Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sitcom chemistry

It’s Friday Question Day – my most popular feature, even if it’s my only feature. Leave your questions in the Comments section. Thanks.
Brian Phillips starts us off:

I recently heard the "Fresh Air" interview on NPR with Terry Gross. Ted Danson said that it took him over a year to play Sam properly. Within that year, I would argue, Sam and Diane worked well off of each other. On the shows you have worked on do you find that the cast "chemistry" is something that is pretty much in place near the beginning of the show ("Friends" creators felt this way about their cast) or does it tend to develop over time?

I found it’s often more rare that the chemistry is present right from the beginning. Usually both the acting and the writing evolves as everyone gropes to find that perfect formula for success. Frequently series will need one or even two years before they really hit their stride. I felt that about THE OFFICE and BIG BANG THEORY.

It sometimes is a trial-and-error process in the early going. Eventually you sift through and find the gold (hopefully).

Ironically, I thought Ted played Sam the best that first season. Part of it is our (writers collectively) fault. I think at times in the course of the run we made Sam too dumb. Granted, that made it easier to mine comedy from the character but I love how cool and together Sam Malone was in those early episodes. But that could just be me.

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is another example of a show I believe had sensational chemistry right from the pilot.

From Fred:

I was in college in the 80s and had a friend at William and Mary who told a story about a classmate who wrote a spec script for M*A*S*H, submitted it and had it produced. This writer, the story went, wrote at least a few scripts while still a student at William and Mary, and eventually became a regular writer for M*A*S*H.

Is there any truth to this story, and if so is it something that could never happen now?

No truth to that story. Sorry. Of course, I've known of guys who happen to share my name who have taken credit for writing my shows. When someone says they wrote for a hit show ask to see a residual check.

It could happen that you sell a spec but it’s highly unlikely. If your script gets you meetings or an agent or an assignment then you've hit it out of the park.

But there are, from time to time, instances when a show will buy a spec script and produce it. That’s what happened to Sam Simon and TAXI. It’s very rare, but who knows? Producers are always scrambling for good stories.

John queries:

Ken have there been any shows you've written for/been employed by and have left that you looked at in their ensuing episodes/seasons and wondered "Why are they doing that?" or "Why are they taking the show in that direction?"

Yes. But there have also been times when I’d see a future episode of a series I worked on and think, “Damn! That’s a great story. Why didn’t we think of that?”

Gottacook wonders:

Do you see any hope for the return of the anthology series?

Probably not but you never know. Anthologies are very expensive to produce. You need a new cast every week, new sets, new stories. In this economy especially, I don’t think networks are looking to take on that kind of ambitious project.

Plus, audiences become attached to characters. Anthologies introduce you to new ones every week. You have to figure out who they are, whether you like them – that’s way too much work for most people. Much easier to just turn on the TV, there’s Monk, he’s afraid of germs again, I’m happy.

There have been variations of anthologies. One is to have one leading character anchoring the series. QUANTUM LEAP and THE FUGITIVE are examples. The series star meets new people and finds himself in new situations but still, the show is centered around him. To some degree MY NAME IS EARL is structured along those lines (but that show had several recurring characters).

And finally, from Joey:

Episodes are edited for syndication or cable to allow more commercial time than when they were first run. Do writers anticipate this and write scenes that are not crucial to the A story that are, in effect, designed to be edited out.

Generally not. If there’s a free floating tag, that’s easily removed. But here’s the thing – even if we wrote scenes that could clearly be lifted, whoever is editing the shows for syndication would select something else. Some MASH episodes are hacked up so poorly that the stories no longer make sense. Or invariably editors will cut out the best jokes of the show. They have a sixth sense for that.


J.J. said...

If you had the opportunity to have a do-over with a failed project your wrote, which would it be and what would you do differently (other than the obvious, "make it successful")? And which network (or cable network) would you want it to be on and why?

SuperBK said...

Hi Ken,
What is a show, past or present, that you would like or would have liked to write for?

Rambling Giraffe said...

Is it possible that there would ever be another Fraiser/Kelsey Grammar spin-off? Cheers/Fraiser were very different, but both funny and successful. I really miss those characters - and I guess it's just wishful thinking to think of resurrecting those characters (or some of them, at least) in another form/sit-com. All the same, could something like that happen if the actors were willing to give it a go?



Michael R, Singapore said...

I have always wondered where the idea came from to spin-off the Frasier character into his own show. Was the idea first to spin-off a CHEERS character, then producers/writers met to discuss which one? How close did we come to getting CLIFF or WOODY? Personally, I thought the show would flop because I thought Frasier was insufferable on CHEERS and the most unsympathetic character to base a show around. So, how did you know that he was the one to spin off? Though I still hate Frasier (the character), I was shocked at how good the show was just by the supporting characters and the writing.

Vermonter17032 said...


I agree that Sam Malone was at his best during the first season for exactly the reason you stated: He was written dumber in subsequent seasons. I think Ted himself says that in one of the DVD extras, an interview he did with someone prior to the start of the second season.

Michael said...

What you said about the editing brings to mind the story of Stan Laurel, probably the most underrated genius in the history of Hollywood (we all know that Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd were geniuses, but most don't realize that Laurel was the brains behind everything he and Oliver Hardy did on-screen). Laurel offered to edit his old films for free for local television stations so that they wouldn't destroy the flow with bad editing. Naturally, they ignored him. But take heart: you aren't the first to feel this way!

David K. M. Klaus said...

> Some MASH episodes are hacked up
> so poorly that the stories no
> longer make sense. Or
> invariably editors will cut out
> the best jokes of the show.
> They have a sixth sense for
> that.

I once saw a syndicated episode of the original Star Trek edited thusly:

Teaser, opening credits uncut


First minute of first act


Last minute of first act


Second act uncut


Third act uncut


Fourth act uncut


Closing credits uncut

I kid you not.

Tim W. said...

The mention of Friends reminded me of when I saw the first episode. There was a lot of hype about the show, so I thought I would check it out. I don't think I lasted half the show before I could stand no more. The next week I left for Australia for a year. When i came back, Friends was a massive hit, and I was shocked. I eventually watched and it was MUCH better. Apparently the chemistry wasn't great right away. From my point of view, anyway.

Alexei said...

Hey Ken,

What shows do you think would make good options for spec scripts this season?


D. McEwan said...

My own observation is that most successful sitcoms need a season to settle down and find themselves. Look at any first season episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and compare it with any episode of any subsequent season. Same with NEWHART.

"Michael said...
Stan Laurel, probably the most underrated genius in the history of Hollywood"

Perhaps, but not by me. I venerate the genius of Stan Laurel, who was indeed a comic giant. Stan's idea of a day off was to come in to the studio, and contribute gags to OTHER people's movies, unpaid and uncredited. All that Laurel & HArdy greatness came from Stan, which was not to underrate Babe Hardy's contribution. But Babe performed brilliantly what Stan invented.

Babe was more interested in getting done and getting to teh golf course. (Golf, the "sport" for men who are wildly out of shape, like Babe was. You weren't going to find him playing tennis.) Stan would deliberately wait until the end of the day to shoot Babe's exasperated close ups, and Babe's impatience to be done and get to the course while it wsa still light enough to play would fuel the exasperation in his famous takes.

Even after retirement, friends report he would invent Laurel & Hardy gags offhand, all the time, wherever he went, that he had no outlet to use, beyond saying, "wouldn't this be funny?" His creativity had no "Off" switch.

One of the great regrets of my life was learning just AFTER he died that for his last few years of retirement in Santa Monica, he was in the phone book, and if you called him up and said you were a fan, he's invite you over. Talk about a lost opportunity.

Stanley Arthur Jefferson, aka Stan Laurel, a comic genius if ever there was one.

ajm said...

I agree that Sam Malone was at his best during the first season

And no offense to the many brilliant funny people who were involved with CHEERS throughout its 11-season run, I believe the first season of CHEERS (1982-83) was the best single season of any sitcom, ever.

LeeFranke said...

With HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER the chemistry might have been there right from the beginning but the stories sucked.

For new shows my wife and I let 2 queue up on Tivo before we watch them.

After the first two of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, we debated removing it from the Tivo list. We decided to give it 2 more...then 2 more. I believe it was that 6th show that everything finally clicked and the show was watchable (they gave NPH significantly more screen time). We really enjoy it now.

benson said...

@D. McEwen: re: Newhart. If for no other reason than just switching from video tape to film.

Middle Browser said...

Re: W&M story. It sounds like someone misheard the story of Karen Hall who went to University of Richmond and later went on to write for M*A*S*H. I know that she was friends with a couple of professors at UR (Brown and Allen) who later offered a three-week summer course in Los Angeles that allowed students to meet with producers, directors and writers. I think the course began after Hall was already a writer. When I took the course in 1983, she was writing for Hill Street Blues. The one part I am not certain about is whether she sent a spec script to M*A*S*H while still in college.

Bob Summers said...

I know you hate the question at a pitch meeting about "What's the first episode of season 7?", but what about shows like "Lost" and now "Flash Forward"?

When everyone sees six months in the future, how do you even think about how are we going to be relevant in season two?

Brian Phillips said...

To answer "Michael R, Singapore"

"I have always wondered where the idea came from to spin-off the Frasier character into his own show."

In Kelsey Grammer's autobiography, Grammer said that the original show that he wanted to do after "Cheers" was a variant on "The Man Who Came To Dinner". He would play a bed-ridden screenwriter (or producer, I forget), who ruled the roost from his bed and made life miserable for all the other people in the house. NBC's Brandon Tartikoff either read the script or saw a pilot and he told Grammer, "I think comedies should be funny."

Having taken that note to heart, he decided that it would be best to go with a character that the audience already knew and liked. I don't recall whether the spin-off was pitched to him before he tried the bed-ridden curmudgeon idea or not, though.

WV: puspek - How chickens deal with acne.

P.S. Thanks to Ken Levine for answering my question!

Joe Janes said...

Hi, Ken,

I've been watching "Gary Unmarried" and "Two and A Half Men"and trying to get into these shows. They're enjoyable casts and loaded with funny lines. That second part is also my problem. It seems like characters are spewing brilliantly witty lines that don't seem like what that character would honestly say in that moment - or even be able to say unless they had a team of comedy writers putting words in their mouths. My question is, have you ever cut a line that was clearly very funny because the character wouldn't say it? Thanks. - Joe

Dave said...

@ Joe Janes

"It seems like characters are spewing brilliantly witty lines that don't seem like what that character would honestly say in that moment - or even be able to say unless they had a team of comedy writers putting words in their mouths."

This was the problem I had with Marty Crane's character.

chalmers said...

At the risk of fawning (I can hear you in a Max Bialystock voice saying, "Go ahead, fawn away!"), I think "Now Pitching, Sam Malone" is where I wish his character had stayed.

He's aroused by Barbara Babcock (as opposed to some young bimbette) and the money/fame she offers, but is grounded enough to resent what's happening.

I think losing Coach as the innocent but fatherly figure pushed Sam's character and the show away from what I think was a more "Taxi"-like mentality. The last few years dealt quite a bit with little moral struggles with Judd Hirsch acting as the garage conscience.

In addition to "Now Pitching," the Coach era had your episode about the gay men in the bar, Coach's Daughter, the one with the "spy," and the lucky bottlecap episode where Sam deals with his alcoholism.

Without Coach, it became more of a show about Sam as the leader of the merry group because there was no one there to hold anyone morally accountable.

willieb said...

In regards to the question about spec scripts, how did you and your partner sell your first script?

Brian Phillips said...

Outside of "Masters of Science Fiction", which ran for four episodes, one nice variant on the anthology series was the late, lamented "TriBeCa". The action took place around characters that were in the TriBeCa neighborhood, the only constant being the owner, played by Philip Bosco. Bosco, in the shows I saw, never had a lead role, but he did have some role. In one episode a fellow is doing his morning run near a veteran's memorial and a homeless man's cart is knocked over. It's the homeless man's only scene, but in the next episode, the homeless man is the focus of the story; he's a veteran of the Vietnam War.

In another episode, the restaurant is coming along at a normal pace and a waitress is a bit short with one of the customers; he becomes irate, then things escalate to him threatening to shoot himself, which he does...with a water pistol that really looked like a gun. The restaurant was being used in a "living theater" context and this was this fellow's "audition".

Great show and sadly, not on DVD.

WV: spring - This one stumped me. It's just a random collection of consonants and one vowel. Perhaps some of our more well-seasoned posters can suggest something for this one.


chalmers said...

I remember an interviewer asking Tom Wolfe if he ever took a break from his literary life to follow a TV show on a weekly basis like regular folks.

Wolfe replied that back in the Seventies he got into the habit of watching "Mannix" even though it had "no redeeming social value."

I can't ever think of the show or the writer ever again without picturing the image of him, tie loosened, white suit jacket on a hanger, trying to solve the crime along with Mike Connors.

Have you ever been shocked by a noteworthy person who complimented you on your work?

Michael said...

D. McEwan, great post. One minor point: Hardy wasn't really THAT out of shape in, say, the 1920s and early 1930s. He did start to get too fat by the mid and late 1930s. He once said he had to be pretty athletic to do some of the things Stan came up with!

Dick Van Dyke said when he came to Hollywood, he started asking people how he could meet Stan and nobody seemed to know. One day, on a lark, he looked in the phone book, and there he was! He ended up doing the eulogy at Laurel's funeral and telling the story that when he did his Laurel impression on his show, he called to ask him what he thought. Laurel said, "Oh, Dickie, it was wonderful." Then he spent 40 minutes telling him everything he did wrong--stuff like his hat being a quarter of an inch tilted too far, that detailed. Van Dyke said he wished he had recorded it, because it was the greatest lecture on comedy he ever heard.

Uh-Oh said...

I disagree about "THE BIG BANG THEORY" taking one or two years to "really hit its stride".

If anything, the series is in danger of becoming "THE SHELDON SHOW" the same way "HAPPY DAYS" became "THE FONZIE SHOW" in its later years...

...which is where we get the expression "Jump the Shark".

blogward said...

Exactly right about Sam Malone: it was funnier that educated smartass Diane was less smart than Sam. (The Frasier/Martin dynamic). That's why dumb Rebecca worked better, but making them both dumb kind of levelled the whole thing down. BTW, I saw John Mahoney in 'The Man Who Came To Dinner' in London in 19?? - a great show, and what a gracious man; cheerfully signed a Frasier script book for my mother-in-law.

comedy movies(us) said...

great !

-bee said...

D. McEwan:

I know its not exactly what you meant, but let me use your comment that sitcoms improve after the first year as an opportunity to bring up two excellent (possibly great) sitcoms ruined in their second years by network meddling: "Grand" and "The John Larroquette Show".

D. McEwan said...

"benson said...
@D. McEwen: re: Newhart. If for no other reason than just switching from video tape to film."

That was as much a part of the settling-in-and-finding-the-show process as was firing the annoying neighbor "Kirk" character, and finding Julia Duffy.

But they had Bob Newhart and Tom Poston right from the start. Along with good writing, what else could you need?

"Michael said...
D. McEwan, great post. One minor point: Hardy wasn't really THAT out of shape in, say, the 1920s and early 1930s. He did start to get too fat by the mid and late 1930s. He once said he had to be pretty athletic to do some of the things Stan came up with!"

True, but you still wouldn't have found him playing tennis. Golf is, after all, as Mark Twain famously wrote, merely "a good walk spoiled."

I'm not nearly as heavy as Babe Hardy, but I've walked up those steps they took the piano up and down in THE MUSIC BOX (feeling I was treading on Holy Concrete), and I was winded by the time I reached the top. I realize the box was just a prop and contained no actual piano, but just going up and down to get in position for shots all day long for however many days it took to shoot (Stan was a perfectionist) would have been exhausting.

I knew the Dick Van Dyke story but didn't include it, as there's a rather large difference between calling Stan up cold and saying "I'm a fan," and calling up and saying "I'm Dick Van Dyke." (He'd already starred on Broadway by then.) But I know of kids my own age-then who called up and got to come over. He was utterly accessible.

I lived for a while, 8 years ago, just up the road from the cemetary where Babe is buried. I thought of him as my neighbor for those years.

At least I did get to meet Buster Keaton, Bud Abbott, and Groucho Marx, but still the fact that I could have just picked up a phone and could have met Stan Laurel will forever rankle. In fact, meeting Bud Abbott was in part due to my determination not to let another slip away unmet like that. But let's face it, Bud was no Stan Laurel.

"bee said...
D. McEwan:
I know its not exactly what you meant, but let me use your comment that sitcoms improve after the first year as an opportunity to bring up two excellent (possibly great) sitcoms ruined in their second years by network meddling: "Grand" and "The John Larroquette Show"."

I didn't say they improve. I said that "successful" ones, by which I mean long-running ones, settle in and evolve into what they become over one or two seasons.

Frankly, for me, The John Larroquette Show was a lost cause the minute they hired Larroquette. I am so not a fan. HATED Night Court.

Anonymous said...

This has probably been asked before, but, what the heck?

Since a spec is meant to (hopefully) impress a showrunner with how well you understand and can handle the show, is it better to write a small 'family script' (concentrating on the core characters), or a larger one full of other characters, locations, etc. For example: the Cranes at home, or on the road? Hawkeye in the Swamp, or chasing an ailing soldier all over Korea?

Ref said...

I loved the scene that picture came from, where Ted D plays dead and Shelley walks over to him in mock grief and drawls "Oh no. Ah KEEELED hiyum!"

Ref said...

...and I hated Larroquette in Night Court, but loved the cast chemistry in his own show.

Christi C. said...

SO true on Sam growing too dumb over the course of the series - you're not alone! I prefer the Sam character in the first year, where I felt he actually had something to backup his bravado. He really was charming and you could see where he could be so successful with the ladies. THAT Sam was hot :-) The dumb one? Not so much.

thevidiot said...

As to editing, back in the old film syndication days, the local stations edited the shows to fit the time allotted. I was in a small town and programming a comedy block when an episode of "Gomer Pyle, USMC" aired. It was the episode where Gomer borrows Sgt. Carter's spiffy new convertible to go visit his girlfriend, LuAnn. He parks next to a construction site and while he is gone, they drop a wrecking ball on it. You guessed it: Film Editing took out the ball drop. Gomer goes in, commercial, Gomer comes back yelling "What am I gonna do?" Oh well, today they just speed the shows up and take pay away from the editors so there is very little syndication work left.

Annedreya said...

I so agree about Sam Malone in the first season of Cheers. I watched that season religiously but life called me away from regular TV watching over the next couple of years. When I had a chance to watch later seasons, I was confused by how dumb Sam appeared to be. I started to wonder if I'd been misinterpreting that first season. Glad to know that I wasn't wrong. Ted Danson remains one of my favorite actors and Sam - the first season Sam - one of my favorite characters.

TribeTom said...

Regarding the MASH writer from William and Mary, the questioner was probably a little confused or forgetful (college was a long time ago), but I recall that Karen Hall (William and Mary 1978) was in fact a writer/editor for several years on MASH. Correct?

Karen said...

Hi Ken, it's Karen. I know the answer to this one!

I graduated from William & Mary, but I spent a summer session with the mentioned professors from the University of Richmond between my junior and senior years. That was indeed where I met Alan Alda. I had a chance to talk to him about my writing ambitions, and he asked me to send him some of my work. I did, he liked it and we kept in touch.

There has always been a controversy over who was actually responsible for hiring me. Burt Metcalfe read script (I think it was a spec Taxi) that my agent had sent over and called my agent to have me come in and pitch. At the same time, Alan recommended me to Burt. When Burt was reading the script, he didn't realize I was the writer that Alan was talking about. So they both claim credit and they're both right. Alan was the one who told me I needed to move to L.A. (But even then, it took a phone call from Jim Burrows -- after he'd read my spec Taxi -- to convince me.

Ken is right about the fact that it never happens that someone reads a spec of their show and buys it. The purpose of a spec is to serve as your portfolio. I had a couple spec Taxis, a spec MASH and a spec MOW. Now listen, this is the important part: never send a spec script of a show to THAT show. It's like sending someone a description of their child, they will spot every little mistake you make.

So, if you'd like to write for The Office, then send them a spec script of ... Hmm. That rule breaks down when there are no other shows on the air of the same genre. (I'm kidding. Send them a 30 Rock or a Big Bang Theory.)

I've only ever heard of one exception to what Ken explained. My former brother-in-law, Nick Harding, wrote a spec episode of Doogie Houser that the producers loved. They bought the spec script and put him on staff. But that story breaks every possible rule, so my advice is always "don't think you're going to be the exception."

A bit of trivia: my spec MASH was produced as a one act play at W&M in 1978. The guy who played BJ was Dylan Baker. If you look him up on imdb, you'll realize that you've seen him in a million movies. Another of my W&M Theater pals was Steve Culp. Last I heard, he was on Desperate Houswives, but he has a long list of impressive credits, too.

There you go. More than you wanted to know, I'm sure.