Friday, December 11, 2015

Friday Questions

Take a break from shopping online to sample some FQ’s.  They're FREE!

Mork starts us off.

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?

If I’m being honest, when David Isaacs and I did a quick rewrite on MANNEQUIN we didn’t anticipate the film would be so well-received. But we’re not complaining.

There are a couple of episodes of CHEERS that we wrote that at the time we thought were okay, nothing special, but people absolutely loved them. Again, thank you Comedy Gods. They were “Jumping Jerks” (where the guys skydive) and “The Big Kiss-Off” (where Sam and Woody have a bet to see who can kiss Rebecca first).  I'm thrilled you love 'em. 

More often however, the reverse is true. You write a show you think is going to kill, and then you see the final result and go “What happened?”

Anthony has a question about pilots.

I've noticed some shows in recent years (though, naturally, I'm hard-pressed to name one off the top of my head) that featured the lead character's narration in the first few minutes of the pilot, to establish the characters and premise...and then it goes away for the rest of the episode (if not series). Do you think this is a lazy way to handle exposition or is it helpful to the audience--maybe even necessary given the shortened run time of shows these days?

Yes. To me that’s lazy writing. Instead of just baldly telling the audience what you want them to know, show them. It’s difficult, but part of the exercise of a pilot is to work in exposition in an entertaining, seamless way.

Narration is especially lazy if you drop it right after the introduction. It’s one thing if narration is an ongoing part of your series (a la THE MIDDLE or ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT), but if a pilot starts out with “This is the story of….” or "Meet...." I’m usually gone.

From Ray, a question about episode titles:

Especially among the more dedicated of fans, those titles are known by rote and become shorthand for discussion. Yet not all shows display them at the start of episodes. Some, which have patterns to them (Lou Grant's history of all one word titles, or the Friends "the one with..." conceit) never displayed, best as I can recall. I watched MASH as many times as five a day during the prime time run when the syndication rules allowed such repetition, but I never knew in those pre-internet days what any of them were called.

And thus the question, or series of questions. Who decides whether to display the title of an episode on a series- network, showrunner, someone else? How did you feel about it as a writer? And did the knowledge of its presence before an episode ever influence your writing to even the smallest extent?

Generally, it’s a creative decision by the showrunner. I personally don’t like showing the episode title. In some cases the title might give away a key plot point.

Also, there are times when the show changes so much during the week of production that by the time it’s filmed the original title means nothing. When we were doing that ill-fated series for Mary Tyler Moore we had an episode involving everybody getting real amped up on chocolate-covered coffee beans. (Watch out for those things!) But we did major story work the week of production and eliminated the beans altogether. And yet the title of the episode: “Beans.”

Other times the title might refer to a line of dialogue in the episode that taken out of context looks like a non sequitur. I don’t want the viewer trying to decipher the meaning of the title instead of focusing on the show itself.

Adding to the confusion, sometimes a production company will change the title later on. We wrote an episode of OPEN ALL NIGHT called “Missing One Geek.” They changed it to “Terry Runs Away.” We got nominated for a WGA Award for it, but when we saw the nominees in the paper we said, “What’s ‘Terry Runs Away’?”

And finally, from June Sullivan:

Hi Ken - are you a fan of House of Cards? I was wondering what is the deal with the coffee? Is it that the writer loves it and enjoys showcasing one of his habits? Or is a metaphor for something...but coffee drinking, serving, purchasing, and making is in almost every scene. I laughed recently when someone was asked if they wanted a cup of tea.

As for the coffee, actors like to have business. They like things in their hands, they like crossing to get stuff, they like making stuff.  There's always coffee around.

Watch CHEERS. Sam Malone is always cutting lemons. The Coach is always cleaning glasses.

Since I don’t work on HOUSE OF CARDS, I’m just speculating, but maybe they all drink coffee because they keep such long hours and need the caffeine. What they should do is an episode where they all eat chocolate-covered coffee beans.

What’s your Friday Question?


Jerry Howe said...

Watching Cheers again (this time with a son...jeez) and I’m still perplexed by the final season in regards to Lilith. She seems to drop off the face of the series, which, fine -- actors move on. But then she’s back! But only to leave Frasier, which also made sense as we all knew he was being set up for his own spin-off series. Yet then she comes back again, the two are quickly reunited (why?) but she subsequently disappears once more and doesn’t even show her face for the finale. Seems like an inscrutable anti-climax for such a core character/performer. What happened?

The Curmudgeon said...

Every rule has an exception, surely, and I would nominate as an exception to your rule, "if a pilot starts out with 'This is the story of….' or 'Meet....' I’m usually gone," the TV series Soap from the late 1970s, wouldn't you agree?

Gazzoo said...

So Ken, you're saying that Hawkeye's narration ("Dear Dad...") at the beginning of the M*A*S*H pilot was lazy writing by Larry Gelbart?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I have to say, all the examples from the previous post, of things that make you was brilliant.
many people provided dialogue and some give Youtube links.

If i have a chance, I might try to all the links together, find some others that people mentioned, and maybe you'll want to post them Ken.
It'll be the Ken Levine Audience's Laughter Pantheon. KLALP. Or something of equal ridiculousness.

Ken Levine said...


A. that was 35 years ago, back when narration wasn't so cliched. Plus, it was done cleverly, as a letter, not breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience.

Johnny Hy said...

It's funny that WKRP episode came up after yesterday's post. I was on my way home from work and that episode came back to me and I wished I had added it to my list from yesterday. The fact that the drunker Johnny Fever got, the faster his reflexes got was hysterical. The reactions by the State Trooper just added to it. FYI, The station that WKRP is based on here in Atlanta is actually shutting down now.

Ken Levine said...

Make that 45 years ago...

gottacook said...

Star Trek used episode titles, which allowed a kind of oblique commentary on the episode's story. I especially liked the ones drawn from Shakespeare plays: "The Conscience of the King," "By Any Other Name," "All Our Yesterdays," and of course "Spock's Brain."

Anonymous said...

Ken, have you been watching FARGO this season? It had your boy Ted Danson in it.

Igor said...

Ken wrote: "Narration is especially lazy if you drop it right after the introduction. It’s one thing if narration is an ongoing part of your series (a la THE MIDDLE or ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT), but if a pilot starts out with “This is the story of….” or "Meet...." I’m usually gone."

"Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed..."

Still, I see your point. Yet, maybe now that's what the audience NEEDS now to get hooked?

gottacook said...

It wasn't just The Beverly Hillbillies (and Green Acres, etc.) that told the whole story before any given episode began. Some series with very short runs, very obscure today - such as The Pruitts of Southampton and Mr. Terrific - were especially good at this; that is to say, the opening credits and title song were more clever or witty than any scene of any episode.

sanford said...

Regarding titles of episodes, at least on the Tivo guide they do give the name of the episode, the year it ran, the number of the episode, and from what season. This is great, if you google the name of the episode and you want to look up some secondary character to see what other things he or she were in.

MikeN said...

Exceptions to the narration rule,Dukes of Hazzard, and Babylon 5 opened with
Lando saying ,"
I was there at the dawn of the third age of mankind.... the last of the Babylon stations,... This is its story.

DaveCreek said...

To me, it's odd not to have episode titles. Every other form of story is titled -- movies, books, short stories, etc.

As the person above mentioned about TREK, a good title can comment on the story you're about to see, in a good way. It can even add a bit of mystery and suspense. "Balance of Terror" (again from TREK) gets you anticipating what's to come and "The War Prayer" (BABYLON 5) teases conflict, religion, and is a Mark Twain reference to boot.

Mark Murphy said...

The pilot for "Bewitched" began with an off-screen narrator setting up the situation and then disappearing for good.

The narrator (uncredited) was Jose Ferrer. I've read that Elizabeth Montgomery's father, Robert, was approached for the job but decided against it.

By the way, Ken, as a fellow admirer of Ms. Montgomery, I fondly remember your post some years ago in which you remembered seeing her eating ribs at a restaurant. Boy, I envy you.

Diane D. said...

I have almost always enjoyed a little narrative in TV shows. If you're wanting to start watching a series mid-season, it really helps not to feel so lost, especially in shows that have a story arc that lasts all season (or even years). A cable TV show that I loved, but has never been mentioned on this blog, IN PLAIN SIGHT, ended with a narrative tag by the star (Mary McCormack) every week. It was well written, and almost always touching in nature. Mary played a really tough and sometimes unsympathetic Federal Agent. The narrative humanized and made her more likable. The show was on for 5 years (USA I think) from about 2008 to 2013. It was about the witness protection program, hence the great title.

ScottyB said...

I know they weren't episode titles, but I always looked forward to the written scene intros on 'Frasier'. They were always clever, and added to the show, IMO.

In that vein, I've been seeing reruns of 'Green Acres' on one of the Me-TV channels, and every now and then, the show would work in mention(s) to the showrunner/producer/etc. credits at the bottom of the screen into character dialog during the opening scene. I think even once, the credits even showed up on chicken eggs. Lisa and Oliver would always be mystified.

'Green Acres' might've been campy, but it always struck me as quite clever and inventive for the mid-'60s, and perhaps didn't get nearly the regard it deserved for writing devices like those -- and maybe even the writing itself, which I imagine wasn't all that simple. Any thoughts on that one, Ken?

D. McEwan said...

Re: "Actors love business," on Dynasty, Joan Collins was always making, mixing, carrying around, and gesturing with, drinks, but she pretty much never take even a sip. This drives me almost as nuts as restaurant scenes where the actors are served meals which they move around on their plates, cut up bits of, stick bits on forks, but never take a single bite, until they push away their still-full plates of food and say: "I'm stuffed. Let's get out of here." I understand why they don't eat (How many takes? They'd eat the meal how many times?), but these scenes still annoy me. Couldn't they at least get a doggie bag?

Tallulah Morehead said...

Actors like Joan who carry drinks they don't drink are so fake! I have NEVER carried a drink in a scene without finishing it off each and every take. And I never use "Pretend" alcohol in scenes either. So inauthentic! I detest Hollywood sham!

Terrence Moss said...

A show's opening credits are one thing; a pilot episode is another.

Terrence Moss said...

A show's opening credits are one thing; a pilot episode is another.

Mike McCann said...

If you want to narrate an episode, do it in the form of a lovable cynic the way George Burns did in the 1950s. His use of the device -- combined with the "spy" TV -- was comic brilliance.

AJ_Thomas said...

Hi Ken, I have a Friday Question:

I was reading an older post about you and David leaving FRASIER for ALMOST PERFECT and then your return. You had said that there was a different tone given to Frasier, but you eventually just wrote him the way you always had. So, my question is was there any variance not only in your writing of Frasier, but other aspects of the character from CHEERS to FRASIER?

-AJ Thomas

Johnny Walker said...

I've always wondered about episode titles. These days, with DVDs and Netflix, they're seen by viewers, but back in the day they were only seen by production staff... So why even give an episode a name? I understand that Jerry Seinfeld made sure that episodes of his show began with THE just to make sure that writers didn't waste time trying to come up with a clever title nobody would ever see. But why bother at all?

Actually, typically, I think while typing this question out I've come up with the most probable answer: Episodes aren't always produced or aired in the order originally imagined, so simply giving them a number could get very confusing.

Is this the reason?

Joe Concepts said...

I would suppose that giving an actor something to do while taking is also a way to make simple conversation somewhat more interesting to the audience. You could argue dialogue should be good enough, but it seems best during an "info dump" conversation. I always assumed that was the reason Law & Order always liked to show people going about their work routine when detectives come by to interview. In real life, could you ever see yourself NOT dropping everything you're doing when the police show up to talk to you about a murder?

Breadbaker said...

The first four seasons of the Good Wife, all the episode titles consisted of the number of words for that season. They stopped it in Season five.

Ryan from Canada said...

Hi Ken,

Some movie called STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS opens tonight, surely you've seen a promo on TV or on your vegetables? My question is this... earlier this week the film had its world premiere in Hollywood and it was said to have been the biggest premiere Hollywood had ever seen... how much would a studio invest in something like that? Also, since you seem to be well connected, were you invited to the festivities?

Ryan from Canada

Jeff :) said...

I have a question in regards to characters in sitcoms. How important do you feel it is to make your characters "realistic"? For example, let's say your character is a pilot. Fairly boring profession. But what if you made them legally blind. It would certainly open up the door for comedic plot points, but at the same time would be completely unrealistic that a airline would have hired said person in the first place.