Friday, May 02, 2014

Friday Questions

More Friday Questions comin’ attcha.

Liggie starts us off:

When screenplays are sold in collectible stores (three brad-bound, Courier font, etc.) or in a book format in bookstores, does the screenwriter get a royalty from that?

No. When actual shooting scripts are sold on remainder tables in bookstores (or on the streets in Manhattan), no one involved in the production from the studio to the writer are compensated. Technically, these merchants are selling stolen property.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about this issue. On the one hand, others are profiting from my work. On the other, these scripts generally sell for just a few bucks and when I was starting out, the only access I had to a television script was through these bookstores. I bought an ODD COUPLE script and a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW script and learned to write by studying those two scripts.

If a script I wrote can inspire or instruct others then I feel I’m paying it forward. That’s worth more to me than the few cents I'd be making from the sale.

As for scripts of mine included in a published book, the studio owns the copyright so I have no say. Our “Room Service” episode was included in a book of FRASIER scripts. It would have been nice to share in the royalties, but honestly, it was an honor just to be included. There have been some damn fine FRASIER scripts over the years.

Rob Larkin queries:

I'm curious as to how you and your writing partner David Isaacs pitch an idea or story. Do you decide beforehand who will do most of the talking or is it spontaneous?

For some reason I usually start the pitch and then we do it together. David will pick up the ball for awhile then toss it back to me, etc.

I hear stories of writers carefully rehearsing their pitch, even memorizing it. We never do that. We have a beat sheet that has the main points we need to convey and generally a few jokes, but beyond that we’re spontaneous. We’re having a conversation with someone, not delivering a slick sales pitch.

And as important as pitching is, we try to make sure the idea is worth pitching. Ultimately, that’s what sells a project – the idea.

blogward wonders:

Ken, what's your take on Tom Lehrer? It came up on the web recently that he couldn't give a damn about copyright on his songs, or performing at all. This is the man who lick-started the UK satire boom.

I love Tom Lehrer. For those not familiar with him, he was a mathematician and taught political science at M.I.T. in the '60s and in his spare time composed and performed satiric songs. He developed a huge following, record albums followed, and his songs were quite popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the early ‘70s he quit show business and resumed his academic career at U.C. Santa Cruz. God bless him, he is 86. 

I always found his material to be hilarious, so smart, and so unique. He came along at a time when folksingers were taking themselves and the world sooo seriously. He was a breath of fresh air.

Here’s an example of Tom Lehrer:

From Garrett:

Last night's Big Bang Theory seemed to have a dozen people between the written by, teleplay by and story by. Does that mean it was just a bad story that need intensive care?

No. It means that the writing credit is meaningless. Every BIG BANG THEORY script is room written, and since the WGA forbids you from listing fifteen writers for one writing credit, they rotate credit among the staff. So the writer who got shared story credit and the writer who got shared teleplay credit did as much or as little as the other dozen writers who received no credit that week.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks.


Zack Bennett said...

There has been some talk recently of HBO revisiting "The Comeback" starring Lisa Kudrow. I just binge re-watched the original 1-season run for the first time in 9 years, and I had forgotten exactly how brilliant it really is. As somebody who knows about what really happens behind the scenes of a sitcom with egotistical stars, how true-to-life was that show?

ooomsoug said...

Tom Lehrer was great. I assume he's still great but just not publically any more. Plenty of Lehrer's albums are still available on Amazon.

ooomsoug said...

Tom Lehrer was great. I assume he's still great but just not publically any more. Plenty of Lehrer's albums are still available on Amazon.

Chris said...

Friday question: I just saw a Friends episode that had 2 people under the "Directed by" credit. How does that work? I've read on imdb that Jeff Schafer had to be credited as a director on his own for EuroTrip (he co-directed with Alec Berg and Dave Mandel) because the DGA explicitly forbids this kind of thing.

Stoney said...

As a Catholic I could take offense to your choice of "The Vatican Rag" as posted example but I'll turn the other cheek here! I have the box-set "The Remains of Tom Lehrer" which includes pretty much everything he wrote and recorded along with wonderfully detailed liner notes By Doctor Demento. David E. Kelly must also be a Lehrer fan. On "Chicago Hope" Dr. Geiger (Mandy Patinkin) could only get through telling a family about a patient's death by playing Lehrer's "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park" in his head. Lehrer was devilish!

Michael Hill said...

I always thought Tom Lehrer had the best summation of US foreign policy in his song "Send the Marines." It still rings true a half century later:

They must be protected,
All their rights respected,
'Til someone we like can be elected!

My understanding is that Lehrer retired because he found nothing funny about the war in Vietnam.

Bill Jones said...

Well, as a practicing and (I like to think) faithful Catholic, I love the Vatican Rag. I don't think there's anything disrespectful about it; yes, it pokes fun at the rituals, liturgy, etc., but all in good fun, and I'm quite happy and proud to embrace those rituals, liturgy, etc., and to have others at least recognize them. We should be so lucky that someone in pop culture actually acknowledges Catholicism without the usual snide remarks that now come with it. Indeed, Lehrer gets the terminology exactly right, and works it in brilliantly (who else could find a way to work in "transsubstantiate"?).

Frankly, works like the Vatican Rag are reminders that pop culture used to actually treat religion and religious people as a normal thing and not some sort of freakish phenomenon. I am reminded of two great Cheers episodes, "Birth, Death, Love, and Rice" and "Swear to God," both of which involved a character seeking guidance from the Catholic Church (nuns, in the first case; and a priest, in the second). The show dealt with this very matter-of-factly, as if people would do this all the time (which in fact is true, especially in Boston). And yet it still made a couple of jokes at the Church's expense--but nothing malicious or disrespectful. And while I'm too young to have watched a lot of MASH, I'm sure that the show dealt with Fr. Mulcahy similarly--respectfully, even if it poked fun at him sometimes. You just wouldn't see that nowadays--for any religion, much less Catholicism.

RockGolf said...

@Stoney: When The Remains of Tom Lehrer came out, Lehrer had had an early form of an "ask me anything" live webchat & I asked him if he had seen that Chicago Hope episode.
He said that he had and was deeply honored to have one of his songs performed by the wonderful Mandy Patinkin.

Pat Reeder said...

I was just lauding Tom Lehrer the other day on another blog that honored Al Feldstein, the late editor of MAD in its glory days. MAD helped form a generation's sense of humor (mine included), but I also wanted to mention as fellow seminal influences Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen, Stan Freberg, Bob & Ray, Jay Ward and Tom Lehrer.

Lehrer was also a major influence on my wife, Laura Ainsworth, who is both my comedy writing partner and a great singer. For our radio service, she specializes in parody songs. And for one of her live shows, she was inspired by Lehrer's "The Elements" to write a version of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Modern Major General" song whose lyrics are nothing but the names of dozens of anti-aging products.

While Lehrer did quit full-time showbiz, he continues to write the occasional song and perform them in less formal settings, like academic conferences. If you search on YouTube, you can find videos of some of them.

Stoney said...

Friday Question: Have you been watching the PBS series "Pioneers Of Television" and noticed the startling number of errors and omissions in it? Example; the recent "Breaking Barriers" episode stated that after Desi Arnaz, no other latino appeared in a major role until Edward James Olmos on "Miami Vice". I yelled at the screen "What about Freddy Prinze"?

Michael said...

I just read a feature on Lehrer. He's 86, apparently stays in shape by tap-dancing, drives a Prius, and has no interest in publicity--just lives his life as he wishes, bless him. I once sent him a fan letter and I treasure his response, which I kept: "Thank you. Next to money, I like adulation best."

I had a friend who was a math major and wrote a paper on Lobachevsky. She called Lehrer and asked if his song had any truth to it. There was a pause and then he said, "No, it was an unmitigated libel." He then basically gave her a bibliography on the phone and was utterly charming.

Scooter Schechtman said...

I got my prejudice against The South as a kid from my parents' 10" Lehrer record (forget the title):
Oh take me to the Swanee/Where pellagra makes ya scrawny. I'd like to say I've outgrown my prejudice but it just grows more justified day by fuckin day.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Friday Question: That WGA rule seems to fly in the face of current reality, doesn't it? Shouldn't there be some way of giving ensemble credit? It's almost like saying that while the cast all contributes, we'll only mention one actor's name in the credits. (But then, I've long thought that there should be "Best Ensemble Cast" awards in the Drama and Comedy categories.)

BigTed said...

What I noticed about last night's episode of "The Big Bang Theory" was just how good it was. It included several characters reacting to someone dying (in a light but never unrespectful way), working scientists discussing what got them interested in their subjects (including the women, which is probably a first for a sitcom), some actual character development by Sheldon and relationship development between Leonard and Penny, and another hilarious turn by Bob Newhart as a former "Mr. Wizard"-style kids' TV show host (he dies but reappears in Sheldon's dreams, yet is baffled by the fact that he keeps showing up as various "Star Wars" characters).

People complain that this show is just a bunch of jokes and stereotypes strung together -- and sometimes it is -- but at its best it's really a multilayered, very funny comedy. The fact that it's room-written makes that even more impressive.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember Tom Lehrer being on That Was The Week That Was in 1965, but looking at the vredits hes was not. Look who was on the show including David Frost: Buck Henry, Alan Alda, Gloria Steinem to name a few. That show was like the 60"s Daily SHow.

Dana King said...

Among the cool things about Tom Lehrer,"Lehrer" is the German word for "teacher." Perfect.

You may have answered this before, but how were you able to balance a writing career with the demands of being a full-time baseball announcer, back when you were doing both. I remember your time with Jon Miller and the Orioles fondly. There were times you guys were the only reason to listen to their games.

Also, do you have any good Jon Miller stories?

Max Shenk said...

Every time someone mentions Tom Lehrer, an angel smiles someplace.

From an article entitled LOOKING FOR TOM LEHRER:

>>> While Lehrer has made startlingly little effort to ensure a future for his work, a handful of superfans have filled in the gap. One is Erik Meyn, a Norwegian who manages the Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel on YouTube, a feed of performance videos and playlists that has received more than 10 million views since 2007. Meyn originally posted content to the channel without Lehrer’s permission and called him from overseas in December 2008 to apologize, a conversation he later posted on the “Tom Lehrer!” Facebook page. An excerpt:

TL: Well, you see, I’m fine with that channel.

EM: You’re very kind. But my question is: Who in your family will take care of your copyright and your songs in the distant future?

TL: I don’t have a family.

EM: OK, but what do you think will happen to the channel and your songs? And if you have someone who will act on your behalf, could you give them my name in case they’d want the channel taken down?

TL: Yes, but there’s no need to remove that channel.

EM: I was just wondering what will happen in the future, because you’re certainly going to continue to sell records.

TL: Well, I don’t need to make money after I’m dead. These things will be taken care of.

EM: I feel like I gave away some of your songs to public domain without even asking you, and that wasn’t very nice of me.

TL: But I’m fine with that, you know.

EM: Will you establish any kind of foundation or charity or something like that?

TL: No, I won’t. They’re mostly rip-offs.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Unless that was a facetious comment, I can't imagine why a Catholic would be offended by the Vatican Rag. Seems like a pretty gentle satire of Catholic ritual. Now, had Lehrer been writing songs at the time the Church sex scandals began to break, then I bet you'd have heard some lyrics that would have fired up your "outrage" circuits....

The world needs more Tom Lehrers and fewer Rush Limbaughs, Rachel Maddows, and on and on....

Bartholomew said...

You mention that Big Bang Theory is 'room written", which, I'm guessing involves a minimum of. let's say, three or four writers. I do enjoy the show, but it's hard to deny that an occasional lame joke does make its way into the script. I'm just wondering how it survives in this sort of atmosphere - where you would assume that only the strongest jokes would make it to the final draft. Or, is this just a conscious attempt to lob a soft and easy joke at their audience?

Mary Stella said...

Love Tom Lehrer! We drove our Roman Catholic grandparents crazy playing and singing to Vatican Rag, but I've always thought God had to have a sense of humor.

Picket Fences in season one worked in Lehrer songs in a couple of episodes. Fyvush Finkel performed Vatican Rag. Another episode featured New Math.

Stoney said...

Just to clarify, I was being facetious about "The Vatican Rag". It's probably the most uproarious of all Lehrer's songs and I'm not so thin-skinned that it would offend me! But I do know those in my faith who take things a little too seriously. My 88-year-old Mother watches EWTN religiously (RIMSHOT) and was very upset at Ellen Degeneres for jokes she made at the expense of Pope Francis. Myself...I love a good Priest, Rabbi and Baptist Minister joke.

Breadbaker said...

Of course, the lesser-known but more relevant Tom Lehrer song to Ken would be "Chanukah in Santa Monica". The rhyming of Shavuos and East St. Louis is brilliant.

RockGolf said...

@Mary Stella: Both Picket Fences and the aforementioned Chicago Hope were almost entirely written by the same guy - David Kelley. Clearly a Lehrer fan.

gottacook said...

The original recent feature story on Lehrer is at

I know about the "Remains of" CD compilation mentioned above (including the orchestrated version of "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" etc.), but to me the three essential albums are:

The original 10-inch Lehrer Records LP Songs by Tom Lehrer, as discussed in the linked story (best to avoid his rerecorded 1960s versions of the same songs, with regrettable updates of a few lyrics, such as replacing "reefer" with "pot" in "Be Prepared")

The 1959 live album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (there's an LP of studio versions of the same songs too, but the between-song patter is great)

That Was the Year that Was, recorded at the hungry i, San Francisco, 1965 - mostly songs that originated on the TV series, including The Vatican Rag and Pollution

My folks were obviously cool - we had all three records in the house, and they'd seen him in concert when I was too little to have known.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...


I believe I can answer the FRIENDS part of your question.

In sitcoms, you never have two diretors sharing credit, unless there's a special situation which requires it.

The episode you've mentioned aired late in season 7. At that point, they had to shoot scenes in advance without Matthew Perry, who was undergoing rehab at the time.

I believe Gary Halvorson directed the episode's original material, while producer/director Kevin Bright came in at the last minute to shoot the required Matthew Perry scenes, when the actor became available.

Johnny Walker said...

@EduardoJencarelli Thanks for clearing that up!

Can anyone tell me: With regards to TBBT... Does that mean that nobody was assigned the script? My understanding of "room written" was that the story was broken and outlined as a room, someone was assigned the script. A few weeks later they came back and it was given another room pass. (More or less.)

Is TBBT COMPLETELY "room written"? Even the action?

Erika said...

You mentioned that every Big Bang Theory script is "room-written." Can you describe what that process is like?

I know that every writer's room is different, and often the room beats out an outline, but then one writer takes it home and writes the script.

So when a script is fully room-written, does that mean that the entire staff sits there as someone types the script out scene-by-scene, all pitching dialogue and jokes?

Chris said...

Weird fact: in a widescreen high definition restored episode of Friends there's a scene between Monica and Phoebe and as the camera cuts to a close-up on Lisa Kudrow, the woman she's on the couch with is obviously not Courtney Cox. Having been originally framed for 4:3, I guess they didn't think that far ahead but why would this happen? Having a stand-in do a scene with one of the actors I mean.

Anonymous said...

Whenever Catholicism comes up as a topic, some commenter ALWAYS figures out a way to mention the sex abuse scandals. It's actually quite interesting to see how they manage to work it into the conversation. Heh. Anyway, I had never heard of Tom Lehrer. Thanks for the intro. :) Julie, Burlington, Iowa

Aaron Sheckley said...

Yes, because years of institutionally supported pedophila and rampant sexual abuse by priests, and years of covering up the abuse by the Church, is certainly nothing worth mentioning in regards to a song that satirizes the Catholic Church.

But hey, we should never ever mention it again, right? Because that tactic has worked so well for the Church in the past....

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

An insightful review of Alan Alda's The Four Seasons:

Kay said...

A Friday Question:

The New York Times just ran a story interviewing many of the participants on Hill Street Blues.

New York Times URL shortened

That no women were quoted for the story is a whole other question, however, my specific question is this:

Actor Ed Mariano said that once the original writers of a show leave, "...the new writers come in and they are writing a caricature, the thing that made you really popular."

It's the same complaint that audiences often make about long-running shows, and I wonder if you feel that there's any merit to Mariano's analysis of why it happens.

Thank you.

solarity said...

Ken, why is it so rare to see sitcom characters laugh at each others jokes. The writers clearly seek to cause the audience to roll on the floor with laughter but the other characters to whom the line is delivered usually don't even break a smile. Is character laughter some kind of unwritten rules violation?

Michael said...

Friday question:

Did you have a Plan B if you and David were not successful breaking into the writing business? Do you think you would continued working as a DJ indefinitely?

Johnny Walker said...

@Solarity Assuming you're not talking about situations that are funny to everyone who's going through them, this is actually a bit of a peeve of mine in modern sitcoms. In CHEERS, whenever Sam and Diane, or even Carla and Diane, sad something really horrible (but funny) to the other, there was almost always a moment of Bon homie.

This continued in the early years of Frasier, but slowly drifted out of huge show, as Niles's and Frasier's digs at each other were supposedly suddenly offensive to each other, and they stopped laughing. (Which made little sense to me.)

If we're talking about the same thing, I think it might be a modern trend. It seems as though at some point somebody decided that it'd be funnier if recipients of wise-cracks between friends never saw the funny side.

Room Written Credits said...

Friday Question: That WGA rule seems to fly in the face of current reality, doesn't it? Shouldn't there be some way of giving ensemble credit? It's almost like saying that while the cast all contributes, we'll only mention one actor's name in the credits.

I second this Friday question. (And love its spot on comparison to actors' credits. Well put!)

Doesn't this questionable little behind-the-scenes cheat end up literally cheating all the other writers--who legitimately though uncredited also wrote any given episode of a show--out of their rightfully deserved residuals and/or award nominations, etc.?

I'm sure there's an unspoken agreement between room writers that "You get credit for my work sometimes, I get credit for yours an equal amount of the time, and the number of credits and their associated $ all works out in the wash"; but it just doesn't seem... "right". You know? :/

Room Written Credits said...

Please change "I'm sure" in my post above to "I assume." I'm not "sure" about any of that!

Micah said...

Ken, my question is, what are you up to now? I know you're book came out recently (insert shameless plug here), but that aside, are you still actively pitching ideas? Would you still be a show runner or serve on a writing staff?

Robert Pierce said...

I'm sorry you don't get royalties from the script sales, but I just wanted to say that while you may have learned to write using Odd Couple and Mary Tyler Moore Show scripts,vi learned how to write using Frasier, Cheers and Home Improvement scripts. (I know, Home Improvement is one of my vices)

So, I just wanted to say thanks for all the hard work, I learned a lot from those scripts.

Robert Pierce said...

And if I was as great a writer as my iPad is at screwing up my writing, I'd probably be on TV by now...

Or at least on NBC...

Paul Duca said...

Here's something a little unique in the Tom Lehrer ouvere:

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,

You have had a ton of success with a writing partner in your career. I know you have shared what to look for in a writing partner, but I wanted to know how to find one. Is there a special screenwriter classifieds section somewhere?

Liggie said...

Thanks for the script answer, Ken. I've always wondered how script photocopies for virtually every movie got out. I prefer to read those as a teaching tool over book-published scripts due to the 1 page= 1 minute rule, but I did have some concerns about writer royalties.

The thing that interests me is that scripts in collectible stores have a "Do not open, to protect value of this item" sticker on the seal. I question that, as they don't seem to be limited-run things like original comics or baseball cards. I just open them and read them.

Anonymous said...

How about a mention of Bob Hoskins, who was tremendous in one of the best Frasier episodes?

Lionheart said...

Friday Question
I recently watched a TV show (since cancelled) about a female Texas Ranger. In one scene the video was flipped a couple of time so that her badge and gun were on the wrong side and then back again.
Today I saw a commercial with golfer Jim Furyk and his wife where the close-ups of his wife were reversed so the part on her hair went from one side to the other.
How do errors such as these get through?
Richard B

p.s. Some of your "prove you're not a robot" letters are incredibly hard to decipher. Does this mean I am a robot?

crackblind said...

I actually first heard the Vatican Rag in the Gong Show Movie (hey I was 10). I had no idea what it was from, hell I thought those guys were actually singing it. A while later, I was singing "Genu-u-flect, Genu-u-flect, Genu-u-flect" (odd enough cause I'm a nice Jewish boy) and an older friend said, "Oh, you like Tom Lehrer" with a bit of proud surprise. When I said who, he gave me one of those "do I have something you'll like" looks (in a clean way) and played me the records. Thank god for Chuck Barris!

Also highly recommend Marty Feldman's take on it. I can't imagine anyone getting away with his intro on American TV today.

T. Wade said...

Friday Question:

I recently read an interview with Garret Morris in the AVClub, and he mentioned a show called Roll Out. Wikipedia states that it was created by Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart, and it was about an African America trucking unit in WW2, sort of a bookend with M*A*S*H. Morris mentions that the production was shut down due to some sort of interpersonal issue with some of the cast, while Wikipedia just mentions low ratings as the demise. Do you know anything about this show?

Hiba Arnaout said...
This comment has been removed by the author.