Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Questions

It’s Friday. You have questions. Let’s go.

Les leads off.

You have mentioned in the past you cast Aaron Paul in a pilot (and Kat Dennings I believe for the same pilot). I do not recall if the network requested his part be re-cast or whether the show just did not get picked up but in any event, now I am sure every network exec would die for just a meeting with Mr. Paul. If/when you are casting for a new show and an executive gives you push back on one of your choices, do you ever just say -- 'hey I discovered "insert-name-here" years before and know what I am doing" or does it even matter?

To set the record straight: the network had reservations about Aaron Paul. But we were very insistent. The pilot didn’t go because the star of the show didn’t deliver, and he was the network’s call.

But to answer your questions, you could try to persuade the network to go your way based on your past discoveries but that rarely (if ever) works. Even though it’s an actor you found, brought to them, and they didn’t like, if the show is successful they think they discovered him, not you. Yes, it is maddening.

Marianne asks:

What exactly makes a really solid and funny pilot? It's quite astounding that writers can (sometimes) achieve this, it sounds like it's an incredibly difficult task!

You're right, Marianne. Pilot writing is a real art. In only 22 minutes you need to establish the premise, introduce all the characters, establish all of the relationships between them, get us to care about them and their plight, reveal any backstory, set the tone, tell a story, be consistently funny, clearly tell us where the series is going after the pilot and why we should come back.

And that’s just the script. You have to cast it perfectly, get the right director, and fend off network interference.

Little wonder there are so few good ones.

Stephen Robinson asks about writing jokes that depend on the actors’ delivery.

That's always inspired me as a writer when working on a play to write lines that I know could kill but will depend almost entirely on delivery. I think it results in a naturalism that doesn't feel like a sitcom where the cast is comprised of Henny Youngmans delivering one-liners. Do you do that intentionally? Or are you surprised as the audience by how the actor nails the line? I've always found it incredibly brave of a writer to trust so much in the actors and director (especially if they're not directing the script themselves).

That’s always the way I write because I write for characters. Most of the laughs come out of attitudes and the interplay between actors. Very few joke “jokes.” So I’m always at the mercy of actors. Their interpretation can either lift lines or kill them.

Yes, it’s treacherous. There are lots of reasons for souffles not rising. But when it works, it’s soooo much more rewarding.

I’m happily experiencing that now with my play.  Jason Dechert and Jules Willcox are hitting it out of the park. And I’ve been doing this long enough to appreciate that no matter how good the writing may be on the page, without good actors you got nothing. 

For most of my career I’ve been super spoiled. Getting to write for actors the caliber of Tom Hanks, Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Alan Alda, David Hyde Pierce, Nancy Travis, John Candy, Kelsey Grammer, Harry Morgan has made me seem like a way better writer than I am.

From Ed:

In the past you've reference several pilots you and your partner penned that didn't get picked up...

Was there one that didn't go that bothered you?

Yes. It was called MIDNIGHT and took place at a funky colorful all night diner. All of the stories were to take place between midnight and six. We had some very funny characters and unique situations. It had great potential.

But I’m more upset that ALMOST PERFECT and BIG WAVE DAVE’S didn’t get longer runs. I’m very proud of both of those series and still feel they would have been hits if given a fair chance.

That said, you’ve got to move on. Dwelling on past disappointments does no good. Every writer has projects that didn’t go or were cancelled prematurely. You just look ahead and hope that the next one clicks.

And finally, Jeff asks:

What are your thoughts on the usage of cliffhangers?

I’ll tell you next week.


John (not McCain) said...

Big Wave Daves was one of those summer shows that I fell in love with but knew wouldn't last because my summer loves never do. The only exception was Night Court.

David in Cincinnati said...

You're a true pro, Ken - you always leave us wanting more!

Hamid said...

When are we gonna hear about the new pilot you mentioned has been picked up?

Angry Gamer said...

"What are your thoughts on the usage of cliffhangers?

I’ll tell you next week."

THAT is LOL funny Ken!

I have to say that you are the best comedic writer I have read lately.

Chris said...

Friday question: They have Cheers in HD on iTunes and occasionally the image is screwed up because the original film elements went missing and they had to use the tape. (First episode of Season 4 is like that entirely)

I've seen this happen on other shows as well. The master shot of the Seinfeld pilot is obviously videotape, the difference in quality is huge from the other shots.

Do you know why and how does film get misplaced like that?

Carson said...

I've just watched the Frasier episode where Daphne finds out Niles is in love with her. I was wondering if you played any part in planning out that overall story plot? I've often wondered what led to the decision that the 7th season was the time to finally progress that story plot.

Todd Everett said...

Anonymous Carson said...

I've just watched the Frasier episode where Daphne finds out Niles is in love with her. I was wondering if you played any part in planning out that overall story plot? I've often wondered what led to the decision that the 7th season was the time to finally progress that story plot.

I'd like to know how much discussion there was before making the plunge. I know the romance lost me as a regular viewer, though I also concede I was probably in the minority.

At least we were spared the baby (weren't we?)

Patrick said...

You have touched on this before but I have been noticing it more and more lately...characters will get into a fight or start a conversation and then it will cut to them hours later in a park, or an office and they are still talking about it or just starting the fight as if no time had passed. Isnt there anyone in the writers room that says "this doesnt make sense?" or is that just another example things that make better TV? It just bothers me!

Chris said...

What are your thoughts on the usage of cliffhangers?

I’ll tell you next week.

Well how else was he supposed to keep his postal worker outfits neat?

Funny theory about that... apparently the Greeks invented the first hangers as a way to ensure the proper number of flaky pastry in their baklava.

Lorimartian said...

I hope you'll indulge some random thoughts today.

1) All the pre-"How to Get Away With Murder" interview subjects extolled the talents of Shonda Rhimes, giving the impression that she single-handedly created, wrote, set decorated, photographed, composed the get the idea. Come to find out a fellow named Peter Nowalk is the creator and pilot writer. I don't know how much she contributed, but he has the credit. I didn't hear one person mention his name.

2) Funniest exchange (paraphrased) on a sitcom this week, courtesy of "The Middle":

Axl: I decided on a major. I'm going to study buddhism.

Frankie: You're going to become a buddhist?

Axl: No, I'm just going to study it.

Mike (or Frankie): What kind of job will you get?

Axl: I don't know. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Mike: You can't cross what you're living under.

3) I'm enjoying "Where the Hell Am I?", Ken. It was interesting that you mention Lea Michele as someone to watch after seeing her in "Spring Awakenings" and then to see she went on to play a major role on "Glee." No question, she was destined for stardom.

Courtney said...

While I'm hanging on the cliff, a Friday Question comes to mind...
I've been re-watching Scrubs, which I consider an above-average sitcom, for a few of its seasons, anyway, and a multi-cam/single-cam query popped up: in front of an audience, it's easy to measure the success of a joke...but when you're working just with the cast and crew, how do you confirm what's really funny?

Ed Dempsey said...

Just curious, has anyone taken a pilot that was passed on and turned it into a play or a movie?

DBA said...

Ed Dempsey, Mullholland Drive, and a quick google search will turn up a few others.

Marty Fufkin said...

The plot for Midnight sounds like a great ensemble movie, along the lines of what Robert Altman would have done. Ever consider going back to movies?

Jabroniville said...

Hi Ken! Friday Question here-

I've noticed while watching repeats of FRASIER that one dark-haired actress keeps recurring as a server at Café Nervosa. She shows up in the last episode of Season One, then periodically for a couple seasons before disappearing (about 10-12 episodes total). Her name is apparently Luck Hari, but her character is never named.

I was wondering if you had any insight into how a minor unnamed character like this becomes a recurring character. Were the writers just impressed with her sarcastic quips, or did they want to avoid having to hire an entirely new Nervosa staff every single episode, and figured it made sense that the Café would have SOME regular employees?

It was never a really big role, but I rarely spot recurring guest stars in most other TV shows. There's a rather large gap between some of her appearances, so it's a bit curious.

-Grant Woolsey

Mark said...

Friday question:Was it always the plan for Joe and Helen to get married eventually on Wings? How is that kind of thing decided? Thanks for answering.

RCP said...

Jabroniville said...

I've noticed while watching repeats of FRASIER that one dark-haired actress keeps recurring as a server at Café Nervosa.

She must be the same actress who delivers one of my favorite sarcastic lines from FRASIER. Frasier repeatedly sends his coffee back for one prissy reason or the other (e.g., 'where is my shaved nutmeg?'), and after waiting a while, demands to know where his missing coffee is and she replies, 'A team of experts is working on it.'

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

Ed Dempsey, there have been a few cases of unsold TV pilots being released as theatrical films, but apart from "Mulholland Drive," they are probably unfamiliar to you (and most people). Some examples: "Kona Coast," "My Gun is Quick" (an attempt at Mike Hammer), "Project Moonbase," and "Chamber of Horrors."

Perhaps the most interesting specimen of this is "Dark Intruder," which was the pilot for a proposed series called "The Black Cloak." It featured Leslie Nielsen as an aristocratic investigator into occult phenomena in San Francisco circa 1900. It was, in other words, "The Wild Wild West" meets "The X-Files" with Lord Peter Wimsey as the lead. The movie, at least, is quite good (and has historical value, as the first movie ever to reference H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos), and a lot of us wish the series had sold.

Brian said...

I'll post my question next week.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for sharing that list, Bullethead. I never knew it had happened so many time before. Sounds like an interesting bunch of movies to track down!

Joseph Scarbrough said...

22 minutes? I thought half-hour programs had been shortened to 18 1/2 minutes, that's the last I heard. It's hard enough trying to cram as much content into 21 minutes' worth of show, have it all flow smoothly and make sense, 18 1/2 minutes would be impossible.

Jeff :) said...

What do you think of the "Netflix Model" of filming and distributing an entire season in one batch? Do you feel the positives (knowing beforehand that you have an entire season order, not having to constantly remind the audience what happened in previous episodes) outweighs the negatives (not having any feedback/constructive criticisms for an entire season)?