Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Questions

Previews continue for my play A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.  Get your tickets and reward yourself with reading Friday Questions.  Thanks. 
 
First, my hold-over question from last week.  From Jeff:

What are your thoughts on the usage of cliffhangers? 


For the most part I think they're a waste of time.  Especially in sitcoms.  It's not like these characters are in any real jeopardy.  

One problem is that this convention has now been done to death.  Whatever impact it used to have has been greatly diminished by over-use.  Everyone's doing cliffhangers.  Plus, shows do limited series of six or eight episodes and then go off the air for nine months.  Who can keep track of what? 

And the real problem (that most showrunners are unwilling to accept) is that the audience is not nearly as invested in your show as you think they are.   To the showrunner and writing staff the show is the center of the universe.   Unless you're working on a series that is riding the crest of the zeitgeist, viewers don't really give a shit.  Out of sight; out of mind.  

We've come a long way since "Who killed J.R.?" on DALLAS.  
 

Dene 1971 asks:

Do you consider sitcom to be less artistically valid, for one of a better term, than a 1-hour drama? I recall reading an interview with a (brilliant) English TV/radio comedy writer, responsible for a first class sitcom which had come to an end: he intimated that he wanted to 'move on' from the 30m sitcom form to the 1hr comedy-drama.

Obviously it depends on the show. I would consider THE WIRE more artistically valid than TWO BROKE GIRLS. But there are quite a few comedies far richer than one hour dramas. And in many ways it’s much harder to do a quality comedy. To explore emotions, create characters and situations that are real, relatable, compelling, AND funny is much harder to accomplish than straight drama. Plus, in comedy you don’t have the luxury of just playing a song under a scene that expresses the emotion you’re trying to convey.  (a standard movie cheat)

But artistically speaking, I don’t think there are many hour dramas that come close to MASH. Maybe BAYWATCH.

Someone who wouldn’t leave his name wondered:

Ken, when writers do a script that includes unflattering jokes about a character's appearance, do you ever worry about how the actor or actress will personally react?

I recall episodes of MASH where Hawkeye insulted Hot Lip's weight, and an episode of All In The Family where Gloria came right out and said she was fat. More recently on Will & Grace, there were many jokes about how flat-chested Grace was.

Do actors just accept this as part of the game, or are there ever situations where the actor is too touchy about something and it's off-limits for the writers? And how can you know this until you've already ticked them off?

It really depends on the actor and how good a sport he is. No, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of the phone call I’d get from Loretta Swit if we did Hot Lips fat jokes. On the other hand, Danny DeVito was fine with short jokes. And the great Jackie Gleason had no problem with fat jokes at his expense.

It’s best to diplomatically ask the actor how sensitive he might be to jokes about his appearance before he reads the script aloud in a room full of people.

The irony on CHEERS was that every character took shots at Lilith for how cold and severe she was, and off camera and out of costume Bebe Neuwirth (pictured at the top of this post) was the hottest woman on that set.

And finally, Jrge sent in this question from Spain (where they love this blog).

I've just started to watch the second season of Frasier on DVD (I know i'm late, but I was four when it went on TV).

That’s still no excuse!

I've realized that you appear as "creative consultant". Could you explain what was exactly you function?

Generally that title is assigned to a writer who comes in once a week, usually for rewrite night. Other names are “punch up guys”, “script doctors”, and “clients of agents who make sweet deals”.

They come to the runthrough then help the staff rewrite that night. Sometimes it’s very helpful to have a fresh set of eyes. A writing staff can get too close to a story and it’s great to get an objective opinion from someone you trust…AND can help actually solve the problems he identifies. That last part is the biggie. Anyone can say “this doesn’t work, go fix it”.

Ideally, the best creative consultants can also help you with jokes.

A good creative consultant is like the cavalry riding in to the rescue. A bad one is someone you’re paying a lot of money to eat your food.

I’ve worked with some great ones, notably David Lloyd and Jerry Belson. But bar none the best creative consultant that has ever been is Bob Ellison. I’m going to do an entire post on him soon. At one time he was working on four different shows a week. And not coincidentally, they were the four funniest shows on television.

What’s your question?

35 comments:

Jim S said...

Ken,

How important are relationships? I read an interview with a showrunner who said every season he gave one story to the man who first hired him in the business so that mentor could keep his guild health insurance.

How important are friendships/relationships when looking for work, as opposed to have a great spec script and good credits?

Richard J. Marcej said...

"when writers do a script that includes unflattering jokes about a character's appearance, do you ever worry about how the actor or actress will personally react?"

If that's the case then Nancy Kulp would have had a reason to file a grievance during her run on Beverly Hillbillies as her looks were often the brunt of many a joke.

This reminds me of a routine I'd heard once (I don't remember the comic who said it) about the phone call that William Conrad received about a part for a new TV series:

Agent: "Hello Bill? We've got an offer for a new TV series that they want you to star in. It's called Jake and the Fatman.
Conrad: I see. So I'm Jake?
Agent: Ummm……….

Curt Alliaume said...

It would seem some of the looks jokes have gone away in more recent years after Tracey Gold's experience on Growing Pains.

I can't claim to have watched every episode of M*A*S*H carefully in the last 25 years or so (although I'm pretty sure I watched virtually all of them at least three times before that), but I don't ever remember Hot Lips/Margaret Houlihan being called fat.

Hamid said...

My Friday Q:

Was there a contractual obligation that Ted Danson had to appear in an episode in the first season of Frasier? It was a great episode, but it felt like it was a network decision to make viewers feel comfortable with the new show by bringing him back.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

IIRC Jackie Gleason said that he wouldn't be funny if he lost weight. (Which is kind of sad, given how gifted he was.)

I've noticed that making fun of actors' physical quirks seems to be quite a commonly used gambit in a number of Chuck Lorre's comedies - THE BIG BANG THEORY harps frequently on the short stature of Leonard and Howard (and also Helberg's slightness, which is deliberately accentuated by the costuming and Penny's large feet and hands (which don't look unusually so to me). This week had Amy commenting on the size of Bernadette's chest. ISTR that on 2 1/2 MEN there were a bunch of jokes about Jake's big head.

My guess would be that there probably are some actors who can't take it and then the showrunners don't go there (or find another actor). And I also bet the team on CHEERS and FRASIER wouldn't have felt so free with the ice-queen jokes if Neuwirth *hadn't* been a, you-should-excuse-the-expression, "babe".

Not a comedy, but I remember that on GOSSIP GIRL Kelly Rutherford was given a line about the difficulties of raising a teenaged daughter: "That's why I needed the Botox." I can't think of anyone who'd enjoy delivering that line.

wg

chalmers said...

The actor's appearance question always haunts me during Allyce Beasley's performance in "Coach's Daughter." Of course, the beautiful climax with her and Coach makes it all better.

Obviously, Margaret was constantly mocked for her severe military demeanor and romance with Frank, but I don't ever recall any negative comments about her looks.

There's the great moment where Hawkeye has to inoculate her backside and she warns "Not a word!" Hawkeye replies, "Oh, I won't say a word, but if I did, that word would be 'magnificent.' "

Ken's also acknowledged that Loretta Swit was granted some leeway from historically accurate hair/makeup/wardrobe in order to resemble other glamorous actresses of the time rather than someone living in an army tent.

chalmers said...

The actor's appearance question always haunts me during Allyce Beasley's performance in "Coach's Daughter." Of course, the beautiful climax with her and Coach makes it all better.

Obviously, Margaret was constantly mocked for her severe military demeanor and romance with Frank, but I don't ever recall any negative comments about her looks.

There's the great moment where Hawkeye has to inoculate her backside and she warns "Not a word!" Hawkeye replies, "Oh, I won't say a word, but if I did, that word would be 'magnificent.' "

Ken's also acknowledged that Loretta Swit was granted some leeway from historically accurate hair/makeup/wardrobe in order to resemble other glamorous actresses of the time rather than someone living in an army tent.

Joseph said...

Hello, Ken,
It was great to meet you last night at the play. I really enjoyed the play, especially the second act with the rapid switching back and forth between the two stories. The actors did an amazing job. Since it was only the second night of previews it’ll be interesting to see how it changes before officially opening.

Michael said...

Did Bebe Neuwirth ever express concern about being typecast due to Lilith's appearance?

benson said...

Maybe only on my browser, but where Ken, you wrote Bebe Neuwirth was the hottest woman on the set, right above that was the picture of Jackie Gleason.

BTW, the episode where Frasier and Lillith are in Cheers, and she takes her glasses off, undoes her hair bun, and "oh, Mama" is still one of the great Cheers moments.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Found this Bob Ellison quote, from obit on David Lloyd, which pretty well sums up what David and Bob did.

“He lit up the writer’s room when he came in. And that’s a big part of the job, bringing the room to life, resuscitating it.”

I didn't see any credits for Bob on IMDb since Andy Richter's show a decade ago. Is he retired? You'd hope not with that great gift of wit.

McAlvie said...

"this convention has now been done to death. "

Absolutely! That and the season-long story arc. Remember when NCIS had a story arc that went to 5 consecutive episodes? By episode 4 I was pulling for Richard Schiff's character ... the bad guy. As you said, Ken, the audience might not be quite that invested, and faced with a cliff-hanger, they might decide to skip it altogether.

I'm also not a fan of these new tv dramas where they are chasing a seriel kill for the entire season/series. And generally it's not a successful concept because they audience gets tired of waiting for the pay off, so it's a pretty bad bet.

Lynn said...

Nancy Kulp would have had a reason to file a grievance during her run on Beverly Hillbillies as her looks were often the brunt of many a joke.

I remember reading an interview with Max Baer (Jethro, on Hillbillies in which he discussed that aspect of Kulp's work, the gist of which was that she was a very self-confident woman who was quite comfortable in her own skin.

I suppose that's true of most all actors. Acting, after all, isn't a very good career choice for the hypersensitive and the easily offended. A smart actor is aware of the realities and limitations of his or her physical appearance and uses that to their own advantage.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder if playing so heavily on the negative of aspects of certain actors' physical appearance doesn't sometimes get difficult for the staff of a show. My dad used to watch Married with Children, and a recurring bit on that show was Al Bundy's battles with the unending parade of overweight, unattractive female customers he had to deal with in the shoe store where he was employed. I used to wonder if it ever bothered those who handled casting on that show, dealing with a steady stream of actresses who were being cast because they were overweight and less than photogenic, and whose role on the show was to be insulted as fat and ugly.

Hamid said...

benson said...

Maybe only on my browser, but where Ken, you wrote Bebe Neuwirth was the hottest woman on the set, right above that was the picture of Jackie Gleason.


That was the joke...

Scooter Schechtman said...

All the time Cheers was running I thought Neuwirth was Bebe Buell's daughter.

Howard Hoffman said...

It depends on your definition of "pictured above."

"Above" is so subjective.

Judith said...

Speaking of Bebe Neuwirth, Lilith's voice drops at least an octave between her first appearance - Second Time Around - and her second, Abnormal Psychology, and it seems to me her voice dropped even further as the Lilith character continued on the show.

The lower register seems to me to suit the character better. I guess - and I guess this is a Friday question - this is normal character development and I wonder if this is something one of the director's suggested or if Bebe evolved it on her own. (If anyone knows.)

Here's YouTube links:
Second Time Around:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlyhoMzL1hw

Abnormal Psychology:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGDq7bchbEU

David G. Whitham said...

"The irony on CHEERS was that every character took shots at Lilith for how cold and severe she was, and off camera and out of costume Bebe Neuwirth (pictured above) was the hottest woman on that set."

I remember the episode of Frasier where Lilith ended up in bed with Frasier, and in the morning says, "You were a busy boy"

The way she said that still makes my toes curl...

John said...

There was one episode of MASH where Hawkeye was giving a reluctant Margaret her physical and chided her for gaining wait -- the lines IIRC corrected was she said she was retaining water and Hawkeye told her alcohol was fattening.

She then popped a button on her uniform, and spent the rest of the episode worrying about her weight to Frank.

Nancy Kulp couldn't have been too uncomfortable about how she was used, since she played exactly the same character five years earlier on "Love that Bob". Both shows had the same producer (Paul Henning), along with the same production staff and many of the same writers, and the jabs had a softer touch than a decade later, when Kulp was used again in a similar way in the final season of "Sanford and Son" (Fred's laser dart ugly jokes at Aunt Esther were funny because Esther could give as good as she got; his similar shots at Kulp didn't come off as well as in the earlier shows, because she was merely acting like an intellectual ditz and was getting hammered in return).

chalmers said...

Nancy Kulp was confident enough to run for Congress after her acting career ended. I do remember reading that she was upset when her opponent got Buddy Ebsen to record an ad characterizing her as a crazy Hollywood liberal.

Chris said...

Nancy Kulp, Reta Shaw, Ruth McDevitt, Marion Lorne--I miss the character actors from that era. Brilliant, all of them. I really can't think of anyone like them working today.

Rob said...

In "Goodbye Radar" Colonel Potter remarks in the chow line about how Margaret is always able to "pack it away", then tries to back out of it by adding "and yet you manage to keep that girlish figure".

Bea Arthur's character took a lot of abuse on "The Golden Girls".

Michael said...

Ken,
Some supporting actors from TV shows disappear after their show ends while others continue to pop up in new shows in varying degrees. In your opinion, which factor is most important in determining this - talent, a good agent, simple luck?

Lorimartian said...

Who "shot" JR? ^_^

I'm looking forward to seeing the play on November 9 and a blog post about how the preview performances may prompt script revisions.

Apart from how the actor accepts negative physical comments directed at his/her character, when does this practice serve as a model for bullying? Are these jabs okay just because the characters are friends and they don't take it seriously, and it's not perceived as mean-spirited just because they are friends? I think that to a degree it is mean-spirited regardless of friendship. In "Married With Children," the dysfunction is so exaggerated that those kinds of comments are funny, but in TBBT or TAHM, it seems unnecessary to go there. I don't know. Where is the line between "kiddng" and bullying? "Kidding" can hurt someone's feelings, too.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

and it seems to me her voice dropped even further as the Lilith character continued on the show.
One of my favorite bits on Cheers, Phase II, was when Rebecca asked a pregnant Lilith to coach her on being a tough business woman. One of LSC's key pieces of advice in scaring men stupid was to lower her voice.

"If I choose to accept their offer, you're looking at the new vice president of operations for the Eastern seaboard"

Max Clarke said...

FRIDAY QUESTION

Ken,

You and the others who make tv shows get to see the actors turning in great work on a weekly basis. Even if you never take them for granted, it's easy to forget just how good they are.

Can you discuss some of the moments when the actors were so good, everybody shooting the show was truly astonished, maybe awestruck.

I remember your praising the way Alan Alda performed his section of the script when Hawkeye was blinded, for example.

KING OF JAZZ said...

That looks like a Gleason
impersonator doing Ralph Kramden.

Eric L said...

As a lad it was always exciting to see an episode of CHEERS where Lilith would dress sexy. They were rare, but they were great.

Jeffro said...

Call me weird and possibly perverted, but I always found Bebe Neuwirth much more sexy in her normal Lilith get-up with the tightly pulled back hair than when she let her hair down. (But that pic is pretty damn sexy. Thanks, Ken!) Maybe I'm one of those fellows who likes the domineering female types.

Cheerio,
Jeffro

Anonymous said...

Friday Q!

In a pilot, is it acceptable to introduce a "temporary character" that serves to tell a conflict between a main character - or should that be saved for a future episode?

Thanks!

Marianne said...

Friday Q: I was watching Madam Secretary last night and I noticed that Bebe Neuwirth plays quite a similar character to that of Lilith. How difficult is it for actors to avoid falling victim to typecasting?

Barry Traylor said...

Ken, the problem I have with cliffhangers is that there are two times in the recent past that a show has done a cliffhanger only to have the show cancelled and the viewer/fan never finds out what happened. A&E has done this twice now with the result that I have removed the channel from my favorites in my DVR and I no longer have any interest in what they choose to run.

Mike said...

If you knew one of your shows was on the borderline to being renewed, would you deliberately end a season with a cliffhanger?

Kris said...

Mindy Kaling seems to be a very intelligently-spoken woman (not exactly a very funny woman) but is it shallow of me to ask you if at least a portion of her success is attributed to people thinking she's more physically attractive than she actually is? If you don't find it an unfair judgement and shallow, I'd love to hear your thoughts?

Jeff :) said...

Can you give us the log line to your pilot for the USA Network? I'm curious to hear what might have been.