Friday, November 25, 2016

Friday Questions

Black Friday Questions really, which are actually leftovers but spruced up.

Joseph Scarbrough has a question about anthologies.

If networks aren't willing to do anthology series because it cost too much to have new sets and new actors come in all the time... then, how is that any different from having new sets and actors on a regular weekly series? Like say if the main characters find themselves in a new diner, or at a hotel, or at a distant relative's house, and then all the guest actors? Isn't that kind of the same?

People generally tune into shows because they are familiar with and enjoy the characters. They like the continuity. Anthologies introduce new main characters each week.  So it's essentially a pilot a week.  And although there are swing sets (sets used only once) there are also primary sets that are used every week. These offset the cost of the new ones.

Plus, studios all have warehouses of sets. So a cafĂ© you see on CSI can be dressed up differently and used on BONES.   They don't have to build them all from scratch.

But there are hybrids.   TIMELESS this season for one.  Same characters in different locations and periods of time.  QUANTUM LEAP was another.  In the ‘60s you had a couple of great ones like THE FUGITIVE and ROUTE 66. These had main stars who traveled to different towns each week and encountered Mickey Rooney or Yvonne Craig. But you watched because you cared about those series stars. (Only I watched because of Yvonne Craig.)

Mitchell Hundred asks:

As a writer/showrunner, how can you tell when a show has run its course?

When someone in the room suggests the talent show episode and you don’t automatically fire him.

Seriously though, for me, it's when the characters cease to surprise me. When there’s nothing any of them could say or do that I couldn’t predict in my sleep, then it’s time to go.

Well, actually, that’s when you negotiate a huge raise from the network and end the series a year later.

Freebie and The Bean (which was a fun movie from the ‘70s) wonders:

Do you think "marathon" showings of reruns help promote a show's popularity and ultimately its longevity?

Absolutely. A great example is WINGS. It was doing okay on NBC but when the USA network picked it up and aired it nineteen hours a day the ratings on NBC went way up. Same is true with LAW & ORDER and now NCIS.

Of course you have to have enough episodes to make this equation work. Hence, I don’t think we'll be able to resurrect BIG WAVE DAVE’S by showing the six episodes over and over again eleven times a day. Not that it isn’t worth a try.

And finally, from Chris:

Some shows (Seinfeld, Married...with Children, Night Court) ended every episode with the audience clapping whether there was a punchline there or not? How do you feel about doing that? It kind of makes it feel more like a live play.

I hate it because it’s very self-congratulatory. If something happens in the body of a show that results in a spontaneous round of applause then fine. But I hate applause at the end of a show and I hate applause when characters first enter. On my shows I always have the warm-up guy introduce the cast to the studio audience before the show. And I also have him introduce any notable guest stars unless their entrance is a big intended surprise. I furthermore dislike when characters comment on each other’s lines. “That’s hilarious!” “What a brilliant solution!”, etc. Ugh!  It's a pet peeve but I hate when shows toot their own horn.

What's your Friday Question?

28 comments:

rockgolf said...

TIMELINE had two episodes this season set in DC, one during Lincoln's assassination, one during Watergate. In the latter episode, Flynn brought the heroine to a hotel room, and asked if she recognized it as the same room she'd been in two weeks/100 years ago.
He claimed to bring her to the same room for irony, but I thought, naw, you were saving on set costs.

ScottyB said...

Ken mentioned 'Wings' taking off (sorry about that one) once it hit syndication. Really good news is the Antenna-TV network is going to start running 'Becker' in January. Yay us!

Also, a sure sign a TV show has had it is 1) when main characters hook up ('Friends'), or 2) main characters have a baby ('Mad About You').

Or 3) Cousin Oliver shows up. We all know how that goes.

ScottyB said...

Friday Question for Ken: Have there ever been any successful 2-person comedy writing teams that you know of where one person is extremely funny but can't develop a story to save his/her life while the other person has a fantastic ability to develop great stories and characters but hasn't the knack for banging out the actual laughs? Elton John and Bernie Taupin are a well-known musical equivalent, but have there ever been any in the TV or film industry? How tough or simple do you imagine it would be for such a team to play nice together, any personal envies between the two aside?

Douglas Trapasso said...

The Norman Lear shows usually ended with "spontaneous" applause (but not every week. When an AITF or Good Times ended on a down note, it faded to silence. Pretty effective in its own way.)

Covarr said...

"I furthermore dislike when characters comment on each other’s lines."

I assume there are limitations to when this is a bad thing, right? Like, if commenting on another character's line helps reveal something about the character making the comment, or helps reveal the plot.

"That's a brilliant idea," takes on a whole different meaning if it's obvious to any reasonable person that it's a terrible idea; it tells us the commenter is either not very smart or not paying attention, and can be funny in and of itself. "That's hilarious" or "that's so funny" can be the focal point of an entire SEINFELD plot—or a SCRUBS plot that totally copied it.

Do writers very often use their characters to help them brag about their own writing? It's not something I've generally noticed, but that could just be inattentiveness on my part. I'd think, however, that any room-written show would at least have one person with the sense (and balls) to say "Hey, this will stick out like a sore thumb if we do that. Maybe let the joke stand on its own instead of announcing that we just made a joke."

YEKIMI said...

Maybe the applause at the end of a show is the studio audiences way of saying "Yes! It's finally over and we can get the hell out of here!"

Ted O'Hara said...

M*A*S*H question. Was there any back story on Colonel Potter explaining why he'd stayed in the Army so long? He was written as a clear eyed realist who was able to recognize the horrors of war, and yet he stayed on long past the point where he had to, and yet it was never explained why past a vague sense of adventure. Was it a sense of duty? Patriotism? Adventure? I think it would have been worth exploring.

Also, he was played as being near retirement age, and yet someone who enlisted in World War I at 17 would have only been 50 or so in Korea. Was the writing staff aware of this during the time you were there?

Steve B. said...

Speaking of "Big Wave Dave's," I happen to be Kauai right now and noticed there is a bar in Kapaa named "Big Wave Dave's." Which came first - the series or the bar?

Ken Levine said...

Steve,

The series was in 1993 and I was unaware of that bar, so you'll have to ask them. Aloha.

Craig Russell said...

Just watched Bleeding Gums Murphy and your "Simpsons" episode with Dancin' Homer on FXX...Fox's version of ESPN Ocho...but I digress.

You can thank Lucy and Desi for sitcom stars entering the scene to thunderous applause. And also thank Garry Marshall for continuing that tradition in the 70's with Fonzie and Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, and Laverne and Shirley. The trade off's for having the shows taped before "a live studio audience". Ah, how different MASH would have been in front of that audience of Korean town people...lol

Peter said...

Ken, any thoughts from you or Annie on the passing of Florence Henderson? Looking through Henderson's imdb, I noticed she did an episode of Instant Mom.

The Brady Bunch didn't have quite the cultural impact in Britain as it obviously had in the States, but I enjoyed her very funny cameo in The Brady Bunch Movie that also starred Shelley Long.

DBenson said...

Disney had his anthology series for decades, but with a few useful twists:
1. Because he didn't sell his vault to TV like the bigger studios, he could mine that.
2. Two-parters were released abroad (and sometimes domestically) as theatrical features. And domestic releases with little re-release potential went to the TV hour in a year or two (and some actually went back to theaters anyway!)
3. "Classics" could be rerun years later, especially the one compiled from cartoons.

That economic model isn't workable today, but some cable channels get a bit of the effect by booking films that previously would be seen only on the art house circuit.

Frank Beans said...

Ken,

Could you elaborate more on what you mean by "I furthermore dislike when characters comment on each other’s lines"?

There are many great shows, notably FRASIER and MASH, where it's common for actors to semi-break character to comment on the quality of the jokes being delivered, usually disparagingly but to hilarious effect. For example, Frasier Crane has a long-running gag of him making terrible puns that actually drive the plot and contribute to his character. So, what do find to be the truly egregious examples of this particular device?

Stephen Robinson said...

SCOTTYB said: "Also, a sure sign a TV show has had it is 1) when main characters hook up ('Friends'), or 2) main characters have a baby ('Mad About You')."

SER: I think Monica and Chandler was a great decision for FRIENDS. It gave Monica a comedy partner in Chandler, and it also allowed the characters to mature while maintaining the core 6. This was an issue HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER had: If you introduce a significant other to the series late into its run, do you risk "breaking" what works. Ross and Rachel's relationship was established in the pilot.

I agree about MAD ABOUT YOU. It's almost impossible, I think, to transition from a series about a childless couple to basically a "family" sitcom. The dynamics change, and frankly, infants aren't that funny.

I think FRIENDS avoided this problem by having Ross's son live with his ex. I would agree that Rachel and Ross's daughter was a drag on the series but not fatal.

Earl Boebert said...

Re: Ted O'Hara's question about Col. Potter:

Plausible sequence would duplicate that of one of my family members, who ran away from home and joined the Army in 1913 at age 16 (he lied about his age.) Served in WWI, retired in 1933 on Army pension, called back for WWII, separated in 1946 and went back in 1950 because he believed in the cause of South Korea (as did the author of the original M*A*S*H books, as I understand to have been the case). So had my relative been over there he would have pushing sixty, just like Col. Potter

Geoff said...

Craig Russell said...

You can thank Lucy and Desi for sitcom stars entering the scene to thunderous applause.


Well, kind of, but not really. Celebrity guests on I LOVE LUCY always got a round of applause from the audience when they made their first entrance, but the four series regulars never did. And even that dates back to radio comedies. If Barbara Stanwyck dropped by Jack Benny's house, she was going to get applause after she spoke her first lines, even though neither Jack nor the series regulars got it after their entrances.

What bugged me about that on Garry Marshall's sitcoms was how over-the-top silly it got. Audiences literally screaming whenever a series regular made his or her first entrance. Screaming for Potsie? Ralph Malph? Mr. Cunningham? SERIOUSLY?

Back to Lucy, on all her earlier series, she was always introduced to the audience during the warm-up. On LIFE WITH LUCY, somebody decided it would be better if the audience never saw her until she made her initial entrance during the show. What happened is that audiences went nuts as soon as she walked onto the set. It created such a commotion that they began to automatically stop taping at Lucy's entrance, because they'd learned they were going to have to go back and do it over, anyway, after the audience finally calmed down.

B Smith said...

"Have there ever been any successful 2-person comedy writing teams that you know of where one person is extremely funny but can't develop a story..."

Have been reading John Cleese's "So, Anyway..." memoirs, and this description would seem to describe his partnership with Graham Chapman.

BluePedal said...

"Big Wave Dave's is a sitcom that ran on CBS from August 9, 1993 until September 13, 1993."

That's quite an opening sentence on Big Wave Dave's Wikipedia page. Using my high powered computer I have determined that to be 35 days of sitcom glory.

Andy Rose said...

A lot of action shows in the 80s put the protagonists in different settings from show to show. Knight Rider, Airwolf, etc. I think the only standing set on The A-Team was the interior of their van.

Supposedly CBS once tried to cut the budget on The Incredible Hulk by suggesting that they introduce a new "friend" for David Banner who could travel with him in an RV. The idea was it was one fewer person to cast every week, and when the two of them had exposition scenes together, the show could reuse the RV set.


As far as applause at the end of a sitcom, I always assumed that was because early multi-cam shows were designed to emulate a theater experience, complete with audience response. It seems natural for the audience to applaud at the end of a sitcom just like they would at the end of a play.

Clay said...


Would most definitely believe a great number of us all tuned in for anything featuring YVONNE CRAIG and more than a few raised some doubles on the day she departed the scene at far too young an age even if it was 78.

Mike Doran said...

Scotty B:
It wasn't comedy writing as such, but in the mystery-writing field, the following was common knowledge:
Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee divide their duties as "Ellery Queen" thusly:
Dannay plotted the stories - who did what to who, and when, and why.
Lee wrote the actual prose - the dialog, the descriptions, and such.
In his blog, Mark Rothman credits his erstwhile partner Lowell Ganz as more of a fast-gag man, while Rothman was more concerned with story.
This came from his lengthy series of posts an how he and Ganz ceased to be partners; you can find it at the blog (still up, as afr as I know).

Ted O'Hara:
MeTV reran the first Potter MASH episode not long ago.
Right off the bat, Colonel Potter was identified as "U.S.A." - Regular Army.
As I understand this, this means that Potter stayed in the Army the whole time, in peace and war.
Between wars, our military services always found quite a bit to do, foreign and domestic.
As a doctor, Potter would find much to occupy his time, all the while rising in the ranks, ultimately making it to full Colonel by the time of the Korean conflict.
Here's where you come in, Ken: By the time of AfterMASH, I can't recall whether Potter retired from the Army when he got the job running the Veterans hospital, or whether he remained in the peacetime service as a Colonel.
If I have any of this wrong, by all means correct me.

Ted O'Hara said...

Earl --

If your relative was 16 in 1913, he would have been born in 1897 (same year as my grandmother) which would have made him 53 in 1950 -- not pushing 60 in my book. And if Potter entered the Army in 1917 at 17, then he was even younger.

Mike --

I understand. I assumed he was in the Army all or most of his life. I was asking if the show ever established a reason *why*. The show is anti-war, but has a fairly sympathetic character who has made a career of the Army. It's the thing that makes Potter distinctive among the 4077th staff. The show did establish that he initially joined the Calvary out of a sense of romantic adventure, but I can't recall the show ever really establishing why he stayed on. I think it could have been a nice scene, a conversation with Hawkeye and BJ in the Swamp, talking what he'd done and why he stayed on.

-- Ted

Mike Doran said...

Ted:

Again, this is speculation, supplemented by lots of reading and watching.

In the years between the World Wars, the Army, Navy, and Marines promoted themselves as a career opportunity for those who, in those days, couldn't afford higher education (by which I mean beyond high school). This would be particularly true during the Depression.

As to Col. Potter, I might be remembering wrong, but I think he may have mentioned in passing that the Army helped finance his medical education, which would have been an incentive for staying in the service.

DwWashburn said...

If I recall correctly, Big Bang Theory was doing OK for CBS but not as great as it started doing after WTBS started running six episodes a night during its early syndication.

Earl Boebert said...

Re: Col. Potter's timeline.

Oh, sure, I wasn't trying to reconstruct his biography, just trying to say that his age in the show was plausible. And I could be wrong, but I always placed the action in the show to be just before the armistice. So that would make him a well-worn 53, somebody who very likely had seen too much.

This is all a distraction from your main comment, which I support: It would have been very interesting to have had the conversation you suggested between him, Hawkeye and BJ. Potter always reminded me of many of the senior Air Force officers I served under in the early 1960's: veterans of WWII and Korea, reluctant warriors, people who had done what they felt they had to do, and endured what they had to endure.

Steve said...

Harry Morgan was 60 when he joined the cast which might have been a few years older than Potter would have been but military life can age you. Just look at the rest of the cast, two years in Korea an they all went home looking ten or fifteen years older.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

20 years of service is usually retirement time. He was a desk jockey after WW2. He enlisted at 15, so he was around 56 when he became the CO.

Andy Ihnatko said...

Friday Question:

Your mention of characters complimenting each others' jokes somehow reminded me of the two-parter that ended "Cheers" second season. Diane poses for a brilliant artist despite Sam's stern forbiddance. Diane thinks Sam will forgive her once he sees the portrait; the artist predicts -- correctly -- that he'll hate her for doing it and that they'll break up.

I've just re-watched the two-parter (four, if I include the two-parter that opened season 3) on Netflix. It's brilliant storytelling and acting. But I still think it was a mistake to let the audience see the actual painting. By the time it's revealed, no actual image could have lived up to the intense and evocative portrait to which Diane, the artist, and finally Sam react so powerfully.

Was there discussion around this, as the story was being developed? And on a more mundane matter, how does a prop department deal with a script line like "Diane removes the wrapper from the portrait. As promised, it's a heartbreaking work of staggering genius"? Do the writers/producers audition artists?

(Finally, watching Part 2 gave me additional respect for Kelsey Grammer in his first appearance as Frasier Crane. What fantastic work! For ten minutes, he's in the bar as just another background extra. But I now know to pay attention to that guy. He spends that entire scene sitting and standing in the deep background, usually partially obscured or slightly out of focus, not in any way distracting from the main actors...and yet he's clearly reacting "in character" to every line that Frasier overhears. What an actor!)