Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday Questions

Let’s close out July with some Friday Questions, shall we?

GS in SF starts with a question on the spec DICK VAN DYKE SHOW I recently wrote and posted.

How different do you think the process would have been had you worked with your writing partner instead of handling the task solo? Would he have offered similar comments? Or, does having a partner give you more "distance" that maybe you would have come to some of these helpful insights on your own? This may offer an excellent opportunity to dissect the pros (and cons?) of writing with a partner??

First of all, it would be better with better jokes. David Isaacs and I always write together (i.e. in the same room) so every moment and line is talked out. I don’t know specifically what his comments would have been, but we put nothing on paper unless there's a consensus.

In breaking the story, he would have had his own ideas and for all I know, they would have been the same as Bill Persky’s. And like I always say, “the best idea wins.”

Michael has another DVD Show question.

There was contention here and there in the comments sections about out of character behavior. Rob saying something someone thought Rob would never say or Alan doing something someone thought Alan would never do. Do these types of disagreements ever come up in the writers' room and, if so, how do you resolve them?

These questions come up ALL the time. At some point though, whoever is running the room – generally the showrunner – has to make the final call.

The best shows are the ones where there is a clear vision by the person in charge. Problems arise when characters are so undefined no one really knows how they’ll react in a given situation. Or everyone on the writing staff has a slightly different take on the character. You need everybody to be on the same page and that starts with the showrunner.

Where it gets sticky is when the actor says his character wouldn’t say that. Generally, I find that when that happens the actor is right. They begin to really internalize their characters and the good ones have a great barometer as to what their characters would or wouldn’t do. We writers find that annoying but it’s true.

And still another -- this one from Matthew Kugler:

Since you weren't under a deadline for this script and it was greatly for pleasure, at what point did you feel you had done your best attempt? How many drafts/revisions did you go through? And did you still feel pressure or nervousness knowing that you'd be submitting it to Mr. Persky and Mr. Reiner?

Since I knew it would never be produced I didn't kill myself.  Most of my time spent was on breaking the story.  I wrote the script rather quickly, but it helped that I so knew the characters.  As always, once I have a draft I go through and polish.  Then, just before it's done, I go back and put in five more good jokes and thin out any big speech.

And to answer your second question, sure I felt a little pressure.  After all, THE writers of the DVD Show were going to read it -- the icons I have always looked up to.   I'll be very honest, I was very relieved that Bill Persky liked it. 

Chester asks:

Ken, you recently wrote a stage play, you just completed the Dick Van Dyke spec, you mentioned another comedy you and David created and pitched, and you keep up a fairly detailed and time-consuming daily blog. My question: Where do you find the time? I'm amazed at your output. Don't you sleep? (Okay, that's a second question. You can answer either or both.) Thanks.

I am blessed in that I like to write. And I have no life. But seriously, all of my projects combined don’t even approach the amount of writing I did on a routine basis when I was working on a show. There were times when I even wrote in my sleep. I remember once, while on MASH, I dreamed I was talking to Alan Alda and David Stiers and rewriting their dialogue.

Writing is fun now because I can work on projects I enjoy. Like this blog.

Mark Raymond asks:

There always seems to be a few comments that "have been removed by the author." I'm not asking what they said, since I understand if you wanted us to see them you would have left them stay as a comment. I guess I'm just wondering what the tone or tenor of these comments are that gets them removed?

I actually remove very few comments. But if the comment is particularly hateful, offensive, or attacks one of the other commenters I will remove it. And I’m way more apt to do that if the person hides behind anonymity.

Feel free to disagree with me. Just do it in a civil manner. I’ve even been known to change my mind or apologize for things I’ve posted. (But that’s rare since I’m right so much of the time.)

I greatly appreciate all of your comments.

And Friday Questions. What’s yours?

40 comments:

Bill Jones said...

Friday question, and please don't take this the wrong way, as it's a sincere inquiry. How do you, or others in your shoes (very successful writers, but without anything currently on TV or in theaters) make a daily living? You have a lot of projects that you've been working on. But while enriching, and the envy of those of us who schlep away at humdrum desk jobs, they don't seem to be the type that generate anything more than very modest income (plays, TV appearances here and there). And you've mentioned the minuscule residuals for writers, even very successful ones like yourself whose work constantly plays in reruns.

I'm asking this question not out of nosiness, but because I sincerely would like to know how writers (and actors) who are in their 50s and 60s, and whose best-paying gigs may be behind them, maintain a daily living. Teaching? Development deals? Union pension?

Thanks for answering to the extent you are comfortable doing so.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Bill Jones: without wishing in any way to deter Ken from answering (because it is an interesting question - and one that would be worth putting also to Earl Pomerantz, who seems to be fully retired), I'd note that it's surprising how cheaply you can live if your house is paid off, especially once you qualify for Medicare. Less true in LA than in somewhere with a more comprehensive public transit system, to be sure.

wg

emily said...

Being right so frequently is undoubtedly a heavy burden for Ken. I know because I share the same problem 24-7. (sigh)

gottacook said...

"Problems arise when characters are so undefined no one really knows how they’ll react in a given situation. Or everyone on the writing staff has a slightly different take on the character."

The prototypical example of this (or at least the one I became aware of earliest) is what happened in the third and final season of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry and his longtime line producers, Gene L. Coon (who left for the startup of It Takes a Thief) and his successor John Meredyth Lucas, had all left. Not only the writing but the directing of the great majority of third-season episodes was assigned to people unfamiliar with the series. And those episodes simply abounded with out-of-character moments for the main cast, mostly involving falling in love with the female guest star of the week.

BUT: When I first saw these episodes on NBC in 1968-69, they were the only ones I'd ever seen; I didn't know any better. (I was 12 and my only basis for comparison was Lost in Space.) It wasn't until a few years later, with the advent of five-a-week reruns, that I learned how poorly they compared to most of the first two seasons, scriptwise.

Translate to today's viewing options, plus the ability to follow (and comment on) the behind-the-scenes events and personalities of a given series without even trying very hard. Now, it seems, I am supposed to know up front which episodes or seasons of a particular series - for example, one that's available whole on Netflix - to gravitate toward, or to avoid.

Johnny Walker said...

Ken said: "Problems arise when characters are so undefined no one really knows how they’ll react in a given situation."

I discovered this first-hand in a hotel room in Los Angeles a few years back ;-)

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: This unexpected reaction you encountered first-hand a few years ago in a hotel room in LA. Did it involve the now ex-Mrs Walker?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Mike: Ooh! I know this one!

wg

michaleen said...

Taxi's Reverend Jim complaining to a TV exec (played by Martin Short) about the one flaw in his favorite series, "Star Trek."

"The only character I didn't like was the King of the Romulans. It wasn't the actor's fault, it was the writing. The King of the Romulans would NEVER act like that!"

Rickets And A Smart Mouth said...

Love that still photo from the MASH "Dreams" episode accompanying the answer about writing in your sleep--it's outrageously appropriate.

Erich Cannon said...

FRIDAY QUESTION -

An idea for a Louie scenario came to mind and it got me thinking how I would write a comedian playing himself, as that often happens on episodes of Louie. You may not have direct insight on how scripts for Louie is written, but it begs the question-- how often do you find yourself writing a role for a comedian or someone playing themselves? How is this generally approached in a script if, odds are, its likely improved or riffed upon as I assume some of these scenes in Louie might be?

Rashad Khan said...

POTENTIAL FRIDAY QUESTION (posed by a Facebook friend of mine): This might have been discussed before on the blog, but does the fact that Carla, Cliff and Norm all appeared during an episode of "St. Elsewhere" mean "Cheers" is a part of Tommy Westphall's invented universe?

(...And here is one of my own: How come "Cheers" didn't return the favor have some of the "St. Elsewhere" cast appear on the show as their characters? Did the producers and writers think it would have been too gimmicky?)

Donald Benson said...

Mark Evanier had a charming story re Mr. Cannon's question:

http://www.newsfromme.com/?s=montalban

Mark raymond said...

Ken, thank you so much for answering my question. I truly feel honored. I respect you more than you know.

John said...

OK question based off part of one of today's answers: When you say "Problems arise when characters are so undefined no one really knows how they’ll react in a given situation," is there ever a situation on a long-running show where the problem might go the other way -- i.e. the audience is so locked into who the characters are there's little room for exploration, based on the idea (or the network's idea) or not tampering with what works. And at the other end, do you have a little more leeway to try and add on little things to a character when a show is relatively new simply because the character has yet to become locked into a certain persona?

Charles H. Bryan said...

@Rashad Somewhere out on the Internet someone put together a might chart of all the shows that were connected to Tommy Westphal's "universe", due to crossovers. I've seen it, but don't recall the URL.

Tom said...

First of all, I really enjoy the blog in general, Ken, and I also very much enjoyed the DVD script. You have often written about the importance of writing to characters. Could you take a show that you're not a big fan of (such as Gilligan's Island) and write a spec script that you felt was true to the characters' basic natures while being of what you'd think was higher quality than the average episode?

therealshell said...

Just curious, but did you ever think of bringing back Alan Fudge as Captain Arnold Chandler, the soldier who thought he was Jesus Christ ? He was a very busy character actor back in the day, and I always liked his work. I still imagine that Jesus Christ looks like Alan Fudge.

therealshell said...

I meant "he" as in "Alan Fudge was a very busy character actor." Jesus Christ, not so much so.

The Real Deal said...

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/bill-cosby-producer-breaks-silence-812438

Bill Cosby producer breaks silence, weighs in, hoping show remains on air and checks keep coming in. For those of you living under a rock, Cosby has pretty much been convicted of rapin and drugging over 99 women in a 43 year period. It is unknown how many victims are dead or have not come forward. The number is estimated to be in excess of 900.

http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/07/bill-cosbys-accusers-speak-out.html
‘I’m No Longer Afraid’: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the Culture That Wouldn’t Listen

The Real Deal said...

“He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up, black people … I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches … I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns. Dude’s image, for the most part, it’s fucking public Teflon image. I’ve done this bit onstage and people think I’m making it up … That shit is upsetting.” The bit went viral swiftly, with irreversible, calamitous consequences for Cosby’s reputation.

The Real Deal said...

Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Institute of 1770, a renowned social club for students, bestowed its "Man of the Year" award to comedian Bill Cosby in 1969. According to a Los Angeles Times/UPI Wire published on March 5, 1969, recently uncovered by The Huffington Post, the comedian "proposed changing the name of the annual honor" to "the nice guy as far as we know" award.

Earlier this month, an old episode of "The Cosby Show" received attention for its plot, which involved Cosby making a special, secret sauce that makes people want to have sex.

Anonymous said...

In 2005, a former basketball star named Andrea Constand, who met Cosby when she was working in the athletic department at Temple University, where he served on the board of trustees, alleged to authorities that he had drugged her to a state of semi-consciousness and then groped and digitally penetrated her.

Anonymous said...

He poured a glass of white wine. And he said, use this as a prop — now, that means you’re going to have to sip on it, of course. I really don’t remember much, except waking up in his bedroom. He was naked, and he was forcing himself into my mouth.”

And then he took my right hand, and he put it behind my back. I remember seeing semen on the floor. And I felt some liquid on my hand. That was when I knew something sexual was going on.”

She was completely unconscious. I could hear the words in my head, but I couldn’t form words with my mouth, because I was so drugged out. He got up and came over, and he sat down and unzipped his fly. He had me give him oral sex, and then he stood me up, turned me over, did me doggy style, and walked out. Just as he got to the door, I said, ‘How do we get out of here, how do we get home?’ And he said, ‘Call a cab.

Anonymous said...

“People often these days say, ‘Well, why didn’t you take it to the police?’ Andrea Constand went to the police in 2005 — how’d it work out for her? Not at all. In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media. In 2015, we have social media. We can’t be disappeared. It’s online and can never go away.”

Ken Levine said...

Every day now the comments section turns into a Cosby discussion. And before long it becomes ugly with commenters attacking each other. Just yesterday I asked you all to please move on to other topics. Thank you.

Bill said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ken Levine said...

So I say no more Cosby comments and right away someone posts a Cosby comment. Let me be clear, I will delete ALL Cosby comments -- pro or con. Period. And if this keeps up I will not allow any comment that I don't approve first. Stop it.

James said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Johnny Walker said...

@Mike ?

@Wendy You were at the same weekend, so I should hope so.

MikeN said...

My big issue is that the comments removed text suggests that it was the writer of the comments who withdrew their remarks.

MikeN said...

What's with all the comments in a row of statements?

If you google Bill Clinton rapist, you get more hits than Hannibal Buress.
How about "He said 'better put some ice on that.'"

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: You deserve an explanation: Presumably you're referring to your experience of the seminar. I twisted your words in a failed attempt at innuendo.

Michael said...

I remember Alan Alda saying of the "Dreams" episode that it got some criticism. I can believe that. But it was a brilliant show, one of the better ones in a long line of great MASH episodes, I thought.

Johnny Walker said...

Mike: Ah :) As I do have an ex-wife, I was a bit baffled. Thanks for the explanation.

JoeyH said...

Ken,

You were mentioned on John Landecker's last WLS-FM show today:

http://www.jingles.com/jam/social/LandeckerCA.html

Ike Iszany said...

Friday question. Why do sit com set often have so many angled walls? The rooms seem to have 7 to 10 walls and no 90 degree angles in them. And often have little alcoves that never get used for anything. I get that opening the side walls up would give the viewer a chance to see them better and probably be easier to light, maybe?

Dave Olden said...

@Mark Raymond,

Hi Mark, just a tiny note: the notice "This comment has been removed by the author" means it was deleted by the ccmment's author. (Probably a typo or other mistake, since Blogger has no edit function post-posting).

However—as you can see with Bill and James' comments today—when Ken removes a comment, the notice will read "This comment has been removed by a blog administrator"

- Dave

Ken Levine said...

Joey H.

Yes, I heard. I was surprised and honored. John Records Landecker is one of the best.

Graham UK said...

Friday Question - Just taken up sitcom writing as a hobby, with the hope of one day producing a sitcom on a small budget. Although I have enjoyed watching and studying sitcoms for years, I have no experience at all in writing. Do you have any advice for how to come up with funny ideas and situations?

Carol said...

Friday Question: There was one joke that always stood out for me in the last season of Cheers. When the guys go to see Godzilla at the drive-in, someone brings up how the main actress eventually left the Godzilla series. Then Woody says, "Why would an actress leave right in the middle of a successful series?" and everyone shrugs--a reference to Shelley Long leaving halfway through Cheers. The joke stood out to me because it was the first time (I think) Cheers broke the fourth wall, and it seemed like strange timing to make the joke in the last few episodes of the series, years after Shelley Long had left. Was there a story behind why the joke was included? Also, were the writers afraid that the joke would be misinterpreted as bitterness towards Shelley Long leaving?

Thanks Ken! Huge fan of your work and your blog!