Friday, January 11, 2013

Voting on jokes

Some Friday Questions to send you into another weekend of football:

XJill leads off:

What do you think of this "the viewers pick the ending" gimmick Hawaii Five-0 has come up with? Isn't this super insulting to the creators and writers or since it's a CBS procedural and paint-by-numbers to some extent they don't mind as much??

It is just a silly gimmick and signals that the network is beginning to lose faith in the show. Essentially they’re asking the staff to write a video game.

Years ago my partner and I wrote a pilot and met with the studio to get their notes. There were probably four of them. At one point one questioned a joke. We said we liked the joke and thought it worked. She then said, “Okay, well let’s take a vote.” At that point I stopped her. “We don’t vote on jokes. We’re the writers, we decide what goes into the script.”

A writing staff should consider many alternatives when breaking a story. They should be trusted to then select the best path and the best ending for that path – not the best two endings.

Yes, it’s a gimmick and may result in a slight uptick in the ratings, but so what? Next week they’ll be right back down to where they were. And in the process they've compromised the integrity of the show. And I can’t believe I’m defending HAWAII 5-0.

From Thomas:

When you were working on MASH and Cheers what were the shows that the writers rooms were watching/felt in competition with in terms of quality?

TAXI, BARNEY MILLER, WKRP, and during the CHEERS years I’d have to say BUFFALO BILL, COSBY, BEST OF THE WEST, NEWHART, and of course SEINFELD.

Although I must be honest.  Usually when writers gather at the start of the day they talk more about the shows that sucked.

Joseph Scarbrough asks:

It seems like most TV series today have, like, umpteen different producers, executive producers, supervising producers, line producers (whatever those are), among other kinds of producers... and I'm just wondering, do TV shows really need THAT many producers? Can they really not get by with just a producer, executive producer, and an associate producer? Plus, during the main titles of most shows, you've got several "Producers", followed by a "Produced By" credit... what's the difference between "Producer" and "Produced By"?

Most of the producers are writers. The line producer is the one who is in charge of the production – hiring and overseeing the crew, supervising post production, arranging for sets, etc. It’s a crucial position and the good ones are gold. When you see a “Produced By” credit, that’s the line producer.

Do we need so many writers on each show? I’m going to say yes, absolutely (because I want as many writers as possible to be employed).

There are the rare writers like David E. Kelley, Aaron Sorkin, or Larry Gelbart who can pretty much write an entire season themselves. But among us mortals, we need the contributions of other writers.

Thirty years ago the staffs were considerably smaller. When CHEERS began the full-time staff was the Charles Brothers and me and my partner. On MASH we only had two other writers on staff. Today, you have to get to the writers room early to get a seat, there’s so many on staff.

But here’s the difference: Back then we used a lot more freelance writers. Freelance comedy writers could make a nice living – doing two episodes of this show, and three for that, etc. Now very few shows give out freelance assignments. And when they do they’re usually to writers’ assistants or friends of the showrunner. Some shows like BIG BANG THEORY room-write every script. No one goes off and “writes” a draft, much less a freelancer.

But again, larger staffs mean more writers working so I’m all for it. In fact, I think each show could probably use another three or four.

And finally, Hannah Neil wonders:

Are there any writers who became network executives that you know of?

There have been a few. Barbara Corday (pictured: right) at CBS was a terrific hour writer who co-created CAGNEY AND LACEY. Michael Zinberg is a writer/director who spent some time as an executive at NBC. Joyce Burditt was a novelist (THE CRACKER FACTORY) and toiled for NBC. I’m sure there are other examples.   But not all that many.  I should also mention that I enjoyed working with all three.

Generally, if you are doing well as a writer you’ll make more money than if you were a network executive. And if you’re a “suit” it means you have to wear a suit. I’m sure more writers would take network gigs if they could wear shorts.

Seriously though, they’re different skill sets. I don’t think most writers have the temperament to deal with all the corporate politics. Or maybe that’s just me.

What’s your question?


thesamechris said...

Do you autopost these blogs at 6 am or do you really get up at that time? I'm in europe, so for me it's already afternoon. I also realized that they announced the oscar nominations at 5:30 am PT. Why would they do that to themselves???

(almost had a typo in my name. "thesanechris". probably not.)

Ronny Bergman said...

Are there still WGA rules regarding TV-shows having to hire freelancers for a certain number of episodes a season?It seems like a good idea on many levels;a bit of fresh air in the room.On the other hand,seemingly ,they do not usually hang around for rewrites.Any thoughts?

Mitchell Hundred said...

From what I've heard, David Milch could also write an entire season himself. Apparently he wrote or revised most of the episodes of Deadwood

the slackmistress said...

Animation and kids' TV rooms are generally smaller, and there's a lot of "writing-teams-on-paper" as well to get more bodies in the room without having to pay more for them.

PolyWogg said...

>> I’d have to say BUFFALO BILL, COSBY, BEST OF THE WEST, NEWHART, and of course SEINFELD.
>> Although I must be honest. Usually when writers gather at the start of the day they talk more about the shows that sucked.

With Buffalo Bill and Best of the West in the list, that second sentence is a bit redundant. Why did anyone keep hiring Dabney Coleman for anything?

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, some writers make more than Network Executives...? Really? That's somewhat heartening to hear.

DwWashburn said...

Two MASH questions

1) In Alan Alda's book "Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself" he talks about nearly dying in Chile of an intestinal blockage. He says that he talked to the doctors and knew the exact name of his illness and had some knowledge of how to fix it. The doctor asked him if he had a medical degree and he said no -- he picked it up while being Hawkeye. Do you believe through your research and interviews with medical professionals that you have a better working knowledge of health problems and their cures?

2) In Potter's Retirement, the last scene has Potter still contemplating going stateside. Hawkeye, talking softly to the Colonel, says "Look Colonel (beat) Sherman . . .". At this point Harry looks up as if shocked at what he heard, then gives a sheepish smile. That has always felt like an ad-lib that caught Harry off guard. I've always heard that the mantra on the MASH set was "If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage." Do you know if that line was in the original script, suggested in rehearsal, or did Alan actually surprise Harry on tape day?


Network Executive #2 said...

Someone get my therapist on the phone.

XJill said...

@thesamechris - they announce the Oscars so early so it makes the morning news/media on both the east and west coasts.

Thanks for the answer Ken :)

Julia said...

Hi Ken,

I'm not sure if you have already answered this question, but I'll ask it anyway! On Cheers, why did Diane used to call most of the other characters by their full name (for example, "Norman" instead of "Norm" or "Clifford" instead of "Cliff"), yet she never referred to "Sam" as "Samuel"?

Weaponized Awesome said...

Just to unpack Ken's producer answer a little more:

Some executive producers are people who found/championed the project and got it made. They're not in the building on a day-by-day basis, but there wouldn't be a show without them. Former HBO exec Carolyn Strauss is an EP on Game of Thrones -- I'm guessing she's in this category. (And some would LIKE to think this true, but actually, they're in the credits because they coat-tailed on via a savvy deal at some point.)

Associate producers are usually the senior-most person in post production. They make sure edits are finished on schedule and delivered to network. Without them, the audio would be garbage, the picture would be muddy, the VFX would be missing and there wouldn't be any music track at all. Plus, the network would never get the actual episode.

Line producers are the day-to-day Mom or Dad of the production. They hire much of the crew, manage the budget, and keep the whole thing moving forward. A good one is worth his or her weight in platinum. In TV, they get the credit "Produced by," as well as their actual title (which is likely "Producer," but I have known a Co-Executive Producer who was LP.)

Writer/Producers come in the following flavors: Co-producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, Co-Executive Producer. Once in a great while, particularly on long-lived shows, a Co-Exec will be bumped to EP, especially if the original showrunner/EP has a second or third show going and has to delegate day-to-day running of the room to someone else.

Stephen Robinson said...

Voting on Jokes:

I remember a similar stunt on "Married... with Children" in 1988. It was the Valentine's Day episode and the audience could vote on two endings -- one in which Al told Peg he loved her and one in which he didn't. The audience chose the former, of course, because Al *not* telling Peg he loved her -- aside from being more overtly cruel than usual -- is basically the same schtick you could see every week. If given a choice, why wouldn't the audience choose something different? The same year, DC Comics had a storyline in which readers could vote on whether The Joker killed Robin or not. Not that kids are sadistic, but yet again, they will probably choose something different.

404 said...

So . . . what did the executive do when you told her you didn't vote on jokes?

Stephen Robinson said...


What I love most about CHEERS is its theatricality. More so than almost any other show I can remember, it could be easily performed on stage with only few (if any) modifications. I just watched the Halloween episode from Season 3 and it's set entirely within the bar (you actually don't even see Sam's office or the pool room).

(This is why I think single-camera sitcoms vs multi-camera is more short film vs. stage play. It's almost two separate mediums.)

Now, on to the question: I noticed that as the show went on, CHEERS began to expand outside the bar -- scenes set at Melville's (when if characters had gone to dinner, it would occur "off-stage" and end with drinks at Cheers) or at character's homes (originally, we only really ever saw Diane's apartment, which -- either intentionally or not -- helped to set her apart from the rest of the Cheers gang, for whom Cheers was "home"). By the Rebecca years, they frequently left the bar (and sometimes allowed the customers free reign as there were no bartenders or waitresses left). Was this a deliberate change? And if so, did you have a preference?

And the most pointed question: Did we ever see Sam's apartment? I want to think we did but I can only remember a Season Three episode where we see the exterior but not the interior and the episodes in which Sam and Diane are considering buying a house together.

Andrew Morton said...

Hi Ken,


On CHEERS Evan Drake and Robin Colcord were two separate characters, but they served exactly the same story function: to be a powerful rich guy that Rebecca pines over. Can you explain why there was the switch from the one character to the other? Rewatching the series on Netflix now, I get the sense that Tom Skerritt had a laconic style that didn’t play as well as Roger Rees’ more manic energy. Did this have anything to do with the change from Drake to Colcord?


Andrew Morton

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

The Simpsons did a voting contest, at the end of season 22, to decide if Flanders and Mrs. Krabappel would end up together.

Most voted yes.

At least, it wasn't forced on by the network. It was an impulse by the writers to try something new, and have some fun by breaking the fourth wall (which is no problem for a show like The Simpsons).

As of season 24, they're still a couple.

Ellipse Man the Munificent said...

Friday question... Something I've never been able to deconstruct into anything that made sense to me... screen chemistry... actor chemistry, character chemistry... is there any kind of conventional wisdom about it, or any insights that you can provide as to why some have it and some don't or what makes it?

Stephen Robinson said...

Andrew's question regarding Evan Drake and Robin Colcord reminds me again of how great a character Frasier Crane was. Much of his success has to do with Kelsey Grammer's brilliant performance and uncanny ability to make the simplest line sing, but you have to praise the seemingly deliberate writing decision to *not* make Frasier an outright jerk. That would have been the easy way, especially given that Diane winds up leaving him at the altar, but Frasier is written as a considerate and kind man who genuinely loves Diane. He has foibles -- much like all the characters on the show -- but he's not defined by them. When he chooses to believe Diane over his own mother in the episode with Nancy Marchand, it's an amazing moment. I like that the writers trusted the audience to like Frasier but still prefer Diane with Sam.

Colcord struck me as more a mustache-twirling villain -- and delightfully (and perhaps presciently) so, as he was a parody of Trump in many ways. Rees played him wonderfully, and I think it was important to demonstrate that the *only* appealing quality he had was his money and power.

Meredith said...

I saw the promo for that Hawaii 50 tomfoolery last night, and all I could think was . . . lame.

Wayne said...

Are there any writers who became network executives that you know of? Other examples.
Sol Saks, creator of Bewitched. William Froug.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Weaponized Awesome

Yeah, I know what executive producers and associate producers are and do, my question was simply does a single TV show need so gosh-darn many of them... I mean if unless they're desperate to not go over budget on their production, I can't see why one show would need like five executive producers, PLUS an addition five or so CO-executive producers.

But Ken's answer today got me wondering, if most of these "producers" are actually writers, why don't they do like a few other shows do, and have a list of "Staff Writers" during the end titles? Maybe listed under the head writer and the story editor.

YEKIMI said...

Probably because "staff writer" gets less pay than a "producer" credit.

William said...

A follow-up to one of today's questions: When you were working on Frasier what were the shows that the writers rooms were watching/felt in competition with in terms of quality?

Rufus Tyrone said...

When you take those LA studio tours such as WB or Universal, they always pass by streets and facades which front as sets, but actually serve as offices in the back.

Who is actually in those offices - full production staff, or studio types etc? I can't imagine anyone being thrilled to not access their office for a few days so someone else can film the Mentalist. Similarly, how often do writers or production people crash other sets since they are so close? Are sets open that way?

Weaponized Awesome said...

Joe, I'm sure Ken will answer this, but in the meantime, the reason TV shows don't list the entire writing staff under the heading "Staff Writers" during the end titles, is that "staff writer" is a specific, entry-level job title, with a WGA-contract-mandated fee structure. It would be like a hospital listing the Head of Cardiology as a Resident Physician -- it's not accurate and it will probably piss off the dept. head.

The beginning-est of all beginning writers is the assistant, who -- after proving themselves and winning the trust of their boss -- will get a freelance script. He or she gets a "written by" credit when their episode airs.

If that episode went well, the assistant might come back the next year as a staff writer. (The names you see with this credit are people who are maybe a year or two -- or a show or two -- into their careers. Another reason shows don't list the entire writing staff as "staff writers" is that I *think* crediting SWs onscreen is optional. Some SW's names never appear at all on screen, unless they wrote the script.)

Let's say this hypothetical baby writer has an amazing career. Here are the titles he or she would gain season by season --

Staff writer
Story editor (comes with WGA-mandated salary bump and on-screen credit)
Executive story editor
Supervising Producer
Co-Executive Producer
Executive Producer

In most worlds, you probably get a salary bump every year, but the WGA contract insists you get one when you're bumped up from staff writer. Once the word "producer" appears in your job title, your name is on the ballot when your show is nominated for Best Comedy or Drama, and you get to go up on stage if you win it all at the Emmys, WGA, PGA or GG awards.

When you see a bunch of Co-Exec EPs in the credits, that means there's a room of writers who've been with this show for several years and earned promotions every year. It might seem wasteful, but it's actually the sign of a healthy show, because it demonstrates that the writing staff works so well together that folks have stayed (and/or been kept on) long enough to have been promoted up through the ranks. Watch the credits in the final seasons of "The X-Files," "E.R." and "Breaking Bad," and you'll see this phenomenon in action.

You also sometimes see a lot of Co-EPs on shows like "Homeland," where the writers' room is filled from the start with former showrunners -- in other words, people who've already worked at the EP level. Their agents would NEVER let them take a deal with any credit lower than Co-EP or MAYBE Consulting Producer -- it would set a precedent that could be used to lowball their fee (and credit) on the next show. Again, it probably seems wasteful to you, but when I watch that show, I think the writing staff is worth every penny.

MrBlondNYC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A Non-Emus said...

Because of your mention of "Best of the West", I found it, uh, somehow and am now loving it. I was only 4 when this show was on so I'm glad to discover it now.

The Comic Scholar said...

Do writers tend to stick to one type of show or another? For example, is it common/unheard of for a writer to work on sitcoms and dramatic hour-longs?

chuckcd said...

are you as amazed as I am that THE SIMPSONS can still be this funny after 20 years on the air?

And that somehow they can come up with a new couch gag that you have never seen?

Ed Dyson said...

Hey Ken
Just watched Adventures in Paradise, part one of a two-part Frasier you wrote with your partner. Speaking as someone who's probably watched every episode about three times (they show them on a loop here in the UK) it's genuinely one of the best - just the sheer quality of the jokes alone. But ass-kissing aside, can you talk a bit about the writing room on that show? I always heard it was very quiet, very disciplined and that everyone went home surprisingly early. And taking an episode like that, was there a lot of difference between your first draft and the draft you shot?
Ed Dyson

Camille Couasse said...


I’m a French TV screenwriter who’d like to write for American TV, but I’m not sure where to start. For a foreigner like me, isn’t it simpler (Visa wise) to write a feature and try and sell it, rather than write a spec script and hoped to be hired on a show (over more legitimate Americans)?

So, my question is: As a foreigner, if I want to make it in the US, should I write for TV or for the film industry? What’s my best shot? And also, If I sell one feature, isn’t easier to work in TV?

Thanks !

By the way, your blog is awesome !

Helena said...

Q: The formatting rules for a script are clear, but I rarely read anything about how to format a show's bible. Some scriptwriting contests for instance suggest that other information, like future episodes, is sent along with the pilot. So what exactly should a bible look like and contain?

Chris said...

I liked Evan Drake, but think the gag played out just long enough. I really liked how in the following season, they reversed it with Martin Teal, the young, annoying boss who pined after Rebecca, but whom she couldn't stand. They seemed to be setting him up for a recurring storyline, but he disappeared after two episodes. Kind of a shame.