Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How do you handle breasts?

How’s that for a subject heading? My traffic should explode today. Actually, that was a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It’s from Igor:

Friday question: How do you handle breasts?

I mean as a director. I thought of this when I recently saw an episode of Taxi in which Marilu Henner in a silk top was clearly braless. (No, at that moment this question is not all I thought of.) Certainly that was a different time. Today, if an actress's top is too tight or there's too much cleavage I assume it's easy to request less. But what if you as an (honorable) sitcom director want more? "Could you undo one more button?" "I think this scene would be better if you didn't wear a bra." Have you had to do that? Awkward? Changed over the years?

I know men everywhere are going to hate me for this answer, but as a director (and writer) I don’t want anything to distract from the comedy. Even if it’s a seduction scene, I would rather focus on the person being seduced and his reactions.  So, to borrow an expression, breasts get in the way. 

I’ve never directed a cable or streaming show where I had the freedom to show exposed breasts, and I’m sure some shows like CALIFORNICATION required partial nudity, but personally I’m way more interested in making the story and comedy work than titillating viewers.

Even directing episodes for Fox I’ve never had an executive or showrunner tell me to have an actress unbutton a button or push up her breasts. Maybe it happens. Just never personally encountered it… although restrictions are much looser now than in the past.  I'll never be accused of being the next Russ Meyer.

Back in the AfterMASH days (I can’t believe I’m telling an AfterMASH story), we had an episode introducing a new doctor. This was 1983. David Ackroyd was a brash doctor. And we wanted to show that doctor Wendy Girard was even brasher. So we did a scene where Wendy was supposedly naked in a whirlpool and David comes into the room. He starts flirting and we wanted her to stand up and basically say, “You want to see a naked woman? Is that it? Are you happy now?” The point is to shock and embarrass him.

Our plan was to show Wendy from the back, and focus on David’s reaction. We would see her bare back but costume her so she wasn’t really topless. And even then, after she stands up and we establish that, we cut to a close-up of David’s initial surprise, and then a close-up of Wendy delivering her speech, back to a close up of David reacting.

So we’re talking three seconds on her back, maybe four?

CBS wouldn’t let us do it.

We said, okay, what if we comprise? Show the top half of her back. Mostly we’d be seeing David over her shoulder.

Sorry. “Half” was too much. We had to literally negotiate how many inches of Wendy’s back we could show.

At one point we said, instead of showing her back, what if we showed the back of her bare legs?

Nope.

The back of knees was apparently too racy for the Tiffany Network.

Through it all I might add that Wendy was a terrific sport.

Today on CBS I bet the argument would be reversed. We’d want to show less and they’d be saying, “Can we see her entire back?” “Can we play the whole scene on her back?” And then they’d use it for the promo.

I’m sure network standards have relaxed because of the competition with other delivery services that can show much more. But only to a point. The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction was ridiculously a huge deal. There is much more leeway with language than actually showing something risqué. Hence, 2 BROKE GIRLS can get away with saying “vagina,” which they do twelve times an episode.

But if someone wants to see nudity, it’s there in unlimited quantities on the internet. Less easy to access is decent comedy.

If you want to see that AfterMASH scene, it's 15:06 in and the quality of the print is pretty bad.

21 comments:

Mark--> said...

Technical note: Wendy Girard's character was a doctor, not a nurse. Both she and David Ackroyd played great characters.

Steve said...

There's the quote they're going to put on the Complete Series box set when it comes out:

"If you want to see AfterMASH... the quality is pretty bad" --Ken Levine, writer

Stephen Marks said...

Another great post. I love that picture, it shows 3 headlights, one on the taxi and two on Henner. I checked with Bally's in Vegas and they have the over/under on the number of comments for this post at 87, I took the over. Mrs. Levine must be out of town.

Michael said...

Ken - have you seen this article on AfterMASH which is a little kinder to it than you usually are? http://www.avclub.com/article/aftermash-tried-everything-bring-back-msh-feeling-219699

Quality not shock value said...

To combine the last two days' themes, this is my problem with current Emmy nominated programs. It seems that only "premium" stations (translation - swearing, gore, and yes nudity) get nominated nowadays. However as has been shown with shows like the Sopranos and Sex and the City, when these shows are "cleaned up" for local stripping, they produce little interest and are quickly cancelled by the local stations.
In conclusion, television Hollywood today believes the only way to get their shows "respected" is to handle breasts by exposing them. But for this one viewer, it makes me turn the channel never to return to that program.

YEKIMI said...

Boy, today's post was really titillating! Glad you're keeping me abreast of the subject matter at hand.

Roseann said...

Ken-

I was a Wardrobe Supervisor in NYC from 1985 to 2011. I have to say that usually that discussion took place between the Producers, Writers, Directors and Costume Designers during Concept Meetings, the first meeting after reading the script for the first time. And of course the Casting Department knows because they have to find someone willing to do what ever it is they want...

When I've been in Fittings with those actresses they know why they are there as well as 'how far' they are willing to go. A beautiful girl knows why she was hired over the 'other one'. It's also part of their job. Usually there is a clause in their contracts spelling out exactly what is a GO and what is NOT.

Occasionally on Episodic TV an actress is surprised by what is happening in a scene and when that happens Production gets their way and the Wardrobe Department has to figure out a way to make her comfortable. It sometimes gets pretty complicated. We do our best.

Andy Rose said...

This reminds me of the pilot movie for The Incredible Hulk, which featured Susan Sullivan. In the latter half of the film, she wears a button-down blouse that's made entirely of sheer material, except for two carefully placed pockets.

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/a6/83/71/a683715fb9c08148aa17ce5250126ee0.jpg

In the DVD commentary, creator Ken Johnson chuckled about how they were able to get away that one past CBS.

CRL said...

I'd click on the AfterMASH video, but I'm afraid of seeing Jamie Farr topless.

Brent said...

CBS has already done it, and it was a while ago, too. I couldn't tell you what episode or in which season, but on NCIS they had Abby changing her shirt, showing a large cross tattoo that goes from shoulder blades practically down to the tailbone. They'e even used that scene in the opening credits if I remember correctly.

Peter said...

Talking of cleavage - wait, that IS what we're talking about here, right? - the highlight of the Emmys was Kirsten Dunst's outfit. As Borat would say, wa wa wee wa!

Steve Bailey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Bailey said...

Imagine if you'd been a showrunner on "Maude." Adrienne Barbeau's braless chest was such a distraction that the scriptwriters made jokes about it.

LouOCNY said...

To answer your question: Very carefully....

Smilodon said...

Even implied nudity can be distracting. I remember when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen watching One Day At A Time and Valerie Bertinelli spent an entire scene of in the bathtub covered in soap bubbles.

ODJennings said...

There was an episode of Jeopardy a couple years ago where one of the contestants was a very attractive young lady with simply enormous breasts and a tight sweater that showcased them admirably.

If you're a regular viewer you know that's not something they get to deal with every day, and they invented so many new camera angles to keep those breasts on screen it looked like a Film Noir version of Jeopardy.

Sadly, she wasn't even in contention, so one can only dream of what they would have come up with had she made it for 3 or 4 days.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Completely agree that "headlights" are a distraction from the comedy, but....

If a show is not funny, then a lovely actress, like the enchanting A. Barbeau, is a most welcome distraction.

Ray said...

I watched the AfterMASH clip. I remember watching it was on after the original's run, and remember wanting it to succeed just because I'd come of age with so many of the characters. It did raise a Friday-questionish question in my mind, though:

The clip shows Larry Gelbart getting a "developed by" credit. Although I probably didn't pay attention as the years were unfolding, I later interacted with "elsig" on MASH newsgroups and learned that he had little to do with the original series after the first few seasons. So was this development credit for AfterMASH a homage, a negotiated term, or did he have actual input into the production of the sequel?

James said...

FWiW, I'm happy to hear an AfterMASH story. Hit shows are documented and people tell stories about them all the time, but flops like MARY, AfterMASH and the Tony Randall Show usually disappear without a trace. I'm a fan of some of these shows that were great but unappreciated, or great but flawed, and now they're gone as if they were terrible family secrets that nobody wants to admit ever happened.

Curt Alliaume said...

ODJennings: I don't think this is the same contestant on Jeopardy! you were referring to, but one female contestant wrote about her experience on the show and "boob shaming" (http://www.xojane.com/entertainment/boob-shamed-jeopardy).

There were probably several 1970s where female cast members didn't wear bras (since that was more commonplace in the era): Charlie's Angels in particular, but even Maureen McCormick mentioned getting away with it on The Brady Bunch.

cadavra said...

And if I may venture to a different part of the anatomy, back in the "Dick Van Dyke Show" days, Mary Tyler Moore's signature capri pants were only permitted once every four episodes because of "undercupping." Carl Reiner said he literally had to ask the censors what that meant. (Translation: Too tight around her bottom.)