Thursday, October 23, 2008

When actors go berserk at the table reading

Just a Guy just asked a Friday question (what's yours??):

We have all heard about table reads going incredibly bad and childish stars and guest stars berating the writing staff. How did the average writer or writing staff view these tantrums by actors? Did they absorb all of the complaints or did they dig in their heels and say something to the effect as "We don't tell you how to interpret a scene, you don't tell us how to write it."?

That’s a tough one. It depends on how much clout the actor has. If the show’s title is her name or she happens to own the production company and the lot you’re shooting on, then it’s harder to call them a no-talent bitch and throw over the table in front of the rest of the cast, studio, network, and craft services guy.

Without naming names there was a big star actor/asshole who hated every script after the table reading. He would insist they throw it out completely. A new script appeared the next day and he was happy and would go to work. Some of their best work, scripts they slaved over for weeks, would get tossed. So the staff finally got smart. They just started banging out dummy scripts for the table reading and saved their real scripts for day two.

If you do confront a star at the table you run the risk of getting fired. But often times that’s the reward.

Sometimes stars are insensitive but don’t really realize it. I loved working with Tony Randall but our first table reading with him was not a joy. We had written a freelance script that was good enough to get us on staff. It’s our first day. It’s also our script. The show was coming off a two-week hiatus. Tony stands up before the reading to announce he had just returned from London and went on about how brilliant British comedies were. He concluded by saying, “Compared to British sitcoms ours were absolute shit! Now let’s see what we have today.” Then he sat down and began the reading of ours.

If the offending actor is not a major star the best course of action is to just nod, keep your composure, go back to the writers room and kill him off.

And then of course, what we did on MASH. That story is here.

By and large most actors aren’t monsters. And the smart ones learn that if they have problems with the script, by presenting their objections with respect and kindness the staff usually will break its back trying to address his concerns.

But I will leave you with this. A well known comedian called a couple of his writers and asked if they could write some material for a dinner he was going to emcee the next night in San Diego. They did, drove down to San Diego to give him their monologue and were met for breakfast by the comedian and some bimbo that was on his arm. They read the jokes , the comedian liked them, but the bimbo seemed to have problems with them. Finally, one of the writers reached across the table, patted her hand, and said, “Dear, do we tell you how to give blowjobs?”

16 comments:

John The Plunger said...

In ensemble sitcoms, I always noticed that when plots were built around the “minor” characters, whether for example it be full episodes with Cliff or Norm on Cheers or episodes on MASH where each character got their own story for about 5 minutes in an episode (Dreams, Where There’s a Will There’s a War, etc), the shows suffered tremendously. Was this forced by the stars, their agents, the producers, or someone else?

Nat G said...

Except that I disagree, and will use Cheers as the example. In the post-Shelly Long era, the very best storied were the Woody-and-Kelly tales. And second to those were Frasier/Lilith episodes. Only one of the Sam & Rebecca tales (the one with Marcia Cross as Rebecca's sister) measured up to those.

D. McEwan said...

I just yesterday watched the CHEERS third season Halloween episode, where the Sam/Diane/Frasier story was given short-shrift, while most of the show focused on a romance of sorts between Cliff and a woman (Burnadette Burkette, George Wendt's wife, and later, "Vera") dressed as Tinker Bell, that was touching and funny and just generally a terrific epsiode. Sam Simon wrote it. Great episode.

My admittedly-limited but not non-existant experience of Tony Randall suggests that he might have known exactly what he was doing when he said that, and was giving you a gentle jab. I'll bet there was a trace of twinkle in his eye.

And we should all remember that we just get the cream of Britcoms in America (Well, and a few that are just milk. I enjoy ARE YOU BEING SERVED, but it's not cream.), but that there's probably plenty of dreck over there also, that never crosses the pond.

Chad said...

Question: Like anyone, I'm sure you have a political point of view. Do you think that shows up in your writing and do you have a thought or rule about that?

RMS said...

“Dear, do we tell you how to give blowjobs?”

OMG, that's hilarious!

Stevey Majors said...

I am stealing that blow job line and am patiently waiting for the opportunity to use it.

just me said...

That last sentence was a little general. Not ALL Bimbos give blowjobs.

Some can't figure it out.

Jennifer said...

Has anyone here seen the most recent Entertainment Weekly? Good lord, Roseanne is a nasty little lulu.

The villager: said...

Nice blog, Ken.

Paul Duca said...

Ken, this is something you can check for yourself if you get this message in time. I was just at the gym (in the Boston area) and one of the TVs was showing the fourth hour of THE TODAY SHOW. Jay Thomas was appearing, but he wasn't talking about his acting or even his radio work.

It seems that while Eddie Lebec was fooling around with Carla (circa 1987) Jay and his then girlfriend conceived a son out of wedlock, which they gave up for adoption. After 21 years, Jay found his son--the kid joined Jay on the show. The young man said his mother told him his real father was on CHEERS...and he thought it was Ted Danson.


I don't know if hour 4 runs 10-11 or 11-noon on KNBC, but if you're online now you have notice.

Tallulah Morehead said...

"just me said...
That last sentence was a little general. Not ALL Bimbos give blowjobs."

That is so true. Some sell them.

But I have always been a giver.

Cheers

gottacook said...

nat g: Yes, but the best and certainly funniest Frasier/Lilith episode was during the Shelley Long years: the one where they appear together on a TV chat show, followed by the scene at the bar where Diane manages to get Lilith to let her hair down, etc.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Question for another week: how can you take all day (or even two) to 'break' a story? Isn't there some point that you have a functional outline and think - I ccan go away and write it now? What are the sort of questions that make you go on? Or more importantly, I know there is a difference between a good idea and a terrific one. But how do you get from one to another if not by talent alone? Is it a deeply felt insecurity? Is it the fact that there are six people in the room and there is always someone who comes up with the next annoying question? Is there a structural or procedural set of rules the broken down story must adhere too?

Anonymous said...

You always have to give notes, but the real pros only need to hear them once.

Friday question: A couple of weeks ago you mentioned that before Friends, the "rule" was that all shows had to have an adult figure. Are there any rules like that going around right now for people pitching new shows? I don't mean the obvious ones like "your main character can't be gay", but some really ridiculous nonsense like the Friends example. And how much do you think people should avoid the very tempting idea of breaking them on purpose?

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Friday question: Who decides if a novel should be made into a movie? What is the process?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

As for the 'adult ading' rule... in his book Conversations With My Agent Rob Long tells the story about his comedy Pig Sty (about a group of friends in New York) which debuted the same year as Friend. He caved in to the networks demands and added an adult. We all kno how that ended.