A Man of Many Phobias

September 2, 2013

I am often asked what it was like to write about a character who had so many quirks, so many phobias.

The initial idea for the series “Monk” came from the film producer David Hoberman who had just seen “As Good as it Gets” in which Jack Nicholson plays an unpleasant – some might say nasty – author dealing with his OCD.  David’s thought on exiting the theater was, “What if this character were a police detective?  Would that make a good TV show?”

He handed that simple, broad notion to Andy Breckman, who proceeded to create Adrian Monk in all his complexity and humor.  So many things could have gone differently.  The show could have become grittier.  Monk could have been more unlikeable and less helpless, like the Hugh Laurie character in “House”.  And we might not have found a great actor like Tony Shalhoub to interpret and reinvent the role.

But from the beginning, OCD was what defined the lead character.  It’s what fans mention first and foremost, not Monk’s brilliant mind or his infuriating self-centered nature.  The OCD is what gave the show its unique slant and its humanity.

Of course, writing for this character wasn’t always easy.  In nearly every scene, Monk had to do something phobic, even when the scene wasn’t about that.  Sometimes we succeeded; sometimes we failed.  In an early courtroom scene, Monk was shown combing the fringe on the U.S. flag by the judge’s bench.  It had read well in the script but looked a little awkward and forced on camera.

In other cases, we had terrific bits that had to be cut for time issues.  In one scene I remember Monk using a paper towel to lift the garbage can lid and throw something out.  But then he was stuck with a dirty paper towel.  So he had to grab another towel to lift the lid and throw out the first paper towel, sticking him with a second dirty towel and a closed garbage lid.  That continued four or five times until Natalie stopped him.  It was all cut so that we could get back to the story.

Tony had a great memory for all of the OCD bits and would call us up if the scripts repeated them too often.  “Monk tried to avoid sidewalk cracks in an episode last season.  Can we give him something else this time?”  We would try pointing out that part of OCD was repeating one’s behavior over and over.  But Tony insisted that we come up with new stuff.  And he was right.  A real depiction of OCD probably would have been boring.

A lot of fans also ask about our medical research.  The symptoms seemed so real.  Did we look into OCD behavior before writing the show?  The answer would be “no.”  We wrote what we thought would be funny or touching and we left it to Tony to make it feel real.  As for medical treatments, those we often ignored.  I have a friend with OCD and she mentioned putting a rubber band around her wrist and snapping it whenever she found herself getting into repetitive behavior, just to break the cycle.  I personally thought this would make a funny bit, with Monk finally obsessing about snapping the rubber band, over and over again.  But Andy and Tony both nixed the idea.  (A) They didn’t want anything that might hint at an effective treatment.  And (B) Monk’s phobias are funnier when they wind up not being his problem but everybody else’s problem.

Years after the show ended – last year to be exact – when I took over the job of putting Monk on the printed page, it was like revisiting old friends.  The plots came from my binder of old ideas that never got on the air.  The voices were familiar, as if they’d never left my head.  And the banter back and forth between Monk and Natalie was second nature.  And so much fun.

But the phobias and the OCD presented new challenges. Take Monk’s repetitive behavior.  In the writers’ room, we had a rule.  “Repeat something twice and it’s funny.  Repeat it five times, it’s not.  Repeat it eight times and it starts getting funny again.”  Well, that may work on the screen, but just try doing it with words alone.

I was faced with this dilemma now: how to depict Monk’s OCD in print, without making him too annoying or repetitive, and without the help of Tony Shalhoub.

Part of my solution was to substitute Natalie’s eyes for the TV viewer’s eyes.  In some ways, it’s like a tree falling in the woods.  The tree, for the sake of this argument, only makes a sound if there’s someone to hear it.  And Monk’s phobic behavior is only meaningful if there’s someone to see it and be annoyed.

That simple realization added some nuance to Natalie’s character.  She has to comment on Monk’s OCD now, not just forgive it or take it for granted.  She couldn’t just report it but had to make it relevant to her.  For example, in my second book of the series, “Mr. Monk Gets Onboard”, Natalie watches from a distance as Monk tries to rearrange the deck chairs on a cruise ship, making them all line up perfectly.  The only problem is that people are still lying on them and don’t want to move.  Natalie doesn’t go down to help but stands there, umbrella drink in hand, giving a blow by blow description and comparing it to a kind of theater. At the end she says:

“I know I should have gone down and joined the performance. But I didn’t. I would have just gotten in the way. To be honest, I didn’t even stay until the finale. I’d seen it before, performed all over the world with larger casts and more exciting sets—not that I have anything against theater on cruise ships. But the original San Francisco production is always better.”

A diehard fan might object to this kind of thinking coming from our sweet, long-suffering Natalie.  But somehow it works for me.  It makes me chuckle.  And at the end of the day, a writer writes for himself — like a tree falling alone in the woods.