Friday, January 03, 2014

Friday Questions

Wow. The first Friday Questions of the year.

Longtime reader and Sitcom Room vet, Johnny Walker starts us off from England:

In Sam Simon's amazing Emmy TV Legends interview, he talks about a character that was cut out of the Cheers pilot: A racist woman in a wheelchair. She was supposed to be a regular character, but apparently the Charles Bros/Burrows agreed that her harshness didn't gel with the rest of the show.

Do you know anything about this?

Yes. The character was named Mrs. Littlefield.  She was an opinionated old broad from the D.A.R. She was in the pilot and the decision to drop the character was made after it was filmed. Politics just didn't fit with the mix.  So they cut out her part, but there are a few shots here and there where she is still in the background. Just look for a sweet white-haired little old lady who used to have lines.

Since several back-up scripts were in the works before the pilot was filmed, we also had to go back and write her out of those episodes as well.

Again, it was a case of an actor being let go not because they gave a bad performance or did anything wrong. It’s just that the character didn’t mesh with the others.

From RG:

Here is a fun and creative exercise question for you if you wish to indulge: Which character on a comedy show today would you like to spin-off and create a show around (like Frasier from Cheers) and why?

I would take Nancy Travis from LAST MAN STANDING, have her divorce Tim Allen, and then create a show around her. She is so talented and such a wonderful person. She deserves more than just making salads. Having had the pleasure of co-creating another show for her (ALMOST PERFECT in the ‘90s) I would jump at the chance to do it again.

Hamid asks:

I've not seen Mannequin 1 or 2 but I just read your hilarious post from a few years back about you and David doing rewrites on both (the bit about the 'swell guys' wanting to pay you in TVs was priceless). My question is how much of your writing ended up on screen?

It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of our stuff sprinkled in both movies, but it’s not like they just used whole scenes or sections. There are many times they kept a joke but changed the set-up (which killed the joke) or kept the set-up but just cut the punchline.

In the original MANNEQUIN draft, the department store was set in LA. So we tried to give it a real history and character. We mentioned that the first escalator was introduced at their store. (The first escalator was actually introduced at the May Co., a Los Angeles department store.) We also said that Greta Garbo bought her make-up there.

Then they changed the location to Philadelphia but kept a lot of that stuff. So Greta Garbo went to a department store in Philadelphia to get her make-up?

But along the way there are jokes that work and moments that play that are ours, which is gratifying. We tried to give both movies a little more heart as well laughs. Those are the moments I like the best.

And finally, Albert Giesbrecht wants to know:

I have been to stage plays, so I know that actors project their voices, but I wondered if they did that on TV, or just talked in their normal conversational voices? What I mean is,I used to attend tapings of Canadian talk shows in the 80's ( The Allan Thicke show was one of the shows), and the audience members had to strain to hear the host and his guests, while watching it on TV, the hosts and guests were quite loud. I sometimes wonder if the audience doesn't laugh, because they can't hear the actor. I heard that was the case on WKRP, with Jan Smithers, who played Bailey Quarters.

Yes, on multi-camera shows they have to talk conversationally but loud enough that the studio audience can hear them. And even with microphones, some actors speak so softly that they’re hard to hear. We are very vigilant on this issue, and will re-do scenes if the actors speak too softly because you’re right, if they mumble or speak in a whisper or are too rapid-fire they don’t get the laugh.

I notice that a lot on single-camera shows. Jokes are lost because the actors swallow them. I'm always surprised that more producers don't put a stop to that. 

What's your Friday Question?  God, when is this year going to end?


Jim S said...

Friday question, or heck question for an entire column.

Are there shows that you just don't get. I just saw the first two episodes of "Community" last night and while they were, at least to me cute, not the second coming of comedy. I keep reading from critics how it has the Harmon touch again.

I just don't get it. I always thought "Community" was a fairly clever show that all too often became one big inside joke. I didn't think season 4 was terrible. Yet I keep hearing about the genius that is a low rated prime time show and a low-rated show in syndication. What am I missing?

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks, Ken!

Iconoclast Jones said...

As a young kid, I always thought that it was weird that I had a crush on Jan Smithers, not Loni Anderson.

As an adult, I always think how good my taste was as a kid.

Hamid said...

There are many times they kept a joke but changed the set-up (which killed the joke) or kept the set-up but just cut the punchline.

Wow. They cut punchlines?! No wonder so many movies end up shit when there are such geniuses around!

Reminds me of when I read about the making of The Flintstones movie. It had a total of eight writers, three getting final credit. And the finished movie had about 2 funny jokes.

Thanks for answering my question, Ken!

Milton the Momzer said...

I too wish Nancy Travis would leave Last Man Standing, but not for the same reason you do, Ken. I never cared for her constant onscreen laughing at the jokes. If you want to laugh at the jokes, sit in the audience or watch on TV.

George said...

A question for Friday: Is there a TV show where you have the sole writing credit? I’ve read 2 of your 3 books (even paid for one of them) heard you on KABC, seen a few of your “Directed By” shows and of course follow this blog. I’ve watched at least one Frasier show written by David Isaacs, but has a TV script been broadcast where you alone have the “Written by” credit?

Ozyman666 said...

Possible Friday question: What do you think of How I Met Your Mother's strategy in having the entire final season take place during one week?

Jeff said...

@Iconoclast Jones: I don't think that's weird at all. I also preferred Jan Smithers over Loni Anderson. Of course, I also preferred Mary Ann over Ginger.

Stephen said...

Have you ever seen a single-camera comedy which you thought might have worked better as a multi-camera, or vice versa? For example, I think The Crazy Ones is an 'okay' show, but with the large primary office set, the ensemble which is together in almost every scene, and of course Robin Williams' manic energy, the multi-cam/live audience might have served it just as well, if not better - especially as it airs on CBS where it is surrounded by other multi-cams. I am not suggesting changing the format of an established show (we all saw how that went for NBC with Up All Night last season), but I'd like to get your thoughts.

DwWashburn said...

On the subject of volume of voice, the next time you watch a Three Stooges short, pay attention to Larry Fine. He seems to shout his lines, especially if he has not had a line in over 30 seconds. You can sometimes see his face crinkle up as he speaks because he is putting so much volume in this voice.

DwWashburn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VP81955 said...

[In the original "Mannequin," where the script was revised to move the store from Los Angeles to Philadelphia] So Greta Garbo went to a department store in Philadelphia to get her makeup?

It could have happened -- remember, in the late '30s, Greta had a romantic relationship with Leopold Stokowski, conductor of...the Philadelphia Orchestra. And the fabled Center City John Wanamaker department store (where some footage of "Mannequin" was shot) is just across Broad Street, albeit a block or two away, from the equally iconic Academy of Music, the orchestra's home back in the day.

VP81955 said...

BTW, by "original 'Mannequin'" I of course meant the first of the two late '80s movies, not the 1937 film of the same title starring Joan Crawford as a model (they were known as "mannequins" in those days). I say that because Joan is TCM's Star of the Month for January every Thursday (and into the Friday daypart); more than 60 Crawford films have or will be shown (I'm currently watching "Montana Moon" from 1930), and while Joan isn't one of my all-time favorites (her relative lack of comedic deftness means she's no rival to Lombard, Loy and Stanwyck in my affection), she was quite good with the right material, and truly beautiful in the pre-World War II era. If you only associate her with camp or "Mommie Dearest," check out some of these films -- especially the earlier ones, and you'll revise your thoughts about her.

Carolyn said...

Also on the subject of volume of voice, many years ago, I saw the actor Brian Blessed at a SciFi convention. All the other actors on the panel passed around a microphone; Blessed said he had been a stage actor and didn't need one. (Which he didn't, BTW.) But, when the tapes of the panel were played later, he was the only one that was impossible to hear.

If you're not sure who Brian Blessed is, this is Henry 8.0, Henry VIII in the modern day:

Andrew Wickliffe said...

Thanks a lot, Ken! You've now ruined my plans for a monograph--Greta Garbo in Philadelphia--which I only wanted to do thanks to that line in Mannequin :(

Todd Everett said...

When I was living in Los Angeles, I attended a lot of "industry" q&as -- at the Academy Theater, etc. And I was always amazed how many (even most) of the participants, all in "the industry" had no idea of how to speak into a microphone to be heard.

Even while holding it, they'd let their hand drop, move it too far from their mouths, whatever. And some would speak with no mic in sight.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Carolyn: I can well believe it. British actors have wonderful voices because it's considered an essential part of an actor's training, plus they all do stage as well as screen. In the late 1970s, when I played in a number of British folk clubs, they also lacked PA systems, and the singers from that era all have exceptionally powerful voices (developed of necessity), where the modern ones are all microphone technique.

As for Brian Blessed, US viewers might also remember him from I, Claudius.


Matt Bird said...

Ha! I'm actually in the middle of writing a post about Mrs. Littlefield, but I couldn't remember her name, so I came here thinking, "Time to dig through several years of archives until I find that Friday question from a few years ago where Ken mentioned what happened to her..." And what do I find at the very top of the page? You re-address the issue! Excellent timing, Ken!

(But I should clarify that if you click over right now you won't see that post yet. I'm blogging ahead. Two weeks from now is going to be a week-long examination of the Cheers pilot.)

Cap'n Bob said...

Okay, but who is the lucky actress who played Mrs. Littlefield?

Cap'n Bob said...

I looked it up. Elaine Stritch.

Nixon said...

Regarding the final question about often not being able to hear the actors clearly...
I think that engineers usually record TV shows by holding a boom mic way over the heads of the actors and leaving it at that for the final sound. No, or minimal, processing is added in post production. Same thing goes for TV news...just pin a lav mic on the announcer and call it good.
Commercials, on the other hand, are accused of being louder than the programs. But they're not. On a VU meter the readings will be roughly the same for both. But the quality of the sound is generally much better because the engineers add things like EQ and compression to give it much better fidelity. They insure that you will hear ever word clearly.

Rob In Toronto said...

How did Mrs Littlefield get her wheelchair down to Cheers ?????

tb said...

Wasn't Jan Smithers your school-mate who was on a magazine cover riding a scooter?

Gary said...

If you watch any episode of Happy Days after they began filming in front of a live audience, Tom Bosley (Mr C.) is always shouting his lines. I guess his stage training kicked in, but somebody should have told him to take it down a notch. It's really obvious once you're aware of it.

marie said...

hey Milton the Momzer, its a sitcom about a family, a comedy, maybe you don't laugh in your home but alot of families do, ours included, Nancy's character is laughing at the ridiculous things her on screen husband says/does, if she didn't react to him it would be less believable. Watch shows like the Big Bang Theory and the other characters laugh at Sheldon all the time.

Lord Lillis said...

Oh, dear! "Mrs. Littlefield" wasn't related to Warren Littlefield by any chance?

Storm said...

"Grrrr! Impetuous boy! Ah, well; who wants to live forever? [laughs heartily, to the Hawkmen] DIVE!"

Carolyn, colour me green as an Orion slavegirl, I am SO jealous. I love Brian Blessed. LOVE him. I don't care how old he is now, as long as That Voice is still in tact, so shall be my lust. Make love to me with just That Voice, I can do the rest myself.

The best joke in "Pirates! Band of Misfits" was a gag about him; in the section of the Pirate of the Year questionaire where the applicant is asked to choose which option best described his/her Pirate Roar, the last and loudest option to tick was "Brian Blessed".

Lord Lillis: That's what I thought as soon as I read the name!

Cheers, thanks a lot,


wv: sfughoul = what you say/text to a noisy zombie?

Gary said...

I agree with Marie about characters laughing at the funny things other characters say. As great as MASH was, it often bothered me when Hawkeye would come up with a hilarious one-liner, and none of the other characters would react to it.

Thomas said...

This is a terribly odd question that I'm horribly curious about...

To your knowledge has a Showrunner ever fired a writer because he kept pitching sexy scenarios for a particular character/actress and the other writers figured out his ruse and then got all "ewwwwwww"?

Mike said...

For Storm & Carolyn & Brian Blessed fans:
Here's Brian guest hosting a news satire programme. He completely dominates the show, so Carolyn's panel should be grateful he dispensed with the microphone.
And here's Brian near the peak of Everest, halucinating through oxygen deprivation, raving.
"Gordon's Alive!"

David from Canada said...

Friday question type thing: The most recent Big Bang Theory for its main story had Penny getting a break and a role with a handful of lines on NCIS, which ended up cut for tie; Chuck Lorre's vanity card at the end of the episode revealed that the same thing happened on that episode; a walk-on one line role was cut for time.

Ken, do you have any good stories of cuts made after filming, where great moments were lost, or where now famous stars got dropped from the final broadcast for time?

Storm said...

Cheers and happy new year, Mike; not only have I always wanted to see the Everest film, but I just laughed myself goofy hearing him yell "Don't touch my arse!" You RULE.

Your Pal,


Anthony said...

Friday question: I just read an online review of the Frasier episode "The One Where Sam Shows Up" written by bloggers who are working their way through Frasier but do not have an extensive knowledge of Cheers:

They are surprised that Sam is defined so much by his sexual compulsion and in their words "he was all about sex in this episode. To the point that it was hard to see how Frasier could be his friend, as there was little else about him" -- I notice that "The Guy Can't Help It" is the only episode of Cheers credited to Frasier's co-creators. When they found out that Ted Danson was available to guest-star, did they specifically ask you and David to write a follow-up to their Cheers episode, or was it something you came up with? It is one of the funniest episodes, to me, of both series, but I was wondering if you were assigned to follow up on that storyline.