Friday, November 04, 2011

The single greatest moment of CHEERS

Ready for some Friday Questions?

Nicole starts us off:

I was wondering what the atmosphere was like on the nights when some of the “momentous” episodes of sitcom history where filmed, for example the episode where Sam and Diane got together at the end of season 1 of Cheers, or when Niles and Daphne finally admitted their feelings to each other in season 8 of Frasier?

I wasn’t with FRASIER that season so I can't speak to that night. I’ve actually been witness to two “momentous” episodes – the CHEERS episode you referenced and my partner and I just happened to be in the audience for the “Chuckles Bites the Dust” classic episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Talk about luck. That’s like being in the stands for a perfect game.

On CHEERS we had built to that ending all season. It came at the end of a two-parter, both parts being filmed that same night. The script was written by Glen & Les Charles and as I recall, that last scene between Sam and Diane that culminated in their first big kiss was word-for-word from their first draft. I don’t think a comma was changed during the week, that’s how well it worked. Credit also to director James Burrow for staging it perfectly.

When we finally filmed that scene and Ted and Shelley threw themselves into each other’s arms the audience absolutely exploded. It’s the loudest longest reaction I’ve ever seen. I remember turning to my partner and saying, “We’ve peaked. I can’t imagine anything else we could possibly do with these characters that would evoke that much of a reaction. Certainly not sleeping together.”

The Charles Brothers kept that relationship going for four more years and there were some fabulous episodes but I still maintain I was right.

As for “Chuckles”, all I can say is that from the very first scene there was a sense that we were being treated to something special. Maybe it was the subject matter or the great jokes, but we all just knew it and there was a real electricity in the air.

David Lloyd, who wrote the episode, also did the warm-up. Director Joan Darling, seemed to be everywhere, buzzing around the floor.

That final scene where Mary is asked to laugh and finally cries was amazing. To this day I am in awe of Mary’s artistry in performing that scene.

I’ve talked about this before, but after the scene was shot the director wanted a second take. And Mary nailed it again.

So it was like being in the stands to watch two perfect games.

At the time we had just gotten our first script assignment (THE JEFFERSONS) and as we walked back to the car we didn’t know whether to be incredibly inspired or terribly deflated. I mean, how the hell were we ever going to write something that even approached being that good? I still say that but I can live with myself better now.

From scottmc:

Is there a time limit between the 'straight line' and the 'punch line'? Must the joke/payoff come within a prescribed time after the set-up?

The audience has to be able to make the connection between the set-up and the joke. If the interval is too long you run the risk that the audience forgets the set-up.

There are two factors to consider – the interval and the weight you give the set-up. If you make a big deal about the set-up – let’s say it’s a real plot point – then you can let some time elapse before detonating the punch line. Those are frequently called “call backs”. And sometimes that lag time makes the payoff more surprising and funnier.

But if the set-up is just something slipped into the dialogue then it’s best to get to the joke fast. And it’s always best to err on the side of getting to the payoff sooner.

When jokes don’t work it’s often times the set-ups that are the culprit, not the punch lines. We’ll often say we need “to hang a lantern” on that set-up to make sure the audience receives the information we need them to receive.

Carol asks:

I just finished a run of Merry Wives of Windsor. One of the actresses never, ever, ever said the lines the way they were written, which is annoying in general, and in my opinion, unpardonable in Shakespeare. My question is, as a not-dead writer who is usually around to hear your words said out loud, what do you do if there's an actor who thinks as long as they get the 'gist' of the lines, it's okay. Does that come up at all in television? If it does, do you as the writer have the right/opportunity to tell them to knock it off?

Yes, well, being alive is certainly preferable. On multi-camera shows shot in front of studio audiences actors really can’t paraphrase because cameras often move on line cues. So if the line cue is “I’ll have a Bourbon” and the actor says, “Just pour me a drink” the cameras miss their next mark.

Also, since we have the luxury of reshooting, if an actor paraphrases a line we can do it again until he says the line correctly.

Actors on multi-camera shows develop excellent memorization skills and by show night they’re usually all letter-perfect. I marvel at how Jim Parsons can rattle off all that science mumbo-jumbo on BIG BANG THEORY. (Of course, how do I know he’s saying it right?)

And finally, from Rob:

What was your favorite Klinger Section-8 scheme, and did Jamie Farr come up with any of those?

I don’t remember Jamie coming up with any of them, which isn't to say that he didn't.

My favorite was when he pretended to be an aluminum siding salesman. My dad had been an aluminum siding salesman once and we used his spiel. I think by season 7 we had gone through 20th Century Fox’s entire women’s wardrobe department.

What’s your question?  Thanks.

28 comments:

Brian said...

With so many new digital delivery services to put a show at people's fingertips whenever they want it, do you think anyone will ever say, "I'm going to write a show, it will have a definitive beginning, middle and end, and it will only last 1 season"?

The thought being that something done fantastically in a defined time period with some sort of guarantee of life (and money) from Netflix or whatever will garner as much or more interest than a Season 7 re-run with the "Oooops baby" written to try and revive interest in a sitcom.

Will Hollywood ever create an executive who might take that chance?

Anonymous said...

The hang glider was Klinger's best. Big yellow bird with fuzzy pink feet. I still laugh at that scene with Hawk and Trap. The second best was "half of family dead, other half pregnant."

Holly said...

Do you think that laugh tracks should continue to be used in new sitcoms? Or, has television comedy evolved beyond the need to tell audiences when to laugh?

The first sitcom I watched without a laugh track was The Office (US) -- and it felt noticeably absent to me at first, and I wasn't sure if I liked it. Now, none of my favorite comedies (Arrested Development, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family) use laugh tracks, and I think they are better off without it.

What is your opinion on the future of laugh tracks? Will they eventually go away for good?

Matt said...

I'm far from a nuclear physicist, but I am a geek, and I can say that when they give the actors lines about Superman, Video games, Computers, etc, they seem to be spot on.

Which, as a geek, makes me sooooooo happy that the show appears to be written by people I would enjoy hanging out with.

Weston said...

There has to be some amazing moments on the set of M*A*S*H*. Life Hawkeye and Maragret on the front lines when they end up kissing. What is your favorite?

jbryant said...

I have no idea if the laughs on WHITNEY are sweetened, but I caught the first minute of this week's episode and was rather surprised to hear laughter after pretty much EVERY line. Especially since only one or two of those lines even seemed intended to get laughs.

Chip said...

Regarding the timing of set-up and punch-line, this week's episode of The Office (which I'm trying to keep watching, despite how obvious it is that Steve Carell was EVERYTHING on that show) - this week's episode had a "punch-line" that that was sort of set up in one of this season's earlier episodes. I don't know if this really counts as an example of what you're talking about, but since they hadn't referred to this gag (as far as I'd seen) since that original episode, I really had to heat up my memory banks before it came back to me. It was still somewhat chuckle-worthy (maybe barely), but I think would have worked better for me if they had revisited the gag more recently. For clarity, I'm referring to a gag the character Stanley pulls where he seems to be explaining how to do something important, but ultimately wraps up with "... shove it up your a**."

WV: "holaps" - noun or verb, I could go so many directions with this, but all inevitably end with me requiring penicillin.

Becky said...

I just caught the last 15 minutes of my first ever Becker episode (Becker was booked on a gay cruise.)

Having come in halfway through, I was so pleased that I figured out the cast, could figure out what was going on in this episode, and I got all the jokes. I'm sure some of it was the actors' performances, which which made the relationships so easy to understand, but do the writers have to write every episode to accommodate newbies?

Kudos to all concerned -- I'm hooked after 15 minutes.

Matt Tauber said...

Friday question - I recently read a interview with one of the sons from "My Three Sons". He claimed that it was in Fred MacMurray's contract that all of his scenes for the season were shot first. Then, the other actors would shoot the non-Fred scenes as the season progressed to make complete episodes. Is/was this even feasible? He went on to say that this is why William Frawley was let go. They were concerned about his health, and if something happened any scene he already did with MacMurray would be useless.

DanTedson said...

For me, the greatest moment of Cheers is the "Have a good life" sequence at the end of Season 5 when Diane leaves. Still breaks my heart watching it.

BillStJames said...

As far as I know no one's asked this question and it might well be that nobody but me notices or cares...but I figured that you'd likely have an answer if anyone would.

I didn't pay enough attention to Cheers to know if this really applies there, but it's always bugged me that on Frasier, characters pronounce his name differently (sometimes the same character pronounces it both ways at different times): either "FRAY-zer" or "FRAY-jeur." My question is, does anyone in production hear the difference and is there any discussion about keeping it consistent?

This also brings to mind a similar situation I hear all the time (this example from Seattle Mariners telecast last year) when sports announcers continually mispronounce a name even as their colleagues are saying it correctly. In this case, Mike Blowers was saying Mike NAP-o-lee" and Ken Wilson kept saying "Na-POLE-ee." I've worked in similar situations, and I know that some performers have a difficult time "hearing" such distinctions, but isn't there s producer who gets on the headset and corrects the mistake? Or are some announcers beyond correction? Sometimes I have the feeling that the attitude is "if I say it this way, then that's correct by definition." In any case, it's my opinion that it screws up the credibility of the broadcast. And I figured you might have some insight since you've been in the middle of these things for some time.

PS: I was Program Director at KBCQ in Roswell NM in 1976, the year and the station that changed broadcast pattern that allowed TenQ to adjust their signal and become a West Coast legend.

Elizabeth H said...

Ken, I'm working my way backwards through your blog, so forgive me for not commenting on today's. Still trying to catch my breath after reading about the pie scene from ALMOST PERFECT. Having worked as an extra, I would have loved to have been part of that scene. I may still be laughing about this next week. Thanks, I needed that!

Kirk said...

My favorite Klinger Section-8 moment is when he tried to eat the jeep. My second is when he inflated the raft in Potter's office.

Anonymous said...

@BillStJames

I would imagine that inconsistency in pronunciation was left alone because, although sitcoms aren't known for being bastions of realistic dialogue, the best ones did at least make an effort to have their characters sound like actual people, as opposed to punchline puppets. I would imagine that if Frasier Crane did exist, and if the people with whom he interacted on a daily (weekly, anyway) basis existed, those people would in fact offer just as many variations on his name as suggested. People generally *don't* have consistent pronunciation with respect to names, unless the name is so simple and so common that even the most dedicated of halfwits couldn't possibly fuck it up. "Frasier" is a name that is just begging to be pronounced a thousand different ways, and I'd actually consider it something of a minor artistic failure if everyone actually said it the same way...because most real people wouldn't. Having everyone pronounce it exactly as Frasier himself would prefer is more consistent, but to my way of thinking, it's bad direction. Your mileage may vary.

Mac said...

Re. set-up and punchline, I always loved that ep of Frasier when he was about to shoot an endorsement for a politician, and just before he does, the guy tells him he once met an alien.
Up until then it's been cruising along enjoyably, but then you realise that so much of what you've heard was set-up, and it all pays off beautifully after the "alien" confession. I love how Frasier does exactly the same endorsement but it's now loaded with gags.
Also, when the guy drops the "alien" bombshell, Kelsey Grammar does the best slow-burn ever.

chalmers said...

Doesn't seem to happen much these days, but did you ever work on a sitcom episode that was one of those tenuously connected pilot spinoffs?

I assume it's usually the same producers, but how does it work with the writing staff, crew, etc. when they spend a week on what's essentially a completely different show?

What about the advertisers who bought "Facts of Life" time for a show about boarding-school girls, not Jo's widowed uncle (Donnelly Rhodes) and his mouthy kids.

It was also funny to me why those episodes weren't pulled from the syndication run. The Huxtables seemed to be well acquainted with Tony Orlando and the other likable characters at that community center, but then they never went back.

And why no followup on how Brady friend Ken Berry was doing with his multiracial adopted sons?

Stephen said...

How do you shoot those transition shots in a series? For example, Ally McBeal must have featured dozens of aerial shots of Boston in between scenes over the course of its run. Does a cameraman get sent to the city/location in question and just film a pre-set list of footage?

LouOCNY said...

Re: My Three Sons - yes, that is how they would shoot it - first they would shoot all the scenes with MacMurray and the rest of the cast, then Fred would leave and go off to do FOLLOW ME, BOYS!, or some other Disney film, and then the rest of the MTS cast would film the scenes withOUT FM. This was (understandably) very stressful for the rest of the cast - especially Frawley, who was used to doing I Love Lucy in one night!

Mike Schryver said...

I agree, the setup and payoff with Frasier's speech endorsing Boyd Gaines' candidate was priceless. Great that it played so naturally in the setup, and then the same lines were so hilarious a moment later.

My favorite setup and callback ever was on the great MR. SHOW, where early in one episode, there's a bit that involves Bob Odenkirk waving a banana and saying "Who wants a banana?". In the tag at the end of the show, futuristic apes have found the episode and begin playing it, and they go crazy when Odenkirk is waving the banana.
There were great callbacks in the tags and credits of other MR. SHOW episodes, but I don't want to take up everyone's entire day.

Chrispy said...

Yes, the "MacMurray method" was well-known. In fact, the same producers used it for Brian Keith in "Family Affair" a short time later.

The boys on "My Three Sons" used to get haircuts every week for continuity (the continuity person on that show really earned his salary).

Bill Frawley was let go because his health was failing; he could no longer pass a physical to get insurance. Certainly, the MacMurray method of filming increased the risk to the show if Frawley wasn't able to continue. But ultimately, a performer who can't be insured will be let go, no matter what the filming method.

MTM is really a talented performer; the "Chuckles" episode proved that.

The only "Cheers" moment I like as much as Sam and Diane getting together was the one where they went to court and Diane finally accepted Sam's proposal. Ted and Shelley were magic on that show.

Anonymous said...

I have to say my fave set-up callback was on Cheers when little Freddie Crane yelled "NORM!"

My question is, on both MASH and Cheers there's an episode each where Mahler's Kindertotenleder is brought up. Who is it in hollywood that was obsessed with that? I get the "songs on the death of children" can be used as a joke along the lines of "oh joy we get to listen to that" but it's just obscure enough to puzzle me it would appear on two of the best shows ever. If Archie Bunker or Dan Fielding brought it up I'd declare conspiracy

HogsAteMySister said...

Thanks for reminding me of Chuckles! I don't know if I ever saw re-runs of that episode, or just the once,
but I STILL remember it fondly, after decades. Serious writing, that. He was, it must be said, a helluva clown.

Johnny Walker said...

This isn't really a question, and it isn't really a continuation of a discussion here, but it feels somewhat pertinent and I know that this is a group of people interested in sitcom writing.

I was recently surprised to see a storyline I recognized in an episode of How I Met Your Mother: In the 2009 episode "Double Date", Marshall reveals that he can only fantasize about other women in his head, if he imagines a tragic illness has taken Lily away from him first. (He feels too guilty, even in his dreams, to cheat on her.) She discovers this and is upset.

I recognized this storyline from a 2004 episode of King of Queens called "Damned Yanky" I happened to catch recently. In it, Doug reveals the same thing to Carrie, who has a very similar reaction to Lily.

I was really shocked to see two shows doing the same scenes with different characters, not five years apart.

What do people (or Ken) think? What's most likely: Did the writers unwittingly duplicate the story, or did they come up with the idea, realise it had been used recently, but decided to go ahead with it anyway?

An said...

So much to say about Cheers, and Sam and Diane in particular... I agree that Show Down was a huge peak, but there were definitely others during their run-- "Power Play", "Personal Business", "I'll Be Seeing You", "Cheerio, Cheers", "Diane Chambers Day", to name a few-- and I would submit that nothing that followed Shelley Long's tenure reached those heights (or anything before or since on TV, IMO). Sam and Diane, on or off again, really were the nuclear core of the show, and even when they were together or hideously broken up, the heat between them kept the show sizzling (metaphor done). One cannot overstate the power of Ted and Shelley. I also think Ken underestimates the power of the writing staff when he says they had one peak. No, nothing would be that OMG stunning again, but it sure would be as powerful, and perhaps even moreso, as the relationship got deeper.

Anyway, here's an interesting piece and big discussion of that episode and the show on the AV Club from this week: http://www.avclub.com/articles/cheers-fortune-and-mens-weight,64473/1/ Seems Sam and Diane are the object(s) or endless fascination.

An said...

"of". *sigh* That'll teach me not to type while sleeping.

cadavra said...

Johnny: Was there ever not a family sitcom where the parents decide to go away for the weekend and their teenage kids decide to throw a wild party...and then the folks come back early? Was there ever not a sitcom about a single guy who meets a hot babe and just when they're about to Do It someone comes along to interrupt them and do something that makes the woman flee? (This happened a lot even on FRASIER.) Was there ever not a sitcom where one or both parents of one of the leads turns up for a visit and proceeds to embarrass the crap out of their grown kids, mostly by spilling childhood secrets (bed-wetting being a hardy perennial)?

Bottom line: there are only X number of plots and they get reused all the time.

Nicole said...

Thanks for answering my question Ken. I was I could have been there to watch the filming of the final episode of Cheers of season one, but unfortunately I hadn't been born yet!

Anonymous said...

A bit late, as usual to this conversation. I've been watching through Cheers and I'm up to the last season. I'm trying to figure out what I'm missing in the later years.
I adore the Sam-Diane years and think they are among the best sitcom seasons ever. However I've found seasons 6-11 to be very uneven. At times I was just staring at the screen for episodes on end wondering if I had lost my sense of humor. I even dropped in some Cosby and Raymond to see if I could still laugh, I could.
Obviously the show was hugely popular and the seasons are well reviewed so they must have wide spread appeal. So what am I missing?
What was the big change from 5 to 6 that lost me but no one else? Follow that with an explanation of why I live the Honeymooners but not Lucy and my life will be complete.