Beware the Ides of March but heed these Friday Questions.
Jim S starts us off:
You talked about laughter in the writer's room. My question is what was the dumbest argument you ever witnessed. When I say argument, I mean over something dumb like why so and so never wears socks, or the designated hitter rule.
In the FRASIER room there was an argument once over what Eddie (the dog) was thinking over some stunt that was proposed. One writer in particular had to know this information. If this was the army that writer would have been fragged.
Charles H. Bryan queries:
Why do so many sitcoms feature a character (usually supporting) who is basically an idiot? In many cases a lovable idiot, but an idiot just the same.
Besides the fact that you can always get easy laughs, stupid characters provide a great way to impart exposition to the audience. When Sam explains what’s going on to the Coach he’s also explaining it to the viewers.
COACH: Sam, there’s a little black man in the bar who wants to speak to you.
SAM: No Coach, that’s the phone.
What, and how intensive, is the casting process for a functional, minor character who has one line and almost nothing else to do in the script?
In the old days (5 years ago) the showrunner could just hire whomever he liked for small parts. The casting director would comb through headshots and auditions and usually bring two or three choices for the role. One would be picked and that was that.
Or... the showrunner would use this opportunity to give a break to a struggling actor friend. If there was a maitre ‘d my dad always got the part – and was magnificent I might add.
Now, however, for every part, no matter how small, the producers have to put five candidates on tape and the network selects the winner. Don't blame my dad. This happened long after he retired.
Because you're so knowledgeable about the craft of sitcom writing, do you think you enjoy watching sitcoms less than a "regular" viewer? (Like being able to anticipate a specific joke, because that's the build-up you would've used for that joke. Or something like that.)
Nothing pleases me more than to laugh and be entertained by a sitcom. I love sitcoms. That’s why I became a writer. So I try very hard not to be jaded because I don’t want to surrender that experience.
But if a show is formulaic, if the plots and jokes are tired or lame then I start automatically critiquing. Ironically, less about the specifics of the writing and more about the directing and editing. I’ll notice poorly composed shots, question whether they should be in a master or a single, wonder if they had other coverage, wonder why they didn't go to a reaction shot, see editing trims the show could use, etc.
But by the same token, I might appreciate more than the average viewer when a show is well mounted.
Here’s one from Ron:
Cheers used to have the best Cold Opens and I was wondering what the philosophy was behind them. Obviously they never had anything to do with the show.
This was a stylistic choice the Charles Brothers and Jim Burrows made to just take a moment and put you into the world of the bar. We called these "teasers."
Sometimes, depending on length, we would swap out teasers from one show to another. You can easily tell which episodes we did that. If their wardrobe doesn’t match from the teaser to Act One you know we made a switcheroo. These switches were either due to time or the teaser filmed for an episode tanked and a new one was substituted.
And finally, from Michael:
When casting pilots, do show runners consider an actor's reputation in terms of being able to be a quick study and/or causing problems on the set? Is this information widely shared among show runners?
Yes. If an actor has a bad reputation you have to consider the “is he worth it?” factor. Some actors are difficult but magic on the screen. And usually the showrunner gets pressure from the network to hire a particular actor they’re in love with (that moment).
But I’ll be honest, when me and my partner are casting a pilot and we go through lists prepared by the casting director or network, we’ll cross out names of actors we know to be headaches. Life’s too short. We tell the casting director, "don't even bring them in. Not interested."
And actors, you should know, there is a grapevine among writers that is the envy of the CIA and all international intelligence gathering agencies. You act like a monster on a pilot and the word is out faster than one can text.
And likewise, if you’re a dream, that intell makes the circuit too.
What’s your Friday Question? And again, stay away from those Ides today.