Thursday, February 14, 2008

What is a Creative Consultant?

A reader wanted to know just what it meant to be a “Creative Consultant” on FRASIER. First of all, these titles are arbitrary and completely made-up. They can mean anything and nothing. For my responsibilities on FRASIER I could just as easily have been called “Teleplay Consultant”, “Script Captain”, “Producer for a Day”, “Supervising Shecky”, or “Power Forward”. In the theatre the job was called “Play Doctor”.

Essentially you come in one night a week and help to rewrite the script currently in production. You attend the runthrough and go back to the room and help fix the show. Primarily it’s punching-up the jokes but it can also be story help too. Often times the staff can get too close to a story and it helps to have a pair of virgin eyes. Even mine.

In this day and age of tightening budgets, “creative consultants” are a luxury most shows can no longer afford. It’s too bad. A good consultant can not only contribute to the script but also provide a welcome boost to the rest of the weary staff. Another screen credit could be "Part-time Buddy Sorrell".

I’ve done that job on many series including CHEERS, FRASIER, BECKER, WINGS, SIBS, MAMA’S BOY, IT’S ALL RELATIVE, LATELINE, and countless pilots. It can be great fun but also long hours. And when you’re working on two or three shows a week, and each rewrite goes until 3 AM your life become the Night of the Living Dead by Thanksgiving. Jerry Belson, one of the funniest punch-up guys EVER, worked on two shows a week at one time. LOVE SIDNEY on Monday and CHEERS on Wednesday. Except LOVE SIDNEY was in New York. Jerry would commute back and forth every week.

I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the finest “Creative Consultants”. In addition to Jerry Belson, there’s David Lloyd (the Noel Coward of television) and the all-time king of this field – Bob Ellison (pictured).

I marvel at Bob Ellison. The man is just a machine. He can come up with more jokes and BETTER jokes faster and more plentiful than anyone I’ve ever met. Most writers look for any excuse to get out of the room for a short a break. They’ll call their agent, use the bathroom, make some coffee, agree to a root canal if it’ll buy them an extra four minutes. Not Bob. He’ll sit down at 4:00 and not move until 2:00 AM. And during that time he’ll pitch great joke after joke. Bob can come up with more quality material in one night than most accomplished comedy writers can deliver in a year. And for twenty years Bob worked on as many as four shows a week. How he does this and remains so sharp and funny and consistent – night after night after night -- I will never know.

An example of Bob (and there are literally millions): There's a writer who always wore black. Bob crossed paths with him while walking across the Paramount lot and noticed he was wearing a white shirt that day. Without missing a beat Bob asked, "Who died?"

Like I said Bob Ellison is the King. Maybe that’s the screen credit he should be given. “King of Comedy” or even “Executive King of Comedy” if they want to spruce it up.

23 comments:

barefootbilly said...

Convince Bob to do a blog!

Carlo Conda said...

"Often times the staff can get too close to a story and it helps to have a pair of virgin eyes."

Ken, you can stop hinting at your obvious virginism. We know, Ken, we know.
You can come right out and tell us you were the 'Creative Consultant' for "40 Year-Old Virgin".

Ken Levine said...

Try explaining that to my kids.

Bitter Animator said...

Thanks, Mr.L! I really appreciate the explanation. I wasn't sure what it was at all and thought it may have been a general courtesy title for your input in the show at the beginning perhaps until I noticed an episode that had your partner listed but not you and then I realised it was episode specific and probably an important job.

Thanks for clarifying it!

Anonymous said...

Supervising Shecky” sounds like the title of the next Ben Stiller movie. Oh, and the last time I “Played Doctor" I got in a lot of trouble...

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, interesting that you write on this topic today. Your post of Feb. 4 got me wondering about whatever happened to Ronnie Graham, who was always listed on the M*A*S*H credits as Creative Consultant. The few times I saw him on the TONIGHT show, the guy seemed to be as funny and as far out as anyone I'd ever seen... Wonder if you have any memories or stories about him?

A. Buck Short said...

Y’know where they have great script consultants? Virgin Eyelands. Sorry. Yuckapuck.

Wasn’t the real Buddy Sorrell, Morey Amsterdam, supposed to be the man of 100,000 jokes? Throw out a topic, he gives you a joke? Now I understand. Remember 100,000 jokes and it stands to reason 99,842 of them might not kill like you thought?

Ken, as long as we're throwing out future topics without the courtesy of waiting for a segue, this has always bothered me. Why the hell hasn’t somebody figured out a workable way to lose that annoying 555 in those TV and movie phone numbers?

I know why they do it, and like everything else, I’m guessing it must have started with a lawsuit. But it so consistently, and I think unnecessarily, kills that suspension of disbelief that you’d think somebody would be able to buy up about 3 dozen actual phone numbers (with 3 dozen different prefixes) in perpetuity. Then keep re-renting them to productions in rotation, so you wouldn’t have one prefix sticking in a viewer’s mind so readily.

Sure phone numbers are in short supply, but would 36 fewer cripple Ma Bell -- for art's sake? Doesn't the FCC sequester entire band width's for garage door openers? Why can't they just habeas a few more phone numbers?

I’m sure it is a bigger albatross around drama than comedy, but what do you think about this issue?

John said...

Now that you can have entire seasons of shows in one place at a time through the magic of DVD, its interesting to note on some shows the rotating names of writers receiving various credits at any time during a single season (I just picked up Season 3 of "The Odd Couple" and Belson's name is prominent as a creative consultant -- but so are about a half-dozen other writers with various titles, and some more who were only credited for a show or two).

Diogo said...

Well, there are shows like 24 where they use real phone numbers, that are connected on the set. And I seem to recall Prison break using a real one. They sometimes cover for it by saying KL5, which is the same as 555. But you are right, it is boring and it completely ruins the whole thing.

Doug Walsh said...

I remember the 555 bit being something I would actually wtch for when I was a kid because I thought it was the coolest thing. Silly fake phone numbers, Ha! It would crack me up. Just like I used to actually care about the NFL Pro Bowl -- "Dad, dad, look at all the different helmets!" -- and we all know that didn't age well.

maven said...

Ken, I second everything you say about Bob Ellison. I worked with him on the last season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and besides being very funny, he was the nicest and most polite person and wonderful to work with. He was friends with my dad, too.

Paul Duca said...

Interesting that we are getting into the KLondike 5/555 argument. That reminds me of something I saw several years ago on TV Land. One day they were running a MARCUS WELBY episode that opened with a woman going into a house that was for sale, as there was a sign in front of it with a phone number. However, the number had been electronically blurred out on screen. Apparently, they used a number on that fake sign that was also not real circa 1970, when the show was made, but not by the time I saw the program.

Janis said...

I was a writers' assistant for several years and I remember Bob Ellison sitting in one day to 'consult' on an otherwise forgettable pilot. I can't remember what the joke was, but he added just ONE LETTER and turned a dud into a great line. Genius!

A few years earlier he consulted on the first series I worked on and I realized that spending my days taking notes in the writers' room was not such a bad way to earn a living. Lots of laughing, good food and working around nice men like Bob who indeed is a mensch. (A mensch is a good thing.)

Janis

Dhppy said...

---Ken, you can stop hinting at your obvious virginism. We know, Ken, we know.

---Try explaining that to my kids.

Reminds me of an old Rodney Dangerfield joke: "My kid I tell ya, he's always up to no good. I said to him, 'You know one day you'll have kids of your own'. He said 'Yeah, one day you will, too.'

jbryant said...

Ken is right about those virgin eyes. Since I started keeping a pair in a jar on my writing desk, I've never written a dud line (as you can probably tell, I'm not writing this post at my desk).

As for the 555 issue, it's never bothered me. Clearly just a practical way around a legal issue. If it's enough to take you out of a story, the story has bigger problems than a phony phone number.

LouOCNY said...

the only thing that is more annoying than the '555' thing, is the 'empty cup of coffee' thing - no matter how skilled an actor is, you can ALWAYS tell when that cup of coffee/water/whatever has absolutely no liquid in it. NObody in the movies, or on tv ever drinks out of a clear glass or cup...unless said cup will be either spilled or there is going to be a spit take...

Anonymous said...

My memory of Bob is from having him sit in on rewrite night of an MTM show "Doc" in the 1970's. Not only was he a riot, he was a riot while chewing gum and wearing a cashmere sweater and loafers.

A. Buck Short said...

Louocny said... no matter how skilled an actor is, you can ALWAYS tell when that cup of coffee/water/whatever has absolutely no liquid in it.

I know this is a double dip, but this is just too pray-shuss, as we say here in TX.
1950's. Parent’s come home from seeing a production of “The Desert Song” at the Oakdale Musical Theater in Wallingford, CT. In a tent, in the round, in October – freezing.

As second act is concluding, parents and friends spot a table just on the outside of tent, with hot coffee and donuts. Now, isn’t that thoughtful of the theater on such a chilly night. Hot coffee for the back rows, where the cold was coming in. Pass coffee and donuts down the row as far as it lasts. Theater goes dark, stagehands rush up the aisles to exchange set furnishings and props. Just other side of canvas, in the darkness you hear, chaos, "Where's the coffee? Where’s the donuts? Where are the damn donuts!” Lights come up. Onstage French foreign legion is clearly drinking out of empty coffee cups. No donuts. It had not been audience craft service. Mom, Dad and company had eaten the third act.

TCinLA said...

20-odd years ago, I wrote what I thought was a feature script, that a Major Production Company saw as a great MOW/"backdoor pilot" for a TV series. Since I had no TV credits, and they would have to get a showrunner to run a show that was essentially "created" by me with the pilot script (which was sort of an odd situation to them), the "fallback credit" if the showrunner who a network would approve and I failed to see eye to eye on things, and I couldn't work as a Somekind-of-Producer on the show, would be a credit as "Creative Consultant." In my case, it wouldn't have involved further work on the series if such an impasse had happened, and I would have been paid the equivalent of what was paid for a script to a senior writer-producer for each episode, with suitable residuals for re-runs (and suitable raises for each season the show was renewed, if it was). When I discovered what work was involved in being a showrunner (you guys could probably compete in the Olympics for the energy expended), I started thinking of ways to make myself "unwelcome" with that fallback.

So there are other versions of "Creative Consultant" than what you have detailed.

Oh, and unfortunately it never happened, since the Name Feature Actress who was considering a fallback to doing TV with this managed to snag a role in a feature you have all heard of but shall remain unnamed here. Her dropping out "queered the deal," as they say.

Bitter Animator said...

"NObody in the movies, or on tv ever drinks out of a clear glass or cup...unless said cup will be either spilled or there is going to be a spit take..."

Every instance of drinking on television should be a spit take. There has never been a more effective comedy tool except perhaps the slide whistle.

bodnotbod said...

"Who died?"

Ha ha! I enjoyed that.

Please can you give us more examples of his humour.

Scott said...

This is WHY IMDB sucks.
I punched in Bob Ellison and it gives me some stuff when you (and I now know) that he has done more than credited.
what a shame

Anonymous said...

Having met Bob, I can say that I also wish he'd start a blog.... But getting him away from his high tech equipment may make it harder for him to practice his craft in the way he feels most comfortable....