Ready for some more Friday Questions?
Dan Ball gets us started.
What's the quickest amount of time you and David had to turn around the most amount of writing?
A rewrite of JEWEL OF THE NILE, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. There was a looming WGA strike and they had to have a draft to give to the Moroccan government for approval of shooting in their country. We pretty much had a weekend to rewrite the entire screenplay.
We usually worked with a writers’ assistant taking dictation. We hired two and just rotated them. It was a crazy lost weekend.
With approximately 5 million actors in LA , why do some shows use the same actors over and over for different characters? We've been watching a LOT of MeTV, and I think, for instance, William Schallert has appeared on _everything_ at least three times. More lately, there is a webpage that lists "repeat offenders" on Law & Order, with some actors guesting four or five times, again, playing different characters.
They keep getting hired because they’re reliable, know the drill, and can give a solid performance. It’s simply a “set it and forget it” deal. And in some cases, they are favorites of certain showrunners.
But the downside is that these character actors do get over-exposed. There have been many times a casting director will suggest someone for a guest spot and I’ll say, “Jesus, he’s been on every show since the dawn of man.” The last thing you want a viewer to say is “That guy again?” when an actor appears on the screen. It takes the viewer out of the story.
It’s always great when you can discover somebody new, but the truth is, quite often you’re pressed for time. You rewrite a script, add a part, it’s 5:30 in the afternoon and you’re scheduled to shoot the scene first thing the next morning. You don’t have time to hold a casting call. You say, “William Schallert could play this. Let’s just get him.”
I think on LAW & ORDER they have a rule where a guest actor can only appear once a season. But they sure use a lot of people. If you go to any Broadway or off-Broadway production and read the Playbill bios, virtually every actor will have LAW & ORDER on his resume.
Longtime friend of the blog, Wendy M. Grossman asks:
Do you think it's easier for a show that's not recorded in front of a live audience to lose its way creatively? For example, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER seemed to me to fall off a cliff quality-wise after about season 4 (and had some truly terrible episodes in its last couple of seasons).
There is always the danger of that when you’re no longer held accountable for your episodes. You work much harder to ensure the show is funny if you know there will be 200 strangers in the audience when you tape it. So yes.
You can also be fooled by a studio audience, especially once a show is an established hit. Adoring audiences will start laughing at everything and give you a false sense of security. By the last few years of CHEERS, if I’m being honest, we didn’t have to earn any of the laughs. Norm would just enter and say “Afternoon everybody” and the audience would go into hysterics. He didn't even say anything funny. On the one hand it was very gratifying, but also hard to judge what really worked. Home audiences would be less enamored.
And finally, a long one from Steve:
In your post about creating characters, you mentioned making characters real, 3-dimensional people. But one question I've had concerns rather cartoonish characters on terrific shows, such as Frank on MASH, Ted on Mary Tyler Moore, etc.
Ted, for example, was so over-the-top stupid and could never actually earn or keep his job, but most thought of him as a hilarious character (although for me personally, he was often so ridiculous that it took me out of the show to some extent). Frank was such an obvious and pathetic villain. Yes, of course, once a season or so there'd be some episode that would give a Frank or a Ted some more nuance, but for the most part they were cartoons. (And replacing Frank with Charles was, to me, an improvement because although Charles could be ridiculous and a villain, he came across as an actual human being).
Can you comment on finding this balance between a cartoonish side character built for laughs and as a foil, versus the need to have characters who are at least somewhat realistic people?
You’re right. It is a real tightrope we have to walk. There is the temptation to lean towards cartoonish because the laughs come so easily. But those characters can undermine the integrity and quality of your show if you’re not careful. To make them work you need (a) a truly hilarious character, and (b) a brilliantly funny actor to play him. If either a or b is missing, the character won’t work. And if you have a and b it still might not work.
Frank Burns was a harder sell than Ted Baxter. You could almost buy that a news anchor could get by on looks and delivery alone. I’m sure there are local news producers who would insist idiots like Ted do indeed exist.
But Frank Burns, military incongruities aside -- it’s really hard to believe this guy was an actual doctor. And we made him so incompetent and stupid. I look back and cringe at times. But dirty little secret – God, he was fun to write.
Larry Gelbart has even said on record that he regrets making the character so one-dimensional and takes the blame. He sympathized with Larry Linville’s frustration in playing Burns.
But I was at MASH when Linville left and was subsequently there for the development of Charles. And the first thing we did was make sure we didn’t repeat the same mistakes. Yes, Charles was the antagonist, but we made him super smart – in fact, a better surgeon than even Hawkeye. He was a worthy adversary. And his superior attitude felt real. Hawkeye and BJ might have felt he was a pain in the ass, but they had to respect him. There was no reason for anyone to respect Frank Burns, and that was the big problem.
What’s your Friday Question?