Friday, August 17, 2012

My all-time favorite sitcom episode

To be answered sometime in this post.  Greetings from Seattle where I’m broadcasting this weekend’s series against the Minnesota Twins on 710 ESPN, the Mariners Radio Network, MLB.COM, and Sirius/XM satellite. But before I fill out my line up card, here are some Friday Questions.

Liggie starts with a baseball broadcaster query:

How long did it take you to get used to calling games while having the producer barking into your earpiece? I have to wear a headset for my job, and I always have trouble concentrating when I'm talking to a customer face-to-face while an unrelated conversation is going on in the radio system.

It was an adjustment when I first started doing television play-by-play I admit. But most of the time the director will only chime in when it’s necessary and he'll be brief. “Replay.” “Promo.”, etc. That said, I had a director when I was in San Diego who drove me nuts. I’d be telling some story on the air and he’d be commenting in my ear. Or trying to top me if I was saying something funny. I finally had to take him aside and tell him I would kill him and his family and his pets if he ever did it again.

When I was with Seattle in the early ‘90s Ken Griffey Sr. was my partner on some telecasts. Ken is a great guy, but at the time was new to broadcasting. The director has the ability to talk to both announcers or either announcer through our headsets. Sometimes the director will talk to the analyst and tell him what graphic or replay is coming up. This would be the case with Kenny, but from time to time he would answer, forgetting that he was on the air. So I’d be talking about something and Ken would randomly blurt out, “When do you wanna do that?” or “No.” And at first I thought, “What the fuck is he doing?” and then I realized.

I can’t imagine what it must be like for Bob Costas, hosting the Olympics, keeping all those names and events straight, and in his case the director must be talking to him non-stop. It’s truly an art.

Kingsley asks:

What's the most important piece of advice you'd give to the director of a brand-new sitcom?

Help the actors find their characters. Show patience, allow for a lot of experimentation, and create a safe, open environment.

Always hanging in the air during a pilot is fear. There’s a lot riding on it. Today especially, actors know they could be fired as early as the network runthrough. So in addition to trying to embody a new character they’re always working with a guillotine over their heads. You need to understand this. They will do their best work if they trust you. Be in control of the set. Set the tone. Let them see you really are on their side and whatever their process is (and each actor has a different one), you’re willing to work within it.

Then go home and down a pitcher of margaritas.  

estiv wants to know:

The other night I was watching a Dick Van Dyke Show episode with Allan Melvin in a supporting role, and got to thinking about how many times I had seen him over the years. On shows like MASH and Cheers, what was the feeling about using well-known character actors for individual episodes? Seems like it would be a tradeoff between hiring a known quantity, reliable and professional, versus the fact that such a familiar face could take the audience out of the story, and just make them think, "Oh, him again." How has it worked in your experience? Thanks.

I tend to fall in the “Oh, him again” category. At least at the beginning of casting. I’ll ask the casting director if there isn’t someone we haven’t seen as often? But on many of these occasions we’ll read some fresh faces and realize they’re not nearly as good as the veteran character actor. There’s a reason he gets cast in so many shows.

I remember we had a part on MASH one week. A certain character actor was suggested. We said, “Jesus, he’s been in everything.” Let’s keep looking. After multiple casting sessions we just cried uncle, hire the established guy.

He turned in a fantastic performance. A few years later he got a break starring in a small movie that became a surprise hit and his career took off like a rocket.

The movie? BABE. The actor? James Cromwell… although at the time we knew him he was always “Jamie.”

My heart goes out to character actors. They’re always either over-exposed or under-exposed.

Finally, from GC from France:

What is your favorite sitcom episode, if you have to choose just one?(any show)

The “$99,000 Answer” episode of THE HONEYMOONERS. I was a kid when I first saw it and did not see the final punch line coming. When that joke hit I must’ve laughed for ten minutes straight. I have a lot of favorite episodes from a lot of series for various reasons, but if I had to choose just one that’s the winner. (I hope they show THE HONEYMOONERS in France.)

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks!!

42 comments:

Matt Barnett said...

Ken,

There are only a handful of shows that are, to many people, the icons of American Television. Among them:

I Love Lucy
The Honeymooners
Mary Tyler Moore Show
M*A*S*H
Cheers
Big Wave Dave's

Does it ever hit you that not only are you a part of television history, but that you were very much a part of shows that are now the gold standard of television entertainment? And do you ever look back in amazement and wonder "how the hell did that happen?"

RJ Hope said...

I surmise that being a MLB baseball announcer is a full time job, but are you still working on writing projects for networks and/or things that are speculative?

mrpark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James said...

One of the earliest Pinky and the Brain episodes had the Brain entering the Gyp-parody games how to win $25k to fund his plan for taking over the world. The plot was stolen/homage to the Honeymooners episode. Fantastic stuff.

At some point I'll have to watch the original. (sorry)

Richard J. Marcej said...

I've enjoyed the work of James Cromwell as well, especially in the films "L.A. Confidential" and "The Green Mile". But in the back of my mind, for a split second when he comes on the screen I'll think "Hey, there's Stretch Cunningham!"

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

Ken,

What's the biggest "logic failure" you've put into a script that viewers never noticed?

One of the best Cheers episodes was "Dinner At Eightish." After all the times seeing it over the last 20 years, I finally realized something: nobody noticed Jill in the kitchen.

Jill was one of Sam's old girlfriends, and she was in the kitchen the whole time helping Liluth with the side dishes. And her presence isn't noticed until she leaves and says bye to Liluth? She must have been quiet as a mouse, since Sam and Diane would have asked about sounds coming from the ktichen. And I figure the Crane kitchen had a bathroom, too.

Of course, Jill is the fuse that sets off the final moments of that great farce. Because of her, Diane hides out in the bathroom. Frasier says something about that and Liluth joins Diane.

Still, it's a logic failure that nobody notices. In my case, for years and years.

Keith said...

I never sighed and said "Oh, him again" when Phil Leeds would walk into the 12th precinct.

Michael said...

The one problem with the well-traveled character actor is that you end up saying to yourself, "Where have I seen this person before," and you start figuring out those many appearances and forget to watch the show!

Apropos of Ralph Kramden's quiz show appearance, I understand there's an episode of Gleason's live variety show with a Honeymooner's sketch where Carney walks into the room and Gleason misses his cue or whatever. So Carney started trying to kill time. He walked over to the refrigerator, opened it, and for some reason there was an orange in it. He proceeded to spend about three minutes just getting ready to peel the orange. It was so great that Gleason, who had arrived by then, didn't even come out because Carney was so stupendous, doing a "full Norton" on the orange. I'd love to see that if it happened.

Terrence Moss said...

I recently watched "The $99,000 Answer" on DVD.

That moment is so hilarious and so utterly tragic.

We're all laughing at Ralph Kramden but Jackie Gleason is playing up the utter tragedy of the moment to the hilt -- which makes it all even funnier. All set-up with one of the greatest payoffs.

My favorite is "Sammy's Visit" from ALL IN THE FAMILY with "Lucy is Enciente" from I LOVE LUCY close behind.

Fenway said...

Ken

The actor who played Herb Norris the MC would become an actual game show host on Tic Tac Dough, a show later found to be rigged. His name was Jay Jackson.

http://youtu.be/nB6NmrgY48s

benson said...

Tough to come up with one. Dick Van Dyke's "Coast to Coast Big-Mouth" is great. Not to kiss up, but there are several Levine/Isaacs scripts from Frasier that are brilliant (Room Service, for example) and Roz and the Schnoz is wonderful.

But in slightly different vein, for sheer great writing, the second episide of Sorkin's Sports Night, "The Apology" may be one of the greatest half hours of television ever, too.

Brian Phillips said...

Viva James Cromwell! Were I running a network at the time, James Cromwell, the late Al Freeman, Jr. and Conchata Ferrell would all have been in Hot l Baltimore for five seasons and then re-cast in new series as soon as possible afterward.

richard J. Marcej said...

Man, I wish someone would put all those "Hot L Baltimore" shows out on DVD. I'd love to see them again, especially because I'd only seen them once and tat I was just a kid. Would they hold up after all this time?

Karl said...

That Honeymooners episode is available on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrmIQM2TOcM

I found it interesting that the first contestant was very straight-faced when he answered the dollar bill question correctly. Today he would be expected to jump up and down and shout a lot. (And really who would know the number of "ones" and how many are digits? I think the $99,000 Answer was rigged.)

Jean-Luc Stivic said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person who sees James Cromwell and identifies him as Stretch Cunningham. But I only do that half the time. I'm modern enough to sometimes see James Cromwell and say "There's Zefram Cochrane! He invented warp drive!"

Christodoulos said...

A hilarious post by Ken, offering us the inside scoop on how Cromwell heard from his agent about the BABE role.

http://kenlevine.blogspot.gr/2010/09/how-tv-stars-become-movie-stars.html

Actually, Ken, this would make a great webisode starring James himself.

Brule Eagan said...

Ken,

Funny you should bring up the James Cromwell episode of MASH -- I saw it on Me TV just last night! (And he's incredible as William Randolph Hearst in RKO 281).

Eric J said...

I used to do a lot of training videos for Asian car companies. I'd hire a meat puppet (talent), and hand them a script they'd never seen. They would go to a quiet spot, do a read-thru marking it up, then record it on a small tape recorder. They had an earphone in one ear and a pause button in their pants pocket. Then on camera, they would start the recorder and repeat what they heard from the recorder, pausing only when they had to slow the pace. We might do two takes, but often as not it was one take...with a script they had only seen for the first time 20 minutes before.

Ben Kubelsky said...

@matt-For sheer "ask the man on the street" answers to what's the most iconic sitcom, I think you'd have to include "Seinfeld" and maybe "All In the Family." And of course, "Buffalo Bill" (haha)

mike said...

Wasn't it Glenn Corbett who invented warp drive?

PolyWogg said...

How about another new Friday question? What do you think of recaps in blogs?

Lots of blog sites out there have reviews, but some of them also include blow-by-blow accounts of episodes, complete with denouement reveals. This is rare, I think, for sitcoms, but lots of fan-crazy shows like ST or Lost or Fringe have fans and bloggers who do it.

Do you like it (a) as a fan and (b) as a writer? Or is it the latest sign of a zombie apocalypse?

PolyWogg

Mark said...

Is it possible the director in Bob Costas' ear is helping him keep the events and names straight? He might be the secret to Bob's success for all we in television land know.

Mel said...

You've probably answered this one before, but how did the casting of celebrities as Frasier's callers come about? What that intended from the beginning or did it just happen spontaneously?

Also, do you buy Kelsey Grammer's claim that he wasn't nominated for an Emmy for Boss because of his politics?

Elf said...

Whaaaaaaat
doooooooooes
aaaaaaa
yellllllllllllow
liiiiiiiiiiiiiight
meeeeeeean?

The fact that this came in Christopher Lloyd's first episode as a regular cast member when other actors might just be finding and defining the chatacter makes it even more impressive.

Greg Ehrbar said...

On an episode of "Jeopardy," a contestant actually did give the same answer as Ralph (but in the form of a question). A smattering of audience members laughed in recognition. Somehow I don't think this was the first time it happened -- or the last.

As for those great character actors we constantly saw in movies and TV... it was nice to keep seeing them. They were old friend, in a way. After our initial "oh, that guy," within moments we could accept them in different roles over and over again due to their skill and versatility. It's like a fine theater stock company.

GC from France said...

Hi ken!
As any sitcom fan who respect himself, i watched "THE HONEYMOONERS". But i have to admit that show is not popular in France. Actually, there is just one show that keep playing in reruns, over and over again, "MARRIED WITH CHILDREN" that is the most popular sitcom in France, yes! Ed O'Neill probably doesn't know it. But if he comes in France, he will have his barbecue and football field on the top of Eiffel tower.

Thanks again for "comedy 101" post, i did my homework!
Even if my me generation is 90s, my next reading is your " The me generation by me growing up in the 60s"

Doug said...

Ken

Just turned on the Mariners game.Great to hear your voice.

M's Fan

Joey H said...

Ken, I just finished "The Me Generation..." I've now read all three of your books. Is there an honor roll or something? Seriously, though, it was a fun read. Recommended to your other blog readers.

I can't believe I never made the connection that Colonel Flagg (Edward Winter) was also J.D. Sheldrake in Promises, Promises. I saw that great original Broadway cast in 1970 when the show shut down for a week in New York to play The Muny outdoor theater in St. Louis. I'm sure Jerry Orbach was wondering "what the hell?"

Have you read Bill Bryson's "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid?" It's a similar 60s remembrance, except with a midwest perspective. Also very funny. I think you'd enjoy it.

Say hi to Rizzs for me.

Anonymous said...

For Mike: Rest assured, at the very least, *I* got it. THE MAN MUST CONTINUE!

Looking forward to seeing "Barney Miller" on AntennaTV soon (yes, I'm dead set on making sure everyone knows it's back!), because so many favourite sitcom moments come from that show (especially when everybody accidentally eats the brownies that are evidence: "These are full of HASH, Barn!"). And unlike my recent re-viewings of "WKRP" and "Square Pegs" (Oh DUDE, I LOVED that show SO MUCH as a kid), it won't be ruined by the removal of the original music with weird generic crap. No classic New Wave in "SP", and no "Hold me closer, tiny dancer" on "WKRP"... not only did they not let them use the *song*, they wouldn't let them *quote* it; "Hold my order, terrible dresser"?!? Why bother?!

I'm watcing "Bringing Up Baby" for the thousandth time as I type this; it never EVER stops being funny to me ("Because I just went GAY all of a sudden!"), but my husband has abandonded me for bed, being thoroughly tired of both the film and the similarity between our relationship and Grant/Hepburn's.

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

jbryant said...

Watching episodes of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW every weekend on Me TV for the last few months has increased my respect for Allen Melvin (and Harvey Lembeck). They are so tuned in to Silvers that you could almost say the three of them are giving one performance.

Melvin is also great in the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode "Harrison B. Harding of Camp Crowder, Mo."

Some character actors do wear out their welcome, but seeing Melvin always gives me a smile.

Erich Cannon said...

After reading this and listening to you broadcast the game, I couldn't help but hear Kevin Cremin saying "Promo, station ID," in my own head!

Blueandgoldcap said...

For me, it is a tie between Archie Bunker getting kissed by Sammy, "What does a yellow light mean," from Taxi and the episode of Dick Van Dyke with Greg Morris where Rob thinks they were given the wrong baby by the hospital and, of course, "Hello, ball," from The Honeymooners.

Marco said...

The sitcom episode I laughed the most today was the Seinfeld Episode "The Merv Griffin Show". But only because I missed the intro where Kramer and Jerry find the old sets of that show. I was in Dallas that time and catched the episode in one of the many re-runs. Tuned in right during the opening credits and when Jerry entered Kramers appartement with the Merv Griffin set built in it I totally cracked up over the scene.

Years later I bought the DVDs and saw the Intro of the episode the first time - including the scene where they find the set pieces. The whole thing was waaay less funny because the big surprise was missing. If it were for me, that episode should be edited the way I saw it the first time.

Ken, do you often have such a feeling when you catch some of the episodes you wrote, that you would rewrite or edit some episodes today?

Ernie said...

Regarding the iApartment fiasco, what, in your opinion is the difference between an homage to and a ripoff of an original work? What I'm asking is,can it still be considered a ripoff if they hew close to the original show without outright stealing lines and scenes from it? Is there sometimes a gray area between the two? Finally, have you noticed any homages to or ripoffs of your own shows?

Loosehead said...

For me the biggest problem with having a well-known face appear as a side-character, is that they turn out to be the one who dunnit. How many times have I watched Castle, or Rizzoli and Isles, and someone I recognise appears as the brother-in-law or business partner of the victim, and from the other side of the lounge I hear my wife's voice saying "he did it". No matter that the famous face was probably cast because he or she has the presence and skill to carry off being the villain.
Same is true when a minor character has some lines. I know speaking parts cost more, so they have to get their money's worth out of him, but it was obvious the prison guard in a series finale of Rizzoli and Isles had some important role to play later on.
Sometimes a famous face can make an episode, and sometimes it can spoil it.

Bradley said...

My 10 favorite episodes of all time, in chronological order:

I Love Lucy - Lucy Gets in Pictures
The Dick Van Dyke Show - Never Bathe on Saturday
The Odd Couple - The Subway Story
The Mary Tyler Moore Show - Put on a Happy Face
The Bob Newhart Show - Ex-Con Job
Rhoda - One is a Number
Cheers - An Old-Fashioned Wedding
Roseanne - The Commercial Show
Frasier - Daphne's Room
Everybody Loves Raymond - Baggage

My favorite episode of yours:

Frasier - Adventures in Paradise

Kirk said...

One of my favorite TV character actors was the late Herb Edelman, who must have appeared on every sitcom at least once during the 1970s and 80s.

My favorite sitcome episode, or at least the one I think is the funniest, is the "Good Time News" episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. It tends to get overshadowed by the better known "Chuckie Bites the Dust"

The ALL IN THE FAMILY with Sammy Davis JR is a close second.

cadavra said...

Benson: "Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth" is probably my #2 all-time favorite. As I've often said here, "The Censor" episode of THE ASSOCIATES is my #1. Though there are any number of Van Dyke episodes that are equally pantheon-worthy. As a Rickles fan, I also love the "Return of Bald Eagle" episode of F TROOP.

Hardcore film buffs love seeing the same faces over and over again; those character actors are almost literally like family, and are often greeted with applause when they first turn up in a picture. (IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD is probably the ultimate example of this.) Once at a classic film festival, Leonard Maltin, referring to the preceding film, stated how proud he was to be "standing in front of an audience that applauded David Landau." (To save you the Google, he was an obscure Howard Cosell look-alike who played villains in a few early talkies, most notably HORSE FEATHERS, before his death in 1934. Which was Leonard's point, of course.)

LouOCNY said...

One has to give special credit to Lucy is Enciente - 60, yes 60 years after its first airing, it still packs an emotional impact few shows have ever had.

Yes, the 'trying to tell the husband he will be a daddy' plot has been done a hundred times. But what makes this one SO different from just about every other sitcom episode, is the idea that this was VERY personal to the Arnaz family. All one needs is an understanding that Lucy and Desi had SO many problems conceiving and even bringing a pregnancy to full term prior to Lucie being born. Then one immediately understands why Desi as Ricky fumbles the lyrics of the 'baby' song he is singing to Lucy, and why both of them break down in real tears at the end. After a hundred viewings, it still makes one wonder how so much dust suddenly got in the room.


So called 'Reality TV' will NEVER get REAL emotions stirring liek that!

Sebastian Peitsch said...

Hehe :-) Hang a star on it :-)

So great that today is a day game and I can listen without ruining my sleep cycle.

Brian said...

Hi Ken, I just realized that all episodes of Cheers are on Netflix streaming. I just watched the pilot for the first time. My question is if I watch an episode that you wrote, do you get a royalty for that?