Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became a rambling rant about sitcom writing styles. Notice the irony that I take issue with lengthy speeches yet this post goes on way too long.
The question itself is even long. But stay with it. It’s from Mark.
I've noticed, Ken, that the scripts you and David write and the shows you work on rarely tackle social issues (in the Norman Lear manner) or engage in the kind of sometimes over-the-top preachiness that was common in 1980s-early '90s sitcoms. Nor are yours and David's characters even particularly inclined to learn anything. (It seems like almost every episode to come out of the Garry Marshall factory had to end with the scene where the principals in that night's episode discussed the lesson they'd learned, while a slow version of the show's theme music played softly in the background.)
Does this come from yours and David's personal tastes and preferences in comedy, or is it more a reflection of the kinds of shows you guys have tended to work on?
Both… although I would argue that we did get into social and political issues on MASH; the topics were just more universal than contemporary.
But our comic preference has always been focused on character – exploring human foibles and examining relatable behavior. How people deal with frustration, obstacles, absurdity, emotions, and each other. The “funny” comes from all of us.
People do learn lessons but rarely every week. We searched more for the truth in a given situation than the lesson to be derived from it.
But let’s be perfectly honest, we were incredibly lucky. We got hired on shows that encouraged that style. Were we hired on GOOD TIMES we would have been writing long speeches about urban decay. (Those speeches were so cringeworthy. They even had statistics in them. J.J. just happened to know that “34.7% of Americans made less than $22,500 a year.”) Ugh.
My other problem with long gooey speeches at the end of the show with the requisite soft music in the background is that the speeches were rarely earned.
WILL & GRACE was guilty of this all the time. 25 minutes of rollicking burlesque humor and suddenly this unbelievably sappy speech. The show just changed tones on a dime. The sentimentality came out of nowhere. So it always felt artificial.
Of course, no sitcom was more guilty of this than MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY. This was a series back in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s starring Danny Thomas.
David and I try to avoid long life lesson speeches at all costs. I know I’ve told the story before, but for “Goodbye Radar”, which we wrote, we purposely constructed the story to have casualties arrive just as Radar was departing. That way all the goodbyes were one or two lines delivered on the run. Otherwise, we felt the show would just be a series of graduation commencement speeches.
But I reiterate, we were lucky. Had we not landed on MASH early in our career we might have been writing for GOOD TIMES or THE SMURFS. Work is work, especially when you start out. I see bad shows today and often wonder if the next Larry Gelbart is a staff writer on that piece of shit. Writing stupid speeches is still better than the Dairy Queen. The fact that we were allowed to write what we write is a true blessing. There’s a lesson in that. I’ll wait until the soft music starts. Where’s the music? I gotta have music! It’s just not the same without the music.