Friday, January 22, 2016

Friday Questions

Now a whole bunch of Friday Questions.  What's yours? 

Rhoda Lexington gets us started.

On MASH, it was known that Hawkeye was an only child from Maine, and that Colonel Potter was from Missouri, yet early in their development, Hawkeye had a sister and was from Vermont, and Potter told everyone that he was going to be in Nebraska after retiring. Why do writing staffs change details like this mid-series? Thanks.

Because there wasn’t a show bible to keep track of details like that. So it leads to continuity problems. And sometimes new writers come aboard not knowing those details. For example, I don’t remember Potter telling everyone he was going to Nebraska. I’m sure he did but if I saw that episode it flew right by me.

I do think, it’s easier today to keep track of continuity. So much information is available on line, it’s easier to look things up, and there are fan bases that create their own bibles and keep us honest.

We had an excuse. We did television back in the Pleistocene Era.

By the way Rhoda, your question led me to create the STAR WARS inconsistencies post from earlier this month.  

From Jeff Nelson:

A friend was telling me about reading an old interview with a television writer. One of those guys who started out writing for radio sitcoms in the late 1940s, then made the jump to television in the early 1950s and wrote TV sitcom scripts for years. The guy doing the interview asked him if he kept copies of the scripts he'd written. The writer laughed and said something like, "What for? What would I do, sit around reading them and chuckling and saying to myself, 'Oh yeah, I remember the night we came up with that scene. Boy, that was a funny one'?" Which leads me to ask you if you keep copies of the scripts you've written?

I do. Not for me to read again but possibly for grandchildren or writing students. It’s also a nice keepsake of a lifetime body of work.

Will museums want my “collected works?” Will libraries? The Smithsonian? The Nerdist Comic Book Store? I doubt it. But these scripts, especially the first drafts are certainly part of television history.

I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than reading Larry Gelbart first drafts. Or Marshall & Belson scripts. Or Persky & Denoff first drafts. So in the unlikely event there’s some misguided person who wants to read early Levine & Isaacs, the material exists.

Douglas Trapasso responded to a post I did about the days when there were only three major broadcast networks. In the piece I said:

"The Fall TV season debut was a major event. You waited all summer, salivating over the promos for the new fare. Then there was the Mid-Season, right after the first of the year. You studied those promos to know exactly what time slots these new shows would occupy."

Doug goes on to ask:

Since you've have been writing for so long, did you have a pretty accurate sixth sense while watching these legendary promos? Could you tell which shows would go thirteen episodes and out and which ones had the legs for seven or eight seasons?

If I’m being honest, no. When I was a kid EVERYTHING looked awesome. And now when I watch current promos I think everything looks like shit.

The promos now are all steeped in desperation. It’s understandable. There are so many more shows on so many more platforms so they have to really grab your attention, but the result most often is a super-hyped frenetic in-your-face shout out. How could you possibly glean from one of those whether a show has any substance, originality, or nuance? Every drama looks like a wild thrill ride and every comedy looks like Jerry Lewis gone amok.

I don’t think on-air promos are as vital today as they were pre-internet/social media. Word-of-mouth can now go viral and platforms like NETFLIX that have no promos can still attract large audiences to material that is worthy.

Showrunners are always pestering their networks for more promos. I always made a big push to get my promos on NFL games. That’s when people who don’t ordinarily watch that network are tuned in.

And finally, from Sid Montrose:

Have you ever solved a specific writing problem with dream ‘input’? And more improbably, have you ever realized the entire concept for a script (more or less fully formed) from a dream? If so, can you share what that script was? Or upon waking reflection, are your dreams pretty much gibberish?

Most of my dreams and daydreams even are gibberish. But one time I dreamed an entire story – plot twists, everything. That became my comic novel, MUST KILL TV (available here). I woke up, furiously jotted down the steps, and went back to sleep. I was shocked in the morning that it not only made sense but was actually good.

I’m a big believer in letting your subconscious work on story problems. If I’m stuck on a script at night I’ll just put it down, go to sleep, and in the morning I usually have the answer. Well, let me amend that. I usually have an answer. Unfortunately, most of the time that answer is me sleeping with an SI swimsuit model.


Jim S said...


Friday question posed on a Friday. Just read a number of reviews for the FX show "Baskets." All agree that it's a show that's not for everyone. One review even liked the idea that the show appeared to be written just for the reviewer.

Some reviewers said they got what the show was going for, but shouldn't a "comedy" be, you know, funny?

I am getting that vibe from a lot of comedies these days. It's obvious the producers and writers are proud of their work and I detect a certain disdain for plebian viewers who just want to be entertained and laugh at the end of a hard day.

Am I wrong? Am I just too old? Or is "edgy" comedy just not that funny?


XantaKlaus said...

I have a followup question to a show without a show bible. Wouldn't the actor who plays the character (be more likely to) remember such a mistake? Granted, producing 25 episodes a year probably makes the whole experience into a blur, but things that affect the backstory like a family or a certain character traits (e.g. is afraid of heights) are things one should remember to avoid inconsistencies.

I guess there's always the argument not even the audience will remember or this is entertainment and we need it for the laugh, but I have seen inconsistencies in some shows and wonder about this.

Chris G said...

The last season of COMMUNITY - the one that aired on Yahoo! - included lots of really funny fake promos for NBC series. When NBC started promoting last fall's new shows, I thought they looked worse than the ones Dan Harmon made up as jokes. Joke's at least partly on me, though, since BLINDSPOT has turned out to be a hit for some reason.

Tom said...

Keeping TV scripts: I remember in college in the '70s a class discussion of how revolutionary it was that someone compiled a collection of Shakespeare's plays after he died. That just wasn't done in the 17th century, plays were considered disposable entertainment, and the instructor said the modern equivalent would be compiling and publishing a collection of TV sitcom scripts. So who knows, 400 years from now a collection of scripts could be studied as literature.

Mike said...

Speaking of discontinuities in MASH; during the first season Henry's wife was named Mildred and was then changed to Lorraine. When Potter came aboard his wife was named Mildred.

Rhoda Lexington said...

Thanks Ken. I've always wondered about those inconsistencies, and I didn't realize that having a show bible was more of a recent development.

And I shall go read the Star Wars post right now. ;)

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

To add realism to it, I believe the picture of Potter's Mildred on Potter's desk is Harry Morgan's first wife.

The worst issue with the continuity bible: The Cunningham's lose 1 kid (Chuck) after season 1.

Michael said...

Friday question: Besides your daughter Annie and her partner, are there any writers that you helped mentor that have become successful comedy writers?

Breadbaker said...

@XantaClaus, the counterargument to that is hilariously played out in Galaxy Quest, where the fans who have figured out all the show's inconsistencies confront the actors who were, quite clearly, just cashing paychecks without worrying about such things. Missouri versus Nebraska, to many it's just "another place where farmers are", right?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Hawkeye's mother still being alive and having a sister seems to be something that was mostly within the first couple of seasons of the show, when they were still trying to find the show's footing - similarly, Maine wasn't mentioned until Season Three, but Crabapple Cove specifically wasn't first brought up till Season Four (and then, it was only where his father spent the summers). As for Potter mentioning Nebraska, that was only one episode - I forget the title, but it involved the Korean corpsman marrying his fiance at the 4077th and Potter was wrangled into giving the bride away at the wedding (but not before he mentions to Hawkeye and B.J. that in X-amount of years, "I expect to be back in Nebraska barbecuing. Why are wetting my charcoal?").

As for dreams, there's where most, if not all, of my better ideas come from - so much so in fact that it prompted me to do an experimental film about it last years; still, I mean, my dreams are so vivid, lucid, and trippy, it's a wonder I sleep at all.

John in Ohio said...

@ Chris G, RE:Blindspot
Not having watched it, I'm guessing the naked girl in the promo might have helped. It's on network TV, so it can't help tooooooo much, but ...

You were part of long running comedies, with varying spin offs with varying degrees of success. From the outside looking in, it seems like sometimes characters feel like they are bolted on to the show as an afterthought, and sometimes a supporting or one-off character just pops and either needs to be expanded on the current show, or given their own. Other times it feels forced, where a one joke character is supposed to now carry a show. How often did you see discussions of spin offs? What is the driving factor - networks, producers, writers who love a character and want to explore it? What are the biggest factors that contribute to success or failure? Frasier is the obvious success from your arena.

Follow-up: Did you ever have any interest in doing one or seeing one done for any characters, either on a show you worked on, or one you loved? Maybe against type of the the original - a dramady of Sam and Coach in the minors, for a quick example.

YEKIMI said...

In the later seasons of M*A*S*H* it seems that Klinger just suddenly stopped wearing dresses in an attempt to get out of the Army. Was this because of a pushback by certain segments of society or did they just decide they had gone as far as they could with the joke? Or was Jamie Farr getting tired of this plot device?

Mike Barer said...

Col. Blake's wife was named "Mildred" in the early episodes of Mash. As the show gained popularity in the subsequent episodes, she had the more stylish "Loraine". If I remember correctly, Mash was a ratings bomb in it's first season, but after winning a handful of Emmy's and a time change turned into a ratings bombshell. Same with "All In The Family".

GS in SF said...

I do not know if it is the new year, something in the water (LA water, not Flint), or you are spending less time playing Tetris, but the blog feels zippier, more energetic, and more engaged. So this is just to say, I've noticed and 'thank you.'

And if my observation is not the case, then I feel like the man asking the lady how far along she is and she responds, 'I'm not pregnant.'

Rashad Khan said...

Friday Question: Which historical figure(s) do you believe would make good subjects for biographical movies? (NOTE: He/she/they do NOT have to be political figures, just real-life individuals of some note worthiness.)

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@YEKIMI Part of it was because of Radar's departure and Klinger taking his place as company clerk, Klinger pretty much had to become a "regular guy" by that point. But I understand the real reason Klinger stopped wearing dresses was because Jamie Farr's kids were being bullied because their dad was a "transvestite," so he was trying to spare them anymore torment. Noble cause, but "regular" Klinger isn't nearly as fun as dress-wearing, scheming-and-dreaming Klinger.

Charles H. Bryan said...

As answers go, sleeping with an SI swimsuit model isn't the worst. Would have made for a better ending to LOST.

Friday question, evergreen style: "Ken, have you read any good books lately?" I'm still grateful for your recommendation of MAD AS HELL, about NETWORK.

Andy Rose said...

I don't think the whiff of desperation in promos is a new development. One of NBC's early 80s taglines was "JUST WATCH US NOW." (Yes, it was really written in all caps.) Has there ever been a campaign for anything more desperate-sounding than that?

Promos back in the 60s were generally pretty simple and well-paced. It wasn't until the mid- to late-70s that they really started getting frentic.

Angry Gamer said...

Thank you Ken,

I wanted to drop this note to say how grateful I am for your blog and its content.
Today I received an email from a trade publication editor. They are publishing another two articles I have written. One is even slated to be a coverstory! I wandered into your blog oh about 5 years ago to learn about writing a script. And I have written a few screenplays and read like 40 books about screenplay writing. These books taught me the organization and the mechanics. But your blog taught me to capture the soul of writing. And with these lessons I decided to write about what I actually have expertise in (as opposed to comedy writing!).

Today even in my little area of esoteric computer trade publications you need a hook or something that will make people care. If there is anything you seem to drill in your blog posts it's the "why care" point of any story. When I pitched my articles I could tell that the lessons you imparted were now second nature. I could see how I needed the proper "angle" and narrative to drive interest. I even realized the need for humor or lively illustration to drive points.

And as I read the editors today I realized... I had one person to thank for it.

Thanks again Ken

Angry Gamer (yep still angry but not about writing)

YEKIMI said...

@Joseph Scarbrough: Thanks, guess Ken can ignore my question now.

Ken Levine said...

Thank you, Angry Gamer for your lovely note. You may be giving me too much credit but I'll take it. Just know that any good things anyone happens to get from this blog are my extreme pleasure.

Rachel said...

Based on DVD commentary tracks I've heard, my impression is that the average TV writer isn't particularly concerned with consistency and keeping all the details of their characters' backstories straight. If it's been established that Jack's only sibling is a younger sister, but the writer comes up with a good script idea that requires Jack to have an older brother, then Jack's suddenly going to have an older brother. They'll contrive a way to do it. (When Archie Bunker suddenly had a brother who had not previously existed, according to what Archie had said about his family, it was explained that Archie didn't get along with his brother and chose never to talk about or acknowledge him.)

I think THE GOLDEN GIRLS would be a top contender for TV sitcom that was the worst about inconsistencies and logic loopholes. Just about the only fact they were consistent about was that Dorothy (Bea Arthur) and ex-husband Stan had been married for 38 years prior to their divorce. Virtually everything else about those ladies and their backstories was subject to change, depending on the whims of that week's script.

I once saw a presentation by Madelyn Davis, who, as Madelyn Pugh, co-wrote every episode of I LOVE LUCY. She got a question from the audience asking why it was that in a season two episode, Ethel Mertz was able to drive, while in a season four episode, Ethel didn't know how to drive. Davis explained that there was a very good reason for that. In the season two script, they needed Ethel to be able to drive, but in the season four script, they needed her to not be able to drive. The audience laughed. (She also said when they were writing those shows originally, it never crossed their minds that they would ever be shown more than two or three times.)

Jeff :) said...

I've read on your blog several times that writers looking to break in to television writing need to submit two spec scripts, one of an existing show and one original. My question is about the original script. Are there any rules against adapting an existing piece of work? Is this frowned upon? Do you need the authors permission given that your script is more so a showcase of your writing talent as opposed to a legitimate script to be sold?

peabody nobis said...

Just a note to add Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum to your list of writers whose scripts would be a pleasure to read. They wrote some of the funniest material in the sitcom world back in the '50's,'60's,and'70's.

Liggie said...

FQ on black and white. I recently saw "She's Gotta Have It", and while the young Spike Lee presumably shot the film in B&W for economic reasons, black and white fit the story much better than color would have. Is it possible that some filmmakers will choose black and white over color for artistic reasons? (For contemporary films, not period pieces like "Paper Moon", "The Artist" and "The Last Picture Show".)

Albert Giesbrecht said...

If Hawkeye had a wife, would her name be Mildred Pierce?

Brandon said...

Do you think if MASH were done today, not that it would ever get on a network schedule today, do you think audience sophistication would demand the extras playing soldiers would have to have actual army haircuts? The actors all seem to have very 1970s cuts. And I have to admit I find it somewhat distracting.

cadavra said...

In the pilot of "The Cosby Show," Cliff rhetorically asks, "Why do we have four children?" Reply: "Because you didn't want five." A couple of years later, a fifth child miraculously appeared from...nowhere. Even TV Guide caught that one.

DwWashburn said...

I don't believe continuity was as much of a concern in series television until the advent of inexpensive home video. From the 50s to about the early 80s, most viewers didn't have on demand access to television. There were a few older series that had found a continuous showing via syndicated reruns, but for the most part television episodes were shown a time or two and then went away. Therefore you didn't have fans dissecting every sentence and comparing them to episodes from previous years.

Cathal O'Brien said...

Hi Ken,
Long time reader, first time poster, with a Friday Question for you.

On Frasier you and David Isaacs were listed as Creative Consultants. What exactly did that mean? Where you in the Frasier offices every day or just reachable at the end of the phone? Did you read over all the scripts and offer input or rewrite?
Am just curious what that title meant compared to the other titles staff had such as producers etc.