Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Servicing actors

But not in the sexual sense.   Sorry. Although you gotta admit, that's great click bait.   

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

marka wondered:

We've been watching Friends and I'm pretty amazed at how well they give all the actors an equal amount of screen time (well, it's not exact but....).

When writing how do you work that out? Do you count lines to make sure that over five episodes it comes out pretty even? Do actors (or their agents!) do that?

What about episodes for secondary, but regular characters - are they decided before the year that Radar will get one episode and Klinger will get two and the other episodes will be "normal?"

Well, first of all we NEVER count lines. Nor would I ever stand for an actor doing that.

But there are generally two ways of approaching this issue. Either make a conscious effort to service every actor in your cast every episode (a la FRIENDS) or let the cast know that some weeks they’ll be heavy and others they’ll be light but it will balance out at the end.

The best way to work in everybody is to do multiple stories in each episode. We call those “B” and sometimes “C” stories. That’s what we did on MASH. There were always at least two stories per episode. And we tried to somehow bring them together at the end. Also, we would tend to pair a dramatic story with a comedic one. Yes, it was tricky.

Another problem with this format is that one of the stories is always not as good as the others. I know FRIENDS writers used to complain about this frequently. They would do three stories per episode and it was like the table where one leg was a little shorter than the others, so you prune the other legs to make it even and now one of the other legs is shorter. That can be maddening and make for long nights in the writers room.

A more recent problem, if your sitcom is on a broadcast network, is that shows are shorter.   We had close to 24 minutes on MASH.  Now it's like 19 or 20.   It's hard for anyone to do multiple stories in that short a time.  

My personal preference was doing one story an episode and preparing the cast that some of them might be light that week. But I also liked the flexibility that some weeks might be one story, some might be more. Someone in the room would come up with a notion for a story and we would try to flesh it out and see how many scenes we got. Rather than padding a story, if we liked it but it would constitute only half a show we would then entertain a “B” story to go along with it.

And here’s another thing: Most actors aren’t that concerned with number of lines. Their primary concern is that when they are on camera they’re doing something that matters. They’d rather have one scene where they bring up a key point or have a great moment than being in four scenes and just asking questions or sitting for five pages with nothing to do. When a character was light one week we always tried to give them at least a big joke or two.

I of course can’t speak for other shows, but on mine the cast was told before the season that there would be some weeks that they might be light but we would focus at least one episode around them.

The hardest to break on CHEERS were the Norm stories – not because George Wendt wasn’t great and could pull off anything we gave him, but because the character of Norm was inherently content with everything. The best stories come from characters who desperately want something and can’t get it. Norm was quite happy to sit at the bar all day. His marriage seemed okay (at least for them), he didn’t have kids, and he was never ambitious. So there was not a lot to draw from.

On MASH it was easy because no one wanted to be there. They all shared at least that. We could also give any one of them long distance problems back home and we could throw war-related complications at them. We couldn’t just park Norm at the bar in the Officer’s Club.

And finally, let me say that of all the series that did multiple episodes as a rule, no one did the form better than FRIENDS in my estimation. I still enjoy those shows and wonder how many nights those writers were there until the sun came up. But the results were damn impressive.

24 comments :

Curt Alliaume said...

This was one of the problems with the recent Odd Couple revival. On the original, for the most part there were no B stories - if Myrna or Murray couldn't be worked into the story, they weren't in that episode. But the CBS version had three regulars beside Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon, plus a host of recurring characters, so B (and sometimes C) stories had to be created to accommodate all of them. The end result was that Oscar and Felix sometimes didn't have a lot of interaction - which worked against the original concept.

Joe said...

Sometimes it felt like Frasier went long stretches where Roz didn't have much to do. She obviously had some big stories as it went along, but I seem to remember large chunks of episodes where she would be in the opening scene, then maybe have a line or two more later, if not left out of the main story from there.

Also, Ken, do you watch "Ray Donovan" on Showtime? I like the Lena character but she is massively underused. For four years, she appears in one or two scenes each episode, has about ten lines, and that's it.

Elf said...

I wonder what Ken would think of Phineas & Ferb, a Disney Channel cartoon series now sadly out of production. Most half hours contain two ten-minute episodes, each with three parallel stories that intersect at the end, plus there's an original song in each episode as well. The fact that it's a cartoon certainly allows for faster pacing, and the show is intentionally formulaic. But in each typical episode the A) two brothers and their friends create some fantastic and/or impossible creation, B) their sister attempts to catch them in the act and prove to their mother (who never sees the creations) that she's not crazy, and C) the boys' pet platypus, who's really a secret agent, faces off against the evil scientist using some device to try to take over the area, who's not really evil but just had an incredibly traumatic childhood.

The jokes are rapid-fire and do not insult young kids' intelligence. The creators said that if a joke goes over a kid's head, just wait ten seconds and there'll be another.

Stephen Robinson said...

To @Joe's point, it felt to me that FRASIER early on discovered it was more a show about family than a workplace comedy. The dynamic between Martin and his sons and between Frasier and Niles was far more compelling. This complicated matters for Roz because she wasn't family -- and frankly, I thought it was a stretch to make her and Frasier friends. They might work well as colleagues but I couldn't see them socializing.

CHEERS obviously couldn't work without Cheers, and I doubt it would have been the same if Sam ran a restaurant with Diane and Carla as his waitresses and Coach/Woody as short order cooks. Yet I do wonder if FRASIER could have still be FRASIER if he'd just had a private psychiatric practice and everything else remained the same. (I do have a vague memory -- that is perhaps flawed -- of this being avoided intentionally because the creators wanted to avoid a BOB NEWHART setup)

Matt said...

I thought I heard that Wayne Rogers left MASH because he did not think his character was being serviced well enough. He thought Trapper was becoming a secondary character tomHawjeye, is that accurate?

jean satzer said...

I just watched a Thomas Gibson free episode of Criminal Minds and line counting came into my head. They LITERALLY had multiple scenes where all the main characters spoke one line after the other, after the other. First scene, at the police station, describing the unsub they were lined up, leaning against a long table. Guy one...the unsub is clearly acting out. Second guy...he will be getting frustrated, and will escalate to murder. Third guy...yada. To my ear, it sounded like a normal talk the head character would say to the police, with the others chiming in as needed. But for some reason they divvied it up and turned these characters into talking heads. It was very strange. And then they proceeded to do the same bad writing split in a car, twice.

Gary said...

Curt, you absolutely nailed what was wrong with the recent revival of The Odd Couple. In the original, all the best episodes were when Klugman and Randall were forced into a situation where they had to interact, and the sparks flew. The new version had none of that. There were episodes where Felix and Oscar were barely together. Plus, it often felt like Thomas Lennon was trying to play Felix more like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory.

Richard said...

Friday Question related to Actors.

Ken, have you ever helped a friend or an acquaintance or anybody who asked for your help, get a gig (atleast a walk-on part) in one of the TV series that you have worked on?

I know casting director took care of all the casting, but being a writer have you used your influence to get a small part for anyone who sought your help?

Donald Benson said...

Actually, Roz seems to bond with working-class Martin and Daphne, becoming part of that circle that Frasier and Niles constantly tried to relate to. Recall an interview where John Mahoney said he'd been promoting the idea of a Roz-Martin romance to the writers.

Never happened, but there was a scene where Niles found Martin and Roz in the coffee place (this was when Roz and Niles were constantly sniping). After Niles ventures a joke, Roz cracks they're getting married and she'll be Niles's new mother.

"Well. I'll be a son of a b****."

Donald Benson said...

What about "Fan Service" (or perhaps "Network Service")?

Were there ever not-primarily-story-driven decisions to get female leads (or male leads, for that matter) into racy costumes or situations; to let a character indulge in the actor's known specialty ("We need a Broadway-level singer-dancer to fill in at the talent show ..."); or to reference off-camera connections (Jane Curtin spotting Conehead cosplayers on "Third Rock From the Sun"; Candace Bergen harassing real-life husband Louis Malle on "Murphy Brown")?

The original "Star Trek" offered Kirk and Uhura AND Spock and Nurse Chapel necking -- but against their will, so it didn't disrupt the status quo. In other episodes Kirk and even Spock were put under spells or drugs or whatever that allowed them to get temporarily romantic. But not with each other -- that had to wait for the Internet (and that one movie moment: "Please, Captain. Not in front of the Klingons.").

Jahn Ghalt said...

if a joke goes over a kid's head, just wait ten seconds and there'll be another.

Clearly Bullwinkle was not "written for kids", but as an early teen, I could tell that there was a lot of satire (criticism) in that show that the others did not have.

powers said...

William Shatner counted lines when doing Star Trek:TOS.

Mark said...

I remember Jack Elam telling a story about counting lines (I believe on the Tonight Show). It was getting far enough in his career to start turning down roles that were too small. One day he got a script that looked promising but the part had too few lines.

The film was Shane and the role went to Jack Palance.

Tommy Raiko said...

"We couldn’t just park Norm at the bar in the Officer’s Club."

Well, not unless there was a pool table there and you bet him if he could put the whole 8-ball in his mouth... :)

MikeN said...

Servicing Actors, you claim to mean something different, but what is Courtney doing?

Counting lines- Michael Caine says he looks at a script to see if he has a line in the first page and the last page.

Terrence Moss said...

Reportedly, Bill Frawley used to actually complain about the number of lines he had -- if he thought he had too many in an episode of "I Love Lucy".

Buttermilk Sky said...

Alan Alda and Mike Farrell wrote and/or directed several episodes of MASH. Have you ever had to deal with stars who thought they possessed these skills but were simply mistaken? That must be a tough meeting to take.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

jean satzer said...
I just watched a Thomas Gibson free episode of Criminal Minds and line counting came into my head. They LITERALLY had multiple scenes where all the main characters spoke one line after the other, after the other.


Jean, if you watch any procedural show it's the same. Basically they take an explanation paragraph and give each character 1 line (or part of a line).
NCIS, Criminal Minds, SVU, Elementary, etc.

This way it seems that everyone is involved and an expert.

Jack Terwilliger said...

Friday Question: Preposition proposition: Why do television writers say they write "on a show" rather than "for a show"?

Roseann said...

Does anyone who wrote FRIENDS read this blog? Make yourself known and let Ken in on your secrets....

Donald Benson said...

In his book on acting, Caine noted that sometimes a scene was clearly dominated by another character. As a star, he'd be grateful because it meant a day where somebody else carried the heaviest weight and he could breathe a bit.

Isaac said...

Criminal Minds has always had "one line per character" briefings of the local authorities since the start. It sticks out because not only is it unrealistic, but it is just impossible to be that way in real world unless the briefing was scripted, so it blatantly breaks the fourth wall.

Joe Blow said...

I must say the most surprising comment I've ever seen on this blog is the one asking the writers of another sitcom to let Ken in on their secrets! I really don't think the writer/showrunner for CHEERS needs tips from the writers of FRIENDS (excellent though it was). Very strange request.

Mike Doran said...

The best "counting lines" story I ever read was about Steven Hill, when he was playing the boss DA on Law & Order.
What Hill would ask for was his lines to be taken out - he wanted to say less and less each week.
I've heard the story (true or not?) that in all his ten seasons on L&O, Steven Hill actually had fewer lines and scenes than he had during the single season that he had the lead in Mission: Impossible - but that's another story ...