Sunday, May 04, 2008

Open letter to anyone producing a sitcom pilot

For those of you lucky (or unlucky) enough to have your pilot ordered you are now in the toughest part of the process – casting. These are the most crucial decisions you will ever have to make on your project. Everything else can be fixed. Scripts can be rewritten, scenes re-shot, set dressing changed. Even your premise can be altered. But if your actors suck you are dead.

The only thing worse is that the actors suck, you get picked up anyway, and then you are dead and sent to a hell reserved for Hannibal Lector and the guy who created WINDOWS 98.

So may I make one suggestion? It sounds incredibly obvious but you’d be surprised.

HIRE FUNNY PEOPLE.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Sorry you waiters at the Cheesecake Factory but there are not that many really funny people out there.

And there is the growing ham fisted network interference that attempts to take the casting decisions right out of your hands and give away your prize parts to old retreads or J. Crew models. More important than comic chops to these networks are good teeth and breasts that test well.

But that’s not what YOU should be looking for. You want people who are funny. And beware. There are enough good actors in Hollywood who are skillful enough to know where the jokes are and how to get them. You can be fooled. So don’t just go by the reading.

Go by the look, the attitude, their body language, their voice. They are intangible qualities but you can spot them right away. Just look at the cast photos of MY NAME IS EARL and THE OFFICE. Then compare them with say the Americanized version of COUPLING.
Good rule of thumb: if someone walks into your office and you immediately want to write a new half page of dialogue for him or her, that’s who you hire.

And as for the network battles? Sometimes they’ll be won over too. Laughter is a great selling point. And then there will be those times you’ll hear, “Yeah, he’s funny but…” Just remember – there ARE NO BUTS. You can be diplomatic, praise them for their choice of actors but suggest they might be even more wonderful in that exciting new procedural pilot they have where a special team solves crimes by looking at cremation remains. But at the end of the day you want the funny choice, even if he’s not known. Sometimes it’s BETTER that he’s not known.

Producing a pilot is like one man facing an army. There are constant battles and it’s always hard to know which ones to fight. But this is the big one. Fight to the death for funny.

Just imagine SEINFELD with William Devane as Kramer and Kim Ravers as Elaine.

Best of luck with your project. I'm not going to hope it's good. I'm going to hope it's close to your vision.

TOMORROW: a pilot surprise!!!

31 comments:

John said...

I've read the story a few times about how John Ratzenberger basically created his own part of Cheers by asking if they had casted a know-it-all to be one of the regulars at the bar, and creating the Cliff Klaven role out of that. True?

Also I think it's pretty neat that just over a decade after Cheers went off the air, Cliffie managed to get himself elected Pope (What? The guy's name is Ratzinger?)

JSWN said...

Here's a suggestion. Hire Mike Hagerty. Even better, write something for Mike Hagerty.
He's one of the best in my book.
I just LOVE him. Gifted actor, Mike Hagerty.

Christina said...

I love all of the wacky, not perfect looking characters in the Office so much that I end up watching each episode like 2 or 3 times rather than something else. It's one of the best casts I've ever watched.

JSWN said...

Has anyone else watched THE WICKED PISSERS on youtube? Just curious.

Laura Deerfield said...

I think I fell asleep just looking at the picture of the cast from Coupling.

Michael said...

The British cast of Coupling was awesome. The US cast, not so much. Everyone was miscast for their part (even the gorgeous Rena Sofer as Susan). The scripts were basically the same as the originals, just modified for the time slot (30 minutes with no commercials vs 22 minutes with commercials) and language, so you can't blame the writers.

Given your Devane/Raver casting on Seinfeld, would that make Keifer "Jack Bauer" Sutherland as Jerry and the guy who played Edgar as George? (to keep the "24" cast)

Anonymous said...

Friends ruined it. It was a good show, but they cast 6 great looking people, 4 of whom were funny (and 1 more who caught up by the end.)

And since it was a monster hit, networks expect the same from every show.

The classic sitcoms had nice looking stars, but they didn't have to be models.

Carlo Conda said...

I'd say Ross, Joey, and Chandler were the funniest on Friends. Rachel was bleh, and her laughs were brought via writing or when she was angry.
Monica was alright, and her yelped lines are classics, but she got REALLY annoying near the end of the show when thy focused way too much on her "cleanliness is naziness" crap.
Phoebe was always average. Said some goofy things, and that's it.

Chandler was ruined once his and Monica's relationship was found out by Ross. After that, Chandler became a boring sap.
"Ohh, I love you Monica. :) "
Shut up and do something stupid, asshole.


:P

Bitter Animator said...

What was wrong with Windows 98? I seem to remember that one working. Unlike poxy Vista, which I'm on now.

I can't quite get 5 funny people in Friends - who are you thinking of, Mr.Anonymous? Are you including the monkey gimmick? And Gunther?

Paul Duca said...

Are you serious about William Devane being considered for Kramer? I ask because he and Fred Dryer (the NFL player turned actor who would become the star of the police drama HUNTER) were the other two finalists for the role of Sam Malone.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the network and studio casting interference is that THIS is when the problem of hiring execs based on their place in the "diversity rainbow" really becomes fatal. Try and argue with a gay, african-american man or even worse, a gay, african-american woman that they might not know ALL there is to know about comedy from their many valuable years as a personal assistant... you can kiss your pilot and future development deal good-bye. Whatever happened to the good old days when studio and network execs were hired based on nepotism and blackmail? At least then, there was a 1% chance that you might end up with someone mildly capable.

Paul Duca said...

Ken, what are your thoughts on the crossover stunt being done on CBS this week? Not only the actors but the writers are making a change up....the CSI scribes are doing the script for TWO & A HALF MEN and vice versa.

VP81955 said...

Sometimes you get a break in your casting. For example, when the "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" sitcom was cast in 1996, Beth Broderick was initially hired to play...Aunt Hilda (a man-hungry character sort of along the lines of those she played on "Hearts Afire" and "The Five Mrs. Buchanans")! However, Beth soon decided she'd prefer the cooler, more-straitlaced Zelda role (which suited her sultry sex appeal), and Caroline Rhea was cast as Hilda. And I'm sure every time a "Sabrina" residual check enters Caroline's bank account, she gives thanks to Beth.

The Minstrel Boy said...

and be sure to hire amanda peet.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said
"but they cast 6 great looking people, 4 of whom were funny (and 1 more who caught up by the end.)"

You are being far to kind, the only dynamic that worked on that show was the dumb guy and his roomate.

gottacook said...

That's a funny idea, William Devane as Kramer (or as Sam Malone, for that matter)... I always picture Devane in his MARATHON MAN character Janeway, who must have been great fun for him to play; he gets to smile more than everyone else in the picture put together, and also has great lines (in context, anyway) like "GET the F***ING CAR!"

I have heard about how funny the OFFICE cast is since it began airing on NBC, but I simply cannot watch the show because of the camerawork; I've tried. (I felt the same at the beginning of HOMICIDE in early 1993, but what seemed extreme then is mild today and didn't keep me from getting involved in the episodes.)

tb said...

I didn't know writers did the casting. I thought that was a specialty credit "casting by"
I've always felt bad for Jason Alexander never getting an Emmy for playing Costanaza. He carried that show

Tom Quigley said...

I'm assuming that when a producer or producers get the green light to go ahead and produce a pilot and hire funny people for the cast, the producers themselves also know what "funny" is. I remember one show in particular, CONRAD BLOOM, with a tremendously talented cast in the pilot who were all sitcom veterans -- the show stunk. It wasn't funny and lasted about six episodes. Included in the pilot's cast were such stalwarts as Linda Lavin, Steve Landesberg, Valerie Mahaffey, and Mark Feierstein, and even that group couldn't save it... And as if someone decided to start shoveling ice onto the deck of the Titanic, when the show got picked up, Valerie Mahaffey (who had won an Emmy for a guest spot on WINGS) had been replaced by Victoria Jackson from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE... Go figure...

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in hearing the story on the Kelsey Grammar sitcom "Back to you". I've noticed an upgrade to a more capable child actor and the disappearance all together of the sex pot weather girl.

What focus group doesn’t like a sex pot?

Bob said...

The problem with the network and studio casting interference is that THIS is when the problem of hiring execs based on their place in the "diversity rainbow" really becomes fatal.

Yeah, those damn minorities are just killing show biz. We need lots more old white guys who, let's face it, always did a bang-up job as network and studio execs.

Karen said...

I confess I never watched the American version of Coupling (any more than I've ever watched the American version of The Office [yes, I KNOW, and no I don't CARE]), but I don't know if you can blame it all on the cast. Colin Ferguson was cast in that, and he has been spectacularly good--and FUNNY--on Eureka. Sometimes the premise just sucks. Brit-com humor works at a different pace than our version, and some things just don't translate. Coupling is a great example of that. But I'm not sure you can blame it entirely on the cast.

D. McEwan said...

Had William Devane played Sam Malone, the title would have had to be changed, perhaps to LAST CALL.

I went to the taping of the pilot for that short-lived Nathan Lane sitcom where he was a congressman. The female lead was a very pretty black woman who was clearly a competant actress, but -well let's just say, a bit of a black Pam Dawber.

I also attended the reshoot, when they reshot only her scenes, only now with Laurie Metcalf in the role. Now it was funny!

Not funny enough, obviously, but a huge improvement. TR Knight was also in that show, and very good he was. Which shows that funny people means you now have a better chance, but still nothing is certain in this field.

CarolMR said...

Mr. Levine: Off-topic, sorry. I just received the Season One DVD set of BURKE'S LAW. I used to watch it with my parents as a child. I've seen about four of the episodes so far and the guest list is something like this: Sammy Davis, Jr., Soupy Sales, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mary Astor, Barbara Eden, Elizabeth Montgomery, Lizabeth Scott, Paul Lynde, Suzy Parker, Diana Dors, William Bendix, Don Rickles, John Saxon, Arlene Dahl, Jim Backus, Burgess Meredith, Joan Blondell, Fred Clark, and Ruth Roman. Wow! Aaron Spelling must have had incredible powers of persuasion even back in 1963!

VP81955 said...

Valerie Mahaffey is sort of the TV equivalent of Julie Hagerty: attractive, likable, talented, yet wasted by the industry which never quite found the breakout role for her (or, in the case of Hagerty, never found one that let her build upon her success from "Airplane!"). Then again, Paula Prentiss was wasted by both mediums.

Anonymous said...

Funny you should compare Valerie Mahaffey with Julie Haggerty. They shared a supporting role on the Delta Burke/"Designing Women" spinoff, "Women of the House". The producers wanted Julie originally, but she wasn't available, so Valerie filled in, playing the same character, in the first few episode. Then Julie freed up and took over the part for a couple of episodes, and then quit. Valerie then came back.

TCinLA said...

Worst casting possibility ever: "Casablanca" with Ronald Reagan and Ann Southern.

For those who don't know their film history, those were Warner Brothers' first choice for the roles of Rick and Ilsa.

Ken is absolutely right, if I might paraphrase Vionce Lombardi - "Casting isn't everything, it's the only thing!"

Not just in comedies. I write drama and action. Think of Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones. He was Lucas' first choice, and the only reason he didn't get it was that he did the pilot for Magnum P.I. They didn't want to use Harrison Ford because he'd been in everything Lucas had done to that point from "American Grafitti." Can you imagine anyone else as Indiana Jones? Harrison Ford was born to play Han Solo and Indiana Jones. I suspect he'll even be good in "Indiana Jones Meets The Over-The-Hill Gang" this summer.

Bruce Willis fought like hell to be in the first "Die Hard" (personally, I can't stand the sequels, but the first one really is great, probably because it's so low-budget). They saw him as the wiseass from "Moonlighting" and turned him down. Three times. He ended up doing the movie for Scale +10 (or so I have heard). If true, what a helluva investment in yourself.

Sylvester Stallone, four months behind in the rent with $100 in the bank, turned down $375,000 for the "Rocky" screenplay because they wouldn't do it with him playing Rocky, and finally convinced them to let him do the movie by taking $50K less and acting for free. All the sequels are varying degrees of awful, and he's one of the most limited stars who ever became a star, but the first "Rocky" works like a swiss watch to this day and nobody else could have done it.

And you should trust your gut about your casting decision. Arnold Schwarzenegger has told the story of how hard he fought to play the Terminator so many times over the years that I am sure he could pass a lie detector test on that point. But the truth is, he wanted to play Reese, the hero, until James Cameron sat him down and convinced him to play the Terminator.

The list goes on....

You really have to go with your gut and then trust it, and that's hard because if you're wrong, you just wrote your one-say ticket to Palookaville. But nobody ever got drafted to work here....

TCinLA said...

carolmr said:

Wow! Aaron Spelling must have had incredible powers of persuasion even back in 1963!

Yes, it's amazing what money can buy with the under-employed.

I don't mean that as any put-down of those people you named, but in 1963, they were not "contemporary hotties" shall we say.

gottacook said...

Did anyone else see an episode of NICK AND HILLARY, the sitcom transformation of the hourlong drama TATTINGER'S from the previous fall? That was a weird experience: the same lead actors (Stephen Collins and Blythe Danner - yeah, it was a Paltrow production) taking on the demands of a sitcom. (Plus they added Chris Elliott as a new character.) I happened to see the first episode in spring 1989; according to Brooks & Marsh's reference book, only one further episode aired. Danner was charming as usual; Collins left no impression, which was likely the trouble.

Seems to me that learning what happened in this case might shed some light on the topic at hand. Was there even a pilot? Or is it simply that Paltrow was so persuasive as to convince NBC that these actors, in these roles, could make a sitcom work? It's a mystery, unless Blythe writes her memoirs. (The only similar drama-to-comedy example, BEVERLY HILLS BUNTZ, had already come and gone, also on NBC, only the year before. That one did have a pilot, shot by Hal Ashby.)

Finally: One of my favorite MASH episodes was the one with Blythe Danner - before your time on staff, I know.

jbryant said...

tcinla: Pretty sure it was Ann Sheridan, not Sothern, who almost played Ilsa. And I've also heard they wanted Dennis Morgan for Rick, with Reagan as Victor Laszlo. Either way, it worked out for the best.

Dan Coyle said...

Back to You is bringing the weather girl back tonight, seemingly for the purpose of writing her out. Which is a shame, because I like her.

I notice post-strike there are some interesting developments, how the bitter street reporter and the nervous fat dude are now best buds.

Orange said...

Ken,
This is a great piece and I wish I would have read it before I jumped right into directing my first sitcom. I made some pretty amateur mistakes— including jumping to production before working out the flaws in the script. We auditioned actors, and I think the casting was pretty solid given our resources as students. In the end, I think we came out with a decent pilot— but nothing that will come close to killing. Not sure you can make it through the whole thing, but if you have 30 minutes, you should check it out:
http://www.youtube.com/orangerhymepictures