Saturday, December 27, 2014

How did we handle drinking on CHEERS

Does anybody read the Friday Questions in the archive?  Here's a repost of some from four years ago.  The answers mostly still apply.

Lairbo is up first.

On CHEERS, I can recall few, if any, scenes of someone actually being drunk at the bar. Were there rules or guidelines about this? If so, were they from the network or the creators?

I think everyone (the Charles Brothers, Jim Burrows, NBC, Paramount) were in agreement that the drinking had to be handled responsibly. No one ever drove home drunk. There were a few cases where cabs were called for homeward bound patrons.

The conceit with Norm was that he could hold his liquor. So we never played him drunk or with impaired judgment.

I want to say we never got laughs out of drunks at the bar but there was Al. A case can be made that he was just punch drunk, not alcohol drunk, but he sure acted like a tosspot.

Sam of course, was a former alcoholic and the message was delivered many times that you don’t solve your problems by drinking. And that goes for egg nog, by the way. The benefit people got from going to the CHEERS bar was the camaraderie and support they gained from each other. Remember, the theme is “where everyone knows your name” not “where fifty dollars will get you shit-faced”.

From RockGolf:

Which IQ is easier to write for: smart or dumb? And which do networks prefer?

Both have their plusses. It’s “easier” I suppose to write dumb characters, but smart characters allow you to write with sophistication, and I personally prefer that. Anyone can write morons; it takes a certain skill to service witty, truly intelligent characters.

But I can’t stress this enough: play every character to the top of their intelligence, regardless of their IQ. I’ve said this before, but the best dimwits are the ones who are dumb for a legitimate reason. Coach was hit in the head by too many fastballs. Woody was a naïve country boy. There’s a logic to everything they said. It’s just not the correct logic.

Networks prefer any show that gets ratings. If it’s FRASIER, fine. If it’s HEE HAW, also fine.

Kevin asks:

Ken, You've talked about not liking it when the director of Volunteers broke the fourth wall. What do you think about the practice of putting an "inside" joke into a sitcom? For instance, How I Met Your Mother has done it at least twice: Barney recreating the end of Doogie Howser in one show and recently when Jorge Garcia shouted out the "Lost" numbers in an episode. Even Frasier did it once when Laurie Metcalf as Nanny G asked Fraiser how he'd feel playing the same role for 20 years. For the joke to work, the audience has to know the reference, which can be a big risk.

Inside jokes are tricky. They can be great little rewards for fans who are really paying attention. Or your close friends, or eighth grade teacher that you want to rip.  But you have to be careful that the audience doesn't feel excluded because there are too many references they don’t get.

Personally, I like inside jokes. Always have. I loved in HIS GIRL FRIDAY that Cary Grant makes mention of an Archie Leach (which was his real name). And he describes Roz Russell’s fiancée as looking like the actor Ralph Bellamy (Ralph Bellamy actually played the part of the fiancée).

I’ve slipped in my fair share of inside jokes. But the trick is to hide them so they go right by the general audience. It’s comedy camouflage. But never do an inside joke at the expense of a bigger joke that everyone would get. You’re doing a show for millions of people, not just your eight friends (unless you’re on NBC at 10:30).

And finally, from Debby G:

You're taking an improv class? Just for fun or to help your writing or because you see a job at The Groundlings in your future? Once you became an established writer, did you still take classes, read how-to books, etc.? Or did you feel you'd advanced beyond those things?

I’m taking it mostly for fun but also to keep sharpening my skills, in the same way that professional golfers still take lessons. I have no aspirations of performing in an improv group or becoming an actor, but learning how to create characters and even more importantly, commit to them helps me as a writer.

Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

I’m in a class taught by Andy Goldberg. Most class members are improv veterans so it’s primarily a group of enormously talented people (and me) essentially having a jam session.

Did I mention it’s great great fun?

22 comments:

Stefan Koepeknie said...

Back to the bar. I curious: was that real beer on tap or a look-alike? Or did you have both? One for the visual effect and another for Norm to guzzle no matter how many takes?

LouOCNY said...

Nice name Stefan...your hair ever grow faster during a full moon?


George said...

Thanks to the Internet, you don't have to be Dietrich to get that reference.....

Covarr said...

"the trick is to hide them so they go right by the general audience. It’s comedy camouflage."

This is kinda how I feel about references in general, even more than inside jokes; it almost applies even more to major references to stuff everyone is familiar with. If you throw a ton of references into something in the background, catching them all can be fun, and it makes no difference to a viewer who doesn't get them. THE SIMPSONS has done a particularly good job with this over the years. If you don't get 'em, you don't even notice they're there. Do it in the foreground and call attention to it without actually expanding it into a proper joke, EPIC MOVIE style, not only will half the audience be sitting there not getting it, but the half that does get it will be like "Yeah? So?"

But of course, that won't stop hundreds of writers from inserting RISKY BUSINESS dance scene verbatim over the years. And maybe a few will add something new to make an actual joke out of it (THE SIMPSONS replaced the song with "Who Like Short Shorts", added some bad singing by Homer, and some bear slippers, making it funny even if you hadn't seen RISKY BUSINESS).

David G. Whitham said...

I love the references and inside jokes.

As mentioned in the post, the "20 years playing the same character" joke by Nanny G is one of my faves.

A couple of others:

In the first season of NCIS, Kate wonders, "I wonder what Ducky (played by David McCallum) looked like when he was younger?" To which Gibbs replies, "Illya Kuryakin".

On the Big Bang Theory, Wil Wheaton's house number was 1701.

My all time favorite was from 3rd Rock from the Sun - when the group met the "Big Giant Head", played by William Shatner (an inside joke by itself), at the airport. Shatner went on to complain ho whe was the only passenger to see a monster trying to take apart the wing of the plane. To which John Lithgow exclaimed, "That happened to me, too!"

Anonymous said...

Probably the biggest use of inside jokes and pop references, is MSTK3k. Have the fun os trying to catch the references.

Mike Schryver said...

Funny thing about Al - it never even occurred to me that he might have been alcohol-drunk. I always saw him as punch drunk. Actually, I just figured that was the way he always talked and acted.

DBenson said...

One of the earliest inside jokes: In "Steamboat Bill Jr.", college boy Buster Keaton arrives with a beret. His tough father immediately takes him to get a big, manly hat. We then see Buster adjusting to a succession of hats (all body language with the straight face) as his father rejects each one. Suddenly Buster's trademark porkpie hat from the shorts appears. Buster hastily ditches it, as if it wasn't supposed to be there.

Will said...

There’s a logic to everything they said. It’s just not the correct logic.

George Burns used to say that this was the trick to writing material for him and his wife, Gracie. Some writers who tried unsuccessfully to pen material for the team would just have Gracie saying stupid, off-the-wall things. George always insisted that what Gracie said had to make sense. Just not "sense" as everybody else understood it. His standard illustration was of Gracie putting two roasts -- a small one and a large one -- into the oven. Why? When the small one was burned she knew the big one was done. There is logic behind that. Just not logic that made sense to anybody but Gracie.

Anonymous said...

@VP81955. If you going to watch "Episodes", try to start at the beginning. I think Showtime on demand still has it. I've touted "Episodes" a couple of times on this blog and the best comedy ons sTV currently.

I. M. a'Robot said...

Kenneth Tigar, the Werewolf, also appeared on Cheers twice, the first time as Fred in "The Boys in the Bar", which I just discovered, was written by Ken and David.

If you have any Kenneth Tigar anecdotes, I'd love to hear them.

Hal said...

So, Ken, are you always opposed to breaking the fourth wall, or did you just object to the circumstances under which it was done in "Volunteers"? I've been watching the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" pictures, and those are laced with moments in which the fourth wall is not just broken, but reduced to rubble and hauled away. (One of my favorite examples occurs when Hope, just before Crosby starts singing, turns to the audience and tells us that he has to stick around for this, but there's no reason we shouldn't go to the lobby for a cigarette.)

Rory L. Aronsky said...

While I am disappointed that "I Ought to Be in Pictures" isn't in the lineup, I'm making room on my Tivo for all of this, including the pleasure of seeing your comedic face on my big-screen TV, Ken! Turner Classic Movies gets it right!: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/1054745%7C0/Neil-Simon-Fridays-in-January.html

Chalmers said...

"St. Elsewhere" is the all-time inside joke champ. Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows had occasionally appeared as the parents of resident Victor Ehrlich. When the residents were about to graduate at the end of the series, the fathers of Ehrlich's friends were played by Allen's "Tonight Show" cohorts, Louis Nye, Bill Macy and Tom Poston.

cadavra said...

Hal, that "lobby" joke had been done 20 years earlier by Groucho in HORSE FEATHERS. And it probably pre-dated that in vaudeville.

Katherine Helmond's character on SOAP was very much written as Gracie Allen. A personal favorite:

"Good morning, dear. Sleep well?"
"Oh, yes, I slept like a hog."
"No, no, you mean you slept like a log."
"Don't be silly, Chester. Logs don't sleep."

And indeed, who could argue with that?

LouOCNY said...

So, Ken, are you always opposed to breaking the fourth wall, or did you just object to the circumstances under which it was done in "Volunteers"? I've been watching the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" pictures, and those are laced with moments in which the fourth wall is not just broken, but reduced to rubble and hauled away. (One of my favorite examples occurs when Hope, just before Crosby starts singing, turns to the audience and tells us that he has to stick around for this, but there's no reason we shouldn't go to the lobby for a cigarette.)

Stolen directly from the Marx Brothers' Horsefeathers, with Groucho warning folks right before Chico's piano piece...http://youtu.be/XG0PL99UjZA?t=1m10s

cd1515 said...

Ken may not have been involved in these episodes but I remember a guy getting drunk at Cheers the night before he was to enter the priesthood or something.
and Diane was drunk a few times for various reasons.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

There is an inside joke that is painful to watch on reruns. On FRIENDS, Brad Pitt guested as a someone who hated the character, Rachael Green, played by his real-life wife, Jennifer Aniston. A few years he cheated on her and they were divorced.

McAlvie said...

Ha, I was watching His Gal Friday just the other night, Ken, and caught the reference to Ralph Bellamy, but I don't remember hearing Archie Leach mentioned. Then again, that movie is filled with so much rapid fire dialog that I seem to discover something new in it every time I watch it.

Scott said...

Just a thought. I wonder if the aforementioned Hope-Crosby "Road" picture and the Marx Brothers picture that both used the "lobby" gag might have shared a common writer? One who remembered the gag and recycled it? In those days, before television and when reissues were rare, who would know?

Which prompts a question: is it okay for a writer to recycle his own ideas, even if they were already used on another series or film? Is there an ethical problem with it? For example, a friend has a 16mm print of a 1960s series titled HEY LANDLORD. The episode in question, written by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, was recycled over a decade later on LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, even to the point of carrying over a lot of the dialogue. If it's your script (and in this case I believe it was Marshall and Belson's series), is there a problem with reusing parts of it elsewhere, even if you're just reusing a few of the jokes?

cadavra said...

Scott, jokes get repeated all the time, especially in the old days, when movies were not expected to have any shelf life. One memorable example: Back in 2008, the Academy held a Centennial salute to James Stewart, and one of the clips they showed was from a very obscure 1938 comedy called VIVACIOUS LADY. In the scene shown, Ginger Rogers asks Jimmy to hold her "closer, closer." He stammers, "If I hold ya any closer I'll be in back of ya." The entire audience gasped, because they all recognized that line as being spoken by Groucho the year before in A DAY AT THE RACES.

Arshad Ali said...
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