Thursday, July 16, 2009

How many F-bombs can you drop?
















Here are some answers to your Friday questions. I’ll also be answering over twenty more in my teleseminar on the 25th. It’s free. Go here if you’re interested.

Michael Tassone has a question and only uses the F word five times.

Are there any golden rules of thumb when it comes to using profanity in comedy? I think about the wedding singer in Old School who starts adding fuck to the lyrics he's singing. I thought he went one fuck too far. What do you think? Why is fuck so fuckin funny?

Obviously, it depends on the project. On DEADWOOD I assume a polish of a script meant adding fifty more. On HANNAH MONTANA you’d be hard pressed to get in one.

Assuming this is not for network television or a Sunday school play…

If a character you’re writing is foul-mouthed (like a sailor or rapper or anyone in a Judd Apatow film) then you’re just being true to who they are. But generally speaking I say less is more. Not because I’m a prude but because the word loses its impact.

Sometimes I feel writers use the word as a crutch. Isn’t there a funnier, more elegant comeback than “Fuck you, dude!”?

My basic rule of thumb: take the high road.

Bob Summers wonders:

Have you ever been forced to write an episode based on a real current event? (WKRP Who concert trampling episode, for example.)

I wouldn’t say “forced” but on MASH most of our stories stemmed from actual incidents. We did extensive research, interviewing doctors and nurses and veterans from Korea. Some of the real life stories they told were so outrageous we had to actually tone them down.

Also, have you ever been on a show where the premise was the victim of bad timing? (ABC's "Invasion" in 2005 about the strange aftermath of a hurricane debuts weeks after Katrina.)

On CHEERS we had a rule: never include an elderly public figure in a joke because we would be responsible for their death. If we had done say a Rose Kennedy joke, we just knew that five minutes before it was to air NBC would break in with a bulletin that Rose Kennedy had just died. We didn’t want that kind of blood on our hands.

David and I wrote a SIMPSONS that inadvertently was the victim of horrible timing. The episode is called “Saturdays of Thunder”. In it Homer feels he needs to be a better father so we had him go to the Bill Cosby Fatherhood Center. Channel 11 in Los Angeles reran that episode just hours after it had been announced that Cosby’s son had been tragically murdered. Needless to say they got phone calls.

And finally, from the lovely Mrs. Trumbull:

I enjoy Chicago's MeTV, home of "I Love Lucy," "Dick Van Dyke," "Andy Griffith," "Bob Newhart Show" "The Cosby Show" etc. All reruns. What is the typical deal for actors, writers and others these days on reruns?

It depends on what the guild contracts were when those shows were produced. For I LOVE LUCY, no one gets royalties. For shows in the 60s and early 70s I believe the actors, writers, and directors received residuals for only ten airings.

Starting in I believe 1978 the situation improved to where we all get residuals in perpetuity. We’re paid on a de-escalating scale of course, but free money is free money. I’m very fortunate to have come along during this era, which is why I’m so gung-ho union. I want to ensure that future generations of writers receive the same or better benefits.

Thanks for your fucking questions. If you have one just leave it in the fucking comments section.

31 comments:

Richard Y said...

I have two questions so you can pick one you like...
When a series gets pulled from the lineup before it finishes airing all the filmed episodes, do the actors get paid for just the ones that aired or the complete season including the unaired episodes.

What is it called and WHY do they do it?? That is, a scene, be it TV or film, is about ready to fade out but the phone rings - or you hear a sound effect that has nothing to do with the scene you are watching as it belongs to the next totally different scene and even in a different location. It is distracting to say the least to hear a police siren in the middle of someones living room that belongs 5 seconds later in the scene with the police car.

Just wondering...

YEKIMI said...

I always thought Happy Days would have been more fun to watch if Fonzie would have said "Fucking aaaaay!"

D. McEwan said...

"Richard Y said...
WHY do they do it?? That is, a scene, be it TV or film, is about ready to fade out but the phone rings - or you hear a sound effect that has nothing to do with the scene you are watching as it belongs to the next totally different scene and even in a different location."

They're trying to be Alfred Hitchcock. He invented that in THE 39 STEPS back in 1935. A woman opened a door, saw a dead body, turned to face the camera with a horrified expression on her face, opened her mouth, and out came the whistle of the train Robert Donat was getting on in the next shot. It was so effective (note that Hitchcock INTENDED it to be jarring.) that filmmakers have been ripping it off ever since.

James Patrick Joyce said...

I have two questions.

Is it really necessary to write out that profanity? Do you realize how offensive it is, to some?

I don't remember what my other fucking question was.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Is it really necessary to write out that profanity? Do you realize how offensive it is, to some?

Profanity's offensive? When the fuck did that start? Who the fuck would get offended by that shit?

Besides, this is Ken Levine's blog, not the FCC website. ;)

Marcus Bachaan said...

I think Ken's going back on the porn list . . .

ajm said...

have you ever been on a show where the premise was the victim of bad timing?

Noel Coward's final Broadway musical, THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER, was set in a mythical kingdom. Out of town there was a typical veddy clever Coward number about keeping the royalty safe from potential assassination, titled "Long Live the King (If He Can)."

It was playing in Philadelphia on November 22, 1963.

The song was immediately cut from the show.

Anonymous said...

30 Rock gets a syndication deal for $800,000 per episode. Didn't Seinfeld get $3-million per? Or is $800,000 in a recession (and for a show with limited ratings success) a great deal? Who on the show is now "set for life?" as a result of 30 Rock going syndicated?

--Jeff/NYC

Dana Gabbard said...

Since we are mentioning the F bomb...

Recently at the Miracle Mile FedEx Office (aka Kinko's) here in Los Angeles I was so frustrated at the trouble I was having finding a halfway decent photocopier I loudly dropped an F bomb. Suddenly the manager rushes over and starts screaming at me (screaming!)--that he would ban me from the store if there were any further outbursts on my part, and that he wouldn't tolerate his staff being mis-treated.

I told him I had no problem with his staff, who I always commend. I was yelling at one of their machines that needed repair/maintenance. And I complained they have persistent problems at that location with inadequate servicing of the machines. At which he lamely offered the excuse it is a high traffic location.

So this guy can scream at a customer but is unable to have his higher ups provide adequate resources so this high traffic location doesn't have self service equipment that is continally needing repair/replacement?

Obviously this guy has issues. Thankfully that was my last encounter with Mr. Edgy Manager.

So, Ken--would this be the basis for a funny scene in a cable sitcom? Or is it the sort of true life situation that might have to be dialed down as a bit unbelievable?

Nathan said...

Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I have a question.

Why are you mispronouncing your name on your teleseminar plug?

Silly man.

James said...

I listened to the commentaries for the first season of Deadwood, and believe it or not, every single "Fuck" or "Cocksucker" is placed with care. Sometimes actors would add one of their own and Milch would stop them and have them take it out. I suppose there is a real art to making to profane into poetry

John said...

Ken, ever have a show where you had to write a script while working around the absence of one of the show's stars, if they were AWOL due to a contract dispute (something that seemed to be more common in the 70s and 80s than today) or some sort of illness/injury?

The Norman Lear shows seemed to have an epidemic of those sorts of stories for a while, with a missing Redd Foxx, or Carroll O'Connor or Mackenzie Phillips, where you weren't quite sure if the actor would return (as opposed to say, Larry Linville leaving MASH, where you knew between Seasons 5 and 6 you'd be writing using a new permanent foil for Hawkeye and B.J. with David Ogden Stiers' arrival).

Michael Tassone said...

Thanks Ken!

Kirk Jusko said...

It wasn't exactly bad timing as the show was canceled before the actual event, but the first episode of THE LONE GUNMEN, a spinoff of X-FILES, revolved around a jet flying, or almost flying, into the World Trade Center, about 6 months before 9/11. Had the show been a success, and there had been enough episodes for syndication, I wonder if that particular one would have been shelved.

Anonymous said...

Re: current events - I always thought the worst victim of current events fouling up a comedy was "Big Trouble" (Barry Sonnenfeld film based on Dave Barry book). It had some shoddy airline security gags, and was to be released shortly after 9/11. As a result, it got pushed out to the following spring, and was released with zero marketing. In my opinion, the funniest movie that nobody's seen.

Trent Davis, the Hollywood Vulture said...

Profanity is usually funnier when it's unexpected. Remember the infamous hotel lobby scene in John Hughes' "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"? Steve Martin is trying to rent a car after a series of disasters and is put on hold as the chirpy rental agent talks on the phone. When Martin finally gets to speak, he drops the F-Bomb almost every other word. The chirpy agent stays quiet and calm, but she sees that he has no paperwork, she coldly tells him, "YOU'RE FUCKED!".

Harriet said...

Speaking of the Emmys, how do the writing noms & voting work? Do the studios send out mini-scripts to the membership "for your consideration" or what? The 30 Rock & MM noms suggest that some kind of packet was mailed out -- I mean, what are the odds that those eps, and no other eps of any other shows (other than 1 Lost and 1...comedy, I forget which one) got the votes to be nominated?

Anonymous said...

The wedding singer in Old School (and the Hangover) is named Dan Finnerty and he tours. You can see him in LA or Vegas under the billing "The Dan Band". One of the funniest shows I have ever seen. His material is also on youtube or his website. Highly recommended.

gottacook said...

I once saw a broadcast-TV edit of the Bill Murray movie Quick Change in which every instance of "fucking" (adj.) was replaced, really very entertainingly, by "Viking." (Perhaps this worked better in a Bill Murray comedy than it would have in some other films.)

WV: "mudem" - what a 56K dial-up modem connection, considered fast in 1999, would seem like today.

TE said...

Wasn't the first line in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."?

I may have the number wrong, but it was a lot of 'em, each one funnier than the one before.

Lairbo said...

I second Anonymous' opinion of Big Trouble.

Mark Twain's wife once objected to his frequent use of profanity. Intending to demonstrate to him how offensive it sounded, she reeled off a string of obscenities. When she was finished he told her, "You know the words, my dear, but not the tune."

So, when it comes to f-bombs, it's context (as always), intent, and timing.

Alan Coil said...

Deadwood was f****** great. M*****f****** great, too. Also C***s****** great. I had, just by chance, sat down one night to watch Deadwood with a pencil and a sheet of paper to log how many times each curse or swear was used. I was f****** blown away by the final tally. It was in the hundreds.

It just happened to be the episode where the Chinaman Hu was trying to tel Swearengen that the dope had been stolen. Hu, having little knowledge of English, used only English words that Swearengen (living up to his name) had taught him. It made for a "Hu's On First" type of conversation, especially whenever Swearengen said 'who', which Hu took to mean himself.

A great use of swearing, one of the all-time classic scenes.

Heidi Germanaus said...

"Fuck" was masterfully used in "The Big Lebowski".

jbryant said...

One of my favorite uses of profanity in a movie is a scene in David Mamet's THINGS CHANGE. Mamet, who certainly knows his way around the 'f' word, opted to have Joe Mantegna respond to a certain unwanted development by simply saying "Oh, hell." Not much on the page, I'll admit, but pretty funny in context, especially as Mantegna delivers it.

DwWashburn said...

Ken, I know you hit on this briefly about three years ago, but I would like you to amplify if possible. I just saw Goodbye Radar the other night and noticed your name. I've always heard that when Gary left there were few tears shed as he was not well liked by cast and crew. I know you talked about him not wanting to wear his hat, but that can't be all there is. Is the rumor true and if so is there anything you can relay concerning the cast's dislike for him or vice versa?

Michael said...

A question for Ken: I presume you have a royalties stake in Cheers and Frasier. How do you feel about the fact that there are complete episodes for free on You Tube? (You know, like the ones that you post now and then?) Do you think it's fine, or that it's free samples for DVD sales, or that you've been cheated, or that your stake is so small that it's not worth worrying about?

yatesy said...

I have a question for you Mr. Levine. If expansion, as opposed to relocation, was the more popular move by major league baseball back before the Giants and Dodgers moved, do you think that those teams would have stayed and flourished as time went on? or do you think it would have been overkill to have 3 mlb teams in one city? Would the Mets still have popped up? Do you think the Boston Braves would have stayed? How about the Athletics here in Philly (Home Of The World Champs!)? I really would like to hear your take on that!
Thanks!

john meehan said...

great post.

saw a great television edit of "the big lebowski" where john goodman smashes up the car and goes on a rant, screaming...

"that's what you get! that's what you get, donny, when you FIND a stranger in the ALPS!"

lol. classic.

ED said...

My favorite television edit ever was at the end of Die Hard 2, they dubbed in Bruce saying, "Yippee-Kay-Ay Mister Falcon."

Rory L. Aronsky said...

First-time questioner, obsessive reader:

The other morning, CBS 2 in Los Angeles aired the second season episode of "Frasier" entitled "Adventures in Paradise: Part 1" First, though you've no control over the episode airings, thank you for that one. It helped chuck out a bothersome headache.

When you and David Isaacs were writing this episode, was there an edict that came down from however the hierarchy was on the writing staff that it was time to give more insight into Niles's marriage to Maris, or did you and David decide upon it? I'm not entirely sure, but I think before this, there were only vastly amusing descriptions of Maris and her various activities.

Bob C said...

Hey Ken!

Long time reader, first time poster.

I totally agree with your comments about using profanity as a crutch. Everytime someone says "Fuck You" when something else could have been used better, I think of this exchange from "Speed" (1994):

Howard Payne: See, I'm in charge here! I drop this stick, and they pick your friend here up with a sponge! Are you ready to die, friend?

Harry: Fuck you!

Howard Payne: Oh! In two hundred years we've gone from "I regret but I have one life to give for my country" to "Fuck you!"?

Not THE most brilliant movies ever made, but THIS quote is priceless.

Thanks for the blog! Keep up the great work.