Friday, October 23, 2015

Friday Questions

Let’s get to some Friday Questions to get you ready for the weekend.

Mitchell Hundred leads off:

How do you prevent yourself from overusing a character (i.e. to an extent that the novelty or the thing that made them popular in the first place gets worn out)?

This is always a tough call because if an actor is really scoring you naturally just want to keep going back to that well. We faced that with the Colonel Flagg character, played so well by Edward Winter. Ultimately, we felt once a season was just about right. The character was a little cartoonish so we felt once a year was enough. And he was so funny that his appearance always became an event.

On FRASIER, the Bebe character, a tour de force for Harriet Harris, was so strong, but the feeling was “Bebe” would have more impact if used in spots. The goal was to have her appearance be a real treat for the audience. And it was.

Although, for my money, Harriet Harris is hilarious in whatever role she plays.

From MikeK.Pa:

What’s your feeling about sight gags in sitcoms? I could think of classic ones from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE HONEYMOONERS and I LOVE LUCY but couldn't think of any recent ones. Are they outdated like the silent movies, which relied on them and made comedies by Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd truly universal (except for the translated title cards) and timeless?

I unabashedly LOVE sight gags. Even on sophisticated shows there’s room for physical comedy. We did them on MASH, CHEERS, and FRASIER. And did you ever NOT laugh at Kramer on SEINFELD? 30 ROCK did some sight gags as I recall.

Why there is less of it today on sitcoms I can’t say. There certainly are wonderful physical comedians out there.

And sight gags are still a staple of films, especially studio releases. Has there been a trailer in the last ten years for a comedy that didn’t feature a pratfall?

Dan Ball asks:

Which actor, whether they played either a series regular or even frequent background player (like Al Rosen or Phil Perlman), was the best ad-libber on CHEERS? Like they could take what was written on the page and take it up a few notches, either by changing the words themselves on the spot or killing it with their timing? Someone who would always deliver something way better than what you guys had imagined in the writers room.

None of the actors ad libbed, but they pretty much all lifted the material. If I had to pick one though it would be David Hyde Pierce on FRASIER. If there ever was an alchemist it was David. I was and continue to be in awe of his ability (and his kindness). And talk about a great physical comedian. If you haven’t seen this yet, treat yourself. Sheer mastery.



ChicagoJohn wonders:

Occasionally, I see a show that sends me into a writing frenzy. The show is sooo f*#king good that I'm inspired and jealous at the same time.

1) does this happen to you?
2) what shows have "sent you writing"?

When my writing partner, David Isaacs and I were just starting out we happened to get tickets to see the filming of a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. It was the famous “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode written by David Lloyd.

We didn’t know whether to be incredibly inspired or intimidated because what were the chances we were ever going to write anything that even approached being that good? You don’t know whether to shoot for the moon or give up.  Fortunately, we hung in there... although we're still trying to write something that good.

What’s your FQ?

39 comments:

Gazzoo said...

The fact that the producers of MASH's final seasons didn't feel Flagg fit with the show's tone anymore is a perfect illustration of how they changed things for the worse.

Jim Grey said...

Poor Edward Winter and Harriet Harris: "You're so funny we have to use you sparingly."

Mitchell Hundred said...

I've heard a lot of people say that money is the universal language, but to me the prevalence of sight gags proves that it's actually violence.

Greg said...

Friday Question.

Ken, that video of Niles was excellent. How was that shot? Was the studio audience present? Many takes?

Michael said...

SEINFELD was very good at not over-using supporting characters. I always thought it was unusual to only have 4 regular cast members, but it rotated thru lots of other memorable characters like George's parents, Puddy, J. Peterman, George Steinbrenner, etc. Even Newman only appeared in about 1/4 of the episodes.

Markus said...

Very true about David Hyde Pierce, throughout the show really. Another example that comes to mind is the time when Niles got himself a Segway to roll around the lot in. It's quite amazing to see how he can put pretty much the whole essence of the character into the pose he has while riding it, without even being able to walk during those scenes. Very subtle, very effective. And of course, the "Niles starts a fire" thing.

J. Allison said...

Hi Ken. I'm curious as to your thoughts on Modern Family. I thought the first couple seasons were very funny and creative, but that the show has been in steady decline since. After watching this week's episode I told my wife that I'm about ready to give up on it. The story lines were completely telegraphed and I don't think I laughed once.

LouOCNY said...

Barney Miller took a slightly different tack of bringing back once a season, the various character actors they used all the time, like Phil Leeds, Ken Tigar, Peggy Pope, etc. It's fun to look at BM'S IMDB page, and the 'all cast and crew' listing, to see how many actors did 7...6..5 bits on the show - all in 'different' roles. an episode that was on the Antenna sub-channel the other night hit the Bit Player Hall of Fame jackpot, as it had Peggy Pope (always an innocent/slight crazy woman), Phil Leeds (70's TV's Official Dirty Old Man), Sal Viscuso and Ken Tigar (this time not a werewolf, but Jesus)

Mork said...

Friday question for you, Ken...

Hugh Wilson has talked about the time CBS asked him to write a zany, wacky episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati"; the resulting episode, "Fish Story" (which featured, among other things, Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap getting drunk on the air), was so against everything he thought was good that he took his name off the episode and used the pseudonym Raoul Plager for his writing credit. The episode ended up being the highest-rated episode of the entire series. Have you ever written anything that either a) was so completely against what you thought was funny but ended up working anyway; or b) worked, but you had absolutely no idea *why* it worked?

Bill Avena said...

Sight gags are so 20th century. They require a setup and in today's Age of the Commercial setups cost valuable ad time that could be better used showing us Extreme Doritos with Epic Ranch Flavor.

Anonymous said...

Was the Bebe character on Frasier named after Bebe Neuwirth out of spite?

Terry said...

Your mention of 30 Rock today made me think of a possible Friday question: 30 Rock once did one of the most brilliant (in my opinion) references to MASH ever in an episode that featured Alan Alda as a guest star. I won't spoil it for anyone, but the whole episode led up to Alda delivering a line that perfectly referenced the MASH finale while still fitting in with the story in the 30 Rock episode. People who knew MASH would get it, but those who didn't wouldn't have been distracted by it either. My question is what is your opinion on these kinds of references to other works the actor may have starred in? Have you ever written references like that? I personally love them if they are done well. I think they reward avid viewers with a little inside joke.

John (not McCain) said...

"Although, for my money, Harriet Harris is hilarious in whatever role she plays."

Yeah, she was a real hoot playing psychotic clones on the X-Files. [/jackass]

Actually, she was wonderfully scary, and really not that far away from Bebe.

Breadbaker said...

As good as David Hyde Pierce was there, Moose was spectacular.

Dale said...

Nies channels Mr. Bean. Even in the grunting no talking aspect.

Boomska316 said...

Friday question:I was wondering how "Point Of View" was filmed? Was the actor playing Private Rich wearing a helmet cam or something?

Hank Gillette said...

Wow, talk about setting the bar high! Very few television writers have ever written anything as good as Chuckles Bites the Dust. If I were an aspiring writer and saw that and thought that was the standard I had to compete against, I’d probably curl up in a fetal position and stay there. Luckily, there are always things like Two Broke Girls to remind you that it can’t be that hard to write for television (if you have talent).

Igor said...

Ken, any comment on this?

Washington Post: "The 1,657 TV shows that spent less time on the air than the Hillary Clinton Benghazi hearing" - https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/10/23/the-1657-tv-shows-that-spent-less-time-on-the-air-than-the-hillary-clinton-benghazi-hearing/

Igor said...

I gotta figure there were at least a few hundred shows that were on longer than the hearing yesterday that were at least as bad as those 1,657. Just depends on whom one wants to mock, I guess.

Donald Benson said...

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Tom said...

@J.Allison - I'm far from being Ken, but I'll agree with you about the decline of Modern Family. Although I did think last season was a decent rebound from a poor season 2 years ago, I think it's been in decline for a while.

I know that family-centric shows can struggle as kids age, but it seems like they've done a poor job of staying character focused. They've actually done a decent (if sporadic) job of letting Haley grow and evolve, but they haven't served many of the rest well. Cam in particular comes across more as a grab-bag of cliches than a consistent character, but he's not the only one. I wonder if the schism between the producers is causing more issues as time passes.

Howard Hoffman said...

I keep meaning to ask - what the hell is that antenna-like thing Niles raises on the ironing board in that magnificent scene? I love how he dutifully raises it, even though he also seems to have no idea why.

Todd Everett said...

The antenna-like thing is to keep the iron's power cord out of the way -- you clip the cord at the top, so it's always hanging down instead of hitting the board.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Is this a "best of" posting? The questions and answers seem familiar.

MikeN said...

Terry, have you ever seen Psych?

Michael said...

This reminds me of something involving Jack Benny. A radio comedian, Jack Pearl, did a show in which his big line was, "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" It would get a big laugh. Benny suggested that he skip it for a week or two and it would go over bigger. Pearl said, no, that's my big line. Well, his show died because it had just that gimmick.

Benny noted that on his shows, he would only use running gags occasionally, or maybe twice or three times a year. The Maxwell didn't gasp each week. The tout didn't meet him at the track each week, nor did the train leave on track five.

For example, Flagg is one of my all-time favorites, and the Winchester episode was just brilliant. But Flagg each week? Too much. Way too much.

Ken Levine said...

It is not a "best of" posting. It is all new. I tell you when it's a re-post, and even when I do re-post, it's from three to six years ago. Lots of new readers since then.

Kosmo13 said...

I felt that "Newhart" made a mistake in over-using the Larry, Daryl and Daryl trio. Those characters would've been funnier if used less often. Instead they became tedious in an "Oh, no, not them again!" way.

Aaron said...

I feel I have read this comment before ... Is it new?

barriowolf said...

I remember seeing that particular episode of Frasier. It is one of my favorite memories of the show and impossible to describe to someone else. I had to catch my breath from laughing so hard.

Igor said...

"Lots of new readers since then."

I'm one.

Igor said...

@ Howard Hoffman - I believe that thing is there to hold the iron's power cord; you're supposed to loop the cord over it so the cord doesn't drag across the clothes. It's quite functional, but it's also a throwback to when the power (and steam) at a commercial place would come done from the ceiling.

VP81955 said...

This reminds me of something involving Jack Benny. A radio comedian, Jack Pearl, did a show in which his big line was, "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" It would get a big laugh. Benny suggested that he skip it for a week or two and it would go over bigger. Pearl said, no, that's my big line. Well, his show died because it had just that gimmick.

Benny noted that on his shows, he would only use running gags occasionally, or maybe twice or three times a year. The Maxwell didn't gasp each week. The tout didn't meet him at the track each week, nor did the train leave on track five.


I've heard a similar anecdote involving Benny, but the other guy was Joe Penner of "Wanna buy a duck?" fame. Either way, Penner nor Pearl understood what Benny did -- that character, not catch phrases, sell radio (and later TV) comedy. It's one reason Benny -- whose generosity was far removed from his miserly on-air person -- paid his writers top dollar, and why they remained loyal to him for decades.

VP81955 said...

Oopsie -- that should be "neither Penner nor Pearl..." But you probably got that. (I'm typing this at a library.)

Frank Beans said...

Was Kelsey Grammer's "Oh dear God!" catchphrase on FRASIER an intentional creation? Obviously, it's funny when used sparingly and in context, and it only seems to appear once or twice a season. I just wonder, did the actor himself or the writers think it up, or did it just pop up spontaneously?

Andrew said...

Another example of a character used sparingly, to great effect, was Cliff's mom on Cheers. She was awesome in small doses, but I'm glad she wasn't in too many episodes or that would have ruined the charm. My favorite episode with her was when Sam spends the night at their home. And of course the Carson show. (Ken, what can you tell us about Frances Sternhagen?)

Jerry said...

I noticed last night that The Big Bang Theory isn't doing a Halloween episode this year. So this got me to thinking, what drives the decision of whether to do holiday themed episodes? Does the network like them and will request them? One of the writers has a great idea for a turkey getting stuck on someone's head?

ChicagoJohn said...

Just wanted to thank you for answering my question, sir.
I'm often put in the position where I see something so brilliant I wonder if I can ever write that good. But other times, its so funny, I want to try.

Otto said...

Somehow, I never tired of Niles "fainting" at the sight of blood - beyond hilarious. And I wonder who, if anyone, could handle a scene like that today? Just great.