Thursday, January 08, 2009

At least I didn't say 'shit'!

Friday questions are back.

Reader DW asks:

In every blooper reel I've ever seen, there always seem to be multiple cases of an actor blowing the same line over and over and over again, always to indulgent laughter from the other castmembers.

I've always wondered: at what point, if ever, does the crew, director, or whoever start thinking "OK, this isn't funny any more, can we please just get the scene and move on"? And is that ever communicated to the actors?

Yes, the first two times are hilarious. By the third it starts getting old, and by the fourth you want to smack the actor.

It also depends on who the actor is. When an actor screws up a line we say he “went up on the line”. Some actors rarely if ever go up. They’re amazing. Tony Randall was one. But when he did he always had a great saver. He’d turn to the studio audience and go, “Well, at least I didn’t say ‘shit’!” It would always get a huge laugh. And he never needed a second saver because he never went up more than once.

So when an actor who's usually perfect goofs that breaks up everybody. But there are those actors who aren’t as prepared and go up ten/fifteen times a show and that’s not funny even for a minute.

It's usually the director who has to gently tell the actor to stop fucking up already!

If an actor starts having trouble remembering his lines it can really kill an audience. The crowd starts holding their collective breath every time he opens his mouth and they stop laughing. They also stop following the story. The suspense isn’t what’s going to happen to the characters, it’s will this idiot say his lines so we don’t have to sit through seven pick-ups of the same damn scene?

By the last year of CHEERS the cast was incredibly sloppy. They wouldn’t START to learn their lines until the morning of the shoot. Needless to say they went up every two minutes. By then they were so beloved that the audience didn’t care. You reach a point in a series where you no longer even have to earn laughs. The characters will open their mouths and the audience will start howling.

But that last year was very unnerving. Shows had to really be cobbled together by the editor. It got so bad that I wouldn’t even attend the shootings of the episodes we wrote.

Interestingly, if you remember the very final scene of the series (it’s after hours and everyone is sitting around smoking cigars and reflecting on their lives) we shot that in one take. Everyone knew their lines and were dead-on. And it was probably a six/seven minute scene. Clearly, they had prepared and were ready to go.

So you might ask, well then why were they so shoddy the rest of the season? I think because they had already done over 200 episodes and there was very little challenge left. Memorizing the script at the last minute was at least something to kick in adrenaline. I just wish they were better at it.

What’s your question?

33 comments :

Jon Macqueen said...

Thanks Ken. As ever, this is great stuff. Thanks also for prodding my lazy, underpowered mind in the direction of Larry Gelbart. There is a very interesting, very long interview with Larry on YouTube that is full of invaluable nuggets of information from the great man. Highly recommended.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJRFL774ISE

blogward said...

My god, when are you going to get all this stuff published as a book, Ken? Pure gold.

wv: balishee - one who is balished by a balisher.

Dave Mackey said...

Tony Randall was once a celebrity guest on "$20,000 Pyramid" when it taped in New York in the 70's, and Dick Clark asked him about how one maintains his composure in the Winner's Circle. Randall matter of factly said, "You never say 'shit'!" (it was of course censored) and broke up the entire audience and Mr. Clark at the same time.

"isycwu" - I got nothin'.

Dave Mackey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bobert said...

I recall hearing Andy Griffith once saying he knew it was time to quit when he came to work not having bothered to learn his lines.

VW: drierstu (lint?)

Richard Y said...

I have a question but along the same lines as the post. How often is it that writers attend either tapings or filming of their work? Does it make a difference if it is a 'live audience' project or a drama that involves a lot of location work?
Preston Wood who wrote a LOT of work for Jack Webb told me he never attended the filmings of his work. He said once it was done and turned in he was on to the the next one.

SuperBK said...

Hi Ken, Have you ever considered or were you ever offered the chance to write commercials? Many commercials leave me thinking "What ad genius thought that one up?" and "That's supposed to make we want to buy that?"
Brian

Emily Blake said...

There's an episode on Angel season 5 with great commentary by Adam Baldwin and a few others. One of the things he talks about is how much he hates it when actors forget their lines. He doesn't think it's funny because he's there to do a job and get paid and go home to his family at the end of the day.

Simon H. said...

Certainly something to look forward to watching when the final season comes out on DVD January 27th.

Gail Renard said...

I had the same experience writing for a long-running British sit com (name supplied for a fiver) where the cast also started believing their own publicity and stopped learning their lines. I think they believed they'd actually been making up their lines for last 9 years. I loved the series and, in time, learned to love the actors again. But it taught me I'd rather do one series too few... and leave the audience wanting more... than to do one too many and watch it go downhill.

A_Homer said...

Thanks Ken, interesting as ever. In an associated question (more tech related than needing answer) I often wondered, during those years when blooper segments were added on after credits (Home Improvement comes to mind) why would the messed up scene, still contain different camera-angles? I mean, obviously they weren't going to use Tim Allen giggling away, so why actually still bother to execute a scene with different camera angles?

wv: "infled" (I wish I could connect to "infield" but too tired today.)

rob! said...

Ok, Ken, this is something I've always wondered--

When a sitcom shot in front of an audience, like Cheers, has a moment that's supposed to be dramatic or serious, do you instruct the audience to STFU so they don't ruin the moment?

In particular, I'm thinking of the episode of Cheers when Sam is mad at Diane for seeing that weirdo painter (played by Christopher Lloyd). After a huge argument, she gives him the painting.

After she storms out, he opens the painting and let's out a quiet little "wow" and then the show cuts to the credits.

Its one of my favorite moments from the show, and I loved how eerily quiet the scene was. But i've always wondered, do you prep the audience so they know something very different from what they expect is coming?

Anonymous said...

Ken,
One thing that's always intrigued me is exactly HOW do actors go about memorizing their lines? As I understand it most series being the week with a table-reading of the script, then go on to rehearsals, and all the while the actors hold their scripts. Do they then go home and study after hours, like doing homework? Or do they stay in their dressing rooms and study only during the business day?

Joanna said...

I did some extra work on an upcoming major film, and it was staggering how many times the two leads forgot their lines in a one minute scene. We kept running that bit for five hours. Another extra told me earlier on they did sixty takes of one scene because the leads kept screwing up their lines. The director gave them a dressing down in front of everyone. Just a touch embarrassing.

Following up on the anon question, how often do actors approach a script as "I don't read scripts. The script reads me." It's surprising how much leeway I've heard about some getting.

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous said...
Ken,
One thing that's always intrigued me is exactly HOW do actors go about memorizing their lines?"

Well as an actor for many years, I can take a swing at that one.

First off, it will vary with every actor. Everyone has their own process. And how difficult it is differs from actor to actor. Some can read a script once, and it's engraved in their heads. Some will never master a script. (They are advised to take up another line of work.)

For some, once it's there, it's hard to change. Rewrites can be hard to learn.

Working on stage, where we have weeks of rehearsal, I've generally been able to absorb lines just from rehearsals. On stage I became known as one of those actors who, by opening night, knew EVERYONE'S lines as well as my own. But on episodic TV, where you have only a few days, if that, yup, it's homework. You pour over that script, and over it and over it and over it until you have it. And then you're doing them in the car on the way to the set.

When possible, I find it easier to work with someone else holding book and reading the opposing lines, "Running lines" it's called, but if there's no one available, you just have to sit there, or in my case pace around, and DO IT.

One constant: the better written it is, the easier it is to learn. Shakespeare's dialogue may be lengthy and complex, but it sings, so it stays fixed in the mind easier and longer. I can recite whole speeches of Shakespeare I did onstage 40 years ago. Same for Oscar Wilde. Some shows are gone from your mind the minute you've done them the last time. Oh, and as an actor/writer, let me tell you, there's nothing more embarassing than blowing lines you have yourself written. The balance being, if you blow a line you've written, it's not a "mistake;" it's a "Rewrite."

And one of the best pieces of advice I ever received from an acting teacher was, "You do NOT want to be the person responsible for their needing to do retakes."

WV: subro. My younger brother.

D. McEwan said...

Oh, one other related bit: A close friend of mine played a major supporting role in FRANKIE & JOHNNY. (She's in a lot of films and TV.) Her comment after a LONG day on the set was, "They're paying Al Pacino $7,000,000. For that money, you'd think he could learn his lines!"

Michael Green said...

There's a great story I remember about Tony Randall from "The Odd Couple." He was famous there for being perfect. In one scene, Al Molinaro, as Murray the Cop, knocks on the door and Randall asks who's there. The little door to the peephole opens and his nose comes partway in. Randall couldn't do the scene for a while because he was laughing too hard at seeing the scene.

I always wondered if Danny Kaye needed many takes to say, "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace is the brew that is true."

Dana Gabbard said...

Years ago I heard Mark Evanier explain a lot of time at a certain level of success people start testing how much they can get away with, which is sort of their way of confirming just how far they have gotten. Rock stars would stay in their dressing rooms for longer and longer periods before finally going on stage, seeing how long the audience would wait.

Tyroc said...

I adore this blog, Ken! Thanks so much for writing it.

So as for my Friday question...

Where do you think the Sam/Diane relationship would have gone had Shelley Long stayed on it? Do you think the show would've ran as long as it did?

Jim said...

I had the same experience writing for a long-running British sit com (name supplied for a fiver) where the cast also started believing their own publicity and stopped learning their lines.

Are there long running British sitcoms? (I kid, I kid...)

Seems like the last season of Cheers gets a lot of grief. I loved the sort of 'senioritis' feel so many of the episodes have. The meta-references--Shelley Long jokes, what does Rebecca do, already?--screwball plots like Ma Clavin going into a home, Rebecca and Frasier almost hooking up, John Allen Hill's heart attack ("Oh, Carla, is it?")

And one of my favorites, just brought to mind when Pat Hingle died, the episode where he comes back as Gus, who sold Cheers to Sam. "In my day, a woman took some care about her appearance! Have they stopped making lipstick? Am I that old?"

wv: ineste. Everything I can think of is exceedingly tasteless.

The Kenosha Kid said...

I had the same experience writing for a long-running British sit com (name supplied for a fiver)

"Are you 'avin a laff? IS 'E 'AVIN A LAFF??!!!"

Anonymous said...

Hall of Fame:

Dawson.

Raines.

Discuss why / why not, whether the fact that their best years were in Montreal counted against them, or whether Gary Carter's typical egotistical reaction ("What do you mean, an Expos cap?") soured voters on Expos in the Hall.

gwangung said...

Oh, and as an actor/writer, let me tell you, there's nothing more embarassing than blowing lines you have yourself written. The balance being, if you blow a line you've written, it's not a "mistake;" it's a "Rewrite."

Oh, I HATED acting my own lines. Invariably, I would rewrite on the fly, annoying the hell (or panicking) the person I was acting with.

Mike said...

That's interesting about the last season of Cheers. I've seen those final season episodes many times and nothing like that stood out; which probably means the editor was good at doing his job. And while I hadn't heard before of any sloppiness during that final season, I do remember seeing an E True Hollywood Story once where either Roger Rees or Harry Anderson said he returned to the show for an episode during the final season and was struck by how it seemed like the cast almost couldn't stand to be around each other anymore. I'd like to think that isn't true.

Anyway, I still like Season 11 of the show, and actually kinda prefer it to Season 10. I liked that Sam was written more like he was earlier in the show (which is to say, more adult), and the writing in general seemed to be a little better. I also liked how they brought back some old favorites, like Harry the Hat and Robin Colcord and the hilarious Nick Tortelli. It was a good farewell season. That being said, it still suffered from the same plight the later seasons suffered from: If you compare one of the late-season Cheers to, say, an episode from season one or two, you'll notice how just kinda mean people became. Not evil or anything, just....sour. Especially towards each other. The humor (while it still made me laugh) just sometimes seemed more mean-spirited than it did earlier in the show. It was lacking the same warmth.

Earl Pomerantz said...

After watching the filming of an episode I wrote of "The Tony Randall Show, I went down to the stage and asked Tony for an autographed picture for my mother. I told him she's a big fan of his. Randall's response? "Fuck her!"
I don't usually use this kind of language on my blog. I use it here for three reasons. One, that's what he said. Two, it's funny. And three, you seem to be okay with it.

David K. M. Klaus said...

Mr. Pomerantz, maybe I'm just dense today, but I can't discern from your story whether Mr. Randall was giving you a mock-dismissive reaction or a genuinely dismissive reaction. From everything I've ever read about him, I would think it's the first, but you tell the story in what reads to me as a straight tone, as if the words are literal rather than satirical. I hope I'm reading it incorrectly.

Franesse: to accomplish something like one of Bob Newhart's t.v. wives.

David K. M. Klaus said...

I visited the set of the original Battlestar: Galactica in December 1978, and one particular actor had significant trouble remembering his lines. The rest of the cast in the scene I witnessed was supportive, giving him lots of "attaboys" (including reassuring grips to his upper arms) and such when he finally got through each take correctly. My impression was that he was having a problem not his fault and the others were helping him through it.

(After thirty years that actor is still working, by the way, if that has meaning in this context.)

Great Big Radio Guy said...

Anyone ever sit in on a taping of the series "Soap"? I went to one in 1978. PAINFUL. Whether or not they nailed a scene (which they did during this one taping), they would go back and reshoot the entire scene - THREE MORE TIMES. And THEN they would do pick-ups. The audience was completely shot 40 minutes into the taping.

This may have been during the Jay Sandrich era, which kind of surprised me. Was that his M.O.?

Buttermilk Sky said...

Marlon Brando always had his lines on slips of paper, his sleeves, etc., even on stage. He did pretty well.

VW: Duloqueb. Ask your doctor if it's right for you. Side effects may include...

James said...

I attended a taping of FRIENDS, late in the show's run, that went on forever because NO ONE seemed to know their lines. Everything had to be taped again and again, and it took forever. This nonsense went on so long that they actually changed audiences about halfway through the episode! Have to admit that I never enjoyed the show as much after that, having witnessed what I can only call a lack of professionalism.

David K. M. Klaus said...

Buttermilk Sky said:


> Marlon Brando always had his
> lines on slips of paper, his
> sleeves, etc., even on
> stage. He did pretty well.


That sounds more like a description of the late Jon Pertwee during his last couple of years as The Doctor on Doctor Who: I've read that Mr. Pertwee had quite a bit of side income from personal appearances and frequently would show up in the studio just minutes before taping began, having rushed from somewhere outside of London back to the BBC in the proverbial nick of time, so to speak, and had to have his dialogue written on post-it notes stuck everywhere out of camera view, on the TARDIS control console, on the walls of the sets, sometimes even the backs or legs of the other actors.

Mr. Brando (again, so I've read) -- with a head cold, mind you -- did all of his Jor-El dialogue in Superman -- The Movie from cue cards held just out of camera view, and nailed each of his scenes regardless of what they were (master shot, close-up, reaction shot, whatever) in a single take.

Dhppy said...

I remember seeing a blooper of "Friends" where Lisa Kudrow got the giggles. Matthew Perry turned to the crew/audience and said "When she gets like this, Emmys just shoot out of her ass".

Killer said...

D. McEwan said (or, rather, quoted)... "They're paying Al Pacino $7,000,000. For that money, you'd think he could learn his lines!"

Watching Regis Philbin at work on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," I thought the same thing - he consistently mangled contestants' names, foreign terms, etc. I understand that some people simply have difficulty with those, but for the kind of money he's making, you'd think that he'd figure out some system for it. He and the crew were cranking out show after show, but a contestant is on only once, and to have his name mispronounced feels disrespectful. (I say that as a contestant whose name was mispronounced.)