Friday, October 05, 2012

Hire funny people... and women ARE funny people

Got a Friday Question?

Rebecca does:

I noticed this year that nearly every pilot features a really hot cast. But a lot of the enduring classic sitcoms actually feature a cast of average-looking people. Seinfeld, Golden Girls, Cheers, Two 1/2 Men, Everybody Loves Raymond etc. So why do new shows only feature hot people? Is this a case of network executives being out of touch and just assuming we only want to look at hot people? Will us average people ever get to relate to a tv show again?

Very simply: the networks want pretty people. Which is fine, but those of us who produce comedies want FUNNY people. If they are also beautiful that’s fine… as long as their beauty doesn’t take away from who that character is. It makes no sense to create a character who’s a nerd and insecure because he can’t get dates and cast Justin Timberlake.

The greatest example of this is the U.K. and American versions of COUPLING. The British version, created by the insanely talented Steven Moffat featured a wonderful cast of rich characters – flawed, goofy, real. And he cast the show accordingly.

When NBC, during Jeff Zucker’s rein of terror, adapted it for U.S. audiences they cast J. Crew models. Just compare the two casts. I bet you can tell which was the US version.
As a quick aside, I disagree with Nikki Finke who believes attractive women can’t be funny because they don’t understand pain and rejection. There are so many examples of funny attractive women from Carole Lombard to Julie Bowen that’s it’s absurd to even list them.

Powerhouse Salter wonders:

What would you say justifies writing a rain or wind scene into a script? I mean, why introduce the production cost and logistics of staging fake rain or wind instead of just writing the scene for fair weather?

If the weather figures into the plot. I directed an episode of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND where their daughter’s pet hamster died and they decided to hold a funeral in the backyard. To complicate matters, it rained. This made for a much funnier scene. Interestingly, we shot the scene on the stage in front of the audience.

Yes, it’s an added expense but you just have to decide whether (or “weather”) it’s worth it.

Ed Blonski asks:

What does a "story consultant" do? Like Jay Folb on MASH.

First, understand that all these titles you see on the screen are made up. In Jay’s case, he was a full-time staff writer. But usually when you see “consultant” that means the writer is part-time in some capacity. Either he comes in one night a week to help punch up the script, or works on staff for a day or two. The terms are all negotiated. But whatever title you see, just change it in your mind to “he works here.”

Jill Pinnella Corso has a question about my post on winning an Emmy.

Hilarious! Did you really get locked out?

Yes. You think the Gods of Show Business were trying to tell me something?

It's a big achievement. Did you feel extremely proud? Or paranoid that now something bad must happen? Or anxious about living up to it? Did it open any doors (excluding the one that locked on you)?

I don't know how you felt but I hope you were and are very proud.

I felt extremely proud. Not being remotely athletic, it was the first trophy I had ever won.

I never felt anxious about trying to live up to it. So many things have to fall into place. You can write the greatest script of the century but if it’s for THE WIRE you’re not going to get an Emmy.  Some of the best scripts I've ever written are unproduced pilots and screenplays. 

Does winning open any doors? Probably. For awhile. But the great thing is you’re now forever identified as an Emmy winner. This comes in real handy if you’re single or go to your high school reunion.

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments section and have a great weekend (in that order).


Mike said...

you are right you cant see if someone is funny just by their looks. there are lots of ugly people who are not funny :) but funny people are mostly average at best in the looks department. thats not gender specific. how many good looking male comedians are there? (take in mind that they appear more attractive because they are funny)
so its not a fact but its true in most cases.

Roger Owen Green said...

Speaking of pretty, funny women, Elizabeth Banks was on CBS Sunday Morning this past week.

Carol said...

I have a question that I'm not sure I'm going to phrase right, so please forgive me in advance if it isn't terribly concise.

I was watching The Big Bang Theroy, and one of the sub-plots was that Howard was in space, and getting picked on by the other two astronauts, who were sort of your typical jock/military types. The show ended with Howard being proud that he stood up to them, and telling them to basically stop bullying him, and then we see that they drew on his face when he was asleep.

That was the button on the show; let's laugh at the nerd who got picked on.

Bullying has always been around, but it's been in the news much more frequently lately, and I personally feel this sort of thing makes people think it's okay to hurt someone who is different from you, because it's 'funny'.

In your opinion, where is the balance for a writer. When do you say 'okay, that's funny but maybe not the message we want to send?'

Maybe because I was bullied terribly as a child, and maybe because I now have a son with Asbergers, and I worry every day something like this will happen to him, and this episode really makes me re-think watching BBT any more.

They seem to be laughing AT their characters, not with them now.

I really would like your take on this, Ken, because I think you have a good sense of when to draw the line.

By the way, I read your book recently, and loved it. (This is me buttering you up - but truthfully)

Karl said...

Huge fan of the original Coupling and agree that the US remake was a trainwreck, but to be fair to the actors both Jay Harrington and Colin Feguson both went on to showcase thier comedic chops elsewhere (Better Off Ted and Eureka respectively), so I think they at least made an effort to hire for comedic talent as well.

I'm really interested in reading your take on the Showtime series "Episodes", which if not actually based on the UK/US Coupling fiasco seems to at least be inspired by it.

mcp said...


When Jackie Gleason had to recast the role of Alice on "The Honeymooners," he originally thought Audrey Meadows was too attractive. It was only after she tried out without makeup that she got the role.

By the way, I get your point you try to make comparing the U.S. and British casts of "Coupling." But Gina Bellman, Sarah Alexander and Kate Isitt are hotter than the U.S. cast.

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

Then again, in later years Jackie Gleason replaced Audrey Meadows with younger sexpot Sue Ane Langdon. As one writer put it, Ralph Kramden suddenly acquired a trophy wife.

Dave said...

With the coming age of online-only original programming commissioned by Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube do you think we're moving closer to a time when aspiring writers, directors, actors, etc will band together to create online spec pilots as a way of showing off their talents? I know some amateur movie types are already doing this with movie shorts as a way of getting noticed. Why not TV - is it just too expensive to create a pilot, even a low budget, concept-only one?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I'm sorry to argue with this Rebecca person, but since when are Seinfeld, Two and a Half Men, and Everybody Loves Raymond "classic" sitcoms? But she does have a point though, which is a problem I have with most of modern television: they always cast either people with big names for the sake of drawing in star power, or really attractive people who can't act to save their lives. Whatever happened to the show made the star, and not the star making the show?

And it seems like I never get a question answered, so I'll try a simpler one that I've been curious about: was the "Our Finest Hour" episodes of M*A*S*H done in a similar fashion as the former "The Interview"? As in, were the questions written, asked, the actors ad-libbed their answers in-character, then the scripts were built around all of that?

HourOfLead said...

So glad you mentioned Coupling. The actors on that show went on to do some good work.
Jack Davenport (Steve) went on to Pirates of the Caribbean, Ben Miles (Patrick) went on to be in V for Vendetta and Gina Bellman (Jane) went on to Leverage.
Richard Coyle (Jeff), the best of the bunch in my opinion, deserves to get higher profile roles.

Rampant Yeti said...

mcp said...

"But Gina Bellman, Sarah Alexander and Kate Isitt are hotter than the U.S. cast"

Beat me to the punch, although I was going to say "way hotter." Could be the accents.

The stupidity of the Nicki Finke statement doesn't warrant all the commentary it's gotten.

Anonymous said...

In the GQ article about Cheers, a number of interviewees mentioned that they felt Cheers wasn't properly watched by the current TV audience. This absolutely baffled me. I'm 23, and I was watching Cheers as young as 13 when it was in reruns on TV Land. I'm no professional TV screenwriter yet, but it influenced the way I write dialogue more than anything in the world. I love how the dense characters (such as Coach or Woody) were handled, I love the speed of the dialogue, I love the fact that there were real stories being told. The Sam and Diane arc was superb, and I loved the early years in particular with Sam matching wits with her. There's nothing that quite brings a smile to my face than a protagonist with a brain and a wit to match. I recently started watching the show, and it holds up brilliantly today, even after all the TV I've watched since then. I've learned a lot from watching it as an adult, and I see so much more going on than I did the first time around, it's absolutely wonderful to rediscover the show. I have watched more than a few 'classics' that simply do not hold up in that same way Cheers does, and I was... offended, I think, is the best word to describe it, at the thought of Cheers not being given its dues by the current generation of whippersnappers.

Gushing and a little grouching out of the way...

What is your opinion on the idea of Cheers not being in the current 'pantheon', as Shawn Ryan said, and what are your personal contenders for what belongs in the pantheon?

John said...

How much longer can I keep using my 30 Rock spec?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Carol: I think because viewers of the show know and are fond of Howard, while it's funny that he's unaware that his face has been drawn on, the audience actually sympathizes with him and doesn't *want* him to be hurt. The characters on the show have talked often about how painful their various childhoods were because of the way they were treated by their peers. I don't think it at all sends the message that bullying is funny or OK behavior.

I do have a question for the person who thinks the actors on Seinfeld, et al are "average"-looking. In what universe is Julia Louis-Dreyfus or any of the others not exceptionally attractive?


DBenson said...

On pretty casting: There was an unsuccessful attempt to Americanize the scifi comedy "Red Dwarf". The network cast a handsome actor as the rumpled slacker Lister. The show's creator said the problem wasn't the actor himself, but that the network wouldn't let him rewrite to match the character to the actor.

Jimmie said...

Ken, when can we expect to see you and david isaacs write for a tv show again. I think you need to get your old Cheers buddies and put together some good freaking television shows like the old days!

Luke said...

Hey i know you did it before but what are your old tv sitcom/war room buddies up too? Do you guys still keep in contact/ offer assistance on scripts?

Johnny Walker said...

"This comes in real handy if you’re single or go to your high school reunion."

Note to self: Win Emmy.

McAlvie said...

My take on your comment about beautiful people ... well first off anyone who thinks beautiful women can't be funny hasn't ever watched I Love Lucy. She was so GOOD at being funny, the a lot of people never realized just how lovely she really was. And I think sometimes women who are confident in their looks can be funnier because they do have that confidence and can let go in a way someone else can't.

But, back to the subject of beautiful people being cast, the danger there is that they all tend to look alike. If I watch a show 3 times and still can't tell the characters apart, then they have cast too many pretty people and not enough "characters." That show is automatically forgettable.

Finally, I'm joining Jimmie in asking when we might see your name on the credits again. Somebody needs to show these whippersnappers a thing or two!

Ryan said...

Hi Ken,

Just read the online GQ article on 'Cheers' that you posted. It got me thinking about my favourite Cheers episodes. I was wondering if you had any input into the episode involving Woody's wedding day? I love that episode, though I haven't watched it in years. I just remember the fast paced entrances and exits by the cast in that kitchen set and, of course, Ted Danson being so terrific.

Jim S said...


What are sitcom pet peeves. My biggest is that people say hysterical things and no acknowledges that something funny was said. One of the many reason I love the Dick Van Dyke Show is that if Rob or Buddy or Sallysaid something particularly funny, the other actors would stop give praise and go back to what they were doing.

What trope drives you nuts?

Wally's Bunker said...

I'm not a fan of either the Cards or Braves. I'm listening to it cuz it's the post-season. But, I don't like the one-game format. How do you feel about it? One game is for football. Even soccer goes for 2 (tho I sure don't agree w/that, either)! After 162 games to qualify for the post-season, a team should get at least 2 shots at a least. I'd favor best-of-5, really. Then again, I was against the additional playoff team as I think it dilutes the regular season. But if it's a playoff, make it a series, not one game.

Mike Barer said...

I thought "Friends" was funny and it had all pretty people.

liggie said...

Sarah Alexander. Gorgeous+funny+British accent = celebrity crush.

Pretty funny said...

Fink says pretty people can't understand pain and rejection? I was quite pretty when I was younger. Five guys asked me to my senior prom. Also, my parents went through a nasty divorce, my father was highly critical of me, I was anorexic, and my childhood best friend died of leukemia. I had plenty of pain and rejection.

Mike said...

Wow, I can't believe Finke would say that about pretty people. Plenty of pretty people have experienced pain and rejection. That's petty and childish is that?


A Non-Emus said...

Friday questions: The GQ article about Cheers and the "Boys in the Bar" episode got me thinking about you and David Isaacs playing a gay couple in an episode of The Marshall Chronicles (which is on YouTube!). 1) Was the portrayal of gay people a major issue to you both? 2) I know you guys wrote the episode. Did you write those parts for yourselves? 3) Your performance was excellent. Very funny line readings. (Sorry, David) But you've done very little acting since. Why not write more parts for yourself? I expect a self-deprecating answer.

Sebastian Peitsch said...

Right. An actress doesn't know rejection.


Took me five minutes to write this because my eyes kept rolling back in their sockets.

Dave Scharf said...

Question: Are you still actively pursuing writing gigs in TV or movies?

Just curious as I have read your blog for at least a couple of years and delight in every part of it -- even the baseball stuff although I know as much about baseball as you likely know about hockey. I have the impression that you don't actively write pilots, screenplays, etc but I am not sure.

Mike Barer said...

To the questioners theory, Mike And Molly is in it's second season. No one on that show could be considered "hot".

cadavra said...

Jim: Yes, even as a kid, I noticed that the Van Dyke show was the first sitcom where characters would chuckle at the others' jokes. One more reason why it was the best ever.

A friend of mine has a theory on the "hotness" issue. He thinks FRIENDS was the culprit. Because of its massive success, everyone decided that only shows with young hot people who were schtupping like rabbits were worth programming. And there isn't enough space to list all the flops that followed, especially on NBC.

The example I always use: On the original HAWAII FIVE-O, almost everyone was over 40. On the new one, almost everyone is under 40.

XJill said...

My Question:
Do you consider half hour dramedys that aren't taped live like The New Normal and Go On to be "sitcoms"? Just like it was always crazy that Nurse Jackie was in a comedy category but these two are networks shows that have a very different tone than others I've seen. Would love to know your thoughts.

Splenda said...

Here is my question: in sports, veteran players who might be a risk are sometimes given an "incentive-laden" contract. Their actual salaries are near the minimum, but there are a bunch of bonuses added to the contract, so if the player performs well, they get paid more. Is this ever done in television? Can NBC go to the Parks and Recreation actors/producers/show runner and say, "We will keep the show, but only if no one accepts a raise. But the contracts will say that if you win your time slot next season, each of you will receive a bonus equal to 15% of your salary."