Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday Questions

Here's some Friday Questions because it's... y'know... Friday.

Stoney Stevenson wonders:

How involved were you with the Cheers episode in which John Cleese guest starred?

I was on the show at the time but didn’t write that episode. Peter Casey & David Lee did. Cleese was and is an idol of mine. Happy to say he was very pleasant and professional. Peter & David wrote a great part for him, building to a vintage Basil Faulty meltdown.

Cleese killed at the filming, but I always contend that as good as he was, earlier in the day at the dress rehearsal, he was even better. I just remember standing in awe, thinking I was truly in the presence of comic greatness.

Ger Apeldoorn asks:

How hard is it to write a scene with feeling as a duo or in the room? I always found that was hard to do, as it is easy to top a joke, but hard to give a line more feeling.

The key is searching for the truth of the scene. If both partners agree on what that truth is then it’s just crafting the best version. David Isaacs (my longtime partner) and I have a slight advantage in that we like writing those scenes and moments. I know a lot of comedy writing teams that loathe writing emotion and sentiment. It goes against everything they’re good at – being funny, subversive, and cynical. We embrace it. Always have. For us, the best comedy comes out of character and the best characters are rooted in reality. We want you to laugh, but we also want you to care. So we actively look for that moments that are more serious.

We have a saying (we didn’t coin it but do live by it): “Don’t be afraid of the quiet moments.” Especially in multi-camera shows shot before a studio audience there is the temptation to always be funny. You have to make a conscious effort to not go for laughs for a few moments, and at times that can be very difficult.

And there have been times when we’ve had quiet moments that the audience will laugh anyway. In those cases, we remove the laughs. The example I’ve mentioned before is in “The Coach’s Daughter” episode of CHEERS. The daughter was not a striking beauty. The coach, at one point, says she looks like her mother. It’s meant as a sweet compliment, but many in the audience perceived it as a shot. The line got a huge laugh. We took it out.

From Angry Gamer:

Do you feel that your jumping from station to station in Radio and then moving to TV helped your creativity?

In my field I have noticed that some of the most creative people I have worked with are vagabonds. These creative people have moved from design group to design group from company to company. They ooze new ideas and directions because of their varied experience.

Any thoughts?

No. It didn’t help my creativity. It just increased my anxiety and debt in lost apartment deposits. I moved from radio station to radio station because I was fired and had to move. Happily, that wasn’t the case for me in television.

As an employer (or showrunner) I want stability in my staff. I want people I can count on. If they’re young writers, I want people I can mentor and then reap the benefits when they blossom.

When I see that a writer has bounced around from show to show continuously I am always wary. Usually there’s a reason and it’s not a good one. “He’s very funny but abrasive.” “He’s helpful when he’s here, but he’s in his office on the phone half the time.” “He stops bathing around episode nine.”

Then there are the “climbers.” These people are always looking for the next, better job. You’re merely a stepping stone to them. I have no use for these people.

Another problem with vagabonds – for all the new ideas they ooze, they also learn bad habits, which they bring to their next gig. I don’t want to have to re-train them. I’d much prefer people who learn my system and stick around.

There’s a reason why you see the same names as a group on different shows. As a showrunner, when I find writers I trust and admire I keep hiring them.

Everybody finds themselves in bad situations from time to time. Creative differences, a boss who’s an asshole, a two-hour commute, horrible pay – you name it. And it’s realistic to think that on someone’s resume there are going to be brief stops along the way. But it’s easy to see a pattern. If a writer works one season on seven shows but all those shows got cancelled, it’s not his fault he didn’t stay longer. But if he’s worked one year on seven different long running hit shows, that sends up a flare.

All that said, I know people who just have to change jobs, just have to change locales, just have to change wives every few years.  It's who they are.  And if it works for them, hey, more power to 'em.  The lost apartment deposits alone would discourage me.  

What’s your Friday Question?


Mickey said...

I'm just glad you guys didn't replace the audience's laughter at Coach's line to his daughter with the audience going, "Awwwwww!"

I HATE that!

Dana King said...

The COACH'S DAUGHTER episode is among my favorites. (And I'm one of those who saw the first episode, swear to God.) I wept at the scene you mentioned, where the Coach tells his daughter she's beautiful in the same way her mother was, and you wrote the line perfectly by leaving out the implied "to me." We knew.

Considering CHEERS is one of my ten favorite comedies ever, you knew how to write such a scene without resorting to melodrama, something a lot of acclaimed dramas could do well to study.

Jim S said...


How did you feel about writers who, while saying the exact words you wrote, put a spin on them you didn't see. I heard a story about Larry David in which he would tell actors exactly how to say lines. That quirk of his was parodied in the Seinfeld where they shot Jerry's pilot.

Thomas from Bavaria said...

Directors who are not happy with their work have (or at least had) the option to choose to be credited as "Alan Smithee" in order to remain anonymous. Is there a similiar opportunity for writers? If yes, did you ever use it?

Hamid said...

A nice quickfire Friday Question:

Are you a Star Wars fan and, if you are, how excited are you about JJ Abrams' Star Wars Episode VII?

Kate said...

It must have been really awkward to cast the role of the Coach's daughter. Are you happy or sad to get a role as an 'ugly' woman? How would an agent suggest you audition? The actress who was hired did such a lovely job, but what a tough ego she must have.

alkali said...

It must have been really awkward to cast the role of the Coach's daughter. Are you happy or sad to get a role as an 'ugly' woman?

All this is measured by show business standards, of course. William H. Macy frequently plays shlubby losers in films, but I saw him once in person and it was immediately clear that he is much, much better looking than I am. Allyce Beasley -- who played Coach's daughter in that episode -- is not a Vogue magazine type, if you Google for some pictures you can clearly see that she's very striking.

Kris said...

Kate, successful actors are aware of their physical strengths and weaknesses and play to them. They're generally self-confident enough to seperate who they are and their own sense of self-esteem from the roles they play. Acting isn't a good career choice for people who get their feelings hurt easily.

Igor said...

Ken wrote: "The example I’ve mentioned before is in 'The Coach’s Daughter' episode of CHEERS. The daughter was not a striking beauty. The coach, at one point, says she looks like her mother. It’s meant as a sweet compliment, but many in the audience perceived it as a shot. The line got a huge laugh. We took it out."

Thank you so much for that. I love that scene. And that storyline. And Nicholas Colasanto's performance in every episode, but especially in that episode.

Johnny Walker said...

“Don’t be afraid of the quiet moments.”

Sam Simon gave the following three tips for aspiring writers:

1. Story, above all.
2. Love your characters.
3. Don't be afraid of the quiet moments.

Seems like sound advice to me.

Chris E. said...

Ken, I have a Friday question for you: what do you think of this New York Magazine piece that suggests the era of the mass-appeal sitcom hit could be over? (The author is not unhappy with this state of affairs, because it favors smart comedies with small but dedicated followings.)

Johnny Walker said...

Kate: I recently re-watched COACH'S DAUGHTER and that went through my mind, too. I think the idea was more than she was supposed to be plain, or, at worst, not traditionally beautiful. They certainly dressed her to be plain, plus you can see that the actress playing her is far from ugly.

That said, I hope she took it well when the audience laughed.

It's a shame that she, and John Cleese, never reprised their roles in any capacity -- but Ken's blog revealed that, for Cleese at least, a return WAS planned, but it fell through: Why John Cleese never appeared on CHEERS a second time

Powerhouse Salter said...

I've heard that it was not uncommon for low-budget movie serials in the 30s and 40s to start production by filming the hero's death scene in case the lead actor demanded an unreasonable pay raise or quit the series without notice. Have you been involved with any TV series that kept stock exit scenes on hand so that actor deaths or walk-outs wouldn't need to be explained via the character dying or disappearing totally off screen (for example, Wayne Rogers leaving MASH or Charlie Sheen leaving TWO AND A HALF MEN)?

Fletcher Rush said...

Powerhouse Salter: This is a different thing from what you mention, but your question reminds me of a story about Roger Corman. On one of the movies he was producing, the director (a newcomer, as most Corman directors were) had gone several days over schedule. Corman went to the set, took the director's copy of the script, and turned to the final scene. This is what you are shooting next, he told the director. After that was done, Corman then said, we have the beginning and the end now, so I can get something releasable out of whatever you turn in, but if you want your first film to make any sense you better get busy shooting the rest of the scenes.

Fletcher Rush said...

Thomas from Bavaria: What I have read is that the WGA did not have one all-purpose psuedonym that any writer could use, but it did allow members to register individual pseudonyms and to use those when they wanted to dissassociate themselves from the final results. The most famous of these was Cordwainer Bird (as in "flipping the"), used by Harlan Ellison. Also, "Trouble with Tribbles" writer David Gerrold sometimes resorted to Noah Ward ("no award"). I read this two or three decades ago, so the rules may well have changed since then.

Michael McManus said...

Friday Question for you:

Did you and David ever have a falling out?

Ken Levine said...


We've argued a lot, but no. We never came close to going our own ways.

James said...

Thanks for the Coach's Daughter anecdote. That's my favorite episode, and that scene is one of the reasons why. I had no idea that line got a laugh from the audience.

Paul Duca said...

I just learned that the second to the last shot of the day when filming a movie or TV show is called "The Abby", after production manager Abby Singer. The veteran of everything from WAGON TRAIN to HILL STREET BLUES just passed on, at the age of 96.

Dale said...

Oh god no!

chalmers said...

One of the most interesting studio audience moments I remember was in the Cosby Show pilot.

Cliff was lecturing Theo about his bad grades. Theo responded with a seemingly heartfelt line that while his parents were both rich and educated, he'd love them just as much if they were "regular people," and couldn't they do the same for him?

Consistent with the family sitcom ethos of the time, many audience members thought this was the emotional scene capper and applauded.

What I think sealed the show as an instant hit and something different was Cosby snapping back at how stupid Theo's explanation was.

Mike Schryver said...

I think Allyce Beasley's delivery of one line was the best thing about that scene. "And Mom was not" pause, pause, pause, EVEN MORE PAUSE, "comfortable about her beauty". You don't see pauses used that well in most TV shows.

MuffinMan21571 said...

Almost Perfect: 34 episodes/2 seasons; The Mindy Project: 38 episodes, renewed for a THIRD season! #respectmustbepaid

Matthew James said...

Friday question:
"What is color-correction?"

Matthew James said...

Friday question:
"What is color-correction?"

Matthew James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David G. Whitham said...

Coach's Daughter has always been my favorite episode. The emotion in that scene always gets to me when I watch it.

I always felt that Nicholas Colasanto's passing took a lot of the heart and soul of that show. As talented as Woody Harrelson was, and is, something was definitely lost there.

David said...

Hi Ken.

A Friday question.

I recently completed a veep spec and your post from last week about things not to do has me concerned. Specifically the part about the script not being too short. My spec currently sits at 33.5 pages but I've read that it's typical for a veep script to go from 45 to 50 pages or higher. I'm out of story and don't want to put in weak filler. I also don't want someone to pick it up and say screw it I'm not reading a half hour show that's this long. Any Advice on how to strike that balance?

Thanks for the insightful blog.


Marty Fufkin said...

I think Angry Gamer has made a good observation. I worked in the publishing biz in three countries in Asia. There was a community of writers and editors that would bounce from job to job, country to country. They were usually the most creative, best-informed in their field. Their curiosity about other countries and desire for new experiences led them to a vagabond life that was emotionally, creatively rewarding.

But Ken is right. Employers want stability. Which is why the best and most fun to work with would eventually travel themselves out of a good job. However, employers over there were more forgiving of the jumpy CV because all expat lifestyles have a certain amount of instability to them; as such, their adventures would last 5 years or more. But they would eventually return to their home countries and into jobs unrelated to publishing.

The TV biz in LA is different from publishing in Asia, so Ken's advice, I'm sure, is spot on. If you are one of those creative vagabonds, try going abroad. Changing jobs frequently is tolerated more when you're an expat, because your employer will understand the instability and will be familiar with your type.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing "The Coach's Daughter" in syndication and the very next day the first-run episode of "The Golden Girls" was about Dorothy's (Bea Arthur) daughter visiting with her abusive boyfriend, told with the exact same beats. The episodes were way too similar to be coincidence.

Johnny Walker said...

Anonymous, you can watch the "offending" episode here:

It's actually very different.

Lee said...

Anonymous -- Coincidences in storylines happen. For example, WKRP, DESIGNING WOMEN and THE GOLDEN GIRLS all did shows that had their resident sexpots meeting a blind man who was, obviously, immune to their obvious charms, but fell for the deeper qualities he saw in them. And there wad a period when it seemed that every sitcom had to do a Christmas episode that was a riff on either A CHRISTMAS CAROL or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

Gloria Jacobs said...

Hey Ken,

Do you think showrunners are hiring performers (stand-up and sketch comics) as writers more than they used to? I'm curious to know how common it was to hire a performer when you wrote for shows like MASH, Cheers and Frasier?

My Cultural Obsessions said...

I'm watching the show Helix, and while it is a cool show with cool ideas, it seems like the dialog is 50% the characters explaining what you have just seen. Is this a new trend in writing, has TV always been like that, or is this show just particularly terrible about it, so it is more noticeable?

J.P. Pelzman said...


This blog is awesome. Love your candor and behind the scenes stories.

My Friday question is this: I liked the first season of Almost Perfect very much, and hated the second season because of all the changes. I felt as if Nancy Travis' character was turned in to almost a carbon copy of Elaine from Seinfeld, and didn't find her engaging anymore. If you guys had your way, what would the second season have been like in terms of tone?

Marty Fufkin said...

I know you've addressed the issue of vaunted titles being meaningless, handed out to show-runners, writers, and others who negotiated some clout into their contracts. But I'm still puzzled. House of Cards lists nine -- nine! -- Executive Producers. That renders the word "executive" meaningless. Does this mean that all nine must consult with each other and agree to make an "executive decision"? Who among them would be the boss if there were a disagreement about casting or character development? The two creators of the British series are among them. Does that mean one of them, from as far away as the UK, can nix an idea from a script? There is also one "Producer" and one "Co-executive producer". How meaningful can those titles be with nine bosses above them?

John G said...


First of all, I'm sure you've heard this from thousands of people, but I'm one of the biggest Cheers fans you'll find. My favorite episode is probably the one where Carla lies to Diane about Sam fathering one of her children, which I found out you wrote with David Isaacs. How many times did you have to shoot the scene where Sam, Diane and Carla are all laughing hysterically in Sam's office?