Friday, June 12, 2015

Friday Questions

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.

54 comments:

Oat Willie said...

For all your hard-won wisdom about sitcoms, you neglect the moist ugly truth: TOO MANY FUCKING COMMMERCIALS. It's like the Monty Python sketch torte sketch: "Well, it's got some rat in it...quite a lot, actually." "That was 'orrible. Got any more?" Sorry I resorted to all caps, I'm full of piss and vinegar at 6 AM.

Carol said...

"There are hundreds of talented passionate writers who would give their hearts and souls to do a series for Amazon."

Would you want to do that? Write for Netflix or Amazon? 'Cause I think they'd probably be excited if an established television writer said 'hey guys, I have a good idea.'

Hamid said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken! And getting in quickly before my loony stalker pitches up with his latest insane rant.

I agree with you, though your reaction's tougher than I'd have expected, as I know you're a big Woody fan like myself! But there's no getting away from the fact that his assumption doing half-hour comedy would be easy is an insult to all the great comedy writers like yourself who've worked hard to put out intelligent, witty stories told in the space of 22/25 minutes. It's always seemed to me as being incredibly difficult to get sitcom writing right. A movie, you have time to flesh out plot and character, but for a sitcom script you need to get a perfect balance and juggle several creative balls at once. I guess that's why great TV comedies are few and far between.

Anonymous said...

Projecting into Woody Allen's comments some imagined insults against your vaunted profession really blew the cover off your prissy delusions of grandeur. Your blog is such typical transparent Hollywood grandstanding: "Don't you know who I think I am??!" It's pretty clear who you really are: a man, who though credentialed in the past, has long been in the midst of a protracted career downward spiral, desperately holding on to his increasingly-passe resume, indignantly screaming "Bastards! I'm still relevant." Nice try, gramps. You're the equivalent of the washed up actress who brings her decades-old Emmy to her brunches at the Peninsula hotel lobby, so everyone sees who you once were.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Regarding your answer to Melissa's question, if approached would you ever consider working for /heading up a network development dept.? Do any of those development execs have any writing background? Also, as to Woody Allen's quote, he's a known neurotic, so he's out of his comfort zone. I think he's deliberately setting the bar long so if it bombs he can say "I told you so." If it's a hit people will say "He's a genius in multiple media."

Stephen Robinson said...

Woody Allen continues to have a disrespect for TV that is stuck in 1960s and GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. It's not a supportable position now, when there are TV series (comedies and dramas) that critics and audiences would compare favorably to movies in the same genre.

He has long seemed to dismiss the efforts of comedy writing. Perhaps because it has come easier to him. He has longed to write "serious" dramas, but they wind up feeling turgid and flat (SEPTEMBER, INTERIORS, ANOTHER WOMAN) because he is intent on their being completely humorless. Some of my favorite dramas have funny moments in them because that's how life works.

In that same interview, Allen also expressed his contempt at most or disinterest at best in modern technology (social media such as Twitter and the Internet as a whole). Yet his upcoming movie features the twentysomething Emma Stone. I can't imagine that character will ring true when her creator has zero awareness of the world in which she lives. Even the 40something Joaquin Phoenix character will probably like jazz and old movies and hate TV and rock music like every other middle-aged Woody Allen lead. He will not feel like a Gen Xer at *all*.

This isn't to say that his younger characters have to be stereotypes of their generations but they can't all be anomalies.

When I saw the trailer for the recent Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman film, I realized that Allen rarely writes films featuring characters around his age and generation. He seems stuck in the past so his characters become less reflective of their worlds.

VincentS said...

Friday question: Was it ever on the radar to make Bebe Neuwirth a regular on FRASIER?

norm said...

Maybe Woody could make the Annie Hall of 2015? Just condense the original one.

Bill Jones said...

It's pretty clear who you really are: a man, who though credentialed in the past, has long been in the midst of a protracted career downward spiral, desperately holding on to his increasingly-passe resume, indignantly screaming "Bastards! I'm still relevant."

Um, in the past year, Ken has, among other things, directed a play produced by Garry Marshall, hosted a Neil Simon retrospective on TCM, been invited to Howard Stern's show, and continued to teach classes on comedy writing (while watching his own daughter follow in his footsteps)--oh, and updated this blog EVERY DAY. We should all be so lucky to keep doing what is interesting to us thirty years after we started, especially in a here-today-gone-tomorrow industry like comedy writing.

Bill Jones said...

I join VincentS's question--I would love to know more about the backstory behind making Lilith a recurring character, and how Bebe Neuwirth (perfect casting) was selected. Especially since the character's first appearance suggested a one-time appearance, only to come back for good the following season. Is it because Neuwirth so nailed the part the first time that the writers thought she would make a good companion to Frasier?

Mike said...

First of all, I love how whenever anyone posts an insulting comment on here, they hide behind "Anonymous." That Anonymous sure is a cranky-pants. Seriously though, if you can't at least think up a pseudonym for your insulting rant, maybe it's best you move on. And if this blog annoys you so, why read it?

Secondly, I don't know, I read those Woody comments too, and I chose to interpret them as just typical Woody (faux?) neurosis. At least, I hope he meant them that way. I mean, he's worked in TV in the past -- granted, it was decades ago, but still. He must know it's not a cakewalk.

Gregg B said...

I'd lie to know your opinion on the whole Seinfeld flap going on. He says he won't play college campuses because they are too politically correct. Some say his jokes are no longer funny, he is a hack and that he is just doesn't get the modern generation's humor like Louis CK and Amy Schumer. Others say that he is right and they are too PC. What is your take on this?

MikeN said...

Mike, I think Anonymous was being sarcastic and actually commenting about Woody Allen.

Anonymous said...

I think Seinfeld's comments about college kids being too PC is a reason for the drop in network comedy. How many of those college kids are now working at the networks? They are cutting out the parts that are funny in deference to the new censors.

"Tell a joke to a liberal. Between your punchline and his laughter, there is a Progressive Comedy Pause. In this second or two, the liberal will process the joke to make sure he is allowed to laugh." Jon Gabriel

Some groups even propose running all jokes by professional experts for approval.

https://ricochet.com/archives/creating-oneness-progressive-comedy/

DwWashburn said...

Friday question –

With the All Star game being played this year in Cincinnati, it has been rumored that Pete Rose will participate in the festivities. Interesting how MLB will call Pete when it benefits them (All Star Game, All Century Players, anniversary of Rose breaking Cobb's record).

Pete’s terms of banishment stated that he could ask for reinstatement within a year. However by that time Bart Giamatti had died and Fay Vincent (a close personal friend of Giamatti) blamed Pete for Giamatti’s heart attack and wouldn’t hear the reinstatement arguments. Then along came Bud Selig who was about as worthless of a commissioner as any sport has ever had.

Also interesting how MLB talks about how bad gambling is and how it will not be tolerated. However the gambling site DraftKings is now the official fantasy site of MLB. And nearly every major league stadium has advertisements for casinos and Las Vegas plastered on their outfield walls.

What’s your opinion on the whole Rose / gambling mess in baseball?

Carl said...

It's pretty clear who you really are: a man, who though credentialed in the past, has long been in the midst of a protracted career downward spiral, desperately holding on to his increasingly-passe resume, indignantly screaming "Bastards! I'm still relevant."


Soon-Yi, is that you?

tavm said...

Having followed him from "Saturday Night Live" to "Cheers" to "Night Court" to "Dave's World", I now realized Harry Anderson has seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth! Hope he has a nice retirement, if he's indeed done that.

Justin Russo said...

In response to your comment tavm, Harry DID make a hilarious cameo as himself on a Season 3 episode of 30 Rock that united "Some of the cast of Night Court."

tavm said...

Oh yeah, I saw that one!

Crave Freestuff said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Wendy M. Grossman said...

I doubt younger people are too PC to find SEINFELD funny. They just didn't like that joke, perhaps...

As for Woody Allen, I'm not sure his comments are as insulting as all that. He's neurotic enough to expect *every* project of his to be a failure. (A good interviewer would have followed up by asking in fact whether he feels that way about every year's movie.) This guy has written a movie every year for decades and short stories and books to boot. Is it so unreasonable for him to overestimate how easy it was going to be for *him* to produce six half hours?

wg

Jon B. said...

I enjoyed Woody's comments about the difficulties he is having. Besides being humorous, I thought they also made good sitcom writers look BETTER. That you took offense, Ken (or feigned it), was a complete overreaction. Then again, maybe you were trying to be funny in return. If so, Woody won this round.

Igor said...

Ken, so if Harry Anderson came up with the scams, how did that work? The writers interviewed him, "Tell us some good scams", and then worked them in?

@tavm - As for what Harry Anderson is doing after acting, I don't know, but when I met him at a lunch at WB in 1991, he had a software development venture going. So my hunch is he's been doing non-entertainment ventures. He definitely struck me as a smart guy with varied interests and skills.

Harvey Wallinger said...

If *Woody Allen* can't be initially overconfident about a comedy writing challenge, who can?

tavm said...

Thanks, Igor, for your reply. A software company, hmmmm, I did not know that!

Hank Gillette said...

With the All Star game being played this year in Cincinnati, it has been rumored that Pete Rose will participate in the festivities. Interesting how MLB will call Pete when it benefits them (All Star Game, All Century Players, anniversary of Rose breaking Cobb's record).

My impression is that all the impetus for Rose being involved in the All Star game is coming from Cincinnati. I think MLB as a whole would be quite happy to never hear about or to mention Pete Rose ever again.

Igor said...

Woody Allen in all his forms - standup, writer, director, actor, person - should be considered as a performer. Even when he talks about his deal with Amazon.

YEKIMI said...

On the issue of Jay Thomas dissing Rhea Perlman: If you had another sitcom in which he would be a good fit.....would you use him again or do you consider him "persona non grata" as far as you are concerned?

Terrence Moss said...

His indignation is warranted; your comment is not.

Tom Quigley said...

It seems ironic that Woody Allen would find the sitcom format so constraining and uncomfortable, considering he began his career as a sketch/joke writer for Sid Caesar's YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, where he had the advantage of seeing probably the best sketch writing team of all time (Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Selma Diamond and the Simon brothers, Neil and Danny) then did standup himself for a number of years. Somewhere over time, he's just apparently lost the will to write it and has let his comedy writing chops crust over, with no desire to work the rust off. Sadly, his comedy was what brought him his greatest success and if he doesn't recognize that fact, he's deluding himself.

Mark Potash said...

Doesn't Woody Allen at least deserve credit for acknowledging that what you do is harder than it looks? I took his comment to be a great compliment to sitcom writers. As previously mentioned in the comments section, if anyone can at least think that writing for a 30-minute format is easy, it's Woody Freakin' Allen.

Anonymous said...

I just want everyone to know the Anonymous up at the top is not me.

Igor said...

@Tom Quigley - Excellent.

Erich617 said...

Apropos of the story involving Jay Thomas and Rhea Perlman, I read that Jason Alexander recently discussed Heidi Swedburg, who played Susan on SEINFELD, on Howard Stern's show. He said essentially that Swedburg was written out of the show because he and the other actors had trouble playing opposite her. (I didn't hear it, so that's a paraphrase at best.)

What he said may have been true or at least an accurate telling of what happened, but Josh Fadem pointed out that Alexander, who is a millionaire as a result of SEINFELD, was publicly disparaging Swedburg, who now earns a living giving ukulele lessons. In a certain sense, it is like what Thomas did, but the balance of power is reversed, and it doesn't seem especially fair.

Alexander even said that Swedburg was nice to work with, so I assume has no ill will toward her. Was he just being insensitive and inconsiderate when he said that? Is there a professional code of conduct not to say bad things about other actors in public, especially other actors who haven't had the success you have?

Hamid said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Todd Everett said...

I read the Woody quote entirely different from the way you (and evidently most responders) did. My paraphrase:

"I'm used to writing 90-minute films, so I thought writing 22 1/2-minute sitcoms would be only 1/3 as hard. Then I discovered that it would be very difficult for me."

If anything, were I a TV writer (particularly one who's written a couple of films), I would have considered that a compliment.

But I'm not.

Johnny Walker said...

Nobody has mentioned the fact that Woody Allen is essentially stabbing Amazon in the back in order to protect his own public standing. In the past he's been pretty spot on about how the public was going to react to his next project (when he's asked) -- and I don't think this is false modesty now. He's very honest in interviews, and rarely never plays the "neurotic" persona, if ever. I think he genuinely believes this will be an embarrassment -- rightly or wrongly -- and to skewer it before anyone else has a chance to see it only covers his behind, while potentially damaging Amazon's investment.

Johnny Walker said...

Also, I had no idea that Harry Anderson was anything other than an actor. Did he present options to the writing team and they picked what they liked? How did he get involved in the show? Was someone a fan, or was there always going to be a "con man" character?

Dixon Steele said...

Frankly, Ken, I think your sense of humor went on hiatus re Allen's comments. I read that interview, and it was typical Woody's self-hating neurotic schtick.

He should return the check? Talk about over-reacting...

Johnny Walker said...

Allen didn't make these comments in an interview. I'm wondering what people are referring to. As to "shtick", Allen doesn't do that in interviews. If you read enough of them you come to realise that that's really how he is. He's incredibly serious minded, and actually very pessimistic.

Kosmo13 said...

My perception of Harry Anderson was that he was one of those talented performers that NBC had under contract before they figured out what to do with them. "Hey, let's put him on Cheers and see what happens!" Sort of like when Barbara Mandrell appeared on The Rockford Files a year before she got her own NBC variety series.

Diane D. said...

To Johnny Walker
Read the article in The Guardian reporting on his press conference at Cannes.

David said...

"Don't you know who I think I am??!" It's pretty clear who you really are: a man, who though credentialed in the past, has long been in the midst of a protracted career downward spiral, desperately holding on to his increasingly-passe resume, indignantly screaming "Bastards! I'm still relevant."

Nice to see that NBC executives still read the blog...

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: I was going to ask you for your six half-hours on web programming, then I remembered: Nathan Barley. The precursor to Perfect Curve.

Ike Iszany said...

Two of your questions this week, the one about the lack of sit-coms on network TV and the one about Woody Allen having such an problem writing a sit-com, beg the question "Why is creating a sit-com so difficult?" There's lots of good examples of how to make a good sit-com and ten times as many examples on how to make a bad sit-com.

Johnny Walker said...

@Mike Nathan Barley was brilliant -- although that character has died off a little in real life (thankfully). I the real life Barleys have grown up a bit now, but in 2003 they seemed to be everywhere (I had quite a few Vice reading friends at the time -- the original SugaRape Magazine... never a fan myself). More of a member of the Shoreditch/Soho media crowd than web programming, though.

I would have loved to have seen Series 2, and Barley's brother was revealed to be one of the banking crowd -- supposedly with completely different ideals, but ultimately shown to be very similar: Plus the young banking crowd, driven solely by money and being completely exploited in the process, are a group ripe for spoofing at the moment -- the insanity of that world (the stories I've heard - wow) make the extreme parts of the Soho media crowd look almost sane.

Dene said...

And Woody Allen gets another kicking, this time for being honest.

Don't think I'll boycott Ken's blog somehow, but I'm disappointed.

Dr. Shrinker said...

Evidently, Harry Anderson did an anti-evolution movie last year. And I'm infinitely sadder for having discovered this information...

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2587914/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_1

Diane D. said...

Re: Dr. Shrinker comment
It's true. I watched the trailer tonight and was shocked. I wonder if he is desperate for money or is actually a creationist.

Griffin said...

Hi Ken,

Your recent post about your directing assignment on Instant Mom helped spark this question. I'm a crew member on a network show who has been guaranteed a directing assignment. I don't have an agent, and I'm wondering -- is now a good time to try to get one? Should I wait until the episode goes well?

Thank you for any advice you might have.

Jose said...

Ken, not that you would, but at the height of your career (or even now), could you have "blackballed" someone starting out that you didnt like?

Don Trachsel said...

Hopefully you can answer this, because I am not sure if you remember or were involved.
There was a quote on M.A.S.H. involving Hawkeye. ..I think. It goes something like this
"I have read the Bible, I know how it ends, God wins"
can you confirm the quote and possibly let me know episode and season?

Don Trachsel said...

Hopefully you can answer this, because I am not sure if you remember or were involved.
There was a quote on M.A.S.H. involving Hawkeye. ..I think. It goes something like this
"I have read the Bible, I know how it ends, God wins"
can you confirm the quote and possibly let me know episode and season?

Don Trachsel said...

Hopefully you can answer this, because I am not sure if you remember or were involved.
There was a quote on M.A.S.H. involving Hawkeye. ..I think. It goes something like this
"I have read the Bible, I know how it ends, God wins"
can you confirm the quote and possibly let me know episode and season?