Friday, May 13, 2011

How hard is it to write final episodes?

Hello from Cleveland, where the Mariners battle the Sons of the Wigwam. Broadcast time today is 4 PM PDT/7 PM EDT on 710 ESPN Seattle and MLB.COM. Meanwhile, it’s time for your questions and my answers. As always, thanks for contributing them.


DyHrdMET is up first:

I was watching the final episode of Family Ties (a great sitcom, even though I don't think you were involved in it) on TV.

Okay, I will acknowledge there were a few of those.

Lots of emotion in the story. Is it harder to write the final episode of a sitcom, which usually has a sense of closure, finality and/or emotion, than it is to write for a show during its prime?

It’s much harder to write the final episode because the expectations are so much higher. Audiences want to feel confident that their beloved characters get a nice sendoff.  They've almost become friends of the family.

Plus, in sitcoms, the convention is there never really is an ending.  Whatever the conclusion of a normal episode, there is the understanding that the saga will continue next week. Now, all of a sudden, it all comes to an end. How do you wrap that up to the fans’ satisfaction, your satisfaction as the creator, and have the ending not be so definitive that it hurts the syndication run. Remember, if your show is that successful, it should be around for years in reruns.

You'll have a larger audience that night so you need to be at your absolute best.  Best jokes, cleverest story turns.  You're really in the limelight. 

There is also an added pressure that sometimes now occurs. The networks try to get as much mileage from your finale as they can (i.e. sell as many spots for high fees) and often they will now ask for supersize episodes. And in a few cases (e.g. CHEERS, FRASIER, MASH, SEINFELD) that can mean as long as two-hours or even more. Your show has a rhythm for 30 minutes and now you have to expand it times four. The weight of that generally pulls down the show. That’s how I felt, quite honestly, about the last MASH. It was waaaaaay too long. Extra length didn’t help the SEINFELD swan song either.

My favorite final episodes were THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART,and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. All three were standard half hours.

Now if you ask me my favorite last show EVER, it would be a radio show and it absolutely broke every rule imaginable. Lohman & Barkley were a morning team on KFWB, Los Angeles in the ‘60s. They were extremely funny. Lohman did a great number of voices and their show was populated with many hilarious recurring characters. KFWB changed formats to all-news and everyone was let go. On Lohman & Barkley’s last show they systematically killed each of their characters, offing them in the most gruesome ways. Now THAT’S a final show. (Of course six months later they resurfaced on KFI and all their characters magically returned to life.  Not easy to do once you've been -- for example -- buried alive. )

lucifervandross asks:

Netflix added Cheers and I have been watching it (in lieu of researching and writing my own specs to try and get work) and on the episode 'Little Sister dont'cha" Rhea Perlman plays Carla, and Carla's younger sister Annette. She is credited in the closing credits for this role. My questions is, was she paid twice? Once for portraying Carla (and her normal "starring" credit) and then another time for the guest appearance? I know it's trivial and silly and from 30 years ago, but I was just wondering how that sort of thing works... actually let me tie it in to the "now" Would Alec Baldwin be getting paid multiple times for his multiple portrayals on this weeks 30 rock?

To my knowledge, no. All in a week’s work. However, I think Andy Kaufman got paid separately for Latka and when he did his Tony Clifton character. One week, as Tony Clifton, he was a real asshole on the set so the producers fired him. But Kaufman, who was lovely, stayed. Weird, huh?

From Chris:

Why do episodes sometime air in a different order than the one they were shot in? (Wikipedia lists production codes and I'm assuming 101 is a pilot, 102 is the next one, etc).

Usually that’s the network's doing.  They juggle the episodes because they think one is stronger or weaker or more promotable. It can be maddening. I know ABC has done that to MODERN FAMILY where shows have run out of sequence. But the network feels the value of flip-flopping episodes outweighs the disruption of continuity.

It’s also why networks don’t want shows to have running storylines from week-to-week. It’s easier to shuffle around self-contained episodes.

And finally, from Naz:

How difficult is it to work product placement in a show?

Sitting here at my Apple Powerbook, enjoying a Pepsi, having just showered with Neutrogena and feeling really clean and refreshed, I can say it’s really not that hard. They key is being subtle, and making sure that whatever product you include -- whether visually or in dialogue – that it’s not random. That there’s a direct connection to the scene.

40 comments:

Keith Allen said...

So Ken, what do you think about Ashton Kutcher joining "Two and a Half Men," replacing Charlie Sheen?

Nat G said...

There were some TV equivalents to what that radio show went through - shows that filmed what they thought were their last episode only to get picked up for another season. So the wrecking ball was taken to the titular hospital on St. Elsewhere, and the whole danged city was destroyed on the non-finale of SledgeHammer.

daniel in Cherry Hill said...

Isnt being buried alive the easiest "death" to undo?

Larry said...

I don't mean to stir up trouble, but one of the worst finales (and I don't think Ken was writing for the show any more) was the final episode of M*A*S*H.

Yes, I know it was one of the most-watched TV events ever, but that's because so many people loved the show and the characters. But that final episode went on forever, and wasn't funny. A sad sendoff for such a great show.

Speaking of finales that weren't, the fifth season of SNL, the last with members of the original cast, ended with their ON AIR sign going off. Lorne and the gang were leaving and perhaps they thought that was it. Considering the next year or two, a lot of people may have felt that would have been a good idea.

Michael said...

One of my favorite final episodes was from the otherwise forgettable "I Married Dora" in the eighties. The last scene was in an airport with one character about to board a plane. He says "Its been cancelled". Another character says "the flight?". He replies, "No our series" and the camera pulls back to reveal the soundstage and the actors all say their good-byes.

RockGolf said...

You indicated that your favorite sitcom finales were the regular 30 minutes, including Newhart.

Not quite. CBS allowed the show somewhere between an extra 5 & 10 minutes when it was first broadcast. Luckily, back then there were no DVRs that could be screwed up by that.

Jen said...

CBS murdered the story arc on Bluebloods the way they aired episodes out of order. It was confusing, stupid and made no sense. I lost interest in the storyline because of it.

I always loved the Cheers ending, because you knew that the next day, the bar was open, we just weren't going to get to see it. Knowing everyone went on, even if we don't get to go with them, made the ending of a great series feel a little less painful.

j gillespie said...

@ Larry- speaking of "SNL"- they did have a "cliffhanger" ending at the end of the last episode of the 1985-86 season- the disastrous return of Lorne Michaels w/ Randy Quaid, et al- guest Billy Martin became enraged over his treatment on the show- he threatened to burn the place down- Lorne Michaels got Jon Lovitz out and the writers sent in after Martin torched the place- credits rolled with question marks after most names

Anonymous said...

The first question, I misread "Family Ties" as "Family Matters" -- and I actually more recently caught the last episode of FMatters which out-bizarres most sitcoms, with the love-interest Laura now changing 180 degrees, being suddenly madly in love with Urkel, who at that moment is aboard a rocketship and... uh... sure. Once you start introducing mad-scientist type inventions that can alter your character, I guess anyway it's all possible.

DwWashburn said...

@ Larry. I totally agree about MASH. A total waste of time. I have purchased the box set of MASH and really enjoy 250 episodes and the extras. But I have yet to re-watch the last episode. I remember talking about it at work the next morning and almost everyone said that they wanted those 2 and a half hours of their life back.

In general, most "final" episodes are pretty bad. The only exception I can immediately think of is the Odd Couple. Back then, finals weren't as common or as promoted as they are now. Even the movie had a closing scene, I thought the series ending was perfect with Oscar's burst of happiness at the instant Felix and Gloria were married. And then Felix emptying a trash can on the carpet with Oscar's promise of cleaning it up (both renigging at the end) was an excellent send off.

Mike said...

I think I'm one of the few people who like product placement (if done well). I actually find it more distracting if a character reaches into the fridge and pulls out a can marked "soda" than one labeled "Pepsi." People eat and drink brand-name products, and even talk to each other about brand-name products sometimes. And, yes, important conversations can take place inside a McDonald's or a Starbucks. Product placement can add realism to a show/movie.

Which reminds me: nobody on Cheers ever asked for a specific kind of beer. Norm would just tell Coach or Woody that he'd have "a beer." Since beer was obviously a big part of the show, I suppose it was easier to just do it that way than to just have repeated mentions of "Budweiser" or "Coors" or (more likely) "Sam Adams." That probably WOULD look a little like selling out.

Dewan said...

Imagine how tough would it be to write the final episode of "Martin." Prior to the last season co-star Tisha Campbell accused Martin Lawrence of sexual harassment and refused to do scenes with him. What a lackluster ending to a show that was pretty damn funny for the first three years or so. (Of course this was pre-Big Mama's House Martin Lawrence.)

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Hey Ken, your excellent taste keeps benefiting the world. Nancy Travis got a new show: Tim Allen's return to ABC:

http://insidetv.ew.com/2011/05/13/abc-picks-up-tim-allen-comedy/

D. McEwan said...

That GREAT last episode of Lohman & Barkley at KFWB made me late for my SATs. I was scheduled to take my SATs at 10 AM, when Lohman & BARKLEY (whom I later did some writing for, for their stage act at The Playboy Club) went off the air. I sat in my car in the parking lot, listening and laughing until I hyperventilated, and would not shut it off and go in and take the test until it was finally over. One of the greatest radio broadcasts ever.

I specifically remember (It was, after all, back in early 1968) that their obese "Food Expert" Leonard Leonard went on a hunger strike to protest their show going off the air (only because KFWB was changing formats to all-news), and starved to death in 45 minutes.

I miss Al Lohman & Roger Barkley, great men. Al Lohman was a genius. Rest their hilarious souls.

gottacook said...

MASH fans who remember the run up to the finale may recall that it was lengthened during production, presumably to sell more and more ads; I heard in advance (possibly in weekly Variety) about the expansion from 2 to 2.5 hours, and possibly it had already been lengthened once already. Can't really blame CBS, given that they knew the finale would have a huge viewership (doesn't it still hold the ratings record for a scripted show?) - but I wonder whether any of the 11th-season MASH producers or Alan Alda tried to argue in favor of a shorter length.

WV: "groinogr" - well, yes, I am.

Chris Riesbeck said...

One sitcom finale I liked, even though I don't think they knew it was a finale at the time, was the last original Fox-aired episode of Futura, called "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings." Funny as ever but with a bit of closure (later unclosed of course) for Fry and Leela.

Gary Beban said...

Since when does a BRUIN endorse a TROJAN???????

Steve said...

Ken - here's a question regarding Dodger Talk. I heard your return over the weekend, which were sounds for sore ears...

I don't know if this is a coincidence or not, but has the policy changed when you call to give your full question and so on? I used to call in and just say "I want to talk about our minor league teams" and that was that. So far this season, the screener wants the full details so (my thinking) Josh sounds smart when he's answering questions. That way, they have All the stats on whatever topic are in front of them, and there is no room for caller feedback!

I know you're not on the show consistently, but do you know if KABC made a decision like that during the off season?

Safe Travels,
Steve

The Jnow said...

Haha, i think the worst product placement award might have to go to that bad Ashton Kutcher/Amanda Peet rom-com "A Lot Like Love", in which there's a scene where Ashton's character gets plane tickets to go see his love (amanda peet), and on his desk is one of those airline ticket envelopes... which isn't that unusual, for back then anyway. But what killed it was that labelled in big letters just so the audience could see it was the ORBITZ logo. Which, i guess it's not that big of a deal, except that orbits is all exclusively ONLINE, and you print the tickets off your printer. Orbitz doesn't send you Orbitz branded card stock plane tickets!

Just silly.

Also, i remember an episode of X-Files that had a Fiji Water branded Vending Machine at a very sketchy train station in the middle of nowhere. A, does Fiji have branded vending machines? B, if they did, would they put one in run down train station that gets 5 visitors a day?

Mike Schryver said...

RockGolf:

Ah, but there were screwups around those extra 5 minutes on the finale of Newhart.

The Albany, NY CBS station cut to a local commercial at 29 minutes past the hour, cutting off the final scene. Luckily for me, I lived halfway between Albany and NYC, and switched to channel 2 right away, but those who only got the Albany station missed at least some of it.

Breadbaker said...

Ken:

I listened to most of today's game (I had just got home when the disaster happened at the end), and I really was glad to hear you. There was one high chopper that went beyond Doug Fister's reach and you did a great job of explaining how high it had to be because Fister is so tall. Too often radio announcers forget to be our eyes and ears to the texture of the game. I don't have to tell you that doing that was one of Dave Niehaus's greatest strengths. He'd say someone was "coiled in the batter's box" or a pitcher had a "loosey-goosey motion" and you'd see it in your mind's eye. I don't need speculation about whether the bunt or the hit-and-run is on and in a close game I don't need to hear the same stories about the opposing team's last World Series. I need my announcer to make me see the game on the field. Great job on that tonight.

Adam Paull said...

One final ep that stands out for me was The Cosby Show. The story was noting special - just a standard episode, but at the end of it, Bill Cosby puts a jazz LP on, takes Phylicia Rashard by the hand and the two of them start dancing cheek to cheek. They then dance around the lounge room set, head out past the cameras, past the audience, down the corridor and out the studio door. Classy...

Anonymous said...

The M*A*S*H finale was always intended to be 2 1/2 hours. The final season was announced as a 17 regular episodes, plus the 2 1/2 hour finale (adding up to a full order of 22 half hours).

Best finale that wasn't: the eighth season finale of "All in the Family", in which Mike and Gloria move to California. It's both funny and a tearjerker, and you can hearing the studio audience sniffling through the last few minutes. It ends with heartbroken Archie and Edith sitting in their chairs crying quietly as the camera pulls away and the scene fades to black.

Unfortunately, after it was taped, CBS convinced Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton to continue, robbing us of what would have been one of the best series finales ever.

wfs said...

If he perform a good act, will that would be a great replacement for Charlie.

gottacook said...

Except that the 11th season had only 15 episodes before the finale... as for the notion that the finale was always intended to be 2.5 hours, I'll see whether any documentation can be found online for what I distinctly remember about its being lengthened in production.

gottacook said...

I am not a paid subscriber to the Variety online archives allowing full page views, but searching is free - and using MASH as the search term and restricting to 1982-1983, it took only a few minutes to come up with such phrases as "...when 'Mash' ends its long run with a two-hour finale..."

It was indeed first announced as shorter than its ultimate length. Ball's in your court, Anonymous.

Roger Owen Green said...

I was watching the Newhart finale in Albany, NY, when a surprised anchor, who was likely watching it too, appeared on the monitor. They showed the ending during the 11 p.m. news, but I actually never saw the whole thing until it was rerun.

Oh, and agreed about the 2.5 hour M*A*S*H - a snore, though I liked BJ's goodbye to Hawkeye.

Naz said...

Thanks Ken.

Anonymous said...

Guess we are all different. The ending episode of Seinfeld I felt was the absolute BEST ending of a long running series ever.
It was perfect, in length and in content. What I liked best about it, we audiences tend to be 2on the side" of folks in a series, and no exception with Seinfeld, BUT..the last episode really put a point of how shallow and undeserving those characters were under it all....really drove home how ridiculously they went into the minutiae of life, missing the points, never satisfied, and most of all...pointless and useless...great, great ending...

Kirk said...

The MASH finale was overlong, but one thing I did like is Hawkeye giving Hot Lips the long goodby kiss, while Potter and BJ look away and whistle and kick dirt around, and Charles awkwardly flips through a book.

I think a better finale for Seinfeld would have been the episode (Larry David's last until the finale) where George's fiance died. Up to that point, the series only gradually revealed through the course of it's run that these four characters weren't very nice. In fact, until that episode, I'm betting most viewers were willing to give them all the benefit of a doubt. That's why that episode was so shocking. Afterwards, the series final two seasons was basically, let's see how bad we can make them. A lot of funny stuff still, but it seemed to me like overkill. The point had been made.

I agree on Odd Couple, though I'm not convinced Felix's re-marriage would have lasted. I think within a year, he would've ended up right back as Oscar's roomate.

Edward Copeland said...

I'm with you on the final M*A*S*H. Not only was it too long, but the premise didn't work after all the horrors he's seen, this is what sends Hawkeye over the edge? Seinfeld had a good premise: proving to viewers that never got it that it was less a show about nothing than a show about four self-absorbed assholes. The problem was it was basically a clip show that was preceded by a retrospective, which was also a clip show. The extended Scrubs would be on my list of the best except they then ruined it by bringing it back for that awful extra season where most of the cast was gone or just made cameos and it revolved around new characters in a med school setting. I still don't think any show, comedy or drama, will come close to touching the ending of Newhart.

DyHrdMET said...

thanks for taking my question. i think one of the best final scenes from a TV series was in the Cosby Show when Cliff and Clair danced right through the 4th wall and right out of the studio with the cast.

JC said...

My favorite series finale was "Six Feet Under." I always wonder what ever happens to the characters when the show ends. And morbid as it may be, watching how all the main characters die in the future was quite rewarding, especially for a series revolving around the funeral home.

Jaquandor said...

Frasier's finale was great, I thought; I loved finding out at the end where he's really landing after the episode's told us he's going someplace else. Star Trek: The Next Generation had a finale that was actually significantly better than the TNG movie Generations that came out six months later. But my favorite series finale was NYPDBlue's, which ended with Andy Sipowicz taking over the precinct. After he says good night to all of his detectives, who all leave, Andy stays behind to work late on paperwork as the camera pulls away from him, sitting at the desk which had been occupied for years by superiors with whom he had frequently clashed.

Rich D said...

Three random thoughts -

One - he best thing about the MASH finale is that it serves as a set up for a joke from Alan Alda on last season's 30 ROCK.

Two - Another series that totally suffered due to being aired was FOX's FIREFLY.

Three - As for product placement, I miss those brown plaid beer cans you used to see in virtually every 70s sitcom.

Sid Davidson said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the final episode of "Crusader Rabbit". It was sad to see Rags get shot to death.

Stephen Conlon said...

I just watched a 1987 interview with Michael J. Fox where the reporter said Family Ties was watched by sixty million viewers per week. Would that have been the case?? I know television has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but I always thought for example that when people said that Cheers had awful ratings in its first season/that it was one of TV's lowest rated shows, that they meant only two or three million were watching. Now I'm thinking it was getting more than Chuck or 3/4 of NBC's current line-up. Do you roughly remember Cheers' average ratings for the first season ?

Joe Pontillo said...

Here's a different Netflix question - When I click to stream an episode you wrote, does any money filter your way? If not, is that because of the age of the show, or because the writer's strike didn't quite accomplish its goal?

Johnny said...

Friday question:

Do writing teams get paid half as much as solo writers? (I.e. A normal writing salary halved?) And could having a partner work against you if you're both going to cost more than a single writer?

Johnny said...

Hard to believe that someone could think that Hawkeye being a willing participant in the murder of an infant wouldn't send him over the edge. In that situation he was shocked, horrified, and thankful. How could it not mess someone up?

Anyways, the last episode of MASH was almost like a totally different show, but it still made me cry.