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.
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.
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.
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?
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.