Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My respone to Zachary Knighton

Several readers have asked me to comment on the article by Zachary Knighton (one of the stars of HAPPY ENDINGS) that appeared recently on the A.V. Club.  Notably, readers wanted my reaction to these statements by Knighton:

…it’s awesome because there isn’t a 90-year-old guy who’s not really in touch with things writing dialogue for us.


I don’t want to name any names, but I’ve worked on television shows where there’s a guy writing for my generation who’s like 60—and it doesn’t work.

So what do I think?

This may surprise you but I don’t disagree with him. There are rhythms and exchanges in HAPPY ENDINGS I couldn’t come up with, but since I don’t feel I’m competing with that show, I can just watch and enjoy.  And I like him a lot. 

But let me offer a few points.

First, Knighton is one of the actors on the series, not one of the writers. So there’s no way of knowing whether they share his sentiments. (I don't personally know anyone on the writing staff, by the way.) 

But Knighton might be surprised to learn there are older writers who could make his show and any show better. I suspect HAPPY ENDINGS wouldn’t suffer if Larry David were around, for example.

That said, you need the right older writer. Yes, there are a lot who are out of touch ("That's not the way we did it on WEBSTER!"), but the ones who are good are very good and they’re experienced. I see story turns and clunky scenes on shows and I think, this poor staff is trying to re-invent the wheel. There are obvious fixes that they don’t see because there’s no one experienced around to show them. So yes, the older writers can’t write twentysomething dialogue without putting "dude" at the end of every speech, but they might construct sharper stories, structure funnier block comedy scenes, and I know it’s a generational priority – but they could push you to make your show more emotionally satisfying.

Is it just a coincidence that most big hit sitcoms (BIG BANG THEORY, MODERN FAMILY, TWO AND A HALF MEN) have older writers on their staffs?

One big difference between now and when I broke in (back in the Paleolithic era) is that shows today are more targeted for specific demographics. So writers in their 20’s write for characters in their 20’s. And that’s fine (I mean "awesome"). I wrote for characters my age too when I was starting out. But at 26 I was also writing for 40 year-old characters, and 50 year-old characters. I worry that today if you can only write for characters in their 20’s you are limiting yourself and potentially shortening your career. You want to be versatile, not just a niche writer.

As for the dialogue itself -- In the interview, Knighton also says this:

The great thing about these guys (their writers) is they’ll write a line and the cast will have some weird idiosyncrasy that we add to it. We’ve had this running gag recently, I don’t know how it worked itself in, where we say “homey” like [in nasally voice] “how-me”—and the writers are fine with it, which is really unusual. I think that’s also what makes this show special. We have all these dumb inside jokes and we let the audience in on that. And I don’t know how, but they get it. For some reason saying [in nasally voice] “What’s up, how-me?” is really funny to people.

Writers beware! Those “idiosyncrasies” are not jokes, they are crutches. They are easy familiar laughs. And if that’s what makes your show “special” you’re in trouble. Knighton makes it sound like they invented the form. From “Kiss my grits” to “Dy-no-mite” to “Would you believe?” sitcoms have been glomming onto catch phrases since before Lucy first went “Waaaaaaaa!” They get old. They get tired.

And here’s the thing: once “homey” has been established, anyone can write it. And it's a trap. It’s easy to be lazy. And get away with it. “Homey” will get you out of scenes. For awhile.  And it might get you out of a job because the P.A. can write "Homey" as good as you and costs just a fraction. 

But the good writers, the ones who will have long careers, are the ones who discard the crutches and strive for new, fresh, funny things. Again, this comment was from an actor, not a writer. I imagine the writers on the staff know these are crutches and have better perspective. So why is the actor making such a big deal of it? Because he’s so tickled that he can contribute. And that’s how they contribute – not by creating an original joke or concept, but by saying an existing word in a funny voice.

But those are quibbles.  

One thing I gleaned from the article is that HAPPY ENDINGS seems like a happy place to work. The actors and writers get along and all are passionate about turning out a great show. That’s how it should be. They’re all in their 20’s, they’re doing something they love, and the people they care about are seeing and appreciating their work. The last thing they probably need is Dr. Kelso.


doubleshiny said...

I watched that show and didn't laugh once, precisely because of what Knighton's talking about. There are too many jokes which depend on you really liking the characters and basically knowing what they're going to say next. Maybe at 32 I'm too far out of their target audience but I can't even see the 21 year old me raising a laugh at this. It seems like the half hour comedies from the early nineties.

Jeremiah Avery said...

I've seen interviews with John Cleese in which he lambasted catch-phrases. His reasons were in-tune with your reaction, Ken (talk about being in great company!).

He stated how they aren't funny to new viewers and makes the show too excluse and unwelcoming to anyone seeing the show for the first time. If someone is going "why is that funny?" then you've missed the point of comedy.

Granted I remember seeing some shows in which the younger characters were talking/acting in a way very few (if any) people in that age group would actually do. However, I think that even though the technology has changed, basic premises (e.g. boy loves girl, people trying to succeed at their job in spite of the people around them, etc.) don't need writers of the same age as the target viewer demographic.

J Lee said...

The ultimate comparison is between two mega-hits that went into syndication at the same time, MASH and Happy Days. Both were still at the top of the Nielsens when they went five-days a week in the fall of '79, and both set records for syndication sales because both were supposed to draw huge ratings.

But MASH succeeded in syndication while Happy Days underperformed. And that was in large part because by the end of Season 3, a huge amount of laughs on the latter show were based on the audience knowing and reacting to a bunch of catchphrases. When you're in the middle of a cult phenomenon (even a small cult phenomenon as with today's more targeted shows), you can get laughs out of a lot of things that a few years down the line, the same people will look at and wonder "Why did I think this is funny?" and change the channel. For the staff of Happy Endings, they need to hope that day comes after they're in syndication and not during the first-run episodes.

Michael said...

There's a classic old story about a comedian named Jack Pearl who did a radio character named Baron Munchausen. His big line was, "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" It went over big for whatever reason. One day, he played golf with Jack Benny, who made a routine of how he couldn't think without his writers but actually could ad-lib and, more than that, was a brilliant editor of his writers. Benny said, why don't you lay off the line for a couple of weeks? Then, when you say it, it will go over that much bigger. Pearl replied it was his big line and he had to say it. Pearl was gone within a couple of years because the catch-phrase was all he had.

By the way, on a note related to writing but unrelated to screenwriting, Rex Stout wrote the Nero Wolfe mysteries for 40 years. Archie Goodwin, his narrator, stayed the same age throughout. Yet Archie always sounded his age, even as Stout aged from 47 to 87 as he wrote. THAT is a remarkable bit of writing.

Francis said...

Mr. Knighton might like to know that not hiring writers because they're too old is called age discrimination and it's illegal. I realize (thank God) that's he's not the one hiring, but he is setting the show up for a lawsuit.

How about that, "how-me"?

Anonymous said...

Amen, Ken. And pass the Metamucil.

Redhead said...

I agree with the points made about catchphrases. Growing up in the '70s and '80s meant that EVERY sitcom had multiple catchphrases. I got sick of them even then...and I wasn't any more discerning than your typical 8-year-old (which is to say, pretty damn undiscerning).

However, I've found an interesting twist: for some reason I enjoy the catchphrases that old-time radio shows used. Absolutely no reason that I should make an exception for them, but somehow I enjoy Archie the Manager answering the phone at Duffy's Tavern with his "where the elite meet to eat, Archie the manager speakin', Duffy ain't here" or any one of the approximately BILLION Fibber McGee and Molly characters pulling out their old warhorses every single episode. Fibber had to set a record for most catchphrases on a single show (though What's Happenin'?!? around 40 years later gave Fibber a run for its money), plus there was that closet -- though they didn't use that gag nearly as often as most people think they did (approximately every sixth or seventh episode).

Anyway, I find it interesting that I'm far more tolerant of those catchphrases on radio. Perhaps not having a visual image to accompany the catchphrase makes it seem less tiresome upon repetition? Just a thought.

A.Homer said...

Excellent analysis, thanks. You were being nice on the actor's excitement...You hit the nail on the head with the "how-me" syndrome in writing sitcoms ("waaaaaaaaah" Lucy indeed). Gervais in Extras made that central to his sitcom success and his spiritual demise. Luckily Big Bang Theory didn't overuse "Bazinga" just yet, but it was getting close. Maybe because Lorre's co-writer is from Gilmore Girls, where what counts is employing many more words rather than catchphrases. And sticking with Chuck Lorre world, I would imagine that a 26 year old writing for older characters isn't so difficult, because at least in sitcoms, for the most part, everyone only acts as if they are in their 20s! From Betty White on downards in age. I was surprised that Sheldon Cooper was supposed to be in his 30s, even though obviously he has 2 doctorates. Age is not the point anyway, it's what bears on their day to day existence, and if no one has any problems from work that take away from long fun evenings, dinners out and weekends, etc...well, they don't sound like anyone older than their 20s.
In MASH I didnt actually once think how old Hawkeye was, I also didn't think people spoke like that, especially in war, always eloquent and without any uh, or mumbling from hangovers, or so on in real life. Who cares - I still enjoyed it because of how the writing and acting worked to convey a cohesive environment. It's not a reality show.

As for younger writers for younger characters, it seems odd to imagine an author can only write for their age. For the zeitgeist, sure maybe after a few decades, but I don't know any 17-18 year old that accepts the opinion of how they act, or talk, or think, from a 27 year old, so that argument is pretty moot.

As a conclusion, I might add, that I've noticed more than a few times, that there are storylines in certain sitcoms that are really close to that of a well-scripted weekly cartoon series, Like Penguins of Madagascar, or such - only the language between the four characters in Penguins was much, much sharper, used more adult, or an expanded lexicon, than found in a sitcom, and faster...

Simon said...

Excellent entry, thanks. Just wanted to say that Dr. Kelso makes any show better.

cadavra said...

A friend of my was recently expounding on the two things he felt have ruined network TV. The first is fairly obvious: the last writers' strike, which caused the nets to load up their skeds with cheap, unscripted garbage that has proven shockingly durable.

But the second is far more telling: the enormous success of FRIENDS. He believes it convinced them that the real money is in sitcoms about people in their 20s and early 30s, and thus we've been subjected to an endless stream of cookie-cutter crap about young hotties who either spend most of their time having sex or talking about having sex, or a bunch of arrested-development slackers who expend more energy avoiding work than the work would actually entail.

Last week I sampled BEST FRIENDS FOREVER; not ten seconds in, one of the leading ladies uttered the word "vagina" (that and "penis" being the new catchwords), followed by a minute-plus discussion of, uh, "grooming." How generic is it? At a commercial break, I looked at the clock and saw it was 9:05--I literally had not noticed that it had ended and BENT had begun. Yikes.

Meanwhile, while all this drivel crashes and burns, ABC has had a quiet success with LAST MAN STANDING, an old-school sitcom starring 60-ish Tim Allen, 50-ish Nancy Travis and 70-ish Hector Elizondo. And the basic-cable HOT IN CLEVELAND still outdraws many network comedies.

Yet they continue in their fruitless pursuit of "The Demo."

Paul said...

I watched the pilot. It was my least favorite out of all the pilots.

cadavra said...

I forgot to add: the best way to compare TV then and TV now is HAWAII FIVE-O. In the original, almost everyone was over 40. In the new one, almost everyone is under 40.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob said...

Great write-up Ken. Thanks for laying out the way things frickin' are with an articulate tongue & keen eye. Cheers!

BigTed said...

The interesting thing about "Happy Endings" is that the first few episodes were really pretty bad. They didn't know what to do with some of the characters (including Zachary Knighton's), and the premise seemed like a hundred other shows about young friends in the city. Eventually, the writers found their footing, and now it really is one of the funniest shows on TV -- in part because of the unique character interactions and dialogue.

I will say that some of the jokes at the expense of youth culture -- hipsters, say -- are no fresher than if old fogeys of 40 had written them.

Little Miss Nomad said...

Just a note, all of the actors in the show are in their early 30s or are turning 30 this year, and David Caspe is in his early 30s, and a couple of episodes have even talked about turning 30 (specifically Penny, who lies about her age like my grandmother).
I also don't think catchphrases or crutches are really what Happy Endings is doing so much as developing and depicting the special language any tight-knit group is gonna have. I dig that. That said, "A-mah-zing" is the worst, and I haven't noticed the how-mey/homey thing, but that's irritating as well.

Larry said...

I literally can't watch Happy Endings precisely because of what Zachary Knighton seems to like about it. A bunch of hipsters ironically commenting on their lives makes me turn the channel as fast as I can. I find Happy Endings so annoying that I'm almost afraid to watch the tags on Modern Family.

Dan Tedson said...

It's totally true. There's a comedic generational gap. I think what happens is that the truly funny peeps of the preceding generation lay the foundation for the truly funny peeps of the current generation. But their setups and "framing" become so ingrained in us from childhood on, that we need to mix it up to write jokes we find funny and that our peers won't see coming. A lot of times this involves pushing social mores.

I hear some of the old guard say that they don't need to be filthy to be funny, a sentiment probably expressed to them in one form or another when they were younger, and something that could equally (and incorrectly) have been said about George Carlin. And the beat goes on - in 30 years, we'll be doing the same thing to the next generation.

Steven said...

This show bugged me from the start because it seems as though the characters are all hyperactive kindergarteners talking at once, trying to impress the teacher with their unrelenting, nauseating wit. Maybe there's something to be said for trying to watch a couple of episodes to get a feel for the characters and inside jokes, but because seemingly every bit of dialogue in the show is followed up by a retort from some other character, the ratio of comedy to meaningful dialogue is thrown off and it's tough to get emotionally invested in what's happening. I prefer comedy that has a quality over quantity approach with clear setups and punch lines, or at the very least some awkward pauses to let the more subtle jokes can sink in (though I think the single camera shows now abuse this technique to where it acts like a silent laugh track of sorts, drawing unnecessary attention to mediocre jokes rather than having the intended effect of heightening their impact)

Also as someone else mentioned here I'm sick of the "Young attractive people having relationship issues" premise popularized by Friends, no matter how well executed it is. You can usually predict characters traits and plot lines because they've been laid out a before in similar shows and I don't want to feel like I'm being pressured into caring about these characters after they've been put through the relationship ringer and go to commiserate with their other single friends.

Charles H. Bryan said...

@Steven -- Your first sentence sums up what I've always tried to express about that show. Thanks!

D. McEwan said...

I'm glad they have a happy set. If only they had a funny show, I might have made it all the way through the pilot, rather than turning it off ten minutes in.

McElroy said...

It seems to me that good writing is good writing, regardless of the age of the writer. It's true that younger writers would have a better handle on the dialog of their generation ... but is that all there is to a show? I've watched HE, it was fun and different. But it was also all on the surface. At the end of the episode, I didn't care about any of them, and couldn't tell one from another. It was all one-liners that could have been said by any of the cast.

It's a show that deserves its moment in the sun because it fits so well in this moment. But I don't see it having much staying power. It's target audience will grow up and grow out of those gags because the gages are too much about the moment.

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

I've been having trouble understanding the appeal of "Happy Endings" myself. While I have it has gotten funnier than it was last season, which really was kinda unwatchable, and I believe that the actors are a major part of the reason for it's success, especially the women, but yeah I think the appeal is minimal at best. Without the original left-at-the-altar premise, it's basically another version of "Friends," with just some of the single-camera jokes and techniques and self-references that better shows like "30 Rock" have used better.

Also, that thing he's talking about with younger writers and catchphrases, while I agree with your assessment of their writing, I understand his view on younger writers though. Knighton analysis seemed similar to what happened when the older "I Love Lucy," writers started writing "Welcome Back Kotter," ruining that show. Granted there was more problems with that show than simply the writers changing, but that show had young writers who used catchphrases and in-jokes constantly as well. It worked with that show. But, somehow I think "Happy Endings" could improved with an older writer or two.

Cap'n Bob said...

I've noticed that most youth-oriented shows "create" jokes and material that was old when I was a youngster half a century ago.

Don K. said...

Knighton's comments are typical of someone his age. He's younger, and the younger always know better. They tend to forget us old farts were young once as well and we too thought our generation discovered pot. Er, reefer, whatever.

I've tried several times to watch his show because after Modern Family I'm in the mood for some more good, well written comedy. I never see it on Happy Endings. And I've got news for Knighton- adding those little touches is NOT some neat original idea, it tells me the show would rather be gimmicky than good.

Happy Endings will be gone in a season or two. It will not reach syndication. It's nowhere near good enough for that, so Mr. Knighton better save his money, because classic sitcome it is not.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of ageism, what do ya'll think about Dan Harmon releasing yet ANOTHER recording bomb of Chevy Chase?
Is show-running like being in the Mafia? Sure looks like he's trying to exterminate Chevy.

Brian Doan said...

Ken, maybe a question for Friday-- this was just posted on Roger Ebert's Twitter, and I wondered if you'd concur with the article's assessment about it being a good writing spot in LA? Sorry if this is something you've addressed before!,0,592172.story?page=1

Mitchy said...

Quick change of subject to baseball. Ken, if I watch a Mariners baseball game via, will I be able hear your commentary? lets you select the "home" or "away" broadcasts so I'm assuming it's feasible?

Brian said...

Quiet down there, Bob Newhart & Dick Van Dyke, Zachary Knighton has some deep thoughts to share on comedy.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Older writers also can ad focus to a show. In my exerience younger writers are all over the place. Like a kindergarten full of screeming kids, indeed.

Then again, isn't that what youth is about? Reinventing the wheel, not moving forward, but doing the same old stuff in such a way that it seems new? Would an older writer not try to ad meaning and feeling to a situation and set-up that doesn't deserve it?

ChicagoJohn said...

I think that Ricky Gervais did the ultimate commentary on comedy that relies on catch phrases in "Extras."

I was at a friend's house, when an Extra's marathon came on. I'd never seen it before. It started with an episode in which Gervais gives a catch phrase in a sitcom. It plays to the studio audience in a huge way. Gervais isn't quite sure why, but it makes Gervais' character central to the show. Suddenly, he's a star and getting treated well by everyone around him.

Then Ricky decides that he wants to "expand" his character, and drop the catch phrase. Suddenly, no one cares about his character anymore. And just as quickly as he became a star, no one will take his calls.

Its a brilliant set of episodes on so many levels. The bulk of it takes place in a Christmas special. It is some of the best comedy writing that I've seen mixed in with some amazing commentary on show business. I urge everyone to watch it.

RevChris01 said...

As usual, excellent write up. I've never even heard of this show. Who in the world is this Zachary fella anyways?

Oliver R said...

Much of this comment sections reads to me like older people grumbling about young-people shows.

I like Happy Endings a lot. The show has become a very different, and much funnier, since its mostly forgettable early episodes.

The show does not rely on catchphrases for jokes. There are occasional callback jokes and the odd recurring gag, but previous knowledge is not required to appreciate the show.

The show almost did have a catchphrase: Penny's obnoxious use of "ah-may-zing". The show explicitly called it out ("He hated it when I said 'ah-may-zing,' but I barely even said it this season.", "Do you mean winter?", "Yeah, it’s more of a summer word.") and only used it only once for the rest of the season.

By far the worst current show for crutches and lazy writing is The Big Bang Theory. Raj being silent around women and Howard's mother's obnoxious voice have never been funny, but five seasons in and they are still using the exact same unfunny 'jokes'.

I'd also like to point out that show creator David Caspe has a rather different view on the ages of the writers, saying it contains "all ages ... from ... mid- to late-forties down to 25".

One final thought: the audience that watches live network TV is increasingly skewing old. Perhaps older writers catering to an older audience is how Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and Modern Family became hits.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I've never cared for Happy Endings - but presumably it's aiming at the same demographic as HIMYM - which seems to appeal not only to me (58) and my friend Bill (80) but many friends in their 20s and 30s.

A.Homer: it's been repeatedly established that Sheldon was a prodigy. He went to college at 11, and was a visiting professor at a German university at 15, by which time he'd completed his first PhD. That actually explains a lot about his social difficulties.

What's more interesting to me and that the show is kind of trying to elide over is that Nobel-prize-winning physicists typically have their big breakthroughs in their 20s. Sheldon is getting very close to the point where if he hasn't done something big he isn't going to. The show does not fret about this - but at some point it really should.


Chris Danvers said...

Hi Ken... I agree with your stance on catchphrases, but what about the honeymooners? I only watched it as a child (and loved it) but there's a few in there that are classics. Does Jackie Gleason get a pass?

Little Miss Smoke and Mirrors said...

Speaking as someone in her 40s (so, between 20s and 60s), I totally see both sides (and from my use of "totally," I'm sure you've figured out by now I went to high school in the Valley in the 80s). At any rate, I cut my teeth watching MASH, but I love Happy Endings, too. The rapid-fire throwaway lines are absolutely hysterical. But being an age-peer to Bill Lawrence, et. al., I gotta agree with Simon above who says that Dr. Kelso makes everything better.

chuckcd said...

Isn't "Happy Endings" a term used by old people? They should have called the show "Everybody Cums".

Aislinn OLeary said...

I just finished watching The Mindy Project on Netflix and loved it. laughted out loud every episode. After that I started Happy Endings and gotta say its pretty disappointing. Damon Wayons Jr and Adam Pally save it a little. They are the only reason I have continued to be watch. I started with because I found Adam Pallly hilarious on the Mindy Project. While its not a bad show ...its not great either.