Friday, July 01, 2016

Friday Questions

Happy Canada Day!  Wow. The year is half over already. Where did the time go… (and other Friday Questions)?

Jahn Ghalt has a question based on my post about the need for outlines.

Ken: given that "THE ME GENERATION…BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE ‘60s) is a memoir about your favorite (or at least best known) subject - and not a script or any other fictional form...... Did you first write an OUTLINE for it??

Absolutely. A very detailed one. I spent over six months doing research, getting school transcripts, interviewing classmates, assembling anecdotes, and compiling a timeline.

I actually had two outlines. Once I started writing I didn’t want to keep going back when things I had forgotten suddenly occurred to me. So I jotted those things down to be incorporated in a second draft and assembled them in a new outline.

Storytelling is good dramatic structure. I can’t stress this enough – outlines are your friends. They may be a pain in the ass to do but they are worth it.

Oh, and buy my damn book. 

From David:

I’m currently working on a spec script for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Should I include Act breaks as the earliest scripts in the series did before it was bought by Netflix or should I leave them out, as the show has no natural commercial breaks. On one hand I can show that I know how to effectively use act breaks. On the other hand it may look off. What do you think?

Leave them out. Follow the format of the show you’re writing. It’s not just a matter of being faithful to their template; the way you structure stories is different if act breaks are required. So do it the way they do it.

If you want to show you can adhere to act breaks, do a spec of a network show to go along with your KIMMY SCHMIDT.

Gary has a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW question.

Ken, how do you think the writing credits for the Alan Brady Show were shown? Some possibilities:

- Written by Robert Petrie & Sally Rogers & Buddy Sorrell

- Written by Robert Petrie and Sally Rogers & Buddy Sorrell

- Written by Robert Petrie, Sally Rogers & Buddy Sorrell

- Written by Robert Petrie. Co-written by Sally Rogers & Buddy Sorrell

Written by Alan Brady

Sometimes the questions are longer than the answers. Here’s one from Katie G.:

I don't recall your opinion on Orange is the New Black, but with the new season debuting this month, I've seen several people complaining about the theme song being too long. I know that many of the shows you've worked on have had theme songs, with some being a little longer than others (specifically Cheers). My question for you is do think that a long theme song can cause people to lose interest, or in a network show (unlike Orange is the New Black), take away precious time that could be devoted to the story? Do you think they're outmoded? Honestly , I don't know why anyone is complaining about the OITNB theme song when 1. they can fast forward and 2. the shows can be as long as the producers want them to be, and I'm a fan of the song and think it adds something.

Well, of course it depends on how good the theme song is. But if a show has a good one, I think it’s a plus; not a minus. The theme and opening titles sets the mood and puts you in the right frame of mind for what you’re about to watch.

I think on Netflix series you have the option of skipping the opening titles, don’t you? I like opening titles so have never sought out that feature.

As for ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, that theme has grown on me. Didn’t like it at first.

Another benefit of an opening title theme is that on rare occasions it can become a hit record. What spectacular publicity when HAWAII FIVE-O, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, and WELCOME BACK (Kotter) were blasting out of radios every five minutes. And who can’t whistle the TWIN PEAKS theme?

And finally, from Stuart Best (Yes, we saved the “best” for last – groan):

I always wondered what the writers on MASH thought of the original movie. Was there ever much thought to staying true to the spirit of the film? I know that Richard Hooker (the author) and Robert Altman (the director) disliked the TV show, and I wonder how that feeling went over among the show's staff. Personally, I love many of Altman's films, but MASH fell flat on me. The TV series had more purpose -- a rarity for the movie-to-TV transition.

Richard Hooker didn’t like the series because he sold the rights to 20th for peanuts and resented that everyone was making a fortune on the show except him. I can't blame the man.  He also had a problem with the political leaning of the show. We were liberal; he was conservative.   

Can’t speak for Robert Altman. Don’t know if he liked the series or not. His son sure did.  He got a nice royalty off the song (although we NEVER, not even once, featured the lyrics.  The song was always played instrumentally.  No exceptions.) 

But we always had great respect for the movie, although Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds created a new tone and altered the character of Hawkeye. Donald Sutherland’s “Hawkeye” and Alan Alda’s are two very different interpretations.

The first time we met with showrunner Gene Reynolds to talk about maybe writing a freelance episode of MASH, he loaded us down with research – transcripts of interviews, maps, history books, scripts, and the novel of MASH.

The movie followed the book rather faithfully both in terms of stories and attitude. It was a little weird reading it because I was trying to picture Alan Alda instead of Donald Sutherland, but Sutherland was much truer to the character Hooker created. Ultimately, it was more confusing than helpful, but the fact that Gene gave it to us spoke of his admiration for the source material.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it the comments section. Thanks much. Have a great and safe holiday weekend.


Bill O said...

Altman was highly critical of the series - maybe just the idea of it being a series. Being Altman, he managed to piss off someone higher up, and lost his points on the film. So his son outearned him on the film.

Terrence Moss said...

"Written by Alan Brady".
Classic. And so highly likely.

Stephen Robinson said...

I like both the movie and the TV show. I recall campaigning hard to get the movie shown at my college theater so I was a big fan when I was younger. But I do think the TV series holds up better. Perhaps it is my politics, but I think the series has more heart. I also find the treatment of Hot Lips in the film cringe worthy. In the series, she's a much more formidable and respected antagonist and later protagonist. She is a flawed character like everyone else but not someone simply set up for hostile ridicule. Loretta Swit was amazing,

Matt said...

I always thought if Alan Alda wasn't available, Edward Herrmann would've been a great choice for Hawkeye.

David said...

Thanks for answering my question Ken. I was torn, your advice is helpful.


JazMac said...

Re: Theme songs. I love the True Detective (season 1) opening. To me it perfectly encapsulates the tone, characters and creepiness of the show. I never fast forwarded through it.

wackiland said...

Loved your answer to the DICK VAN DYKE credit question.

But, having sorted through WGA credits for too many years to even think about, the actual answer is: "The Alan Brady Show" was a variety series, not scripted. Therefore, it would have had a "Head Writer" credit for Rob, and then Buddy, Sally, and yes, even Alan would have been listed separately under "Writers". Alan would most likely have negotiated a last card "and Alan Brady" credit.

Did I really just write that down? You can take the girl out of TV Business Affairs, but...

Paul Duca said...

I have a M*A*S*H question...why was 20th Century-Fox so adamant about having a laugh track (outside of the O/R)? They had previously produced JULIA and ROOM 222...comedies with dramatic elements and no laugh tracks--and Gene Reynolds was a producer on the latter.

Mike Schryver said...

Paul Duca, I'm going to guess it's because neither of those was on CBS. Maybe Ken knows and will clarify. I recall that in MAKING MASH, Reynolds specifically says it was the network that wanted the track.

Jean said...

Regarding outlines...the way I learned to do them in school were a very dry clinical inorganic process. It's not how my mind works. So a process I'm trying right now after reading so much about outlines, it doesn't follow the old fashioned way I was taught. It's more of paragragh/sentence thing to see where I am going, and where the characters are going. Now, for me, I do bang up book beginnings, and I know the ending, it's that oh so important part in the middle that so befuddles me. A friend of mine lines her walls with white roll paper, different color markers and sticky notes. Her process works for her...

Dixon Steele said...

Bill O,

According to Mitchell Zuckoff's excellent ROBERT ALTMAN: THE ORAL BIOGRAPHY, Altman didn't have any points and had yet to piss anyone off.

A Fox executive reduced his agreed-upon price at the last minute a substantial chunk. Altman wanted to bolt but his agent insisted he stick it out.

He understandably hated Fox after that, especially since he didn't directly profit from the film's huge success.

Courtney said...

Re: re: theme songs...

I'd count The Sopranos's use of "Woke Up This Morning" as a title montage ideal for easing the viewer into the milieu of New Jersey waste management time after time.
And a question:

The Beverly Hillbillies had two versions of its theme song; the opening beginning with "Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed" and the closer with "And now we'd like to thank you folks for kindly droppin' in..."

Did any other series you can think of ever opt for bookending theme songs?

Rob Larkin said...

I believe 60 Minutes once did a segment on Robert Altman and they asked him about the television series. The only criticism I remember him making was more against Television than the series: the fact that the series lasted longer than the war.

I think Tony Randall, in his Archive interview, said it best about MASH and the show's laugh track: "MASH always had a laugh track and it was a good show. Much better than the movie".

michael said...

One added note. Richard Hooker was a pseudonym for H. Richard Hornberger M.D. The book was based on his experiences in the Korean War.

Anonymous said...

Ken, thanks for your reply to my Dick Van Dyke question -- you nailed it! Come to think of it, the Alan Brady Show credits probably also said "Produced by Alan Brady." (Sorry, Mel -- and shut up!)

DMK said...

Hope you can throw on your baseball announcer cap and give us your thoughts about the Syracuse Chiefs - I mean, the Syracuse Seasonal Apprentices and how minor league baseball isn't a job deserving minimum wage.

All baseball below MLB is just a bunch of guys who'd be on welfare, is what the owners want us to think, as they coerce the small-town Americans to pony up and build new stadiums for their two bonus babies and the seasonal apprentices fodder.

Frankipop said...

When two or more characters speak simultaneously, how do you indicate that in the script?

VP81955 said...

The latest on my romantic comedy screenplay STAND TALL! -- it's advanced to finalist status at the Los Angeles CineFest. You can check it out (prospective producers, you're more than welcome!) by visiting

Breadalbane said...

Actually, in the Alan Brady era, there was a definite expectation that comedy stars had writers, and weren't credited writers themselves. Bob Hope, Jack Benny and George Burns all helped shape their personas and material, but didn't take writing credit for doing so. Neither did Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason or Sid Caesar.

Was it out of respect for the writing staff, or out of a desire not to sully themselves with a lowly, demeaning "writing" credit? I think in Alan Brady's case, his ego may have caused him to demand NOT having a writing credit -- he's the *star*, and far more important than any mere writer!

Jon H said...

GILLIGAN'S ISLAND also has a bookended theme song, different lyrics at the beginning and the end. The end lyrics mention an unknown fellow known as "Robinson Caruso". ;)

Johnny Walker said...

I've always loved the film and the series (and even enjoyed the book -- although Altman was right: it veered into sentimentality). The story behind the theme song is brilliant though: It was written for the scene where Painless commits "suicide", to be sung by a character. Altman wanted it to be the "dumbest song ever written", and attempted to write just that, but felt he couldn't get it stupid enough. So he gave the assignment to his teenage son (who he apparently said was a "complete idiot" - a bit harsh, but I assume he was referring to his teenage temperament). His son then churned the lyrics out in s few minutes and were deemed dumb enough. (This is why they make no sense whatsoever, and have the all over earnestness and overwroughtness of teenage poetry.)

Mike Altman got the last laugh, though: The song was a huge hit and he earned a fortune in royalties. Good for him.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Matt's post inspired a thought: Who else could have played Hawkeye Pierce? Honestly, I can't imagine anyone but Alan Alda. I'm sure others auditioned, and the stories must be out there somewhere, but I'm glad that they didn't get the part.

Stephen Robinson said...

No Alan Alda as Hawkeye and perhaps it's *Hawkeye* who went home after Season 3 and Wayne Rogers's Trapper remained the series anchor.

Crazy world.

Mitch said...

I worked on a half-hour show for a streaming platform.

Whether the writers were breaking the stories as a group in the room or on their own, every outline was conceived in three acts.

yes, there were no actual "commercial breaks." But many streaming shows still use fade outs and whatnot to punctuate the structure.

You have to give your audience a chance to catch their breath and the story a chance to pause and reset.

People are still used to the rhythms of that structure, anyway.

Besides, every story broadly conforms to a three act structure in that you always need a beginning, middle and an end.

Putting it up on the board in three acts made it clear where and how the beats needed to fall and where there were holes that needed to be filled.

Andy Rose said...

Some creative endeavors benefit from the discipline of sticking to structural requirements, and I think non-commercial shows still work best with act breaks. Most people need at least a momentary release now and again in order to sort of reset their minds, or else they start to draft off. Even movies traditionally have act breaks in them (of a sort) because they were traditionally delivered to theaters on reels that could only hold about 20 minutes of film. To keep the splice from interrupting the story, you have to have a pregnant pause at least once every 20 minutes.

Ira Glass made a similar point about how he structures "This American Life." He learned that when listening to radio, people can only listen to one person's voice for about 45 seconds before their minds start to wander. So he came up with the idea of editing scripts so that there's an end to a thought every 45 seconds or so, and then the narrator pauses and music fills the gap before s/he continues on to the next thought. It helps reset the mind. It's so effective, it's become a bit of a cliche for all the other shows that are trying to resemble TAL.

Roger said...

"Written by Alan Brady."
No more calls please, we have a winner.

Dylan Walton said...

Perhaps a trivial question, but one which has always bugged me.

In the 'Cheers' opening titles, one of the still images is a man holding a newspaper with "WE WIN!" as the banner headline. Does anyone know who the 'we' refers to? I assume it's the Redsox, or another Boston sports team, but does anyone know for sure?

Johnny Walker said...

Dylan, when I was a kid I thought it was an in-joke for George Wendt. When I became older I thought it might have something to do with prohibition. Now I think you're right and it's a Boston/sports bar type reference.

Mark O'Neill said...

At the risk of looking like an idiot, how "does" one submit a Friday question? I'm a simple guy. I look for the "Submit your Friday question here" link.

Ken Levine said...


Just ask your question in the comments section. Thanks.

D. McEwan said...

"Written by Alan Brady"

You make-a me giggle.

Johnny Walker said...

Dylan, I don't know if Ken was planning on fielding your question, but I found an answer for us both. The image is indeed sports related. It's from 1955 Brooklyn Eagle when the Brooklyn Dodgers (the lovable losers) beat The Yankees (the perennial winners). It was a huge deal for Brooklyn, hence the headline. I guess it worked great as a sports bar celebration.

Donald Benson said...

Just a note: Larry Gelbert's "Movie Movie" is finally on DVD. They don't nail the period look quite so perfectly as "Young Frankenstein" -- strangely, it feels like a 50s recreation of 30s movies -- but it's solid and funny.

No commentary, but long and entertaining interviews with Harry Hamlin, Kathleen Beller and Barry Bostwick. All rank the experience and the finished product as personal favorites, and all praise the script (Bostwick remembering to name Gelbert). And all are a bit annoyed that the film didn't find its audience.

Thing I didn't know: The B&W "Dynamite Hands" segment was shot in color, so it could be printed that way and sold to television as an all-color film.

micncue said...

I know you're a fan of the stinkin' Dodgers, as much as I'm a fan of the San Francisco Giants (heretofore known as God's team). I grew up in NoCal listening to Russ & Lon on my Arvin transistor. But at night I could dial in KFI and listen to Vin. I didn't realize it at the time, but my hatred for the Dogs was less than my love of baseball. As I listened to Vin paint the pictures, I was falling deeply for the game. Jack Whitaker didn't do that for golf. Bud Collins didn't do that for tennis. And Chris Schenkel didn't do that for bowling. Their contributions to their respective sports pale in comparison. Vin is an artist and a poet. I purchased Extra Innings just so I could listen to the few remaining Chavez Ravine broadcasts. To say we'll never see the likes of him ever again, is like saying no one will surpass 2,632 consecutive games played. True dat. I now watch three people in a booth who can't do what you do by yourself. On that night when you say "good evening everybody" for the last time, I will cry, mourning the loss of baseball's poet laureate. Thank you, Mr. Scully.

Katie G. said...

Thanks for answering my question. Sorry for the length. We lawyers have trouble with that sometimes...

Breadbaker said...

I don't know what Larry Gelbart said in his book, but I always assumed the laugh track was to make it clear this was a comedy, given that it was going on during the end of the Vietnam War and making a lot of "war is hell" comments. Much like Charlie Chaplin, you can get away with a lot more license in a comedy to make serious points than you could have on network TV with a war still on.

The Flintstones, of course, also had a different theme piece at the end than the beginning. Wilma!

Johnny Walker said...

They hated the laugh track. It was something the network insisted on. I'm sure the studio shared your reasoning, but I think the producers felt the viewers would know it was a comedy from the all the jokes.

In the UK it never had a laugh track and it's a much subtler and mature (and for me, more enjoyable) show without it, IMHO.

Ted O'Hara said...

When you were developing the character of Charles Winchester, how much of the character was established before production started and David Stiers was cast? Was he pretty well defined, or did you just establish the basics of the character and leave the rest for individual scripts and for the actor to find once he was cast? Did the concept of the character change much once David Stiers was cast?