First off, Happy Birthday to my daughter, Annie. Hope you like the autographed copy of my book. I know, I know... sometimes I spoil you.
Here are these week’s Friday Questions:
An (is my actual name) starts us off:
Watching later episodes of Cheers, I can't help but notice all the negative Diane Chambers references. She comes up a lot for a character who was long gone. It seems odd that a character who left on good terms (Carla notwithstanding) and with a thoughtfully crafted, no-villain exit would be demonized in later seasons-- especially after such a fine line was walked by writers and Shelley Long to keep her so likable. Was it a character severance device or a reliable laugh or catharsis or what? What was the thinking there? Thanks!
We only did one or two Diane references a year. We tried to be very judicious and not go to that well too often.
Usually it was Frasier who made the jokes and the point of them was showing a psychiatrist who got left at the altar and just couldn’t let go. This supposed pillar of mental health held a massive grudge. We considered them Frasier jokes, not Diane jokes. And they were the type of jokes Frasier made to her face when she was on the show, and she never was rattled by them. So we felt they were okay to do. Were one or two maybe a bit too cruel? Looking back, you may be right.
We also felt that by doing these sporadic references it kept Diane in the show. She was such a huge and integral part of the series that you could make a reference to her five years after she had left and the audience still responded.
From Mark P.:
Ken, if a guest star gets sick or is otherwise unable to appear at the taping, what do you do? Did the casting director who chose them also choose an understudy?
I assume you mean for a multi-camera show that is filmed all at one time in front of a live studio audience. For single-camera shows, they can just adjust the shooting schedule.
But when there’s an audience and a lot of money committed to filming the entire episode in one night, things can get sticky.
There are no understudies. Sometimes we re-cast, sometimes we write the character out of the show if we can. And then it depends on how pivotal he is to the episode and how big a part it is.
If he’s in say, one scene, sometimes we can just shoot it the following week after the audience has left.
Another option, although it’s a very costly one, is to just push the filming back a day. But the guest star has to be central to the story and probably a big name.
I must say, one of the many things I admire about actors is that they really are troopers. They have to be close-to-death to not come in. I’ve seen actors persevere with colds, the flu, twisted ankles, and heavy hearts from personal tragedies. People like to portray actors as fragile hothouse flowers, but they are some of the toughest people I’ve known.
When writers create shows about worlds they aren't intimately familiar with-- for instance, a show about the old west, or about prison, or about the inner workings of a police precinct-- how do they ensure that they're getting the world right? Do they hire consultants, do copious research before writing the pilot?
When I wrote for MASH we conducted hundreds of interviews with doctors, corpsmen, nurses, soldiers, and patients who served in Korea during the war. My partner, David Isaacs and I had been in the army so we knew that world. I honestly don’t think we could have written MASH had we not had that experience.
(See my post last weekend on technical advisors.)
Now CHEERS was way more fun. Imagine hanging out in bars, drinking, and then writing off your bar tab as research.
I don’t know what you do for a show like STAR TREK although there are several writers that I seriously believe do commute from outer space.
And finally, from Carson:
You have worked on three shows that each lasted 11 seasons (MASH, Cheers, Frasier). After that length of time they all ran their course. But I wonder even after all these years do you ever still get ideas for these shows? Or are they emptied from conscientiousness?
I never think of MASH ideas, but all the time an incident will occur or an idea will pop into my head and I’ll think, “That would make a great Sam story on CHEERS” or “I could so see Frasier and Niles doing this.”
After spending so much of my life with those characters it is a little weird to think I’ll never write them again. So I do still think of ideas for those shows. Either I have a very fertile mind or I’m just in denial.
What’s your question? And again, Happy Birthday to my favorite comedy writer.