Thursday, March 19, 2009

MASH vs. CHIPS

I'm not a big fan of CHIPS at the moment. Before I answer your Friday questions would you answer one for me? What's a good on-line Traffic School that's certified in California and doesn't take forever to complete? Thanks. Now yours.

Dene 1971 asks:

Do you consider sitcom to be less artistically valid, for one of a better term, than a 1-hour drama? I recall reading an interview with a (brilliant) English TV/radio comedy writer, responsible for a first class sitcom which had come to an end: he intimated that he wanted to 'move on' from the 30m sitcom form to the 1hr comedy-drama.

Obviously it depends on the show. I would consider THE WIRE more artistically valid than ACCORDING TO JIM. But there are quite a few comedies far richer than one hour dramas. And in many ways it’s much harder to do a quality comedy. To explore emotions, create characters and situations that are real, relatable, compelling, AND funny is much harder to accomplish than straight drama. Plus, in comedy you don’t have the luxury of the Nora Ephron cheat – just play a song under a scene that expresses the emotion you’re trying to convey.

But artistically speaking, I don’t think there are many hour dramas that come close to MASH. Maybe CHIPS.

Someone who wouldn’t leave his name wondered:

Ken, when writers do a script that includes unflattering jokes about a character's appearance, do you ever worry about how the actor or actress will personally react?

I recall episodes of MASH where Hawkeye insulted Hot Lip's weight, and an episode of All In The Family where Gloria came right out and said she was fat. More recently on Will & Grace, there were many jokes about how flat-chested Grace was.

Do actors just accept this as part of the game, or are there ever situations where the actor is too touchy about something and it's off-limits for the writers? And how can you know this until you've already ticked them off?

It really depends on the actor and how good a sport he is. No, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of the phone call I’d get from Loretta Swit if we did Hot Lips fat jokes. On the other hand, Danny DeVito was fine with short jokes. And the great Jackie Gleason had no problem with fat jokes at his expense.

It’s best to diplomatically ask the actor how sensitive he might be to jokes about his appearance before he reads the script aloud in a room full of people.

The irony on CHEERS was that every character took shots at Lilith for how cold and severe she was, and off camera and out of costume Bebe Neuwirth was the hottest woman on that set.


And finally, Jrge sent in this question from Spain (where they love this blog).

I've just started to watch the second season of Frasier on DVD (I know i'm late, but I was four when it went on TV).

That’s still no excuse!

I've realized that you appear as "creative consultant". Could you explain what was exactly you function?

Generally that title is assigned to a writer who comes in once a week, usually for rewrite night. Other names are “punch up guys”, “script doctors”, and “clients of agents who make sweet deals”.

They come to the runthrough then help the staff rewrite that night. Sometimes it’s very helpful to have a fresh set of eyes. A writing staff can get too close to a story and it’s great to get an objective opinion from someone you trust…AND can help actually solve the problems he identifies. That last part is the biggie. Anyone can say “this doesn’t work, go fix it”.

Ideally, the best creative consultants can also help you with jokes.

A good creative consultant is like the cavalry riding in to the rescue. A bad one is someone you’re paying a lot of money to eat your food.

I’ve worked with some great ones, notably David Lloyd and Jerry Belson. But bar none the best creative consultant that has ever been is Bob Ellison. I’m going to do an entire post on him soon. At one time he was working on four different shows a week. And not coincidentally, they were the four funniest shows on television.

What’s your question?

37 comments:

gottacook said...

A follow-up to your mention of "the Nora Ephron cheat – just play a song under a scene that expresses the emotion you’re trying to convey": Was she the first? I recall that in Hal Ashby's COMING HOME (1978) songs were used similarly, although rather clumsily - almost drowning out the dialogue at least once. Maybe I just haven't seen enough Nora Ephron-directed movies, which may be a good thing. (I like some of her writing, though.)

Bebe Neuwirth did indeed show on camera how hot Lilith could be: the episode (perhaps her second or third appearance on CHEERS) where she and Frasier are guests on a TV chat show, followed by the scene at the bar that ends abruptly when she jumps into his arms.

Verification word: "being" - well, perhaps it's supposed to be pronounced as one syllable in this case...

Tim W. said...

So...was someone driving a little to fast, or something?

The Milner Coupe said...

Great post as usual.

Ahem, is that Jackie Gleason or did you accidently google up a picture of someone doing a Gleason impression?

PS. Can you edit out the parts where people say they were FOUR when Frasier was on? Thanks.

Dan said...

On MASH, I've recently noticed that there have been several episodes where two or more of the surgeons are away from camp at the same time. In the episode The Bus all four surgeons plus Radar are all coming back from a conference in Tokyo. Who is running the camp while they're gone? I guess Margaret must have been left in charge. Did they send some surgeons over from the 8063 in case the war came back to town?

And where was the guy who was always on the pa. Did he just have a shack somewhere up the hill near the helipad or was he hiding in the jungle? That always bugged me.

KEN LEVINE said...

No. Someone made an illegal right turn because he didn't see the sign.

Vermonter17032 said...

Shelly Long must be a great sport, because on Cheers she received many wise cracks about the size of her chest. And Rhea Perlman was continually ribbed about her frizzy hair. Oddly, I don't recall too many jokes aimed at George Wendt's weight... definitely a few, but it wasn't a running gag. There were certainly some about Kelsey Grammer's hairline...

I would think that if you are in a comedy, you've got to expect that all aspects of your physical appearance are fodder for jokes.

Rob said...

Great post. Especially for planting impure thoughts of Bebe Neuwirth in my head. Where is she these days?

In terms of songs under scenes, have you ever seen Forest Gump (one of the worst movies ever to win an Oscar)? Almost every song is an obvious and literal interpretation of the action on screen, ("Against the Wind" when Gump is running) or an incredibly obvious choice to reflect the time. Oh how I hate that movie.

Karen from Mentor said...

"....out of costume Bebe Neuwirth was the hottest woman on that set."

Just how out of costume have you seen her? hmmmm?

Great post.
Thanks
Karen

Anonymous said...

if the answer to this is too gossipy or character-defaming, feel free to ignore it, but I always wondered what happened to the Bulldog character on Frasier. He seemed to leave suddenly with no good-by and he wasn't brought back for the finale like, say, Bebe was. While not one of the main characters I thought he was as interesting and funny as Gil. Was it "creative differences" between the actor and others or did someone think the character wasn't contributing?

Judith

Diogo said...

Hey Ken gossip time. I just heard that Rebecca Madder was responsible for one of the major continuity snubs on lost (confirmed by the EP's). She basically arrived on set her first day and insisted that her character's Date of birth was changed, because "she wasn't 35". Of course, now that they are time travelling that little incident caused a mix up in dates that sort of ruins what (little) suspension of desbelief one can have on the show. My question is, have you ever had to accomodate "vanity" requests, and if so, at what point does the writer say enough is enough, go say the goddamn lines already?

Eric L said...

I can definitely see why someone like Loretta Switt would be more sensitive about fat jokes made at her expense than someone like Jackie Gleason. Jackie Gleason was fat. No way around it. And Danny Devito was short. And Rhea Pearlman had frizzy hair. There traits would all be obvious to anyone watching whereas I could see viewers at home not even nopticing Switt's weight until Hawkeye made a joke and they said "Hey, she is kinda chubby, huh?" maybe it does make her a comedic poor sport but I can see where she's coming from.

And as an adolescent no episode of CHEERS would excite me more than one where Lilith let her hair down.

Tim W. said...

Traffic school for an illegal left turn? Are you serious? I can understand if someone had changed lanes without signaling. If I were in charge, people would lose their license for something like that. I mean, how hard is it to move your hand an inch in order to let people know you're changing lanes? I don't think these people realize the safety issue with turn signals. If you're turning onto a multiple lane road, knowing whether someone is coming into the lane you're turning onto is pretty important. And driving behind someone who doesn't signal is annoying because you're never sure if they're going to suddenly swerve into your lane without any notice. Personally, I like to know these things.

Whew! I feel a little better, now.

One last thing on the subject, I like to pull up beside drivers who don't signal and tell them their that turn signal isn't working. Most are oblivious to the fact I'm being sarcastic and thank me. Of course, it's all in the delivery. You have to pretend you're being helpful.

Now, as for Bebe being the hottest woman on the set out of costume, I'm pretty sure she was in costume, too. The pulled back hair and drab clothing can only hide so much. It reminds me of those teen movies where the so-called homely girl gets a makeover and is suddenly beautiful. The problem, of course, is that it was fairly obvious she was always beautiful and the makeover just makes her a little more sluttish and obvious. Believe me, if any of those so-called homely girls were in my highschool, they would certainly be noticed.

Ironically, my verification word is cutie.

alan said...

I did this one :

http://www.webtrafficschool.com/

You can start and stop as much as you want, and it remembers where you left off, and you can retake the quizzes as much as you want until you get a high enough score to move on.

Michael Zand said...

Ken,

A Dan Butler question. He played Bulldog Briscoe (brilliantly I might add) pretty regularly for a few seasons and then kind of disappeared. Was it the actor wanting more money and more guaranteed episodes or did the character just play out? However, given how brilliant the writers were, I think they always could've come up with something for him. Or was he just a pain in the ass?

Here's how you do online traffic school. Go right to the test at the end of the lesson and take it right away. Have the lesson open in another tab to refer to when you're not sure of the answer. And you're done in an hour -- bing bang boom.

stu r. said...

At least you get to use the online traffic school. I don't know if it has changed, but in Orange County you still would have to spend a Saturday at the courthouse in traffic school.
When I got a ticket in LA County, I used the following:
http://www.traffic101.com/
It was basically the same as the other one recommended.
Any word from the Dodgers if you get an extra summer job calling games? Good luck with the traffic school and the Dodger gig.

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, why don't you sign up to teach one of those comedy traffic schools (under an assumed name of course) that seemed to pop up all over LA when I lived out there and then enroll yourself as a student?.... Then you could both fulfill your legal obligation AND get paid for it.... Just a thought (not very constructive, obviously)...

wv: enaribes -- sounds like it should be the name of a string of islands off the coast of Argentina (or maybe New Jersey?)...

Joe said...

Whaddaya mean "out of costume?"

[Eye roll]

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

And Rhea Perlman was continually ribbed about her frizzy hair.

Her hair? Hell, remember the duels with John Allen Hill? One of my favorite late additions, btw. "Someone call the Paris police and inform them a gargoyle has escaped from Notre Dame and is serving drinks in Boston"

Mary Stella said...

What's a good on-line Traffic School that's certified in California and doesn't take forever to complete?

Can't speak for California, but in Florida you're locked into a specific length of time with on-line traffic school. You don't have to complete it all at once, but each section is timed and if you finish too soon, the website simply will not move on to the next section.

That said, after I took the class, I talked to a few lawyer acquaintances who told me I should have challenged the ticket and gone to court because, most of the time, the cops don't show up and your case is dismissed.

There are also some "lawyers" who will charge you $50 and go send someone to represent you in court. Or, as the case may be, they take your $50 to send someone to sit and wait for the cop that doesn't show up.

Jason said...

On camera and in costume. I still have a thing for older goth chicks.

Anonymous said...

Did someone make an illegal right turn because he didn't see the sign in Burbank, by any chance? Because I think there might be some kind of city-wide crackdown going on here. I even saw a cop hiding behind the shrubs @ Costco -- for a moment, I thought I'd stumbled into an episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard."

(Uh, also, if you find any good traffic schools, feel free to mention them on your blog.)

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I get the feeling my questions are being ignored. I'll ask this one again: Do you have a home run call, Ken? You don't even have to wait until Friday.

If I were to write something derogatory about Hot Lips it would be that horrendous screech of hers. She must have shattered Fr. Mulcahey's glasses every time she let loose.

Bebe Neuwirth was incredibly sexy. Playing a prim pecksniff was a great job of acting, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

I can recommend Speeders.net from first hand experience--though of about 8 years ago.

Newly installed no left turn sign + motorcycle cop waiting half a block down the street. He scooped me up like a bear along a salmon stream.

They say 8 hours; I think it took me 3+ by printing out all the junk and scanning for anything that had a number, then taking the quizes.

I kept the answers for the next time this happens. You can turn your 8 hours into a 1/2 hour for the right price.

Mike said...

Cap'n Bob, you've been reading Ken's blog long enough to know that his home run call is "It's Gone!...No Wait a Minute."

WV: floweed. Too easy.

UncleWalty said...

yes yes oh yes Bebe Neuwirth...I always thought Lilith was hot, no matter how uptight she was.

Harold X said...

Not just Bebe, but I think Jane Adams is really hot.

Hey -- anybody ask about Dan Butler yet?


hedlog: that to which all the twigs and branches report

Wayne said...

Shows like "Cold Case" with Nora Ephron song cheats really aren't one hour shows because while the music plays, everyone moves in slooooooow mo.

Dimension Skipper said...

M*A*S*H vs everything else

The same list is there in three different orders. M*A*S*H is #1 and Cheers is at #22 (on the first list sorted by rating).

Just thought some folks around here might be curious to check it out.

Barring some really, really unusual circumstances I don't see M*A*S*H falling from the top spot ever (given how fragmented TV viewership has become with all the alternatives available).

John said...

Ken, with the more permissive (and HBO-inspired) rules the networks have adopted for their show content in the past 10-15 years, are there any episodes you and David did from the 70s and 80s that you look back at now and think it could have been done better if some of the gags allowed today would have been permitted by Standards and Practices back then (or would looser rules resulted in the network folks forcing more shows to gratuitously sexual innuendo-up their dialogue and plot lines because they thought it would add a rating point or two)?

El Vecino said...

Hey! Another spanish fan here! Almost daily vistor!

Matt said...

WV: "aolonic": a software program used to flush your ISP of previously viewed porn.

Dene said...

Thanks for the reply Ken.

The late British producer Geoffrey Perkins, responsible for so many quality TV and radio comedy in his time, left his post of BBC Head of Comedy because of an alleged snooty attitude towards sitcom (unfortunately).

Indeed, apparently a BBC Annual Report used the following verbatim quote: "all the way from high-value costume drama right down to sitcom"! I'm laughing, but it's not funny...

Thanks for that link, Dimension Skipper -- M*A*S*H's No.1 position in the all time ratings surely is evidence enough that the sitcom rocks.

Anonymous said...

Forrest Gump is a classic. I bet the poster doesn't like It's a Wonderful Life either. People with cynical hearts can't appreciate that not everyone on this planet is as self-centered as they are.

MS said...

A random question for you Ken. What's your Myers-Briggs personality type?

Erich Eilenberger said...

Hi Ken,

The Onion AV Club wrote a piece recently about "mutant TV shows," ones in which plots and characters change drastically from season to season.

I am hard-pressed to think of too many shows that have gone through overhauls and stayed on the air. Both HAPPY DAYS and THE ODD COUPLE switched from single camera to multi-camera formats after their first seasons. And, of the ones mentioned in The Onion article, only NEWHART and ELLEN were really successful after being revamped. But, in most cases, it seems that a bad show goes from one format or premise to another then gets canceled not long after. Good shows that might not be hits right away, like CHEERS and SEINFELD, stick to their creative vision and hopefully catch on with audiences.

Have you ever been involved with a show that underwent really significant changes? What is the motive in that situation? Does the impetus usually come from the network or do the writers ever decide to re-vamp a show? And what does it feel like to work on a show that the network wants changed so dramatically?

Thanks,
Erich

Joe Janes said...

Question

With sitcoms being written with a lot of hands on the script, do any good jokes or lines get lost simply because the writers are tired of hearing them?

Ane said...

"The irony on CHEERS was that every character took shots at Lilith for how cold and severe she was, and off camera and out of costume Bebe Neuwirth was the hottest woman on that set."
Not that there was much competition... Just kidding;-) I adore B.N.