Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The ultimate "too soon"

 Oops!
 
An occupational hazard for comedy writers:

Last week, in my review of the new Woody Allen movie I made a Joan Rivers joke. Later that morning, when I was away from my computer and couldn’t do anything about it, word came through that she was in critical condition. I since removed the joke but there it was for about six hours. I looked like the most insensitive human being on the planet. Forget that if anyone would find it funny it would have been Joan Rivers, still it looked like a cheap shot.

Obviously that wasn’t my intent.  And as I write this, I pray for her recovery. 

But those things happen. Comedy is in the specifics and sometimes you get burned as a result.

On CHEERS we always felt that in a strange psychic way we could be responsible for killing people. Here’s how: Let’s say we put in a Rose Kennedy joke. Sure enough, the night the episode airs NBC breaks in with a news bulletin that Rose Kennedy had just died. They then cut back to our show (already in progress) just in time for our Rose Kennedy joke.

So if someone would pitch a joke featuring an icon, four writers would chime in “Do we really want to kill him?”

And it doesn’t have to be an elderly celebrity for writers to get trapped. Just unfortunate luck. David Isaacs and I wrote an episode of THE SIMPSONS called “Saturdays of Thunder.” It was about a soap box derby, but there’s a sequence where Homer attends the National Fatherhood Institute. Within those scenes there was a plethora of Bill Cosby/father jokes.

Years later the show is in syndication. KTTV is the Los Angeles affiliate. They set their programming schedule weeks in advance. And again, there was nothing in the title to even suggest there would be mentions of Bill Cosby. Well, tragically, Cosby’s son dies, it’s all over the news, and sure enough, three hours later KTTV airs that episode. The station switchboard went nuts. We of course, felt terrible, but there was nothing we could do.

It’s a risk you take, and the alternative is playing everything so safe that nothing is funny. I guess the best you can do is be sensitive to it. Like I said, if someone is really getting up there you increase your odds of a faux pas, but in general you just have to cross your fingers. 99 out of 100 times you’ll make a reference and it’ll be fine. But when that one comes up, yikes. I imagine most long time comedy writers have experienced the same thing. All I can say is, it happens, it’s very unfortunate, and no disrespect is ever meant. We have enough guilt writing bad jokes. We don’t want to have blood on our hands too.

40 comments:

Anonymous said...

One of Johnny Carson's classic occasional bits was to drop a lame Abraham Lincoln reference into the monologues, get groans, and then say, "Too soon?" Hilarious every time.

Stoney said...

Reminds me of the "Frasier" episode in which he begins a speech with a Carson-esque joke about a priest in a raft to people who just learned about a bishop lost at sea. Was that a Levine/Issacs?

Jim S said...

There is another problem with timely. Sometimes people just forget who's being referenced.

When I was a kid, I was so proud of myself for understanding all the Bugs Bunny references to Hollywood stars of the 1940s. (It helped that my mom loved the movies of the time and we would watch them on Channels 5, 9 and 11 in the New York area).

But I read that the actor who played the youngest, dumbest brother on Fox's "Enlisted" (he's the guy who was also "Suburgatory") had to do a Bill Cosby imitation. He, apparently, had never seen the Cosby show or had seen Cosby do stand-up. This is an actor that can't be older than 24 or 25. Wow.

Scott Cason said...

Playing it safe sucks, that's what's wrong with 99 44/100% of TV programming now. Nobody wants to take chances anymore. Look for Amazon and Netfilx original shows to start rivaling network shows until the networks get off the reality kick they've been on the past 10 years.

Stoney said...

Those things happen in radio too! The day after the tragic fire in Rhode Island at a club where the band Great White played and used pyrotechnics, I heard a DJ apologize after the the song "Burning For You" by Blue Oyster Cult. That was really the fault of an automated playlist.

Scooter Schechtman said...

"Oh well, if you walk around worrying what to say to people you'll never get anything said."
-Lucy van Pelt

Jake said...

This goes beyond sitcom writing. Would anyone care to venture a guess what happened in the 20 minutes between the point I referred to "the immortal Dale Earnhardt" during a pre-taped sports segment one Sunday afternoon in 2001 and the point that it aired?

There is also an issue of Action Comics where Superman reveals his secret identity to JFK, and the President, in turn, poses as Clark Kent to help keep said identity private. Of course, comics are planned, written, and drawn months before they come out, and this one hit the stands in the last week of November 1963, a week after the assassination.

Eldrick said...

Age old problem. Showing my age -- I remember some game show (not well enough to remember the name) that taped some episodes in the summer of 1963. One episode aired in late November '63 with the host making a lame comment about a contestant from Texas - and how "we know all about you folks in Dallas and your guns." Seemed WAY too soon at the time.

Joe said...

Ken, I was in a show years ago about an actor who wakes up trapped in a show he is totally unprepared for, so he is forced to improvise throughout. The actor had a bit of freedom to wing it, so at one point he says "that would be like replacing Laurence Oliviet with Lyle Alzado." As luck would have it, Lyle Alzado had died that morning. We must have had a lot of football fans in the crowd, because they groaned/grumbled like hell for the rest of the act.

Michael said...

Don Imus aired a skit when reports came that Lucille Ball was in the hospital where she's under an oxygen tent and demanding a cigarette. It wasn't all that funny, but she died, and he got some backlash. He came on and said of all the people in the world who would appreciate an effort to be funny at that time, you would think the first would be Lucille Ball. I think he was right.

Bob said...

I remember cringing when the "Streetcar" episode of THE SIMPSONS was shown here in the UK in the height of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. Choice lyrics include:

If you want to go to Hell, you should take a trip
To the Sodom and Gomorra on the Mississip.

New Or-le-ans,
Stinky, rotten, vomiting, vile,
New Or-le-ans,
Putrid, brackish, maggoty, foul.

New Or-le-ans,
Crummy, lousy, rancid, and rank,
New Or-le-ans.


Apparently, the channel had screened the plot for potentially insensitive content but hadn't considered the songs as part of the plot.

D'oh!

Jay L said...

A summer rerun of The Price is Right offered a showcase including a trip to New Orleans & a speedboat.

It aired about a week after Hurricane Katrina & people went nuts.

Because, clearly, the show airs live and/or someone has a job to read the news & review all reruns for coincidental content. /sarcasm

Shawn K. said...

In the course of one month, while doing my morning show, four celebrities, I brought up, died.

It was at this time I decided to never bring up Abe Vigoda.

To this day, I am sure I saved his life.

James Mellicant said...

Sorry that this comment is off-topic, but... Why do you think A&E cancelled Longmire and do you think some other network is likely to pick it up?

Dan Ball said...

When I worked at WLEX eight years ago, an airliner carrying about 50 passengers crashed after taking off from the wrong (and shorter) runway, killing all but the co-pilot.

Later that evening, NBC airs the Emmys opening sequence with Conan's spoof of the LOST plane crash just a mere hour and a half after the Nightly News covered the real crash. In our market, it was just SECONDS after we finished our own recap of the crash. Our GM (who also co-write "Incense and Peppermints") was LIVID with NBC for that because we had no idea that opening was in store for our viewers.

Stoney said...

Not sure if Doctor Demento ever had a circumstance like this but there were occasions when he sidelined some popular but edgy records for a while:

Julie Brown's "The Homecoming Queen's Got A Gun" was embargoed for several months after the Columbine shootings.

Weird Al Yankovic's "Christmas At Ground Zero" (released in the late 1980's) was off the show for a few years after 9/11.

Bob Leszczak said...

A very recent example - last night, WLNY-TV in NY ran a MORK AND MINDY marathon honoring Robin Williams. Had they screened the episodes beforehand, they might have eliminated the episode in which he has a noose around his neck and another involving cutting his wrists. Small pieces of the whole episode, but made me wince. There are enough episodes to choose from.

tb said...

When John Belushi died, after telling us they would have 'more after this', They play "Another One Bites the Dust" before going to commercial. It was the only time I ever called a TV station to complain. They, of course told me it was all programmed beforehand, and they were very sorry. I told them that's a song they should never include. It's a newscast! Of course it's going to be a problem!

willieb said...

Back in the late 70s, during my radio days, I came up with a bit about the ultimate pain reliever: "Cyanide. It cures all your major symptoms, and your minor ones, too." Of course, a week later, a story broke about somebody lacing Tylenol with cyanide at drug stores in the midwest.

jbryant said...

A classic recent example at the movies was 22 JUMP STREET, which had gags about recently-injured Tracy Morgan and recently-dead Maya Angelou, not to mention dialogue from Jonah Hill decrying gay slurs after he had made the news by using a gay slur on a pushy paparazzo. Obviously didn't hurt the box office though. Maybe even dumb people realize that a movie wasn't filmed the week of its release.

chas said...

Here's a Friday question for you:
A&E has announced that it has cancelled Longmire. It is the highest rated scripted show on the network and has a large audience for a cable drama. Why would A&E do that? It's not like there are actors demanding a million per episode. The producers have announced that they are shopping the show to other outlets. What are the chances of the show being picked up by another network?

Canda said...

Cultural reference jokes are usually the easiest to write.

They are not timeless. I was told by someone that Bea Arthur, when given a Donna Rice joke to do on Golden Girls, said, "In 20 years people won't know Donna Rice from Minute Rice".

True. They may not remember Minute Rice, either.

Scooter Schechtman said...

willieb: And then there's the legend of Steve Dahl getting fired from (maybe?) WDAI for playing BS&T's "Spinning Wheel" after reporting that some guy was killed in a ferris wheel accident.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Did you hear about Justin Verlander's photos getting hacked and now there are naked pictures of him circulating on the internet? I feel badly for him, but honestly, if I wanted to see his junk, I'd just go back and watch his Pittsburgh start.

Hiyo!

D. McEwan said...

A few weeks ago, Murder in the First concluded its summer-long story line with the suicide of the villain, the final shot of the series being a track in on the dead man's face in his home-made sheet-noose in his cell, going for a close-up of the dead despair in his eyes.

It aired less than six hours after Robin Williams's suicide-by-self-hanging was announced. For many of us seeking escape from the horror of Robin's death, we suddenly saw his despairing final act pushed in our noses. It was horrifying, but of course, utterly unintentional.

bruce said...

My father was a writer on the Dean Martin Summer Show with Vic Damone in 1967. When Jayne Mansfield was killed in an auto accident, I remember him calling the producer to make sure to take a Jayne Mansfield joke out of a taped-but-not-yet-shown episode.

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

Don't worry too much, it wasn't nearly as bad as this: 'Sleepy Hollow' marketer apologizes for sending out a 'National Beheading Day' promos

Lairbo said...

It's a variation of the old Harry Golden Rule, i.e., that satirists are always at risk of being outpaced by reality (early in the civil rights movement, Golden wrote that segregated libraries could get out of blacks and whites sitting together by removing the chairs. A week later, some library did exactly that).
Maybe there's now the Isaacs/Levine Karma Curse.

AAllen said...

So many anecdotes, so why not one more? For the week of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, The Simpsons was a rerun against the final Cosby Show. But on that Simpsons, Bart plays a video game where he plays the part of a looter. D'oh!

Wayne said...

It's good to keep topical references out of sitcoms. But surely you can't be faulted for one in a daily blog.

The ultimate sitcom ignoring a tragic event of the day: The final day of shooting the pilot for Gilligan's Island was November 22, 1963!

DBenson said...

9/11 made images of the New York skyline problematic in an entertainment show, regardless of context or whether before or after.

Pat Reeder said...

When we were writing our own radio comedy service, the deadline was 5 a.m., then it went out to morning shows, which pretty well eliminated most unpleasant surprises. Then we signed to write for Cumulus Media, and our deadline was moved up to 7 a.m. of the DAY BEFORE! Now, I have to watch the news constantly and call in any edits and revisions ASAP. Just had to deal with one last night, based on the story of Michael Sam getting no NFL offers. Then he suddenly got a last minute offer from the Cowboys, and I had to scramble to get it rewritten and rerecorded. But then, as a Dallas resident, I've grown used to Jerry Jones making my life miserable in one way or another.

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

chas: I have seen three reasons given for the cancellation of "Longmire." I have no idea if these came from people who actually knew something about the matter, or if they are mere speculation. On the Internet, that boundary gets blurred quickly.

Reason #1: Though it was the network's second highest rated show, after "Duck Dynasty," there was a significant drop in the ratings during the third season. Well, I can see why that would worry A & E.

Reason #2: A & E has recommitted itself to so-called "reality" shows, and is getting out of the scripted show business altogether (as if those "reality" shows are not scripted). This is no way to win my viewership, but at least there is logic to it.

Reason #3: The audience for "Longmire" was large, but it was too old to attract the high paying advertisers. We have seen this before, and should not be surprised by it, but it does seem really unfair in this case. Walt Longmire is in his fifties; he is the sheriff in a mostly rural county in Wyoming; among his defining traits are a dislike of change and resistance to modern technology (his refusal to buy a cell phone is a running joke)--who did A & E expect to watch this but the middle aged and elderly? It almost seems as if the show was set up to fail.

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

Oh, as for whether "Longmire" will be picked up by another channel: Obviously, I know nothing about that, and can make no meaningful predictions, but it does not seem entirely impossible. There are, at least, places for the producers to go. As others have noted, the series would make an apt double feature with "Hell on Wheels" on AMC, and it would be a reasonable fit in USA's line of detective shows. Also, it is available for streaming on both Amazon and Netflix; if the numbers have been good there, one of those might be interested in producing more.

Anonymous said...

That's why they're called situation comedies. There's more than enough material in the actions of people.

Steven R.

David said...

I like the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine is dating a guy named Joel Rifkin. She wants him to change his name, since he has the same name as a serial killler. She gives him several suggestions that he doesn't like. Finally she says I know what you should change your name to...O.J.
This is of course before the Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman murders.

David

MikeN said...

An early episode of the Simpsons, around 1992 or so, has Siegfried and Roy, and sure enough the tiger attacks.

Jabroniville said...

The Simpsons writers were remarkably unapologetic about the "Siegfried & Roy" tiger-attack gag on the DVD Commentary- someone commented on it and how it's coincidental, and another writer just went on a diatribe about how that was inevitable when you take animals from the while and force them to perform tricks.

-Grant

Hershele Ostropoler said...

One of the ads in the first commercial break I saw on TV after 9/11 was for flexible eyeglass frames. It featured a skyscraper bending out of the way of an oncoming airplane