Friday, October 06, 2017

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions, shall we?

Donald Benson gets us started.

Were there ever jokes that had to go because they were TOO funny? Not because of actors' egos or anything like that, but because they broke the pace of a scene or diminished a climax?

I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating.

One of the biggest laughs we ever got on CHEERS was taken out when the show aired. Not that big laughs are so easy to get that it’s no big whoop to just toss one, but in this case we felt it ruined the show. Here’s the backstory.

First season. The episode was called “The Coach’s Daughter” (written by Ken Estin and directed by James Burrows). The Coach’s somewhat plain daughter introduces her fiancĂ© Roy to her dad and the gang at Cheers and he’s a real boorish lout. (He sold flame retardant reversible suits and yet he wasn’t reputable.)

Late in the episode there’s a lovely scene where the Coach has a heart-to-heart with his daughter, Lisa in Sam’s office. It’s clear to everyone (but the Coach of course) that she’s marrying this clown out of insecurity not love. Lisa tells her dad that Roy thinks she’s beautiful. The Coach says, “You are beautiful. You look just like your mother.” It was meant to touch Lisa’s heart.

We were holding our breaths hoping it didn’t get a big gooey “Awwwwwwww!” Instead it got this thunderous laugh. Applause even. Everyone on the stage was stunned. We shot the scene again, thinking this time they’ll see it differently. Nope. Huge laugh the SECOND time.

Still, when we assembled the show we all felt it hurt the scene and ultimately the story. Kudos to the Charles Brothers for being willing to lift the episode’s biggest laugh to preserve the emotional core of the show.

Sometimes jokes can also sacrifice the integrity of your characters -- make them too stupid, too insensitive, etc. When that even becomes a borderline call my vote is to dump the joke. Same with jokes of questionable taste. Take the high road.  Even today. 

As hard as it is to write big jokes, it's always much harder to discard them. But the rewards are greater and you'll like yourself in the morining.

Joe asks a question about Frank Burns:

Do you think, in a way, you and David were lucky that Larry Linville left MASH before you took over as great writers?

Larry Linville was a great actor, but it seemed like the character became more creepy and even disturbing in some Season 5 episodes. The Frank of the first four seasons were great, but I felt the character jumped the shark in Season 5.

And it opened the door for Charles Emerson Winchester, who might have been the best -- and certainly most complex -- character in the show.

I had very mixed feelings. No one made me laugh harder than Larry Linville as Frank Burns in those early “Gelbart” years. We came aboard season five and got to write three episodes with Frank. And it was great fun.

But a fair criticism of the character was that he was too broad and it strained the credibility of the series that someone that dim could be a doctor. So when Larry chose to leave after season five we made a conscious effort to replace him with a character that was the opposite. Charles Winchester was smarter than Hawkeye and BJ, not just a punching bag.

That character was also fun to write and I think it energized the show and created a different chemistry. And 90% of the credit goes to David Ogden Stiers for playing the character so brilliantly.

And finally, from Gary:

When watching NBC's big hit THIS IS US (and enjoying it as much as anyone), I've noticed the show's writers break one of your cardinal rules: they often have the characters delivering long, long speeches during their conversations. The speeches are beautifully written, and the acting is excellent, but once you're aware of it, it seems unrealistic -- these people never say "um...", they never stumble over their words, they never lose their train of thought, etc. It's just total eloquence. Exactly like real life, right? I'm wondering if you've also noticed this, and whether it affects your enjoyment of the show.

This to me is where you can justifiably claim creative license. Paddy Chayefsky’s characters had long speeches, so do Aaron Sorkin’s. Playwrights have employed them for years. They key, as you said, is that they’re beautifully written.

Similarly, in comedies when characters have just the right comeback. Yeah, it’s stylized but I think the audience will overlook that if they appreciate the line.

Actors will sometimes throw in “uh’s” and stumbles and they think that makes them sound more natural. It actually makes them seem like they don’t really know the line.

What’s your Friday Question?

26 comments :

Terrence Moss said...

Re: "This Is Us", I noticed the speeches too, but I love monologues and unlike Sorkin's, they don't come across a speechy.

Rabbi Matt said...

Hi Ken, a Friday question about your podcast.
As the creator of the podcast I'm sure you're privy to the statistics about the number of downloads, the location of listeners, maybe even their age and gender. Any interesting stuff you can share?
I've also wondered how many people read a typical blog post of yours.
Thanks from a regular reader/listener in Australia.

Mitchell Hundred said...

It always mystifies me when an audience laughs at something that's clearly not intended to be funny. I went to a production of Glengarry Glen Ross (one of my favourite plays) a few years ago, and certain sections of the audience seemed to find it incredibly funny. My guess would be that the laughter was out of nervousness and not knowing how to react to a rather vulgar show, but for me it almost ruined the experience.

ReticentRabbit said...

The Cheers story is absolutely worth repeating...I think that's my favorite scene in the whole series. Nick pulls it off with the perfect father's touch, and it never once crossed my mind that the line might be perceived as a joke. It's one of the moments early in Cheers when I felt like I was watching something special, a series that would transcend the normal sitcom.

Fred Nerk said...

Frank Burns in the book, movie and early in the TV show, was not a dimwit or a bad doctor, it seems they took him in that direction simply to get easier laughs and as a punching bag for Hawkeye, thus painting the character into a corner.

Carson Clark said...

You've written before about a good writer does his or her best to service all of the main characters on a show. This made me wonder, was there pressure to write content for Moose, a.k.a. Eddie, on Frasier? Was he treated like a character or more like a prop?

Dana King said...

I remember that CHEERS episode well. One of my favorites and definitely among my top 10 scenes. I'm happy to say I had the response you were looking for. And still do, with a daughter of my own.

Greg Thompson said...

Loved MASH though it always seemed like the new characters were less daring and funny than the characters they replaced.
BJ < Trapper
Potter < Henry
Charles < Frank

Anonymous said...

I think that scene would have deserved a laugh if the Coach had made that comment in a sarcastic manner. But he didn't. He made it out of love towards his daughter who looked like the love of his life. That episode gave me one of my favorite words to describe someone:Pond Scum! Janice B.

tavm said...

Not mentioned: Coach's daughter Lisa was played by Allyce Beasley who also guested on "Taxi" on the same Paramount lot that same season and met her eventual ex-hubby Vincent Schiavelli there. A couple of seasons later, she began her regular role on "Moonlightning" as secretary Agnes DiPesto...

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

The Reason, I think, that Frank Burns lost his mojo is because of Colonel Potter.
With Henry Blake, Frank could represent the Army and its rules and regulations.
Henry would often listen to Frank (and Margaret) because he didn't want to get into any real trouble by crossing any army guidelines

Colonel Potter WAS the Army. Therefore, other than being annoying by being 2nd in command, Frank had no real bite. Potter knew all of the rules.

tavm said...

Fred Nerk, I believe the movie version of Frank Burns was indeed depicted as inept willing to blame something wrong on his assistant which made both Trapper (who punched him after witnessing him berate his associate) and Hawkeye hate him. They got revenge after using the intercom to record Frank and Hot Lips' lovemaking...

RobW said...

Count me in as someone who does NOT want to hear dialogue that mimics the way people speak today, since today a staggering number of people cannot put together a basic sentence. Everything is "I'm like"..." I was like".. "it's like"... and when they lose their train of thought from only knowing 100 words or so, they simply say "like" two or three times until their brains catch up with their thoughts.
Even many people I admire, (Tina Fey, Seth Meyers) do it sometimes, so I know I'm never going to win this one....

Michael said...

I thought Larry Linville was spectacular, but that Frank Burns did, as the show went on, devolve into this incompetent. He was never a great surgeon, but he was certainly able, and it strained credulity finally. I read once that he felt they had done all they could do with his character, and I do think that Charles Emerson Winchester was a worthier adversary. I've always been struck by the scene in the final episode where he honors Potter. David Ogden Stiers worshiped Harry Morgan's acting talents, and somehow that came through to me, too.

Rick said...

"it strained the credibility of the series that someone that dim could be a doctor" One name: Ben Carson. He has crushed the whole -- Brain surgeon must be brilliant -- stereotype.

Gary said...

On MASH it always seemed more unrealistic to me that Henry Blake was such a bumbling, befuddled person but was also an outstanding surgeon.

PJ said...

If this was Facebook I'd give Rick's comment 1000 likes. Then I'd add some laughing til I cry emoji.

Add me to the list of people who still remember that Cheers scene with a catch in my throat.

Arthur Mee said...

I'm confused about the Cheers story. The question (and the story) was about jokes that were cut from finished episodes. But I've seen the Coach's Daughter episode (not for a while I admit), and the joke was in it. So it surely wasn't cut .. was it?

Or was it just the laughter that was cut? Or did the whole thing have to be re-shot?

leemats said...

I think the Cheers scene may have been tweaked a bit. But it was in the episode.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAr7jsr0qZQ

Ken Levine said...

It was the laughter that was cut. Not the line.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Friday Question: Last week's (9/28) episode of The Orville was a complete rip-off of the Star Trek:TOS episode, "For The World is Hollow..." Now, they're not the first sci-fi show to steal from S.T. and they won't be the last. And other shows seem to shamelessly steal plot lines and jokes from movies and other series. As it says in Ecclesiastes, "...there is no new thing under the Sun." So, what is your opinion about shows that use other writers' material? Other than an obvious homage. Have you ever "borrowed" jokes or story lines from other shows. And how do they not get sued for plagiarism?

Douglas Trapasso said...

If I wrote fan-fiction, I would come up with -one- story where Frank pulled rank on Hawkeye over a medical decision - and was proven correct.

Arthur Mee said...

Thanks for the clarification on Coach's Daughter, Ken. It all makes sense now, and I'm glad my memory hasn't gone haywire ... I saw what I thought I saw!

Was there ever any thought of doing a sequel to that episode? It was, after all, a well-regarded classic!

tavm said...

One more note about the "Coach's Daughter" ep of "Cheers": It aired once more on NBC on February 14, 1985, in place of a new scheduled one called "Bar Bet" which aired a few weeks later. This version began with a pic of the actor who played with Ted Danson's voice saying over it-"The episode is dedicated in memory of Nick Colasanto." But since all TV schedule lists printed in newspapers and magazines didn't make the correction for that day, any episode list of "Cheers-including on IMDB where I found this particular date-still erroneously list "Bar Bet" as having aired on that night...

tavm said...

I meant to write "him" between "played" and "with". Also, I forgot to note that Mr. Colasanto had died two days before that ep aired again on February 12, 1985.

B Smith said...

Just adding to Carson Clark's question about writing material for Moose ie Eddie in "Frasier"...was it a case of telling Eddie's trainer what you wanted him to do and have the trainer work on getting him to do it...or did the trainer give you a list of the things Eddie could reliably do, and working material around that list?

(I'm guessing the latter)