Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Questions

For everyone who looks forward to Friday (Questions):

Barefoot Billy Aloha asks:

Big Wave Dave's and Almost Perfect were built around people in very unique circumstances (Hawaii transplants; TV producers); yet, your bones were made on shows built around people in very common circumstances (military service; bar pals).

So, my question is: would your next new show stand a better chance of long term success if it were built around more common experience? Like a supermarket, DMV and similar places?

Very interesting question.  

Actually, both MASH and CHEERS were also about people in very unique circumstances – civilian doctors forced to practice meatball surgery in tents during a war and a pseudo-intellectual working in the unfamiliar confines of a sports bar.

BIG WAVE DAVE’S and ALMOST PERFECT were ultimately about the characters and relationships and each series was grounded in a real theme. BWD’s was a series exploring mid-life crises, and AP was about a woman trying to have it all (personally and professionally).

That said, to sell a sitcom today you need an even higher-concept premise than say a CHEERS. Shows like SUPER FUN NIGHT and THE NEIGHBORS are more in vogue.

But we design shows around characters, relationships, and themes first.  Some sell and some don't.   More important to us than high vs. low concepts are "Is the show really about something?"

Steve Pepoon wonders:

Do you think George Wendt and John Ratzenberger were pinheads or had a legitimate beef, suing that company that put Cheers bars in airports because they had lifesize statues of their characters? What's the harm of having people fondly recall their characters and pose for pictures with them?

I think they had a legitimate beef because they were using their likenesses. In a sense it appears that George and John were endorsing those bars. You can’t use an actor’s likeness without their permission. Otherwise you could just George Wendt, CGI a Budweiser in his hand and air that as a commercial.

I personally feel George and John were entitled to royalties for use of their likenesses. So did the judge.

From Michael Rae:

Ken, I have a question for an aspiring TV writer like me. What is the best college program that I could take that can relate to television writing?

There is no clear-cut answer. Certainly my alma matter, UCLA has a great program. So does crosstown USC. My partner, David Isaacs is a professor there and this fall I’ll be teaching a lecture class at USC on the Foundations of Comedy. So I may be a little partial to USC too.

NYU has an excellent program too. Otherwise, to be honest, it depends more on the instructors. My daughter, Annie got a great education from the screenwriting department of Northwestern. But you could go to Bo Crowder Junior College in Harlan County, Kentucky and if your teacher is fantastic you’ll learn more than four years at a renown film school.

And finally, from Malinda Hackett:

I just watched the premiere of the new Meredith Stiehm series THE BRIDGE, and it got me thinking...lately I've noticed that new shows have a tendency to introduce several story threads which remain unresolved by the end of the episode. I understand you want certain stories to arc over the entire season or series but, what's happening to the idea of a self-contained story specific to the pilot episode? Shows like "The Wire," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "The Sopranos" all had a great story in the pilot, which was resolved at the end of the episode and that story helped set up the series as a whole. Why are some new shows choosing to stray away from this kind of structure? I watch mostly drama so I don't know how it is on the comedy side...

Serialization does appear to be the trend. The thinking is that the un-resolved stories will hook you in and motivate you to keep returning. But the downside is it’s very hard to jump in in the middle of a series. Studios and networks however, say viewers today are willing to go back and watch series from the beginning if they hear good buzz.

Maybe that’s true, but I think you can have your cake and eat it too with pilot stories that primarily resolve themselves but still leave a few open threads (a la THE SOPRANOS or MAD MEN).

Ultimately serialization is a risk. If the audience doesn’t catch on, these dramas tend to die quick and horrible deaths.

CHEERS was really the first sitcom to have over-all season arcs but those were broad and each episode had a self-contained resolution.

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, on the other hand, was very serialized and trailblazing, and that resulted in a constant fight with Fox, who wanted more self-contained episodes. Left to their own devices for the Netflix season AD took continuous unresolved storylines to new heights (or lows, depending on your viewpoint).

What’s your Friday Question? Please leave it in the comment section. Thanks!


Argumentative said...

"The Bridge" is a poor example to use in this discussion, given that it is very definitely a serial, not a series. That is, it is one story (the hunt for a serial killer) told in multiple chapters, not a succession of stories with the same characters. Of course it leaves everything unresolved after the first episode. If it had not, that would not have been the first episode, it would have been the only episode.

unkystan said...

I personally hate serialization. Character development and personal stories are ok but more than once I've gotten hooked on serialized shows that ended up with marginal ratings and were cancelled midway leaving the viewers with zero resolution. It's like reading a really good book and the last chapters are missing. Very frustrating. Even worse are major end of season cliff hangers on shows 'on the bubble', show does not get picked up and we're left with a "WTF???".
I also don't understand the networks' fascination with them. Like you said, you really can't pick it up midstream so not much viewer growth and the repeat (and syndication) value is virtually nil. CSI, L&O, NCIS, Monk etc. are all over the place and still making plenty of bucks but where are "Desperate Housewives", "The Practice", "Lost", etc. reruns?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I always thought that serialization became a big thing when video (and then DVD) sales did.


Herself said...

"The Bridge" is an American remake of the Danish-Swedish co-production of the same name, which was a serial rather than a series. Similarly "The Killing" was an American remake of a (superb) Danish serial. Both were big hits in their original incarnations, so presumably the Americans feel the serial nature of these are less of a risk since they have already been road-tested.

Richard Y said...

Friday Question: I recall in 1962 in my Radio &TV Broadcasting class in college we were all bused up to LA to view the Stoney Burk (1962)pilot. We were later ushered into another room to fill out our comments on 3 or 4 pages.

In a post here a couple of years back a commenter stated in a similar screening event in 1969 they had a dial on the seat that they rotated their approval or disapproval.

How is it usually done today for the focus groups?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Can I just express internet ID envy over the name "Barefoot Billy Aloha"? I have no idea who this person is, but I'd like to be the kind of person who carries that sort of name.

However, the person I currently am provides evidence that backs up the thinking that a person will go back and catch up if the show gets good reviews.

Ane said...

A new question. A lot of storylines seem to be basically the same in a lot of shows, especcially when it comes to sitcoms. I don't mean the general stuff like "boy meets girl" or "fish out of water" but more specific things. Parents who do stupid things to get their two-year-old into a good kindergarten, before realising that kids can smear paint on themselves anywhere (I think that happened in some variation on Step by Step, Full House, Cheers and Modern Family). The girl who decides to go to a sperm bank and get pregnant and then decides against it at the last minute (Friends, Fresh Prince, and in a twist it also happened on Fraiser only he was the one who changed his mind). The story where the butch manly-man father who hasn't kissed his son since he was a small child is suddenly doing it in front of the whole family is another example (Fraiser and Modern Family, and probably others). My question is, how close up to someone elses plot can you get before it's a copyright issue?

ScottyB said...

Re the serialized or self-contained debate, I'd think not having to argue with studio suits would make your day less stressful. For me, some of the brightest sitcoms (Cheers, My Name is Earl, Raising Hope) are those with an episode wrap that will satisfy you should the show suddenly get canceled after a season or two (or you jump in mid-season and just basically need to know who's who and what their deal is), but still have a basic, broad life-arc that can be followed until the creator/network decides the show has pretty much run its course 10 seasons later.

OTOH, guys like Larry David have the leverage TO argue with studios (and hell, might even like doing that) or just tell the suits to go fuck themselves and put on their own show.

Sometimes it seems smarter (and maybe easier) to play the better odds, put your best shit forward, and roll with it while the gravy train's still in the station.

ScottyB said...

@Ane: You can't copyright an *idea* (or heck, life itself with its billions of possible possibilities), nor win a lawsuit claiming that you were the first person to ever come up with the idea of someone accidentally inflating a life raft (The Dick Van Dyke show was perhaps the first, then seen again on an episode of Frasier where Frasier and Roz were hiding in a dude's closet on a boat).

BUT -- I think the thing you bring up especially as a viewer is something more powerful, especially in the world of standup comedians and their material: The idea that maybe everyone ran out of ideas that week, and recycling a theme into pretty much the same thing without adding a twist or fresh take on it. I think viewers recognize it (some writers call it "homage", others call it "stealing") when they see it, and lose some respect for the writers -- which is probably more damaging than having to pay dollars for "copyright infringement".

ScottyB said...

I will add tho, in defense of the 'Frasier' episode I mentioned, that the line immediately afterward: "You have a lot of explaining to do, mister" WAS a fresh twist, and completely hilarious. Which is why Frasier was so fantastic, fresh, and top-notch week after week after week.

gottacook said...

I think the best (and possibly first) drama to really strike a good balance between stand-alone and serial elements was Hill Street Blues more than 30 years ago. The unusual size of the core cast enabled this, or so I assume.

Anything more serialized than that, I wouldn't want to see as a rerun - Lost, for example. (That would be the case for me even if I'd liked the finale.)

Matt Z. said...

I am a big fan of the show "Frasier" and am rediscovering it on the Hallmark channel. Two questions (spoiler alert if you watching the show now): 1) when was the decision made to make Daphne and Niles "end game" so to speak. It seems that season #4 with Daphne dating Niles' doppelganger, the writing was on the wall, but was this always the plan, and question #2) the show's tags seem to love puns, but after Niles and Daphne run off together, the tag line was something like "The Dish ran away with Spoon". What! This is the perfect pun chance with "ran away with the Moon". What happened there, did somebody mess up and it was never fixed.

Jonathan Ernst said...

Question: What happens when one half of a writing team is better liked than the other?

Do they ever try to peel one off from the other or is that a no no?

Have they ever said, we'll only take Isaacs if he leaves Levine?

Jonathan Ernst said...

Would David Isaacs ever consider doing a guest post here about working on Mad Men? Would love to get any sort of insight into the writing process for that show, both for how episodes are crafted and how seasons are crafted.

Calico Joe said...

A question for you: As a baseball fan, and an atheist, I resent the 7th Inning Stretch being used for God Bless America, which is nothing but praying, set to music. I know it started after 9-11. It has nothing to do with baseball or "honoring America" and I've been heckled a few times at the park for refusing to stand and pray. How do you feel about it?

darms said...

Know anything about a screenwriting book called "Save the Cat!"?

DBenson said...

Just a note: Back in the 50s, Disney's "Zorro" was very much a serial (to the point of having actors and directors who worked on the real thing). It wasn't complicated stuff. A central villain would take residence for several episodes; instead of cliffhangers Zorro would score a temporary victory in each episode. There would be mini-arcs within each villain's tenure, like a hired sword hunting Zorro down for a few weeks, or guest star menaced by the villain. The central villain would be defeated and a replacement would turn up. The occasional freestanding episode or arc (Annette Funicello seeking her lost father) would mix things up.

The continuity could be summarized in a few sentences ("Our friend still has sanctuary in the mission, but Captain Montesario has another scheme to force him out . . .") so you could jump in at any point.

Drew said...

Friday Question: Why do you think European tv comedies translate so poorly in US remakes? I was watching the delightful "Moone Boy" with Chris O'Dowd on Hulu. So delightful. And yet, I'm sure the inevitable remake will fail.

Steve said...


You may not think "God Bless America" has anything to do with "honoring America," and if that's your opinion, that's fine. But realize that many people *do* believe it honors America, as they view the United States -- rightly or wrongly -- as providentially destined or in need of providential protection (see, for example, the close of the Declaration of Independence).

The history of the song underscores its common understanding as a song about "honoring America." To begin with, that is the reason that Irving Berlin -- a Jewish immigrant -- wrote the song in the first place -- to honor his newfound home. Politicians up to and including FDR have used it as their campaign songs, which is an odd thing to do if the song did not have some overtly patriotic overtones (further demonstrated by its widespread use after 9/11).

In short, you are certainly entitled to your view that the song has nothing to do with "honoring America." But that view is not really supported by most of the available evidence. And if your refusal to stand and "pray" (sing) at baseball games -- which nobody has forced you to attend -- has resulted in your being heckled, that is simply a consequence of others' exercising their same right to expression that you exercise in refusing to participate. In the end, I suppose you all are "honoring America" by doing exactly what is protected by the First Amendment.

Calico Joe said...

@ Steve
How about you don't try to force me to pray at a baseball game and I won't try to force you to play baseball during your church service?

gottacook said...

Not having attended a pro baseball game since I don't know when, I side with Calico Joe on this. No one attending a game should have to feel excluded because he or she finds the mention of "God" to be inappropriate, doesn't want to "pray," etc.

This has nothing to do with whether one believes in the American quasi-secular "God" (of the song, the coins and currency, the post-1954 Pledge of Allegiance, and, de rigueur, the end of presidential speeches), or in a deity with some specific name, or no name at all. Even among the monotheistically religious, there are those who don't want to wear their beliefs on their sleeve, for whom it's a private matter, for whom singing (or feeling pressured to sing) "God bless XYZ" would be something to be avoided.

(The slogan on the coins, "In God We Trust," began with the new-for-1864 two-cent piece, as a reminder that the USA was godly whereas the CSA was not, I suppose; even then the Congress had its share of idiots. Although that coin was unpopular and soon disappeared from circulation, the slogan became obligatory; the last coin not to have it was the 1938 buffalo nickel. In 1956 Congress in its wisdom passed, and the president signed, a law declaring the coin motto to be the official U.S. motto.)

bonerland said...

Cheers was a great show. But a pseudo-intellectual working at a sports bar is far from unique. I've found them everywhere I've ever worked, or shopped, or anything else humans do. Hell, I'm one myself.

Tallulah Morehead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D. McEwan said...

I've been fortunate enough to meet George Wendt a few times, via mutual friends, and that man is no pinhead. About Ratzenberger, I am less sure. In any event, obviously you can not use a celebrity's likeness without paying for it, as teh Aurora Model Company found out back in the 1960s when Bela Lugosi Jr sued them over using his fatherr's likeness as their Dracula model kit. They ended up having to shell out big bucks.

Two years ago, halfway through its initial season, a friend's enthusiasm got me to start watching Revenge, which involved going back and watching the first half season online, as you couldn't start that in episode 10 anymore that you can start reading a nevel in Chapter 10. Yes, folks will do thta now. ABC took a long mid-season break on Revenge and put every epsiode previously aired online for that specific reason.

But you gotta be good.

Mike Schryver said...

Re: God Bless America at ballgames

First, I think that if Ken is smart, he won't address this. And Ken is pretty smart. Not my place to speak for him, of course.

The problem I have with it is that it seems to be a backhanded attempt to turn GBA into the National Anthem. At some parks, they explicitly request that you stand and remove your hat.
The only somg where etiquette calls for that is the National Anthem, and by calling for it during GBA, they're clearly trying to give GBA the status of the Anthem. I resent MLB's attempt to do this, and it only encourages the abuse of others that has been complained about.

Dan Ball said...

Re: Film School in KY

Ha, I actually went to Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky (about three hours from Harlan, where my great-great grandpa was a US marshal in the 1880s, amidst the feuds).

I took screenwriting twice, which left me with two features written, but I didn't realize it would push back my graduation date and force me to take summer school. So I took a directed study for the extra hours, got a 30-page short to show for it.

Basically, our teachers had us read Robert McKee's STORY, one of Syd Field's books, Chris Vogler's THE WRITER'S JOURNEY, and watch some of the classics like CASABLANCA and BUTCH & SUNDANCE. Also, a workshop was built into the class, so we'd read each others' scripts and give feedback.

In fact, after I left, they hired a former sitcom director (Doug Smart) to join the faculty and started producing sitcom pilots in the old theater over the course of a semester. They converted the stage into the set and did multi-cam right there.

This fall, Asbury's going to offer a Master's program in Digital Storytelling. I'm up for being a guinea pig, so I'm signing up.

DrBOP said...

Woody Guthrie also had some objections to GBA.....which he expressed by writing This Land Is Your Land.
Bet MLB won't play that anytime soon.

Anonymous said...


Could you comment on this story from about why so many Hollywood movies these days (like it never happened in the past, but still ...) seem to resemble each other? His argument is that it's because everybody these days is using the same 15-beat structure from the book "Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder.




TastesLikeChicken said...


Could you comment on this story from about why so many Hollywood movies these days (like it never happened in the past, but still ...) seem to resemble each other? His argument is that it's because everybody these days is using the same 15-beat structure from the book "Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder.




Johnny Walker said...

Did The Wire, the most serialized show in TV history, resolve anything at the end of the first episode? I don't think they did. It was deliberately structured like a book. The first episode just introduced the characters and world, as I recall. But maybe I'm wrong?

Buffy, like Lost, always had standalone episodes, with a complete story in the them (beginning middle end), but while at the same time also adding to the season arc.

Brian said...

Ken, Have you continued to watch "Under the Dome?" What do you think about it now? I think they are just digging a deeper hole of questions each week. Yeah, things are a stretch, but then as you yourself pointed out, so were many things on Cheers.

Exterior daylight: Barbie enters. Crowd: "Barbie! Will the dome come down today?". Barbie: "I wouldn't bet on it -if I were you"

mike said...

Agree with Calico Joe; I too have been frosted for refusing the blind worship of militarism at public events. Go ahead, sing/pray if you like, do not force me to do so.