Thursday, July 23, 2009

Who is my favorite writer?

First off, thanks to all of you for the lovely comments on yesterday’s post. I shall continue to defend Patty Heaton even at the risk of Anonymous calling me names.

Also, today’s the last day you can sign up for my 90 minute teleseminar (which happens on Saturday). It’s free and here’s where you go to register.

Now for some Friday questions.

Vermonter17032 (as opposed to the 17031 other Vermonters) writes:

QUESTION: I'm wondering how show-changing decisions get made. For example, during the fourth season of Cheers, Lilith was introduced in one episode as a date for Fraiser. In season five, she was back in a larger roll one episode, and then a few shows later Fraiser and Lilith are cohabitating and she became a regular character. How does that process work? Did someone decide that Fraser needed a steady girlfriend/wife, or was Bebe just so good you couldn't keep her out of the show?

These are the happy accidents producers hope just fall into their laps. A guest actor happens to really score. So you bring them back and give them a little more to do. They hit it out of the park and eventually they wind up regulars. Lilith is a perfect example. As you mentioned, she originally was just slated to be in one three page teaser. Another example is Reverend Jim on TAXI. He was introduced in one episode as a guy hired to perform a marriage ceremony. And then there’s Klinger on MASH (who knew a guy in a dress would be funny?) These are gifts from God. Our reward for having to take stupid notes.

Sonia asks:

One of the best ideas I've seen in all these years was making Daphne getting fat because of her love for Niles. How did you think about this? How did you think it could work?

I wasn’t on staff of FRASIER at the time but I think this story turn was necessitated because Jane Leeves got pregnant. Quite a few producers have been faced with this writing challenge but I agree on FRASIER they handled it deftly and inventively. But with the FRASIER staff, would you expect anything less?

And Scott Siegel has two questions. Actually, three now that I think about it.

Who is your favorite writer, or what scene in a movie/tv do you wish you wrote?

Larry Gelbart is my all-time favorite. I assume you mean comedy. There are others I greatly admire but I don’t want to list them because I know I'll leave someone out. And then Woody Allen is calling me pissed. I don’t need the headache.

If I had to choose one single comedy scene I would say the “Putting of the Ritz” scene from Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. I laugh just as hard now as I did when I first saw it.

My next question is about those artists/writers that have given you praise for something you wrote (or said they wished they had written that). Are there any that really stick out in your mind and say, "Wow, that was special praise".

Alan Alda in an interview said that “Point of View” was one of his all-time favorite MASH episodes. I cherish that.

Director James Burrows surprised the heck out of me by telling a reporter that an episode we wrote of CHEERS, “The Big Kiss-Off” was one of his faves.

But the greatest praise, and I’m still stunned to this day, is that Kurt Vonnegut said on Charlie Rose that he wished he were good enough to write a CHEERS. Holy shit! I am still utterly blown away.

What’s your question?

34 comments:

D. McEwan said...

"If I had to choose one single comedy scene I would say the “Putting of the Ritz” scene from Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN."

A great moment. As it happened, I was lucky enough to be present for part of the shooting of that scene.

At the time (January, 1974) I was writing for beloved Los Angeles horror host Larry "Seymour" Vincent. Larry was also appearing 6 nights a week at the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica, which was doing a recreation of authentic English music hall shows, with Bernard Fox as the "Chairman" (emcee), a small troupe of regulars, including Larry, and different guest headliners each week, like a last gasp of vaudeville. (Visiting Larry I saw such headliners as Martyn Green, Ian Whitcomb and the great Anna Russell)

Larry, knowing that the only thing I loved more than comedy were classic horror movies, and that I was pretty much obsessed with Mel's in-production Frankenstein parody film, and tipped me off that Mel Brooks was shooting YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN there one week, during the day.

So I dressed up nice, put on my "I belong here" all-business face, and headed over there the next afternoon, when I got off work at KGIL. I just walked in. No one ever challenged me on whether I had any business being there, which I hadn't. I avoided drawing the attention of Brooks or any of the stars.

No one ever asked, "Who are you?" or "Do you belong here?"

I saw a bit of the song and dance shot, and a LOT of the audience pelting Peter Boyle with vegetables, and his being captured and carried out.

I saw Mel shoot a hilarious close-up of Marty Feldman at the piano being pelted with foods (by Mel, who was standing beside the camera chucking the food at Marty) and Marty catching some of the fruit and eating it. Never made the final film.

In the completed film, when you see the overhead shot of the monster being carried up the left hand aisle (The camera was in the balcony, shooting down), I am actually standing in the other aisle, which is out of the shot.

After one particularly side-splitting take (lots of laughter on that very happy set), I turned to just say something, anything, to whoever happened to be standing beside me, only to turn and see I was speaking to Gene Wilder, whose attention I did not want to attract. I almost fainted.

It was one of the best days I have ever spent on a set.

Later, I attended an early screening with footage still in the film that was cut before release. On that occasion I was able to summon up the courage to tell Mel Brooks that I thought it was the best Frankenstein movie since James Whale stopped making them. But it wasn't easy, as it involved standing so close to Anne Bancroft that I could smell her fragrance, and she was such a magnificent goddess, I could hardly focus my mind. Yes, I'm gay, but not so gay that standing a foot away from Anne Bancroft as she was in 1974 wasn't intoxicating.

It remains among my very favorite films. Mel's never made a better one.

16 years later, I while Second City was occupying that theater, I got to teach an improv workshop on that same, forever-sacred stage.

Tim W. said...

I still love the episode when Daphne returned from her `fat clinic', or whatever it was, and it's mentioned that she lost 8 pounds 12 ounces.

By the way, Ken, why would anyone call you `pissed;. Isn't your name Ken?

Brad Brickley said...

I hope your head didn't swell too big with such accolades from Mr. Vonnegut! What great praise!

bdub said...

Ken, wonderful as always. The fact that Kurt Vonnegut wished that he could have a job that you had should be enough for anyone to die a happy man. Godspeed!

D. McEwan said...

Julie Chen, over on BIG BROTHER, is pregnant, and certainly "showing." But so far they haven't given her a fat storyline, nor had her carrying towels and props and standing behind breast-high furniture, as Julia Duffy did when she was preggers on NEWHART.

I loved Edina's line to Saffy on ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS when Saffy told her she was pregnant: "Well darling, you should TELL people you're pregnant right away. Otherwise they will just think you're fat!"

Gadzooks. I wish I were a good enough writer to write something even a quarter as wonderful as Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5.

Paul Duca said...

Since you mention Liiith, this is a perfect place to mention this bulletin. Remember in the WINGS episode you wrote where she and Frasier go to Nantucket, and among other things are battling over his obsession with the buxom Swedish nanny caring for their son? The curtain line (spoken by Joe), after the dispute turns physical....""FIve bucks on Morticia--she's small but wiry"
You were a true seer, Ken...Bebe Neuwirth is now in fact, going to portray Morticia opposite Nathan Lane's take on Gomez, in a musical version of THE ADDAMS FAMILY scheduled to open on Broadway next April. I saw a squib in the local paper. I didn't recognized the name of the man who composed the score, but the book is by the team who did JERSEY BOYS.

Mike Bell said...

I always thought it was an honor to sit in the same chair that Beaver Cleaver occupied at KERN.

rob! said...

Ken-

Okay, I have a question: I've noticed that some series, when they're going off the air--MASH and Cheers spring to mind as examples--seem to have a run of really great shows in their last season, particularly the back-half.

When a show is taking itself off the air (as opposed to being cancelled), do producers hold off what they might think are their strongest shows for the very end?

Vermonter17032 said...

Thank you for answering my question, Ken. I didn't say so yesterday, but want to tell you how much I have enjoyed your blog. It's one of the first things I read to get my day off to a grand start.

Anonymous said...

No offense to Ken or Sonia, but at the time, the "Daphne gets fat" decision was reviled by critics and many viewers. For weeks on end, she was made the butt of fat jokes and shown chomping away on things. To many of us, it came across as demeaning to the character and even the actress (and I'm a guy). I would've rather seen her body hidden behind boxes and laundry baskets--even talking out of a hole in the floor!--than that.

Rock Golf said...

Regarding Julie Chen's pregnancy, the contestant have been told about it. They don't want the evicted houseguest to come out and the first thing s/he says is "Omigod Julie! Have you ever packed on the weight!"

WV: Whansest - the most whan.

Anonymous said...

Ken, here's a Friday question:

Does this scenario ever happen -- a writer and an actor disagree over a line, but eventually the writer wins out and the actor agrees to do it the writer's way.

Then, during the actual taping, the actor instead does the line HIS way -- hoping that it will get the desired response, or the director will let it slide?

Do directors automatically yell cut if someone varies a line, or is it a judgment call?

diane said...

I feel the same way about the scene from Young Frankenstein and also love the wagon scene with the line "There wolves and there wolves." The whole movie is brilliant. And now I am jealous of your story D. McEwan. Actually I'm very glad that you had such a marvelous opportunity and that you were willing to share. Thank you Ken for a wonderful blog that also invites such interesting comments.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

D. McEwan - great story and thanks for sharing. Brooks is a national treasure...

- Abbey Normal

Joe said...

If you defend Anonymous, will Patricia Heaton call you names?

Just askin'

WVW is "hinali" which is the way one greets more than one Nalus.

Kirk Jusko said...

Kurt Vonnegut? Man, the only thing that could top that would be for Mark Twain to rise from the grave with a compliment.

Chris Riesbeck said...

Young Frankenstein has several of my laugh-till-pain scenes -- the other 2 are "put the candle back" and the soup scene with Gene Hackman.

VW: AMMED -- when you're too hammered to say 'hammered.'

Tom Quigley said...

D. McEwan said:

On that occasion I was able to summon up the courage to tell Mel Brooks that I thought it was the best Frankenstein movie since James Whale stopped making them. But it wasn't easy, as it involved standing so close to Anne Bancroft that I could smell her fragrance, and she was such a magnificent goddess, I could hardly focus my mind. Yes, I'm gay, but not so gay that standing a foot away from Anne Bancroft as she was in 1974 wasn't intoxicating.


Doug, I'm with you on this one... I had the good fortune to meet Anne Bancroft twice when Mel Brooks guested in a couple of episodes of MAD ABOUT YOU; and besides the obvious "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me" remark that would come to mind at such a moment (which thanks to my better judgment I had the sense not to utter), the thing I remember best was that even in the later years of her life, she had the most angelic smile of anyone I have ever met.

D. McEwan said...

"diane said...
I ... love the wagon scene with the line 'There wolves and there wolves.' The whole movie is brilliant. And now I am jealous of your story D. McEwan. Actually I'm very glad that you had such a marvelous opportunity and that you were willing to share."

Let's be frank. It was not so much "sharing" as "bragging." Thanks for pretending not to notice.

The actual wagon exchange is:

Fronkenstein: "Werewolf?"

Eyegor: "There wolf. There castle."

Fronkenstein: "Why are you talking that way?"

Eyegor: "I thought you wanted to."

Fronkenstein: "No."

Eyegor: "Okay. I'm easy."

"Tom Quigley said...
[Anne Bancroft] had the most angelic smile of anyone I have ever met."

There was also that little thing of her being one of the finest actresses in the world. Plus, she was a goddess who thought "funny" was "sexy."

Jim Stickford said...

Ken,

Here's a Friday question. Did you ever encourage actor input in say Fraiser, but not, say, AfterMASH? Those are examples, but I imagine that each show has its own atmosphere. One might be the actors are sharp, let's listen and the other might be the actor's are good, but no improv from them, this isn't that kind of show.

benson said...

D. McEwen and Tom Quigley...you lucky bastards.

That movie is so beloved. My teens agers have now discovered it and for some reason it's come up in conversation several times with friends in the past few weeks. And everyone seems to have a favorite scene or line! "He was my.... boyfriend!!!" is maybe my favorite.

And the Uncle Phil episodes of "Mad about you" are so great.... "firm embrace!" and the rogue gas bubble. Since no one is chomping at the bit to release more Mad about you on DVD, it would great if someone had outtakes from those episodes to put up on YouTube.

Suzanne said...

I loved the show Almost Perfect. I've always thought Nancy Travis MUST be like her character in real life. Was she just a good actress or was the character written to parallel her precious personality? I have Almost Perfect on my Tivo wish list...hoping for the day it automatically records it for me. I'll have to call in sick to work that day!

Suzanne said...

Here's what I loved about Frasier. There were some repetitive phrases that I found hysterical. "Why'd you do it [insert name here]". I laugh every time I see those episodes. And I personally quote one episode all the time..."When you get the one, you get that OTHER one." Frasier is one of those rare shows that stands the test of time.

Mike Schryver said...

I'm glad some people enjoyed the "Daphne gets fat" storyline, but it made me very uncomfortable. It was as if there was something wrong with being pregnant, although I understand why Daphne couldn't be pregnant.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

The correct phrase is "champing at the bit."

Brag away, Doug, but I got to see a taping of a Seattle morning show at the Bremerton Community Theater in 1979. I don't recall the name of the show, but the hosts were Stiff Cliff and Squirrely Shirley. At the time I was involved with a production of Witness For the Prosecution and there was talk they'd mention it during the broadcast. They didn't, the self-involved twits.

Baylink said...

Oddly, I *just* read an invu with Brooks a couple days ago (after seeing Saddles live in a theatre last Sunday), and he said he *hated* the Ritz scene, and his writing partner on that script had to beat him up for it.

Kirk Jusko said...

His writing partner was Gene Wilder, whose idea it was.

foobella said...

Ken, you need a search button or a label widget so we can look up all these past topics you always reference. pretty please?

Mike said...

Having just watched a Nick Tortelli episode of "Cheers" (incidentally, one written by you and your partner, the third season episode where Nick is left by Loretta and becomes a janitor at Cheers to try to win Carla back), this question popped in my head: Why do you think "The Tortellis" failed? It's impossible to find an episode anywhere, even on YouTube. Nick always cracked me up on Cheers and I've always kinda wish they used him more....but was Tortellis a case a of a little going a long (too long) way? What didn't work about the show, in your opinion?

jbryant said...

Well, I can't top Doug's anecdote, but I did get to see Anne Bancroft in person once, leaving the Nuart after a screening of The Third Man, accompanied by Carl Reiner (no Mel in sight). I've lived here over 16 years now, and I still get a kick out of celebrity sightings.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Honestly JB, now that Anne Bancroft, and Estelle Reiner as well, are gone, what is the point of exposing the secret affair between Carl Reiner and Anne now? You're only going to hurt Mel. Let it be. At least you didn't say who "the Third Man" was. (Howard Morris? Gene Wilder? Marty Feldman?)

Alyson said...

A Friday question for you:
I recently rewatched Frasier - great show, even better than I remembered. I'm curious about the fencing scene in "An Affair to Forget" from season 2. Awhile back, you wrote a nice post about Jane Leeves and how she learned how to shoot pool for an episode. So my question is: We all know David Hyde Pierce is a great physical comedian. Did he learn how to fence for that episode, did he already know, or was he just winging it?

Love the blog. Thanks for sharing all your stories.

Anonymous said...

foobella: you can use Google to search through Ken's old posts. Just include the term "site:kenlevine.blogspot.com" (without the quotes) in a Google search with your search words. Click here for an example

PALGOLAK said...

I am confused: how do people send you these questions?

There doesn't seem to be a way to interact, apart from commenting...

I have a question regarding Radar O'Reilly that has been burning in the back of my mind for 30 years now.

Please help!