Friday, August 16, 2013

Who is that guy with the weird laugh?

Here are answers to some of your Friday questions.

velvet goldmine wondered this last week:

I know that even shows filled before a live audience sometimes used to "sweeten" them with recorder laughs. But there's this one man's laugh that you hear on TONS of shows from the 70s, from MTM to Taxi. You know the one I mean? First there's a startled "Haw!" as the setup gets underway, then this extended "Haw Haw Haw..." when the joke reaches its zenith.

Why in the world would they keep using this familiar, even annoying laugh? And if by chance it was the same guy at all the tapings -- say, a superfan, or a self-impressed writer -- why wasn't he muzzled?

This is less of an answer than a confirmation. As several people correctly mentioned in the comments section, the distinctive laugh you hear belongs to James L. Brooks (pictured above). It’s less annoying when you realize it’s genuine. And when he laughs at something I’ve said or written, it’s sheer music.

There are also two very distinctive laughers on the last seven years of CHEERS. Phoef Sutton and Bill Steinkellner. I can’t describe them but watch any episode from those middle and later years and you’ll know what I mean.

Jim Stickford asks:

What's the procedure for deciding what particular line to use. I saw Carl Reiner in an interview years ago and he said one of the reasons he stayed in the writer's room for Your Show of Shows was that he could type, which was a big deal in the days before computers and photocopiers. When the writers threw out lines, Carl picked the one he liked best and typed it in.

Is there a procedure? Is it decided by the show runner? Do you vote on it?

It’s either the showrunner or the person designated to run the room in the showrunner’s absence. Someone has to have the final say otherwise you have the scene in MAN OF STEEL with all the people running through the streets crazed. Although, wait a minute. It's like that normally.

From Jaime J. Weinman:

Do you prefer writing sitcom episodes with a tag before the closing credits (M*A*S*H) or episodes that have no tags and end the episode with the second act (Cheers)?

Also what are the reasons for having tags or not having tags: is it usually network policy (like in the '80s when almost none of NBC's sitcoms used tags), or is it sometimes the showrunner's decision?

Tags are those little two minute scenes at the end of sitcoms. They serve the purpose of rewarding the viewer for staying through the last spot break. Some shows have them, others don’t. It depends on their format and needs of their network. There seem to be fewer today as networks are going more to a three-act format -- again, all in the cause of audience maintenance; none in the cause of better storytelling.

I MUCH prefer writing tags to the teasers we employed on CHEERS. At least with tags you could draw upon content established in the episode and just do a call-back. Teasers were completely independent of the story that followed. The Charles Brothers thought it would be novel and help establish the world of the bar. They were right of course, but teasers were a bitch to pull out of our ass every week.

What’s your question???

30 comments:

Amy said...

Here's a question: 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?

Brian Phillips said...

Two things:

1. On the "Martini Shot" podcast, listen to the entry called, "Laugh Track", in which he discusses sweetening.

2. I LOVE James Brooks' laugh so much, I turned it into a ringtone.

Bob Sassone said...

There's another familiar laugh on old laugh tracks. A woman gives a slight laugh and an "awwwww" when something cute or nice happens on a lot of old sitcoms. You hear her a ton on shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show. It really stands out once you hear it.

Carson said...

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 ?

Breadbaker said...

Baseball, as you know, is considering a challenge system to allow replays. On television, it's fairly simple to cover the time while they're being considered by showing the station's own replays. But what does a radio announcer do?

Tom said...

I have a rather unusual question, Ken. It's a bit more serious and personal than the usual Friday questions you get so I understand if you'd rather not answer it.

From all appearances, you seem to have enjoyed a remarkably successful career and a rich, satisfying life. But was there ever a time that you felt so down, so dejected, so devoid of hope that all you could see was darkness descending in all directions? Have you ever been so completely paralyzed by insecurity and uncertainty that you could no longer think straight? Have you ever felt utterly inadequate to everyone you meet?

I'm not talking about the occasional bad break like a cancelled show or a failed romance (although those are certainly painful enough). And it has nothing to do with alcohol, drugs or any other kind of addiction.

No, what I'm talking about a crushing sense of worthlessness and hopelessness that you can feel in the marrow of your bones.

I ask this question not to dredge up any unpleasant memories or to get you to divulge any intimate details of your private life. Rather, I was wondering -- assuming you have ever found yourself in such a deep, dark place -- how you got out. Where did you find the strength, the courage and the resilience to keep going and ultimately prevail?

Thanks.

Pete Grossman said...

Along Tom's question, a while back there was a writer who was going through some serious depression that you reached out to. Please update us. Thanks.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

I was going to ask what Ken's favorite writers room food was. Until I read Tom's question.

Hamid said...

My question:

Ken, where do you stand on the view that since about 2000, The Simpsons has severely declined in quality to the point where it's now unwatchable and has none of the wit and intelligence it had during the 90s?

Benny said...

Radio Guy,

I'd like to know what Tom's favorite writers room food is? I'm thinking ground glass quesadilla....

Hamid said...

In slight connection to the laugh question - I'm amazed action films still make use of the Wilhelm Scream - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PxALy22utc

Victor Velasco said...

Re: laugh tracks. I remember two from before the 70's; one was similar to the Brooks 'HAW HAW!' but it was mean spirited e.g. Jethro Bodine, as a double-naught spy or would be inventor, has something blow up in his face. That laugh was like some guy with a cigar rasp...the second one was more of an exclamation, like when someone walks out of the laundry room and accidentally knocks the whole box of soap in the washer; it was a few muted 'whoahs' with a little 'oh hohoho' at the end...

Carlos Safety said...

Ken, Friday Question that hopefully Tom will read the answer to if he is still with us in a few weeks. Wondering if you can provide any real-life anecdotes or thoughts on the difference between a professional comedy writer and a comedian. Have you ever found that someone who is a (successful) comedian lacks the skills to write for a sitcom or vice-versa. I imagine a comedian is used to writing and speaking for him or herself, and not for a host of characters. Perhaps you have some thoughts on this and if you ever came across a funny comedian who just bombed in the writer's room.

PS. Tom -- if you are still with us just after reading this question -- perhaps a humor blog is not the best place to get light out of darkness, unless that light is comedy. Seeking professional help seems worthwhile.

The Indian Bustard said...

Ken,

Better watch out, sir! The people who comment on this blog are getting to be as funny as you are.


Eduardo Jencarelli said...

@Hamid

"the view that since about 2000, The Simpsons has severely declined in quality to the point where it's now unwatchable and has none of the wit and intelligence it had during the 90s"

The view? Unwatchable? None of the wit? That's debatable and subjective now, isn't it?

Trying to speak for folks you don't represent, or force a biased opinion onto someone else's mouth?

Not everyone sees the show as unwatchable, you know.

While The Simpsons may no longer be as fresh as it was back in the 1990's, that's because they're in Season 25, still drawing respectable numbers. And I still find them to be pretty watchable and entertaining.

vicernie said...

Spike Lee has reached his goal!!! http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/08/16/spike_lee_kickstarter_reaches_its_goal_the_director_thanks_his_fans_video.html

nospintravel said...

Regarding laugh tracks, I did a TV episode where the laughs were generated by a dwarf standing on a riser. He would laugh where the laugh tracks were going to replaced, so the performers would know when to pause.

It took a while before I could gather myself and not breakup at what was (not) happening.

Todd Everett said...

Hamid said...

In slight connection to the laugh question - I'm amazed action films still make use of the Wilhelm Scream


I did a bit of research on that for a project I was working on involving actor/singer Sheb Wooley, who is generally recognized as the screamer.

While in the early days the Wilhelm Scream was probably just another effect in the sound library, later directors (including some of the biggest names) began using it as something of an homage, or Easter egg for the geeks.

Dbenson said...

Eons ago read an interview with Desi Arnez, who commented on being able to recognize the laughs of specific friends on "I Love Lucy." He added that he recognized the same laughs on new sitcom laughtracks, long after the aforementioned friends had died.

An (is my actual name) said...

Friday Question:
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!

Breadbaker said...

Desi's own laugh can be heard on the pilot of Make Room for Daddy.

XJill said...

I want a distinctive laugh now, dammit!! Or do I have one already...? Hmm...

Happy Friday Ken!

Hank Gillette said...

"Distinctive laugh-track laughs" would be an interesting YouTube video (actually audio, but you know what I mean).

Hamid said...

Eduardo

Calm down. I'm not forcing my opinion into anyone's mouth, I was just asking a question. You're right, it IS subjective, which is precisely why I asked for Ken's opinion.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_simpsons#Criticism_of_declining_quality

Mister Charlie said...

The Drew Carey show obviously had some staffer who loved the gags (a writer?) and his boooming "huh-HEY!" was so noticeable and ever present my kids and I still use it as a gag laugh.

Bob said...

Yeah, Desi's laugh can be heard occasionally among those of the audiencebon I LOVE LUCY. Lucy's second husband, can often be heard laughing in later episodes of THE LUCY SHOW and HERE'S LUCY.

I've read that Charley Douglas, who created laugh tracks for thousands of shows over the years, drew primarily on THE RED SKELTON SHOW as a source for his gallery of laughs, because Red did pantomime routines regularly, and Douglas could get nice, clean laughs without dialogue running over them.

Dann Cahn, film editor on I LOVE LUCY had his own small library of laughs, which he insisted he only used for editing purposes, never for sweetening.

Bob said...

I heard the Wilhelm Scream recently in, of all places, the 1954 movie A STAR IS BORN. It pops up on the soundtrack during Judy Garland's "Somewhere There's a Someone" production number.

Kelly O'Shaughnessy said...

This is great - someone here in Australia has written an article about, and made, "Sam & Diane inspired cookies"...!

http://www.dailylife.com.au/dl-food/food-features/a-cookie-inspired-by-cheers-20130815-2ryae.html

Friday question off the back of it: What's the strangest thing that's come about after being 'inspired by' one of your charactter/tv/movie creations?

Brenton said...

I've heard that the "callers" to Frasier's radio show were real celebrities, sometimes talking about their real problems. David Duchovny was one, talking about what would later be revealed to be his sex addiction. Did anyone involved with the show realize he was making a confession of sorts?

Steven Fisher said...

Who is the lady on Andy Griffith who laughs. Her laugh seems like her laugh occurs when the audience needs to be reminded of a social norm or mores.