Have you asked a Friday Question lately? I try to answer as many as I can. Here are this week’s:
Andreia leads off:
Hi Ken, I was wondering if you could talk a little about character ownership. A character is created, fleshed out with catchphrases, quirks and backstory by a writer and then given to an actor to embody. In your opinion, who does that character belong to? Or, who *is* that character? Especially in a long running show where an actor can be playing a character for nearly a decade or more, would you say there is dual ownership between the writer and actor? Or does a transition happen somewhere down the line if the character is old enough?
If a writer introduces a character that becomes a recurring or regular character on a series he’s entitled to a character royalty. It’s not much, but it’s something. David Isaacs and I created the character of Eddie LeBec, the hockey goalie who eventually married Carla on CHEERS. He was originally supposed to be in only two episodes. But the chemistry clicked and he was brought back for more. We received royalties on that. And would have received a lot more had Jay Thomas, the actor playing Eddie, not dissed Rhea Perlman on his radio show. We had to kill him off. Let that be a lesson to actors who find themselves in front of a microphone.
To the second part of your questions – over time actors really do embody their characters. And good writers will adjust the character to better fit the actor’s strengths.
Steven Bochco had a saying: “The first year the actors work for you, the second year you work together, and the third year you work for them.”
C. A. Bridges asks:
Sunday night, on a whim, I watched all the Cheers episodes that featured Harry the Hat. Did the Cheers writers create his scams, or did Anderson provide them for the writers to work in?
A lot of them, especially the more elaborate ones in the first season, Harry came up with. And my partner, David Isaacs and I worked with Harry on the big sting for the final Bar Wars episode against Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern.
Melissa Agar queries:
Is the network comedy dead? Why? It would seem to me that comedies are cheaper to produce and easier to sell into syndication, and yet NBC has all but eliminated comedy from its fall schedule, and the new offerings are slim. Are there too few comedies being developed? Or is this just a cycle we comedy fans have to weather?
No. For all the reasons you cited, sitcoms in success are a giant cash cow. They’re on the downswing, but all it takes is one or two big hits to turn things around. One has to blame the network development departments for not turning out better pilots. Either they’re buying the wrong things, hiring the wrong writers, going after the wrong audience, or meddling to such an extent that the finished results are disappointing.
In the case of NBC, they’ve been unable to develop anything good for several years now and they have no existing sitcom hits to help launch any promising new product. So this season they’ve scaled back. It’s unfortunate but understandable.
But someone will mount a comedy that will hit and the pendulum will swing the other way. If I might offer a suggestion: Make it FUNNY. Not ironic, not wry, not amusing, not mischievous, but FUNNY.
And finally, from Hamid:
Ken, there's a quote from Woody Allen in recent days that's crying out for a comment from you, as he's spoken of the difficulty in trying to write a half-hour comedy.
The veteran director has described his attempts to make a six-part series for Amazon as a “catastrophic mistake” with which he should never have become involved.
“I never should have gotten into it,” he admitted at the Cannes Film Festival. “It’s very hard for me. I thought it was going to be easy. You do a movie, it’s a big, long thing. To do six half-hours, I thought it was going to be a cinch. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m floundering. I expect this to be a cosmic embarrassment when it comes out.”
Then he should give back the money. Everything about his statement is insulting – from thinking writing half hours would be a cinch to confessing that he expects his effort to be a failure. Not mentioned in the above statement is that he also said he never watches half hour television. Sorry that what we do is beneath you, Woody.
Again, give back the money. There are hundreds of talented passionate writers who would give their hearts and souls to do a series for Amazon. Give them a chance instead.