Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday Questions

Would it be Friday without Friday Questions?

Ike Iszany starts us off:

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.

Two reasons. The first is to allow cameras more access. Remember on shows shot with an audience you have four cameras. You want the sets to be wide enough to accommodate them all. Even small sets like Sam’s office on CHEERS have the walls at an angle.

Reason two is just to give the set some depth and make it look interesting. In some cases those alcoves off to the side are really ports. You can bring a camera way up behind the alcove and shoot through a sliding window.

As a director you’re always looking to get good “eyes” on the actors. You try to avoid profiles. These ports help.

From John:

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?

You make some excellent points, John. One of the reasons David Isaacs and I left MASH in the 8th season was because the characters were so entrenched we felt there was nothing they could do that could surprise us. Especially on that show where we were locked into time and space. It’s not like we could give Hawkeye a new job. That’s why it was always such a blessing when we could introduce a new character.

And to the last part of your question, yes, early on you’re still “developing” the characters – inventing new layers and also shaping them to the strengths and weaknesses of the actors.  It can be exciting.  Every so often you tap into an unexpected vein of gold. 

Smitty asks:

Louis CK and FX have a basic agreement: LCK gets complete creative control, FX's budget for his show is peanuts (in show biz terms) and as long as the show gets eyeballs/retains its quality, FX leaves LCK alone. Do you think most showrunners would take trade no network inference for a reduced budget?


And when artists like Louis CK fulfills his promise and turns out great work it only makes it easier for others to get the same deal. So thank you, Louis.

And finally, from Peter:

What's your opinion on prank based comedy like Bad Grandpa, Borat and Bruno? Are they your cup of tea? Do you think comedy is comedy, whether it's fully scripted or whether it relies on playing a prank on the public?

It’s just personal taste but my problem with this brand of comedy is that it relies on mortifying people to derive its laughs. A lot of it is mean spirited. There are laughs but at what cost? I prefer more humanity in my comedy. (Although, I must admit I did find parts of BORAT funny. Perhaps it was the political satire aspect of it. Or I’m just more shallow than I’m willing to admit.)

What’s your Friday Question?


Diogo said...

Here's a question. Why do movies need to have peaks? After I've noticed this, it became quite annoying to notice that, usually, after 5 or 10 minutes of really funny material, there's almost a reset button where the comedy dies down, and everybody focuses on something else (in romantic comedies usually the romance part of it). And the movie goes off in highs and lows, through 90 minutes, with, usually, a big blow at end.

Michael said...

One of the things that bothers me from repeated SEINFELD viewings, is in the apartment set the inner wall from the door to the kitchen is angled so the refrigerator is tucked out of the way, but on the rare occasions where they show the hallway, the outer wall next to the door looks perfectly straight.

Graham Powell said...

I'm with you on prank-based comedy. Something like Candid Camera seemed to work for me, but so often today people are willing to laugh and feel superior to others.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Graham Powell: I don't remember a lot of CANDID CAMERA, but I do remember the one where they had a VW split in half to go around stuff in a parking lot. Now, *that* was a classy prank, practically worthy of being an MIT hack.


Steve Mc said...

Rather than prank comedy, weren't Borat and Ali G more about giving people enough rope to reveal their prejudices. In that respect, those people were fair game, no?

ScottyB said...

Re the question/comment on comedy like 'Borat' (which I actually liked a lot, because it was just so ridiculous), Jay Leno summed it up re his comment on Jimmy Kimmel, and I'm paraphrasing here: It's because he's mean-spirited.

I think Leno had a point, echoed by Ken today. Laughing at someone slipping on a banana peel is funny. Making funny out of a guy laying there with a busted skull isn't really funny. That's just mean, and that's not comedy. Unfortunately, that seems to be qualifying as "comedy" and "funny" more and more today.

Now get off my damn lawn, you kids.

ScottyB said...

@Steve Mc: I dunno about that entirely. Like I mentioned, I thought 'Borat' was funny as hell. I even own the DVD. But I'm not sure your assessment is entirely accurate, or everything in that movie qualifies as "funny" (even tho I realize "funny" is different things to different people). Borat singing his national anthem at the rodeo in cowboy getup may have been funny, but the personal views of the promoter toward people with facial hair wasn't. But yet, it was a good example of humor exposes the prejudices and worst of us (i.e. 'All In The Family'); I think that's a different topic, yet one worth talking about — or even if it's possible to have a discussion like that when it comes to network TV today. And that's probably why, if anything, network TV can just go die.

On the bright side, that whole movie was full of things that were genuinely funny about being a stranger in a strange land. It was just taken to an extreme, and really, that's always what seems to make comedy funny.

ScottyB said...

@Wendy M. Grossman: I grew up in the 'Candid Camera' days. It would take a whole DVD to explain why it was so popular, and the whole difference between CC pranks and the pranks that constitute funny today. Today, prank-TV seems to center on making someone look stupid or foolish, or to make an example of them. It's not about the prank itself.

Back then 'CC' was more about peoples' reactions to outlandish situations that were very quietly and cleverly thought up — not about portraying people in a mean light. Like some guy at a diner's spoon dissolving in a cup of "the world's best coffee". A woman whose car wouldn't start having no engine (because back then, women didn't know shit about cars, y'know). And yeah, the celebrated VW bug splitting in half on the road with both halves keeping on driving.

That shit was *funny*. Prank TV today is not. It's just fucking mean. So thank the fuck out of you, people like Ashton Kutcher.

Bill Avena said...

Michael: That Escher living room problem was repeated in Louis CK's HBO sitcom, which CK and Adlon pointed out in the commentary track.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I asked Ike's question a long time ago, and I had kind of figured it had something to do with camera angles and such - you're less likely to find sets that aren't exactly realistically laid out on single camera shows. Jerry Seinfeld's apartment, for example, the layout makes no sense, and its inconsistent with the rest of the settings as well: his kitchenette turns at an angle from inside the apartment, which would block off part of the outer hallway, but out in the hall is perfectly straight. Also the Costanzas' condo: there's no way Frank and Estelle's kitchen can be situated the way it is, because they would be stepping into their next door neighbor's unit otherwise.

And regarding the Louis CK question . . . hold up now, back up . . . are you telling me that there's still such a thing as networks letting the people having creative control over their own shows? But do they still get to own it as well?

cd1515 said...

loved the part about characters being locked in, you could really see that the last few years of Friends... if they had no story or no way to end a scene, there'd be a clean joke about Monica, a food joke about Joey, a divorce joke about Ross, etc.
you could see it coming a mile away.

scott said...

Another Friday question regarding sitcom sets:

The interior courthouse set on The Andy Griffith Show is the only set I can recall where we get a 360 degree view of he interior. Were there others that you can recall?

blinky said...

Hey waddaya think about the NYer comment on Cheers as precursor to Bojack Horseman?
"Consider “Cheers,” which, though not immune to the pull of sentimentality, was ultimately about a group of people who were trapped, both within the physical confines of a Boston bar (whenever they ventured out, things got very silly) and within the disappointing circumstances of their lives. Sam was a just-barely-made-it former baseball player and flailing ladies’ man; Diane, and Rebecca after her, were women exiled from the elegant and worldly lives that they had imagined for themselves; Norm and Carla and Frasier and Cliff each had family situations that tormented them, and they never wanted to go home. Only Coach, and later Woody, the softheaded ones, seemed at peace with the world. The surrogate family that these characters created was a huddle against the indignities and frustrations of real life—and none of them pretended otherwise. “Cheers” was deliriously funny, but it was also basically “The Iceman Cometh” with just a little more light let into the saloon."

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@scott When you say 360 degree view of the set, are you talking about seeing the whole set in a single, continuous shot that pans around the entire room, or do you mean we're simply able to see all angles of the set at in any given cut in a scene?

If the latter, many sitcoms from the 60s were like that since they were single camera, and as such, were able to accomplish a wider variety of camera angles that would otherwise not be practical on a set that's in front of a studio audience. The interior of the Stephens' house on BEWITCHED is a notably famous example for subverting the typical Standardized Sitcom Housing layout that a sitcom house like, say, from EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND tends to utilize. Tony Nelson's house from I DREAM OF JEANNIE also tend to see a variety of different camera angles that showed off more of the sets (though it seemed like the set got a makeover every season). We also seem more angles of Felix and Oscar's apartment (mostly the living room and kitchen) in the first season of THE ODD COUPLE, which was single camera.

If the former, the "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" finale of M*A*S*H had multiple scenes in O.R. where the camera got all angles of O.R. in single, continuous shots as the scene weaves in and out of the surgical tables while they operate.

Alessio said...

Here's my Friday question:
do you think is it possible, for a non-American, to produce a show that could appeal an American audience? Or is that unlikely?

I am not American, and I have always wondered whether that would be possible or not. I grow up watching American television, but I never been to the States, so my experience of American culture comes from other people's works only.

Thank you!

J. Allison said...

Agree with you about Borat. Parts were funny, but a lot of it was ambush comedy. "Oh, look at how that poor sap reacts to what Borat is doing!" My problem with this is that it's cheating the social contract to get the laughs. Sure, the target is uncomfortable or reacts poorly. That's because we have a basic contract to not make other people feel wildly uncomfortable in public. It's what allows us to cruise through the day without feeling massively stressed about what might happen next. And maybe shining a light on this contract is Cohen's point. But it still feels unfair to me to laugh at the victims of this stuff.

Al said...

When designing sets for movies and television, you try to avoid a very boxy, theatrical look. (Think THE HONEYMOONERS. You don't want your set to look like that.) Setting the walls at angles, using alcoves, and inserting nooks and crannies here and there is how you do that.

ROSEANNE, though shot with an audience, revealed an otherwise unseen fourth wall during the opening titles, which was a continuous pan shot of the family seated around the kitchen table.

One sitcom house with a lot of problems conforming to reality is the one used on THE GOLDEN GIRLS. Start with the fact that the lanai apparently sits in the front of the house. Then there's the entrance from the garage, located in the kitchen. In the hallway, on the opposite side of that shared kitchen/hallway wall where the garage entrance is (in the kitchen), is the door to someone's bedroom. That hallway extends further down and there's the door to another bedroom at the end of the it. No room for a garage there. Where the hell is that garage actually located? In fact, the house used in exterior shots has the garage on the right, if you're facing the house. The kitchen garage entrance on the set, though, has the garage located on the opposite side of the house. There's a bedroom door on the left side of the hallway, but the view of the yard through those huge windows across the back of the living room reveals no sign of that bedroom, which would have to extend out into the yard.

On BEWITCHED, there are two large windows in Samantha and Darrin's bedroom. Whenever they used them, they looked out onto the front yard. The way the bedroom was shown to be situated, though, they would have looked out onto the backyard.

Donald Benson said...

I do remember that a lot of CANDID CAMERA was laughing at the prank itself. Back when I watched it as a kid (early 60s), most of the victims would either just see the gag and laugh, or try to solider on as if this was only slightly out of the ordinary. A few didn't even bother with victim reactions, such as a montage of beauty salon mirrors cracking when customers looked at them.

A definitive SNL skit:

Mark Evanier on the whole hidden camera thing:

Peter said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken!

I love prank comedies but I know what you mean about them being based on mortifying the victims. There are some scenes which make me squirm because they're so excruciating to see the victims being confronted by bonkers behaviour.

But as you and others have said, the political satire in some sequences is brilliant. Both Bruno and Borat exposed casual homophobia and anti-Semitism.

Alex said...

Speaking about sets, Ken, I have a question. When a show filmed in front of an audience requires a major change to a set, how is that handled? For example, there is an Everybody Loves Raymond episode where Marie backs the car through Raymond's living room wall. Later in the episode, the wall is repaired again. And there's a Cheers episode where Rebecca turns the pool room into a chili parlor. The pool room is wrecked when the pressure cooker Rebecca is using explodes. When major changes have to made to a set, are those scenes filmed separately from the rest of the episode, or does the audience just sit and wait for the crew to make the necessary changes?


D. McEwan said...

The trick to making "Prank" comedy work is to prank ASSHOLES. One of the reasons Borat worked so well (And I have seldom laughed harder or more helplessly than at Borat because he went after anti-semites and southern bigots.

Ted O'Hara said...

Isaac Asimov wrote in his autobiography, "I don't want to give the impression that my writing is of uniform quality.... I occasionally write better than I ordinarily do. I call it 'writing over my head' and when I reread one of these stories or passages, I find it hard to believe that I wrote it, and I wish ardently that I could write like that all the time."

Have you ever written 'over your head'? If so, can you give an example or two? What made the pieces so special?

Anonymous said...

Friday question: Any thoughts on Antenna TV bringing Johnny Carson back?

As a fan of old time radio, I've noticed topical humor doesn't necessarily translate well. Bob Hope and Fred Allen are badly dated unless you know history and arcane trivia like the name of the person running the Works Progress Administration in 1935. (As an aside, Carson appears to have "borrowed" with liberality from Fred Allen.)

Thanks, Keith

Anonymous said...

Some of the writers of "Family Guy" put together a little web series called "Kicked in the Nuts" that addressed this:

Alex said...

I've been rewatching Frasier, and I'm delighted by how well it holds up. Really loved reading the posts here about how the show was created too.

Friday Question: One thing I've been wondering about regarding the show's genesis is how Niles falling in lust with Daphne became part of the show. It became such a major part of his character: at what stage in the creative process did it come about? Was it always intended to be a major plotline, or was it more like a one-off joke that the writers threw into that first episode, then decided to run with?

Anonymous said...

Keith beat me to it with the Carson ANTTV comment above. I was just discussing with my husband how I would enjoy the old shows but not so sure anyone under 55 would feel the same because of the topical humor. Will Nixon jokes still fly the second time around? I can't watch any of the current hosts without comparing them to Johnny, but I am of a certain age. I would love to see some of the old guests though.Janice B.

Mike said...

I disagree with Ken's answer to Smitty (if only because I guessed the other way).
1) Cable TV is already largely hands-free, HBO in particular.
2) Ken has consistently eschewed cable TV in favour of networks because of the greater moolah offered by 22-episode series & syndication.
3) Will networks offer hands-free deals for small budgets? I'm guessing not. With the potential fortunes to be made from a successful network programme, networks will opt for full budget with the option to cancel the programme after only a few episodes.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

For those intrigued by sitcom floorplans, there are several in this group I just found:

Not all the shows are sitcoms, but there are floorplans for FRIENDS, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, WILL AND GRACE, BIG BANG THEORY, and FRASIER. Perhaps Ken would tell us if the Frasier one is correct.


Tim said...


I am an avid blog reader and a huge fan of your work. I go to a Television Production School, and I am the President of an organization for finding professionals who have found success in the TV industry. I know you are very good about helping young people who are trying to break into the industry (this blog is proof of that), so I thought you would be a great person to reach out to. I am not naive enough to expect you to fly out to the east coast or anything, but I was hoping you would be able to provide some advice or guidance that could somehow be passed on the students at my school In other words, I was hoping to find some other way to contact you. Thanks!


P.S. I know this is on a relatively old post. I figured this way, you would receive some sort of notification, but other readers would be unlikely to see this.