Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday Questions

Summer is officially here. So are Friday Questions.

Don Rosnel starts us off.

When he first joined Cheers, could you foresee Woody Harrelson’s future?

Honestly? No. Not that he wasn’t a terrific actor, but I will say this – he deserves all the success he’s received. He has great range, is so likeable, and I’m personally happy for him because he’s such a good person.

From Gary:

An old sitcom staple is for one character to believe he or she is a talented writer, and could be a great success at it. But when you hear a sample of what they've written, of course it is hilariously bad. The DICK VAN DYKE SHOW did this with Laura taking a night course in creative writing, and so did THE ODD COUPLE with Felix writing a series of terrible poems.

My question is, have you ever had to write something into an episode that is intentionally bad, as if done by an amateur? And for a professional writer is it easier or harder to write something that is supposed to sound bad?

Yes. The second episode of MASH we ever wrote was called “The Most Unforgettable Characters” and in it Radar took a correspondence writing course. It was great fun writing badly.

By the way, that DICK VAN DYKE episode you referenced is one of my favorite. Written by the great Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson.

From Robert Foreman:

Have you ever done any writing for advertising? Is that considered a whole different world? Is there much crossover from advertising writing to television and vice-versa?

I once applied to J. Walter Thompson and submitted some copywriting, but fortunately for me I was rejected. It is a different world.

A few noted comedy writers have come from the Mad Men ranks. Three off the top of my head are Howard Gould, Allan Katz, and Steve Gordon.

Karan G. wonders:

Can you think of serendipitous moments in your career….right place, right time….the universe giving you a helping hand? (As an example: In the 1950’s, the conservative New York Times book reviewer would never have selected Jack Kerouac’s first novel to review. As it happens, the reviewer went on vacation, and a more liberal leaning substitute selected the book and gave it a great review, displeasing the main book reviewer, who never allowed the substitute to review again. Nevertheless, Kerouac’s writing career was well underway……..serendipity.)

Too many to count. Meeting David Isaacs, my mother playing golf one day with the Story Editor of THE JEFFERSONS, the showrunner of MASH looking for young writers just when we were available.

Even having to serve in the army. I never would have met David nor could I have ever really written MASH with any authority if I didn’t have that personal experience in the military.

So many times the stars have to line up, and sometimes you don’t think they’re lucky stars but they are. 

What’s your Friday Question?



38 comments :

Andrew said...

Ken, you have often complimented Kevin McHale as a surprisingly good actor when he appeared on Cheers. How do you feel about the way he is being treated now, after attending a Trump rally? Do you think that he deserves it?

E. Yarber said...

I interned at a production company owned by a director who made television commercials. One of his friends was opening an advertising agency and wanted a catchy name for it. The director told him, "I know this guy who compulsively talks in stream-of-consciousness. Just have him ramble until you find something you like."

I spent an afternoon at their new offices in Santa Monica. They had me sit at a computer cubicle knocking off random titles as quickly as they came to me. Infinite Zebra. Recurring Hobo. Bespoken Whirlpool. Every now and then someone would check on what I'd done and say, "Now give me another hundred." Visceral Dumpster. Iron Cotton. Double-Breasted Philosophy.

I'm sure there are now websites that generate millions of nonsense phrases with the click of a mouse, but this particular day I eventually had a little circle of people gathered around the terminal watching the lunatic blaze through one word combination after another. Absolute Teapot. Barbarian Hubcap. Dancing Envelope. At closing time my head was spinning but I had devised nearly a thousand oddball monickers. They cut me a check for a few hundred bucks and that was the end of my career in the ad business.

A few weeks later I was at the director's office when one of the staffers from the agency dropped some stuff off. I naturally asked him which one of my ideas wound up being selected. "Oh, that," he told me. "In the end the boss simply named the company after himself."

Janet Ybarra said...

Here is an FQ: Just how did you and David meet and partner up for all those years?

Janet Ybarra said...

Ken, were you aware Big Bird's teddy bear was named Radar after the MASH character? Apparently the actor under the Big Bird suit met Gary Burghoff on the set of HOLLYWOOD SQUARES and became friends.

McAlvie said...

Ken - I'm glad you can confirm that Harrelson is a good guy. I remember, when his career really took off and he was taking on all these great dramatic roles, thinking that I never heard of him saying a bad word about his Cheers days. A lot of actors would, and have.

Mark Bayer said...

Two of my favorite Mary Tyler Moore show episodes involve Ted's total inability to write. In one, he joins Mary's writing class and steals her homework, and in the other he gets credited for an essay he paid Murray to write for him. Both were written by the great David Lloyd, and the latter features Helen Hunt as Murray's teen daughter!

estiv said...

Got a question, but I'll admit it's kind of nebulous.

Many nights recently I've watched Frasier on Cozy TV, and I was struck watching an early episode at how well the comedy and the serious moments were blended. As much respect as I have for Norman Lear, one thing that always bothered me about his shows was the way the serious moments were frequently heavy-handed, and there would often be one character who'd keep cracking jokes no matter what. I guess that's a way to make your point and still keep your audience, but it wore thin for me.

This episode of Frasier featured a turning point in his relationship with his father, where Frasier blew up and walked out of the apartment. What stood out was how smoothly that moment followed what had to some extent been a series of jokes. True to the things you say often, those jokes were true to the characters and to the situation, but even so the dialogue was clearly meant to be funny. The moment when Frasier walked out was obviously not meant to be funny at all.

So my question is: how hard is it to do that? If you shift gears too quickly, it feels wrong. If you do it too slowly, things lag. How do you get it right?

Rich said...

You were my favorite color commentator with the Orioles. How would you even begin to go about repairing the current situation??

Tom said...

Dave Thomas was an ad guy before getting into acting, writing and directing, including sitcoms in addition to SCTV. And I'm not sure if either wrote for sitcoms as such, but Stan Freberg and Don Novello came from the advertising world as well.

Anonymous said...

My Friday Question - why all the reboots? They tried to reboot "Castle" with "Take Two" with the same producers but no Nathan Fillion. Ratings were bad. I'm stunned. How did this even get made? Eddie Cibrian? Really? That is their answer to Nathan Fillion? Who green-lights this and are they that desperate that this gets on the air? It didn't even look good on paper but to throw all that money into it?

Jeff Hysen said...

Did MASH ever consider having a second leading female character, such as another surgeon? (There was a female surgeon in one episode, played by Mariette Hartley.)

Pete Grossman said...

Thank you for talking about luck and serendipity. They do play a role!

tavm said...

Most serendipidous thing to happen on TV during my lifetime: When Robin Williams was cast as Mork from Ork during an initially one-shot appearance of "Happy Days" in the spring of 1978...


Second most: When Eddie Murphy was cast on "Saturday Night Live" after the departures of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players and producer-creator Lorne Michaels during what I still consider the worst season of the show, the sixth one-1980-81...

Buttermilk Sky said...

Any thoughts on the return of ROSEANNE without Roseanne, to be called THE CONNERS? Has any successful sitcom ever tried this before? Major characters have disappeared from shows (Edith Bunker, Trapper John) but their names weren't in the title and they didn't have (or claim) creative credit. I'm trying to imagine SEINFELD without Jerry, or I LOVE LUCY without Lucille Ball.

Cap'n Bob said...

Sorry, Ken, but six months in California isn't what the real Army is like.

Mike said...

Mr. E. Yarber,

You definitely should write an autobiography 😂
No seriously, the stories you tell about yourself are really unique and will surely sell a lot of copies.

You can grab the reader's attention with a title from any of the words you coined -
Infinite Zebra. Recurring Hobo. Bespoken Whirlpool.

I hope Ken invites you to the podcast one day.

Janet Ybarra said...

I don't know about that, but there was a plan after Radar left to move Sidney Friedman to the regular cast as opposed to recurring guest. Unfortunately, actor Allan Arbus wasn't interested.

gottacook said...

Minor point of clarification to a Friday question: Years before the New York Times' positive review of On the Road, "John Kerouac" produced a much more conventional novel, rather obscure today, and sold it to a publisher (The Town and the City, Harcourt Brace, 1950). So to call On the Road "Jack Kerouac's first novel" is both correct and incorrect.

Dr Loser said...

@Andrew:
"How do you feel about the way he is being treated now, after attending a Trump rally? Do you think that he deserves it?"

I imagine you have some sort of a point here. Do please expatiate. I can't see it, myself.

Do you suppose that any of us here have a problem with anybody attending any sort of political rally at all(*)?

If so, you are out of your tiny little mind.

And as far as I can see the Kevin McHale thing is a stupid alt-right brouhaha with no immediate consequences. Wake me up when it matters.

(*) Obviously waving silly little torches around and killing a protester on the other side of the debate qualifies as ... not something any sane or rational person would wish to attend. There are rallies, and there are rallies. Rather regrettably, your President seems to see an invisible moral equivalence between the attendees of such rallies.

Rest assured, us despised liberals see no such thing. Good on Kevin and the First Amendment!

Janet Ybarra said...

You know, I never watched ROSEANNE because I couldn't stomach Roseanne Barr. And I always thought it was a shame because I enjoyed the other actors and characters. So now we have a series I will have to give a try. I wonder how they will write out Roseanne. Gets run-over? Named as Trump's new secretary of state?

Andrew said...

@Dr Loser: Do a Google search for "Kevin McHale."

Janet Ybarra said...

ABC, however, is going to have to explain to a lot of people pissed off at Barr that although she will have nothing to do with this spin off or profit from it that someone still has to stick her name on it as executive producer per WGA rules. That's my understanding.

Donald Benson said...

I remember the writing class. The beauty of it was that Mary tells the story -- a straight, self-effacing anecdote -- and Ted's version combines ripoff, cheesy cliches, and wildly egotistical first-person heroics. All read at top speed.

There was also the "Frasier" episode where Diane, now an unemployed TV writer, comes to town to stage her play at a local theater. The curtain goes up on a budget version of the Cheers bar. Besides the big joke of this being Diane's self-glorifying version of those years, everything -- the performances, the lines, the whole little theater vibe -- is subtly dead on, without the usual sitcom excess.

Andy Rose said...

@Buttermilk Sky: The prototypical example of a cast change like this is Valerie/Valerie's Family/The Hogan Family. It's not exactly widely beloved these days, but it lasted for six seasons. I'd consider that pretty successful. And it's worth remembering that Shirley disappeared from Laverne & Shirley at the beginning of the last season, but it still did well enough that ABC considered renewal until Penny Marshall decided she was tired of LA.

D McEwan said...

"Anonymous Tom said...
And I'm not sure if either wrote for sitcoms as such, but Stan Freberg and Don Novello came from the advertising world as well."


Re: the late, great Stan Freberg, you have it reversed. Stan came from voice acting in cartoons and radio to TV to comedy records, and only then did he go into advertising, though he opened his own agency, never working for an already-established ad agency. And no, Stan never wrote for sit-coms, though he did act in some, most notably a recurring role in the original run of Roseanne.

My first comedy partner, Jim Diederich, after a career in stand-up as half of Pappas & Diederich, appearing on every major national talk show then extant except Carson, retired from the stage and went into advertising, and worked 20 years as an ad copy writer. He's retired now, though he's been dipping a toe back into performing again.

Tobin said...

FRIDAY QUESTION:
How esoteric is TOO esoteric, for a sitcom reference?
On M*A*S*H, there were references to Rudyard Kipling, Bishop Sheen, Jerry Colonna, Robert Taft, Coleman Hawkins, Jean Hersholt, Claude Rains, the Dionne Quintuplets, and the radio quiz show Dr. I.Q. -- just to name a few. And they weren't explained. Larry Gelbart and Fritzell & Greenbaum, among others, seemed to delight in them.
This isn't criticism. It's praise. I appreciate writers who assume viewers have a modicum of intelligence. Did the M*A*S*H writers -- knowing some people wouldn't get these references -- figure that viewers would be sufficiently entertained by the jokes they DID understand, and wouldn't care about the ones they DIDN'T?

MikeN said...

Woody may be a good actor, but it was clear he should not have been case for Planet of the Apes. There is no drama when the last stand for humanity is lead by a bartender from Cheers.

Janet Ybarra said...

It's called assuming you're audience is smart and educated with a good basic liberal arts education.

It's something too rarely seen on TV today where if it's not a cheap joke about the Internet or some hip app, it doesn't make it in the script. Which is why I'll take the writing on MAsH over today's sitcom dreck any day.

Janet Ybarra said...

Sadly, the Internet and related technology has destroyed good TV and film writing because it used to rely on a common literature base we all used to have which an (over) reliance on technology is washing away, sadly. We as a society need to find a way of balancing our use of technology with an appreciation and consumption of all sorts of classics. It means that our constant use of these devices--particularly by young people--hurts their attention spans. There is beginning to be research to back this up.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

E. Yarber: I like "Infinite Zebra" a lot.

Janet Ybarra: Over the last 30 years, it's been very noticeable that what used to be literary references have changed to references to prior TV shows and movies. And that's sort of staying stuck in time because it's more likely that most of your audience has seen THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW than that there's any current show they're all familiar with.

You asked how Ken and David Isaacs met. He's posted the story and told it numerous times: IIRC they were in the army and Ken was reading a biography of George S. Kaufman, and that attracted Isaacs' attention.

wg

Andrew said...

One thing I miss about the Obama administration: no children cried for a full eight years. Children were always silent or happy. But then Trump got elected, and all of a sudden, children started crying again. Sad.

Karan G. said...

@gottacook – Thanks so much for the clarification. I have no doubt that you are correct. I recently had the opportunity to attend an event listening to author, Dan Wakefield and jazz musician, David Amram, (85 and 87 respectively), discussing what it was like to be part of the creative climate in New York in the Fifties. Amram was one of Kerouac’s closest friends and Dan was a writer who gave Kerouac a less than positive review (if memory serves me) resulting in Kerouac threatening to throw Dan “out the window.” It is so great to have these cool cats still around, brilliant as ever, with the ability to notice that which goes unnoticed, and the nerve to say the un-sayable – and hilariously funny. Also, thanks Ken, for responding to my somewhat obscure question!

Kirk said...

Friday question about MASH. How many doctors were assigned to the 4077th? Yes, there were at least four, but there had to have been others. Those extras we saw weren't all supposed to be orderlies, were they?

Janet Ybarra said...

@Wendy, Thanks for telling me the story about how Ken met David. I've been following Ken's blog just for the past year or so.

Instead of referencing old movies and TV shows then, they still should go go back to literature. You can never go wrong with good literature.

therealshell said...

@MikeN: Woody Harrelson is exceptionally good as the Kurtz-like "The Colonel" in "War for the Planet of the Apes," and your comment was/is churlish in the extreme. For what it's worth, a good portion of the audience for the film were probably not even born when Woody was on "Cheers".

ChrisD said...

Steve Levitan and John Hughes were both copywriters at Leo Burnett before their careers in writing. Brian Stack was also a copywriter in Chicago before transitioning to comedy, though I forget at which agency.

MikeN said...

TheRealShell, I agree Woody Harrelson was good and I liked the movie too. Very rare is the film that shows how the dystopia came about.

Nevertheless, I think he should not have been cast based on my reaction to the trailer.

Calum Jones said...

Hi, I'm a massive Frasier fan, and I love how the show handled the relationship between Niles and Daphne. But seeing as we only ever really see things from Niles's perspective until season 7, I'm left wondering what the intentions were for Daphne's feelings for Niles through many of their pivotal episodes like Midwinter Night's Dream, Moon Dance, and so on.

Jane Leeves has said she thinks Daphne did feel some attraction for Niles all along (and it can be argued we see hints of that in episodes like "Daphne Hates Sherry"), but I'm wondering if that's something you agree with or that other writers for the show intended?

Would love to hear your input on this, and thanks for the countless hours of laughter you've given me over the years.