Thursday, January 15, 2009

Writers as actors/actors as writers

Some anonymous person (please leave your name) asked how actors memorized their lines. Since I’m not one I asked a bunch of folks who are. Got back some fascinating and very different methods. Starting next week I’ll post them. In the meantime, here are some more of your questions along with my thanks for asking them.

From Brian:

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?"

There was a period before my writing career when I was pretty much considering anything other than movie stars’ personal assistant. I was always leery of advertising because I had always heard it was a pressure cooker, everyone had ulcers, and you had to come up with campaigns without the benefit of a wife who’s a witch. But desperate times called for desperate applications. I got a meeting at J. Walter Thompson’s and was asked to go home and write up some copy. I did and never heard back from them. I’m guessing they didn’t love it.

Several comedy writers started in advertising. Allan Katz (MASH, Rhoda, All in the Family, Roseanne) came up with the name “Screaming Yellow Zonkers”, and Steve Gordon who wrote and directed ARTHUR started as a Mad Man.

Tyroc asks:

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

There were no long range plans for Sam/Diane and the thing about CHEERS is that the Charles Brothers always encouraged as many different ideas and directions as we could think of. The goal was to find the most original story arc possible. So who knows? There was resistance to marrying them but if someone came up with a fresh unexpected take on the institution we might have gone in that direction.

And from Ski:

I have noticed that on some TV shows, some writers play characters on the shows they write. Do any of these writers ever switch jobs and become actors? Or conversely, are there any actors who say "screw it I wanna write"?

A couple of writers for THE OFFICE are part of the ensemble. And of course there’s Tina Fey.

But there have a number of instances when comedy writers go before the camera. I’ll give a few examples but I’m sure there are quite a few more. Conan O’Brien went from the SIMPSONS writing staff to some talk show, I forget the name. Jay Tarses, one of the driving forces behind THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and BUFFALO BILL was in the cast of OPEN ALL NIGHT (a show he co-created) and THE DUCK FACTORY. Everett Greenbaum, who I profiled recently, made a nice living as a character actor the last ten years of his life. And most writers wind up doing little cameos, further proving that it’s the one-or-two line guys who kill you. That wasn’t the case with me, however. I was great in the two shows I acted in.

A number of stand-up comics gravitate towards the writing room. A few do both. Dana Gould on RAYMOND is one. Carol Leifer is another. And don’t forget Larry David.

Several actors also write, like Alan Alda and Jerry Seinfeld but aren’t about to trade the greasepaint for grease boards.

And then there’s Rachel Sweet, a wonderful writer with such credits as SEINFELD, DHARMA & GREG, and SPORTS NIGHT. She was an 80’s punk rock star. That's the way I wanted to break into the writing field.

29 comments:

Zach Haldeman said...

Question:
What is the typical relationship between writers and actors? Naturally the show runner gets to know the actors, but is Star #2 gonna be friends with Staff Writer #5, or even know Staff Writer #5?

Monty Ashley said...

Rachel Sweet is awesome. She had one of the original shows on The Comedy Channel, back when it was nothing but 22 hours of short clips and two hours of MST3K. I used to wonder why a rock star had a show, and then years later I noticed her name on Sports Night.

Erich Eilenberger said...

Hi Ken,

I remember that you and your partner wrote one of my favorite episodes of CHEERS, "Rat Girl," which had a really great argument scene between Frasier and Lilith. Then I noticed that you also wrote "Room Service," which was one of my favorite episodes of FRASIER and also featured Lilith. Looking at IMDb, it seems like you wrote a lot of the episodes of FRASIER featuring Lilith. I have to assume that this was intentional, but it seems unusual, especially given how collaborative writing for a half-hour comedy is. Were you considered to be the Lilith writers? And did that happen for a particular reason?

Thanks.

Tyroc said...

Thanks for answering my question!

jbryant said...

I loooove Rachel Sweet. I got all her albums when they first came out (I wouldn't call her music punk though). I'm still kicking myself for screwing up my one opportunity to meet her. Producer Randy Cordray spoke for a group of interns and alums from my alma mater and invited us all to a Dharma and Greg taping a few days later. After it wrapped, I noticed Sweet on the floor. I started making my way down, but by the time I got there she was gone, and she didn't hang around for the little after-party. Maybe it's just as well -- I probably would've embarrassed myself.

A few of her videos are on YouTube, by the way.

Paul Duca said...

Don't forget Emma Thompson, the only person to win an Oscar for acting (her role in REMAINS OF THE DAY) and writing (her adaptation of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY)

I don't know much about Rachel Sweet's punk side...I really know her best musically for her retro-60;s rendition of the title song from the original movie version of HAIRSPRAY.

Brian Phillips said...

Jay Tarses also played a garbage man on "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and in the UK, he starred and co-wrote a radio series with Andy Hamilton called "Revolting People", a show that takes place during the Revolutionary War.

Every so often, a writer's name shows up in a show, too. In "Taxi", Louie di Palma's nemesis in high school was Stanley Tarses.

Mr. Levine, were Prudence Fraser and Robert Sternin a titular reference for Cheers? I believe that Kelsey Grammer said in his autobiography that he came up with part of Frasier Crane name; he said that one of his names didn't suit him.

Vermonter17032 said...

Ah, I always wondered if the Rachel Sweet, whose name I have seen in some credits, was the same Rachel Sweet whose albums I have. Now I know. Thanks!

I agree with jbryant that her music wasn't really punk... it was more punk-inspired pop.

YEKIMI said...

Shout out for the Akron, Ohio gurlllll...Rachel!

Greg Morrow said...

A number of the writers of Scrubs have recurring roles on the show, but that's also a show that loves to turn one-joke extra parts into recurring characters.

Anonymous said...

Emma Thompson won her acting Oscar for HOWARD'S END.

larchman said...

A lot of SNL writers end up playing the fake audience members that end up asking the questions during some of the monologues, and earlier on they were used as most of the extras in sketches.

Michael Green said...

Lorenzo Music deserves an asterisk for bouncing back and forth between the creative side and providing the voices of "Carlton the Doorman" and Garfield.

When you mention performers in the writers' room, don't forget the creator of one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, Carl Reiner, and that his show paid a lot of attention to the writers' room, where he spent so much time in his years with Sid Caesar. Dick Van Dyke has marveled over the years at how many comedy writers have told him that watching his show inspired them to go into the business.

Richard Y said...

A 3 Episode ARC.
Is 'arc' an abbreviation or an acronym? If either, what does it spell out to be?
Thanks

A_Homer said...

Wait - THAT's what happened with Rachel Sweet?! Never would have imagined.

Kirk Jusko said...

How about Al Franken? From writer to performer to (possibly) Senator.

Jon Delfin said...

Wasn't Jay Tarses a performer who went into writing (and then back into performing)? Al Franken too?

D. McEwan said...

Richard,

"Arc" is not an acronym. It means an arc, a curved line, rising in act 1, topping in act 2, and sinking again in act 3. It's a common writer's term for a storyline.

Richard Y said...

D. McEwan,
Ah I see. So in the case of a story line taking place over 3(or more) episodes of a TV series it is still an 'arc'.
Thanks

Wayne said...

Older writers who acted or performed live... Robert Benchley. Goodman Ace. Mark Twain. Charles Dickens.

Mike said...

As far as Cheers goes, while I prefer the Diane seasons to the Rebecca ones, I think the writers had taken the Sam and Diane relationship as far as it could go. The two had gotten together, split up, Diane get engaged to someone else only to leave him at the altar, Sam get involved with someone else only to realize he can't deny his love for Diane, the two of them got engaged. Really, the only thing left to do was for them to marry, and I'm skeptical about how the show would've pulled it off. If any show could've made it work it would have been Cheers (and I'm not just saying that because of the blog I'm at; the writing on Cheers, particularly during the Diane seasons, was just fantastic), but marrying off the characters has hurt so many shows over the years...

Randall said...

I have some questions about the ending credits shown on a television program or movie.

1. In recent years a lot of television stations have shrunk the end credits in order to show promos for their upcoming shows. Did the stations have to be union approval for this?

2. Some credits go by so fast I don't know how anybody can read them. Conversely, sometimes on talk shows the end credits will stop for a few seconds, apparently to highlight the name of a staff member or company that has provided a product. Are there any rules / restrictions that regulate how fast or slow credits can crawl?

3. Stations like Turner Classic Movies show all the credits in real time, sometimes showing a production company's logo for as much as fifteen seconds in a freeze frame. Are stations that show movies or stripped television shows required by contract to show the credits in their entirety?

Thanks in advance.

Randall said...

Ok, I proof read my item too late. In #1, I meant to say "have to get union approval" instead of "have to be union approval".

Kirk Jusko said...

I happen to like reading credits, which I'm sure puts me in a minority. It's bad enough that the new shows have shrunk them down, but now so has Nick at Nite and TVLand! If that looks like Paul Sands playing the TV reporter in Bewitched (the one where Ben Franklin is brought back to life) I want to know for sure!

Sunshine said...

Wayne said...
Older writers who acted or performed live... Robert Benchley. Goodman Ace. Mark Twain. Charles Dickens.

And Shakespeare... though not in a TV series.

Mike Schryver said...

I tried to post this the other day, but it didn't take for some reason.

How 'bout Bill Idelson, who played Herman Glimpshire on the Van Dyke Show and a hilarious judge on The Odd Couple, 2 shows he wrote for along with who knows how many others?

Cheryl said...

You recently talked about actors flubbing lines and ruining several takes. We fans have lines that, no matter how many times we see an episode, make us laugh. Do you have any experience with a line striking an actor so funny that he/she either had a very difficult time delivering it or couldn't deliver it and have to have the line rewritten?

Catherine said...

I've always had a passion for sitcoms, many of which you have written for, and I'd love to somehow make them a bigger part of my life just an extensive dvd collection. It seems like it would be so much fun to act on a sitcom, but I sometimes wonder if all the actual comedic talent stays in the writers' room. Of course, there are comedians who make it on stage, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, etc. but are actors on sitcoms generally very funny, or are they, for the most part, trained actors with good timing? Do you ever wish that you could be the one on stage delivering the lines?

Catherine said...

I've always had a passion for sitcoms, a couple of which you have written for, and I would love to make them a bigger part in my life than just an extensive dvd collection. My childhood dream was always to star on a sitcom, but now I wonder if most of the comedic talent stays in the writers room. Are actors on sitcoms generally comedically gifted, or are they more classically trained actors with good timing?
I've always loved to make people laugh, but a lot of the rush, for me, comes from coming up with what to say. Do you ever wish that you could be the one on stage delivering the punch lines?