Thank God it’s Friday (Question Day). What’s yours?
Nick gets us started:
Is there much room for ad libbing on the set of sitcoms? I know in films it can work because you shoot multiple takes - but in a sitcom format (i'm thinking of Robin Williams in Mork and Mindy) do writers appreciate when actors ad lib or is it generally frowned upon?
Some shows like CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM are built around the actors improvising after being given a detailed outline. Most scripted sitcoms don’t allow for ad libbing except maybe early in the rehearsal process.
On multi-camera shows, cameras change shots based on line cues so it’s imperative the actors speak the lines as written or else you're going to have three cameras crashing into each other. That's generally not good.
Robin Williams didn’t “exactly” ad lib on MORK AND MINDY. I know this first-hand. He’d deliver a line on the first take. Then deliver another on the second. And still a different one on the third. The studio audience would be in awe of how quick and inventive he was. But here’s the thing. The “ad libs” were just the jokes that had been in the script and were replaced. Writers wrote them, not Robin.
Not to take anything away from Robin and his enormous talent, but he is notorious for stealing other people’s material.
I'm lucky enough to work as an assistant to the dramaturge in a theater and sometimes I get to watch rehearsals. I've noticed that the directors can get extremely specific about what they want from an actor. And the actors do their best to please. What's it like when working with "big stars"? Do they get lots of directions on what kind of emotions they should display and so on, or is it more like "Do whatever you want, we trust you"?
Some actors love that. And several have won Oscars for their performances in Jim Brooks movies so you can’t knock it.
But other actors hate it. They like to find the moments themselves so they find this technique very stifling. I remember once watching Jim direct a scene with two actresses. One just relished the input while steam was coming out of the other’s ears.
Then there’s Woody Allen. He very rarely “directs” an actor’s performance. He lets them just do their thing. And many actors have won Oscars performing in Woody Allen movies. So there’s a lot to be said for that method as well.
But here’s the thing with Woody Allen – he has the luxury of being able to get the very best actors in the world. Does Meryl Streep really need to be told how high to lift the cup?
And if an actor can’t give Woody the performance he really wants he merely replaces him.
For me as a director, I’m like the dad teaching his kids how to ride a bike. I let them ride on their own but I’m running alongside steadying the bicycle whenever needed, telling them to slow down occasionally and warning them that they’re headed straight for a fence. So far no one's ever won an Oscar on any of my movies. But in fairness, I've never directed a movie.
GMJ has a question about Nicholas Colasanto:
I noticed he directed over 29 different television series between the mid-1960s through the early 1980s. Have you ever had a chance to see any of his projects? I suspect his professional way expressing his concerns to writers extended to his work as a director before "Cheers".
I’ve seen a lot of his HAWAII FIVE-O’s (the original “good” version). Directing one-hour TV is quite a feat. Unlike features, you have to be fast. It has to be hard enough banging out an hour show in the crunch time allotted without having to stage elaborate action sequences. But Nick apparently had the knack.
He was also a highly respected acting teacher.
ScottyB has a question about one of the Bar Wars episodes that David and I wrote for CHEERS. It’s the one where the Cheers stunt apparently kills Gary.
At what point of a show's run do y'all sit there hashing out a script for the week, have someone go, "You know what would be really cool? Let's have Carla's disembodied head float around Gary's bar and pretend it gives him a heart attack!" and know whether it's even possible (in '80s technology, that is) for someone to be able to make Carla’s big head float around in an endless video loop?
This is why it’s great to have a partner. I didn’t remember how we arrived at that stunt, but my partner David Issacs did. Here’s his answer:
Can't remember all the details, but as we did in all the Bar Wars escalations we were looking for something that topped the last one. It really came out of the idea that because of Nick Tortelli, Carla would have TV repair and tech skills, so she could hook it up. We checked to see if it was possible that it could work in theory and it was something she could set up and run.
Thanks, David. And thank you guys for all your questions.