Friday, November 27, 2015

(Black) Friday Questions

Here’s something to read as you stand in long lines today – this week’s (Black) Friday Questions. I need sweaters, by the way.  But not Cosby sweaters. 

Wendy M. Grossman begins:

A number of us have been seriously admiring Aya Cash's work on YOU'RE THE WORST (which you should all see, if you haven't). Someone opined that she has no chance at an Emmy nomination, however, because the network that broadcasts the show is the ultra-obscure FXX. Is this true, do you think? Does it hurt the chances of THE AMERICANS, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys that they're on FX? I know the main actors on JUSTIFIED never won anything - but Margo Martindale, guesting in season 2, did. I'd have thought that with shows on Amazon and Netflix winning awards we were entirely over that sort of snobbishness.

It’s not a matter of snobbishness; it’s a matter of too many choices. Getting Emmy voters to sample all these shows on all these networks and platforms is very difficult. Unfortunately, many worthy efforts fly under the radar.

Buzz and marketing are now more important than ever.

Most shows will now offer screeners to Academy voters and that helps a lot. There have been shows I had heard about but never seen, and then when the screeners came in I decided to give them a try. In some cases it affected my voting.

Ironically, I almost think that being on an obscure network is almost advantageous. There’s a cool factor. Broadcast network shows have a stigma these days, which is too bad because THE GOOD WIFE deserves way more recognition than it receives.

From Paul:

Ken: You've made your disdain for "Two Broke Girls" and your love of multi-camera sitcoms evident multiple times. If asked to write or direct and episode of "Two Broke Girls," one of a dwindling number of multi-cams on the air, would you?

Not that they’re ever going to ask me in a million years, but I would be happy to direct an episode. I love Kat Dennings and have worked with her before. I would not want to write an episode. I’m not the right guy for that assignment.

cadavra asks:

I've been to more than one taping where the star was well-known for his improv skills. After they had a satisfactory scripted take, they would then do a wild take with the star ad-libbing entirely new dialogue. I once went to a taping of the short-lived SHAKY GROUND, and Matt Frewer's new jokes were absolutely funnier than the written ones, but when the show aired, they used the less-funny scripted lines, which struck me as a case of the writers/producers' egos trumping a superior result (perhaps one reason the show didn't last very long). What do you think of their actions, and were you in this situation, what would you do?

I would say to the star either you trust my judgment and writing or get another writer. I don’t write lines to compete with actors’ ad libs.

Look, it’s not the actors’ job to save shows and elevate the writing. Their job is hard enough, requiring enormous skill and discipline. It’s my job to give them the best possible material so they really shine.

Understandably, it can get tough when a show is built around a star, especially a stand-up, and if he has input, that’s fine. But during rehearsal. Once cameras are rolling I don’t want my actors throwing off the crew (who depend on line cues to move), and I don’t want my actors showing up the writers.

As for the specific lines in SHAKY GROUNDS, I can’t say why the writers ultimately stuck with their original ones. Maybe it was out of spite, or maybe the ad lib lines – although funny – didn’t move the story ahead.   I have to say, I have not heard many bad things about Matt Frewer. And I loved him in ORPHAN BLACK.

And finally, from Mitchell Hundred:

What do you think of famous movie people coming in to direct the pilots of TV shows (e.g. Martin Scorsese directing the pilot of Boardwalk Empire)? How much of an effect does it have on the show as a whole?

Networks are star fuckers. There’s great prestige in getting top flight film directors to direct TV pilots. On one level I can see it. A pilot sets the template for the series and an A-lister can really establish the look and tone.  An A-lister is also very promotable, which is a big plus in launching a new series. 

On the other hand, there are a lot of terrific TV directors, who also know how to move quickly. Film directors are used to a much more leisurely production schedule.

And film directors are ridiculously expensive. How else are you going to get some of these guys? They come in, work a few weeks, make a pile of money, leave and never come back, and generally have part ownership of the show. Sweet deal.

What’s your Friday Question? Happy holiday weekend.

38 comments:

Richard said...

Friday Question: Can you comment on the comedic genius of Ted Danson. Is Sam Malone the most underrated TV character of all time?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Richard, I happen to think Cheers is one of the underrated shows of all time. Not to Kens following obviously but in the world at large.
It doesn't get rerun play like it should.

Jon88 said...

Friday question: Curious to know if you have any thoughts about the cannon fodder that Hallmark, Lifetime, and TV One movies often are. I confess to watching some of them (usually because actors I like are cast), but when characters talk like no people talk, or behave like no people behave, I fast-forward to the last ten minutes -- or just delete it immediately. I set a new record with the currently airing "Ice Sculpture Christmas" on Hallmark, where the entire story was predictable in 45 seconds. I zipped ahead and found one scene and then another that failed to surprise, and then found something better to do with my time.

Anyway, I guess what I'm wondering is, do the people who make these time-fillers know how awful they are? Do they care?

Dennis said...

I've never understood why some people think that anything an actor ad-libs is bound to be funnier than what a roomful of writers slaved over for a week.

Rinaldo said...

I totally agree. I'm also irritated by the related reaction (it comes up a lot in TV discussion forums) "That moment was so funny -- it MUST have been improvised." As if writers were worthless.

Stephen said...

Yeah, I know a guy who insists that Norm and Cliff on CHEERS had to have improvised most of their dialogue, because they're so funny that what they're saying couldn't possibly have been scripted.

Len said...

A story Garry Marshall told:

After MORK AND MINDY premiered, the show's writers got tired of hearing about how Robin Williams ignored what they wrote and just went out there and ad-libbed his entire performance every week, and they were irritated with Williams, who, while he never made that claim to anyone, wasn't going out of his way to correct anybody about it, either. Finally, when work began on one week's episode, Williams was presented with the latest script, which contained not one word of dialogue for Mork. Throughout the script, where Mork's dialogue should have been, the writers had substituted "Robin ad-libs."

Williams conceded later that they made their point.

Lila said...

Seems like it would also be terribly unfair to one's fellow actors to just throw out the written dialogue and start ad-libbing left and right. How are they supposed to recognize their cues when the ad-libbing actor isn't providing them because he's decided that his extemporaneous lines are more amusing than what's in the script?

Tony said...

Given how short the running time is for a half-hour sitcom these days (about 20 minutes, right?), unless a show is pretty loosely scripted, I can't see how there would really be any room for actors to do much ad-libbing.

Canadian Dude said...

I've been in the TV comedy racket for 25 years. Sometimes a line - scripted or ad-libbed - will get a huge laugh, but it's the WRONG kind of laugh. The audience might laugh because it's clearly the actor shpritzing... or it's funny because it's so out of character. The joke might have to come out because it vampires a less funny but vital gag that sets up the next five lines. (I worked with a guy who on the second take would subtly steal the best part of another character's upcoming line. He'd also ad-lib stuff that left the others dangling - and they'd have to awkwardly find their way back into the scene.) And sometimes what everyone thinks is an ad-lib is actually the actor using a line from another show - consciously or unconsciously - and suddenly when your show's about to air you realize awww crap! That's a CHEERS line!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Len: on the other hand, Carol Burnett tells the story of having Williams on her show and doing one take as written and then one take allowing him to ad lib. (They apparently did this for Korman and Conway, too, and then used whichever take worked best.) I think she has both versions of Williams' appearance on one of the show DVDs.

wg

Charles said...

The Burnett show always taped twice. The first taping was pretty tight and the second much looser. In some cases, either the first or second taping of a sketch was aired in its entirety, but most of the time, the final result was an edit of the two.

MikeN said...

Jon, Hallmark is getting good ratings. They managed to outdraw ABC Family recently, which is in the process of changing its name.

I enjoy their mystery shows.

Kyle said...

Sometimes on those Carol Burnett sketches, you can tell that they were cut together from more than one take. One I saw the other night, a window got broken, and in some shots the break in the window was one way, and in other shots it was another way. They didn't exactly match. And one my roommate spotted one night, at one point in a sketch Carol lost (apparently unplanned) one of her earrings, but for the rest of the sketch, in some shots Carol has only one earring on, while in other shots she has both of them.

Terrence Moss said...

i think this was the funeral sketch from the "carol, carl, whoopi and robin" comedy special from the mid-1980s -- for which robin williams won an emmy.

Mike said...

I'd guess that the scripted performance will be better than the improvised performance because it has been rehearsed. The two cannot be easily mixed together or mashed up, because the unspoken behaviour of the actors - reactions, movements, energies - are too different between the takes, producing noticeable jumps as though something had been edited out. This is a continuity beyond that of props which the TV audience can sense. Sketch show or variety shows, like The Carol Burnett Show, are less sensitive to this than sitcoms because they always implicitly acknowledge that the actors are working to an audience. With a sitcom like Cheers, the actors inhabit a bar, not a stage. Given this, I'd suggest that a second improvised take on a sitcom was to flatter the ego of an actor or catch an unrehearsed response. If the lines are funnier, there's a problem.

I'd further guess that the second improvised performance was not improvised at all. The lines have been written beforehand by the speaking actor and cleared with production. It's only the rest of the cast that is unaware of the lines and they, in their reaction to the new lines, are the improvisors, not the speaker. In the famous Carol Burnett elephant routine, there is no improvisation. Conway cleared his lines with production and Lawrence chose her reponse in advance. As with Undateable Live, the humour is in the cast breaking character, which requires the acknowledgement of the audience.

Liggie said...

With the recent conversation on live TV, Ken, I'd like your thoughts on the format of Neil Patrick Harris' recent variety show, "Best Time Ever". When I first heard of him doing variety, I thought it would be a callback to the '70s shows like Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, Donny & Marie: rotating guests, comedy sketches with recurring characters, musical numbers, a big-production finale. So I was intrigued that Harris eschewed most of that in favor of games with the studio audience (and home viewers), hidden camera events, celebrities surprising audience members, just one set-piece number per show, and a live format. Is this a good way to maintain the variety genre and leave the classic format in the past? (Just the format of "Best Time Ever"; as opinions on its actual quality are divided, let's save that discussion for another time.)

estiv said...

This also shows a lack of understanding of what actors do, which in this case is to deliver a script as if it were spontaneous speech. Like any accomplished performer in any field, making it look natural is the hard part.

Matt said...

Madelyn Pugh Davis, a co-writer on I LOVE LUCY, once noted that during the run of the series, critics were forever writing things like, "Well, the script wasn't very good, but the cast saved it with their usual brilliant ad-libbing." The ironic part about that being that I LOVE LUCY was a very tightly scripted show and ad-libbing was rare. She said the writing staff ultimately decided to just take it as a compliment to both themselves and the show's actors.

Matt said...

I'd further guess that the second improvised performance was not improvised at all. The lines have been written beforehand by the speaking actor and cleared with production.

Makes me think of a World War II-era radio variety show I heard once. W.C. Fields was doing a scripted routine with the show's announcer and, at one point, paused for an unusually long period of time. The announcer, perhaps sensing an issue, asked, "Is there a problem, Bill? Did you lose your place?" Fields drawled, "No. I just can't find the page I wrote my ad-libs on, drat it." Got a very big laugh from the audience.

mmryan314 said...

The first commenter brought up the "genius" of Ted Danson`s comedy. This topic is a perfect example of his genius. He presented scripted lines in a manner that appeared unscripted because he presented them as himself- meaning he got into the character.So enjoyable to watch and, most likely, lines were written to actually to capture his personality.

Canda said...

Isn't it almost always the case that the audience will laugh hard at the ad libs, because it's different from what they just heard in the regular dialogue, and thus the laugh comes from surprise? I would assume ad libs also may go for the lowest common denominator, or the easy laugh. Probably the actor, flexing his muscles, puts more energy into his ad libs.

Mike Barer said...

Your The Worst is a great show. It's the best show at capturing youthful angst.

ScottyB said...

Re the comedic genius of Ted Danson. Just the other nite, I was flipping thru Amazon Prime and came across 'Bored To Death'. Jason Schwartzman can be interesting, so I thought I'd give it a look. It was just kinda OK, nothing to shout home about, but Ted Danson's scenes made me stick with more episodes than I ordinarily would have.

The man's ability to play both comedy and drama are a work of amazing.

Cap'n Bob said...

Your The Worst must also capture youthful ignorance if that's the way they spell You're. Or is this supposed to be an inside joke?

BTW, I loathe those Hallmark movies. Everyone has new clothes, washed cars, clean houses, jobs that eat up 30 minutes a day, perfect hair, and insipid dialogue.

cadavra said...

Yikes, my question really touched a nerve, didn't it?

For the record, let me remind everyone that the wild takes were done after they had satisfactory scripted takes, so the other actors knew in advance that they would have to react spontaneously to whatever new jokes Frewer came up with. I believe if they had any serious objections to this practice, they would have made it known. And certainly if the writer-producers were bothered, they wouldn't have permitted it in the first place. It is they were simply humoring him, of course.

Coincidentally, the other day I was watching a Dinah Shore rerun, and Groucho was one of the guests. It was clear from the outset that he was ignoring the script and ad-libbing every single line, and no one was laughing harder than Dinah. I think there should be no hard-and-fast rules about this, and in my meager experience as a writer-director, I'm perfectly happy if an actor comes up with something funnier than what I wrote. As Jack Benny would often say, "I still get the credit."

cadavra said...

That should be, "It is possible they were simply humoring him, of course." Sheesh.

D. McEwan said...

I attended a Murphy Brown taping once when Tom Poston was the guest star. Five or six times Tom ad-libbed a line that had Candice Bergan on the floor, laughing. They reset back a few lines and reshot with Tom doing his new line an Candice prepared for it. In the show as broadcast, every one of those Poston ad-libs were in the final edit. I have the script for the episode, and none of those lines are in it.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

When you mentioned TV directors, Jerry Paris popped in my mind first. He was born to be on TV, he seemed so relaxed and natural on Dick Van Dyke. Paris of course is known as the primary director of Happy Days.

mike said...

I have a friend who has been binge watching M*A*S*H and he says along about the third or fourth season, you can tell Alan Alda is ad libbing all over the place. I gently begged to differ, as I felt that, as noted above, it would be a scripted show with little to no ad libbing. Thoughts?

Ken Levine said...

Alan NEVER ad libbed.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Jack Benny famously said Fred Allen: "You wouldn't say that if my writers were here!"

Mel Agar said...

Have you ever written a show off only to "rediscover" it later and find it has found its stride? What shows do you feel have managed to do that recently?

Andy Rose said...

I think people, for some reason, WANT to believe that Great Moments in Entertainment History were ad-libbed. You see listicles popping up all over the internet about this, often with very dubious examples. Any case where the final take used in the show or film differs from the shooting script is automatically classified as an "ad-lib," even if it was something that was changed by a writer on-set or worked out between the performer and director before rolling. As noted in this thread, even a lot of legitimate ad-libbing is really a matter of a performer being encouraged to throw in an alternate line so the director has more options in the final cut.

I once heard an interview with a stand-up comedian who had been hired to be in some silly beer commercials. He was encouraged to ad-lib, and often found his ad-libs ending up in the final ad. Eventually he realized that the copywriters literally didn't have their own clinchers to the spots, and were relying on ad-libbing to come up with a closing gag (which is presumably why they were hiring stand-ups in the first place). He was insulted that he was expected to do unpaid writing work, and turned down future commercials for that client.

David Arnott said...

I did a few episodes of the sit-com Doctor, Doctor (1989-91) - also starring Matt Frewer - and that show did the same thing: after they were satisfied with the scripted takes, they would *sometimes* (maybe a third of the time), do another with Matt "ad-libbing." I put that in quotes because many of his "ad-libs" came from the writers. Meaning: the show had clearly decided they were okay with occasionally doing an extra take in which Matt's character would deliver some different jokes - some likely came from Matt, but many also came from the writers. When they would huddle around, you knew the next take would likely be different, which had its own electricity... and was fun to see. I have no proof, but I suspect this "policy" was something Matt liked/valued and maybe suggested on any show he was on.

What I *do* have proof of, though, was that Matt was a terrifically nice guy, with nary a bit of diva in him at all. I always got the sense that he just wanted to make the best, funniest show possible... and that the writers were kings.

Donald L. said...

A Friday question: Comedy, Edmund Kean, famously said, is hard. But each week on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Andre Braugher makes it look so easy. In a stellar comedic ensemble, it's the actor with the most dramatic bona-fides who consistantly makes me laugh the hardest. On your sets, what actors who are generally thought of as dramatic thespians surprised you most with his or her abilities in a comedic role?

Andrew said...

This is completely off the subject, but Ken (and fellow commenters), if you want to watch an awesome movie go see Creed. I was blown away by how good it was, on every level. I had forgotten that Stallone can be an incredible actor. The writing is exceptional, and one of Stallone's speeches to his protege moved me almost to tears.

Gabrielle said...

I have a friday question: what is your opinion on forums for now-defunct shows like frasierforums.4umotion.com (there's a Cheers one too, I believe)? Do you ever visit them? When the shows were still running would you visit them to get inspiration?