Wednesday, May 22, 2019

EP124: In defense of Multi-Camera Shows


Multi-camera shows shot in front of a studio audience are much maligned, unfairly so.  99% of our classic sitcoms are multi-camera.  Ken explains what it takes to do a good one and why many fall short.  If you’re a fan of TV comedy this is the episode for you.


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Hey, what's playing at the sex-oplex?

A movie complex in Switzerland just unveiled its new theatre -- all double beds.

Here's the article.

Couples will be able to snuggle together.  And to prevent them from falling asleep there are special headphones.  Yeah, like sleep is the problem.

I'm sure your first thought when you read this was mine.  And everybody's.

You're going to have a theatre full of couples having sex.  Even if they show THE SOUND OF MUSIC. 

Now the theatre insists this won't happen.  Apparently they tested this concept elsewhere and no babies are on the way.    Yeah, and Drive-In theatres never had the same problem. 

Who are they kidding?  The concession stand will sell more Plan B's than popcorn.

Especially in this day and age when couples cheerfully take videos of themselves engaging in sexual activities and uploading them to the internet, what are they gonna care that the couple two feet away can see them boinking their brains out?   That other couple is probably just taking a smoke break.   

"Hey, quit that yodeling you two!"

And this generation is used to multi-tasking. 

I would love to see my movie VOLUNTEERS under such circumstances.  For once I wouldn't take it personally if people weren't laughing.

The theatre says they will change the sheets between every showing.  Every week they better change the springs too.

Not since people eat sushi off of naked girls has there been such an inspiring idea.

Watching a first-run film in bed in public -- it's the perfect date movie. Third date actually. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The upcoming live ALL IN THE FAMILY/JEFFERSONS episodes

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole post:

Ben asked:

Ken, what do you think of Jimmy Kimmel producing a live airing of All in the Family and Jeffersons episodes (with Norman Lear's blessing) on May 22? Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei as Archie and Edith, Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes as George and Louise.

Well, first of all it’s a ratings stunt, pure and simple. Which is fine if it’s good.

I’m also not sure why it has to be live but that certainly adds a level of suspense and intrigue to the project. Will it come off without a hitch? If there’s a screw up, what will it be? I’m not a NASCAR fan but is that one of its big attractions? Possible crashes? To me the only read advantage of going live is that ALL IN THE FAMILY could be topical up to the moment.

But what’s interesting is this: ALL IN THE FAMILY was a show very much set in its time. Archie Bunker was a bigot and short-sighted, but underneath that was a frightened man who was set in his ways and terrified that the world was changing around him and he couldn’t reconcile it. Will they be doing a vintage script and make ALL IN THE FAMILY a period piece? If not, then I assume Archie just becomes a big Trump supporter and if so I have zero empathy for him. I won’t find him remotely funny. Frankly, I haven’t read enough about the details to know how they plan to tackle this.

To me the one thing they have going for them is that James Burrows is directing it. He’s the best multi-cam director in history, he’s done live shows before (WILL & GRACE), and if anybody can pull this off with flair and intelligence it’s Jimmy. So I’ll be watching (unless Archie dons a MAGA hat).

As for the new casts, remember a huge portion of the audience will be seeing these classic series for the first time. To those of us familiar with these iconic series it seems impossible to think of anyone other than Carroll O’Connor and Sherman Hemsley in the title roles, but who knows? Woody & Jamie are great.  So is Wanda Sykes.  I have my reservations about Marisa Tomei as Edith but willing to give it a shot. 

Currently, I have a one act play in the EST One Act Festival at the Atwater Theatre. It plays this weekend and then closes so come see it. The play is a two-hander. The two actors are sensational and great together. Well, one of the actors has a commitment to do a project back east and has had to leave the play. We knew this going in. So another actor is stepping in and it’s fascinating. He’s very different from the first but equally terrific and it gives the play a little different spin. He brings different qualities to the same script. There’s still great chemistry but it’s a different chemistry.

So a new Archie or a new George Jefferson might be fun. I’m sure there will be many who just can’t get over seeing new actors play these roles, but I’m willing to give ‘em a try.  Also, for me, Woody Harrelson can do no wrong. 

As a result, I go into this endeavor with curiosity. There are lots of questions – how good will the scripts be? If they use vintage scripts will THE JEFFERSONS use the one David Isaacs and I wrote?  Will the new actors pull it off? Will I have to turn it off if Archie defends Kavanaugh? Will it fly on its own or will all the gimmicks like airing live be necessary? What will the ratings be? The irony is it airs on a night I’m in an improv workshop so I won’t be watching it live. But I wish everyone involved good luck and offer that you couldn’t be in better hands than with Jimmy Burrows.

Monday, May 20, 2019

It all ended with a medium size bang

Network television ratings continue to plummet. A glaring example was the audience for the final BIG BANG THEORY. They drew 18 million viewers and for that CBS was turning cartwheels. I’m sorry. That’s a low number. You could argue there are way more options today, yada yada, but this is a show that has been on the air for twelve years. And is seen in syndication on numerous stations and is available for streaming. Over twelve years it should have accumulated enough fans that for its grand finale it received eye-popping numbers.

But then that speaks to network numbers in general. When only ten million viewers are watching a week then eighteen is a big jump. But ten million is really not a lot – not compared to what shows used to get. So sure if a series got 30 million viewers a week you could expect a whopping finale number. Still, twelve years. That’s a long time for people to discover and fall in love with a show.

What I’d be interested in knowing is whether the same number of viewers knew of and at one time watched both THE BIG BANG THEORY and for argument’s sake, FRIENDS. If so, shouldn’t THE BIG BANG THEORY still get FRIENDS-type finale numbers?

THE BIG BANG THEORY could also be a victim of series finale-itis. So many series have wrapped up that it’s less of a big deal today. Series finales used to be “events.” Today not so much. Hell, the Academy Awards are meh and World Series games are getting half of what they used to draw (or less). So it’s possible THE BIG BANG THEORY does have as many fans as FRIENDS it just that the BBT fans weren’t all that excited to see the finale.

All that said, I thought THE BIG BANG THEORY finale was well done. Nice touches like the elevator finally worked.

Anyway, to compare THE BIG BANG THEORY’S 18 million viewers, here are the Top 10 scripted shows – and yes, I realize some of these are from a bygone era of just three networks, but just on sheer strength of numbers, other finales made way more of an impact.

First of course was MASH. 106 million viewers. The entire country stopped to watch that show back in 1983.

Number two is CHEERS. We drew 80.4 million in 1993 and that too was like a national holiday. Not included in those numbers was the huge crowd in the Boston Common that watched on Jumbovision screens.

Number three was THE FUGITIVE finale from 1967. For years that was the highest rated show of all-time – scripted, non-scripted, whatever. It drew 78 million. And the big story there is that ABC didn’t want a conclusion to the series but its producer, QUINN MARTIN felt it was so important he was willing to pay for it himself.

Next is the SEINFELD finale in 1998. For most fans, myself included, it really fizzled. But it was seen by 76.3 million.

And speaking of FRIENDS, they finished fifth. 52.5 million watched in 2004. That’s almost three times TBB’s ratings.

Number six surprised me – MAGNUN PI.I in 1988. 50.7 million folks checked in.

THE COSBY SHOW was number seven. 44.4 million, which is probably how much money he’s spent on legal fees over the last four or five years.

That’s followed by ALL IN THE FAMILY – 40.2 million in 1979 although Archie Bunker went on to a spin-off series.

FAMILY TIES was ninth in 1989. That’s another one that surprised me. 36.3 million were on hand for that.

And finally, HOME IMPROVEMENT captured 34.4 million in 1999.

Shows that didn’t make the Top Ten include FRASIER (#11), DALLAS (#12) and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (#15). And I’m sure they all drew way more than 18 million.

Bottom line, when long-running beloved shows don’t draw mega numbers that’s a sure sign that broadcast networks are on their way out. Their argument has always been they’re the easiest platform to access and all they need to get big numbers is a show people really want to watch. You’d think they’d want to see THE BIG BANG THEORY.

UPDATE:  The GAME OF THRONES finale, which is on HBO that only a percentage of the audience can get drew 19.3 million last night.  Just sayin'.  

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Weekend Post

Congratulations to everyone involved in THE BIG BANG THEORY, which ended its 12 year run this week with a nice send off.  That's quite an accomplishment, especially in this day and age where a series can be in year 6 and only have 36 episodes.

There were a number of articles about the show this week.  Some tributes and some analysis.   I, of course find the analysis amusing.  How much was the appeal due to geek-related references?  Was its throwback multi-camera style a help or hindrance?   Were the addition of two women characters responsible for its ultimate ratings climb?  

Here's why THE BIG BANG THEORY was popular:

It was FUNNY.

It had actual JOKES.

It was a comedy that strove to make you LAUGH.

It wasn't niche, it wasn't dark, it wasn't redefining television.

People tune in a comedy because they want to laugh.  THE BIG BANG THEORY delivered.  They weren't aiming at smiles, or wry nods of the head.  They sought to entertain.

Was it a perfect show?  No.  The stories were often paper-thin and not all jokes worked despite the audience's orgasmic reaction to each one.  But a lot of jokes DID work.  And the cast was terrific.  The sets were pleasant to look at.  The pace was brisk.    Personally, I thought the jokes were better and sharper earlier in the run, but they were also fresher. All long running series suffer from recycling material.

But Chuck Lorre assembled a funny cast and a room of very funny writers.

That formula seems like a no-brainer but no one else seems to be doing it.  Either the cast is attractive but not funny or the writing doesn't really pop.   And again, when I hear showrunners proudly claim they don't write jokes to me what they're saying is they CAN'T write jokes.

So congratulations to THE BIG BANG THEORY.  Scientists will tell you that sometimes the most obvious solutions are the ones right in front of us. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions, shall we?

Marcus starts us off:

Did Crystal Bernard actually play the cello on Wings? If so, did she learn it for the show or know how to beforehand?

No, she didn’t play the cello. But she was a terrific singer and I think had some hit songs on the country charts. She also starred on Broadway in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN at one time. Crystal is immensely talented but alas not a cellist.

B Smith wonders:

I was watching an episode of MASH last night (for the zillionth time) and as those two choppers came in during the opening titles, it occurred to me that there had never been an episode that actually featured two helicopters. Presumably the expense dictated just using one, but am I right?

We might have used some stock footage of two helicopters if there was a big triage, but we never landed two choppers on that chopper pad. Certainly the expense was a factor, but also if we had to land two helicopters we could use stock footage and cut to when they landed and establish through camera angles and different people on the choppers.

One other factor: When we went out to the ranch to film the exteriors we would get one day per episode. And we would shoot 8 ½ pages. Trust me, that’s an insane amount for one day. So the less complicated we could make things for everybody, the better. One helicopter more than sufficed on most occasions.

From Breadbaker:

I was watching Cheers, Season 1, Episode 7, Friends, Romans, Accountants, an episode written by you and David, of course. In the episode, the bar was filled with accountants as extras, nearly all of whom never said a word. At the end of the episode, when they're hoisting Norm for having told off the boss, the band is playing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow", but no one is singing, which honestly feels unnatural. Was this because if the extras opened their mouths they'd be paid more and that would blow the budget? I imagine in Season One of Cheers, it was difficult enough to get that many extras into an episode, as the show was hardly a hit.

Here’s why: That wasn’t supposed to be the ending. Norm’s toga was supposed to catch on the door as they hoisted him out and it would remain as he went up the stairs supposedly naked. But we couldn’t get the trick to work. So what you saw and heard was a patched together ending. We added the band playing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in post production. There’s even a stock shot of Boston at night to kill a few seconds and button the scene.

Some things work, some things don’t.

That’s Baseball, Suzyn.

And finally, from Vincent Saia:

When (Robert Pirosh) and George Seaton were working on A DAY AT THE RACES they took the script out and performed it a theater in front of live audiences, as was A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (which Pirosh and Seaton wrote an early non-used draft for). Monty Python also did that with their sketches. Would you like to see that done for comedy movies and sitcoms?

Multi-camera sitcoms essentially do that, performing in front of a live studio audience.

Here’s the problem with movies: you want your movie to be visual, to take advantage of locations, and perhaps have scenes with large crowds. You can’t really recreate that in a theatre.

There often is a rehearsal period before a movie is shot, but that usually just involves the director and actors.

Monty Python primarily did sketches so it was easy to include them in their stage act. Unless your comedy is just a string of set pieces I don’t think a theatre audience would be of much help.

But what they do do in movies is test screenings – see what the audience thinks after they see the film. And often the film will be re-edited or even new scenes shot based on the audience feedback.

What’s your Friday Question? Please leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

EP123: Open Letter to Ungrateful TV Actors


In light of Constance Wu’s public disdain of FRESH OFF THE BOAT’S pick-up, Ken puts into perspective what a gift it is to be on a hit series and the reality of network television casting. It’s an eye-opener. 


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RIP Tim Conway

No one could make me laugh like Tim Conway.   I'm sure Harvey Korman felt the same.

Tim passed away yesterday at the age of 85.  He had been in ill health his last several years.   I first discovered Tim Conway on McHALE'S NAVY, a sitcom in the early '60s.   He was a standout in that show that contained lots of funny people including Joe Flynn, Carl Ballantine, Bob Hastings, and Gavin MacLoud. 

But Tim's real claim to fame was THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, a variety series on CBS in the '70s.  He was part of the ensemble. 

As I mentioned, he could always break up fellow cast member, Harvey Korman.  Traditionally, there were two tapings of THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW for two different audiences.  Conway would stick to the script for the first.  But once he knew he had the as-written version in the can he would often stray from the script for the second taping, primarily to get Korman to break.   Case in point is the following sketch.  

This is my favorite sketch of all-time.  I pick it up in the middle when it really starts really getting good.  Conway is a new dentist.  His first patient is Harvey Korman.  If you're not laughing after this there's something seriously wrong with you. 

RIP Tim Conway.  You were brilliant and hilarious. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"That's Baseball, Suzyn."

I love when everyday expressions slowly make their way into the lexicon. One that has crept in lately is an expression that originated in baseball. A number of expressions we now use started in our National Pastime.

Example: Some who is left-handed is called a “Southpaw.” That comes from baseball. The way baseball stadiums are configured to avoid the sun being in the batter’s eye, the batter faces east and a left-handed pitcher’s pitching arm is on his south side. Amaze your friends with that nugget.

The New York Yankees have a very unique radio broadcast team. Veteran John Sterling does all the play-by-play and his analyst is longtime Yankees reporter Suzyn Waldman. John is quite a character. He’s now in his 80’s and calls every pitch of every inning. His eyesight isn’t what it used to be, but his broadcasts are always colorful and opinionated. He drives a lot of people crazy but his ratings are still through the roof. And in this day and age of young generic cookie-cutter boring uninteresting announcers, he’s a throwback and breath of fresh air. I’m sure I’ll get lots of comments today, yay and nay.

But anytime something wacky happens on the field (which is almost every day) and it’s something you can’t easily explain (like why a guy who never hits home runs suddenly hits three in one game) he will always say…

THAT’S BASEBALL, SUZYN.

He’s said it enough now that it’s become somewhat of a trademark. I’ve seen people wearing T-shirts that say THAT’S BASEBALL, SUZYN. And now I’m starting to hear it outside the circle of baseball.

Now I’m hearing people use it to explain anything that doesn’t have a clear logical explanation. Fox benching one of its highest rated shows, LAST MAN STANDING – THAT’S BASEBALL SUZYN. Anyone in the world gives a shit about Kim Kardashian – THAT’S BASEBALL SUZYN.

Watch. I bet within a week you’ll have occasion to use it too.