Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some FQ’s?

Bob K. gets us started.

When writing for shows like "MASH" and "Frasier", where some jokes are directly related to specific technical areas (in this example the medical or psychiatry fields) is the writing process different? Would you consult with a field expert on a comedic storyline or specific jokes? Or do you let the comedic elements just come from the research and/or your writing sessions- leaving the comedy, so-to-speak, to the experts? 

If you have to rely on experts for comedy you're in trouble.  

On MASH we had Dr. Walt Dishell who was our technical advisor. We would write operating room scenes and just dummy in dialogue and send the scripts to him. He would then fill in what the surgeons might actually say. So our scripts were like:

HAWKEYE: Nurse, hand me the frabazabber.

NURSE: Yes, doctor. Oh, he’s hermaygolading.

HAWKEYE: Let’s give him 10 CC’s of Blojamin stat! 

But any jokes (Hawkeye flirting, the war sucks, etc.) were in the scene before it went to advisors.  

We also had a nurse on the set to make sure the doctors weren’t just stabbing each other.

But we never put any comedy burden on the advisors. That was our job.

On FRASIER, there were times when I consulted my wife who is a therapist. And I majored in Psychology at UCLA so I knew enough psycho-babble to get by on most occasions.  But there were instances when we'd ask how a shrink would handle a certain situation or patient and then write the scene, again putting in the humor ourselves. 

From Charles H. Bryan:

Why did I not know that B.F. Pierce was based on an actual doctor? If I knew it, I've forgotten it. FRIDAY QUESTION: Who is he?

Dr. Roger Willcox. He passed away in 2006. Here’s his obit. You’ll see what a remarkable man he was.

RSaunders has a question about Carrie Fisher:

What were her special skills as a screenwriter and as (didn't realize this) a script doctor?

Well, first of all she was very very smart. Lots of people can point out things that don’t work. Very few can offer fixes.

She was also extremely funny and wrote great character comedy. So she didn’t pump in jokes, she just made the existing characters funnier and more interesting.

She also had great pathos.  She wasn't afraid of emotional moments.  
Additionally, she was fast. Lots of times when a producer needs a rewrite or polish there’s a time crunch. They’re going to start shooting next Tuesday, or they’re trying to entice an actress and would like something to show her over the weekend, etc. Carrie could knock out the pages quickly.

Finally, I think producers and directors just LIKED her and enjoyed her company. She knew the business inside and out and was a genuinely nice and entertaining person.  You got a great rewrite and some fantastic Debbie Reynolds stories. 

And finally, from ScottyB:

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?

Any possible combination of personalities and working arrangements exist between writing partners. Usually one partner is stronger in one area complemented by the other who is better in another. But not necessarily. As time goes by they learn from each other and grow.

When George S. Kaufman was writing award-winning comedy plays with Moss Hart, whenever there was an emotional moment or speech Kaufman would just leave the room and let Hart handle it.  (Hart was the Carrie Fisher of the two.)

David Isaacs and I write head-to-head but a lot of teams will divide up the scenes and write separately. Or one will do the first draft and the other will rewrite. One team I know works on the outline together, then they each go off and write a first draft. Then they merge the best of the two.

And another team worked this way: One just schmoozed and cultivated contacts while the other did all the writing. David and I both marveled at this arrangement. We would have adopted it for ourselves but both wanted the schmoozer role.

What’s your Friday Question? Remember, I now also answer them on my podcast as well. Have you subscribed yet?


Jim S said...

"And another team worked this way: One just schmoozed and cultivated contacts while the other did all the writing. David and I both marveled at this arrangement. We would have adopted it for ourselves but both wanted the schmoozer role."

I think I know that team - Martin Milner and Jack Cassidy. But schmoozer Cassidy ended up killing writer Milner and was caught by Lt. Columbo. Hey, at least they got to meet a young Steven Spielberg.

Man, I miss Columbo. There are so many smart writers - Matt Weiner of Mad Men, Vince Gilligan Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Stephen Fry of being the awesome Stephen Fry, who love Columbo and want to bring it back, yet we're stuck with Will & Grace.

Get on it Universal.

Unknown said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: On many occasions over the years, I've heard actors in interviews say that the spent "two weeks working in a restaurant kitchen" or rode around in a patrol car or lived in a cave for two months or something while they "researched" the role they were playing. I always assumed they were simply being pretentious, but does this actually happen? Is it possible that when you go out for dinner, Meryl Streep is in the back making your salad, or that you may stumble across Robert De Niro someday while out hiking in the woods?

B.A. said...

Holy cow. Wilcox's obit said he was in the 8063 MASH. I always thought the 8063 was a number you guys pulled out of a hat. The AFTER MASH 'reboot' we talked about yesterday could have been based on him?

Andrew said...

I've wondered who they have consulting for Better Call Saul. Because their depiction of legal work (whether solo practice or in a law firm) is as good as it gets. I realize BCS isn't strictly speaking a comedy, but it makes me laugh more often than many so-called sitcoms. Bob O. is a comic genius.

I'm an attorney myself, and labor full-time in the "doghouse"/"cornfield" of doc review. But in a company, not a major firm (thank God).

Kirk said...

What about Richard Hornberger Jr., who, under the pen name Richard Hooker, wrote the novel MASH? I just checked out his Wikipedia page, and there's a Korean War picture of him standing in front of a door marked "The Swamp". Was he a friend or associate of the other fellow you mentioned?

CRL said...

How do you know the doctors weren't just winging it?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Bob K: I've read that THE BIG BANG THEORY spent quite a bit of time searching for a physics PhD student to contribute science stuff for their dialogue; the guy they eventually get was a professor at Cal Tech they'd contacted asking for a student, and he wrote back, "Can I do it?" He has said in interviews that he learned quickly he wasn't any good at suggesting comedy ideas, and also that in providing material for the various white boards on one occasion he put the answers to that term's exam as an in-joke for his students.

Ken: I have a Friday Question. THE BIG BANG THEORY now has a fairly large - seven or eight (depending whether you count Stewart) - cast, and the writers seem to have decided that the way to handle this is to split them into two groups (an idea I imagine they got from FRIENDS). The thing is, this year they're splitting them up into the same two groups all the time: Leonard and Penny, Sheldon and Amy are one group; Howard and Bernadette and Rajesh plus Stewart are the other. It seems to me kind of a waste and very samey, and it means that the stories are verging on LIFE IN PIECES length territory (because the show has such a staggering number of ads that its overall length barely exceeds 18 minutes *including* the opening and closing credits music). How have you handled similar situations, assuming you've been in them? MASH had a pretty big cast, IIRC.


Peter said...

As if today wasn't bad enough, one of my favourite character actors, the wonderful Miguel Ferrer, has passed away from cancer aged just 61. He was fantastic in the original Robocop and in Twin Peaks. He'd filmed his scenes for the new Twin Peaks series last year.

Another great one gone too soon. RIP

Peter said...

Oops! I really should learn to check if there have been extra threads instead of going straight to Friday Questions! Didn't realize you'd posted a tribute to Miguel yesterday.

Daniel said...

POSSIBLE FRIDAY QUESTION: As a follow up to the question about writing teams, when you and David Isaacs write your own projects separately are there certain things that you each dial up in your own work that maybe get played down in your collaborations? Or things that you dial down on your own that get more play when writing together?

Elf said...

Friday Question: Ken, have you been watching Ted Danson in "The Good Place"? I know you've always sung his praises, and rightfully so, but his work in the Good Place season finale was a masterpiece. And what's been your opinion of the show overall, assuming you've watched the whole thing? In retrospect, after that amazing finale, we can see that the entire season was intricately mapped and plotted from the beginning, all leading up to a final twist that was simultaneously stunning and obvious.

Elf said...

@Greg Gibson: Robert DeNiro got the lead in the Hillary Clinton biopic?

RockGolf said...

Speaking of Ted Danson, I just did some arithmatic, and between Cheers, Ink, Becker, Help Me Help You, Bored To Death, CSI original, CSI: Cyber, and The Good Place, Danson has had a lead role on a TV series for a total of 26 years! And that doesn't even include his recurring appearances on Damages or Fargo.

I've been trying to think of any other US actor who has had as many seasons as a lead, and I don't think anyone else has done this. Kelsey Grammar comes close but you can't really call his role on Cheers a lead. Who else might be up there? Lucille Ball, Raymond Burr, Michael Landon? James Arness? Any others?

DG said...

I don't have any kind of question; I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed listening to the podcast apart from the moments of embarrassment when I'm reminded that I've been mispronouncing your name for years.

Oh wait, I just thought of a question: Do I have to buy a treadmill to get the most of the podcast? Because I've been listening to it while making ice cream, and my listening experience seems to be working well as it is.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Thanks, Ken! I wasn't sure if he was still alive, but it looks like he had people who loved and enjoyed him, while making substantial contributions to humanity. We should all be so lucky to have such a life.

And one more Ted Danson credit: "Himself" on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. I think that work really made me like him, because he seemed pretty game for not being portrayed as perfect.

Jahn Ghalt said...

@ Rockgolf.

That's quite the career Ted Danson has had.

Raymond Burr starred in Perry Mason and Ironside back to back. 1957-1966 and 1967-1975 - 19 years.

James Arness - Gunsmoke - 1955-1975 - 21 years.

Lucille Ball - I Love Lucy (1951-1957), The Lucy Show (1962–68), and Here's Lucy (1968–74) - 20 years, more or less. Add to that The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour which was "a collection of thirteen black-and-white one-hour specials airing from 1957 to 1960."

Michael Landon - Bonanza (1959–73), Little House on the Prairie (1974–83), Highway to Heaven (1984–89) - which looks pretty close to 30 years.

Kelsey Grammer - Frasier (1993-2004), and other short-lived series. 12-13 years (??), if you don't count Cheers.

Does "really big shoe" (Ed Sullivan) count?


For longevity I could only think of Jackie Gleason - The Honeymooners - the "Classic 39" 1955-1956, The Jackie Gleason Show - "the name of a series of American network television shows that starred Jackie Gleason which ran from 1952 to 1970, in various forms" - somewhat less than 20 years altogether.

I had no idea Michael Landon was on anything other than Bonanza and The Tonight Show - but it looks like he takes the prize.

Ramsey said...

I've never commented but love the blog. Been reading for more than six years. Love it. You've asked for info about your readers. I'm 37, married with a 2 and a half year old and one on the way. Live in New Orleans been here ten years, from San Diego. Work in real estate development for myself. Love the insider Hollywood info, huge fan of Cheers, Fraiser, and The Simpsons, and big baseball fan, particularly of your insights as an announcer. I'm sad today, January 20th, for two reasons: one, for our country and this divisive despot who is now president and two, because I can no longer read your blogposts with this yellowish background...why, why change it?! It's awful. There's a reason the New York Times website and all other legit news sites have white background...because the content is what matters and it makes it easy for your audience to read it. Please change it! I love you, Ken, I've bought your books and religiously read your blog...but this punishment is unwarrarented...what did I do to deserve this?!
Ramsey from New Orleans

By Ken Levine said...


I changed the template only because the old one was very limiting. I feel it's important to have my podcast embedded right into the blog to make it as easy as possible for someone to listen. One click and you're there.

I chose the template that came closest to the older one. Actually, a yellow background is generally easier for people to read than white. But I'm always open to feedback, pro or con. I hope you'll stick with it. And again, sorry for the inconvenience.

As for the other reason you're depressed, I'm right there with you.


Ramsey said...

I will give it a chance. I feel like Tony Gwynn just responded to's an honor, and you're fast! Thanks, Ken, I'll try and adapt to the yellow. And I love the thing I would enjoy hearing is some of your more entertaining baseball broadcasts...clips like you've done of your dj work...early stuff would be cool, if you're lucky enough to still have it.
Keep at it, Ken, I really am so pleased you responded and I will remain a fan.

Craig Gustafson said...


The 1960s had Bob Denver:
"The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" - 1959-63
"Gilligan's Island" - 1964-67
"The Good Guys" - 1968-70
The only times he didn't have a series were when he was doing a pilot for the next one.

By Ken Levine said...

Thanks for hanging in, Ramsey. Baseball airchecks will arrive once baseball season starts. Thanks for listening to the podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends. Cheers.


Sherry Niles said...

Dont know the numbers but here are some enduring names: Andy Griffith. Betty White. William Shatner.
Carroll O'Connor. Tim Daly. James Garner. Bill Bixby. Lucille Ball. If soap operas count, Susan Lucci and many others. Heartening to think of how many actors have kept their careers going year after year.

cd1515 said...

Friday Question: is it important when writing comedy that you actually like the character and/or the actor playing it?
if the person's a douche, is there ever a feeling of "why would I want to make THAT person look good?" and maybe give the funnier stuff to someone else in the cast you like better?

Rock Golf said...

@Jahn Gault: James Arness also had a couple of seasons on a surprisingly good Western series called "How The West Was Won". Lucille Ball had one season with the awful "Life With Lucy" when she was old enough that people cringed when she did anything physically comic.

@Sherry Niles: Great suggestions! Bixby in particular with My Favorite Martian, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, The Incredible Hulk, The Magician and Goodnight Beantown.

Andy Griffith had his own show, a terrible series called Salvage One, and Matlock.

Tim Daly sort of snuck up in there: Wings, The Fugitive remake, Eyes, The Nine, Private Practice, and now Madam Secretary.

Tom Galloway said...

Here's one who people don't seem to realize vis a vis longevity; David Boreanaz has been on for a continuous 19 years now; 2 years on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Angel, leading into 5 years as the star of Angel, followed immediately by 12 years of co-lead on Bones. Don't know if he's got anything set up or in the works for next year, as this is Bones' final season.

Kosmo13 said...

Peter Falk played Columbo from 1968 on into the early 2000's and starred in The Trials of O'Brien before that.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Danson is great in THE GOOD PLACE - subtly and gently other-worldly. What's remarkable about his career is the number of very different roles he's succeeded in. Lucille Ball, as great as she was, was a star only as Lucy.

Ramsey: Read the blog via RSS. Then you can choose the colors.


Cat said...

Michael Schur, creator of The Good Place, said the nicest thing about Danson, that he should just be put in the Smithsonian and people can go, "Look, there's Ted Danson!"

Andrew said...

Friday Question: I saw an interview with Dean Norris, in which he said that when he auditioned for Breaking Bad he thought it was a comedy. So that's how he auditioned, and he got the part. My question: Are you aware of any stories like this in reverse?

D. McEwan said...

Carrie Fisher's one-woman show Wishful Drinking is currently on HBO "On Demand."

Johnny Walker said...

Andrew, Mel Brooks tells the story that when legendary singer, Frankie Laine, sang the Blazzing Saddles theme song, he gave it all he had, tears streaming down his face, completely unaware it was a comedy. It worked perfectly.

Ken, I've heard you talk about that writing partnership before. Every time I see a Cheers or MASH credit, I always wonder!

Friday question: When you wrote the Kevin McHale episode of Cheers, how did you (or the Cheers staff) know you'd be able to lift up a section of the basketball court in Boston Garden? It's an important plot point that Woody forgets to put the bolt back in, but how would something like that come about?

Johnny Walker said...

Also, I have to side with those who are struggling with the new shade of yellow. Also the site has some CSS issues when you're looking at it on mobile. Happy to assist if you need it. Would only take a few mins to tweak.

Bob K said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken. Appreciate the insight. And I'm enjoying the podcast as well.

Bob K said...

Thanks, Wendy.

DwWashburn said...

FRIDAY QUESTION -- As a companion question to the one where you mentioned how medical jargon is inserted into MASH scripts, how did you work foreign languages? Since there were so many actors playing Koreans, did they speak real Korean or did they speak a variety of Asian languages when speaking in their "native tongue"?

Ryan from Canada said...

Friday Question: I was recently told a funny joke that had a great payoff. Being a filmmaker I thought immediately after hearing it it would make one helluva short film. Would the film, should I go through with writing/producing, be considered 'adapted' and if so, how do I provide information about the source material my film is based on (the joke)?

Thanks Ken!

Unknown said...

My real dad is Dr Roger Wilcox. I would love to know more about him.

By Ken Levine said...


Email me at