Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Keepin' it real

Here’s an FQ that became a whole post. It’s from Jeff ☺

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.

I’m a huge believer that characters have to be real. They can be weird and eccentric and quirky and larger-than-life, but they must be grounded in reality. If not, then they’re just a cartoon and you run the risk that the audience won’t give a shit. Viewers want to be invested in the characters they follow every week. The more they can hook into them emotionally, the more loyal to your show they’ll become. A character being “funny” just isn’t enough.

So how do you make an outrageous character “real?” By justifying his position in the world.

Take the example you gave: A legally blind airline pilot. You’re right. It’s funny but it would never happen. But on the series we did for Mary Tyler Moore we had a character who was legally blind. But we made him a copy editor for a newspaper and his job was protected by the union. The series was set in Chicago, which was (and is) a big union town. You could buy that this guy over time began to lose his sight but union seniority kept him employed. Yes, he had trouble doing his job but no one’s life was in danger.

And it was taken from a real character. When I was a disc jockey on KYA, San Francisco in the ‘70s, I was first working the all-night shift. Back then (because of strong unions) I could only turn my mic on and off. All of the records and commercials and jingles had to be played by a union engineer. My engineer was named Pinky. He must’ve been 116 and he was legally blind. He wore giant Coke bottle glasses that were sheer magnifying lens and would hold the music cartridges right up to his face to read them. The station couldn’t fire him so he was banished to the graveyard shift. But he still had his job. (His hearing wasn't all that great either.)

One of the best series to walk that line between crazy characters and reality was TAXI (late ‘70s/early ‘80s). One of the great “dumb” characters of all-time was Reverend Jim (played by Christopher Lloyd). But he was explained away as a brilliant Harvard educated man who took too many drugs in the ‘60s. And then there was Latka (played by Andy Kaufman). He was a mechanic who came to America from another country. Taxi garages are legitimately filled with them. But what producer Jim Brooks & company did however was make his country fictional. As a result they were free to make up bizarre customs and traditions. And some of the ones they dreamed up were true flights of fancy. But they still felt “real” in context.

On CHEERS we explained the Coach’s dumbness by saying as a former baseball player he took too many fastballs to the head.

So how do you find these rich characters from real life to put in your pilot or series?

One way is research.

I rarely see research stressed in writing classes and it should be. Get to really know the world you’re writing about. Spend the time. Interview people, read books on the subject, just be a fly on the wall and observe for several days or weeks. Characters you never thought of will appear.

Again, I go back to TAXI. The producers spent some time interviewing New York cabbies and watching what goes on at a typical garage. They were interviewing the dispatcher when they saw a cabbie bribe him for a good cab. Boom! That was Louie DePalma.

Research served us very well on MASH. We spent many hours interviewing doctors, nurses, corpsman, and soldiers who had served in Korea. And some of our most outlandish stories (like everybody dying their hair and uniforms red) came from real life.

Research can be tedious, but it’s worth the effort. And it’s not always tedious. For eleven years whenever I went into a bar I wrote off my tab as research for CHEERS. And stickler-for-detail that I am, I spent a lot of time in bars. Hey, it was for “for my art.”

Bottom line: your show needs to be grounded in reality. The characters can be bizarre as long as they’re believable in that world. SILICON VALLEY is a perfect example. Filled with quirky characters but I believe every single one of them.

And when we live in a world where Donald Trump is actually running for President of the United States and has blithering idiots who would vote for him, you have a lot of leeway in justifying completely absurd over-the-top characters.

43 comments:

Alex S. said...

Regarding the changing nature of appropriate, with our current period's focus on head trauma in athletics, do you think you could write Coach's backstory the same way, where essentially the results of concussion are played for laughs.

How would you explain a similarly dumb character now?

Carol said...

I think that's why I didn't like Seinfield, because I never felt the characters were all that 'real'. I tried to watch it, but would turn it off halfway through, because they would wind up doing something so utterly ridiculous I would think 'no real human could be that dumb and live.'

In other news - I just wanted to keep people who might be interested updated on the Village Players of Hatboro's progress with Ken's show, A or B?

We've started rehearsals with our two wonderful actors, have a brilliant costumer who is going to create the dresses for Abby (probably the most important part of the production!) and the set design is going to be fantastic!

It's in April (watch this space for details: http://www.thevillageplayers.com/)

Scott Cason said...

Ken, do you realize that there are some of the "blithering idiots" of which you speak that enjoy reading your blog? Or would you prefer us not to?

norm said...

Yeah like in fiction who would believe the wife of a President would, "stand by her man".......become a Senator and then at 68 years old run for the office once held by her husband the cheater?

So some of us believe the Dem's are just as crazy....just saying.

BA said...

Shows I've watched in this century seem to ignore basic realities of employment today. In PARKS & REC, for example, there's a lot of action and dialog that would have been shut down by HR immediately and brought national publicity. I thought it was a funny show but had to believe that the writers did not have much experience in the working world, or that they were deliberately forgetting it for the sake of comedy.

stephen catron said...

Hi Ken, I would be interested in your take on the 'whiteness' of the Oscars and the boycott by some black artists. Thanks

Mark Fearing said...

Good post. It's true about drawing too. Even if you are doing fanciful work, or very abstracted cartoon work, you start with something from life. How a shoe loos, how a belt ties ETC. Starting with the the real things lets you take it into another dimension and it still 'works'. I'm not talking about copying all the details, but knowing the larger sense of the thing, the proportions and how it actually functions, helps tremendously. Not dissimilar to your point on writing from truth.

Ken Levine said...

Scott,

I'm happy to have anyone read my blog and welcome all points of view. But Scott, dear Scott, please reconsider supporting Donald Trump. And with that, this thread ends. I'm not going to get into a debate over it. And I know that if I let it, the floodgates would open and I'll have two hundred comments pro and con on Trump. That's not what this blog is.

But I've always openly stated my position on things. And readers are welcome to either disagree or seek other blogs where the hosts have views more aligned with theirs.

Thanks for understanding.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Met a blind astronomer at the SETI Institute about 10 years ago, Dr. Kent Cullers. Sagan used him as a model for one of the characters in the novel Contact.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Friday question:
Ken, this weekend we watched TBS' ANGIE TRIBECA. If you haven't seen it, it's a spoof on Cop shows. It's in the same realm as Police Squad/Naked Gun (all the Abrahams/Zucker/Abrahams shows) and Sledge Hammer.
In some instances, I could swear they swipe/borrow (or pay homage to) the same exact sight gags and jokes as in those other series.
Is this the same as sampling in music? Shouldn't writers or productions be credited if this new show is a hit? What's the rules on this?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Scott, (and Ken), you shouldn't expect Ken to write on his blog exactly what you want him to say.

Just for the record, there are many of us Republicans that are less than infatuated with Trump.

Politics is everywhere especially this year.
It's both depressing and comical.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

One more thing...
on my Friday question, I said it was "Abrahams Zucker Abrahams", when it is obviously Zucker Abrahams Zucker. ZAZ

Oh, and btw Angie Tribeca is very funny. First original TBS show that you can actually say THAT about.

Jim said...

"concussion are played for laughs"

You think that's bad? I watched Oh Calcutta a couple of weeks ago (it's up on You Tube should anyone care). It was a bit before my time, although I was around for all the nudge nudge jokey references to it, but I couldn't believe that the ending to the first sketch was Guy rapes Girl and leaves her in a coma. I know humour changes over time, and I even laugh at Jerry Lewis, but wtf.

tavm said...

The less "2 Broke Girls" resembled reality, the less I was inclined to watch it...

Joseph Scarbrough said...

"And when we live in a world where Donald Trump is actually running for President of the United States and has blithering idiots who would vote for him, you have a lot of leeway in justifying completely absurd over-the-top characters."

I love you for that closing remark, Ken. Did you happen to see that assembly Sarah Palin spoke to last night endorsing D'ump? I honestly couldn't tell if she was giving a speech or doing a stand-up routine -- I kept hearing Charley Douglass' laugh track in the back of my mind. And she thinks opium is the act of the government taking money away from the American people (y'know, the exact same thing that the Far Right actually does but never admits to it).

blinky said...

Real life eccentric I met while at a small TV station in Florida:
Sales manager who regularly got on his knees with salesmen to pray for better sales.
GM who only came to work after 5pm so he didn't have to talk to employees.
On air switcher who lived in his car in the parking lot.
Engineer who kept the boxes for every piece of equipment he ever bought and went nuts if anyone touched them.
News anchor that smoked so much he coughed every 5 minutes so he had a kill switch installed for his mic and trained himself to clear his throat without moving. So he would be doing a story and freeze for 5 seconds as he coughed.
It was like WKRP but even weirder in real life.

VP81955 said...

I'm being shipped back to LA by the brother in Jacksonville because his woman wants to move in with him. I want to return, but I need a job and a place to live. Help!

Brian said...

Uh oh, a political statement. Prepare for the onslaught.

Tammy said...

VP81955: I'm not from the States so I can't be of much help, but maybe if you describe the kind of jobs you're looking for it will remind someone of an opening they've heard of. Good luck!

Kosmo13 said...

I worked with a blind disc jockey 35 years ago. He was a much younger version of the switcher Ken described.

Those of us who worked in radio recognized the characters and situations on WKRP as people we worked with and things that really happened. Kudos to the WKRP writers for doing research.

Andrew said...

Concerning Carol's comment about Seinfeld, I saw an interview with Jason Alexander where he talked about this.

Early on, before Seinfeld became popular, Jason was bothered by the weirdness of the scripts. He went to Larry David, and said (I'm paraphrasing), "Larry, this is just too far out there. This would never happen to anyone. And if it did happen, no one would ever react this way."

Larry responded, "What do you mean? This is exactly what happened to me, and this is exactly how I reacted!" That's when Jason realized that his character was based on Larry David - no one had told him that before.

VP81955 said...

Tammy: Am seeking office work, data entry, writing/editing, something in that vein. Just something to help me get back on my feet. Thank you so much.

McAlvie said...

The older I get the more I realize that reality is stranger than fiction. Those characters that nobody would believe are real? They're out there. There is somebody, somewhere, who is just like that. It's scary, but it's true.

Anonymous said...

Nobody would believe a show about a Secretary of State who puts highly classified documents on his personal emails.
Couldn't happen.

tb said...

Not sure WKRP is a good example. I mean, a hippie AND a soul brother at the same station? It's either/or, I always thought that was pretty unrealistic

RF Burns said...

Blinky: The reason the cranky engineer kept all the boxes around for the equipment, is that sometimes you have to ship broken stuff back to the manufacturer. Some of those boxes were especially fitted for that particular piece of gear and it would be hard to stick it in any old box, if the object is to get it to where it's going in one piece.

On the other hand, keeping boxes around for stuff that is obsolete or doesn't exist anymore is madness...I've seen that and it's better known as hoarding.

Anonymous said...

OK. I still want to know where Klinger got all the fancy dresses in the middle of the Korean war.

Diane D. said...

tb
Where I came from, a hippie and a soul brother were cousins!

DrBOP said...

Having been a soul brother hippie, I resemble that remark ;^)

Andy Rose said...

The WKRP staff didn't have to do a whole lot of research. The creator used to work in the radio advertising business, and they hired a staff writer (Steve Marshall) who was an LA disc jockey and briefly held down both jobs simultaneously.

One of the most professional and meticulously prepared radio talk show hosts I ever worked with was Joe Elliott, who has been blind since birth. He didn't talk about it on the air, and you never would have known. When I first became aware of it, I assumed he must be getting a lot of help. Then I started working at the station, and discovered that his producer was legally blind himself and couldn't see anything more than about two inches from his face. They were a remarkable pair. Even more remarkable considering his show was on at night after the office staff left, so Joe himself would let his guests into the building, get them coffee, show them where the bathroom was, etc.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Anonymous He ordered from a lot of catalogs, but he also made a lot of his own dresses too.

alan0825 said...

Ken, are you going to the Jim Burrows tribute?

Geoff with a G said...

This post was a nice coincidence, as I've been watching Taxi on Hulu and really wondering about the differences between a Jim Ignatowski and John Burns, the kinda milquetoast who was written out after Taxi's first season.

I have a similar question: How do you balance originality against a show's premise and tone? I love the Charles Brothers first script for MASH. However, I wonder if they'd write the same script 10 years later so that it was both brilliant and yet fit better within the show's style. I'm not sure what they'd do--It's a brilliant script! But it does stand out, like something written for a MASH on a slightly different plant.

Ken Levine said...

Absolutely Alan,

IF I'm invited.

Chris said...

Friday question: Curb Your Enthusiasm is, to my knowledge, the only series I know of which challenges another show's universe so explicitly. We watch Seinfeld, we assume it's a real universe, then Larry David comes along saying "that was actually a fictitious show, which I wrote, here's the reality, here's me and the real Jerry Seinfeld, not the character with the same name."

Do you know any other series which have done this?

Pat Reeder said...

WKRP rang true to those of us in radio because they had real radio people on staff. For instance, my friends Ron Stevens & Joy Grdnic. They are a husband-and-wife morning team who did a couple of comedy albums with titles like "Somewhere Over The Radio." They also had a syndicated daily comedy prep service to which I contributed 15 or so one-liners a day for years. They once compiled a book of crazy radio stories from their various friends and clients in the business. I'm happy to say that my Gary Busey story made it in there.

Here's a fun interview where show creator Hugh Wilson and a radio executive who was the inspiration for sales guy Herb Tarlek discuss the real-life people and events that ended up in the show. As in many other fields, Dallas and Atlanta compete for the honor of being the location of the botched turkey drop promotion ("As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.")

https://classictvhistory.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/turkeys-away-an-oral-history/

VP81955 said...

A veteran Washington radio personality, Ed Walker, was blind, but teamed up with Willard Scott (yes, that Willard Scott) for the long-running "Joy Boys" radio team, sort of a D.C. equivalent of Bob and Ray, but legitimately funny in their own right. Ed then spent several decades hosting a classic radio series, "The Big Broadcast," on public radio WAMU (a station he helped found). Ed retired last fall, not long before his passing.

Jillian said...

I always felt that way about Michael Scott (Steve Carell) in the Office. He was such a moron, it was hard to swallow that he was the boss. But then every now and then you got a glimpse of what a brilliant salesman he could be, and suddenly, you saw why he got the promotion.

Diane D. said...

LOL, Dr. Bop!

Steve Mc said...

I worked at a radio station with a blind disc jockey who was so good at mixing and got around so well that it was easy to forget he was blind. So easy to forget that my promotions director assigned him to work my appearance for Sony where the personality was supposed to battle listeners at Playstation. We sent him and I waited to see if the client dared to bring it up.

Andy Rose said...

@Steve Mc: That's funny... one year my station assigned Joe Elliott to host our election coverage solo, forgetting that he wouldn't be able to read the real-time election totals. We quickly arranged for a news anchor to periodically "break-in" with the latest returns, but Joe capably handled the rest by himself.

He also hosted our live coverage of an annual riverfront airshow of vintage planes. He was joined each year by a "guest" who was an expert in old planes, who would subtly mention the name of each type of aircraft as it arrived. Joe would then quickly find notes he had typed up earlier in Braille with all the information on the plane's appearance, and you'd never know he couldn't actually see what he was describing.

MikeN said...

On Becker did you ever have characters asking him to reconsider smoking without giving a reason?

cadavra said...

Ever hear of Richard Turner? He's a blind magician. And he does card tricks that would be amazing even from a sighted person. I've seen him perform and it is beyond belief how he does it. So yeah, almost anything can be possible.