Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Questions

Hello from Beijing.  Where are all the Olympic athletes?  Did I miss it?  Oh well.  It’s Friday question day. What’s yours?

Damian J. Thomas wants to know:

Why do TV series waste my time with retrospective episodes? Some episodes simply show parts of the same stuff I’ve already seen. Was someone, such as the head writer, on vacation that week?

Retrospectives are a cheap way to fill out a season’s worth of shows. They generally do well in the ratings. And networks promote the crap out of them.

One of the most horrifying experiences in my life involves a retrospective. I was taking an MRI (already a heart pounding endeavor). Mirrors were set up in the tube that allowed patients to watch a television. So there I was, claustrophobic, not allowed to move even an inch, for 45 minutes, forced to watch the NANNY retrospective.

Years ago I pitched a sitcom pilot to NBC. When it was time for questions one network whiz asked (in a straight face yet): “What’s the first episode of season seven?” I picked my jaw off the floor and said, “The clip show featuring all the classic moments from the first six years.” I wanted to add but didn’t: “What the fuck do you think is the first show of season seven? How the fuck would I know that? Are you insane?” They didn’t buy the show.

Retrospectives are great for writers. They get royalties for any clips used from their episodes. My partner and I cleaned up on MASH and CHEERS. I think on CHEERS they used something like 25 of our episodes. After that, anytime in the writing room we were stuck on a story at CHEERS I would say, “Let’s just scrap this and do another clip show!”

We were there during the MASH retrospective and although it was cheap to produce it required five times the effort on our part to put it together. For a month every night after we finished our writing we drove to a production house in Hollywood and screened episodes until midnight or 1 AM. Then came the impossible task of culling seven years of great highlights into one expanded episode.

An additional problem is determining the format for the clips. There is the wraparound approach. This can be real dicey. I remember one series got around this problem by having their characters being robbed. While tied up together in the kitchen, to pass the time (as all bound families do) they started reminiscing. “Hey, remember the time you wrecked the car?” And then they’d show the clip. Smooooth.

Nowadays shows tend to steer away from that artful device. On CHEERS we took the cast out of character and put them on a panel. They answered a moderator’s questions and we used the clips to support those answers. Other shows use just strictly clips tied together by graphics or voice-overs.

One trend I’m noticing lately – these retrospectives are appearing sooner and sooner. It used to be you wouldn’t even think of doing a clip show before 100 episodes. Now it’s getting to where the clip show comes as a celebration of getting picked up for the back nine.

Someday I’ll have to put together a clip show of this blog. Various sentences from different posts. Wait a minute. I could say I’m doing that right NOW. Yes, welcome to my retrospective post.

From Jim:

Is there an etiquette among scriptwriters, both inside and out of the writers' room, of how to let your colleagues know that you don't get the joke, or even worse that you get it but you think that it stinks? Or does everyone else just quietly move on and let you work it out for yourself? And is there a further etiquette for when you think that you've just come up with the funniest line ever, all these other fools want to move on but you refuse to give up so easily?

Each showrunner is different of course, but I’ve always tried to be as diplomatic I can when rejecting a pitch. I’ll say stuff like, “Yeah, it’s getting there” and “it’s funny but I’m not sure it’s right.” If you really shoot the writer down you run the risk he’ll clam up and then he’s worthless to you. On the other hand, I know showrunners who rule strictly by fear. You pitch something he doesn’t like and he’ll take your head off. You might say, don’t they realize they’re only stifling creativity and shooting themselves in the foot? And I would say, yes, but they’re assholes. I’m lucky. I’ve worked for showrunners who had their quirks and I wanted to kill them but I’ve never served under one of these tyrants.

There was a showrunner who would say, “How the fuck is that funny? Explain to me how anyone is going to laugh at that.” Needless to say the writers’ testicles retreated so far up his body he needed tweezers to find them.

Comedy writers need to develop a thick skin and often times showrunners are under tremendous pressure so they may not be as gracious as you would like. But I’ve always felt one of the showrunner’s jobs was to create a safe fun environment in the room so every writer could produce his best. To me it’s a complete win-win.

As for the second part of the question, this is more than etiquette. This is pretty much a RULE.

If you pitch a joke, even if you think it's the greatest joke ever conceived, if it’s rejected the DROP IT. It makes no difference if you’re right. The fastest way to get yourself fired from a show is to belabor joke pitches. You get one shot. If it doesn’t go in then move on. Don’t pout, don’t bring it up a half hour later, don’t say “we’d be home by now if you went with my joke”. And for godsakes, if the line that did go in didn’t work on the stage DO NOT say your joke would have killed.

Jose asks:

Hey Ken, where in LA do u think most first-year TV writers, and then show runners, tend live?

Wherever they can find something reasonable. And most recently, not underwater. There’s an area of West Hollywood that’s unofficially known as “First Stop L.A.”. It’s around Melrose and La Brea. There are older apartments and small houses and duplexes. And lots of young single people. The older single people (generally they go by the nickname “divorced”) hole up in the Oakwood Garden Apartments in the valley. So avoid that.

New Los Angeles arrivees also gravitate to the Silverlake district. It’s kind of artsy and bohemian and if you don’t mind the fact that it can also be a little dangerous you might consider roosting there.  Hey, I can see Silverlake from the Great Wall!

Burbank is another haven. I’m sure some of my readers can suggest other neighborhoods for newbies.

From Paul Duca:

…And speaking of "off the top of your head", is that how you do those play by play voiceovers, or do you watch an actual game clip?

It depends. I’ve done it both ways. Usually there is no picture but I have to tailor the play-by-play to the screen because often a character will react to something on the TV so I have to time the commentary to fit. Most of the time I’ll be watching the scene while doing my spiel.

There have been times when we do see the action on the TV and then it’s a snap because I just call the play-by-play of what I see.

Sometimes I’m asked not to use actual names or teams. That’s a little trickier. It’s easy to make up names for the players (usually I just use members of the crew) but it’s hard to give the score when you can’t identify the teams. I’ll do something like “And the Good Guys lead 4-2.” Yeah, I know... pretty lame.

My favorite experience was for the show BROOKLYN BRIDGE. I got to call the 1955 World Series. I wonder if it’s too late to get a ring.

What’s your Friday question? Leave it in the comments section. 

36 comments:

Bill Jones said...

The two shows that I remember going overboard on retrospectives were Family Ties and Golden Girls. I'm not kidding when I say that I think there was an average of one retrospective per season. The wraparound devices got more and more contrived.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Which episode of BROOKLYN BRIDGE was that? I only ever saw a few episodes but thought it was really good.

wg

Oat Willie said...

Glad you can see this from the Forbidden City, Ken. There were some real bad apples here the past week but I kept order.
All hail excellent singing blog of Hollywood Lucky Professional!

Anonymous said...

Bill's right about Golden Girls, they seemed to have them every season. At least they put a fair amount of thought and jokes in the framing story, even if they were just sitting around eating cheesecake. Seinfeld and Friends had lazier ones towards the end that were just greatest hits clips.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Am I the only one who likes clip shows? Seems like everybody I know hates them.

I guess in this day and age of DVDs, online streaming, and reruns, the purpose of clip shows has pretty much been defeated, but I find clip shows can be fun, if done creatively. M*A*S*H's clip show, for example, did it in an interesting way, having Clete Roberts return to interview the staff of the 4077th, and having their commentary accompanied by clips from previous episodes. SEINFELD went about it in an interesting way too, by grouping the clips by themes and subjects.

Anonymous said...

Yes, MASH did it with flying colors. I am excited about my TV scripts, will be DONE soon. Also Family Ties went overboard, I agree.

Can't wait make a DEAL with TV scripts soon, mine. When I am DONE with the last bit. Of course.

tavm said...

The one with the couple tied up, I remember that as an ep of "The Jeffersons" in which most of their memories were from when they were on "All in the Family"!

Steve Bailey said...

tavm stole my thunder. I remember that episode just the same way he remembered it. And even then, I remember thinking, "If your own show is so bad that you have to do your retrospective from the show you spun off of, that's a bad sign."

Danny said...

Garry Marshall eventually made clip shows an annual event on HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, too. They did them so frequently that the clips would end up mostly confined to the previous season.

Dan Ball said...

STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION had one at the end of the 2nd season and I still don't think a lot of fans have forgiven that. "Shades of Grey."

Mike Schryver said...

The second episode of the CLERKS cartoon was a clip show. It was wonderful.

Rob said...

Diff'rent Strokes did a retrospective nine weeks into its run! So did WKRP in Cincinnati, but it had been off the air for two months and was being rebooted in a new time slot.

Thomas Mossman said...

At least The Simpsons acknowledged that clip shows had become cliche by the times they did their first, so they titled it, "So It's Come to This".

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

The older single people (generally they go by the nickname “divorced”) hole up in the Oakwood Garden Apartments
Wow I immediately thought of Artie's advice to "fellow divorce victim" Hank Kingsley on the Larry Sanders show. And I was right. I think I may watch too much TeeVee

chalmers said...

Because of the time-slot reboot, WKRP also did something that I'm not sure I recall anywhere else. They re-ran "Turkeys Away" with a brief intro from Gary Sandy talking about how the episode had gotten when it originally aired.

The discussion of gently criticizing a joke reminds me of my favorite line of "SNL40" (well, at least my favorite from day one). Mike Myers did his perfect Lorne Michaels impression to remark, "Yes, it got a laugh, but not the right laugh."

chalmers said...

"How big a response the episode had gotten..."

Jerry Smith said...

Ken, any thoughts about Trapper John, M.D.? Did the original M.A.S.H. creators have to give their permission to use the character on the show? How did they feel about it? Was it weird Hawkeye never visited?

Jen (aka RandomlyGenerated) said...

COMMUNITY handled the "clip show" very well, as they showed bits from non-existent episodes (visiting a haunted house, standing in for the glee club etc).

vicernie said...

you may have commented on this before, but how accurate was the interaction between the writers and Alan Brady on the Dick Van Dyke show? I think it was based on Sid Caesar and the Show of Shows.

unkysyan said...

The weirdest clip show I ever saw was the series finale of Leave It To Beaver. Seems Wally found a photo album and asked his Mom about some of the pictures. They were stills from old episodes that panned in and we saw the clip. But all I could think was...who was stalking the Cleavers and took those pictures?

Mike Schryver said...

About TRAPPER JOHN MD, Jerry, I'd also like to hear anything Ken's able to tell us about that. As I understand it, Fox went to court to claim the show was a spinoff of the movie and not the TV series, so as to avoid paying the TV people.

Dana said...

I liked a clip show "South Park" did. The incidents the boys were recalling had happened on the show, but the details of what the boys were remembering wasn't the way any of it had happened in the original episodes. Which, come to think of it, is probably more accurate to how remembering the past works in real life.

The thing about the clip shows on "The Golden Girls" is that they were often two-part episodes, which always seemed like making the insult of a clip show that much worse by doubling the running time of it. One joke I liked that popped up at the end of one of their clip shows, full of "remember the time that..." reminiscences, had resident simpleton Rose (Betty White) protesting a remark about her intelligence by insisting, "I've done a lot of smart things. Remember?" The camera holds a little too long on Rose. No dissolve to a flashback. Then cuts to the other three ladies, sitting on the couch, all straining to remember SOMETHING intelligent Rose had done. Music up and fade out.

I've gathered from watching that "WKRP" clip show they did during season one that since the show had been off the air for awhile, they thought they'd better do something to get the audience back up to speed, assuming too many either hadn't seen the show yet or wouldn't remember the set-up. Technically, though, at least some of the flashbacks in that episode were restaged, weren't they? Since Mother Carlson had been played a different actress in the pilot?

See how much easier life is when you have opening credits and a theme song that explain the whole premise of the series for you?

chalmers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
D. McEwan said...

"One of the most horrifying experiences in my life involves a retrospective. I was taking an MRI (already a heart pounding endeavor). Mirrors were set up in the tube that allowed patients to watch a television. So there I was, claustrophobic, not allowed to move even an inch, for 45 minutes, forced to watch the NANNY retrospective."

ARRRRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I do not want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I can Not stand clip shows. That is all.

chalmers said...

I'm not sure why you stole the name I've long used on this site to ask that inappropriate question, but you win, I'll choose another one.

Rob in Toronto said...

It drives me crazy when some of these clip shows ( such as the SEINFELD ones) are thrown into the syndication packages. What purpose do they serve to remind us of small pieces of episodes that are running constantly five days a week ? Aside from a 30 second into from Jerry, they offer nothing we haven't seen before, and possibly even just the day before.

If a show uses a framing device ( such as the MTM Johnny Carson episode ) with some new, entertaining footage I can live with it.

michaleen said...

When Justine Bateman hosted SNL, they did a pretty funny sketch satirizing Family Ties' clip-show propensity.

Justine Bateman said they were her favorite episodes because "We only work a few minutes but get paid for a full week."

They did it as a clip-within-a-clip vortex. It would start with something like "Remember when Alex bought a kangaroo..." Then in the kangaroo scene they'd say, "This reminds me of when Mallory crashed the car..." and so on and so on.

And at the end of each scene, Jennifer (I think Victoria Jackson), would just say "Yeaaahhhh."

Johnny Walker said...

Does ANYBODY like clip shows? Even the most artful ones (The Simpsons made a real effort once, IIRC) feature lacklustre stories sandwiched between reminders that you could be watching a better episode.

LouOCNY said...

THE classiest - and possibly, the only one with a real excuse, was BARNEY MILLER's tribute to Jack Soo...

The raising of the coffee cup at the end still touches...

Anth said...

Do they still even have clip shows anymore? Aside from retrospective specials that air before a series finale or whatever, the last time I remember seeing one was on The Office.

The worst offender was Fresh Prince, which had a double-length clip show for the seventh or eighth episode of the very first season.

chalmers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Jen (aka RandomlyGenerated) said...
"COMMUNITY handled the "clip show" very well, as they showed bits from non-existent episodes (visiting a haunted house, standing in for the glee club etc)."

SNL did that in a sketch long before. Don't forget to thank them for the idea. A lot of "community" depends on you not having a decent knowledge of television history. For those that do, Harmon might call it "sampling."

Tom Lindsay said...

Just what this blog needed...a Troll. Trolls must be like truffle sniffing pigs; they snort around the net looking for unsullied ground, and then shove their snouts right in.

Douglas Trapasso said...

Remember the time on Ken Levine's blog about the Emmys that this new troll who went by "Anonymous" . . . ?

Anonymous said...

Oh, like I've never been here before. Like today's comments are the very first time I've ever posted

Idiots.