Sunday, December 07, 2014

What's it like writing for animals?


A lot easier than directing them. On FRASIER the key to writing for Eddie was not asking too much of him. Moose (Eddie’s real name) had an extraordinary trainer in Mathilde de Cagny. As long as the stunt was quick and doable, Mathilde could get Moose to do it (always through treats and loving care). If there was some question while we were writing we would just ask Mathilde. More often than not she’d say Moose could do it. The dog was a gamer! With actors we had to ask their managers.

Other writers were more of a problem. One day in the writers room I pitched some bit with Eddie and a sock and one of the writers (who constantly drove everyone nuts) asked, “What is Eddie thinking now?” What is he fucking THINKING??! How do you answer someone like that without being brought up on charges?

Moose passed away at 15, which is like 108 dog years. I'm only sorry he never got to be on INSIDE THE ACTOR'S STUDIO with James Lipton.

Directing animals is another story.

I directed an episode of JUST SHOOT ME called “Sewer”. The B-story had Nina (Wendie Malick) bringing in an orangutan. I forget why but I’m sure it was for a good reason. He was a little harder to train and was in a good part of the show.

On filming night I said to the actors, if he does anything unexpected just go with it and stay in character. We can always re-shoot the scene. Likewise, I told the four camera operators, if you’re on the orangutan and he does something wacky stay on him. Don’t go to your next shot.

Sure enough with cameras rolling and the audience in place, Wendie steps out of the elevator hand in hand with her furry friend, approaches David Spade’s counter, and has a brief exchange with him. The orangutan, who comes up to Wendie’s knees, lifts her dress a few inches, and peers right up between her legs. God love her, Wendie stayed completely in character and reacted with utter nonchalance. The audience went completely nuts. It was a five minute laugh.

After the show had been filmed and the audience released I went back to do some pick-ups. The orangutan’s trainer tapped me on the shoulder and gently told me it was past his bedtime. I said it would only be about another fifteen minutes. He repeated: “Uh, it’s past his bedtime.” I then asked what happens if he stays up after his bedtime?

“He bites everybody he sees.”

“Okay everybody, that’s a wrap!”

I’ve heard stories of actors who were reluctant to work with animals for fear of being upstaged, but I’ve never personally encountered one. However, I think there was a cat who once refused to work with Dustin Hoffman.

This was a repost from four years ago.

26 comments:

MikeK.Pa. said...

Wendie Malick is an underrated and under-the-radar comedienne. From "Dream On" to "Just Shoot Me" to "Hot in Cleveland" she constantly delivers. Not bad for an ex-model.

"Just Shoot Me," along with "Wings," is one of my all-time favorite sit-coms. George Segal was great in it, especially his interactions with David Spade, who has made a career on the adolescent/adult leer. Unfortunately Segal is wasted on "The Goldbergs." Hopefully in future seasons, the writers will give him more canvas to work on.

Bill O said...

Maureen O'Sullivan described a different problem with Cheetah on the first Weismuller Tarzan films.Out of the closet and proud, Cheetah would become tumescent in Weismuller's presence, filming delayed til things settled down. According to O'Sullivan, the director finally shouted "Paint it black and keep filming.".

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

...this is the second repost in a row and all of us hope you're OK. If you need anything, let us know and we'll all flashmob you to do it.

Ken Levine said...

Nothing's wrong. As NBC used to say, "if you haven't seen it, it's new to you."

Greg Ehrbar said...

I love "Just Shoot Me" too. The whole cast. Laura San Giacomo was a fantastic comedy lead (Jules reminded me of her, with the same superb timing and blend of strength and sensitivity. Also liked the idea that Enrico Colantoni, a bald guy like me, was the babe magnet.

Glad you mentioned Eddie, because in a wonderful episode of FRASIER, we got to hear what Eddie "heard" in human conversation: "Blab blah blah blah FOOD blah-blah-blah-blah EDDIE blah blah" etc.

My mom is like that. You can talk to her and all she hears is "Blab blah blah blah CAROL blah-blah-blah-blah DANISH PASTRY blah blah MOM blah blah blah GUILT" etc, etc, etc. etc.

Canda said...

You may notice that sometimes when animals are "acting" alone, without humans, that there is music playing over the scene. That's because the trainer is yelling out instructions, pleadings, etc., to make sure the animal does what it's supposed to do.

Nothing wrong with re-posts. You're allowed to take some days off. You have a busy schedule, and like you said, most often it's new to us, and certainly the comments are different.

Scooter Schechtman said...

I remember a "Dick Van Dyke Show" that had a kangaroo in a veterinary clinic. It was pretty obvious the beast had Done Something because there was a pretty big edit in it.
I don't mind these "encore presentations" either. MSNBC spends weedends and holidays showing prison shows and it's not like Exxon is too stingy...

Mike Barer said...

It always seemed funny that they would change a dog's name to be in a TV show, are they members of a guild also?

MikeK.Pa. said...

Mike Barer said...
"It always seemed funny that they would change a dog's name to be in a TV show, are they members of a guild also?"

No. A kennel.

Re: reposts. All knew to me and mostly gold. Thx.

ScottyB said...

I like it when Ken reposts something, because I'm about 3 paragraphs in and I think "Hey, this sounds reallyreally familiar". And then I see the "This was a repost from X years ago" line at the very end.

And that way, I know dementia isn't anything I need to worry about at least for today.

Eric J said...

The reposts are great. It maintains the habit of looking in frequently. A lot of blogs post sporadically and I stop clicking the bookmark as often, then eventually delete it when I can't remember what it was for.

Love Wendy Malick. Beautiful and hilarious woman.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Reposts: Love 'em.
Wendie Malick: Oh dear sweet God, love her. She was always excellent on Just Shoot Me.

David in Cincinnati said...

If I were a cat... well, let's just say Mr. Hoffman had better stay out of claws' reach.

I'd say more, but the Court's injunction won't permit it...

Cap'n Bob said...

I heard a story that a guy with a BB gun would shoot Cheetah in his johnson if he got too amorous on the set.

mmryan314 said...

Wendy Malik is awesome. I easily hold her up to Lily Tomlin in her abilities.

Breadbaker said...

I saw Eddie in person when the cast of Frasier threw out the first pitch at the Kingdome in 1997. The human cast members walked out and then Eddie ran out after them to the mound. Or I should say Moose did.

VP81955 said...

Wendie is a wonderful actress -- and believe it or not, she turned 60 not long ago.

ScottyB said...

Ken wrote: "God love her, Wendie stayed completely in character and reacted with utter nonchalance."

Oddly enough on Sunday night, my local PBS channel aired an installment of 'American Masters' about Carol Burnett. Seriously, I don't think there's ever been anyone able could stay in character quite like her (and bring on 5-minute laughs doing it), even tho when she did crack up uncontrollably, that alone was a total 5-*plus* minute scream.

That woman's mind and performance has been an unearthly quality like few others anyone in a century will ever be fortunate enough to enjoy.

DBenson said...

Animal ad-lib on SNL: They had a soap parody called "I Married a Chimp", which was mostly the tragic hero having heart-to-heart conversations with his disinterested wife.

On one he left the room to fetch their baby. You heard squealing and caught a glimpse of a baby chimp clinging to his trainer and refusing to go with the actor. Actor walks back into the room. "You've turned our child against me.:

Loosehead said...

Wendy Malick was/is a good-looking woman. Are you sure there wasn't a teenager in the Orang-Utan suit?

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

Mike Barer: There are surely people who know more and can authoritatively answer, but my understanding is that the names are changed so that the dogs can distinguish between orders from their trainers (using the dogs's real names) and the dialogue spoken by the actors.

Charles Emerson Losechester said...

@Greg Ehrbar:

As hilarious as that Eddie bit is in FRASIER, I feel obliged to note that the same thing was done on THE SIMPSONS a few years earlier, and to much funnier and plot-important effect. That is, the dog interpreting human talking only in black-and-white, and the speech a bunch of blah-blahs. At least Eddie understands his own name!

It's in an episode from an early season where Santa's Little Helper is being sent to dog reform school for (among other things) chewing up Homer's macamadamia nut cookie.

P.S.--since I want to be a real nerd about this, I'll point out that there's a Far Side strip from the late 80s that probably originated the joke.

Charles Emerson Losechester said...

@DBenson:

According to recent interview testimony from Tim Kazurinsky (from the "SNL In The 80s" DVD), he actually realized that the chimp in that skit wanted to kill him--in hindsight.

So yeah, personally I'd rather err on the side of saying that working with large primates is dangerous.

Ed Dempsey said...

Youch. Tim Kazurinsky was a real trooper. Here's that clip from SNL - https://screen.yahoo.com/videos-for-you/married-monkey-madge-monkey-000000231.html.

And reposts from time to time are always nice little nuggets of fun.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Wendie Malick voiced the first pregnant Disney character in "The Emperor's New Groove," and underrated animated feature.

Appropo of nothing, just a factoid.

Lyn said...

I love Steve Martin's stand-up routine for dogs:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBzwTDFq_2U