Thursday, December 23, 2010

How did we handle drinking on CHEERS?

Home from Hawaii.  I see the mail and The Friday questions have started to pile up in my absence so I thought I’d sneak in an extra day of answers. Please leave your queries in the comments section. Thanks.

Lairbo is up first.

On CHEERS, I can recall few, if any, scenes of someone actually being drunk at the bar. Were there rules or guidelines about this? If so, were they from the network or the creators?

I think everyone (the Charles Brothers, Jim Burrows, NBC, Paramount) were in agreement that the drinking had to be handled responsibly. No one ever drove home drunk. There were a few cases where cabs were called for homeward bound patrons.

The conceit with Norm was that he could hold his liquor. So we never played him drunk or with impaired judgment.

I want to say we never got laughs out of drunks at the bar but there was Al. A case can be made that he was just punch drunk, not alcohol drunk, but he sure acted like a tosspot.

Sam of course, was a former alcoholic and the message was delivered many times that you don’t solve your problems by drinking. And that goes for egg nog, by the way. The benefit people got from going to the CHEERS bar was the camaraderie and support they gained from each other. Remember, the theme is “where everyone knows your name” not “where fifty dollars will get you shit-faced”.

From RockGolf:

Which IQ is easier to write for: smart or dumb? And which do networks prefer?

Both have their plusses. It’s “easier” I suppose to write dumb characters, but smart characters allow you to write with sophistication, and I personally prefer that. Anyone can write morons; it takes a certain skill to service witty, truly intelligent characters.

But I can’t stress this enough: play every character to the top of their intelligence, regardless of their IQ. I’ve said this before, but the best dimwits are the ones who are dumb for a legitimate reason. Coach was hit in the head by too many fastballs. Woody was a naïve country boy. There’s a logic to everything they said. It’s just not the correct logic.

Networks prefer any show that gets ratings. If it’s FRASIER, fine. If it’s HEE HAW, also fine.

Kevin asks:

Ken, You've talked about not liking it when the director of Volunteers broke the fourth wall. What do you think about the practice of putting an "inside" joke into a sitcom? For instance, How I Met Your Mother has done it at least twice: Barney recreating the end of Doogie Howser in one show and recently when Jorge Garcia shouted out the "Lost" numbers in an episode. Even Frasier did it once when Laurie Metcalf as Nanny G asked Fraiser how he'd feel playing the same role for 20 years. For the joke to work, the audience has to know the reference, which can be a big risk.

Inside jokes are tricky. They can be great little rewards for fans who are really paying attention. Or your close friends, or eighth grade teacher that you want to rip.  But you have to be careful that the audience doesn't feel excluded because there are too many references they don’t get.

Personally, I like inside jokes. Always have. I loved in HIS GIRL FRIDAY that Cary Grant makes mention of an Archie Leach (which was his real name). And he describes Roz Russell’s fiancée as looking like the actor Ralph Bellamy (Ralph Bellamy actually played the part of the fiancée).

I’ve slipped in my fair share of inside jokes. But the trick is to hide them so they go right by the general audience. It’s comedy camouflage. But never do an inside joke at the expense of a bigger joke that everyone would get. You’re doing a show for millions of people, not just your eight friends (unless you’re on NBC at 10:30).

And finally, from Debby G:

You're taking an improv class? Just for fun or to help your writing or because you see a job at The Groundlings in your future? Once you became an established writer, did you still take classes, read how-to books, etc.? Or did you feel you'd advanced beyond those things?

I’m taking it mostly for fun but also to keep sharpening my skills, in the same way that professional golfers still take lessons. I have no aspirations of performing in an improv group or becoming an actor, but learning how to create characters and even more importantly, commit to them helps me as a writer.

Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

I’m in a class taught by Andy Goldberg. Most class members are improv veterans so it’s primarily a group of enormously talented people (and me) essentially having a jam session.

Did I mention it’s great great fun?

The question no one asked and everybody should be asking is:  Ken, what present would you like this year?  

19 comments:

Ross said...

Re: Inside Jokes

Something that's always irritated me about David Letterman is that he often opens his monologue with a joke only his in-house audience can appreciate.

500 people in the theater audience are happy, millions at home feel left out.

Never understood this.

emily said...

That reminds me...Ken, what present would you like this year?

DonBoy said...

I think there's a confusion here between an inside joke, which most of the audience isn't supposed to get, and a pop culture shout-out, which they are. All of the commenter's examples are actually things that the audience was supposed to know. On the other hand, in His Girl Friday, I don't think Cary Grant's real name was widely known at the time -- but if you don't know it, it's just some guy's name.

John said...

It seemed like Cheers waited until the very end to do a "What if everyone in the bar but Sam got really, really drunk?" episode, with the late Season 11 one where Norm and Cliff got their butt tattoos mixed up and we got the great end gag of Ted Danson removing his partial toupee.

Billy Wilder threw a couple of inside jokes into his 1961 comedy "One, Two, Three", having Jimmy Cagney threatening Horst Buchholz with a grapefruit and having Red Buttons delivering a "You Dirty Rat" line to Cagney. So if it's good enough for them, it's good enough to put into a TV sitcom.

Dumb characters playing off sophisticated ones can be a great counter-balance when done right, as with Frasier and Woody on "Cheers" (or earlier, with Felix and Murray on "The Odd Couple"). The trick is to avoid making the sophisticated character too condescending towards the dumb one, so he/she becomes unsympathetic, or making the other one so painfully dumb the viewers want to smack him multiple times in the head with a hammer.

Nat G said...

"Networks prefer any show that gets ratings. If it’s FRASIER, fine. If it’s HEE HAW, also fine."

Hee Haw is an odd example of that, in that Hee Haw got ratings - but the network canceled it anyway, as part of their purge of rural-themed shows. In the 1970-1971 season, its last on CBS, it came in #16 on the rating the charts. CBS dumped it, it went to first-run syndication, and ran until 1992.

Nat G said...

"Networks prefer any show that gets ratings. If it’s FRASIER, fine. If it’s HEE HAW, also fine."

Hee Haw is an odd example of that, in that Hee Haw got ratings - but the network canceled it anyway, as part of their purge of rural-themed shows. In the 1970-1971 season, its last on CBS, it came in #16 on the rating the charts. CBS dumped it, it went to first-run syndication, and ran until 1992.

wv: "spopo"; a disease where your poops get all mixed up.

steve said...

Hey, Ken - what present would you... ah, nevermind. Emily beat me to it.

WV: ressess - even computers want to play, even if they can't always spell correctly.

VP81955 said...

Billy Wilder threw a couple of inside jokes into his 1961 comedy "One, Two, Three," having Jimmy Cagney threatening Horst Buchholz with a grapefruit and having Red Buttons delivering a "You dirty rat" line to Cagney.

That wasn't the first grapefruit in-joke in a Cagney movie. In "Hard To Handle" (1933), a delightful pre-Code comedy where he plays a likable, albeit somewhat shady promoter, one of the things he promotes is...a grapefruit diet.

Phillip B said...

Thought Cheers did a wonderful job with putting alcohol in context - especially handling Sam's life experience as an alcoholic. Sam clearly channeled his addictive behaviors elsewhere...

But then there was the appearance of the cast on The Tonight show with Jay Leno - live from Boston after the airing of the final episode. What happened there? And were you there?

Phillip B said...

And, by the way, sending you the best Christmas presents I can find for you this year: respect and admiration for being public with your experiences.

I find myself instructed and entertained each day -- all for the cost of internet access. Thank you!

Chalmers said...

Don't know if it was one of yours, but I caught a M*A*S*H inside joke the other day.

Fr. Mulcahy was writing to his sister (the Sister) and saying he was sorry that "Sister Lombardi had been transferred to St. Cecilia's. I know the basketball team will miss her hook shot."

St. Cecilia's was the Englewood, N.J. high school where Vince Lombardi coached basketball (and a little football, too.)

Debby G said...

Ken, what present are you getting me this year?

Happy holidays. While you're at the Hawaiian movie theater and Chinese restaurant on Saturday, I'll be doing the same in Orange County.

And thanks for answering my improv question. I'm glad you're enjoying it.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

The question no one asked and everybody should be asking is: Ken, what present would you like this year?

The hooker will arrive soon. Be mindful, though, she's deathly afraid of closets.

Oh, shit, wrong Ken Levine. Never mind. ;)

WV: chita - More powerful with "Rivera" attached.

Michael said...

One of the great repositories of inside jokes was Warner Bros. animation unit. For example, Friz Freleng directed "Pizzicato Pussycat," about a classical piano-playing mouse and the cat he stands in for. The couple who owned them--or that the pets owned--looked mysteriously like Chuck Jones and his first wife, Dorothy. In another Freleng cartoon, an absent-minded wolf is named Charles M. Wolf for Charles M. Jones. In a Bob Clampett wartime cartoon, the "gremlins from the Kremlin" were all caricatures of Warner Bros. animation department employees.

The greatest inside joke at Warner Bros. was Yosemite Sam, who was modeled on Freleng, who was similarly short, red-haired, and volatile. Only in his later years did Freleng own up to it.

Anonymous said...

What about Boston Legal, telling Deny Crane he can go on making priceline commercials?

Great Big Radio Guy said...

I always marveled at how Cheers was the only bar in the world where nobody paid, nobody smoked (it was the 80s) and nobody got hammered.

Paul Duca said...

Ken, I was going to get you something for Christmas....but you should have seen the look on your rabbi's face when I asked him what you might like.

danrydell said...

I thought I read somewhere that no one drank actual beer, that they all drank some awful tasting faux-beer?

William M said...

Ken this is for your next "Friday Questions" on Dec. 31st:

Is my dream about YOU last night prophetic?

My dream: Somehow you (of all people) advertise renting a room in your house. I visit your home.
Daytime. Enter front door. Hear voice (you?) talking on telephone in another room.
I go down a hallway. Enter empty room. I walk to the backdoor that opens onto the backyard.
I look out on your backyard. It is an ASTONISHINGLY RICH VISTA. 300 feet wide & long. Pond or pool in the middle. Long green lawn. Trees line the property line, with traffic beyond the trees. Absolutely quiet and breath taking...Hollywood-type expansive lawn.
Suddenly, a young child on a bike rides down a path near this back room.
I turn back into the room, and walk to the front door. You(I guess, although I see no face) are standing at the end of the hallway, looking at me puzzled.
I mutter soemthing like "I'm ------(My name) and I sent you a letter..."
The dream ends right there.

Background. I'm a Baby Boomer-aged guy, who's not yet achieved notable success as a Yoga teacher. I've never visited LA, though I've dreamed of moving there and dating actresses. I don't know what you look like, though I do read your blog a few times a week.

Ken, my question:
Does this dream of you, Hollywood vistas, and "rooms for rent", mean that I should chase my Hollywood dreams?