Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Questions

Who ordered the “Friday Questions?”

Bill starts us off:

What are the responsibilities of the creative consultants and how does it differ from being the writer and were you the creative consultants on the shows you are credited with writing?

Generally, creative consultants are writers who come in once or twice a week to help out on rewrites for whatever episode is being produced that week. They're not on staff full-time.  Their day usually begins with the afternoon runthrough and they stay through the rewrite. They provide another set of eyes, can offer story suggestions, but primarily they’re there to help pump in jokes.

It’s a position that has pretty much been phased out because studios don’t want to pay, but good creative consultants can be invaluable. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best. David Lloyd and Jerry Belson were amazing, but the best of all-time was (and is) Bob Ellison (pictured right). Bob is a joke machine and tireless. It could be 4 in the morning, everyone on the staff is totally gassed, and Bob is still firing in great jokes like an AK-47.   During the '80s and '90s Bob would sometime work on four different series a week.  Whenever we got a show picked up, our first call was to see if Bob Ellison was available. 

At some point I was a creative consultant on CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, BECKER, and about six other shows that came and quickly went. (We wrote episodes for most of those shows.)

This is a practice that dates well back into the American theater. Plays would tryout out of town and playwrights would enlist the help of “script doctors” like Abe Burrows who would help fix troubled projects. At least we didn't have to go to New Haven every week.

From Steve:

A couple days ago, you mentioned that you gave overuse of names a pass in the case of pilots, where the writer needs to establish who everyone is. It occurred to me that most of your viewers aren't going to start with the pilot; they'll get into the show after it been on the air for weeks or years, or even in syndication. How much do sitcom writers think about the fact that every episode is someone's first? Is any attempt made to make sure each episode works without prior knowledge?

The second episode is in many ways harder to write than the pilot. Because you have to re-tell the pilot for all those who are coming to the show for the first time, and you have to provide a new story for those who saw the pilot.  And you have two weeks to write it, not six months. 

Over the first four shows we try to keep rebooting the premise, but after that we feel viewers can either pick up on what’s going on, or go back to find the previous episodes online or On-Demand. Why should we do all the work?

Michael wonders:

Other than THE SIMPSONS, I am not aware of any shows you wrote for that included kids. Did you and David ever try to develop family-oriented sitcoms or was this something that didn't interest you?

We’ve written other shows that have had kids and we’ve done a few family pilots that didn’t get picked up. Earlier in our career we got asked to write a family pilot, but we were committed to another show so we had to pass. That family show was COSBY.  Not that I'm still bitter.

OrangeTom asks:

When a show is on air as long as Frasier do the network executives start paying less attention; i.e., is there more the writers can get away with which might be considered too offensive or "out there" in the first couple years of a show's run? "Tonight on Frasier Daphne's true identity as a KGB operative is revealed after she's caught trying to blow up the Space Needle"

Yes, once a show has established itself as a hit networks tend to back off. But not entirely. Networks still want to know what stories you have planned and if you want to do something very different or jarring you still might have a fight on your hands. You may win that fight but it won’t just be rubber stamped because you have millions of Twitter followers.

Still, it’s quite a contrast from when we were doing MASH. CBS wanted us to submit loglines of the stories we were doing. We would send in six or seven at a time. Of course, by the time we got around to submitting them the episodes had already been filmed.  That's a great way of getting around notes, by the way. 

What’s your Friday Question?


The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Friday Question: Ken, Here's a Cheers question. The final season episode: "It's Lonely at the Top" reveals to Carla (and the audience) that Sam wears a hairpiece. When I first saw it 20 years ago it was akin to Fonzie saying he can't ride a motorcycle, or Superman saying he wears a bullet proof vest or that James Bond has to pay women to sleep with him. It was a big disappointment to the audience's suspension of disbelief in Sammy's masculinity. I pretend this episode doesn't happen. Do you remember what was the motivation behind this literal "reveal"?

ScottyB said...

Friday Question for Ken: We totally know you and David are well-recognized for putting out quality material. But what does an obviously-good writer do when you're offered the opportunity to write for a show that's obviously run its course and in its creative death throes (like when Oliver joins 'The Brady Bunch', or that cute neighbor kid Ricky Segall who can't sing his way out of a paper bag becomes a 'Partridge Family' feature? Do you pass on basic principle, or do you just grit your teeth for a few days and collect the check? Or is it a matter of not even getting offers like that once you're already established and respected?

ScottyB said...

Oops, my mistake on my Friday question. Ken has made it abundantly clear that nobody in the industry respects writers. But still.

Mike E said...

From OrangeTom's question:

"Tonight on Frasier Daphne's true identity as a KGB operative is revealed after she's caught trying to blow up the Space Needle"

How on earth did I ever miss this episode? :D

ScottyB said...

@The Bumble Bee Pendant: I actually really liked the hairpiece episode. It made Sam more like "one of us" ordinary people losing their hair, getting fat, getting old, and no longer being who we were in our young glory days. For me, Sam Malone always wanted to be more than who he was, which was basically an unremarkable schlub with an unremarkable career. Kinda like all of us. He just happened to be funnier and have more colorful people around him than most of us.

gottacook said...

As I recall, the hairpiece episode of Cheers was the final regular-length episode - so little chance for Sam to spoil his image going forward.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Hi, Ken. Friday Question: (although you may have answered this before) Can someone learn to be funny? I know there are aspects of craft -- how to structure a joke, etc., -- but is basic funny a "you got it/you ain't got it" quality? I imagine this would involve teaching someone who wants to be funny but just isn't. (Not my mom, rest her soul. She wasn't funny and she wanted it that way.) Also, have you dealt with people who are funny in the room and can crack up the staff but not so funny on the page (or vice versa)? Also, (I'm cleaning out the mental attic today) do you think comedy writers would do better to have an improv comedy background as opposed to stand-up -- because of needing to assume different personae? I'll stop now. Thanks, Ken!

Oh, wait, one more thing, maybe a money making thing -- I would pay actual money to hear you do a commentary track for COVERT AFFAIRS. Pick an episode and just record your commentary while you watch. There must be someway to upload it to Amazon where we'd buy it and then watch the episode through some streaming service, synchronize our devices, and listen to you in our earbuds. I don't think it's illegal.

I didn't say it would be big money.

RG said...

For Sam's reveal, I think there had been rumors for years about the hairpiece and I think Ted Danson personally wanted it out there. Not only did he wear a piece on Cheers but he colored his hair brown as well. My hunch is that it would help him for future work -- people would not be surprised by his appearance if he suddenly appeared with a bald spot (as in, I'm not Sam Malone in real life and don't typecast me). Interesting that since Cheers I think every role he has been in he has been grey with no piece.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@scotty B...
I see what you are saying.

In my mind (and the minds of his fans and his bar patrons) I don't want Sam Malone to be like me or have experiences like me. That would be boring. Everyone knew Ted Danson wore a piece, we know Alan Alda can't perform surgery, Neil Patrick Harris isn't a womanizer, and Jim Parsons doesn't understand Quantum Physics. But we want their characters to be true to themselves.

Allan V said...

Why would a KGB operative want to blow up the space needle? :)

D. McEwan said...

Many, many long years ago, another writer and I submitted a story proposal we'd written to Happy Days. It was doomed from the start as A.) I didn't watch Happy Days, and caught only a few episodes to see who was what. (Said partner wanted to do Happy Days as he loved the show, so I went along with it, especially as I had what I thought, wrongly as it turned out, would be a good premise), and B.) Turned out this writer and I didn't get on well, and this was the only time we tried working together. (We'd met in line at the Unemployment Office, a good place to meet TV writers.)

The premise, boiled down, was: Fonzie gets drafted, and the gang help him evade the draft. I remember being shocked by the reason for rejection. We were told that, though they liked our writing just fine, Fonzie was a "Hero," and would therefore never dodge the draft. Oops. As a veteran of many an anti-Vietnam War rally, march, and other forms of protest, and someone who had protested mightily against the draft, which I'd busted my hump dodging (successfully), whose every young male friend was also protesting and dodging the draft, to me, that was heroism, standing up to the government, not just giving in and becoming one of Nixon's killers. "What if they held a war and nobody came?" Etc. I got a real lesson in network think that day.

But the Happy Days staff members we dealt with were very nice and encouraging about it. They were willing to see "Less Controversial" storylines from us. However, by then I knew I didn't want to work with this writer anymore, and set my sights on shows I actually watched.

D. McEwan said...

"Allan V said...
Why would a KGB operative want to blow up the space needle? :)"

Because, you kow, that's what bad people do, and destroying the symbol of a 50 year old World's Fair would show us the error of our Capitalist ways, and all that. (You made me laugh, Mr. V.)

Greg Ehrbar said...

Ken -- is it possible that execs see themselves as Script Consultants and therefore see no need for an outside one?

Bumble Bee - wasn't part of the theme of Cheers that Sam was not Superman? He was constantly being shot down when he claimed to be. I always heard that Ted Danson was sick and tired of wearing the hairpiece and didn't think it mattered. Having a gleaming bald head, I agree.

D. McEwan said...

"The Bumble Bee Pendant said...
It was a big disappointment to the audience's suspesion of disbelief in Sam's masculinity."


Are you saying bald men aren't "Masculine"? Why? Because baldness is so feminine, hence all the bald women one sees? Are you telling me that Telly Savalas and Yul Brynner were nancy-boys, to use an archiac term worthy of such nonsense? (And I speak as a nancy-boy myself, one with a full head of hair.)

You know what IS masculine? Having the balls to be honest about being bald.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@Greg Ehrbar

Maybe it's just me.

Sam was slightly larger than life, and at least to me and other non-lady killers (like Cliff and Norm), we looked up to Sam and wanted (Nay, needed) him to be perfect as a player, even though I know he's not perfect as a human being. We all want to chant out "Sammy, Sammy, Sammy" whenever Sam approached a woman. Yeah, he struck out sometimes, but he was shocked when it happened - because how do you say no to Sam Malone. :)

Matt P said...

Friday question: Ken, in today's question about family shows, you mention that there were some pilots you wrote but weren't picked up. So, I headed over to to see what they might be, and they aren't listed in your credits. That doesn't seem too surprising, but it raised a couple questions:

1) how are pilots credited by the WGA? Do they have to be filmed and aired before you get a credit?
2) ballpark how many pilots have you created but not had picked up? One a year or something like that?

Thank you in advance for your response. I'm nowhere near the industry, but your blog gives a fan great insight into how things work.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@D McEwan

D., I think you nailed it when you said, "You know what IS masculine? Having the balls to be honest about being bald."

That's the issue. According to that episode, Sam wasn't honest about being bald. He hid it and was ashamed of it. Sam Malone was insecure about a lot of things. But his masculinity wasn't one of them. His pretending not to be bald, and wearing a toupee was anti-Sammy.

Nothing wrong with being bald. Yul, Telly, Vin Diesel, the Rock and Michael Jordan embraced their heads. THAT'S what made them sexy and virile. Imagine Telly with a comb-over?

Typically comb-overs and toupees make it look like a (literal) coverup.

s said...

"THAT'S what made them sexy and virile." Yeah, and give him some tats and a 3-day stubble, he could have bellowed dialog in an English accent in some big budget "epic".

benson said...

When I produce my dream DVD, I definitely the Frasier ep when Daphne's true identity as a KGB operative is revealed after she's caught trying to blow up the Space Needle"

Followed by the one where Laura Petrie tells the entire country that Sam Malone is bald.
And that classic line "But Sam, there must be some thirsty bald people.

A good weekend to all.

Cap'n Bob said...

Am I the only one who remembers that Sam Malone showed his bald spot to Diane? But it wasn't a public revelation and she didn't blab about it.

Draft dodgers suck.

Cat said...

Sam showed his bald spot to Carla, not Diane.

Cat said...

By the way, the hairpiece reveal was most likely something Ted really wanted to do, but also it led the way for Sam's motivations in the finale. He had lost his bar (but gotten it back), lost his great love, had to go to sex addiction group--it was the beginning of Sam knowing he was not invincible, and his questioning his own happiness and state of mind, which is what makes him want to run off to California to Diane. Glen and Les did a wonderful job as usual on that script.

Matthew said...

Friday question...
Have you heard of this British sitcom?

Anonymous said...

I sometimes feel guilty for liking CHEERS so much. I feel guilty bc the main cast and the recurring characters were all Caucasian. I never noticed this until I saw the FRASIER episode with Cam Winston and the other one where Kim Coles takes over for Roz.

What do you think about that?

Lee said...

@Anonymous: I don't feel guilty about it because that's just the way TV was, but yeah, CHEERS and FRASIER were both pretty much Whitey-ville. The very infrequent non-caucasian faces on both shows were a sad indication that, race-wise, TV hadn't progressed that much since the 1950s.

Brian said...

Friday Question: How do you feel about watching a program with subtitles on? If you happened to watch a program with them on (maybe with somebody that needed them) would it detract from the dialog of the actors for you?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Of course Fonzie did end up being drafted, but was classified 4-F, due to his leg injury from the motorcycle stunt at Arnold's Drive-In in season 3.

Anonymous said...

My Friday question. What is the purpose of the producer, or producers, of a show being listed as the story consultant as well? When there are no other staff listed, wouldn't producer just cover it all? It seemed to happen on most of the Desilu Studio shows in the 60's.

Cap'n Bob said...

I stand corrected on the hairpiece question. I knew he showed it to a woman.

Greg Ehrbar said...

@Bumble Bee

"That's the issue. According to that episode, Sam wasn't honest about being bald. He hid it and was ashamed of it. Sam Malone was insecure about a lot of things. But his masculinity wasn't one of them. His pretending not to be bald, and wearing a toupee was anti-Sammy."

Exactly. Again, the theme of the series was Sam's constantly hiding his insecurity behind macho bravado. He may have been a hero to some, but he had trouble facing that he was not really a hero to himself.

Peter said...

Ken, I was a huge fan of Cheers growing up and recently (binge) watched my way through Frasier. I have to admit I may like Frasier even more than Cheers! On Cheers, Frasier drinks beer and spends his days at a bar. To me he's a know-it-all but also an everyman. On Frasier, however, he exclusively drinks Sherry (and disdains the taste of beer) with his only friend his brother. Do you ever feel like the character of Frasier changed too much over time?

Also, did The Simpsons ever approach you to write for any of the Sideshow Bob episodes?

MikeN said...

BumbleBee, What are you talking about? Sam didn't wear a hairpiece. All he had was a hair-replacement system.

Anonymous said...

McEwan, it was Johnson who was drafting people, while Nixon switched to volunteers, and handed out college deferments to end the campus protests.

MikeN said...

Hey, I thought you said Bill Cosby was horrible to work with. Now you're bitter about not getting the chance?

Marianne said...


Hi Ken! Marianne here! I recently watched the ‘Cheers’ episode ‘The Last Picture Show’ where Woody, Cliff, Frasier and Norm go to a drive-in. With reference to the Godzilla series, Woody remarks, “I don’t understand. Why would an actress leave right in the middle of a successful series?”, obviously a little crack at Shelley Long.

While I found this line pretty amusing, it made me wonder a few things: was there any discussion as to the direction of the show if Shelley stayed with ‘Cheers’? How did the cast/crew react when she announced she was leaving? Did you think it was appropriate, or understandable, that Shelley leave due to the reality that characters often eventually become stale?

Thank you! Your blog is a delightful read.