Friday, August 27, 2010

Once you get Klinger out of his dress, then what???

What happened to the summer? That’s the first Friday question. Here are others. Thanks for asking yours.

benson wonders:

Many series have clip show episodes with some new material to tie together all the reminiscences. Do you keep an audience from a regular taping, or if there is something in need of a audience reaction, do you just sweeten with taped reactions?

I never had a show of my own on long enough to have a clip show. Did one on MASH, which took more time pouring through footage than if we had written a six new episodes.

Note to showrunners: CLIP SHOWS ARE A PAIN IN THE ASS. At first you’ll think it’s a freebie, but it’s NOT. It’s a time suck like you wouldn’t believe.

If a show does not heed my advice they usually will shoot the wrap-arounds after a show if filmed and just before the audience is released. How many people stick around? That depends on how long the filming was? If they kept for five hours then there will be a stampede when the director yells “cut!” If they're kept for three they’ll probably hang in there. It helps to provide pizza.

On TAXI they did an interesting thing: to save money because each week of production was expensive, they put together a two-part episode where each character went off to find a new job. And every week they filmed one of these scenes after the regular show. Each actor only had one week where they really had extra duty. They also filmed the wrap-arounds after completing an episode.

This saved Paramount two weeks of production costs. And by the way, they were two of the best episodes that season.

Alan Sepinwall, TV critic extraordinaire (who you should read on his new site) asks this MASH question:

In hindsight, do you think it was a mistake that when Radar left "M*A*S*H," his replacement was the pre-existing Klinger? Or did Klinger's role and persona change enough with the promotion that it felt like the show had added a new character?

I wasn’t on the show at the time. The last episodes my partner and I wrote were “Goodbye Radar” but that never stops me from answering questions as if I were there.

I believe the decision to make Klinger the company clerk was to kill two birds -- cover that job assignment and give Klinger something else to do. The producers (rightly so) determined that we had gone as far as we could with the dresses and Section 8 schemes. Having used every gown in the vast 20th wardrobe department that covered over 10,000 pictures probably was a clue.

I think the trouble they encountered though was that without that schtick it was hard to make Klinger really funny.

From Kath:

Ever since advertisers discovered that they could get specific audience info rather than as a block for everyone, networks have targeted their decisions to the 18 - 49 demo. It doesn't matter how many people overall watch a show as long as the 18-49 or better yet 18-35 demo loves it.

Do you think this has affected the quality of programming?

Good God, YES!!

It seems to me that comedy shows especially were funnier before the Friends model began to control everything. Not to mention a number of shows that I enjoyed that were pulled because even though the total viewership numbers were decent, they didn't do well in the 18-49 demo.

I don’t know if they were funnier but comedies used to be more sophisticated. They were written by adults for adults.

Oh no!! This is going to make me sound like one of those "you kids get off my lawn" old guys. But...

What I don’t understand is this: why do networks feel the only way to attract younger viewers is to do shows featuring teenagers and twentysomethings exclusively? I think that's insulting to the viewers you’re trying to reach. In today’s world the following shows would never get sold: MASH, FRASIER, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE ODD COUPLE, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, CHEERS, WINGS, TAXI, BARNEY MILLER, and ALL IN THE FAMILY. None of these shows had zany teenagers or were about high school and yet all these shows had huge 18-34 numbers.

I wish the networks would give young viewers more credit.

And finally, from Dana Gabbard:

Ken, how do you and your partner come up with titles for the scripts you co-write? Any rule you tend to follow? Does it make a difference whether it is for a show that displays titles on air as to how much effort is invested in coming up with a title?

Even if a show doesn’t display the title on the air it's usually listed it in your channel menu. So be careful not to give away any plot secrets.

Sometimes to soothe an actor’s ego we’ll put the name of the character somewhere in the title.

Otherwise we generally just do variations of movie titles or puns. “Death Takes a Holiday on Ice” was the CHEERS title in the episode where we killed Eddie LeBec with a rogue Zamboni machine. When Norm staged an office toga party we titled the show, “Friends, Romans, Accountants”. Nothing too elaborate. It's not like you're being asked to come up with episode titles for Rocky & Bullwinkle.

I love how on FRIENDS they just titled every episode “The one that…” How many brain cells were saved as a result of that time saver?

On OPEN ALL NIGHT we wrote an episode we called “Missing One Geek”. It got filmed with that title and I dunno, someone objected so it got changed to “Terry Runs Away”. When we were nominated for a WGA Award for it the Guild didn’t know what the official title was. Fortunately, all confused was erased when we lost. What a break!

What's your question???

31 comments:

Judith said...

You've mentioned that Kelsey Grammer was very generous on Frasier, for example, recognizing David Hyde Pierce's talent as much as anyone. I just wondered: were there rules, formal or informal, about how episodes treated the main character, Frasier, in terms of how much the story line revolved around him, for example? Or was it just more common sense, we know who the star of the show is?

iain said...

...Nothing too elaborate. It's not like you're being asked to come up with episode titles for Rocky & Bullwinkle.

aaaand, cue the voice of William Conrad:

"Dollars to Doughnuts or The Wonderful World of Cruller"

"The Ocean Waves or Hi, Divers"

Roger Owen Green said...

I always thought that M*A*S*H shuld have ended with Radar going home. I agree - Klinger sans dress was unfunny.

David (not Isaacs) said...

Building on Judith's question, who are the most giving actors you`ve worked with - the ones who are most willing to give away great lines and setups to build a better show?

(We can call this the anti-Drescher question)

velvet goldmine said...

"I wish the networks would give young viewers more credit."

If only! My kids obsessively watched Frasier reruns in grade school. They're 12 and 14 now. Their current favorite DVD rentals include Barney Miller, News Radio, WKRP in Cininnati, Taxi and Golden Girls. The only "wacky teen" show they own is Gilmore Girls.

Of course kids respond to shows about their age group, but my personal theory is they like teen dramas, if the shows are smart. For comedies, if the characters are interesting and funny, the age is immaterial.

DrBear said...

I don't know ... both when I WAS in the 18-49 group, and even after, I never, ever thought shows (or movies) about teens got it right.

scooter said...

I found that, after Radar left, the MASH group dynamic got very flat and predictable: lots of yelling and childishness, intercut with drama that became more heavy-handed than earlier seasons. From this point on, for me, the show is unwatchable. Even the finale, apart from sentimental reasons, is pretty tough to swallow.

Nat G said...

Teeny technical correction: only two episodes of Friends had titles that start with "The One that"... and that's only because "The One that Could Have Been" was a two-parter. Much more common are "The One Where" and "The One which", with a few other variations along the way ("The One on the Last Night", "The One After 'I Do'", etc.) and the last one, which was, of course, "The Last One".

I haven't checked lately if Desperate Housewives ever ran out of Sondheim titles to reuse as episode titles

Richard J. Marcej said...

Almost every episode of "3rd Rock From the Sun" has the name Dick (John Lithgow's character's name) in the title:
"See Dick Run"
"Hotel Dick"
"Much Ado About Dick"
"Dick the Vote"
"Fourth and Dick"
"World's Greatest Dick"
etc...

tb said...

Oh my God, that photo is hysterical!I remember them all describing his Zamboni demise, but I do not remember SEEING it! haha!

Michael said...

A couple of points.

One, Kelsey Grammer once did a tribute show to Jack Benny, and you certainly can see Benny's influence on Grammer. Benny always said he was the straight man and his cast was funny. One of his radio shows had as its plot a bus visiting the homes of Hollywood stars. The driver would refer to one of Benny's cast, and then the show would go inside--Dennis Day did a song, Don Wilson a commercial, Rochester talked about how cheap his boss was, and so on. Finally, the driver announced Benny's home and Benny said, "Driver, this is where I get off." It was his only line in the show. But as he said, he was the subject of the entire show, and it made a great show.

Also, a mild dissent on Klinger. I think MASH should have gone off a couple of seasons before it did. But I thought having Klinger as clerk worked in some ways because he was such a conniver--as Radar had had to be, but in a very different, more naive way. I just think that in the last couple of years, the show was running on fumes--and it still was the best show on TV.

bevo said...

More general observation about the state comedy than anything else (I had a long drive yesterday and no new podcasts).

Comedies by and large stink today because the writers never worked. The writers grew up with Barney Miller, Taxi, WKRP, etc.

Decades later and WKRP remains funny because Hugh Wilson based it off his work experiences. Write what you know. The show is not perfect but it remains funny.

NewsRadio is good but not in the same league because it feels like the only job the writers held were watching WKRP and Taxi. Yikes.

Go work as a real estate agent (I have not but I have known them) for 5 years. If you know how to write comedy and structure a 22-minute format, then you could have a successful show about a group of real estate agent. From your own experience, you can create characters beyond the cliches. And the whole industry is rife with enough cliches and generalities that your humor transcend work place (see WKRP, Taxi, etc.).

Just send any royalties to...

benson said...

Ken, thanks for taking my question. The love of my fiance, my kids, and all the great ARB's pale by comparison to the validation I feel after seeing today's blog post. The only thing that's even come close was getting an email response once from Great Big Radio Guy.

Jim Stickford said...

Ken,
You make an interesting point. I remember watching what my parents watched. Back in the day, there were three networks. The "children's hour" started at 7 p.m. By 8 or 9 I was in bed. The exception was Friday and Saturday. We kids got to stay up late. To this day I can remember the Friday night schedule for ABC and the Saturday night schedule for CBS.

Friday was kids' night because my parents went out. Hence we watched Brady Bunch, Partridge Family, Odd Couple, Room 222 and Love American Style.

Saturday night was home with the kids. So we watched All in the Family, MASH, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett.

By the time I was 10 I realized the Brady Bunch was an incredibly stupid show, and when I was 12 I watched Barney Miller because the reviews were good and turned my dad onto that show.

The only teen show I watched was The White Shadow. It was a teen show aimed at boys and the students seemed real in their imperfectiosn and attitudes. They weren't "hip" in a Gilmore Girls way.

Now you can't do that. The balkanization of TV means parents and kids don't sit down together to watch TV. It's a shame the kids aren't given a chance to see the good stuff with their parents.

chalmers said...

"Taxi" actually did a two-part wraparound episode at the end of each of its first four seasons. The fifth season closed with a clip show introduced by Danny DeVito.

The episode where they had to find other jobs closed Season Three. Season One ended with flashbacks from "Cab 804." Season Two closed with the cabbies' fantasies (including a Herve Villechaize cameo). Season Four had the characters reflecting on turning points in their lives.

Some of these vignettes were among the show's best-remembered moments: Elaine's "Lullaby of Broadway" fantasy; Jim's door-to-door salesman job; and his flashback to his first drug experience at Harvard (I was sure that the guy playing the stoner had a long, successful sitcom career ahead of him, but it wasn't to be).

There was probably extra motivation to take care of a couple of episodes like this because the talented cast was in demand for other projects.

Doug Barry said...

Love your site. I read it everyday. I have a question which I hope you can answer. It goes back to one of your previous posts this past week about "Overwriting".

It seems a sitcom must fall somewhere around 21 minutes on the major networks, and cable tends to run longer as I've seen 27 minute shows. But often times I read spec scripts for shows which are 35 pages or more. Is this acceptable? Shouldn't a good spec run about 20 or so pages for a show like MODERN FAMILY?

Just confused on how many pages a spec script should actually be and what's acceptable in the industry. Please answer. Thank you.

Rob said...

Why did the late Johnny Haymer suddenly stop appearing as Sgt. Zale (the same week that Radar left) after six years?

Mac said...

Very interesting post about audience demographics. There was a show here in the UK called "One Foot In the Grave" - the story goes that the writer was told by the Commissioning Editor that comedy about middle-aged people, set in their front rooms, was over.
He wanted him to write a show about young people doing whatever exciting things young people do.
The writer was so annoyed that he went off and wrote a show about a guy who was hitting sixty, loses his job and spends his day at home getting on his wifes' nerves. It ran for eleven years and was a huge hit with all ages - kids, teens, middle-aged, old-aged.

Wallis Lane said...

Klinger was never funny. Not once. I loved M*A*S*H, but I sort of learned to tune out whenever Jamie Farr walked into the tent and tried to act.

Actually, there was one time, but the laugh came from another character's reaction. When crazy General Bartford Steele (Harry Morgan 1.0) visited, and Klinger in drag approached him (cue Henry Blake's horror-stricken face), the General looked Klinger over and said "Not now, Marjorie, I'm reviewing the troops."

Q for Ken: Has there ever been a joke or a line that you've really regretted including in an aired episode?

A. Buck Short said...

OK, it’s almost sundown here on the wrench, so before I have to drag our Christian back in to sort through the rest of the iPorn for us until tomorrow night, do you think you might have time for one or two more of my typical Friday questions that there’s never any answer for.

1) I don’t know if you heard, but while nobody was looking the Sandinistas are back. Can a former football coach still be voted out of Nicaragua for a bad hair day? And yet he’ll never look worse than that streaking tax cheater felon Richard Hatch. (Bonus: Does JJ live anywhere near Mary Stella? If not why not?)

2) Speaking of jail, how soon do you think that former Pimp My Survivors producer Bruce Beresford-Boyismyface-Redman or something like that, who I think still may be going through a little Mexican unpleasantness over the strangulation death of his wife in Cancun (I can hear TMZ now, “ If it had only been Cozumel, he could have just voted her off). If convicted, how long before he’s out again with the aforementioned Hatch, pitching either “Survivor Greybar Hotel” or Survivor: Cancun Sewer?” And is the real Bruce Beresford enjoying the publicity.
Better yet -- and feel free to take the next 3 or 4 months to come up with an answer.

3) Also speaking of your better directors, look, obviously the regular script has already been submitted by now without even knowing the ending – but how soon before one or more of CBS’ 9,723 Big Brother producers, executive producers, coordinating producers, segment producers, field producers, supervising producers, and whoever waxes Julie Chen is in Bruckheimer’s office all, “You think a dozen mentally challenged, infantile narcissists in a cheesy house draws ‘em in? If even at least one of those Chilean miners is or gets pregnant down there for four months, we’ve got a hell of a movie of the week.” Especially if there’s a delivery involved. So whaddaya think?”

4) The above reminds me, having been in both, did you ever notice how the TV production industry is like the army? You’ve got your executive producers, coordinating producer, segment producer, field producer, supervising producer, who gets the heavy lifting, just plain producer. In the army it’s 1 star/Brigadier Gen., 2 stars Major Gen., 3 stars Lt. Gen., and 4 stars is back to just Gen.

I’m outta questions.

A. Buck Short said...

OK, it’s almost sundown here on the wrench, so before I have to drag our Christian back in to sort through the rest of the iPorn for us until tomorrow night, do you think you might have time for one or two more of my typical Friday questions that there’s never any answer for.

1) I don’t know if you heard, but while nobody was looking the Sandinistas are back. Can a former football coach still be voted out of Nicaragua for a bad hair day? And yet he’ll never look worse than that streaking tax cheater felon Richard Hatch. (Bonus: Does JJ live anywhere near Mary Stella? If not why not?)

2) Speaking of jail, how soon do you think that former Pimp My Survivors producer Bruce Beresford-Boyismyface-Redman or something like that, who I think still may be going through a little Mexican unpleasantness over the strangulation death of his wife in Cancun (I can hear TMZ now, “ If it had only been Cozumel, he could have just voted her off). If convicted, how long before he’s out again with the aforementioned Hatch, pitching either “Survivor Greybar Hotel” or Survivor: Cancun Sewer?” And is the real Bruce Beresford enjoying the publicity.
Better yet -- and feel free to take the next 3 or 4 months to come up with an answer.

3) Also speaking of your better directors, look, obviously the regular script has already been submitted by now without even knowing the ending – but how soon before one or more of CBS’ 9,723 Big Brother producers, executive producers, coordinating producers, segment producers, field producers, supervising producers, and whoever waxes Julie Chen is in Bruckheimer’s office all, “You think a dozen mentally challenged, infantile narcissists in a cheesy house draws ‘em in? If even at least one of those Chilean miners is or gets pregnant down there for four months, we’ve got a hell of a movie of the week.” Especially if there’s a delivery involved. So whaddaya think?”

4) The above reminds me, having been in both, did you ever notice how the TV production industry is like the army? You’ve got your executive producers, coordinating producer, segment producer, field producer, supervising producer, who gets the heavy lifting, just plain producer. In the army it’s 1 star/Brigadier Gen., 2 stars Major Gen., 3 stars Lt. Gen., and 4 stars is back to just Gen.

I’m outta questions.

A. Buck Short said...

OK, it’s almost sundown here on the wrench, so before I have to drag our Christian back in to sort through the rest of the iPorn for us until tomorrow night, do you think you might have time for one or two more of my typical Friday questions that there’s never any answer for.

1) I don’t know if you heard, but while nobody was looking the Sandinistas are back. Can a former football coach still be voted out of Nicaragua for a bad hair day? And yet he’ll never look worse than that streaking tax cheater felon Richard Hatch. (Bonus: Does JJ live anywhere near Mary Stella? If not why not?)

2) Speaking of jail, how soon do you think that former Pimp My Survivors producer Bruce Beresford-Boyismyface-Redman or something like that, who I think still may be going through a little Mexican unpleasantness over the strangulation death of his wife in Cancun (I can hear TMZ now, “ If it had only been Cozumel, he could have just voted her off). If convicted, how long before he’s out again with the aforementioned Hatch, pitching either “Survivor Greybar Hotel” or Survivor: Cancun Sewer?” And is the real Bruce Beresford enjoying the publicity.
Better yet -- and feel free to take the next 3 or 4 months to come up with an answer.

3) Also speaking of your better directors, look, obviously the regular script has already been submitted by now without even knowing the ending – but how soon before one or more of CBS’ 9,723 Big Brother producers, executive producers, coordinating producers, segment producers, field producers, supervising producers, and whoever waxes Julie Chen is in Bruckheimer’s office all, “You think a dozen mentally challenged, infantile narcissists in a cheesy house draws ‘em in? If even at least one of those Chilean miners is or gets pregnant down there for four months, we’ve got a hell of a movie of the week.” Especially if there’s a delivery involved. So whaddaya think?”

4) The above reminds me, having been in both, did you ever notice how the TV production industry is like the army? You’ve got your executive producers, coordinating producer, segment producer, field producer, supervising producer, who gets the heavy lifting, just plain producer. In the army it’s 1 star/Brigadier Gen., 2 stars Major Gen., 3 stars Lt. Gen., and 4 stars is back to just Gen.

I’m outta questions.

A. Buck Short said...

Please get me out of this groundhog blog hell. Vote me off, I don't care.

Bob said...

"Once you get Klinger out of his dress, then what???"

Wow, there's something I really don't want to think about.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

My question? It seems to have disappeared, but I asked it earlier this week. Probably not up to snuff anyway. No biggie.

Hey, I liked Klinger even more when he dropped the Section 8 game.

-bee said...

I just can't jump on the bandwagon about the 'great old days'. Yes - there were many great sitcoms in the past but there were also The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Three's Company, Family Affair, Love American Style, Green Acres, My Mother the Car, Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days (etc, etc - and a preemptive apology to anyone who loves those shows).

I think The Office ranks up there with the best sitcoms, Modern Family has had a brilliant first season, and I also really like Community, Cougar Town, Parks and Recreation - and lament the recent passing of Better off Ted. I'm kind of surprised the whole faux documentary schtick doesn't bother me like I feel that it SHOULD - but I guess its says something about the importance of creating great characters.

Really - if I had to name the worst decade for TV (thus far) in terms of OVERALL quality it would have to be the 60's.

PS: I loved MASH from the first season to the last. I loved the more hard-edged satirical characters of the early seasons, and loved how over the years some of the characters were deepened as layers were gradually pulled back to expose new things. I think the show stayed on as long as the people in charge felt like there were still interesting angles to explore about the characters - and went off the air when they felt like they had nothing left to say - which I think worked out for the best.

Matt Patton said...

Love the top photo in this post -- Jamie Farr always did a nice job by Loretta Young's castoffs . . .

Anonymous said...

Ken, I like your writing/postings, but you gotta stop with the notion of "they won't put/keep on ANY 'quality' shows on these days; otherwise how do you explain 30 Rock still being on the air despite peaking at about 8 millions viewers (if that)?

Louis Castaing said...

Ken,
A couple of weeks ago Variety ran a story that compared the syndication success of multi-camera vs. single-camera sitcoms (http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118022689.html?categoryid=4076&cs=1&query=stuart+levine+multicamera). According to the article, multi-camera shows do much better in syndication. The article speculated on why that would be. Do you have any thoughts on what seems to make multi-camera shows more salable? Aside from the obvious constraints of multi-camera format, is there any difference in writing and directing comedies in the two formats?
It was also once said that film was preferred over tape for comedies although many successful comedies were on tape. How do you feel about that?
Thanks.
Louis Castaing

RolloSuplex said...

I'm afraid I would respectfully disagree with some of the shows you claim would not get sold today. To be fair, I've never had any experience in the TV industry. I suppose I'm basing this opinion on my experience as a lifelong obsessive TV viewer. (I used to have a good 8 hour a day habit which I've since scaled back to 6 or 7 1/2 hours.) I feel that Cheers, The Bob Newhart Show and Barney Miller could be sold today (maybe not a major network but some cable network might take a risk). Although I'm sure they would cast Grace Park in the Jack Soo role on Barney Miller.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I just can't jump on the bandwagon about the 'great old days'. Yes - there were many great sitcoms in the past but there were also The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Three's Company, Family Affair, Love American Style, Green Acres, My Mother the Car, Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days (etc, etc - and a preemptive apology to anyone who loves those shows).


All great shows (never having seen My Mother the Car, mind you.)