodes that you did write for the show.
Lee: Yes “Mr. Monk and the Cross Dresser,” “Mr. Monk and the Lunatic Transvestite,” “Mr. Monk and the Talking Dog.”
MFP: All of which were good episodes.
Lee: “Mr. Monk and Urinal.” These are all classic episodes.
MFP: “Mr. Monk Goes to Mexico.”
MFP: The relationship between Stottlemeyer and Monk seems to take a step forward there. Was that something you brought to it?
Lee: I brought nothing to the show by myself. I mean it’s hard for me to say who came up with what because we did our pitch with Andy in the restaurant that night and then we flew out to Summit a week or so later and then we all were in the room spitballing ideas. Everyone was contributing you know, Tom Sharpling, David Breckman, Andy, myself, Bill. No one took ownership of the ideas that would turn up on the board. Andy’s the one who often said “Yes, we’ll go with that” or “We’ll not go with that,” but it was a completely collaborative effort.
All I can say is that, it’s been a couple of years. If you’d asked me the day after I could have told you, but now so much time has passed, but I think that if you’re going to say Monk died, Stottlemeyer is going to react. When he hears the news Monk has been killed, the real emotions are going to come out. Although the show’s a comedy, at its heart is genuine emotion. We all know Stottlemeyer genuinely cares about Monk. That they really feel for one another. Despite all the aggravation Monk gives him, he loves Monk. So when he found out Monk died, of course, he’s not going to have a comedic reaction to it. So in that regard I think that was an obvious thing you had to do. You had to go to that next level of Monk and Stottlemeyer’s relationship, because you’re dealing with the fact he died if you want to believe that…. And then it ends with a joke. He crawled through the mud? He’s alive. He would never do that. [Ultimately , of course, that bit went to Sharona.] You know Stottlemeyer can’t be caught having said all that embarrassing stuff. As I recall he tells Disher, “Don’t ever breathe a word of this to Monk or I’ll kill you.” You know, it’s necessary.
MFP: That was very nice having the Stottlemeyer and Disher replacements in Mexico.
Lee: I can’t remember whose idea it was, but that was one of the very early things that came out, to have the exact…. If you notice I think there’s an episode, I can’t remember which one, where Stottlemeyer has to call a cop in Paris and the guy dresses and looks just like Stottlemeyer.
MFP: “Paperboy,” yes.
Lee: Basically every cop in the world is Stottlemeyer and every cop in the world has a Disher. In fact, we had it, if I remember right, Plato instead of Disher. Stottlemeyer we had to come up with Alameda or something. We couldn’t find a Mexican version of Stottlemeyer, but we could for Disher. So you know it’s a joke and we didn’t want it to be too subtle: we wanted people to notice they were dressed exactly the same. They’re exactly the same relationship and exactly the same kind of characters. I thought about, when I did Mr. Monk Goes to Hawaii of having a Stottlemeyer and Disher in Hawaii, but I decided not to. I just went with original characters.
MFP: In “Wedding,” there’s also a Stottlemeyer look alike.
Lee: Yeah, that gave Andy the giggles right away. I mean there was stuff that we had joked about doing that we didn’t do. I think at one point when Monk’s food and water and clothes are stolen and he’s sitting at that restaurant and he looks around and everyone is dressed like him and they’re all drinking his water. The whole town is full of thieves. Everyone’s wearing his clothes and, of course, he only has one outfit so the whole village is full of Monks drinking the sparkling water the… the…. I forgot the name of the water, oh my god.
MFP: Forgot the name of the water? Sierra Springs.
Lee: Sierra Springs. So we thought that was a little over the top.
MFP: Yeah, the Sierra Springs. Any idea whose idea that was?
Lee: That’s Andy’s.
MFP: That’s his.
Lee: Oh, to bring it. For Monk to bring all his own water, that was in our original pitch. That’s Bill and I. That Monk brings all his own food and water and that the food and water is lost and he’s dehydrating. That was us. My favorite thing in the script and I wish I could say it was my idea. I honestly don’t know whose idea it was. Instinctively, I’d think it’s probably Andy because it’s his kind of thing, but to have a summation where… in the original script it was different than it is in the final episode. Monk just says, “Joe did it! Bye!” And he leaves, so the cops and the bad guy have to run along side the car as Monk’s driving out of town to get the story. Monk is so eager to get out of there that he doesn’t want to do a summation. He just says, “He did it, bye.” But I think it was too complicated a production thing to have the whole thing happen running along side the car, so now just the very end of the summation is along side the car, but he’s still on his way out of the building. He doesn’t want to sit there and enjoy the summation. That’s Andy’s kind of humor.
MFP: The Sierra Springs is that a water that Andy drinks?
Lee: I don’t think Sierra Springs actually exists does it?
MFP: Oh, yes. Yes it does.
Lee: Oh, it does. Then it’s something Andy must have found.
MFP: So, “Mr. Monk Meets the Godfather”…?
MFP: A parody of The Godfather?
Lee: If I remember, and again, everything is a collaborative effort on Monk, if I remember correctly “Mr. Monk Meets the Godfather” was Andy’s idea. The situation of the Godfather comes to Monk and asks him for help and the gumballs. If I remember right that was Andy that had the idea and said, “Would you guys like to develop this story and write it?” And we said, “We’ll do anything.” We flew out there and plotted it with him. I think that was one of the cards he had on the board. One of the notions he already had in his hip pocket and was waiting to do. It wasn’t so much a spoof of the Godfather as it was Monk meets the world of Sopranos without trying to go into the clichés. I know that we spent so much time laughing over variations on Fat Tony who’s not fat anymore. Could he be slim Tony? No, he’s gotta be Fat Tony and all that stuff and the scene with Monk and the head of the Chinese gang there are a million different variations on that scene too. I just remember laughing so hard, plotting that with Andy. That was just one of the funnest experiences we had with Andy and the staff. “You’ve got blood on your hands.” That’s just a lot of fun. And bringing that character back, the federal agent who promises Monk to help him get reinstated. Oh, and the whole thing about the tie with the listening device and he washes the tie. It’s just we had so much fun plotting that and again I wish I could take credit for everything.
MFP: Oh, and all the places they could put the bug.
Lee: Yeah, “even if I die” that was Andy. That I can tell you was Andy. We were talking about it, you know, and Andy did that riff right there: “number two, is that humanly possible? Number three, even if I’m dead, don’t do that.” I just took notes. That one was just… that was pure Andy. Off the cuff, right there in the room. I mean he flies out with that stuff all the time. Maybe two out of the ten jokes that he throws out are actually used in the episode, because they’re too ribald or they don’t quite fit, or we decide they’re too silly, or too jokey, or betray the Monk character, or make him too cartoony. You explore all those other avenues and it’s a horrible lot of fun doing it.
So before I start each Monk book I do ask Andy, “Is there some idea on the board that’s just too expensive, you know, Monk and the Ocean Liner or whatever, that you couldn’t do for whatever reason. I could do it in the book.” And he has some of those. There are a couple we talked about, that I may do. In fact, in Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse, there are elements in that which were from an idea that he didn’t ever go anywhere with, you know, a notion that he had.
MFP: How close were you to the production during Godfather?
Lee: I was nowhere near the production on either episode. At the time I was doing those Monks I was out…. Well, the first Monk episode I did we hadn’t started work on Missing yet and by the time it was shot we were in Toronto executive producing Missing. Then when the first season of Missing was over, during the hiatus, we did “Mr. Monk and the Godfather.” Then I was back in Toronto doing the second season of Missing.
So I’ve never been on the Monk set and to be honest with you, because I’m in television, it wouldn’t be that big of a thrill for me. I will meet Tony and the cast, but it’s not something I really need to do or am anxious to do, because to me it’s just like going to a warehouse and seeing the production line. It’s doesn’t have the thrill it would have for you as a fan or for a viewer. I would be bored after just a few minutes. Really I have nothing to say except “Hey, I love your work.”
I’m looking forward to meeting them, Traylor and Tony and the rest of the cast for the books. I think when the books come out I’ll bring a box of them down to the set and hand them out to people. I’ll tell them that I’ve been able to extend Monk into a different arena and how much inspiration I get from their good work.
Really I’d just be in the way going to the show. Also I’m not on the show, so I’d have no purpose on the set except to stand there and eat food. If you’re not a producer on the show there’s really nothing to do. I have no authority. I have no input. There’s no reason. My work’s done and I’d just be in the way.
It was weird because they were actually shooting a block away from my house an episode the one with Jason Alexander [“Mr. Monk and the Detective.”] The scene, which is supposed to be at a San Francisco Jewelry store, is the Calabasas Commons right at the base of my gated community. So I thought about stopping by and saying hello, saying, “Hey I’m Lee. I wrote episodes for show.” But what am I going to do try to break through the crowd and go through the security guard? For what? But, yeah, they were shooting right next to my house. Had I seen a familiar face, had I seen one of the writers on the show, then I would have gone over there, but when I happened to see them shooting I didn’t see anybody I knew.
MFP: There usually is one of the staff writers there, right?
Lee: Yeah, but he may not have been there yet that day or he may have been out somewhere else. If he was there I didn’t see him. You know, I saw them shooting, I saw it was Monk, but I didn’t…. I just thought it was kind of ironic, though, that I’ve worked on the show and it was shooting right next to my house.
MFP: You’ve written for both the Sharona and Natalie characters now, what’s the difference between them.
Lee: A whole different attitude. Sharona’s more abrasive, louder, more aggressive. Natalie is more, I think, affectionate and understanding towards Monk, not as loud, not as aggressive, warmer. Sharona was much more street, much more working class, I think Natalie, because she comes from money, is a little more suburban, a little more grounded, a little more educated. She’s a different character. I relate better to Natalie than I do to Sharona. Sharona’s New Jersey, street, you know, tough and in your face. Natalie’s not, but Natalie’s confident. She’s a strong single mother, a different personality, softer, but has some of the same strength that Sharona had. She can take care of herself and she’s probably a lot more knowing about men. By that I mean Sharona could get fooled pretty easy by guys. I mean she was a sap when it came to guys. She fell for some of the dumbest guys, you know, mobsters. Natalie is a lot more cautious about getting involved with men and she sees through BS a lot easier than Sharona did. Very different characters. To be honest , for the books, I’m glad I deal with Natalie and not Sharona. I think Natalie’s an easier person, being a suburban middle class guy myself, it’s easier crawling into her head than Sharona’s for the voice in the book. I think for a book Sharona’s voice would be grating, it would become irritating. I think Natalie is more sympathetic and warmer in a book, if you are going to be in her point of view, than Sharona would be. I don’t know if I’m right about that. I’ll never know.
MFP: So do you see in the Monk/Natalie relationship any seeds of romance? Or is that something they’re not…
Lee: No. They’re not. No, never going there. Certainly not going there in the books. I don’t think Andy has any intention of going there in the series either. I don’t think he did with Sharona either.
MFP: So some fans just tend to see that when it isn’t really there?
Lee: Well, Natalie is affectionate. Sharona never was. Natalie will hug Monk, she’ll kiss him, she’ll caress him. She’ll take his hand. She treats him like a loving brother. Not as… you know, he’s still Mr. Monk, she still refers to him as Mr. Monk, but she has an enormous amount of tenderness towards him that Sharona may have kind of hidden under abrasiveness. But it’s not sexual and it’s not romantic. I still believe that Natalie’s grown to love Monk, but as you love an irritating brother or a step sibling.
The tape cuts off
[But Lee is so fascinating I fail to notice for at least ten minutes, until Seth finally points it out. Below is my possibly inaccurate memory of the questions aided by Lee emailing me new answers. I just want to mention at this point, that whenever Lee talks about Natalie he gets a warm tone in his voice. It’s obvious that he does feel a connection to the character.]
MFP: What did you think of the way Sharona was written out of the show?
Lee: Basically, I said that I thought Andy handled it as well as he could given what must have been very short notice. You do what you have to do when you’re in production. I’m sure he didn’t have the time, the resources, or the actress to write and produce the perfect “Sharona send-off” episode the way, say, MacLean Stevenson or Shelley Long were written out of their shows. It’s a shame, but that’s the way things go in TV.
[In the course of discussing how production concerns can cause an episode to deviate from it’s original concept. Lee mentioned that in “Godfather,” Sharona was not in the scene outside the restaurant (which begins with Monk talking to his hands) as originally written, for whatever reason and the scene had to go on without her.]
Lee: As far as GODFATHER goes, I was just giving an example of production concerns. I have no idea why the actress wasn’t available to shoot that scene outside the restaurant — food poisoning, the flu, a death in the family, a traffic jam on the 405, a bee sting on her schnoz, whatever — but the show must go on.
MFP: I asked, what was the most stressful part of being a television writer?
[What I remember of the answer: Notes. Time and budget constraints.]
Lee: That’s the gist of it. You have to write within tremendous limitations: the budget, the shooting schedule, etc. You also get notes from everybody and their third cousin twice removed. It’s not easy. It’s amazing that so much great stuff — like what Andy and the staff are doing with MONK — gets made under those restrictions.
MFP: But it’s worth it?
Lee: Hell, yes. As frustrating and aggravating and soul-crushing as working in TV can be, it’s also an extraordinary amount of fun. There’s also a God-like sense of power. You write: “a car speeds out of control and slams into a gas station. The entire gas station explodes in a fireball” And somebody actually goes out, drives a car into a gas station, and blows it up. It doesn’t get much better than that.
MFP: Is being a TV writer what you’ve always wanted to do?
Lee: I am doing exactly what I always dreamed of doing. I still can’t believe I pulled it off. I am the luckiest person I know.
MFP: Just a couple more. How much time do we have? Only ten minutes, huh?
Lee: Like I say, if you find out all the good stuff is missing and you want to ask me again, don’t be embarrassed at all.
MFP: I’ve got the questions here and if anything is missing I’ll let you know.
MFP Photographer: She’ll make it up.
MFP: The Man with the Iron on Badge, your new novel, is that going to be a TV series or are you keeping that to yourself?
Lee: Don’t know. We’re out there shopping it around.
MFP: You’re pitching it?
Lee: We’re out there pitching it. It’s about a guy that learned everything he knows about being a detective from watching shows like Spenser: for Hire, Mannix and Rockford Files and discovers that reality is very different from the fiction and that everything he learned is wrong. It’s sort of a comedy, but it stops being funny pretty fast when he has to deal with reality.
MFP: Is he you?
Lee: In a way. In reality when you get knocked unconscious it’s not like a nap. You don’t wake up and get in another fist fight and have sex with women. You’re knocked out. You lose control of your bladder and your bowels, you see double and then you’re on medication. You’ve got a concussion for god’s sake. I deal with the reality of what happens in this book. In private eye books and movies and TV shows the detective always has a quick quip, has a friend on the force, is supremely self confident, great with his fists. Well, that’s not reality. And this hero’s not great with his fists and he doesn’t have a quick quip and the sex is bad. He finds out there aren’t any women falling at his feet. In TV shows and movies and books, a detective’s in a car chase and he sideswipes 17 cars chasing the bad guy. He runs through an intersection and there’s a collision and then he dives through the front window of Nordstroms and catches the bad guy and everyone goes, “Great job, Spenser!” But in reality all those cars he sideswiped, those owners will come after him for the damages. The people who are injured in the intersection will sue his ass. The police would cite him for reckless driving. His insurance company would dump him. Nordstroms would sue him. It’s like dealing with the reality as opposed to the fiction. That’s what The Man with the Iron On Badge is about.
MFP: Okay. And just another question. This one’s from Seth.
MFP Photographer: Oh, no, no don’t. I was just kidding.
MFP: Okay, are you sure you don’t want to ask if Dick Van Dyke ever told him anything about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
MFP Photographer: I can’t believe you asked that.
Lee: He never said anything about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but my daughter was watching Mary Poppins and loving it, so I said how would you like to meet Bert the chimney sweep? And she said “Oh yeah, yeah!” So we go down to the set and I say, “Dick would you mind if I bring my daughter down to meet you?” And he said “Oh no, bring her down.” She’s like four of five. So she comes down. She doesn’t recognize him! So Dick does the entire “Chim Chim Cheree” song and dance for my daughter, but there’s not even a spark of recognition. Now I’ve worked with Dick for years and he was just that guy I worked with, but at that moment I got a chill. Oh my god! I’ve been working with Dick Van Dyke! How come nobody told me. And he’s doing that whole da da da da chim chim cheree and my daughter’s hiding behind me terrified. I’m asking does anyone around here have a camcorder. It’s amazing. He’s doing the whole thing. It was great moment, but she didn’t recognize him. But it was the moment when I thought, Oh my god, I’m working with Dick Van Dyke!
MFP Photographer: It’s nice to see an actor step into the character. A lot of them won’t do that.
Lee: He was great. He was a wonderful guy to work with.
MFP: Who was your favorite actor that you’ve ever worked with.
Lee: Dick Van Dyke.
MFP: Your least favorite?
Lee: I won’t talk about my least favorite. And Vivica Fox is also fantastic, is also terrific to work with. The rest I’ll leave that to you to figure out. I’ve never worked with Tony Shalhoub, but I hear he’s wonderful. Andy and the staff speak so highly of him. So I’m looking forward to meeting him.