Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Too much of a good thing

There’s a prison in Maine where the inmates were given fresh lobster to eat every night. They eventually revolted. They pleaded for hamburger helper, shit on a shingle, anything but lobster.

Too much of a good thing.

Now Mae West may contend that: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” And I suppose in some cases it is. If someone complained that he was having too much sex with Selena Gomez you could justifiably shoot him. But generally the rule holds true.

In television shows you are occasionally lucky and certain guest or supporting actors become breakout characters. The audience loves them to where they become the new focal point of the series. Such was true of the Fonz on HAPPY DAYS, Urkel on FAMILY MATTERS, Barney on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, JJ on GOOD TIMES, and Alex on FAMILY TIES to name but a few. You have to do a lot of redeveloping and scrambling on the fly, but it’s worth it. A breakout character can turn a struggling show into a powerhouse.

But you must be very careful. Not every actor that scores big for an episode or two is a breakout character. And there’s such a temptation to make him one because of the upside that you could just fall into a trap.

Too much of a good thing.

Characters or shtick can wear out their welcome. In many cases, a little goes a long way. That’s how we always felt about the Colonel Flagg character on MASH. Ed Winters was hysterical in the role, and I’m here to tell you, he was the most fun character to write on the show. But we were very judicious.  At the most we only used him once a season, and there were a few seasons when we didn’t use him at all. We just felt he was the kind of character that would get tiresome if we went to that well too many times.

Bebe Glazer on FRASIER was another. Harriet Harris was screamingly funny as Frasier’s flamboyant agent. But she was just too out there to appear every week. Yes, the decision could have been made to tone her down, but then she wouldn’t be nearly as funny. So instead of over-using her, she appeared sporadically, and each time she did it was a huge treat for the audience.

A more recent example would be Elaine Stritch as Jack’s mother on 30 ROCK, although in that case, I think the producers knew that Elaine is gifted but bat-shit crazy so spared themselves the weekly chaos regardless of how hilarious she was.

Elevating an actor to breakout status when they don’t qualify for it can bring down a series. Screech in SAVED BY THE BELL, and in my opinion (you may not agree) Miles in MURPHY BROWN. You can go from being beloved to Jar Jar Binks in a heartbeat.

A character has to have dimension to work long term. Frasier and Lilth on CHEERS. Reverend Jim on TAXI. Otherwise, it’s…

Too much of a good thing.

Producers have to be careful. One man’s dinner at the Palm is another man’s prison riot.

58 comments:

pidgygordon.blogspot.ca said...

Ida, in MTM, Alan Brady, in DVD, and a new fave, Bawry Kwipke, in TBBT. To add a few.

What is your opinion of the 'invisible character'....the one that is either often referred to but never materializes, like Marris, in Frasier, or the off-camera voice, like Mrs. Wolowitz, in TBBT? I find this sort of thing very gimmicky after awhile, and lose patience. It's not like on-camera parents or ex-wives can't be sensational contributions when used judiciously, like Mr. and Mrs. Costanza, in Seinfeld. Sitting Howard's mother off camera for the wedding was ridiculous.
I guess the Frasier team did relent by bringing Marris to the fore during the divorce episodes...and I thought it worked out, so why cling to the conceit forever?
Your views?

Kathy said...

when I was in high school my dad and I watched MASH reruns together every night. We went through all the reruns many, many times. And every single time there was a Col. Flagg episode--despite the fact that we'd seen those very episodes many times-- we'd both just yell, delightedly, "It's Colonel Flagg!" Good times.

Hamid said...

When it comes to Urkel, I think Homer Simpson said it best.

Lisa: If I ever become famous, I want it to be for something worthwhile, not because of some obnoxious fad.

Bart: Obnoxious fad?

Homer: Aw, don't worry, son. You know, they said the same thing about Urkel, -- that little snot boy! I'd like to smash that kid!

Curt Alliaume said...

The examples you give of "breakouts" among full-time cast members are interesting. In some cases, the other members of the cast embraced the presence of the breakout character and actor, even if it meant they'd get less focus as a result (Ron Howard in Happy Days, Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross in Family Ties). In others they did not (John Amos and Esther Rolle in Good Times) - which brought that show to an early end.

Johnny Walker said...

I can't believe you've watched enough SAVED BY THE BELL to have an opinion Screech's part in its downfall, but you still haven't watched THE WIRE!

VincentS said...

Col. Flagg was one of my favorite characters on MASH and Bebe was my absolute favorite on FRASIER and, looking back, it was probably because of their sporadic use. Like a finesse pitcher using his fastball only occasionally thereby making it look faster than it actually is. And speaking of Elaine "Bat-shit Crazy" Stritch, here's a Six-Degrees of Separation link: Did you know that she was the original choice for Hot Lips Houlihan in the movie MASH? That means if she had gotten the role she might have played her in the TV show and you'd have been working with her every week, Ken! I guess that can be filed under, "Dodged a Bullet!"

Dan Ball said...

I like what the writers of DEEP SPACE NINE did with Wallace Shawn's character, Grand Nagus Zek. He was always a riot and one of the most solid recurring characters, but they always just reserved his spots to one episode per season.

I sort of feel like Ron Swanson has been a character that writers have struggled with. At first, he was just there. Then audiences realized he was funny and he became meme-fodder. The writers dialed him back on the show and he became even more popular. So then the writers, this season, tried packing him into more episodes and I don't think it work. They tried doing too much by making him do things that were out-of-character. Now, they seem to be leveling out again and getting the character back to its roots. The birth of Ron's son (and the subsequent 'bonding time') were painfully true to the character. It was great.

One example I regret of breakout characters being exploited too much that is what STAR TREK did with the Borg. I remember watching "Best of Both Worlds" when it originally aired around the summer of 1990 and the chill of seeing Picard as a Borg, wondering if Riker would be as good a captain as Picard. When FIRST CONTACT came out, I remember being in the theater and actually being scared of the Borg. Everyone bought into that. So then, the writers of STAR TREK, on VOYAGER, decided to exploit the Borg more to boost ratings. That's when the Borg lost their power, because the same old things were done with them, they wound up cutting deals with Janeway, and they were barely belligerent. At least with the Klingons, they're such a volatile, violent group of characters, you can use any reason to make them lifelong friends or enemies. The Borg became neutral acquaintances by the end of VOYAGER and the magic was lost.

Dan H. said...

It seems to me that one danger of the breakout character is the writers accentuating his or her eccentricities to the point the character is no longer believable.

"The audience likes the dumb things X says?, then lets make him even more stupid." After a while X's increasingly dumb comments make you wonder what his girlfriend and buddies see in him -- it becomes to much of a stretch.

It takes a steady hand to know when more is too much.

Terry said...

Col. Flagg is, without a doubt, my favorite recurring character on MASH. I always get extra excited for a rerun if I see it's going to be a Col. Flagg episode. But I could see how using him too much would kill the character by having him overstay his welcome.

I can't believe you didn't mention Steve Urkel as a prime example of this problem. Family Matters was a decent show until it became The Urkel Show and got over-the-top ridiculo

Scooter Schechtman said...

Stewie Griffin machine-guns the tiresome recurring Vaudeville entertainers: "There. They're dead. You'll never see them again."

Matthew E said...

Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was another such character for me. Small doses, guys, small doses.

C. A. Bridges said...

Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons. If I talk about best episodes of the show we have to agree to ignore those or that's all our lists would be, but he's been way overused now, in my opinion.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Other great guest minimal appearances:
SEINFELD had Mickey (memorable but only in 5 or 6 episodes)
MASH had Dr Sidney Freedman (12 appearances)
FRIENDS - Janice
ODD COUPLE - Myrna (and Murray)
GET SMART - Siegfried

Lena said...

Urkel was from Family Matters, not Full House!

Andrea said...

I did love Col Flagg, but my favorite guest on MASH was and will always be Dr. Sidney Freedman. I cried when I learned of his death.

Mike said...

Too much of a good thing.
You're thinking of that cat from Portland. Though he was more of a break-in character.

Stephen Robinson said...

Spike on BUFFY was being used judiciously (one appearance in Season 3, for instance) and fhen they realized he could serve as the Dr. Smith of Season 4, which they needed because once the series left high school, it had the same problem many series that transition from high school to college have -- limited conflict. In high school, you have to spend time with people you don't like. In college, you really don't. You can even avoid a bad roommate and perhaps choose your own. Spike added tension, and was someone who opposed the larger season threat, as well.

Many fans objected to Spike's elevation to romantic lead, but it seemed like fans wouldn't buy Buffy with an "average" guy and the chemistry between the two was such that it was hard to ignore.

BTW, I recently watched all of FRASIER on Netflix and the once a season Bebe appearances were always a treat.

Moose said...

Kenneth on 30 Rock was one of those characters who was extremely funny as a recurring character but was ruined once he became a regular. Too bad.

Stoney said...

I always thought Bebe Glazer was always a bit over-the-top on Frasier. But this does give me the opportunity to ask if she was named after Bebe Neuwirth.

Without searching previous posts, you didn't mention Nick and Loretta Tortelli. Seems their spin-off was too much of a good thing! But subsequent appearances on Cheers were still hilarious.

All right; a little quiz: What popular side character was mentioned in a #1 hit song in 1998? (Hint - "cough")

Jerry Krull said...

Keeping the wackiest characters in small occasional doses is the brilliant way to keep a series interesting. Also, don't try to spinoff the craziest/shallowest of characters.

Which brings up a Friday question; Wikepeida (so it must be true) mentions that before the spinoff Fraiser was created, their was talk of Cheers creators using Kelsey Grammer in a sitcom as a paraplegic millionaire magazine mogul & motorcycle entusiast, similar to Malcom Forbes. Were you and David involved with any of those discussions (if the show idea is true)?

Now I could see an episode of Fraiser where he dreams he is that character...

LouOCNY said...

Lt. Scanlon in BARNEY MILLER - essentially the Colonel Flagg of the 12th Precinct.

BM actually had the case of maybe not a specific CHARACTER showing up once a year, but yearly (or more often) appearances by certain bit players, such as Richard Libertini, Phil Leeds, Ken Tigar, etc; all playing a similar TYPE. (Phil Leeds joked he got cast mainly as dirty old men of various kinds)

Personally, I thought that Sidney Freedman got to be used a touch too much towards the end of MASH...

Hamid said...

Just read some news which is very timely, given the recent posts and comments on the state of sitcoms, jokes, Netflix etc. This has all those elements rolled into one news item:

9 to 5 stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are reuniting for Netflix.

The duo will star in Grace and Frankie, a 13-episode comedy series from Friends creator Marta Kauffman, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

From Skydance Productions, the single-camera comedy centers on nemeses Grace (Fonda) and Frankie (Tomlin), whose lives are turned upside down when their husbands announce they are in love with each other and plan to get married. The women, much to their own dismay, find that their lives are permanently intertwined and, much to their surprise, they find they have each other.

The comedy, which will debut in 2015, is written and created by Kauffman and Howard J. Morris (TBS' Sullivan & Son, According to Jim, Home Improvement). Kauffman, Morris, Paula Weinstein, Fonda, Tomlin and Skydance's David Ellison, Dana Goldberg and Marcy Ross are on board to executive produce.

Clavinator said...

A good indicator might be; what Batman villains apart from Joker, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman had more than one appearance.

Brian Phillips said...

To Jerry Krull: Ken Levine and David Lee answered that question very thoroughly in 2009. Here is the post:

http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2009/09/real-story-of-how-frasier-came-to-be.html

Pay no mind to the Brian Phillips fellow. Faulty memory, y'know.

Stoney said...

My vote for the "too much of a good thing" of all time; Larry, Darryl and Darryl on Newhart!

Sérgio said...

"Carlton Blanchard" in Wings. When he appeared... I start laughing already :-) He had the craziest questions! I guess that the writers had real fun in coming up with those. But also very funny lines.

Carlton: I am lactose intolerant. I had a terrible time at my mother's breast.
Helen: Oh God, I just pictured that.
Carlton: Believe me, I'm not proud of that barracuda that sprang from these loins.
Helen: Just when I got the picture of you breastfeeding out of my mind.
:O)

Brian Phillips said...

To further the case of too much Bebe, Harriet Sansom Harris was a regular in "Stark Raving Mad", playing much the same role and even though the show was funny and featured her as well as Neil Patrick Harris and Tony "no third professional name" Shalhoub, had the show run longer, Harris' character might have worn our her welcome had they not fleshed it out more. Same goes for Shalhoub.

Christine Baranski (Cybill) and Alison La Placa (Duet) both were in danger of being typecast as the pain-in-the-neck woman, but Baranski, after two subsequent "Maryann Thorpe"-esque roles, finally broke through in "The Good Wife". La Placa has worked steadily, but hasn't had a regular role since "The John Larroquette Show"

As for "Parks and Recreation", the less Jean-Ralphio Saperstein (Ben Schwartz), the better. He's Tom Haverford without his humanity.

Stoney said...

There was a M*A*S*H character named Jack Scully who appeared in just three episodes as a love interest for Margaret after the departure of Frank Burns and the divorce from Donald Penobscot. Why was his run cut short?

Steve McLean said...

Paul Lynde on 'Bewitched'. They gave us the opportunity to look forward to his appearance

Steven Jarrett said...

Big Ken Levine fan.
As a kid, I could not wait for Col. Flagg to show up. He was hysterical, and I thank you for the laughs. Your objective was achieved, but this viewer would have appreciated more of him. My friends and I used to talk about when the heck he's reappear, like the wind.

Brian said...

Loved Colonel Flagg too! Another example of too much of a good thing is a song that gets overplayed, either on the radio or by yourself. It just wears it out.

RCP said...

A great balance was maintained with Lilith on "Cheers" and "Frasier"; I always looked forward to (and never grew tired of) her appearances. That said, I wouldn't have had too-high hopes for the new series "Lilith" - but then you never know.

Going further back, Judith Lowry as Mother Dexter was the best thing about "Phyllis" but even she was being overused and her one-liners didn't quite have the same zing to them - I hate it when that happens to a character.

Loved Rhoda on MTM but disliked the series; the wise-cracking New Yorker became watered-down and unfortunately, boring.

benson said...

I think I only saw one or two of Stark Raving Mad, but looking at the credits, many an actor with a Frasier and/or Wings credit on the list, including Kelsey Grammar.

Two more recurring characters that I don't think anyone has mentioned, that in reruns I skip over, but seem very popular, from Andy Griffith, Ernest T. Bass, and The Darling Family. I loved Howard Morris' work, but hated the character.

Larry, Darryl and Darryl at least came in for a quick sight gag each episode and unless it was an episode featuring them, they disappeared. I did love Tod Susman as Off. Schifflet, Chester and Jim, too, but that whole show was populated with wonderfully goofy characters. Loved Kathy Kinney as the horny librarian.

Alan C said...

Another great recurring character on Barney Miller: Arnold Ripner (Alex Henteloff). I especially love the one where his client tried to commit a robbery after having a lobotomy. "You've turned him into a side dish! It's Cuckoo's Nest all over again!" "Yeah, I saw that movie. I had Raisinets."

Wendy M. Grossman said...

One of my favorite current guest stars is Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascione on THE GOOD WIFE. I read that her contract on - TRUE BLOOD, is it? - limits her to 3 episodes a season on TGW, and that seems to me just about perfect. I love all her appearances, but I think it would be too much quirky if it were every week.

pidgygordon.bloggspot.ca: Mileage always varies about these things. I love Mrs. Wolowitz and think she's far better heard and not seen (and Maris not seen *or* heard).

"This is Carlton, your doorman."

wg

Rob said...

Mother Carlson (Carol Bruce) and Hirsch (Ian Wolfe) - WKRP in Cincinnati

Rizzo (G.W. Bailey) - MASH

Sue Ann (Betty White) and Georgette (Georgia Engel) - Mary Tyler Moore

Hank (Fred Willard) and Pat (Georgia Engel) - Everybody Loves Raymond

Henry (Marvin Kaplan) - Alice

patrick said...

Colonel Flagg to Henry Blake, who has just put his arm around Flagg: "My father touched me like that once.. To this day, he still has to wear orthopedic shirts."

Anonymous said...

The frizzy blonde asst. programmer on Episodes who talks in grunts was very funny on her first appearance at the table read. But no so as a continuing character.

BigTed said...

Jennifer Coolidge is a wonderful comedy actress, but you know there's a problem when the audience hoots and cheers whenever her character enters on "Two Broke Girls." (Of course, there's an even bigger problem when the cast is full of talented people, yet none of them except Coolidge is actually funny on the show.)

Stoney said...

Did I stump everybody with my question earlier or was it just indifference?

I asked What popular side character was mentioned in a #1 hit song in 1998? (Hint - "cough")

It was The Smoking Man in The X Files; mentioned in One Week by Barenaked Ladies.

Well, I'll keep the shiny new dime!

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Nick and Lo-Retta
John Allen Hill
Carla's kids
Kelly Gaines
(Serafina's wedding is one of my all time favorite episodes)
Ma Clavin
Mr Gaines

Glad somebody mentioned Momma Carlson and Hirsch

Someone else mentioned Bewitched: Samantha's father. In a just world, I would never enter a room without window rattling thunder, a blinding flash of lightning, and a mild earthquake. And as long as I'm flashing back, I haven't seen the show in probably thirty years, but I'm gonna say Mr Haney, the Monroe brothers, and Arnold Ziffel.

Maris's Mild to Moderate Psoriasis said...

Friday question: Speaking of Stark Raving Mad, why why why was that show not a hit, do you think? It had talented actors well cast and, I thought, fun, hilarious scripts. I still miss it sometimes [sniff].

DwWashburn said...

I must admit that I have often wished that Laurie Metcalf's character on the Big Bang Theory would appear more often. The writers always give her such great lines.

They have found a way around it as occasionally Sheldon will quote his mother so that some of the flavor of her character is inserted without actually making the episode about her.

mhowell said...

The rarest recurring character of all shows up about once every five years ... Towelly on South Park.

Cap'n Bob said...

It's an axiom of the theater--the smaller the part, the bigger you can play it.

John said...

Ken -- On Col. Flagg, he only made one appearance after Larry Linville left the show and David Ogden Stiers replaced him, and that was a late Season 7 spot, almost two years after Charles came aboard. And it was his last appearance.

Did you and the others feel with the more normal/smarter Maj. Winchester, there was less room for playing him off with Col. Flagg as opposed to the more comical/weaker Frank Burns? (If that's the case, the irony is that Edward Winter's Flagg started off as a relatively normal character is his initial Season 2 appearance, before getting more and more out there as time went on).

D. McEwan said...

Would having Harriet Harris on Frasier more have been too much of a very good thing? Quite possibly, but I know more than a few people willing to take that risk with her.

Ken Levine said...

In general, I don't like when commenters argue with each other and I especially don't like it when they both cowardly hide behind anonymity. Either state your name or risk having your comment deleted.

Hamid said...

Al Rosen on Cheers was a great example of this type of character. He wasn't overused, and when he did appear, he was a delight, whether it was the "Frank Sinatra" line or "Pretty weenie" in one of the Bar Wars episodes.

Which leads to a Friday Question: How did Al come to be cast in Cheers?

somya dubey said...

Nice sharing has been done here its remind me of my old days memories I used to watch this with my brother its so lovable for me.

Intraday Stock Tips

David G. Whitham said...

Someone mentioned the Borg in Star Trek, and it seemed like the same thing happened with Q. John Delancie was wonderful whenever he showed up, but got tiring on Voyager. Maybe it's just Voyagers writers...

Johnny Hy said...

One of the original "don't use too much" characters was Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show played by the late, great Howard Morris. I still bring my brother to tears by mimicking his "How do you dooooo Misssuusss Wiley?"

JMarston said...

I'm glad Fred Allen is on your list. His kind of droll wit was captured well in the title to one of his memoirs, "Treadmill to Oblivion."

Not in the sitcom realm but Mr. Spock qualifies ... NBC tried to get rid of him during the pilot phase, even airbrushing his ears round in pre-premiere photos, but once the series began and the fan mail started coming in, they of course did a 180 and wanted more Spock-centric episodes. It made Shatner so insecure he felt he had to remind writers and producers that Captain Kirk was the "star" of Star Trek.

Russell H said...

Hymie the Robot on GET SMART. Only appeared in 6 episodes over the entire run of the series, yet everybody remembers him and just about everybody I've met considers those episodes among their favorites.

Mr. First Nighter said...

On the Middle: Mike's Brother Rusty (Norm MacDonald) and the well meaning but out of touch Reverend Tim-Tom

normadesmond said...

what about daisy on "episodes?" from the her very first scowl, i thought the creators did themselves an injustice with that character. way too one-note.

JoeyH said...

Uncle Tonoose, played by Hans Conried on "Make Room for Daddy."

Jeffro said...

Elliot Carlin and Larry and the Daryls on Bob Newhart's shows. Sure, the were semi-regulars, but they were never overused. Just like your example of Reverend Jim.