Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday Questions

More Friday Questions to launch you into the weekend.

Craig leads off:

Have you got any advice for people living outside of the US on how to break in to TV writing?

That’s a tough one, especially if you don’t plan to come to the US until you’ve sold something. Producers and agents and showrunners and studios want access to the writer. 

There are contests and fellowships you can enter. Professors you might have or working professionals in whatever country you’re in might have stateside connections. A little networking can ease things.

But I’ll be honest: it’s hard to break in even if you live under the Hollywood sign. So to live out of the country, that’s a Herculean task.

Best of luck.

Edward asks:

Can you do a "Friday Questions" podcast as a regular week-ending episode?

The problem is length. I try to hold down my weekly podcast to 40 minutes or less. Ideally, they go a half-hour. So depending on the topic or guest, I often eat up 30 minutes very quickly. And some weeks I have commercials. So I like to squeeze in listener questions when I can. But that’s usually when that week’s content takes up only about 20 minutes.

I will, however, try to squeeze in more listener questions in the future.

Thanks for listening. For everyone else, just click the big gold arrow below the masthead and the podcast comes right up. Please subscribe.

From Ben K:

What happens when a particularly memorable line or catch phrase from a show becomes famous on its own? Is there ever a battle for credit, given that the listed writer(s) of an episode often don't come up with every line?

Normally not. There’s no royalty in a catch-phrase.  Plus, they become catch-phrases either over time or by accident.  No one sets out to "create" a catch-phrase.  

That said, the big catch-phrase from HAPPY DAYS was “sit on it.” Two different writers claim they coined it – Bob Brunner and Mark Rothman.

I was never on the show. I have no idea who’s right.

I’m not a fan of catch-phrases on sitcoms. They make the show sound very formulaic. And the writers twist stories and dialogue around in order to get to them.

I like stories that come out of characters and laughs that stem from attitude and behavior. I never want to feel I have to shoehorn catch-phrases into my dialogue.

There was a show a few years ago called HAPPY ENDINGS that became just a string of catch-phrases. It got to the point where you could write their scripts with “Mad Libs.”

And finally, from Jack Terwilliger:

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

Because that’s just the accepted expression. But you’re right. We could just as easily say “for” instead of “on.”

Either makes sense. As opposed to in baseball when announcers say a hitter is 1 for 3 “on” the night, which is grammatically incorrect. In that case it should be “for the night.”

But getting back to your example: hey, this is a town where we “do” lunch not “have” lunch. So nothing makes sense.

I hope that clears it up for you.

What’s your Friday Question?

40 comments :

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Catch phrases probably work best on shows that are performed in front of a studio audience.
The audience reactions to "Did I Do That?" from Urkle or "Kiss My Grits" from Flo, or anything said or done by a Sweathog, a case in point.

Then again, there's no audience when Homer Simpson says, "Mmmm" or "D'oh!"

Catchprases usually last a short period of time before 'fatigue' of the joke sets in.
Saturday Night Live will usually beat a character's catch phrase to death.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

One more note on a catch phrase...
If the phrase is NOT said... I wonder if the viewing audience would come away feeling unsatisfied.

Cases in point:
What if a James Bond movie didn't have, "Bond...James Bond"?
Or a Hawaii Five-0 (the old one) didn't have "Book em Danno"?
Or Ed McMahon didn't say, "Heeeeeeeeeeeeer's Johnny!"

Er said...

No need to have such short podcasts. Most of my favorites are longer, at least 60-70 minutes and some even more than that.

Mike Barer said...

When I think of catch phrases, I think of Wall Street and Top Gun, both released at around the same time. You could recite any sentence for either of those films and people would know where it was from.

Terrence Moss said...

"Good Times" is the most frustrating example of a catchphrase taking over a show. By a certain point, it was so obvious that they were trying to squeeze in a certain number of "Dy-No-Mites" per episode.

Tom said...

Now I'm imagining the writers sitting around desperately at 02:00 thinking "this stuff is all great, but how can we ensure that Lucy ends up having to do some explaining?"

William Kelliher said...

Ken, I happened to catch the M*A*S*H episode "House Arrest" last weekend and afterwards did some online reading about it. One of the comments was that it was the episode that caused both McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers to decide to leave the show. They felt that the show had become too Hawkeye centric.

Hawkeyes character was in the wrong. He was harassing Major Houlihan and he did strike an officer (Major Burns) and he's then rewarded with steak and movie night in his tent. In the end he gets away with everything because Trapper and Hot Lips lie for him.

Is it true that it caused Stevenson and Rogers to leave? Was the show really becoming too Hawkeye centric? Did the writers try to balance out the character stories more evenly in the latter seasons? Is it possible to keep things even handed in a show with an ensemble cast?

Doofus said...

Uh...and taking meetings and giving notes.

Michael said...

Mr. Kelliher, I'd appreciate hearing from Ken on this, too, because I had read that Rogers felt that was the problem--yet he and Alda remained lifelong friends--but that Stevenson's departure had more to do with what he felt was poor treatment of the entire cast from 20th Century Fox and that his own career was going wild.

A note on catch phrases. There was a radio comedian, Jack Pearl, whose character Baron Munchausen would always say, "Vass you dere, Charlie?" Jack Benny once told him he should hold off on the line for a couple of weeks so it would hit even harder and Pearl said he couldn't because that's what people tuned in to hear. Pearl isn't exactly well remembered today for that reason.

By contrast, Benny was very careful about running gags. We think of the Maxwell, the vault, the train conductor, but all of them showed up only now and then. The running gags were about him, and they were part of the character he played.

Mike Doran said...

The story I've always heard/read is that McLean Stevenson's departure was due to NBC's waving a lucrative contract at him, which included the possibility of Stevenson's getting Tonight when/if Johnny Carson made good on his latest threat to leave.
Accounts of how Stevenson lost control of his ego when MASH broke through (something that apparently never happened with Wayne Rogers) are also widespread.

"All I know is what I read in the papers."
- Will Rogers.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

MASH didn't have a recurring catchphrase except possibly Radar saying "Choppers"
Not sure if you could eliminate the need for choppers.

Unkystan said...

Actors are in movies...but are on TV.

Pete Grossman said...

Re: Prepositions. Always reminded that we in New York stand ON line, instead of IN line.

John Hammes said...

Blogger The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

MASH didn't have a recurring catchphrase except possibly Radar saying "Choppers"


That, and "meatball surgery" come to mind.

ADmin said...

Do I remember this right or did you used to hold a comedy writing class? Anyway, it leads me to a probably old question: Can you really teach comedy writing? I mean, I assume you have to have the talent first, right? Kinda like in sports?

Andrew said...

I usually find catchphrases to be incredibly annoying, especially the way the audience bursts into laughter and applause. How contrived can you get? Is "Kiss my grits!" really that funny? Even after 100 times? What are you applauding for? Are your lives really that empty?

But I admit sometimes they work. If I had to pick a favorite it would be Fred Sanford's "I'm coming, Elizabeth!"

What I find much more interesting are catchphrases that get associated with a character actor who brings it with him/her on different shows. Example: "Yes, may I help you?" (or just a long "Yes?") from Frank Nelson.

The way the show EXTRAS treated a catchphrase was very funny:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uj_vBsZFo_8

amateur linguist said...

When it comes to prepositions for intangible concepts (as opposed to objects), there's usually no right or wrong grammatically. It's mostly just cultural convention. We say "Call me at 555-2032," the British will say, "Call me on 555-2032." Why do we say "I will see you in August" but "I will see you on Monday"? I work for a company, I work at a company. It's just how we have collectively decide to speak, no rule.

Unknown said...

It is funny you mention Happy Days for catch phrases. They attempted to get every character a catch phrase, Hubba Hubba Hubba, I found my thrill..., Hotcha cha cha chaaa, Eyyyy, Oh Howard, yup yup yup, and a few more. I'm sure they had to pack in extra time in the script for the screams when fonzi came in.
This rubbed off onto it's spin off of Lavern and Shirley, Heelllloooo, I went from rags to riches... Let's not forget Mork and Mindy, Naano Naano
SNL tries to top that every season, some player wants fame and fortune with a catch phrase, or character that can be spun off to a movie.

Oh, I'm listening....

Claire said...


You can answer as a Friday question or as a post.

Another woman has come forward and talked about Roman Polanski sexually abusing her when she was 16, in yesterday's papers.

In 2009, when almost entire Hollywood was sign petitions and defending Polanski's rape, by saying he should not be punished as he was a "great Oscar winning director", "artist" or other reasons, you were silent about the issue on your blog. Subsequently too, you have never broached the subject.

Are you scared like other Hollywood people that the 'powers that be' and other insiders will boycott you, if you speak against him? Very few Hollywood people have spoken against him for the fear of losing opportunities to work.


Ken said...

I Love Lucy rarely used the "splaining" word. The closest thing they had to a catch phrase was Lucy's spider face/sound, and even that was used sparingly.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Fred Sanford calling for Elizabeth - that's a good one. It got so he didn't have to say it - just stagger, one hand to chest, the other extended.

I watch a few Sanford and Sons recently and enjoyed them enough to not change the channel. Thing is, the writing was not that great, but the actors really sold the lines - I liked them and that was enough.

NNEC said...

Claire: a simple google search on Ken Levine and Roman Polanski would have removed the need for your fairly insulting and rather trollish post...

Pete Grossman said...

Then of course there's Joey's catch phrase from Friends. Anyone reading this knows it. (I probably didn't even have to say "Friends.")

Yossi Mandel said...

Writing "on a show" might date back to when people reared in Yiddish-speaking homes were common in Hollywood. I can easily see Ben Hecht saying he's writing on a show. "Writing for a show" would sound wrong to such ears.

Peter said...

What you talkin' 'bout, Ken? I pity the fool who don't like catchphrases! They can kiss my grits and eat my shorts!

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

I have to agree with William Kelliher. I love M*A*S*H but the "House Arrest" episode is by far one of the worst of the whole series. It seemed to me like the entire plot was built around hatred for Frank, who was already a pathetic character to begin with. In fact I'm surprised Linville stuck around as long as he did, after that episode got produced.

Andy Rose said...

One thing about catch phrases in radio -- and particularly on Benny's show -- is that they were often used at the beginning of a character's appearance to help the home audience recognize the person immediately. The moment Frank Nelson said, "Y-essssssss?????" you immediately knew who it was and what his character was all about, even though you couldn't see him.

There seems to be a fine line -- especially in "smart" comedies -- between callbacks and catch phrases. I was a big fan of Arrested Development, and I enjoyed the way they would sprinkle references to past episodes throughout the show. But some of those references (particularly things that Gob said) turned into catch phrases, and they started to get pretty forced by the end of the third season.

Al in PDX said...

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fans will remember Crow T. Robot's attempt to construct a catch phrase, a wonderful spoof of what lengths some shows go to.
"You know you want me, baby!"

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I would have thought the best way for a non-US writer to break into the US market was to conceive and write a show for local outlets that Hollywood then wants to buy and remake - and make coming with the show a condition of the sale. HOMElAND was based on an Israeli show; THE OFFICE, THREE'S COMPANY, ALL IN THE FAMILY, and so countless many more were remakes of British shows; UGLY BETTY was based on a telenovela from...I forget the country; etc. etc.

wg

Douglas Trapasso said...

Memo to Claire:

Afraid to work for/with someone who only makes a movie every five years?

Memo to everyone else:

"NORM"!

Claire said...


@ NNEC - Google search gives link to posts where readers have commented on the issue, not Ken's opinion. Maybe you should have had the sense to open the search results and read rather than calling someone troll.

@ Douglas Trapasso - Read my comment again and understand what I am saying. I am talking of people being scared to speak AGAINST Polanski for the fear of losing opportunities to work in Hollywood.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Good answer Wendy

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Douglas, "norm!" Wasn't just a catchphrase. It had two purposes: 1) to set up and provide the call and response joke that followed and 2) to prove CHEERS was a place that everybody knows your name. 🙂

Steve Bailey said...

Whenever you have David Isaacs on your podcast again, I hope you'll ask him why he thinks "Seinfeld's" George Costanza is so worthy of encyclopedic analysis. He's a funny character on a funny show, but he doesn't seem like one for the ages.

Ralph C. said...

"We're all out of toner!"

Ralph C. said...

My catchphrase: "It's time to take out the chili!"

ScottyB said...

>>I’m not a fan of catch-phrases on sitcoms. They make the show sound very formulaic.<< I still can't hear "Dy-no-mite!!" and "Did I do that???" without throwing up in my mouth a little.

Melissa Agar said...

I have a Friday question....

I recently happened to catch an episode of Cheers written by Levine and Isaacs and directed by James Burrows. I thought to myself, "Wow. This is a Rolls Royce episode." Which leads to my question ... what sort of input is had in determining who directs whose episodes or who writes whose episodes? Do writers have the opportunity to request a specific director or vice versa? Or is it all just luck of the draw and who is available?

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,

I'm pretty sure you're a fan of the show Episodes. Just read an article about Matt LeBlanc turning down a spot in Modern Family. In the story was this quote about Episodes.

"Things seem to have worked out in everyone’s favour as LeBlanc went on to star in the series Episodes, where he plays an exaggerated version of himself in an even more exaggerated show business setting."

Was just wondering on your thoughts about the part were it states "an even more exaggerated show business setting"?

From the stories you and others have told, it doesn't seem that far fetched or exaggerated.
cheers
David

Neumms said...

Potential Friday Question: Ken, have you watched "Documentary Now" and if so, what do you think? It doesn't seem like there's much good satire at present, and I enjoy it. But it might be that they're dealing with obscure stuff, the same kick of watching Dennis Miller (years ago).