Thursday, November 07, 2013

At some point you've got to be a writer

Sitcom characters can evolve over time. Different showrunners and new writers in the room put their own stamp on existing characters. Usually the changes are subtle and maybe not noticeable at first, but if you go back and watch a first year’s episode and an eighth year’s you’re sometimes surprised by how much the characters have changed.

The Larry Gelbart “Hawkeye” was a far different person from the Alan Alda “Hawkeye” of the last few years of MASH.

David Isaacs and I wrote for the Frasier character from Kelsey Grammer’s first year on CHEERS till his final year on FRASIER. For good measure, we wrote him in the WINGS episode he guest-starred in, too.

When the FRASIER series began we were creative consultants, helping out on each episode. We also wrote a number of episodes during the first few seasons. Then we left to co-create and produce ALMOST PERFECT for several years. When that show ended we were invited to write another episode of FRASIER.

We of course said yes, and worked out the story with the staff. This was the show that became “Room Service” – the one where Niles sleeps with Lilith and Frasier catches them in their hotel room.

Before beginning the script we asked for a handful of recent episodes just to get up to speed with where the show was at the time.

What we found was a little disconcerting. Frasier’s speech had become much more flowery than we remembered it. He was more verbose, language dripping with ornamentation. We were in a quandary. Do we write the Frasier we’ve always known or this revised version?

Ultimately, we decided to just write the Frasier we knew and were comfortable with instead of trying to guess. Our feeling was if they wanted to take our script and adjust his dialogue to fit their new vision they were welcome to, but we wanted to be true to the Frasier we had always known.

So that’s what we did. The script came very easily (it was such a solid story), and we wrote it very quickly. It was a pleasure not having to stop at every Frasier line and try to manufacture how we thought the “new” Frasier would sound. We just channeled “our” Frasier and the dialogue flowed.

Happily (and surprisingly), they kept our Frasier verbatim. In fact, they pretty much kept our entire draft. I guess it just worked so why change it? (And again, I credit that to the great story we worked out with the staff.)

Of all the FRASIERS we wrote, it's my favorite.  A big thanks also goes to David Lee, whose directing was pitch-perfect. 

Now I can’t tell you not to write in someone else’s voice. If you’re working on an existing show you have to. But I’ve seen writers tie themselves up in knots because they’re so busy trying to guess what the showrunner would write that they don’t trust their own instincts.

James L. Brooks put it best: At some point you’ve got to be a writer.

In other words, at some point you have to take command. You have to bring whatever talent and quality you have to offer to the script. You can’t really get in Aaron Sorkin’s head, or Matthew Weiner’s, or David E. Kelley’s, or Chuck Lorre’s, or Ken Levine’s. Write their characters the way YOU see them.   What happens is this -- you stand a way better chance of pleasing the showrunner than if you just tried to mimic him. 

And who knows?  In time, maybe the characters will evolve in YOUR direction. 

36 comments:

Michael said...

Friday question: Of all the shows currently on the air, which one do you think you and David would have the easiest time quickly writing an episode for?

Michael said...

The change you describe in Frasier's speech strikes me as similar to what happened to both Potter and Klinger on MASH. And it seems to me that it may be a sign of a show getting a little tired.

Anonymous said...

different from..

Dan Ball said...

Ken, when I started reading this entry, I thought you were going to say that you and David were responsible for making Frasier more wise and warm toward the end of the series. I really loved that transition. He was still clumsy and arrogant, but there were often departures from that to round him out more. I loved that. It's like he aged along with his collection of spirits.

Did you at least have a hand in that? :)

Hamid` said...

I wish at least ONE writer on The Simpsons would try and write Homer the way he was written in the first 9 seasons. Actually, any of the characters the way they were written in the first 9 seasons. The Simpsons is unspeakably awful now. It's actually painful to watch, not just because it's unfunny but because it was once sheer genius and has declined in the last 13/14 years to the point where I just can't watch it any more.

I'll give a new episode a go every now and then just in case there's a glimmer of the old magic, but it's the same disappointment every time. The jokes are dumbed down and unfunny and Homer's voice isn't the same as it used to be. Every sentence is spoken in the same annoying high pitch. Gone are the days when he'd say things like "Being abusive to your family is one thing, but I will not stand idly by and watch you feed a hungry dog" in that wonderful, quintessential Homer voice.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

That first picture on this post is exactly why I hate almost all of modern television, because that's pretty much all you see anymore.

Hamid said...

Joseph:

Two people in a bed offends you?

Chris said...

I've always hoped that the title of the episode came from the wonderful play of the same name by Allen Boretz and John Murray (with maybe a hefty assist from original director George Abbott) and not the Marx Bros. movie upon which it is based. And which did not do it justice. A truly funny episode with outstanding comic grace notes provided by the waiter played by John Ducey. He packed as much into his simple "Okay" as any guest star who ever earned an Emmy for doing much more. And no, I am not related to nor do I even know the man. Just a fan of good writing and acting.

Howard Hoffman said...

Great episodes have great lines which you end up using in real life. "Room Service" had this.

LILITH (upon seeing Frasier):
Oh my God.

FRASIER:
Oh, my goddess.

VincentS said...

Thanks, Ken.

Anonymous said...

This is my very favorite Frasier episode…. in fact, just
watched it last nite because I needed cheering up. And I agree with all the comments about John Ducey he never fails to make me laugh. Did you have any idea an actor could get so much out of okay -:)

Scooter Schechtman said...

To Hamid: you dare to quote classic Simpsons lines? I thought I had that gig locked up!
As far as characters evolving I have to say I didn't like the later episodes of MASH because all the characters sounded like they had the same (weak) style of jokes. Hotlips and Klinger might as well have been interchangeable.

Hamid said...

Hey Scooter, don't tempt me into a quotedown! I've got tons of them. Like:

Homer: $20? But I wanted a peanut.

Homer's brain: $20 can buy many peanuts.

Explain how.

Money can be exchanged for goods and services.

Woo-hoo!

Anonymous said...

David Lee here. Thanks for the nice words, Ken. This is one of my favorite episodes too. I remember working out the story in the room was even a delight--and I didn't often feel that way. And I also remember being thankful you guys pointed out the "drift" in the writing. We tried to police it from that point on. I recall what happened was that we had forgotten to allow for what the actor brings to the part, so we would write "stilted" dialogue, and then Kelsey would do his thing on top of that, and it started to be too much. So we tried to remind ourselves to just write "basic" Frasier and let Kelsey do his thing.

Zhou said...

My English can be on the improvement now, so the confidence that is the result is on the upswing and I will leave my comment of this television story that is the best Frasier of many years. Other Frasier stories are so funny, but a meal on the toilet is LOL because sometimes this has been done by me!

Lorimartian said...

OT: I was watching Everybody Loves Raymond last night...the one in which her parents are visitng (on Thanksgiving, I think). Debra and Ray are having an argument in the kitchen. She accidentally drops the raw turkey on the floor, slips and slides while struggling to pick it up, and finally throws it in the oven as is (no pan). Laugh out loud funny. I don't know how Ray was able to keep a straight face. I get a lot of enjoyment from this show. In fact, I don't know how any of them were able to keep a straight face in many scenes. I mean I know they must play it seriously, but I wonder if there were a lot of re-takes because the actors couldn't maintain.

Ken, then I noticed you directed the following episode in which a man sneezes on Ray in the airport restroom. IMDB says you directed three episodes. What was your experience on the show or have you talked about this previously? Did you ever write for the show?

benson said...

It's a Levine Love Fest on this Throwback Thursday!

I always will make time to watch Room Service, Martin does it his way, and another one that ran yesterday morning, Roz and the Schnoz, that Ken directed. Even though it's silly, it also laugh out loud funny.

Stephen Robinson said...

What I love most about Grammer's work as Frasier was his ability to kill an otherwise normal line. "This restaurant doesn't serve hamburgers!" Or "I am wearing a bathrobe you idiot" are just two examples.

Stephen Robinson said...

FRIDAY QUESTION

Was there ever thought to writing out the radio show on FRASIER? It was a big source for storylines in the first few seasons (some episodes coming across as workplace sitcoms) and then slowly fading into the background. By the 8th season, there were weeks without any mention of it and Roz had become so assimilated into the cast as a friend that the station had less relevance.

I did enjoy Kenny, though.

Mike Barer said...

Frazier did an on location episode here in Seattle. They got so caught up in showing scenery, there really wasn't a coherent story line.

Victor Velasco said...

Saw virtually every episode of FRASIER at one time or another but the Niles/Lilith one I didn't catch until just a few months ago and I remember thinking 'man, Frasier's never been so pissed off, he's dropped his pretenses!'....now I get it

Jim Russell said...

@Chris - about your aside, mentioning that wonderful Murray / Boretz play. I always found the musical adaptation (a 1944 film named "Step Lively", starring Frank Sinatra) to be truer to the spirit of the play than the Marx Brothers version.

Hamid said...

My favorite Frasier line:

When Daphne says "It's not like men have never used sex to get what they want", Frasier replies:

"How can we possibly use sex to get what we want? Sex IS what we want!"

404 said...

Off topic question, Ken: I'm reading MUST KILL TV (and really enjoying it!) and had a question: you have said on this blog that you usually try to write your scripts so they are "timeless"--purposefully lacking contemporary references so that they can survive in syndication, make sense to people seeing them later, etc. And yet, MUST KILL TV is the exact opposite. I'm only about a third of the way through, and it's chock full of contemporary references that won't work in ten years or so. Was this an intentional choice, you thinking that was the only way the book would make sense?

LouOCNY said...

Just FYI: The Marx Brothers ROOM SERVICE actually was the authorized movie adaptation of the Broadway show. The Marxes were in between contracts at MGM, where they had just done A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES for Irving Thalberg, and were very hot in the business. They got a one shot deal (through agent brother Zeppo) from RKO for 250,000 1938 dollars, when $10,000 a year was a huge salary for a professional.

Mike said...

There's still time to nominate Ken's book for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award 2013.

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, thanks for sharing the next part of that story, David Lee! Makes me want yo go back and see if I can spot the floweryness being reined in.

Breadbaker said...

As Blockbuster and possibly Blackberry fade into history, it will be interesting to see which of the cultural references last and which do not. All those 80s sitcom episodes that assumed that a VCR was the most valuable item in a house, for instance.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The problem from the viewer's pov is that the view the new writer has of the character is inconsistent with the character the viewer has come to know and care about. Depending who's writing THE BIG BANG THEORY this week, Penny is either pretty smart, just not educated; or incredibly dumb. (I like the smart one.) (I also note that the current showrunner seems to like ideas that were done ten years ago on FRIENDS - this week, a male buddy giving a male buddy a matching inappropriate item to wear. But all is forgiven this week because of Professor Proton.) On HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, the characters are barely recognizable from the good years of the show; and there are shows where later writing teams simply betray the original characters entirely.

Sometimes you have to be a writer - but it would be nice if you kept the audience's long-term knowledge of the characters in mind. After all, your S8 episode may run right after a rerun of an S2 episode, or your viewer may have spent the weekend binge-watching S4, whose entire story arc you've just contradicted. This stuff didn't matter so much years ago, but it does now. I think it's one reason fans have so much respect for Joss Whedon: even BUFFY lost quality over the years of the show, but the characters grew and developed in response to the things that happened to them and did so in ways that made a continuous line from the character as originally seen to the character seven years later.

wg

gottacook said...

Regarding the (three) Marx Brothers' version of Room Service, in retrospect it would have been better if they and their writers - in this case Morrie Ryskind - had continued in the business of adapting stage plays originated by others. That is, a Marx version of some other modern (or classical) comedy might have turned out better than any of their three remaining MGM films.

dd@tch54 said...

Just watched Room Service. Brilliant! I liked the flowery Frasier but it was nice to see the original Frasier in that episode.

My favorite lines -

Frasier
When it comes to an ugly image, you can't beat a dead horse.

Niles (waking up in bed with Lilith)
These things happen. They happen everyday. Everyday in Arkansas!

Mike said...

Thanks for writing this, Ken. One Friday Question I've often thought about writing but never did touched on exactly this: what do you do when you go back to a show you previously had written for several years earlier, when the characters were perhaps a little different. Particularly Cheers. As much as I love the show, the Sam of season 1 was very different from the Sam of, say, seasons 9 or 10 (Sam got a little bit back to his old self in season 11). In fact, so many characters had changed by that point. The dumbing down of Sam is the most obvious, but Carla is much more shrill and venomous, and Cliff is more childlike and kind of a cartoon. I often wondered how you and David approached it.

Dale said...

I am a huge fan of Frasier Ken and I LOVE this episode. I sat enthralled when I first saw it. Repeated viewings have not lost anything. Television comedy at it's finest.
KUDOS. And thank you.

Anonymous said...

At beginning of Cheers run Frasier mentions his father had passed away. Now that became quite a character change.

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