Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Questions

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.

Amy wonders:

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?

They try to do as much research as possible. Now this won’t help you writing GAME OF THRONES, but if your show is set in a police precinct or a high school the writer almost has an obligation to spend time there and really immerse himself in that world.

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.

38 comments:

Rock Golf said...

Ken: You have to create a "Modern Frasier" Twitter account for these ideas. Sure, they'll never be filmed but look how much joy the "Modern Seinfeld" account brings people.

Modern Frasier said...

Modern Frasier
Frasier becomes enamoured with his ultra-Conservative talk show rival (Jean Smart).

Ron said...

The guy who started the "Modern Seinfeld" account landed a writer's job on a Fox sitcom called "Us & Them".

Modern Frasier said...

Modern Frasier
Havoc ensues when Daphne is selected to be a "Real Spousewife of Seattle".

Jim S said...

Friday question Ken.

I saw this same story on MASH and Black Sheep Squadron. Basically a soldier listens to the live broadcast of a baseball game. Because the soldier is Asia and the game is played in the States, it occurs in the middle of the night where the soldier is. The next day the soldier is conveniently listening to a rebroadcast of the game. He says he likes team X, but team X is behind in runs. He's goaded into betting on team X (which knows comes from behind to win the game) by being given odds. He cleans out the suckers.

So my question is, was that long story some sort of urban legend that was passed around the Army? Or did two different TV shows about men in the military come up with such a story line independent of each other? Does that happen often?

Thanks.

Dan Ball said...

The answer to the last question is really telling, Ken. That's an interesting (and relatable) perspective on writing. Heck, I get that way over characters I've NEVER written for on defunct shows or in movies. That's part of the reason I'm a writer. You think I'm satisfied with NEMESIS being the last thing we hear from THE NEXT GENERATION cast?

What would it take for you to get fed up to the point you mount a one-off special to air out some of these ex post facto ideas?

Brian O. said...

I hear Peter Graves made for a wonderful guest star.

Garrett said...

An episode of Frasier was on the other night I believe was called "How to Bury a Millionaire." I got to noticing there were five sets used in that one episode: Frasier's living, Frasier's bedroom, Cafe Nervosa, Niles' living room at the Montana(which seems like a huge set) and Niles' apartment at the Shangri-La. How many sets will fit on a sound stage?

Michael said...

Ken, if you're thinking up gags for shows no longer on, you're in good company. In his later years, Stan Laurel would devise gags for himself and Oliver Hardy, after Hardy was gone and Laurel was retired.

Brian said...

Ken - I have a Friday MASH question:

Did the cast and crew enjoy the days when they got to leave the soundstage and head to Malibu to shoot exteriors or did they view it as a chore? I've heard that the facilities out there weren't exactly considered...modern.

Chicago Pinot said...

I loved the occasional Diane/Shelley references from Season Six onward! Totally fair game; no disrespect intended, I'm sure. My favorite was Woody's deadpan question at the drivein asking why any actress would "leave a successful series."

gottacook said...

The final bow of The Next Generation cast - some of them, anyway - was several years later, in spring 2005, when the regrettable last episode of the equally regrettable UPN series Star Trek: Enterprise* (formerly just Enterprise) was presented as a flashback of sorts, with a framing story that is supposed to be taking place during a specific 1993 episode of TNG. This is a particularly bad idea when your actors are more than a decade older and one of them isn't even trying to speak with a Betazoid accent.

The difference with Trek is that (beyond the decades-old fan fiction community) there is actually a possibility of selling an original novel that makes use of your favorite Trek series' captain and crew. Occasionally Trek novels have been written by former writers for one of the TV series.**

*I once came across the no-doubt-true observation that the title Star Trek: Enterprise was "off" in much the same way that Cheers: Frasier would have been.

**I must note for the record that despite my Star Trek knowledge, I have not read nor ever been interested in Trek fan fiction, and the only Trek novel I ever bought was James Blish's Spock Must Die! - presumably not his choice of title - in 1970.

Dana King said...

Happy birthday to Annie. May the road rise to meet you and the wind be at your back. Not too much, though, or you'll get a nasty scrape.

Jeffro said...

Dear Ken,

Please convey a Many Happy Returns of the Day to your young Ms. Levine. And tell her to keep up the good work. That is all.

Igor said...

One of my truly all-time favorite comedy moments on TV was on Cheers - when Sam felt his life had no meaning because everything he did was simply to get babes.

They go through a list of his interests, and Sam ties each one back to getting babes.

And then, someone mentions The 3 Stooges. As I recall, Sam reacts with puzzlement. Then Diane (?) says, "Have you ever known any woman who likes the Stooges?"

And at that, Sam realizes that, indeed, his life has meaning.

Ken, do you know if that scene was just one of those things along the way, or is there a story behind it?

(Sorry for getting some/many of the details wrong; it's been a while since I've seen that episode. But I'll never forget the look of discovery and joy on Ted Danson's face.)

Liggie said...

F.Q. Many people are dropping cable/satellite entirely and using streaming services for their video entertainment. Is this something studio/network executives are adjusting to, or is it a false doomsday, like how VCRs didn't destroy movie theaters as was feared?

Anonymous said...

Igor,
I also love that scene, the best line of which is Sam's "I love the Stooges for themselves!"

willieb said...

Friday Question: on a recent road trip I saw a Frasier from the last season that was "Written By David Issacs" -- no Ken Levine! Was there a definite point where you went your separate ways as writers, or did you just drift apart? Did you write any scripts solo or did you concentrate on baseball and directing?

Tim W. said...

"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."

Oh, Ken. That's just the Valley!

Tim W. said...

"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."

Oh, Ken. That's just the Valley!

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Brian It wasn't a picnic filming out in Malibu either, from what I understand: temperatures in the teens in the morning, rising to over 100 in the afternoon (I think Loretta Swit once said in an interview that an extra nearly died of heat exhaustion once). Not to mention I think Ken himself even said if the actors got too nitpicky about the scripts, the writers would purposely write coldsnap episodes, forcing them to walk around in that 100+ degree heat in overcoats and parkas, standing around barrels of fire, and act like it's cold.

But in response to the question about guest stars/actors and such, if the filming schedule can be worked around to accommodate certain actors like that on a single camera show, then how come Igor was played by someone other than Jeff Maxwell in a couple of Season Six episodes of M*A*S*H (in addition to that, why was Jeff's dialogue dubbed in "Fade Out, Fade In")?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

The biggest problem for newcomers into the Star Trek universe was not only getting used to astronomy and the tech jargon (which had help from the likes of Okuda, Shankar and Bormanis), but also portraying an idealized society according to the showrunner's rules.

Michael Piller once called it the Roddenberry's Box. Either a writer adjusts to it or not.

There are a number of talented professional writers who never able to last long in a Star Trek assignment because of this. This happened mostly in The Next Generation era.

Some of these writers:

Lee Sheldon
Michael Wagner
Frank Abatemarco
Robert Lewin
Greg Strangis
Richard Danus
Ira Steven Behr (who rejoined Trek on DS9, after Roddenberry's death)

D. McEwan said...

The most-amazing/sad/inspiring tale of an actor who was a trooper who went on anyway that I've ever heard is that of Lou Costello. He received the news that his son, Lou Costello Jr., barely over a year old, had drowned in his backyard swimming pool minutes before he was to do an hour-long live radio show. He did the show, and the listeners would never have known something horrific had happened from his performance, though Bud Abbott and Tallulah Bankhead were performing through tears. At the end of the show, Bud, now openly crying, did a short speech to the listeners to the effect that his partner had just shown them all the meaning of professionalism.

Re: Still thinking of ideas: friends of Stan Laurel reported that, to the very end of his life, Stan would still get Laurel & Hardy gag ideas. They'd be out with him and some lttle thing would happen or he'd see something, and he'd say, "This would make a lovely gag for us," and describe the L&H gag it had inspired in him. This was long after Babe Hardy had passed away. Stan's genius had no "Off" switch. This was a man whose idea of a day off was to come into the studio and contribute gags to other comedians' movies.

Mike said...

I really liked the Diane references after she left. It felt real -- if somebody's a major part of your day-in, day-out life for five years, you don't suddenly stop talking about them the moment they leave -- and I agree with Ken, a lot of difference came from *who* was talking negatively about her: almost always, it was Frasier or Sam. The former was left at the altar by the woman, the latter was engaged to her and then didn't receive so much as a phone call from her after she went up to Maine to finish her book. Both had plenty of reason to be bitter. Carla would make the occasional nasty remark, and while I don't like how mean Carla grew in the final seasons of the show, it felt perfectly natural for her to make a harsh comment about Diane. She disliked her from about the second Diane showed up.

Johnny Walker said...

One of my favourite episodes of CHEERS was apparently one I'd made up in my head. When I re-watched the entire series, I never actually got to it:

Cliff breaks down in the bar and reveals how he's not been delivering the mail for the past few months -- he's depressed for some reason. His apartment is now filled with undelivered mail, and unless it all suddenly finds its way to people's homes, he's going to get discovered and fired.

So everyone in the bar stays out all night helping him deliver the mail.

I SWEAR it was an episode...!

Love the idea of a Modern Frasier episode, btw.

Johnny Walker said...

Not episode, Twitter.

Powerhouse Salter said...

Johnny Walker -
There's a SEINFELD episode with that subplot, only it's Newman who's been hoarding the undelivered mail in his apartment.

Jim, Foolish Literalist said...

I think my favorite Diane call back was in a later episode, Sam gets an electrical shock trying to IIRC set up pirated cable and Frasier rushes to check up on him and Sam shakes his head, looks at Frasier and says "Diane?"

Also, of course, Carla's defection to Mr Pubb

Greg Ehrbar said...

Modern Frasier: Adam Levine guest stars in this episode in which Fraser attempts to win "The Voice" with his hip-hop version of "Buttons and Bows."

An (is my actual name) said...

Thanks for responding, Ken! Great to get your insight. For your reference (and really, who doesn't need this?), here's a latter-years Diane mention list compiled with the help of fan crowdsourcing at my humble Cheers Tumblr: http://chambersandmalone.tumblr.com/post/29616964792/the-later-years-diane-reference-list-a-work-in

DwWashburn said...

Ia there ever animosity between members of a writing staff or other people that work "behind the scenes" as to the pay of actors on successful shows? Without the writers they would have nothing to say, without the directors they would have no place to stand, without the camera people they would not be able to be seen, without lighting they couldn't be seen, etc.

George Freeman said...

Actors are "troupers" because they are members of a troupe. State Police and cavalry officers are troopers. And no it's not a British/American thing. Both countries have both words.

Now don't get me started on discreet and discrete!

Cap'n Bob said...

You're kidding about knowing about the Army based on your 180-day foray, right?

Ken Levine said...

Our six years in the reserves gave us a certain familiarity.

Mark P. said...

Modern Frasier: Frasier moonlights as a shrink for the Mariners. One night he's there just before game time, and their radio play-by-play announcer gets the hiccups. "Have no fear, I'm also an MD" Frasier tries to help but only makes things worse and the guy gets laryngitis. "Have no fear, I also do radio". But he doesn't exactly know baseball. "It's a home run into the left field stands! The batter has decided to remain at the plate, no doubt savoring this most singular accomplishment - oh, that's a foul?" The voiceless announcer tries to help by pantomiming but ultimately gets very flustered.

VP81955 said...

Not bad, MarkP, but didn't Frasier move to Chicago at the close of the series? I suppose you could do the same storyline, but simply substitute the White Sox or Cubs.

To Ken: Interesting story in Variety this week, "Networks Need More TV Shows That Inspire Rabid Fan Followings." (http://variety.com/2013/biz/news/networks-need-more-tv-shows-that-inspire-rabid-fan-followings-1200592496/). I agree that networks have done a terrible job in creating those types of series ("Mad Men," "Orange Is The New Black," "Breaking Bad," etc.), but since sitcoms have been so important to networks since "I Love Lucy" established the genre in 1951, can the sitcom achieve an intense fan base -- one that not only watches in large numbers, but blogs? The Internet came into its own during the final few years of "Seinfeld," and "Frasier" seemed to achieve a similar cyber-presence, but what quality sitcoms have done likewise since? (And as you can obviously tell from my comments, I don't view "Two And A Half Men" as "quality," apologies to Chuck Lorre.)

Then again, even if "Seinfeld" or "Frasier" or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" were in their series prime with new episodes today, I fear none of them would inspire much adulation today; they are, after all, only sitcoms (he said sarcastically). The TV audience has become far more snobby.

Cap'n Bob said...

Ah yes, the reserves.

Sami said...

Dear Ken, I've been thinking a lot lately about when shows should end. Some people seem to have a knack for calling it a day and leave you missing them--Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and more recently Chuck. Others seem to go on so long that shows I once loved make me wince and squirm to watch--or just get flat out boring. There are a few right now that I used to love, but they are repeating themselves or less funny and more sad or dull and out of gas. I used to look forward to them, but now I brace myself and am pleasantly surprised when they don't make me cringe. How do avoid that and leave them wanting more or satisfied instead of being relieved it's finally over? It's weird to see somthing you love go south. As a viewer, it's embarrassing and uncomfortable.