Friday, February 07, 2014

Friday Questions

For those of you struggling through the long football offseason, here are some Friday Questions to take your mind of your pain.

Wilhelm asks:

I'm currently working on a sitcom, which is my main focus. Lately, however, I've become enamored with the idea of an hour-long mystery series. Once writers make it, do they stick to one genre, or can they switch back and forth? I don't recall any examples of any sitcom creators creating a drama series or vice versa.

Once you’re established it’s easier to shift genres, but when you’re starting out you have to commit to one or the other. Agents need to sell you as either a comedy or drama guy.

A number of established writers have either hopped from one form to the other and some continue to hop.

Matthew Weiner, who created MAD MEN, was a comedy writer on BECKER and numerous other sitcoms. Steve Nahan, the showrunner on BONES, comes from a comedy background. Terrence Winter, who wrote on THE SOPRANOS, created BOARDWALK EMPIRE, and did the screenplay for WOLF OF WALL STREET produced SISTER, SISTER in a previous life.

Among the super-talented writers who ping-pong regularly between drama and comedy are Jane Espenson, Phoef Sutton, and Dan O’Shannon.

And I’m sure there are way more examples. So it can be done… once you have a toehold in the industry.

David P has question stemming from my recent post on WKRP:

(Was the show/concept ripped off from the song W.O.L.D. by the late Harry Chapin?).

Any thoughts on that? or comments about the song?

The song is about a world-weary disc jockey who has bounced from town to town and sacrificed his family to do so. I was a disc jockey when this song came out and can tell you all dee jays viewed this as a horrifying cautionary tale. A few of us smart ones got out. Thank you, Harry.

Here's the song:

But that’s not what WKRP IN CINCINNATI is about – specifically… although there’s a little of that in Johnny Fever. The opening title song however, is very similar thematically to W.O.L.D., just a catchier version.

If you’re not familiar with Harry Chapin, he was a rock/folk singer/songwriter in the ‘70s who tragically was killed young in an auto accident. His songs mostly tell stories and they’re exceptional. You may know the song CAT’S IN THE CRADLE, but I invite you to seek out TAXI and the sequel (named SEQUEL).

His concerts were great fun. He’d sing for three or four hours and then stick around for another one or two signing autographs and shaking hands. He was a tireless supporter and fundraiser for Stop the World Hunger. I really miss him.

Allan V has two questions about cast members who also direct episodes of their show:

1) How much of the running time does he/she have to spend behind the camera to qualify for directing credit, and
2) Are studios enthusiastic about the practice, or otherwise?

Directing is more than just the amount of time behind the camera. It’s staging, shaping performances, deciding on the shots, tone, pace, answering the thousands of daily questions on props and set decoration and wardrobe.

Most of the time when an actor directs an episode it will be one in which he does not have much to do in front of the camera. We say that the actor is “light” that week.

Obviously, when they are in a scene they have to rely on the camera coordinator or someone else to watch the monitor. But often they can go back after the take and review it before deciding to move on.

Studios don't mind as long as the episodes turn out well.  There are a few instances when actors, out of vanity, get directing assignments but are clueless about the technical side.   The producers usually provide enough assistance that the actor can't fuck it up too badly. 

On MASH, some of the best episodes of the series were directed by Alan Alda. And Kelsey Grammer has become quite an accomplished multi-camera director. To me that’s a real feat because learning how to camera block four cameras at once is daunting at best.

A number of actors have become terrific directors. Adam Arkin, Tony Goldwyn, Betty Thomas, Kevin Hooks, and that Affleck guy to name just a few.

And finally, from Mitchell Hundred:

I know you're a sitcom guy, but do you have any theories as to why police procedurals are so consistently popular with networks?

I have two theories.  Neither is based in any facts. 

1) It’s fun to try to solve the case yourself, to sift through the clues and see if you can figure it out before the characters.

2) They’re great if you just want to kick back and not have to think. Nothing very emotional is going on. You just veg on the couch and they lay out the whole show for you. Perfect for those nights when you just want to be in a TV coma.

What’s your question? 

By the way, I'm sure one of the contributing factors for why Matthew Weiner wanted to get out of comedy was to avoid having his work crunched by hack directors like this guy:


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I notice that John Slattery has also joined the list of actors compiling directing credits...and of course the biggest one of all is Clint Eastwood, who's won major awards in both fields. Either of Eastwood's careers (acting, directing) by itself would be astonishing.

Since no one else has mentioned it that I've seen, IJWTS I'm very saddened by Philip Seymour Hoffman's death. He was such a wonderful actor - and apparently had completed a TV pilot...

Zack Bennett said...

With the changing of the "Tonight"/"Late Night" guard, I did a little YouTubing and found the opening of Letterman's last show on NBC, which led with a scene in the Cheers bar where the entire cast of characters goes home when Letterman comes on the bar TV. (

This aired on June 25, 1993, more than a month after Cheers' final episode aired, so who was responsible for this idea? Who wrote it; the Cheers crew or Letterman's crew? When was it shot?

Hamid said...

A number of actors have become terrific directors. Adam Arkin, Tony Goldwyn, Betty Thomas, Kevin Hooks, and that Affleck guy to name just a few.

Adam Arkin's great. I love The Americans.

Some actors-turned-directors are amazingly talented. Clint Eastwood has made some of the greatest films of the past five decades.

But what cracks me up is when the likes of Steven Seagal try to become directors. You'd think he would have tried to get the whole acting thing figured out first.

You just know it's a matter of time before we see the credits "A Film by Oprah Winfrey, Starring Oprah Winfrey, Written, Produced and Directed by Oprah Winfrey".

Mark in Auburn said...

The question about shifting genres got me wondering if writers from The Mary Tyler Moore Show went on to the drama series Lou Grant.

Ever heard the story of the time Patrick Stewart was assigned to direct an episode of Star Trek TNG just after cast member Whoopi Goldberg won her Oscar?

LouOCNY said...

And what would that story be, Mark???

RockGolf said...

I was fortunate enough to see Harry Chapin perform live three times. In 40 years of concert going, Chapin is the only time I saw the audience cheer for (and get!) a third encore. Even after the houselights came on and the roadies were starting to dismantle the set, the audience would not give up. A truly magical performer.

Completely separate possible Friday question:
The first line in the pilot episode of The Cosby Show was Clair saying "Come on, it's getting late! You should stop dancing around with that food and start eating it."
The first line in the pilot of Modern Family was Claire saying "Kids! Breakfast!"
Do you think this was a callback to The Cosby Show?

Hamid said...


Totally agree on Philip Seymour Hoffman. The past 12 months have been really awful for the sudden loss of great talents - James Gandolfini, Paul Walker, Dennis Farina, Ed Lauter, Max Schell, Marcia Wallace.


Scooter Schechtman said...

Harry Chapin's washed up DJ was so old they sent him to the only Boise station with "W" in the call letters.
The old po-po shows like "Hawaii 50" were wish lists for increased police power. Now that they have it...

Mr First Nighter said...

I too saw Harry Chapin three times in concert and no performance ran less that 3 hours. I think Taxi is one of the greatest songs ever, but Sequel is one of the worst.

gottacook said...

Mark in Auburn: Yes, Brooks and Burns from MTM were co-creators of Lou Grant, but the real showrunner was the other creator/producer, Gene Reynolds, who with Larry Gelbart had run MASH the first four(?) seasons.

Daws said...

Harry founded World Hunger Year ("WHY") and did usually about half his concerts per year as 100% benefits for WHY. I am too young to have ever had the chance to see him live, but he is my #1 favorite musical artist of all time.

"I Wanna Learn a Love Song"
"Mr. Tanner."
"Cora's Coming."

All wonderful songs for people that want to learn about one of the greatest songwriters and folk singers that ever lived.

swedishfish said...

I met Terrence Winter once, at an event for NYU writing students. His first job was writing for the TV series done on Flipper the dolphin!

Anonymous said...

WKRP was the brainchild of Hugh Wilson, who based it on his experiences as a DJ for WQXI radio in Atlanta in the early 1970s.

Keith said...

I don't think procedurals are popular because people like to try to figure it out. Columbo was as popular as any procedural and they showed you the entire crime right out of the gate.

I think it's just fun to see someone you're rooting for be very clever. If I notice a clue before a character does, I'm less satisfied than if I miss the clue.

Tom Berg said...

My boss has always maintained that WKRP isn't a sitcom, it's a documentary.

Frank Paradise said...

Saw Harry give a great solo acoustic concert in Melbourne, Australia and got to meet him after in the lobby which is the only time ever I saw a perfomer meet the audience after the show.Harry wrote great songs and was very friendly and funny and a great humanitarian. Six months after that show was very sad to see he had passed on as there just aren't enough musicians that care about the world like Harry did.

Mike Schryver said...

I also used to go to Harry Chapin's concerts, and I agree with RockGolf that he was magical. I also agree with Mr. First Nighter that Sequel is a letdown.
The times I've tried to describe Harry to people who never saw him, I compare him to those children's performers who get the entire audience of children to sing along in delight without inhibition. Harry did that with adults, and I've never seen anyone else who could do that.

And my friend and I went backstage afterward a few times (anyone could), and Harry actually remembered us. He made quite an impression on a couple of 20-year-olds.

Carlos said...

Lou Grant . Now there was a good show that seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. Or deep into some studio's vault,.which is the same thing.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Let Harry into KFMB/B-100 for an interview one day. Wonderful guy, super energy and a terrible loss for all of us.

Bob S. said...

Lou Grant is on Hulu Plus.

Jim Russell said...

@RockGolf -- I guess from your Friday question that you play trivia at

Wilhelm said...

Thanks so much for the answer--your blog continues to be a great resource for me.

EricWGray said...

A minor correction for Ken...

One of the executive producers on BONES is Stephen Nathan, not Steve Nahan... I'm sure just a typo. And, the lead showrunner is really
Stephen's partner in crime, Hart Hanson.

Rockgolf said...

@JimRussell: Not just play. I'm the Music category editor and have contributed over 700 quizzes.

17db87ec-8cdb-11e3-9c7e-000bcdcb2996 said...

Harry Chapin said of Watertown, NY, that he: "spent a week there one afternoon"


BigTed said...

I don't know if it was an intentional influence, but "WKRP in Cincinnati" has a lot in common with the movie "FM," which came out about half a year earlier in 1978. (According to Wikipedia, creator Hugh Wilson says "WKRP" was already in development at the time.) It had several similar characters, including Martin Mull as a DJ who seemed a lot like Dr. Johnny Fever.

But "FM" was self-consciously "countercultural" in a way that seems weirdly dated today. The DJ's revolted because their station had the temerity to accept Army-recruitment ads -- something you can't imagine being a controversy in modern radio.

spmsmith said...

Friday question: On last night's The Big Bang Theory, there was a seminal moment 3 years in the making (trying not to be too spoilerish) that had the audience whooping and hollering. Having worked on a number of shows taped live in front of a studio audience, what moments of intense audience reaction stick out in your mind? (Happy, sad, mad, whatever.) Thanks Ken!

Steve Pepoon said...

I was in college studying radio/TV and working as a deejay on weekends when WOLD came out. It single-handedly killed any desire within me to make that a career.

Dan Ball said...

Ken, I've got what amounts to three questions.

1) How do you keep the jokes coming in an outline/script without slowing down the plot? Or how do you write jokes that move the plot forward?

2) What's your favorite movie moment a viewer?

3) What are some of the most classic, funniest moments in TV history that you've witnessed as they were performed on the set, while the tapes were rolling? Is there a top moment that ranks as the best in your memory?

As for actors-turned-directors, I always enjoyed seeing Jonathan Frakes's Star Trek: TNG episodes. They were always really good. Then, when he got the job directing First Contact, it was a no-brainer that it was going to be great (and it was; Insurrection was a little different).

Fernando Tapia said...

Hi Ken!!! Hey I was wondering if you could help me with a question I have. Look I'm about to make a sitcom pilot and it's going to be recorded with one camera like MASH. Should I include pre-recorded or post-recorded laughs for the funny parts after we finish editing?

Thank you for your time, I'll wait for your answer.

VP81955 said...

Ken, during your time in Syracuse you probably walked or drove by the Landmark Theater (formerly the Loew's State, a classic movie palace) on South Salina Street. It came close to meeting the wrecking ball in the mid-'70s, joining the likes of the RKO Keith's and Paramount a block south. both of which were razed in 1967 to build the now-defunct Sibley's department store. But Syracusans wouldn't let it happen, and the theater was saved.

I mention this because Harry Chapin appeared there at a fundraiser in October 1977, the first act to perform there in its new role as concert venue.

Pat Reeder said...

I was too young to have gotten into radio yet when "WOLD" came out, but I liked it well enough that I bought the 45, which I still have (but then, I still have every record I ever bought or carted home from a radio station).

Seeing as it's a song about the pathetic, wasted, empty, arrested development life of a radio DJ, I've always wondered who at the record company listened to that track and thought, "THAT'S the one we have to send out to radio!"

Jim Linzer said...

Regarding Harry Chapin's song "Taxi": The version that remains burned in my mind is a performance by William Shatner, on Mike Douglas's talk show back in the mid-70s. Back then Shatner was trying to get a second career started, in which he did not so much sing as give dramatic readings of pop songs.

"And me? I'm flying in my taxi. Taking tips...and getting STONED."

In the interview that preceded this, Shatner also performed a bit of "The Star Spangled Banner." "Oh, say! Can you see?" Given that he is Canadian, I am surprised an international incident did not result.

Jim Linzer said...

Hamid--The amazing thing about Steven Seagal directing a movie is that the villain was played by Sir Michael Caine. Just try to imagine Seagal telling him how to act.

Roseann said...

You are so right - Harry Chapin is indeed missed to this day.

Anonymous said...

@Jim Linzer: Contrary to conventional wisdom, a director's job isn't to tell his cast "how to act," though certainly the director can influence his cast's performance in many ways. Presumably, if an actor is talented enough to land a job in a movie or television series, she already knows "how to act." A director has far more than enough to do without having to give acting lessons.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I may have been mistaken, but I always thought that the WKRP theme, was Andy Travis's back-story, not Johnny's.

Sally Rogers Lives said...

Your recent "Favorite Romantic Movie Scene" post got me to wondering: What are some of your favorite romantic moments from series on which you've worked?