Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Despite my jet lag, here are this week’s Friday Questions. If the answers make no sense that’s why.

MikeK.Pa. wonders:

I've always contended that the order of importance for a successful movie is: 1) script; 2) casting; and 3) direction. Do you weight one factor over another or all equally? My contention is that if you have a great script and cast it right it's hard for the director to screw it up.

A bad director can absolutely kill a good project whereas a good director can sometimes enhance material, get superior performances and elevate a movie.

All three elements (cast, script, direction) are key. If there’s a weak link it can bring down the whole thing.

But if I had to pick one of the three that was most important, I would begrudgingly have to say casting. Audiences go to movies to see people they like on the screen. If it’s a star they love they will often forgive a sub-par script or sloppy direction. There’s a great Billy Wilder quote about Marilyn Monroe, whom he directed in two movies:

My Aunt Minnie would always be punctual and never hold up production, but who would pay to see my Aunt Minnie?

Wendy M. Grossman has a question about Cybil Shepherd, who I discussed a few weeks ago.

If Shepherd is horrible to work with *and* (as I agree) an acting stiff, how on earth does she keep getting work?

She doesn’t get much.  Not anymore.  A guest spot here and there. But the word is out. I guarantee you her agent or manager puts her up for lots of roles and is told, “Life’s too short.”

Meanwhile, a sweetie like Margo Martindale will be working steady as long as she wants.

From ScottyB:

Were there any secondary actors or characters on any of the sitcoms you were involved with that you thought shoulda-woulda-coulda been expanded and given more of a role as a series went on, and potentially making the show even better as it progressed season to season?

There were two and they were both from the same series. We did a Mary Tyler Moore comeback vehicle in 1985 and among our supporting cast members were Katey Sagal (who we sort of discovered) and John Astin. Both just lit up the screen and were hilarious.

We only did thirteen but the episodes where the main story featured either of them were far and away our best.

It’s a little tricky when you have a starring vehicle and that star owns the studio and the lot, but our plans were to slowly work Katey and John into roles of more prominence.

Brian Hennings asks:

Following your comment about THE CELL by Mark Legan and Mark Wilding, do you think it is worth writing something that is good but has no chance of being made as a way of obtaining recognition? Maybe an unusual subject matter helps a script cut through the noise of so many other scripts? Does the writing shine through, or do people in the industry discount it since the writer clearly doesn't understand the market?

Sure. Write something outlandish, BUT also write a pilot that is potentially saleable and a spec for an existing show.

The best you can hope for with a pilot that is clearly not mainstream is that a producer/agent/studio/whoever will be impressed and want to read more.

But if you want to use it as a lure, then sure. Just have the necessary back-ups.

Were any of those answers coherent? What’s your Friday Question?


Michael said...

In similar vein to Cybil Shepherd question, I was very surprised to read Chevy Chase was recently cast in a new pilot. I would have guessed his behavior on the COMMUNITY set, as well as his prior reputation for being difficult to work with, would have scared off anyone from hiring him.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

That all made sense Ken. Perhaps Jetlag has no effect on you or you lied to us about going away. Did you just visit LA's Koreatown, Chinatown and Little Tokyo?

Either way WELCOME BACK!
Sorry to hear about your friend, Sam Simon.

willieb said...

My wife and I have our own "jump the shark"-type theory about sitcoms: they're on their way down when they have a "let's put on a show" episode...the ones where the cast sings and dances for some inane reason. First, do you agree? And second, have you ever been involved with such an episode? Seems like a lot of extra time and money would go into one of those, with little to show for it on the other side.

Alan Iverson said...

Hi Ken, happy anniversary!

It's 3 years to the day since I first read your blog. Now I'm hooked.
So… now a gift from me, but what do you get the man who has everything… besides a Beverly Hills mansion to move that everything into? Well, something genuine from the heart.

Now, I'm sure you've seen more specs of MASH than an Irishman's shirt after dinner, but I wrote one specifically for you and your blog followers for this occasion. Feel free to repost if you think they deserve it.

Many thanks for the years of entertainment,

[grab PDF from:]

I genuinely hope it's accepted as a non-cynical expression of my gratitude for not only MASH, but also the many sitcoms you wrote for.
Plus it's funny as hell.

Anonymous said...

Friday Question: You planning an obituary for the day that Mary Tyler Moore finally pops her clogs?

Hamid said...

Welcome back, Ken. Hope you had a great time!

I have a Friday question I've wanted to know the answer to since the 80s, when one name always stood out in the end credits of Cheers and then later on in Frasier:

How do you pronounce the surname of Mary Fukuto???!


Jeannie said...

Ken, for every Natalie Wood pic you post, please include a quote by Billy Wilder as well. And welcome home!

emily said...


Oat Willie said...

Glad you're back, although I had to knock a few heads together to keep order, and yes, there was some cannibalism.
Katey Sagal was always smokin hawt, especially in her backup singer phase.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Recently got HBO GO and discovering Larry David's brilliance with CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Amazing how well he sets up jokes early in the script that pay off later. Would you ever consider developing a semi-scripted sitcom with just an outline and dependent on improv? And does that limit you in casting, although David never had a problem?

Separate question: Wondering if you can recall any actors who had marginal talent but became stars because of the material/show? Similarly if any actors come to mind who had great comic chops, who you thought would become stars, but just never found the right material/situation?

Anonymous said...

John Astin -awfully good as Riddler, not Frank Gorshin-good but close. They should have given him his own villain.
Also good - his chemistry with Carolyn Jones and Marty Ingels

Kirk said...

John Astin, one of the greatest underrated comic actors of all time. But then I also feel the same way about Fred Gwynne. There's just something about horror-themed sitcoms that brings out the best in performers.

David said...

John Astin so under-rated. Have a question - I remember that MTM series (short as it was) and remember the Astin character had a thing where he always said the full name of Mary's character. When you develop a character do you also develop those "hooks" (is that the industry word?) or does it evolve during the creation of the show, as you hear the characters interacting in real time?

VP81955 said...

The producers of the pilot may have hired Chevy Chase because he'll be working opposite Beverly D'Angelo, his one-time "Vacation" leading lady. (She appeared in a "Mom" episode filming I attended, and was quite good in a rather nasty, but fun, role.) I'm guessing Bev and Goldie Hawn, who's effectively out of the acting business, are perceived in the industry as the only leading ladies who can keep Chase in check.

Hamid said...

Thanks, Emily!

ScottyB said...

Funny the Cybil Shepherd question came up in today's blog post, as just last night I was wondering about the saga (beyond the substance abuse) of Brett Butler during a rerun of Charlie Sheen's 'Anger Management', in which she had a recurring role. (I loved 'Grace Under Fire'.) Apparently, Brett out-eviled Cybill, especially with her writers and ... well, everyone. But apparently life kicked her in the nuts and bitch-slapped her hard enough for her to regain some humility and decency, and she has been working steadily the past few years. So I imagine hope floats for everyone in Hollywood once you stop being a complete asshole. Unless you're an agent or a showrunner. Most of those people were sent directly by Satan, hear told.

Anonymous said...

Sir, you have an amazing blog here. Compare to others , you are the best. I am not Done WITH watching old TV shows. My Father died and left over 1000 VHS. Love old TV shows.

ScottyB said...

@Hamid wrote: "How do you pronounce the surname of Mary Fukuto???!"

If iMDb hadn't shown that she's actually a real person, my bet would've been on it being another one of those inside jokes Ken refers to occasionally.

Imagine the trouble baseball announcers had with Kosuke Fukudome. Especially if Harry Caray was still alive at the time Koske was a Chicago Cub. Hilarity would've ensued 9 ways to Sunday.

Rory W. said...

Hi Ken,

I've been watching the two new Vince Gilligan series, "Better Call Saul" and "Battle Creek." I really like BCS (and I've never seen an episode of "Breaking Bad"), but I don't think "Battle Creek" is particularly good (Josh Duhamel is not believable, but Dean Winters is pretty good; the stories are not good at all). I was wondering if you had any thoughts why two shows from the same "brain" could be so different in quality? Does "Battle Creek" suffer from being on a broadcast network and all the interference that implies?

- Rory

ScottyB said...

Question for Ken, since it onvolves both comedy and baseball: What's your personal take on Will Ferrell's spring training tour yesterday (Thursday)? Was it good humor (and goodwill, since it raised money for charity as well), or did it "disrespect the game" as some are crabbing about?

I'm sure there were those who disdained George Plimpton for "disrespecting" every profession he wrote about first-hand, but there's still reasonable grounds for reasonable debate, no?

Mike Schryver said...

Rory W: I haven't seen BATTLE CREEK, but I think it's impossible for Dean Winters to be less than good, so I believe you.

I also want to present a plain-old-viewer confirmation of Katey Sagal's presence on MARY. She just jumped off the screen.

H Johnson said...

I have a comment about ScottyB's baseball question before you even get to it.

I watched a few clips of Will Ferrell's stunt yesterday. I didn't get the feeling he was 'disrespecting' anything. He wore the uniforms properly, looking like a ballplayer and paid attention and hustled on each play he was involved in. I wasn't there but I didn't see any footage of him playing it for laughs. His comments were humorous without being stupid throughout the day.

Not really sure why he did it other than for the reason that he could, but kudos to him for bringing a little extra fun to spring training.

I suspect anybody bitching about it is only jealous. Who wouldn't love the chance...?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

ScottyB: I think the substance abuse thing really does make a difference. Brett Butler is, to my eye, enormously talented (I also really liked GRACE UNDER FIRE), and people with substance abuse problems really do become vastly different from their true selves - as Chuck Lorre knows firsthand. She's issued a pretty handsome apology for her behavior, IIRC.


Kosmo13 said...

>>I also want to present a plain-old-viewer confirmation of Katey Sagal's presence on MARY.<<<

..and I'll second that. I was totally enamored of the Jo Tucker character. "Mary" was an excellent, funny series and everyone in it did excellent work. I was sorry when it got canceled, especially since it meant no more of Sagal's character.

Hank Gillette said...

I’m guessing that if Cybil Shepherd was still young and beautiful, she’d have very little trouble getting as much work as she wanted.

Al in Portland said...

I would echo H.Johnson's comments about Will Ferrell. And as a longtime Pirate and Mariner fan, I would say he looked more like a ballplayer than some of the folks those two teams have suited up over the years.

Allan V said...

Like yourself, I have also called games on-air (high school, not MLB), and like yourself, I like to use the occasional profanity in my casual, everyday speech. What approach did you use to keep from accidentally blurting out an f-bomb or similar word when things get exciting during a game? Frankly, I was always a bit worried that I might let one fly during the heat of the moment.

ScottyB said...

@Wendy Grossman: I think I saw the same apology from Brett you did. I don't work in the industry, so really, she doesn't owe me an apology for herself (other than to me as a viewer, for making "Grace Under Fire' go away, but even there, that was quite awhile back. We've all moved on. Things work out, more or less.) But still, it's nice to see some people actually wised the fuck up and re-found themselves.

Strip away the money and the houses and power and shit, and you just have ... a person. Shit funny.

ScottyB said...

I'm not much into baseball these days, but I found the footage of Will Ferrell playing 3rd base coach giving "signs" to the batters that were actually big-ass placard signs. Signs that said stuff like "It doesn't matter. None of these games count." Followed by another big-ass placard sign that said something like "Ignore the last sign. Just do your best." Now THAT'S some funny shit.

OTOH, Bill Veeck fielded a dwarf during the regular season (Eddie Gaedel; "He was, by golly, the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball": Veeck quote) and had an ashtray that was built into his wooden leg when he owned the Chicago White Sox.

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

"The best darn midget who ever played big league ball."

What, you mean even better than Pearl du Monville? I have trouble believing that.

Anonymous said...

Rory W. I was wondering if you had any thoughts why two shows from the same "brain" could be so different in quality?

I don't think Vince has anything do to with Battle Creek except for his participation in writing the pilot over 10 years ago.

He has a lot of the same writers from Breaking Bad in the Better Call Saul room with him. Battle Creek is run by David Shore.


Johnny Walker said...

With regards to the "outlandish" unsellable script, it's worth remembering that some of the most unmainstream scripts get turned into some of the best shows. MAD MEN was about as far from what you might imagine a popular show would look like, for example.

Johnny Walker said...

Interesting comments, as usual.

Glad to hear Bret Butler has sorted herself out and is doing well. I too was a fan of GRACE UNDER FIRE. I hope reports of her newfound humility are true.

Also: WELCOME BACK KEN! Hope the trip was good and that the jet lag soon passes (it's horrible, isn't it?).

Ken Levine said...

Thanks, Alan.

Do You Do Any Wings? said...

Hi Ken, the UK Daily Telegraph recently suggested Frasier and Eddie as one of the all-time comedy duos, which must be a great compliment to both the writers and actors involved, and this week they've come up with another top ten(ish) list. My questions are, how many are yours, and do you see these lists as a nice compliment, or do you get frustrated that they picked the wrong jokes?
Thanks and good wishes,

Do You Do Any Wings? said...
That list in full.

VP81955 said...

If you've covered these before (and you may have), I apologize, but two questions regarding screenplays as I work on my two romantic comedies:

* I've been told that when you're suggesting musical or song & dance segments, you should not specifically list the song (and certainly not play choreographer -- that's why God made Toni Basil!), but write "in the style of 'Pump It Up' by Elvis Costello (or whatever)." At the same time, I understand the screenwriter for "Guardians of the Galaxy" -- whom I'm guessing is far more experienced regarding this stuff than I am -- insisted on several '70s songs for the soundtrack. How would you suggest a neophyte screenwriter handle this situation?

* In the same vein, my screenplay includes a scene featuring a cameo from a celebrity for comedic effect (I won't name the celeb, but it's someone you've worked with). Should I list the celeb's name in the script, or play it safe by writing "similar to Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxxxx"? Just curious.

Johnny Walker said...

I don't know if you'll ever see this, Allan Iverson, but I read the opening of your M*A*S*H script and it made me laugh out loud. Thanks!