Sunday, March 13, 2011

Open letter to anyone producing a sitcom pilot


For those of you lucky (or unlucky) enough to have your pilot ordered you are now in the toughest part of the process – casting. These are the most crucial decisions you will ever have to make on your project. Everything else can be fixed. Scripts can be rewritten, scenes re-shot, set dressing changed. Even your premise can be altered. But if your actors suck you are dead.

The only thing worse is that the actors suck, you get picked up anyway, and then you are dead and sent to a hell reserved for Hannibal Lector and the guy who created WINDOWS 98.

So may I make one suggestion? It sounds incredibly obvious but you’d be surprised.

HIRE FUNNY PEOPLE.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Sorry you waiters at the Cheesecake Factory but there are not that many really funny people out there.

And there is the growing ham fisted network interference that attempts to take the casting decisions right out of your hands and give away your prize parts to old retreads or J. Crew models. More important than comic chops to these networks are good teeth and breasts that test well.

But that’s not what YOU should be looking for. You want people who are funny. And beware. There are enough good actors in Hollywood who are skillful enough to know where the jokes are and how to get them. You can be fooled. So don’t just go by the reading.

Go by the look, the attitude, their body language, their voice. They are intangible qualities but you can spot them right away. Just look at the cast photos of PARKS & RECREATION and THE OFFICE. Then compare them with say the Americanized version of COUPLING.
Good rule of thumb: if someone walks into your office and you immediately want to write a new half page of dialogue for him or her, that’s who you hire.

And as for the network battles? Sometimes they’ll be won over too. Laughter is a great selling point. And then there will be those times you’ll hear, “Yeah, he’s funny but…” Just remember – there ARE NO BUTS. You can be diplomatic, praise them for their choice of actors but suggest they might be even more wonderful in that exciting new procedural pilot they have where a special team solves crimes by looking at cremation remains. But at the end of the day you want the funny choice, even if he’s not known. Sometimes it’s BETTER that he’s not known.

Producing a pilot is like one man facing an army. There are constant battles and it’s always hard to know which ones to fight. But this is the big one. Fight to the death for funny.

Just imagine SEINFELD with William Devane as Kramer and Kim Ravers as Elaine.

Best of luck with your project. I'm not going to hope it's good. I'm going to hope it's close to your vision.

25 comments:

Steve Zeoli said...

It's so true about funny people. Joan Cusack could read a phone book and have me rolling on the floor.

Chris G said...

Interesting reference to William Devane. Wasn't he one of the finalists to play Sam on Cheers?

estiv said...

I remember seeing Tom Skerritt on Cheers. He's been wonderful in a lot of different things and his heart seemed to be in it, but...

Jen said...

I totally agree about unknowns sometimes being the best choice. I love the feeling of watching someone I hadn't heard of before just completely own a role.

Anonymous said...

David Lee here. Agree with most of this, Ken, with one big clarification: Only funny is not enough. Hire someone who is funny, but make sure they are a really really good actor. They can root the comedy in the character's reality. The greatest lesson I learned from Glen and Les Charles was if given the choice between a really good actor who is funny and a comedian, always, always go with the former. Yes, I know, there are a few stand-ups in the first category, but most are not. There was a doppelganger of FRASIER that premiered the same year with Don Rickles as the Dad and Richard Lewis in the equivalent of Frasier (he was even a therapist and had a brother, I recall.) The rest of the cast was chock full of comedians. Makes my point perfectly.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Luckily, since my shows have pretty much all-puppet casts, I don't have to worry about the cast I have to hire... my biggest problem in that department is finding puppeteers that don't have scheduling conflicts with other jobs and such, lol.

The problem with casting today is that unlike the old days where the show made the star, they try to make the star make the show. Shows today often hire actors with big names to draw in viewers, but a lot of today's big name actors can't even act worth a crap. I don't understand how Steve Carell keeps getting jobs, he's ALWAYS so stiff, wooden, and robotic in his performances in EVERYTHING he does (save for voice work, where he actually puts feeling into his performances).

Ken Levine said...

I'm in total agreement with David Lee. Being "funny" isn't just the ability to tell a joke. It's a quality, a sense, an intangible. Sure there have been comedians who have made it in sitcoms but they have that quality as well as the ability to deliver their stand up act. Tim Allen and Ray Romano -- yes. Don Rickles and Richard Lewis -- no.

Ken

Mike Barer said...

Bob Hope in a sitcom? I wonder how that would have worked.

Jeff Doucette said...

I totally agree, Ken. Perhaps because I've made my living out of being funny...on the "natch" so to speak. It's the difference between a comic and a comic actor. A comic says funny things, and a comic actor says things funny. I'd rather be the latter because no matter what you say it comes out funny.
Jeff Doucette

Anonymous said...

As a "comedic actor" and writer, having done many sitcoms, you can't put the load on the actors. I've been on half hour shows with terrific casts... the problem were the scripts. Was on a show where the cast walked out after the table read. The script sucked. BTW, Bill Devane starred in "Phenom" for Jim Brooks. Writers are infamous for blaming actors for being "not funny" when the script stunk.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Bob Hope in a sitcom? I wonder how that would have worked.

Depends. Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little. ;)

Breadbaker said...

They've always tried to make the star make the show. Phyllis Diller, Doris Day, Mickey Rooney, they all had their own sitcoms. I could go on.

benson said...

Can I recommend something for all to check out. One of PBS's telethon features this month is a feature on Brit-coms (From script to screen), but this one spotlights the writers. The British approach is different (not room written) but I think you all would enjoy the show. They touch on casting, and production, but it's really a love letter to writers.

Ben K. said...

Last night I attended the "Freaks and Geeks/Undeclared" reunion at the Paley Center Festival -- and was reminded that these two short-lived Judd Apatow shows introduced the world to (among others) Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Busy Philipps, Amy Poehler, Jay Baruchel, Carla Gallo, Jenna Fischer, Kyle Gass and David Krumholtz.

It sounded like filling some of the roles was a complicated process, but casting director Allison Jones was singled out for assembling such great ensembles. These shows may have set a record for the most future stars discovered in the fewest number of episodes.

Cap'n Bob said...

I'm sure you are aware, Rory, that that precis was written about Fred Astaire. I mention it in case others didn't know.

analee said...

Thanks for writing all of these,, Its really a lot of good news for all writers.

Jaded and Cynical said...

How about when producers/writers cast themselves (as in The Office, for example).

Is that as big a minefield as it seems?

Charles Jurries said...

William Devane AND Kim Raver? Somebody's been watching some 24 reruns.

James said...

"More important than comic chops to these networks are good teeth and breasts that test well."

Any chance I could get on the testing team?

cshel said...

Okay, first off:

OMG - DAVID LEE!!! I feel faint...

Second:

Great topic! It goes without saying that the writing has to be good. But, aside from the bigger name actor castings, I often watch a new show - comedy or drama - and think, really? In all the world of actors, these bland, boring schlubs were the best you could find?! And usually the show doesn't last.

So, casting decision makers, for the love of TV, listen to David Lee! Oh, and Ken, too!

xjill said...

It's funny you should mention Parks & Rec because they said this EXACT thing at the Paley Fest panel on Thursday.

Greg Daniels/Michael Schur were discussing how the character that Louie C.K. ended up playing was described in the script as being an All-American blonde kindof cop and Amy Poehler (also a producer on the show) said they should hire Louie C.K.

When they asked if she had read the character description she said it didn't matter, they should hire whoever the funniest person was.

Richard J. Marcej said...

I remembered thinking to myself when I watched the pilot episode of "S@#t! My Dad Says", you know the material is pretty tepid, but if they actually had hired two funny actors to play the two leads it would almost be tolerable to sit through.

William Shatner may be many things, but a comedic (on purpose) actor he's not.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

I'm sure you are aware, Rory, that that precis was written about Fred Astaire. I mention it in case others didn't know.

Indeed I am, Cap'n. Seemed funny enough to use in that instance.

AHomer said...

I think comedy ensembles like the "Community" proves how important the casting is. There are stand-ups, actors, as well as themselves being writers, both greats and new faces. The scripts are the sum total and great. Each character is able to develop with these scripts and also improv when necessary and asked by the director (Chevy Chase, duh) but none are placed greater than the whole script. The result is able to work with a range of characters within a small set -- often their study room -- and bring out imaginative scenes. Interestingly, As soon as they started introducing a star -- "Jack Black" for example, the balance is lost because of the demand for face time, (otherwise why have them) and often it's just the character we've seen so many times already.

Matt Patton said...

Actually, William Devane can be quite funny. Caught him in Hitchcock's last film, Family Plot recently, and he was a real howl as the villain. Actually, the only person in that movie who wasn't an accomplished comedy actor was Karen Black.