Friday, October 19, 2012

The biggest laugh we ever got

Some Friday Questions for your weekend pleasure:

Splenda has a low calorie 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."

They can try. As long as the terms are within the conditions of the SAG contract (and are legal), networks and agents and attorneys can be creative as they please. Actors might trade salary hikes for ownership stakes, or get bonuses based on ratings. I believe there are some actors who have it in their deals that no other cast member can be paid more than them. So if other co-stars get raises, he gets one too.

More creative accounting: Actors take producer credits now, getting an additional salary for that even though, in most cases, they don’t do anything. But to be fair, most showrunners are also happy they don’t do anything.

Often times these negotiations are complicated. And that’s before they wrestle with the issue of credit – where their title card goes, how big, how does it compare with other cast members? Does the actor get an “and” before his name? Money is sometimes the easy part.

Mike asks:

If someone living in 1912 could look ahead 100 years, would they be impressed or depressed by what they saw? Technology has moved on, but has society?

Mike, I’m very impressed that you think I could answer that question. Not sure which article in my blog led you to believe I had the depth capable of tackling such a question – maybe it was my piece on porn star karaoke – but alas I’m not sure I’m sufficiently qualified. But I will mull it over. In the meantime, is there anything you want to know about say... MANNEQUIN 2?

ScottyB has a question about filming sitcoms in front of live audiences:

Since minutes mean money, how do y'all deal with occasions when a bit ends up being so good that the audience laughter just goes on *forever* (which is pretty much a writer's crowning glory)? That's gotta eat up a whole mess of time on the clock since you basically have to shoehorn in every available stage second.

That’s a writer’s favorite problem. Actors are always told to wait for the laugh, even if it’s inordinately long. The laugh can be pulled up in editing. It’s as easy as cutting to a reaction shot.

Back in the “old days” when these shows were often on film (as opposed to today’s HD tape… which looks sorta, kinda like film), film was indeed wasted holding for laughs. So if the laugh was big and long enough, directors would stop cameras. This happened very rarely. For a writer it’s the equivalent of a walk-off grand slam home run.

My writing partner, David and I had one the first year of CHEERS. It was in the “Boys in the Bar” episode. Sam is in the poolroom with Diane. He just learned that his former roommate on the Red Sox is gay. Sam says, “I should’ve known. We were on the road in a piano bar and he requested a show tune.” For whatever reason, that killed the audience. Must’ve been a five-minute sustained laugh. I took a little home run trot around the stage with that one.

Lots of interest in CHEERS lately (with the 30th reunion and all). Here’s another CHEERS question – this one from Bradley.

On average, how long did it take to film an episode of Cheers?

We’d start at 7. The audience was usually let out around 9:30. Then there would be pick-ups – retakes after the good folks had left. To do all the pick-ups during the initial filming would kill any momentum. So depending on the number of pick ups, you could be there an extra ten minutes or several hours.

The first year, Jim Burrows did a lot of fabulous shots to establish the bar. I remember one that started in the pool room and crossed all the way across the bar to the front door, with all kinds of activity going on. It’s maybe my favorite shot of the series (besides my credit). That first year we usually wrapped around midnight. They were long nights.  But the results were sure worth it.

Over the next few years the show and actors found their groove. Pick-ups usually lasted to about 10:30.

During the last two seasons, when no one in the cast knew their lines, the audience was there for at least three hours because someone goofed up a line every ten seconds.  Personally, that was hard to watch. 

Here’s another CHEERS one. It’s from Robert Pierce:

Was there a reason why Al, Paul and a bunch of the other barflies had the same first names as their characters? Was it just easier or was it a writing technique?

Give me a second. I’m still trying to figure out what people in 1912 would be thinking. Yes, it was just easier and avoided any possible confusion to just use the barfly actors’ real names. As along as their names weren’t Sam, Norm, Cliff, Frasier, Woody, and Coach.

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


Old Bore said...

A useless and irrelevant bit of trivia, prompted by the reference to actors specifying in their contracts that no one else on their shows could be paid more: When Jackie Gleason was appearing on THE AMERICAN SCENE MAGAZINE--the source of those musical "Honeymooners" sketches--his contract specified that he would be the highest paid person at CBS. Not merely the highest paid performer; he was to paid more than any of the executives, as well.

This did not work quite as well for him as he may have expected. He was more interested in bragging rights than finances, so he took a straight cash payment. That meant he had to surrender a large portion to income tax. Other people with CBS at the time arranged more elaborate methods of payment--for example, Lucille Ball's contract required the network to buy a certain number of programs from her production company (that is how MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE got on the air)--and so they ended up actually putting more in the bank than Gleason.

KevinM said...

Friday question: You wrote recently about writing the Johnny Carson Cheers episode where you had to write bad jokes that Cliff supposedly wrote. I also recently watched the Wings episode where Helen tries to become a standup comic, and so the episode writer had to write bad jokes for her. Since you're always writing about how you're always trying to come up with the best punch-line, can you talk about writing an episode where you have to go against that instinct-- where you have to write a mediocre or bad punch-line?

Bill said...

Hi Ken--reposting a question I had submitted a few weeks ago about Brandon Tartikoff, who so many producers/writers/even actors from the 80s seem to recall as a true champion of high-quality television. Did you ever have any dealings with Brandon Tartikoff, and what in your view made him such a "good" network executive, as opposed to the kind that are constantly the butt of jokes today? Did he really have a sixth sense for excellent television, or was he just lucky? And has the industry changed too much for similar execs like him ever to appear again?

Mike said...

Jackie Gleason vs Lucille Ball on taxes is a huge difference. 91% personal tax rate, cut to 70% after Lyndon Johnson became President, vs a corporate tax rate much much lower.

Tom Quigley said...

I did notice that in the final season's episodes, the characters' dialogue lines seemed to get shorter and more choppy. Was that an accomodation by the writers due to the fact cast members seemed to be forgetting their lines?

Andrew Kamphey said...

In retrospect the names of characters are very unique. For any of your shows, Have you had any interesting battles over names? Was there a late script change when someone came up with a better name?

Dick Downes said...

I worked with Jay Thomas for a while at The Big Ape. I was a rookie, he was a pro and took me under his wing. A quick synopsis on how that got rolling, how he got the part and the general reaction to his role would be appreciated. He was very quick, very funny on the radio - did it transfer to the set: in your opinion? If he was after your time, comment from an educated viewer's perspective.

Michael said...

If I am correct, one of the longest laughs in television history was for The Dick Van Dyke Show, when Rob opens the door for the Peters, whose baby he thinks the Petries have, and when the Peters walk in, they are African American. There was a gasp, then a sustained roar, and then applause.

Another big laugh was on Roseanne, though, Ken might be happy to know, not FOR Roseanne. Her daughter Darlene takes her boyfriend David to a motel and David can't perform. There's a sweet line where he says that he never imagined that the first time it would be with someone he cared enough about for him to worry about whether he did it right. The laugh was during the credits. It's dark and you hear heavy breathing. She asks if he's ready. He says yes. She asks if he wants to have sex. Silence. She asks again. He says, "I think I just did."

Keith said...

"He just learned that his former roommate on the Red Sox is gay. Sam says, “I should’ve known. We were on the road in a piano bar and he requested a show tune.” For whatever reason, that killed the audience."

I watched this episode about a year ago. What shocked me was when Carla said, "Say it ain't so", it got virtually no laugh. I didn't particularly care for the audience you had at that taping.

Mike S. said...

There was at least one case where a series was renewed with a salary provision. It was the Desi Arnaz-produced sitcom "The Mothers-In-Law" (NBC 1967-69). After lackluster first-season ratings (despite the comic chemistry of stars Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard), sponsor Proctor & Gamble was willing to renew the show for a second season--if the cast agreed to forgo a pay raise. Five of the six stars agreed to the deal--but not co-star Roger C. Carmel (Roger Buell). Arnaz was angry and fired Carmel, replacing him with veteran sitcom actor Richard Deacon. But it did nothing to help the numbers, and "The Mothers-In-Law" was not renewed for a third season.
Can you imagine that happening now?

JD said...

Just dropped by to say that I just watched the pilot of Cheers again this past weekend after a number of years, and I couldn't help being deeply impressed by the way the show established and grounded the reality of the bar from the first shot. The opening sequence of Sam going about the morning business ought to be shown to every wannabe film and TV director, just as the script should be read by every dreamy-eyed screenwriter. Sure, the episode was a delight, but I'd forgotten what a fantastic and complete piece of filmmaking it was!

donnie said...

Wait, I want to read that post on Porn Star Karaoke. Now.

Ben Kubelsky said...

Anyone know-From which episode of "Cheers" is that long tracking shot? I've seen it in retrospectives as b-roll, but I swear they cut it in syndication because I don't recall ever seeing it in an actual episode! (I wasn't old enough to watch seasons 1-8 in first run).

Brian said...

I just watched "The Boys in the Bar" a couple of days ago. Pretty funny. I'll have to go back and see how loud the laugh was. I read in the trivia that the reason "Cheers was filmed before a live studio audience" was added was because the laughs were so loud and so many that people assumed it was a laugh track. One of John Ratzenberger's versions was "Believe it or not - Cheers was filmed before a live studio audience" Was that ad-libbed on his own?

DBenson said...

There's a story somewhere that when Burns and Allen had a sitcom, a character was replaced after a financial dispute. In the new actor's first episode, George Burns simply turns to the camera and says something to the effect it's the same character but we had to hire a new guy.

Dbenson said...

AMERICAN SCENE MAGAZINE: Laugh-In on valium. I remember Gleason sitting in an overstuffed chair, models in evening gowns introducing bits, and odd not-quite-Kovacs gags (Model says something about guerilla warfare; curtain up on a few guys in gorilla costumes shooting rifles over each others' heads. Curtain down). And the inevitable bartender sketch with "Crazy Guggenheim" talking in that weird voice and, without transition, seriously crooning "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" or some such.

Molly B. said...

Hi Ken! I just ordered two copies of your book that I ordered through Amazon. The last page of the book says "Made in the US Lexington, KY 15 October 2012". The book was printed the day I ordered it?? I didn't know there were JIT (Just in Time) printers!

Scott said...

"If someone living in 1912 could look ahead 100 years, would they be impressed or depressed by what they saw? Technology has moved on, but has society?"

Ken, I suspect Mike's question is in reference to your recent post about the Jetson's versus how movies like Looper envision the future. Since you did make that post I am curious what your at least semi-serious answer would be to Mike's question. Would someone from 1912 see the Jetson's or dystopia?


Rex Barney Miller said...

Ken, just read Larry Stone's piece that the Mariners are looking for a full-time partner for Rick. I imagine you know about it, but just in case, it's time to do that job push at SafeCo!

Marc said...

What made the broadcast cut of the longest laugh in the history of I LOVE LUCY can be seen in the episode "Lucy Does the Tango," from the last season of the series. According to people working on the series at the time, the reaction that made it onto the air was roughly about half of what the gag in question actually received from the audience.

I think one of the longest laughs I've ever heard was in a Jack Benny radio broadcast, circa 1949. It goes on for a very long time. It wasn't Benny's famous "Your Money or Your Life" bit. It involved Jack and character actor Frank Nelson, who specialized in playing obnoxious waiters and clerks who lived to make Benny's life miserable. Benny's announcer, Don Wilson, had fluffed a reference to radio commentator Drew Pearson early in the show, calling him "Poo Drearson." Nelson was to appear in the second half of the episode, playing a doorman, and after Wilson's flub, Benny's writers called Nelson over and convinced him to replace his scripted response to Benny's question, "Are you the doorman?" with the new line, "Well, who do you think I am? Poo Drearson?" Benny--and the audience-- both collapsed into helpless laughter, and the resulting laugh goes on and on for some time. Nelson later recalled being very nervous about the switch because, he said, you just didn't do things like that to Jack on the air, but Benny's writers promised him they would take the heat if Benny got upset about it. He didn't. (This being the era of live radio, of course, there was nothing that could be done to shorten the laugh. Benny's writers must have enjoyed "basking in the glow," though.)

G.A. Gallant said...

Good question. I've always wondered about that myself.

Johnny Walker said...

The story goes that Family Ties was a vehicle for Meredith Baxter, and she had it in her contract that she always had to be the highest paid actor on the show... Interestingly for her, Michael J Fox became a breakout star, and as his salary skyrocketed, so did hers.

Sure, he was the one he benefitted most from being on the show, but it was a fortuitous bit of contract negotiations!

SER said...

Ken --

The "Boys in the Bar" is one of my favorite episodes of "Cheers" because I think it defines who Sam Malone is as a man. When the regulars say he can't let Cheers become a gay bar, I've always admired his response (from 30 years ago!): "I won't let this become the type of bar I throw people out of." It's strange but it did mean a lot for a kid to hear an adult say that. Sam Malone was a good friend. I've mentioned that the testament to how fully rendered the "Cheers" characters were is that when Sam gets the bar back in the finale of season 8, I actually cried... I was happy for him... yes, I was almost 16 but I cried with joy for a fictional character because he *felt real* to me. In my opinion, this is something that a lot of sitcoms started to lose after "Cheers." The characters were intended to be laughed *at* without a concern for being liked (I call it the difference between Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin). Perhaps it's the impact of "Seinfeld's" No Hugging, No Learning, which is useful when your lead can't carry an emotional scene. I can think of about a dozen emotional moments that Ted Danson nailed right off the top of my head. My other favorite is when Woody first appears and asks if Coach is around and Sam informs him that Coach has just passed away but that "Yes, I like to think he's still around." Something about the way Danson delivers that line always gets me... and I have something in my eye.

Cane said...

Never heard that particular Jack Benny radio broadcast but will have to look for it. Radio comedy from that era fascinates me in that the audience response is absolutely live and spontaneous. No laugh tracks. No sweetening. If the audience didn't find it funny, they didn't laugh. If they did you could get a long, wild reaction as was described above. Even if a TV show tried doing that today (going only with the live track with no sweetening), I doubt audiences would ever believe what they were hearing was all genuine simply because people are so used to faked laughs. Audiences today have gotten too cynical to believe that much of anything they see or hear on television is genuinely real or spontaneous.

Jeff said...

Friday question No. 1: Why are show titles ALL CAPS? It's just entertainment, for God's sake. It's not that IMPORTANT. Must be the industry standard, but as a copy editor, this drives me nuts.

That was more of a rant. Sorry.

Friday question No. 2, perhaps more useful: Have you ever written a comic episode for a drama? (I realize M*A*S*H had elements of both.) Do such episodes work for dramas?

matt janssen said...

Hi Ken,
I just saw the Boys on the Bar episode. I noticed that the editor apparently cut the laugh short--it came across as almost desultory. I was wondering if you knew why that was done? Was it too indulgent to give the big laugh a full multi-second airing.

By the way--I am watching Cheers for the first time. When I grew up TV, and particularly prime time network TV, was more or less forbidden. I'm really enjoying it! Thanks for turning me on to it!


Kristen said...

Hi Ken,

I've got a Friday question:

At the beginning of a season, was the whole story plot more or less laid out or did it tend to evolve depending on how the audience reacted to each episode. For example, before starting season one of Cheers, was it already decide that Sam and Diane would get together at the end or not?

Thanks and I love your blog!

DyHrdMET said...

I've concluded that it takes about 4 weeks or so for a sitcom to go from taping in front of an audience to being aired on television. first, am i right about that figure, or what is it (on average)? second, what goes on during that time that makes it take that much time? third, if needed, how quick of a turnaround could there be?

Jim said...

Friday Question: With all of the cameos on Cheers, which are some of the most special to you (besides Johnny Carson)? How hard was it to get these booked? Which celebrites do you wish you would have had on the show?

Christopher Finke said...

Who's the best actor you've seen debut in a quickly cancelled sitcom? For example, I don't think Guys With Kids is going to make it, but Zach Cregger has his moments.

Kyle Burress said...

I have just discovered this blog and am loving it! A question I have wondered for years has to do with the barflies on 'Cheers'. Are most of them Bostonians and why are some, such as Alan, Tim and Steve there throughout the course of the series, while others such as season 1-2 Paul, Hugh, Larry and Tony only around for a season or two?