Friday, March 02, 2012

Love kills comedy

Here are some Friday Questions, written in between pitches. Spring Training is back!

Mitchell Hundred is our lead off hitter:

Often sitcoms have an ongoing storyline where one character is in love with another, but cannot ask them out for some reason (resulting in shenanigans). Niles and Daphne in 'Frasier' is the best example that I can think of, but Leonard and Penny in 'The Big Bang Theory' also qualifies. My question is: How do you know the right moment to break the tension and have them get together?

It’s a judgment call, but I always try to key off the audience. During show nights you get the sense whether an audience is really on board with a storyline or if they’re kind of glazing over.

Another indicator is how hard it is to come up with stories.  Are you running out of ideas and premises?

The major problem is that the sexual tension and build-up is usually a lot more fun than the aftermath of the couple finally getting together. But you have to realize that you’re dealing with adult characters in 2012. It’s not high school. After awhile if two people who are attracted to each other don’t get together it starts feeling very juvenile and silly.

So you have to walk that fine line.

And then there’s network pressure. The episode where a couple finally hooks up usually gets a rating spike. And networks love love love weddings… during sweeps. They’re highly promotable. But they can also mortgage your show’s future.

Best example is a series from the ‘70s called RHODA. This was a spin-off from THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Perennially unattached Rhoda Morganstern moves to New York, gets into a relationship, and during the first season gets married in a big hour-long episode. The ratings were huge, people talked about it for days – it was a real event. And the show was never as good. Eventually they got divorced and the series just became aimless.

The only people who should really cry at weddings are comedy writers.


Raj asks:

I was curious about how the actors in sitcom get paid. I can understand the lead actors who appear in every episode having a fixed contract. But sometimes, the supporting cast appears in just one scene or does not appear at all. How do they get paid in such cases?

Usually they’ll make a deal to appear in a specific number of episodes like 7 of 13. Series regulars get paid for all episodes, even if they’re not in all of them or they’re only in a brief scene. You might think, “Sweet!” But trust me, they’d rather be doing more.


From Johnny Walker:

As writers get promoted from Staff Writer to Story Editor, etc. do they get any more responsibilities, or extra "say" in the writers' room? Or is it purely financial/status promotion?

I always have to preface with: it depends on the show. But as you move up through the ranks you do tend to gain more responsibility. You may be included in casting decisions, editing sessions, or even running the room during a rewrite. More “say” comes from trust and that comes from your contributing more.

Generally this means additional work. But I’ve always believed the best thing you can do is become indispensable. Your added value is well worth the added effort. Just keep a sleeping bag in your office.

What’s your question? Leave it (along with your name) in the comments section.  Thanks.

35 comments:

Rob in Toronto said...

May I respectfully correct you that Rhoda's wedding occurred in the eighth episode of the series, not the season finale (which makes it an even bigger mistake ).

Butch Maier said...

I am writing a spec pilot and the show's bible. I do not have an agent, and I live nowhere near L.A. or N.Y. I know the odds are stacked against me, but what's the best route to get the pilot read? Try to get talent attached? Try to get a production company interested? Some other way? -- Butch

Curt From Naperville said...

Rob in Toronto echoed my thoughts -- they just barrelled into the wedding without really thinking what made Rhoda funny (on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"). Actually, the ratings didn't drop much while Rhoda was married, but after the separation and divorce were written in (and Nancy Walker split for a pair of flop sitcoms) the ratings started to drop.

There were a lot of problems with both Rhoda and Phyllis, partially due to keeping the characters true to what we saw on MTM (there was no way to keep Phyllis as unlikeable as a lead character as she'd been in a supporting role), partially due to events beyond the producers' control. Multiple "let's marry off some characters" storylines certainly didn't help.

RCP said...

Curt from Naperville said...

"There were a lot of problems with both Rhoda and Phyllis, partially due to keeping the characters true to what we saw on MTM..."

I agree. As much as I loved Rhoda on MTM, her show just never did it for me. Same with Phyllis - which had a great opening - but I basically tuned in to see the foul-mouthed old granny who (I thought) was a riot.

Tom Quigley said...

I always loved the relationship between Niles and Daphne -- before they were married. To me there seemed to be a Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle element to it, not in that Niles wanted to change Daphne in any way, but that such an effete proper-mannered snoot would fall for this down-to-earth, nonpretentious young lady, who had a British accent to boot. And I did start to lose interest when they finally hooked up as lovers and continued on as husband and wife.

I thought that the key to their whole relationship, and the secret that made it so appealing was best-evidenced in the final episode of (I think it was) season 3 when after a social event in which both their dates had left them, Niles and Daphne found themselves together at the bar and Daphne was telling Niles how he was always able to cheer her up. She finished by saying in a friendship sort of way "Oh, I love ya, Dr. Crane!" And Niles just stared straight ahead over his drink and barely above a whisper replied "I love you too, Daphne." Obviously, knowing what we knew about Niles' feelings (and what Daphne didn't), the audience got the significance of that remark, where to Daphne, Niles' reply was just an acknowledgement in kind of their friendship. And it would continue on that way for several more years.

JKlesser said...

Ken, I'm a mid level writer who has been working on network shows for several years. My agent says it's time to think about developing (hopefully while I'm also on staff). Of course I hope to one day win writer-lottery and get a show I created picked up, but after seeing what my fellow writers go through when they develop, it feels like a frustrating waste of time. I'd rather just write on spec. The agent says I need to start "developing" a track record for how I develop. I'm sure you've been in this position before. How did you make your decision?

Michael said...

First, granting Rhoda's wedding being a bad sitcom idea, there's also the question of whether a supporting player, even a major one, can carry a show as the main character. Ken jokes a lot about "AfterMASH," but it was a very good series, and certainly better than most of the glop on network TV. But was it a problem that the three cast members who continued were--allowing for Harry Morgan's importance and genius--supporting players? I don't know that, but I do know that Rhoda and Phyllis were funnier with Mary to play off.

On another note, I think Niles and Daphne HAD to get together as Frasier went on for so many years. A shorter-lived series can sustain that tension or story, but imagine if they STILL were doing the same thing in the 11th season.

Joe Pontillo said...

Friday question: Ken, this past week, many episodes of my favorite shows had Leap Year-themed episodes. It got me thinking: How much foreknowledge are show runners given of the exact dates episodes of their shows will air? And how much control do they have in telling the network, "This episode should air on this date; that episode should air on that date"? You hear stories about how, say, Fox handled "Firefly," and it makes you think there's no way a series could plan for Leap Day.

Jeff said...

What's the atmosphere on a set when a supporting character "breaks out" and starts to overshadow the star?,

Jeff

Daniel said...

The conventional wisdom these days is that it's best to keep the characters apart as long as possible, so that the show retains some romantic tension. I disagree. There are examples that prove the rule, like Niles and Daphne. But there are also a lot of shows like Friends, which dissolved the romantic tension between Ross and Rachel by inventing more and more ridiculous excuses to keep them apart. I actually think The Big Bang Theory would be a more interesting show if Leonard and Penny stayed together. The writers could generate conflict by having the geek and the actress try to find common interests and navigate their very different social scenes. A number of classic comedies have lasted for years exploring the conflicts in a romantic relationship, from Burns and Allen to Everybody Loves Raymond. I'd rather see that sort of romantic tension than the umpteenth variation on "I love her but she's dating somebody else. Again."

Tim Simmons said...

I'm in the same boat as Butch above, except I live in Central California. It's only a four hour drive to meet producers and agents, but will they be put off that I don't have a southern cal address?

Eric said...

I loved Niles and Daphne both before and after they became a couple. The new situations that developed after they got together was the main draw for me in the later seasons. That said, I don't think there is a way to resolve this type of storyline that would please everybody. I didn't have any preconceived notions on how the writers of Frasier would resolve things, I just sat back and enjoyed seeing what was to come. I was probably in the minority in that respect, though. You'll always have the "jump the shark" people that will hate change of any kind. There will be writers of fan ficion that will dislike it when the show deviates from their ideas on how the couple's relationship should be. People will say they got together too soon or too late, that they're too affectionate together or not affectionate enough, that they get along too well or that they argue too much. Incidentally, in talking with and reading message board comments from people who started watching Frasier after Niles and Daphne were already together so they weren't familiar with the whole long "will they or won't they" story arc, they all loved the couple. I guess all a writing staff can do is resolve the storyline the best way they agree on and hope that enough viewers stay along for the ride, like Frasier which lasted four more seasons after Niles and Daphne got together.

Cap'n Bob said...

I've always had the feeling that a show has run out of steam when either a wedding or baby comes along.

Liggie said...

F.Q. Sometimes actors will have to perform two different roles in one movie/episode, e.g. a superhero and his secret identity, or the recent "Castle" where the cast re-enacted an 1940s case along with their regular roles. When writing the script, can you use the two characters' names in the appropriate scenes ("Spider-Man" in action scenes, "Peter Parker" in the others), or do you have to use one name in both scenes to make it easy on the reader ("Castle" in both the '40s and modern settings)?

W.V. "reventer ezatee" -- What happened to a certain British sheep in a lab a few years ago.

Nancy Knechtel said...

You have captured the history of the studios you have worked at so well - Did you ever find out who occupied your offices at the studios in the past? Rumor has it that some writers have worked in Shirley Temple's old dressing room bungalow at Fox. Were your offices old dressing rooms or writers buildings? Any great writers occupy your space before you?
Thanks

Chris said...

>>What's the atmosphere on a set when a supporting character "breaks out" and starts to overshadow the star?<<

Ask Polly Holliday.

Rick Hannon, Rochester, NY said...

Are TV networks contractually obligated to run the credits of a given program but not required to make them readable, viewable, or comprehensible? It maddens me to distraction when credits begin to roll but are then shrunken to half-screen (or less) in size while some promo blares on in the other half of the screen or when they are sped up to vertigo-inducing speed! Why bother at all if no one can read them?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Of course, Ken himself sidestepped the issue with Almost Perfect, a comedy which starts when the leading lady gets her dream job the day she finds her dream man. Will they or won't they is morphed into 'will they or won't they survive?' Thy didn't, but that was because they didn't account for the network.

So if the studio doesn't do a dvd, are you allowed to do an e-book of all the scripts for your blog?

David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews said...

One of the things you're also forgetting to mention about "Rhoda," is that the Wedding episode was also an elaborate cross-over episode where practically everybody from "MTM", flew to New York for the Wedding, so what you also had was essentially, two audiences, the "Mary," and "Rhoda," audiences watching the show, and actually in a way, I liked that we got to see a show, that early on, where a character marries, and then got divorced, in the same show. The will they/won't storylines are great (And btw on that, is everybody forgetting the best one, Sam & Diane on "Cheers," the show that started that format?)but you'll never see a couple divorcing on TV anytime in the near future. Yeah, a few shows about divorced people, but not shows that are so Pinteresque in showing a couple divorcing. (I know that's not really what Pinter wrote, but that's the best adjective I can come up with at this time of night)

A_Homer said...

In the case of Frasier, Niles and Daphne weren't the main characters so that has to be considered as well. It was Frasier's love life and issues that was center, and his brother and Daphne evolved as a kind of counterpoint to Frasier's perpetual singleness.

Niles and Daphne was beautiful in that moment that she runs away from her wedding and joins Niles in the van etc... and they take off down this new route. I wonder that no one mentions what was rather hard to take serious was Frasier's father suddenly having this hot younger (than him) singer who wants to marry him as well. Please....

Jonas said...

Friday Question.
Further to Sitcom actors salaries. What do guest stars get paid? Judy Greer appeared on her last episode of "Arrested Development" for literally ten seconds. Would she be paid less than her usual salary for such a brief appearance?

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks Ken!

Johnny Walker said...

It's interesting to note that everyone seems to agree that Frasier went downhill after they got married... Now whether it was because they got married, I don't know.

Raj said...

Thanks, Ken.

Regarding couple finally getting together, Seinfeld came very close few times, with some last minute catastrophe avoiding the union.

Steve said...

Mitchell Hundred? One of my favorite fictional characters reads Ken's blog. How cool is that?

jank said...

Say you're writing a spec script and you imagine the character to be very similar to one that exists and is already well known... for example, a fastidious or fussy upper class fellow in the mold of Niles Crane.

Is it considered bad form to simply state in your character introduction that he is 'a fastidious and fussy upperclass fellow, a red-haired Niles Crane with an unfortunate case of halitosis and a peg leg'?

Would referencing the existing character be akin to cheating, or is it acceptable as a form of shorthand?

Thanks.

BTW, we got Jim Price and Dan Dickerson doing a bang-up job for Tigers broadcasts out here in Detroit. (/beautiful area)

Johnny Walker said...

@jank, I believe Ken has written about that in the past. If not, I think I've heard something about it elsewhere.

I believe it's fine to use shorthand when describing characters (e.g. "Picture a young Harrison Ford"), but I know Ken has said it's important to make sure your characters are somewhat different to ones the audience already knows.

For example, we all know the "geeky" character, or the "womanizer" character, but what makes your version different? Barney from How I Met Your Mother, and Sam from Cheers are cut from the same cloth, but they're very different characters.

With that in mind, and from what I've heard, I'd be careful not to make your "fastidious fusspot" too similar to other such characters we've already seen. If you're going to describe him as "Niles Crane with...", it's probably really important to highlight what makes him different from Niles Crane.

I could be completely wrong, but that's what I've picked up, anyway :)

I'm sure Ken has much better way of putting across what I'm trying to convey, and with a lot more useful information to boot.

JAW said...

Ken- Jumping The Shark has become the popular idiom to describe the moment a show begins a decline in quality. I wonder if there seems to be moments when shows find their stride that launch them into longevity. I think of when characters become solidified, i.e. Krammer becomes one step ahead of things around him instead of some brain dead mooch. Daphne looses the goofy Manchester persona and holds her own with the other cast. MASH goes from the Marx Brothers go to war to "Sometimes You Hear The Bullet." Is this efforted by writing, the production team, the actors? What precipitates these changes?

Mike said...

Hey, here's a Friday question (on Saturday): I recently read online that MASH's phasing out of its adulterous themes (Henry, Trapper and Frank all cheated on their wives while they were in Korea, where Potter and BJ were incredibly faithful to their spouses, and Winchester didn't seem to have much interest in having a sex life, period) happened to coincide with the short-lived implementation of the "family hour" on TV (which ran from 1975-77, when it was declared unconstitutional). I know this was before your involvement with the show, but it was nothing more than a coincidence, right? I've always thought the reduction of the adultery (and the toning down -- okay, basically elimination -- of Hawkeye's womanizing) was just part of the natural development of the show. The "family hour" didn't have anything to do with it, did it?

Cap'n Bob said...

Mike: BJ was unfaithful to his wife once, but at least he was repentant.

Mark said...

Hi Ken:

You mentioned recently that is might be a good idea to keep a sleeping bag in your office in order to be prepared for late writing sessions.

Just curious, have you ever actually slept at work and gone right back to work the next morning?

Stephen said...

The cast and crew of Cougar Town did their own 'grassroots' promotional campaign while the show was on extended hiatus. They hosted viewing parties, went out and met the fans, and most of the cast joined Twitter. If you had a show on the air now, would you make full use of social media to raise your show's profile, as opposed to relying purely on network support? Do you think more low-rated shows should be doing what Cougar Town did to make a dent?

Tomas Street said...

FRIDAY QUESTION SUBMISSION

When writing a sitcom / pilot / spec, should I be writing in character descriptions for the regular cast? I know in a pilot it be necessary, but if accompanied by a bible is it redundant?

-Tomas it Toronto

Rootbeer1 said...

Seeing how much the Friends leads were paid per episode, I've wondered how much the main supporting character, Gunter the coffee shop manager, made in comparison. One-tenth the salary of a single lead? One-hundredth? He was there in most every episode, even if he only had a handful of lines per season. Would stunt-cast stars like Brad Pitt have made more for a single episode than he made in a whole season?

Kirk D G said...

Ken. Friday question time.

Ron Howard tweeted a picture of the rain they were creating for a scene in his current film, Rush. It made me wonder how often the weather cooperates with the filiming of movies or TV shows.

Can you think of any examples of inclimate weather matching the script perfectly? I'm guessing there wasn't actually a blizzard during the filming of The Shining.

Thanks.