Friday, June 01, 2018

Friday Questions

Wow. It’s June already. Let’s celebrate with Friday Questions.

Bruce starts us off.

Did you or David Isaacs or Larry Gelbart ever think about doing a MASH sequel set in "real time"?

For example, 15 years after Korea and 15 years after it went off the air, Hawkeye and BJ are physicians at a Free Clinic in the Bay Area.

David and I never did. And I suspect Larry never did either. However, 20th Century Fox did mount a one-hour “Trapper John M.D.” series in the late ‘70s that was essentially what you pitched. It starred Pernell Roberts and was essentially a drama. By the way, one of the producers was Don Brinkley. You may have heard of his daughter, Christie.

From -30-

I recently came across your ex-partner Jon Miller's impression of Vin Scully. Pitch perfect, so to speak. And Miller does Vinny doing a Farmer John commercial in Spanish. Ole my gosh!

Did Vin like people doing him? Famous people can be a little thin skinned about that sort of thing. I know Carson didn't like Rich Little too-accurate version of Johnny.

I never asked Vin, but I get the feeling he did like Jon’s impression because it was so good and so affectionate.

At one time when my partner, David Isaacs and I had an office at Paramount I got Jon to record our voicemail greeting as Vin Scully. It was hilarious.

One day I’m listening back to the messages, I hear a little laugh and then “You’ll hear from my lawyers.” It was obviously Vin who clearly was a good sport about it.

Mike Bloodworth asks:

As a writer, how do you feel about the movies that tout that their actors IMPROVISE many of their lines? Judd Apatow is one example. Do you think its because the writer's aren't up to the task of writing enough funny lines to fill an entire script? Do they honestly believe the product is better because of the improvisation?

Based on the "deleted scenes" and "outtakes" I've seen that's not necessarily the case. My personal peeve is that a lot of these actors aren't trained in improv. It kind of cheapens what we do. Just curious.

It does cheapen what writers do. Does anyone believe that Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond’s SOME LIKE IT HOT would be better if Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were allowed to improvise?

That said, I come from a different era where we took pride in making our screenplays as polished and funny as we could make them. Actors were hired because they were the best ACTORS, not because they also spent time in the Groundlings.

But now screenplays are just blueprints, and directors like Judd Apatow allow actors to improvise and sometimes that results in magic. Sometimes the improvisation adds a sparkle the screenplay didn’t have. But it also results in loose narratives and it’s not a coincidence that Apatow’s movies, although generally very funny, are always too long. And the length (at least to me) cancels out the benefits of the better improvised lines.

And finally, from Mike Miller:

Another question for you-what did you think of "Brockmire"?

I love BROCKMIRE. I’m enjoying season two even more than season one. Of course it helps that I know guys like Brockmire. And Hank Azaria’s portrayal is scary dead-on.

What’s your Friday Question?

36 comments :

Steve Bailey said...

I remember that when "Trapper John M.D." premiered, Alan Alda said he thought Fox would have been better off doing a regular doctor show rather than tying it to a gimmick. I agree. After the first episode, the survivor-of-a-war angle was hardly touched.

John in NE Ohio said...

RE:improv lines

I've read that Bob Hope used to have his own writers punch up his parts (esp the "Road" movies) to get the jokes in. To some extent, isn't that the same thing? The only big difference I see is that it is more respectful to the rest of the cast and crew in that they don't have to participate in a brainstorming session.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Yikes! I think Apatow likes to gives his actors (who are very often his friends) a lot of credit by making those comments. Also means he doesn't want to be a bad guy by editing out their improvised lines.

sometimes there are great, improved scenes/lines/actions that do make a movie:
HEREEEE'S JOHNNY!
You Talking to me?
"Hey, I'm walking here!"
Bill Murray's scenes in Caddyshack (The Cinderella story) or Tootsie

but they are far and few between..

Brian Phillips said...

Speaking of someone that was thin-skinned about references to himself, dig this:

Candid Camera, at one time featured Allen Funt and his co-host, Durward Kirby. On the "Rocky and His Friends" show, one plot line featured characters looking for the "Kurward Derby", which would make the wearer the smartest person in the world. From the depths of a person who probably got teased about his distinctive name, Kirby threatened a lawsuit against the show. The creator, Jay Ward, after being surprised, asked Kirby to go ahead, because it would help the show's ratings. When Kirby realized that this could be a possible outcome, he dropped the idea.

J Lee said...

Seems like improvising carries the same assets/liabilities as writing while intoxicated -- your altered state might open up a path of new creativity that writing while sober might not have found, but you still have to go back and look at what you did the next day when you're back in a sober state, because that's how most of the audience is going to be reading/looking at your work, and what may have seemed inspired last night is in reality a piece of crap in the morning. With improv, the cast might do a scene that people enjoy at the moment it happens, but someone needs to look at it a day later to see if it's still funny on its own, and not simply due to the spontaneity of the moment that made it seem funnier than it actually is (Will Ferrell movies tend to have the same problems, where sometimes the improve stuff works and others it just stops the story dead in its tracks for two minutes of schtick).

Friday question -- when you were starting out on MASH, did you buttonhole any of the veteran writers who worked on the show (some with credits dating back to radio days) on how they handled script problems or how they worked with a writing partner?

Janet Ybarra said...

Ken, what is your opinion of TRAPPER JOHN MD? I personally never got into it because, to me, the Pernell Roberts portrayal never squared with the Trapper John we were introduced to on MASH.

E. Yarber said...

Wilder's a good example for your argument on free-range performance because he was a stickler for refusing to allow his casts to deviate even a word of two from the written script. He did allow Jack Lemmon some room for physical improvisation in THE APARTMENT, as in the famous scene where Lemmon uses a tennis racket to strain spaghetti, but that trust came out of the director's previous experience working with him.

Maybe Wilder had reason to draw a line in the sand. Some actors seem to regard the writer as an adversary. I once worked with one who was in the "I didn't succeed in acting, so I'll settle for writing," mindset. She refused to punctuate her dialogue properly to the extent of not putting question marks at the end of questions. "I don't want to influence how the actor accentuates the line," she told me. I couldn't get her to see that putting "What do you mean by that" on the page looked to a reader like someone who had no idea what they were doing. Of course, that was in fact the case.

One factor that may have hurt THE HONEYMOONERS at the Emmys could very well have been Jackie Gleason's disinterest in following the script, which would look far sloppier to industry professionals than Phil Silvers' meticulous preparation. Gleason was a fantastic actor and could blow you away with his restraint in a film like THE HUSTLER (which was about a restrained character), but he possibly trusted his ability TOO much most of the time, opting for energy at the expense of detail.

John Cassavettes, on the other hand, is typically cited as a director who had his actors wing everything, when in fact most of his films were very tightly scripted. His process in working with the cast was unusual, however, forcing them into a spontaneity that looked seemingly unrehearsed.

Mike Schlesinger said...

Regarding improv: It's not a hard and fast rule, at least for me. On the Biffle and Shooster shorts--now available on DVD!--I specifically earmarked places in the scripts where the stars could ad-lib. And if the other actors occasionally tweaked a line and made it better, that was fine as well. Finally, in one instance an actor made a mistake, but the others in the scene picked up the ball and ran with it, and I ended up using it. So my belief is that it's okay if it doesn't derail the story and your actors are talented enough to improve what you've written.

Glenn Eibe said...

I always imagined that if I met Mel Brooks someday, I would try to say something to make him laugh (who wouldn’t?). My best thought was to introduce myself as some kind of journalist who then inquires “Mr. Brooks, your career held such promise – what HAPPENED?!?” Hopefully he would find this amusing, or he might just turn around to his entourage and say “Take care of him boys”.

The Friday question (at last) – who else comparable to Brooks do you think could appreciate the humorous attempt in such a question? Scores of other people might launch into a detailed defense of their life’s work – I am guessing the likes of Brooks, Reiner or Persky would have a laugh.

VincentS said...

As an actor and a writer I feel the best results - "magic," if you will - occur when an actor improvises WITHIN the structure of the scene - adding a funny gesture, emphasizing a word in a line that's not normally emphasized in a way that still makes sense, the actor who is not talking reacting in an inventive way, etc. In the expanded version of his companion book to his famous ACTING IN FILM video, Michael Caine tells a great story (among many): When he and Maggie Smith were going to do CALIFORNIA SUITE Neil Simon said to them, "If you don't like the lines, change them." Then he started to walk away and then turned back and said to them, "But if you do that, whatever you come up with had better be as funny as what I wrote." Needless to say, they stuck to the script!

blinky said...

You were partners with Jon Miller? Thats awesome. I did not know that. I always enjoy his Giants coverage. The Kuip and Krukow team are a bit too folksy for me. Jon is as close as we will get to Vin Scully.

Ray Barrington said...

Bringing two questions together - I'd love to know how much of what Hank Azaria does on Brockmeier is off-script. I love the character but not the rest of the show and when Azaria does the character outside the show as he has done on ESPN I fall down laughing.

Brian Phillips said...

What are some longest laughs from the studio audience that came from a Levine and Isaacs script?

Covarr said...

One nice thing about being both writer and director, as Judd Apatow frequently is, is that you know your own script well enough to know when ad-libs and improv are appropriate and when they aren't. There's the additional benefit that there's fewer concerns with regards to how much is allowed to be changed. From what I've read (someone correct me if I'm wrong), this can vary wildly depending on the contractual obligations to the producers, the studio, and the screenwriter.

Last year, when I was directing a play I co-wrote, I told my cast that they were free to some level of improvisation for the first few weeks of rehearsals. If they wanted to try new lines and jokes that weren't in the original script, they were welcome to as long as it was just a line or two at a time, didn't veer too far off the course of the story or out of character, and could cue properly back into the script as written. As a first-time writer, I didn't want to be so presumptuous as to think my writing was perfect, so I was definitely open to input. And as director, I was open to ignore that input if it wasn't good.

Then a few weeks out, I locked the show so to speak, told the cast that any changes I'd already approved could stay, but no more new ad-libs or suggestions. Absolutely necessary for tightening up line memorization and delivery at that point.

It kinda makes me wonder just how much improv Judd Apatow actually allows, and how often he asks the actors to stick to the script as-written. Clearly, based on his consistent critical and box office success, he has found a balance that works. But, as you mentioned, it does lead to loose flowing movies and long runtimes. I'm curious to see how he'd do with less improv (not none, just less), and tighter editing.

Jon H said...

While TRAPPER JOHN, MD had little to do with MASH after the premiere episode, it did provide enough of a hook to encourage viewers to sample the show. Also Trapper's coworker, Gonzo Gates, had served as a MASH doctor in Vietnam, so there was another hook there. If the show had just been Pernell Roberts playing a doctor, it may not have lasted more than one season.

Jim, UK said...

Friday question- what is your experience of trying to pitch films/shows that were completely different to anything you'd done before?

I read an old George Romero interview where he talked of pitching multiple ideas across multiple genres to producers often to be rejected but told to come back if he wanted to make another zombie film. How much would your CV count for you/against if you wanted to get a big budget zombie film made? Has the reverse happened, a film producer or showrunner asking you to write for something that might be successful but just wasn't a genre/style you wanted to be involved in? I hear World War Z had an awful lot of rewrites...

David C. said...

I don't remember TRAPPER JOHN very well, but it ran from 1979 to 1986, so it must have been popular.

Wikipedia recounts an interesting legal battle concerning TRAPPER JOHN, which I will copy below:

Legally, the show is considered a spin-off of the original motion picture, MASH, rather than the television series M*A*S*H. This is due to a court case in which the producers of the television series sought royalty payments on the grounds that Trapper John, M.D. was a spin-off of their series. The court found, however, that the series was a spin-off of the original movie – itself an adaptation of Richard Hooker's MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. As a result, the producers of the M*A*S*H series did not receive any royalties from Trapper John, M.D., with the common threads being 20th Century Fox Television as producers of both the M*A*S*H television series and Trapper John, M.D., and the movie studio in general producing both series and the film MASH.

Andy Rose said...

Speaking of creator/developer credits and Trapper John M.D. in consecutive weeks, could you shed a little light on the lawsuit that was filed before that show started? Brinkley famously argued that TJMD was a spinoff of the MASH movie, not the M*A*S*H sitcom, and the court wound up agreeing. But I've never been clear on exactly whom Fox was trying to avoid paying by making that argument. Gelbart? Reynolds? You and David? Any insight?

@Glenn Elbe: Just after he retired from his talk show, David Letterman made his annual trip to Indianapolis for the Indy 500. One of his first post-retirement interviews wound up being with a local station, WXIN. After collaring Letterman in the pits and convincing him to go on camera, the reporter started his interview with: "Can you give me your name and spell it for me, please?" Dave's mouth was agape for about a half-second, then realized he was being had and laughed loudly. You could tell it thrilled the reporter that he got a laugh out of Dave.

Gregg said...

I heard an Armed Forces Radio broadcast from World War 2 once, which featured a sketch pairing ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy with legendary comedian W.C. Fields. At one point, Fields, failing to come in where he was supposed to, answers Bergen's query as to the problem with, "I had a page of ad-libs stuck in here and now I can't find it." The audience was delighted.

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, on their ROAD pictures, were notorious for ad-libbing and wandering far afield of the script. Their female co-star, Dorothy Lamour, was at first driven nearly to tears by this, waiting for cues that got completely lost in Crosby and Hope's tete-a-tetes. One of Hope's writers finally told her to stop waiting for cues. When she thought the boys had gone on long enough, he advised her, she should simply inject her scripted line and let Hope and Crosby worry about getting the conversation back to the script.

Kaleberg said...

Improvisation is overrated. I think it was John Kenneth Galbraith who said “the treasured note of spontaneity critics find in my writing comes in between the seventh and eighth draft.”

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

Hello yet again Ken. I'm chatty this week... ;-)

As you said, Trapper John MD was mostly a drama... but it could still be funny when the writers wanted it to be. As I recall the show, TJ and his young sidekick had to deal with a not-horrible but somewhat Frank Burns-y clueless hospital administrator.

One joke that sticks in my memory was when this admin was having a friendly chat with TJ about something, and mentioned he believed human anatomy would make a great basis for... a public amusement park. "Maybe a roller coaster ride could be designed based on the alimentary canal," he opined.

TJ deadpanned back, "Yup. Wait 'til you get to the big finish."

Leilani said...

Just a random question, you can' t beat the original cast of Saturday Night Live, (Dan Akroyd, Jane Curtin, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, etc.) but what is the next best cast (era), do you think?

Mike Schryver said...

Ken, ROSEANNE reruns have been pulled from some outlets, just as COSBY SHOW reruns were pulled recently. Do you have an opinion on how these actions affect the other people who worked on the shows? It seems to me like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Ken, as always appreciate you taking the time to answer my question. One point of clarification. I feel that so much of this improv cheapens what we IMPROVISORS do. It gives the impression that just anybody can wing it and be funny. Its basically saying that all my schooling and practice was in vain. But, since Ken also does improv he knows that its a skill and a craft and that its not as easy as it looks. "Bumble Bee" mentioned Bill Murray. I love Bill. And he's highly skilled at improv. As an alumnus of The Chicago Second City he had extensive training in both improv and writing. I have absolutely no problem with his ad-libs. And to beat a dead horse, I just saw SAUSAGE PARTY on DVD. Its not an Apatow film. But it is by his protege, Seth Rogen. I'm not a big S.R. fan, but based on all the hype I was expecting a hilarious movie. Sort of a modern PORKEY'S. i.e. Incredibly raunchy, yet also very funny. I chuckled a couple of times, but I didn't really laugh once. I'm not averse to "blue humor." It just wasn't funny! And as part of the Special Features, they showed the actors improvising lines during the recording sessions. They were cracking up each other, but my reaction was, "Are you Kidding?" Finally, when it comes to wanting actors to stick to the script one of the most ironic examples is SNL's Lorne Michaels. He's notorious for not wanting his casts ad-lib. Yet, the majority of his hires have been from Second City and the Groundlings. Both theaters known for improv. I guess his logic is that since its a LIVE show if something goes wrong they can fill time until the problem is fixed. Thanks again.
M.B.

Anthony said...

The funniest line in Infinty Wars was apparently improvised, "but more importantly, why is Gamorra".

bruce said...

Ken -- Thanks for answering my question! -- Bruce

Albert Giesbrecht said...

The Trapper in the 60 minute hospital series is said to be the Elliot Guild Trapper. I haven't read the original novel yet, so, I can't make a comment on that version of Trapper.

Jokey said...

Saying that Apatow's movies are "very funny" is funnier than all of his movies combined.

Mike Williams said...

Ken, I just discovered your blog and it's fascinating stuff, so two questions.

1) Given what you said of "improvised" scripts, what is your opinion of the Christopher Guest/Mike McKean/Harry Shearer movies like Best in Show?
2) I watched M*A*S*H on BBC 2 in the UK, sans laughtrack, and loved it, so for me the laughtrack spoils the show. Was the laughtrack a studio dictat, or was there discussion of not having one at the time?

Michael said...

Love the story about Vin's phone call. Supposedly, he has said that he doesn't mind impressions if they aren't being unkind, and of course everybody who impersonates him does so with a lot of love. As I do. My impression is about as good as Miller's.

Which brings me to something that I remember Duane Kuiper said in an interview: that Miller does "Obscene Vin," and it's the only time he's heard Miller swear--or for that matter, Vin.

VP81955 said...

Phillies broadcast legend Harry Kalas used to record phone greetings for others, using his trademark line, "outta here!" One person he did it for was Bruce Springsteen, and after Harry's death, Bruce performed the closing shows at the Spectrum, the 76ers and Flyers arena across the street from the former Veterans Stadium site (next to Citizens Bank Park). He introduced one song with Harry's call, and the sellout crowd went wild.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Re: 1). McKean & Shearer were part of a comedy group called "The Credibility Gap" in the early 70's. And Christopher Guest usually uses people with improv backgrounds. Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara, for example, are alumni of Second City. Very few of his actors have NO training in improvisation.
M.B.

JoeyH said...

I also love Brockmeyer. The latest episode had me wondering who the racist retiring PBP man might have been modeled after.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I'd vote for the mid-80s cast--Carvey, Hartman, Miller, Lovitz, Jan Hooks, Nora Dunn.

Tom Schwedler said...


Miller is great and his affection for Vin is obvious. He also does a fine Vin impression in Spanish and Japanese:

https://youtu.be/Sqe8uq9BWVc

Albert Giesbrecht said...

FRIDAY QUESTION:

Ken, this a writing question. I have been enjoying watching,The Larry Sanders Show, again on Crave TV, here in Canada. I would like your opinion on the writing, specifically, the couch interviews Larry conducts. Do you think some of them are improvised?

The reason I ask, is that I have watched the episode, "Larry's Sitcom, a few times, and the segment with Jeanie Garth is loopy as Hell. In a good way I mean. She tells this story about being a vegetarian, and it rivals anything that Gracie Allen ever did (that I have heard) I can't make up my mind on wheather it was just off the cuff, or if Ms. Garth is a better actress than I thought she was. If she is that good, why isn't she still on TV?