Friday, June 03, 2016

Friday Questions

Hey, kids! It’s Friday Question Day! What’s yours?

Here's Charles H. Bryan's:

I wondered about the directors and so on who come into work sporadically on a series - how do they have knowledge of potential problems with cast and crew? I imagine the EPs, showrunner, writing staff, and the crew might know of any problems, but is there someone whose job it is to talk to that episode's director about any off-stage/backstage issues? "Okay, so-and-so and such-and-such just broke up when so-and-so's spouse found out, this other one had food poisoning and has been vomiting for five hours, and the Grip just lost fifty grand on the Super Bowl - which wouldn't be so bad if he'd had fifty grand to lose. I don't know why he isn't vomiting. Tread lightly, please."

Yes. Usually the showrunner with have a “tone” meeting with the director, going over the script scene by scene explaining what he wants, how it should play, how he envisions the look and tone. At that time the showrunner can fill the director in on any actor or set dynamics that are in play. This meeting comes before the director takes his couple of days of prep.

In many cases, a show has a stable of directors they trust and will rotate them. The directors will know the cast and have some relationship going in.

Being a freelance TV director for any genre requires a special skill. You have to have the technical know-how and ability to get good performances from the actors and also adjust to different casts, temperaments, crews, bosses, tones, time schedules, and usually a hovering producer. Freelance directors do not get the recognition they deserve. (And I don’t just say that because I’m a freelance director.)

Patrick wonders:

Why did FRIENDS take so long to shoot? Was it always like that or did it happen towards the end when they became super famous? Was it because they weren't prepared or were they just having such a great time it just went on forever?

I never worked on FRIENDS, just know from others who did.

Shooting nights did expand over time. And since FRIENDS became so popular they were able to literally bring in two separate audiences. The first one was admitted late in the afternoon. They burned out after several hours and were replaced by a new studio audience.  This is a luxury that few (if any) shows have today. 

Scene changes started taking forever. Hair and make up and wardrobe changes could eat up hours.

The cast was also thrown a lot of new lines during the filming. If a joke didn't work an alternate would be supplied. Scenes or parts of scenes were filmed over and over.

From what I understand, filming nights were grueling, but hey, look at the final results. Those episodes will be rerun forever.

From Carol:

Are there things you wrote back in the day that you wouldn't do now, just because of the 'climate of the times' nowadays?

In the movie VOLUNTEERS that I wrote with David Isaacs in the ‘80s, we got some cheap laughs by giving Asians thick accents. I wouldn’t do that today.

But for the most part, no. We try to be responsible and not take gratuitous shots at people, but if you take great pains to not offend anybody then what you’re left with is unfunny tepid results that please nobody.

DwWashburn (which is the title of a Monkees song) asks:

I've always thought that episodes that spotlight second tier characters (Father Mulcahy, Cliff Clavin, Lenny and Squiggy to name a few) are usually some of the weakest episodes in the series. In your experience, is it usually the actor or the agent who pushes for these episodes and are they difficult to write?

Depends on the show but to keep supporting stars happy, especially when they may be very light in a few episodes, you generally try to give each one an episode where they have the main story.

And yes, it’s hard sometimes. Nothing against Bill Christopher, who is a lovely guy and terrific actor, but Hawkeye is a much more dynamic character than Father Mulcahy. He just is.

It was hard to come up with stories for Norm on CHEERS. That’s because his character was always so content. He was quite happy to just sit in a bar for fourteen hours a day. He had a wife that tolerated him, no kids, a job (from time to time), and when he was out of work he was not particularly upset about it. It’s much easier when you have a character who desperately wants something and is constantly thwarted in his attempts to get it.

That said, many of those episodes that showcased the supporting cast came out great, and they had the added benefit of allowing the audience to better connect with all the characters. And the more the audience cares about Norm, or Father Mulcahy, or even Squiggy – the more invested they’ll be in the show overall.

And for the record, one of my favorite MASH episodes is the one where Father Mulcahy has to perform an emergency tracheotomy.

34 comments:

Carol said...

My favourite Father Macaulay episode was the one where he was all worked up about some visiting Cardinal, and then talked to Patrick Swayze who was dying, and then gave a really heartfelt speech.

Oh, and I have yet another question: How do you know if a story idea would make a better movie than TV show? DO you know? How many episodes do you try to think of before you say 'yeah, not gonna work'?

There's a winery near me, and their 'origin story' I think would make a good movie (and if I had any talent at all in screen writing I'd try it, but I totally don't) and I was having a conversation with my husband, and we were trying to decide if it would work as a TV show, which made me ponder the question above.

dandy_lio said...

RE: supporting cast episodes. I always assumed they were written when the prime actors were exhausted. Being on set 16 hours a day will kill anyone. I just assumed that when the main actors were getting burnt out, the writers would try to showcase supporting characters so that the main actors could take a breath and keep going.

The only M*A*S*H side characters that really got to me were the Margaret episodes. Under the right writer, Margaret was a really interesting and engaging character, and it would have been really difficult to hold one's own in a cast of men. But under the wrong writer, Margaret could be so grating and shrewish that I had to skip the scenes with her. She must have been a really difficult character to maintain, especially to answer the 1970s sexism/feminism/etc. I don't envy the work that must have gone into her.

I loved the tracheotomy episode with Mulchahy, actually. I thought that one was really well written. Mulchahy reminded me very much of Chaplain Tappman in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and in that episode in particular. A small victory for a quiet, timid man who feared he was always invisible. I really loved that one.

As a follow-up for you Ken, I've often believed that the TV show M*A*S*H was the best on-screen adaptation of Catch-22. I know there was some discussion on the similarities (Jamie Farr and Larry Gelbart have discussed this in their books, for example). I was wondering if you'd given any thought to the the connections (absurdism, general anti-war anxiety, similar characters, bureaucracy bungle-ups, etc) versus the MASH Hooker novel, which plays much more gently with these themes than Heller did.

Jason said...

I literally referenced that MASH episode when talking to my wife last night (as something that had stuck with me for a long, long time).

Anonymous said...

As I was reading your response about second tier characters, my mind went straight to that episode of Father Mulcahy and the tracheotomy as well. Also a personal favourite.
Dave.

DARON72 said...

I thought the Father Mulcahy episode "Dear Sis" was also one of the best. I believe Alan Alda was nominated for an Emmy for that one. The episode was a little depressing but honest.

Chris G said...

It's funny you say that about Norm - some of the Norm-centered episodes I remember (the one with the fake boss, the one where he worked for a brewery, the one with the secretary who looked like the Morton Salt girl) weren't so much ABOUT him as dropping him into a new or uncomfortable situation and watching things escalate.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

What about episodes where guest/one-shot characters are the main focus and the main characters are reduced to secondary roles? We were discussing "The Nurses" on a M*A*S*H site earlier this week and, to me, with the main focus being on the one-shot nurse whom Margaret confines to quarters, but tries to spend a romantic night with her husband, a passing foot soldier, and the other nurses as secondary characters in her corner for support, it felt less like an episode of M*A*S*H, or more like an entry in an anthology series.

Frank Beans said...

According to interviews I've seen, it was Alan Alda himself who wanted to emphasize more of the ensemble aspect of MASH, and make it less of "The Hawkeye Show" that it often was in the earlier years. Particularly when Burt Metcalfe took over around season 6, you see the secondary characters becoming more well-rounded and having more of a backstory to their lives. Personally, I think the ones centered on Radar are the most interesting (and funniest), though eventually I think they over-emphasized the "chumminess" of the characters, and by season 9 or so it kind of went flat. But it was a good idea that really gave the show new life for a time.

michael said...

Some believe there is ageism in Hollywood. Today as we all grow older which job is harder to get for you - TV writer or TV director?

V. Anton Spraul said...

One of my favorite episodes of the old Dragnet radio show (long before it went to TV) featured Friday's then-partner, Ben. It started off like a normal episode, with Friday narrating, but then they corner a suspect, who shoots Friday. While Friday spends the rest of the episode in the ICU, Ben, who is normally the lightweight foil to Friday's deadpan seriousness, takes over the narration, his tone turning icier as the episode progresses. It's an unexpected twist that makes for a great episode.

(As a bonus, there's a moment where Ben a carton of cigarettes to the hospital and asks if he can leave them for Friday when he wakes up--the doctor says to leave them with the nurse and she'll make sure he gets them. A very different era!)

VincentS said...

Couldn't agree more about you favorite Father Mulcahy episode. But as far as VOLUNTEERS, I wonder if you'd still keep in that exquisitely painful joke you have Tom Hanks say, "If Mr. Mi were here. Or...it I were Mi.."

Charles H. Bryan said...

Thanks, Ken! And congratulations and best wishes for your new grandchild. We look forward to future related posts.

And, because I'm greedy:

FRIDAY QUESTION: I've been watching THE THICK OF IT (which I'm really enjoying -- I've watched each episode three times -- first, to get the story; second, with subtitles to pick up on missed jokes; third, with commentary) and there is a character, Olly Reeder, who is not as funny as he thinks he is, but he's not stupid. How difficult is it to write lines for such a character? The lines can't be straight-up funny, but they have to be awkward enough to still elicit a derisive/pitying laugh from the viewers. (And I wouldn't even want to guess how that actor improvises any such lines.)

FRIDAY QUESTION TWO: Who has agents? I know actors, writers, and directors do, but do Directors of Photography have them? Editors? Production Designers? Make-up crews? How many of these others are hired more through a traditional interview/application process (or because producers and directors are familiar with their work)?

FRIDAY QUESTION THREE: (Really greedy.) What is the worst production swag you've ever seen/received? Like a commemorative SCRUBS whistling catheter or some such?

Jahn Ghalt said...


Ken, you described your "firsts" on MARY in 1985 as a first-time show-runner and first-time director - the latter as a crisis-response on short notice.

Your role was to block the scene, then the original director blocked the cameras.

For Mad Men Matthew Weiner hired his own first-timers (without the crisis) - Jon Hamm, John Slattery, and Jared Harris.

These "rookies" started preparing at least two weeks before shooting. Hamm and Slattery prepared on the same days that they acted on earlier episodes (Harris was already "dead" when he directed his episode).

So my question - how much of the usual director's chores would go to others for the rooks? For instance I suppose they would lean on the DP for camera blocking. How are the decisions (and the "labor") divided between Director and DP?

B.A. said...

I liked his tipsy temperance sermon. "Did I tell you the one about the prodigal son?" Remember him playing a hippie in WITH SIX YOU GET EGGROLL along with Jamie Farr.b

Stephen Robinson said...

I love the Norm-centered episodes on CHEERS: "The Two Faces of Norm" being my favorite. Rebecca was a great foil to Norm in "Don't Paint Your Chickens," the ending of which sends me in tears of laughter each time. This also reminds me of how CHEERS was the sort of show that the teenage me and my mother could watch and enjoy. There's not a lot of modern TV that does this, especially in the age of targeted demographics, which is a shame.

Stephen Robinson said...

"The Two Faces of Norm" was one of my favorite "solo" Norm episodes and made me think the character could have carried his own show -- of course, one episode is not itself a series, as we learned from the failure of JOEY.

The transition of Frasier from supporting character to leading man worked beautifully, but I think it made the bold choice of leaving behind much of Frasier's CHEERS history (including his marriage to Lilith).

Barry Traylor said...

Count me among the people that liked the character of Father Mulcahy. The supporting actors are what made MASH for me. I never seem to tire of going back and watching this show.

Cat said...

I'm of the opinion that, while not every supporting character can be great, you still need strong supporting characters. A lot of sitcom have so many characters without any of them being interesting, who are all the people on The Mindy Project? Does she need that many people? I think it's a failure when you add supporting characters and they add nothing of any interest at all. Frankly, it's a bigger failure when you have lead characters who are so completely underwritten that the supporting characters get to take over! (looking at you, Family Ties!)

Frank Beans said...

Stephen Robinson:

Lilith was referred to on FRASIER from the very beginning, and throughout the 11 seasons Bebe Neuwerth guested on the show many times. The main backstory fudging they had to do with Frasier Crane's character was to invent his father and brother (and his whole connection to Seattle for that matter), all of which had never existed in the CHEERS universe. And they made his late mother Hester a distinctly more saintly personality than she had been on CHEERS, particularly when she threatened to kill Diane and then lied about it...

dandy_lio said...

Stephen Robinson - Came to say what Frank Beans has already said. I thought they did a good job balancing creating a new life and set-up for Frasier without undoing everything that had been done on Cheers. And I appreciate d the retcon explained when Sam visited and questioned Frasier's family that had not existed in Cheers. If you haven't seen that episode, definitely worth the watch!

Jeff Alexander said...

Grandpappy Ken:

First, congrats on your first grandchild! All the best!!!

Second: FRIDAY QUESTION.

My apologies if you've already addressed this in your blog and I missed it.

There is a Ken Levine who is credited with six versions of a video game titled BioShock. Has there been any confusion -- has he gotten job offers that should have gone to you or vice versa?

I ask this partially because years ago, there was a music composer for TV shows named Jeff Alexander -- no, there was no confusion, since he was composing music in his 50s when I was a pre-teen!

Jeff Alexander, Stuart, Fla.

Stephen Robinson said...

dandy_lio and Frank Beans: I recall at the time (as a big Bebe Neuwirth fan) being disappointed that Lilith wasn't going to have a regular role on FRASIER. I think it was a good idea to basically "start fresh," with Frasier's time on CHEERS as part of a rich back story they could reference as needed.

I also think that Frasier and Lilith's relationship improved post-CHEERS, even if they weren't married. It had dark moments and was somewhat dysfunctional on CHEERS, and I appreciated how their relationship became very loving and supportive.

DBA said...

Jeff Alexander, Ken answered your question here:http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2015/05/sorry-im-not-that-ken-levine.html

Betty Darling said...

I just read Sepinwall's 20 year perspective as a TV critic. He talks of life before internet and all the new forms of TV. I was curious of your insights on all the new TV media delivery systems. It makes more opportunities for writers and all TV folks, but with the lower viewership for each show, although overall more viewship in total, does that mean less money?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I believe it was Martin Crane who thought of his wife in saintly terms. Fraser and Nails were afraid of her.

Brian said...

I disagree with DwWashburn as well. I think episodes that have side stories for supporting characters are usually pretty good. Cliff on Jeopardy and on The Tonight show are two of my favorites.

Mark said...

When Rita Wilson played Hester Crane in a flashback on Frasier, she clearly modeled her after Nancy Marchand's original take on the character on Cheers, so there was some continuity.

Margaret could be very effective on M*A*S*H. I remember her outburst in The Nurses where she expresses how hurt she is that her nurses don't confide in her or include her in anything. I also loved it when, during the umpteenth episode focusing on BJ's whining about not being home with his wife and daughter, she let him have it at the end and shut him up. That was great.

Kosmo13 said...

Cheers was one of the shows my parents and I both watched. In one episode, Paul had a few lines and my Father was stunned: "He's never said anything before!" as though the laws of Physics had just been broken.

I enjoyed Paul Willson's increasing presence on Cheers.

Andy Rose said...

I loved seeing more of Paul in the later seasons, too. Although he did have lines on the show going back to at least the cold open where he sang the theme to Bonanza. I don't remember what season that was, but Coach was still there.

Tom Lawrence said...

Ken, if I may call you that. Bill just seems wrong:
I thought you would enjoy this photo of Natalie Wood as much as I did.
http://www.sfgate.com/lifestyle/article/SF-photographer-Earl-Leaf-celebrities-7957076.php
Wonderful blog!
Thanks.
Tom, although I have answered to Larry
http://www.sfgate.com/lifestyle/article/SF-photographer-Earl-Leaf-celebrities-7957076.php

Patrick said...

Thanks for answering! They always seemed like they were having a great time so Im sure they didnt mind!

McAlvie said...

I kind of enjoy those episodes. It's nice to have a chance to get to know a supporting character a little bit better. And it mixes things up a bit. With MASH, the supporting characters really did make the show. All Hawkeye, all the time ... you know I loved the character and have a lot of admiration for Alan Alda, but let's face it, once in a while it was nice to get a break from that sometimes. And Hawkeye needed foils, characters strong enough in their own right to be a balance. I think the show got better after Frank Burns left the show for that reason.

Anthony said...

I have Friday Question:

What are the financial obligations for a series when they incorporate a character from a past series? For instance, we see that Glen and Les Charles get credit in the closing credits of every Frasier episode, but did have any financial ownership in the show? Did Jim Burrows or the Charles brothers also have to sign off whenever past Cheers characters made appearances on Frasier? Not looking for specific numbers, just curious how all that "red tape" works.

Jahn Ghaly said...

Reviewing your picks for Worst Quotes of 2011 you cited a not-so-horrible pun by Romney-the-Younger (except perhaps he was nearly as robotic as Al Gore)

(BTW, I came up for a nerdly nickname for him - but he was not elected - Algorithm)

Maybe this means you aren't so fond as I am about puns. An old description goes that a pun is:

the lowest form of wit, that doesn't tax the brain a bit

(not necessarily true)

But if I'm wrong, maybe we could have a fun, pun post:

A pirate got drunk, then drunker and toddled off to get a tattoo. He was a regular customer, so the tattoo artist offered a steep discount for piercings.

How much did he charge?

A Buck an Ear!!